Merlin Music TSM MMM Speakers (Part 1)

5/6/2013 9:14:23 AM

I am amazed at the number of audiophiles I meet, who buy speakers based on the size, exotic designs or some unobtanium materials that some manufacturers claim, deliver superior performance. I am also surprised at how some audiophiles assume that just because a speaker carries a high price tag, it must deliver a high level of performance.

This is a pity, because with proper due diligence, you can find modestly priced speakers which will significantly outperform their more expensive, exotic looking counterparts. Unfortunately many of these speakers do not get an audition because in many cases they are endowed with unpretentious aesthetics and somewhat conventional designs. One of the speakers that fall into this category is the Merlin Music TSM MMM ($3,080), the subject of this review.

Merlin Music TSM MMM Speakers

Design Features

The TSM MMM is a mini-monitor with a very traditional, understated design that is unlikely to catch your eye at a dealer’s showroom. However, if you choose to put this little speaker through its paces, it will be quite a revelation.

The TSM is the brainchild of Bobby Palkovich a highly regarded personality in the world of high-end audio whose philosophy is to stay away from fancy designs and esoteric materials. Rather, he prefers to stick with what is tried and true while constantly squeezing out better performance from the same basic design with meaningful enhancements. Some detractors have referred to these enhancements as merely tweaks but the fact that these ‘tweaks’ have yielded significant and easily detectable improvements does seem to indicate that there is a method to this perceived madness.

For decades now, Bobby has bucked the industry trend of offering marketing driven “dramatically new and improved” designs. Instead, he has offered just two speaker models, the mini-monitor TSM and the floor stander VSM. Aesthetically, they look more or less the same as they did a couple of decades ago even though, in terms of performance, they are worlds apart.

The TSM MMM was delivered in a largish carton weighing around 63 pounds. The speakers were packed very professionally and should be able to withstand a good deal of abuse during shipment. Installation of the jumpers and RC networks was simplicity itself.

The TSM MMM has bulletproof build quality and are quite heavy, given their modest size. They are offered in just one color, studio black which is a matt, workmanlike finish. Other colors can be had if you upgrade to the MXM, which comes in a premium high gloss, clear coat finish. The MXM version comes in an array of very attractive colors including Piano Black, Ruby Heart Red, Moss Green, Black Ice Blue, Pearl White and Eggplant.

The TSM has a very small footprint and benefits greatly if married to a solidly built, low resonance stand with good stability. For the review I used the Sanus top-of-the-line Foundations Ultimate Series stand filled with sand.

The TSM is a sealed, air suspension enclosure and the cabinet is made out of pan fiber held together with super strong polyurethane glue. The gently curving front edges of the speaker cabinet minimize diffraction. There are three brass tuning rods on the front of the speakers that serve to control the pitch movement of resonance patterns in the unusually thick (1.5 inches) front baffle. They also lend an elegant touch to the speaker facade.

The TSM employs matched pairs of Renaissance 30.5 liquid cooled, silk dome tweeters and matched MW 164 pulp cone woofers. The crossover is a highly optimized 12 dB per octave with a crossover point at 2,150 Hz. It employs Caddock, Cardas and Hovland parts and the circuit topology is of the same grade as its older sibling the VSM. Both drivers are wired in electrical phase. The internal wiring is all point-to-point hand wired using Cardas’ top of the line Clear, which is custom made for Merlin Music. The terminals are the very cleverly designed Cardas no-stress binding posts, which allow for bi-wiring. Bobby recommends against bi-wiring or bi-amping the TSM unless specific wire gauges are used. The provided jumpers optimize the performance of the tweeters.

I strongly believe that, all else being equal, well-engineered two-way speaker systems have distinct advantages over their three-way counterparts

I strongly believe that, all else being equal, well-engineered two-way speaker systems have distinct advantages over their three-way counterparts. It is a lot easier to design a crossover that coherently blends two drivers as opposed to achieving the same level of top to bottom continualness when blending three different drivers. Three sets of drivers create an additional cancellation node, which adds even more to the problem and makes it very difficult to achieve good coherence. In my experience, two-way speaker systems also tend to be better at imaging.

The frequency response of the TSM MMM is 55 Hz to 19 kHz (+/- 2 dB, 1 meter on axis). To get the speakers to the optimum toe-in position of 11 degrees, Bobby provides a wooden alignment tool that makes it very easy, simple and quick to toe-in the speaker to just the right angle vis-a-vis the sweet spot. The TSM is rated to handle up to 80 watts peak, and has a sensitivity rating of 87 db. The warranty is an impressive 10 years and covers both parts and labor. It’s one of the best in the industry. The TSM is a very easy load to drive, even with relatively low output tube amplifiers. This is because of its nominal impedance of 8 ohms with a minimum impedance of 6.5 ohms.

The TSMs are not too difficult to place. A good starting point is the Cardas method that is available on the Cardas website. From there it requires just a little tweaking to lock the sonic image into place. The alignment of the speakers is also crucial to getting the best out of the TSMs. Which brings us to the meat of the matter, the sound quality. Having reviewed audio components for over 30 years now, I have come to expect and accept some pretty significant compromises with speakers in the $3,000 price range vis-a-vis their more expensive counterparts in the $10,000 plus range. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to hear the TSM, which kept those compromises to a minimum.

The sound quality of the midrange delivered by the TSM is equal to all but the very best speakers I have heard in the $10,000 price range

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