[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
August 1999

Budget Reference System

In my capacity as equipment reviewer for SoundStage!, I’m called upon to review some of the most esoteric and expensive products available. However, truth be told, I spend as much time listening to music on my office system, which I also refer to as my "budget reference system," as I do on my monster rig. The BRS shares space with my computer, which I’m practically connected to these days, so it only makes sense to have music playing in the background and not on the CD-ROM drive in the computer -- blech! Every now and then I push my chair into the sweet spot and take a break, playing Art of Noise or Elvis Costello until I forget what I was working on -- and then know it’s time to get back to work. The amount of time I spend in my office has given me the opportunity to optimize this system more than I would have done if it were, for instance, in my living room, and I’m proud of what I’ve created: a system that’s refined and involving but doesn’t cost an appendage or two.

The speakers in my budget reference system are from Merlin, at first the TSMs and then the TSM-SEs ($2300 per pair). What’s the difference? Well, the two look the same, but Merlin doesn’t make the standard TSMs anymore because the SE version is superior and costs only a little bit more. The changes are radical. The TSM-SE has a new thicker and textured tweeter mounting plate, which aims at reducing reflection and resonance. Its woofer has been redesigned to lower the cone’s mass and make the suspension, according to head Merlinite Bobby Palkovic, "more linear." It is also textured like the tweeter plate to accomplish the same things. Merlin has added electronic circuit damping to the high-frequency circuit, and new wiring harnesses, which use much higher-gauge wire, to both the high- and low-frequency circuits. The fasteners for the tweeter and woofer are also new, having a lower profile to reduce diffraction. Finally, the cabinet is now made out a special fiberboard and glued with polyurethane adhesives, making it less resonant. The TSM-SEs sit on Osiris Audionics Osiris speaker stands ($479 per pair), which are a perfect visual and sonic match for the speakers.

In terms of amplification, I’ve been spoiled by having heard so many integrated amps over the past year. While the Joule Electra VAMP has me intrigued as to how it would sound with the TSM-SEs -- Merlin speakers traditionally make impressive music with Joule Electra electronics -- the Audio Analogue Puccini SE ($1195) has won out for its lush tonal balance and overall tube-like character. While the Puccini SE does not currently offer remote control, such a version is in the works, and it does have a phono section. It also has four pairs of good-quality binding posts, so bi-wiring is a breeze.

The cables I’ve chosen for this system are from another company that Merlin has been on sonic display with: JPS Labs, and Joe Skubinski’s new Ultra Conductor interconnects and speaker cables ($109 per one-meter pair of interconnects, $199 per eight-foot pair of speaker cables). While the fine DH Labs cables are also a very good choice, the Ultra Conductors are a bit more composed and even in their tonal characteristics, and to my ears a better choice with the Merlins. I use a single one-meter pair of interconnects, which are much more flexible than other JPS Labs cables, and bi-wire with the speaker cables.

The digital source I’ve been using is a simple portable unit from Panasonic, the SL-S321C, which cost me about $110 mail order and is no longer available. (Panasonic has replaced it with the SL-SX300, which is supposed to sound even better -- drat!) Although I’m sure a full-fledged CD player would improve the sound, as a few of the players I’ve reviewed on the big rig have done, this Panasonic portable is no slouch, having a detailed but smooth disposition. I use a one-piece mini-jack-to-stereo-RCAs adapter from Radio Shack and then JPS Ultra Conductor interconnects from there.

The overall character of this system is really dictated by the Puccini SE because it has the most recognizable sonic signature: sweet, warm and full. The Merlins on their own are wonderfully resolving and open, two attributes they maintain with the Puccini SE in the system, but they take on some of the Puccini SE’s character too. The integrated amp and speakers balance each other, but the Puccini SE has the stronger flavor overall. The bass of this system is very good, and I suspect it would surprise many listeners. Here again the Merlins seemingly pass on the Puccini SE’s bass weight, making rock move along rhythmically because of the strong foundation. I’m sure using two runs of the JPS Labs Ultra Conductor doesn’t hurt the system’s ability to pump out the jams either.

In every way, this system is high end -- allowing me to relax into the music like with my big system, but without the hassle and at a small fraction of the cost. I listen to a lot of jazz during the work day, and my head is constantly snapping over to the speakers when an image projects outside the speakers’ physical locations or floats effortlessly between them. One morning I put on the DCC remaster of Van Halen’s eponymous debut album [DCC GZS-1129] and I was shocked by how driving the sound was -- and how sweet. I hadn’t heard this disc since high school, and never on CD, but I played it through a few times, nostalgia taking root along with the engaging sound.

This system makes no apologies, and its cost is less than that of a high-pedigree line-stage preamp. I understand that Merlin has a Puccini SE around the factory for testing purposes. If Bobby Palkovic doesn’t bring it into his office with a pair of his TSM-SEs, he’s missing something special.

...Marc Mickelson


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