Way back in 1967 a Cosworth DFV engine won the very first Formula One race it entered, with the legendary Jim Clark behind the wheel of a Lotus 49. Fifteen years later the same basic engine powered Keke Rosberg in a Williams to the Formula One World Championship against a field of largely turbocharged competitors. And on United States soil the sister engine made for the United States open wheel series, the Cosworth DFX, continued to win Indy titles with Bobby Rahal all the way through the 1987 season. Why mention this in an audio review? Because a great audio design, like a great engine design – or for that matter, any great design – is a thing that can and should have a long life when it is looked after with thought, care and a constant eye to improvement. In audio there are a few examples of great designs that have stood the test of time even as they have continually evolved to meet new demands – Cardas wire and the Williamson tube circuit are two that make my case. Another just may be the Merlin two-way speaker design, which in one form or another has been around for over a decade.
Now I don't want to get into a genealogy lesson here or a ritual recitation of begats, but the basic topology of the TSM-MME dates back to the original VSM design of 1994 with the TSM debuting in 1996 (by the way, rumor has it that VSM stand for Very Scary Monitor and TSM stands for The Small Merlin). The basic design is damped, uses a second order crossover, employs only the highest quality parts and has an extremely rigid cabinet. The larger VSMs have been ported and floor standing, while the TSM has been sealed and stand-mounted. Another significant feature of the Merlin loudspeakers has been that they are easy to drive and have smooth impedance curves and so have been employed in traditional solid-state and tubed systems as well as in many low-powered tubed setups. I have used my reference Merlin VSM-Ms with singled-ended triodes as well as with 300-watt solid-state beasts with equally great results.
As for the current iteration of the TSM, the TSM-MME, its genesis was sparked largely by the European Union regulation concerning lead-free content in electronic components (the "RoHS" standard has affected many other companies as well, for example Nikon recently dropped many of their older lenses and are replacing them over the next several months with RoHS compliant versions). Since many of the components Merlin uses are sourced from Europe and were already subject to this regulation, the bulk of the redesign centered on the crossover components and the wiring and solder. Bobby Palkovich, the head magician at Merlin, points out that this is was no easy thing to accomplish as each and every part in the TSM design had already been examined for its individual sound as well as its additive effect in the overall design. Hence, a tweak here always means a change way over there. With a newish design that could lead to a lot of tail-chasing, trying to account for all the subtle changes, but since Mr. Palkovich has been working with the TSM for more than decade the re-design was able to focus on far more than compliance with the RoHS standard and, according to the folks at Merlin, remarkably improved the sound across the board.
The power response of the loudspeaker, like most other VSM/TSM designs, has been optimized for 10 degrees off axis listening, and Merlin supplies a slick and simple little protractor to ensure that anyone can set up the loudspeaker with the proper degree of offset. The sealed, damped design means you can place the TSM-MME closer to rear walls than you can with a ported design, but my experience says you shouldn't as they are very linear and appreciate the room to prove that. In my room I used the same placement setting as I use with the Merlin VSM's and other full-range loudspeakers that come in for review – namely a Cardas "Golden Ratio" setup (see the Cardas website, Insights section, for full details).
Plays Well With Others
Sorry, I can't talk (or write) with Dirty Rice in my mouth. Just a second...
Ok, first off, the bass of the TSM-MME is remarkably dense, but not in the lumpy, thick or slow manner of many ported two-ways. Rather it is rich with tonal shading, nuance and power, and, coupled with wonderful and natural quickness, right up to the 50Hz or so lower limit, the bass of the small Merlin is absolute world class. On the Benoit track this results in a powerful opening section that filled my mid-sized listening room with thoroughly believable music. And the lack of a port means that the perceived extension is greater than the actual extension, such that I did not feel a loss of power or impact.
Moving up the scale, I spun the classic Blue Train by John Coltrane [Blue Note CDP 7243 8 53428 0 6] and turned to "Lazy Bird." The opening, with Kenny Drew skittering across the top of the piano is followed by the rest of band jumping in. There is a lot of musical space in this track and through the TSM-MME each player had their own aura, tonal palette and reach. This is something quite special as it allows the feel of musical interaction to flow unimpeded. Or at least it does for me as the Merlin allowed me to find and follow individual lines just easily as I do in a jazz club (actually, easier since most clubs tend to have crappy sonics). Better still, the way the midrange stacks on top if the bass is seamless – that is it has the same tonal density, matched with impeccable dynamic speed and punch.
Moving to the top of the scale I turned to my favorite recording of Arvo Pärt works, Fratres, by the Flemish orchestra I Fiamminghi [Telarc CD-80387]. With seven variations of the title work, each recorded in the same, lively Basilica of Bonne Esperance, there is plenty of opportunity to listen for tonal shading as well as to the reverb from the massive church walls. The variations – which run from just past 8 minutes to just over 12 and include various combinations of percussion, strings, woodwinds and piano – depict a group of monks approaching the listener, drawing equal and then passing on. In other words, the piece moves in a stately manner from crescendo to diminuendo. While listening with the TSM-MMEs the shape and size of the recording location was laid bare as never before, with the procession of religious brothers an almost physical thing. This was due to two factors. First, the high frequency response of the Merlins is extremely flat so that no particular tonal region exerts undue power on the listener, and that allows one to peer deeply into a recording and see only truth. And second, just as with the midrange, the treble aligns perfectly on top of the rest of the sound coming from the loudspeaker. This creates the feel of a frequency response curve (at least at the 10 degree off axis position that Merlin has designed into the loudspeaker) that responds with linearity at any point along its extension. This is an exceedingly rare skill and is something Bobby Palkovich calls "continuousness," and that I would call tonal continuity. But whatever you call it, the way it sounds and feels is like the mythical linear point source that is the holy grail of loudspeaker design.
As for the rest of the TSM-MMEs characteristics, most have already been mentioned in passing. Dynamically, the little Merlin, when used within its limits, is superb. It breathes gentle life into folk music with swift and subtle micro-dynamics, and can turn right around and give you a solid thump between the eyes when playing some driving rock (though it does punch more like a welterweight than a heavyweight). And the TSM-MME images, as you would expect, in an expansive and yet natural manner. The stage is wide, deep, layered and stable. And images upon the stage are solid and three-dimensional. Lastly, the build quality of the TSM-MME is first rate, though some may find the standard black finish a bit plain. Fortunately, for those who do, Merlin offers several stunning painted finishes.
What About The Other Guys?
In that review I commented on the "organic," "natural" and "involving" sound of the Devore loudspeaker as well as how easy it was to drive and its deep and tuneful bass. A year later all those comments still apply and the Gibbon Super 8 remains one of my long-term favorites. Up against the TSM-MME the Devore clearly adds about an octave of bass reach. It is also an easier to drive loudspeaker and with those two virtues remains my first choice for ultra-low powered SET amplifier set as well as for folks who want a musical and relaxing loudspeaker with deep bass on a realistic budget.
That said, to my ears and with my tastes the TSM-MME is a
better loudspeaker in just about every other way. The two most significant ways
are linked and directly address the two largest failings of the Gibbon Super 8.
First, the TSM-MME has a more even frequency response, most especially through
the bass where the port of the Devore adds depth but at the cost of tonal
continuity. When playing a disk like the Material album Hallucination
Engine [Axiom 314-518 351-2] with massive bass lines laid down by Bill
Laswell, "Space Bass" by Bootsy Collins and Hammond B-3 courtesy of Bernie
Worrell the greater extension of the Devore is obvious. But when switching to
the TSM-MME, its considerably more even bass adds up to an enhanced sense of
musicians jamming together in real time. Ultimately I found that the latter
sonic viewpoint was the more enjoyable one as well.
Second, my largest concern with the Devore was that it gave up
a bit inner detail when compared to my reference Merlin VSM-M loudspeakers.
Well, considering that I find that the new TSM-MME out resolves my old VSM-Ms,
it quite logically follows that the small Merlin takes a real and significant
lead over the Devore in this area as well. A quick example can be found when
listening to "A Secret Silken World," the opening track of the David
Baerwald disk Triage [A&M 75021
5392 2]. The song is a highly creepy, deeply atmospheric political commentary
using the metaphor of power, sex and sin and features a beautiful trumpet solo
by Herb Alpert(!). Though the TSM-MME the production was both laid bare and made
more involving while the trumpet had more bite and greater tone. Keep in mind,
through the Gibbon Super 8 this track was excellent, but with the Merlin it was
Merlin's Thoughts On Sound
With all the listening I did with the TSM-MME, perhaps no single piece demonstrates what it can do better than the Bach Cello Suites as performed by Mistlav Rostropovich [EMI D 273269-1]. While I play this album with regularity, Rostropovich's death in April led to several complete listening of it. Though rated to 50 cycles in the bass, through the TSM-MMEs, there was tight, controlled but dense and tonally joyful bass. The mids were fast, life-like, lush and accurate – while the highs were blessedly free of grain, open, vivid and complete. So much so that a listening session that started out in an elegiac mood turned into a delightful opening of my soul by a still living and breathing master.
Comments like that aside, no audio component is or can be perfect, and the TSM-MME has flaws, though they are more a result of physics and market issues. The bass cannot reach 20Hz (physics) and though the VSM gets down to the low 30s through use of a larger and more expensive cabinet as well as the Bass Augmentation Module (BAM), those advances come at a literal price. Also, while the TSM-MME can fill a mid-sized room, it does not belong in a large one. But those things aside, the Merlin TSM-MME is flat from its lower limit on up past where I can hear. It creates a startling clear audio window through which pours out pure music (or impure depending on your musical selection) and does so with all combinations of equipment. At this point, if you have the correct room, I know of no better way to spend $3000.
Drivers: 1-inch soft-dome customized Morel MDT30 tweeter and Morel MW 164 6.25- inch damped pulp cone midrange/woofer.
Frequency Response: 55 to 20kHz (+/- 2dB), 1 meter on axis. 10dB down at 35 Hz
Crossover: Optimized 12dB per octave with crossover point at 2150Hz.
Parts include the use of Hovland Aluminum foil and polypropylene capacitors
Bi-wireable via Cardas "no-stress" binding posts