Doug Schneider

Authorized Merlin Dealer - New Jersey Area

December 1997

Small Packages: The Merlin TSM

The poor TSM. It’s the half pint, little brother who doesn’t seem to get any attention. And calling it by its full name, The Small Merlin, does little to relieve its inferiority complex. Go to an audio show and 9 times out of 10, Merlin President and Chief Designer Bobby Palkovic has the $4500 VSM speaker front and center. Not that he doesn’t like the TSM, quite the contrary, he loves it and brags about it all the time. Get him on the phone and he’ll go on and on about why he thinks it’s the best little speaker around. But he knows that people are more thrilled with the big stuff - that’s hardly the TSM. So, the VSM is what he shows and the TSM usually stands silent, gazing in from the back walls. Now that Merlin lineup has grown to be a family of three, it’s the brand new VSM-SE that has the spotlight shining on it. The TSM doesn’t even get the back seat anymore. It gets the trunk.

No doubt about it, the performance of the VSM is extremely good. Not only has it been documented by SoundStage!, but by many other magazines as well. At $4500 for the standard version, it’s certainly not cheap, but by high end standards it offers plenty of value for the dollar. In my estimation, it is worth every penny. But what about the TSM? At less than half the retail price of the standard VSM and built on the same guiding principles, it at least appears to be a poor man’s version of the VSM loudspeaker, albeit, in a bookshelf package. A few Hz shy in the bottom end and a tad less revealing is the way I’ve heard some describe it. Considering the performance of the VSM, that is high praise indeed – but let’s see for ourselves.

Out of sight, out of mind

Unlike the floor-standing VSM series loudspeakers, which are two-way "monitors," the TSM is designed to be stand-mounted, but not just on any old stand. The TSM is a pedigreed mini-monitor, the kind that benefits from stands that do not shake, rattle or roll under its hard body form. Keeping them firmly in place is a high priority. I used the excellent BBC SS-24 stands from Radusson Co. in Canada that retail for about $400. Visually and sonically, they are an ideal match for the TSM. As a matter of fact, I have yet to see any stands that match the TSM better. Their build quality and finish is exemplary, and they even have brass accents, just like the TSM.

[MERLIN TSM]Although the TSM is compact, it is a solid little critter, weighing in at 26 pounds each. Familiar VSM features, such as rounded cabinet corners and edges, brass inserts that please the eye and increase cabinet rigidity, solid copper Edison Price binding posts and a black textured finish mark the Baby Merlin as member of the family. It is a sealed enclosure, not ported like the VSM speakers. The speaker’s shape, color and small footprint allow it to disappear nicely into a living room setting. If black doesn’t match your taste, however, you’re out of luck. Merlin loudspeakers come in ebony, with no exception for the TSM. Up close, the speaker’s fit and finish have a bespoke quality, like a custom-made tuxedo. Sure, there are lower priced mini-monitors on the market, but not many you’d want to invite for cocktails. Without cutting away half the speaker to peer inside, I got the impression, and have been assured by the designer, that internal parts quality is commensurate with the exterior build quality. Based on appearance and overall quality, the $2,100 a pair asking price for the little Merlins is more than fair.

After extended listening, I found the key to positioning the TSM is to start them up high and then back them down to where they sound the fullest. If the speaker is placed on a stand that is too low, say with the tweeter level with or below a seated pair of ears, it may seem a tad forward and not as robust as it could. Ears should line up with a point that is between the top of the woofer and the bottom of the tweeter. Appropriate stand height is, in general, between 24 and 28 inches. With my low slung listening chair, the Ikea Poem, I use 24 inch stands. Most listeners will need to look for those rare 26 or 27 inch stands (Radusson supplies a stand that costs about the same as the SS-24 – the SS26, which is just about perfect). If you can’t quite get the exact height, just remember, it’s better to err a notch too high, rather than too low.

Unlike the ScanSpeak and Dynaudio units in the VSM series, the TSM uses Morel drivers – a 6.5 inch woofer and a 1 inch tweeter. Like the VSM, the TSM uses a second order crossover with high quality parts from Caddock, Hovland, Cardas, etc. The TSM is a fairly easy load to drive with a 6-8 ohm impedance, but still needs a bit of power to get its 86dB sensitivity going. Not too tough to drive, but count on using a 40 to 60 watt amp with a good power supply to make the TSM really hum.

Merlin’s magician, Bobby Palkovic, told me that, "nobody, and I mean nobody, uses the TSM single wired." Obviously, My Name is Nobody. I single wire with the excellent Nirvana S-L speaker cables. With no jumpers supplied, and none on hand, I had to wait until Bobby sent me some jumpers made from Cardas wire. These worked well, but figuring it would be best to maintain sonic consistency, I asked Stephen Creamer from Nirvana Audio to make me special jumpers to match his excellent speaker cables. As a result, I am one of the lucky few to have genuine Nirvana spade-terminated jumpers, enabling me to review other bi-wirable speakers with my prized Nirvanas.

A unique feature of all current Merlin speakers is an outboard RC network that is intended to be attached to the speaker binding posts. I've even heard of some trying it on the amplifier outputs. The original VSM and TSM were designed without this device, but Bobby P. is big on refinement, refinement, refinement. As a result, all VSM and TSM loudspeakers now ship with RC networks included. There is nothing mysterious about the network since it open to view. It consists of a short run of cable, spade terminated, with a resistor and a capacitor wired in series. It is connected across the + and – speaker posts, in front of the speaker cable. In essence, the network acts as a Zobel network for the amplifier and filters out frequencies in the megahertz region. This filtering of ultrasonic ringing presents a more stable load for the amplifier, depending, of course, on the output configuration of the amplifier itself. Since the speaker may be used without the RC network, some experimentation by the consumer is in order. In my system, using the Sonic Frontiers Power 1 amplifier, I found the networks to produce the subtle improvement they were intended to make, reducing a slight high frequency halo that is only noticeable when it is gone.

Before I describe the sound of the TSM, I must mention three points that I feel are key to the performance of the TSM:

Confessions and Impressions

I must confess that I have affection for small loudspeakers, particularly tiny, two-way monitors like the TSM. However, in order to understand the performance of the TSM you must understand the performance of this genre of loudspeakers. Mini-monitors are generally limited in bass response and restricted in macro-dynamics compared to larger loudspeakers. There are a few exceptions, such as offerings from Totem, Platinum and Acoustic Energy, that are capable of producing a volume of sound with bass extension that belie their size. In general, however, large speakers will play louder and deliver deeper bass. Where two way mini-monitors excel is in their ability to deliver a sharply focused presentation with a wealth of detail, coherence, transparency, clarity, and numerous other audiophile buzzwords that add up to musicality and enjoyment. This is what one looks for in a great speaker. Furthermore, top quality mini-monitors are generally used for that very reason – monitoring in the studio or on location. Within their range, they can outperform speakers costing much more, giving a level of resolution and accuracy that allow one to crawl into and peer around a recording. In essence, you give a little to get a lot in terms of accuracy.

The TSM adheres to the rules of the mini-monitor genre and adds its own little twists that make it a standout in the crowd, particularly at the price point. The TSM is an exceptionally detailed and revealing monitor – one that favors quality over quantity. Regarding its bass performance, Palkovic has taken care and chosen the correct approach, in my estimation. Like the best of its breed, the TSM does not try to sneak a couple of extra Hz in at the expense of quality. Rather, it is designed to maximize the things that mini-monitors do right without trying to do too much. The result is a tight, pin-point performance. With rated bass response to 50 Hz or so, the TSM can’t be expected to rock your room’s foundation, nor does it try. For example, with many speakers, the opening two tracks of The Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions can pressurize your room with heartfelt bass presence that gives you the feeling your house or apartment building may collapse. With the TSM, the sound and feel of the bass was only hinted at. On Sarah McLachlan’s The Freedom Sessions, "Ice" has a drum recording with excellent attack, weight and presence. On nearly full-range loudspeakers, such as Von Schweikert VR-3, Vandersteen 3A or B&W 801, this cut sounds startlingly real with near life-like dynamics. The diminutive TSM lacked the weight and bass depth that a larger speaker is capable of. Still, if you’re like me, and you favor an exceptionally detailed and smooth frequency response above this range, then you’ll be able to overlook these limitations.

I would categorize the TSM strengths as: neutrality, transparency, coherency and accuracy – the strengths of a top quality monitor loudspeaker. Recording after recording I found myself hearing, simply, everything. I must say, sometimes that was not such a good thing. The TSM does not bloat, editorialize, or euphonically carmelize music into something more pleasing. Hard, edgy and sibilant recordings through the TSM sound hard, edgy and sibilant. The excellent soundtrack to Dead Man Walking is a generally well-recorded disc that features some richly textured vocalists, including Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith, among others. On some speakers, the close miking can sound bloated and unnatural. The TSM showed stunning realism on vocals, and floated a stable center image with exceptional clarity and definition. Time and time again I was amazed how accurate the TSM sounded on well-recorded human voice. Subsequently, I was not surprised to learn during a recent phone conversation with Palkovic that the TSM had been designed as a vocal monitor for recording studios.

The TSM lent itself well to acoustic instruments. Piano, for example, is a difficult instrument for many loudspeakers to reproduce accurately. Many times there is too much overhang, and the sound becomes too rich, bloated and smeared. While piano lacked the weight of the real thing, the TSM got the mid-range tonal balance dead on without any ill-effects. The high frequencies of instruments shone as well. Well-recorded acoustic guitar, such as that on Badi Assad’s Rhythms, was portrayed with a natural heft, overtones vibrating vividly.

Depth and imaging were properly dimensional with the TSM. Like other excellent small monitors I have heard, the TSM throws a rock-solid, highly focused soundstage(!). Spatial cues and depth are first rate. I have heard speakers that impart an attractive, larger than life-size dimensionality, but it seems to me that the TSM is truer to the live rendering of a performance. I can understand, however, that some may prefer a loudspeaker that is not as revealing as this one is. Myself, I find comfort in knowing that I am hearing it all.

Equipment matching with the TSM proved interesting. I used the Nirvana S-L speaker cable the entire time and it worked very well. I played with interconnects somewhat and I found the Nirvana S-L and the JPS Labs Superconductor to offer exceptional detail that the TSM loved. Audio Marginal’s Silverflex cables worked well at a slightly lower price point.

Components of exceptional merit revealed themselves with the aid of the TSM. The exceptional Blue Circle BC-3 preamp proved even more revealing in a TSM system. The excellent $995 Anthem Pre 1L worked very well too and I recommend it highly for someone putting together a top notch system on a budget. However, my Classé Fifteen was not as a good a bedfellow as the Anthem Amp 1 or as the Sonic Frontiers Power 1 that I am currently using. The TSM, like the VSM, seems more partial to the smooth sound of tubes – although this is a gross generalization because there are some extremely smooth and clean solid state amps that can be had for relatively few dollars .

Stiff Competition

Although there is a family resemblance to the VSM series, both cosmetically and sonically, the TSM is quite different in its goals and achievements. My experience tells me that the VSM is a bit more versatile loudspeaker for a few key reasons. The standard VSM has more bass extension (down to 35 Hz or so), and is able to play very loud with impressive slam and impact. It lends itself better to music with large scale dynamics and music that has a strong sense of rhythm, drive and attack. What I find remarkable about the VSM is that it has these qualities and at the same time still displays a notch more detail, transparency and finesse than the TSM. The VSM’s many virtues enable it to swing more effortlessly through a wider variety of music. Simply put, the VSM is better! Not surprising given that it is double the price – so we can’t really hold that against the TSM because the TSM, in its own right, is a fabulous performer.

There are many speakers in the TSM’s price range that would be considered closer to competitive. One that first comes to mind is the $2000 Von Schweikert VR-3 that I had the opportunity to review one year ago. This is an excellent, wide-range loudspeaker with a room-encompassing, robust sound. Frankly, I do not believe that a consumer who enjoys the large scale, weighty performance of the VR-3 would necessarily consider the TSM – or vice versa. Although close in price, the nature of their performance is quite a bit different. This is not a slight against either loudspeaker. They are like apples and oranges, digital and analog, Brando and DeNiro. Similar in some regards …but different in the end. VR-3 fans are more likely to consider something like the excellent Vandersteen lineup, or the top-notch offerings from PSB and Snell, closer in competition.

Instead, I view speakers from Proac, Coincident Speaker Technology, Meadowlark, and Martin Logan to offer a similar type of performance to the TSM. I have listened to all of these speakers at length, but I am most familiar with the Coincident Speaker Technology models and the Martin Logan Aerius. I reviewed the Coincident Speaker Technology Conquest in the spring of 1997 and found it to be a highly detailed, pristine sounding performer.  Its $1595 makes it attractive for someone who values these qualities and wishes for solid bass performance down to about 35 Hz or so. The TSM could not match the Conquest in terms of bass performance, but bettered it by offering an even more revealing and tonally accurate presentation and, as well, improved upon it in terms of width and depth of image, and focus. Overall, build and finish quality of the TSM is better than the Conquest, although this is reflected in the price.

To my ears, the Martin Logan Aerius presents the closest challenge and the TSM presents itself as a remarkable alternative. When I remarked to a fellow audiophile about this comparison, he eyed me rather oddly. Size, technology, appearance…they seem far apart. However, when one takes into account the Merlin’s strong points of detail, speed, coherency, and transparency, they are much closer than they appear. I have admired these same qualities in Martin Logan products. I know plenty of satisfied Aerius owners and, for these very reasons, I can hear why. I find that the TSM equals the finest aspects of performance that the Aerius offers along with a sense of attack and agility representative of dynamic drivers designs.

Heavyweight Conclusions

Owning a small loudspeaker has its tradeoffs no matter how good the speaker is. The TSM, like its mini-brethren, is not for every listener. If you desire full-range performance with subterranean bass and large scale dynamics, then you’d do best to look elsewhere. The TSM will tease you, but you may not be fulfilled. If you can accept the speaker’s modest limitations in exchange for its absolutely stellar transparency, detail, neutrality and refinement rivaling loudspeakers costing much more, by all means check the TSM out. At its price, it is a standout product and one that I use as a personal reference. A mini-monitor in size but a monitor in performance. 

...Doug Schneider

Authorized Merlin Dealer - New York State Area

Merlin TSM Loudspeakers
Price: $2100 USD

Merlin Music Systems
4705 S. Main St., P.O. Box 146
Hemlock, NY 14466
Phone: 716-367-2390
Fax: 716-367-2685


Merlin Music Systems Responds:

I would personally like to thank Doug Schneider and Marc Mickelson of SoundStage! for their reviews of the Merlin TSM, VSM, and VSM-SE systems. All three of the reviews exhibited an extremely centered approach which clearly conveyed the attributes and limitations of our designs.

Specialty Audio is not a necessity item. It is designed to enhance the quality of our lives. Therefore, it is a great pleasure to be involved with a reviewing group that is dedicated to seeing our industry grow. Our increased product awareness and sales are a testimonial to your efforts.

Needless to say, SoundStage! is high on my list of recommended reading for consumers, dealers, and basically everyone else in our industry. Keep up the great work!

Best regards,

Bobby Palkovic