Review: Merlin Music Systems TSM mmi Monitor
This is a first attempt audio review. In fact it’s the first time I have publicly commented on any audio product, and expressing my impressions to a discriminating audience makes me somewhat apprehensive. Would like to think that it’s not too ambitious based on my background. Having found Audiogon to be a great source of information and opinions, I hope it may provide some insight for people who are interested in the mmi’s. My thoughts have been summarized after some 100 hours of playtime, and are primarily based on musical impacts rather then a familiar knowledge of contemporary audio products. If you feel this disqualifies me as a reviewer, read no further.
Over the past 20 years, I had abandoned audio as a hobby, but recently retired, found myself with idle time on hand and spending more of it engaged with music. First encountered TSM's a few years back, briefly, while traveling out of town in a home system. Not much time to evaluate their sound, but impressed me enough to make a mental note. After reading reviews, came to the conclusion that associated gear needed was much too exacting for my resources. I settled upon paradigm signature s2's mated with a ps audio integrated amp. I was rewarded with a wonderful 3D presentation, beautiful midrange and well defined if not inflated bass. As time went on, after extended listening often into the wee hours, it became apparent that there was a glare occurring in the higher frequencies that made me wince and reach for the volume control. The paradigms did produce a sound that invigorated my love affair with music, but interest in Merlin was renewed. I found a review of the mmi's, modest ss amplification and glowing praise. Soon after that, was on the phone with Bobby, and my pair was ordered. The paradigms were sold and the new arrivals eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately there were some problems with caps that delayed production. I repositioned a pair of NHT monitors that are use as home theater mains, and hooked them up to the PS Audio. After an hour or so of listening, I was convinced there would be no more music until the Merlins arrived.
In the meantime, browsing audiogon, I noticed a Rogue Audio Cronus for sale at a very attractive price. An el34 tube integrated with easy bias and enthusiastic reviews, why not? It was powering the NHT's a week later, and I was amazed. Truly a wonderful integrated that in my opinion, creates a impressive soundstage. Listenable, adding a character to the NHT’s that took me by surprise. I am now hooked on tubes.
A few weeks later the Merlins arrived. In my experience it took about 20 hours for initial break in. I only had about 25 hours on the new driver tubes for the Rogue. Then things got very interesting. As time went on I confirmed what I had hoped for, no anomalies in the frequency spectrum. To me, this allows for a presentation that can absolutely define a performance. Have always loved the creative interaction found in collaborations by Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius. There is a synergy with Mitchell’s voice and Pastorius’ foundations. It comes across brilliantly on Mingus. This became my first irritation with the paradigms. At certain frequencies, her voice would glaze over and destroy the continuity of vocal inflections matched to rhythm, dynamics and harmonic richness. I remain very critical when listening to the mmi’s, and have yet to be offended.
The expansive canvas of sound that emerges has been articulated by enthusiasts, certainly in a way more eloquent then I could convey. It seems to blossom after 20 or so hours of play. Remember leaving them powered up, running a score of errands, and returning home 5 hours later to a transformation. I can only confirm that it is layered and projected in a most remarkable fashion. With the Paradigms I had the revelation that a huge soundstage enhances my enjoyment of reproduced music more then any other consideration. None of the monitors I had encountered in the past could equal them. The Merlins can astound. The Wailin’ Jennys, The Devil’s Paintbrush Road, on Firecracker. A kick drum intros to establish spacious depth behind the band, then an acoustic envelope expands without bounds. I have never heard any thing like it. Maybe it’s formulated in their resolving capabilities and tonal purity. It goes beyond any words I can use to describe it. Whatever the cause, the effect can be simply lovely. Mary Jane Lamond, Domhnall Mac ‘Ic Lain, on Suas E! Aural timbre is expressed with absolute clarity. Her voice suspended in the center of soaring percussion and base is stunning. I have to comment on the natural recreation of female vocals. Melody Gardot, Over The Rainbow, on My One And Only Thrill. She articulates lyrics with incredible detail. This selection showcases her talent, and accompanies it with orchestration. The mmi’s intensifies a sense of spatial integration in a way the paradigms could not match. I believe it has everything to do with getting the timbre right. Small jazz ensembles, my experience is limited, but haven’t heard a monitor better then the mmi’s. There’s a lot of bands popping up rich in the classic style of guys like Joe Venuti and Django Reinhart. Complex passages and rhythms that dance the frequency spectrum. Jimmy Rosenberg, on Gypsy Swing. The band occupies all the space in front of me. I know there is a crossover at work structuring tonal harmonics between two drivers, but I’ve tried and can’t detect a micro collapse in ambience when I follow individual instruments. Every time I power them up, that thought, “damn, they sound good”. If ever the opportunity comes to audition TSM‘s, sit back, explore your music and be prepared.
Have always found myself drawn into the lush sounds of orchestral strings. I am not quite sure how to characterize the TSM’s presentation in this area. A favorite recording for the past few years has been George Gershwin Goes Orchestral, St. Louis Symphony. Gershwin always conjured imagery of the consummate cosmopolitan man. I love this performance. Urbane manners expressed in timeless, delightfully crafted melodic composition. On Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Andante Con Moto, there is a conversation between piano and ensemble. Again I have to go back to tone. Percussion, brass, reeds, strings. A subjective comment. The Merlins seem to convey every nuance of Gershwin’s savvy stride. You’ll have to judge for yourself. There is a track, Ashokan Farewell, on Songs Of The Civil War by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Fiddle and guitar. A bittersweet melody of forlorn resignation. Again I recall wincing several times as the fiddle glared on the Paradigms. Reproduced with the mmi’s, my emotional response is never interrupted. I do think they reveal the lovely character of strings matched to composition. Not an overly lush sound, but in no way is it lean. Just pure, accurate, and always inviting. This same appeal always surfaces whenever I become critical of any sound. I played trumpet in high school, and had a very exacting mentor. God knows that was a long time ago, but found myself vividly recalling how he could texture notes on cornet. Subconsciously, I suspect this has always been my standard when listening to classical brass. The mmi’s created something that has never happened before. A first time flashback. Remarkable to the extent that it was not an approximation, but true to memory. It occurred when listening to Jean-Baptiste Arban, The Carnival Of Venice, with The Army Brass Band, on Kiss My Brass.
Another aspect that adds to the enjoyment of the TSM’s which is hard to qualify. Was often wowed by the paradigms. On recordings that have exquisite detail captured in dynamic range it sometimes became distracting. Keb’ Mo’, It Hurts Me Too, on The Door, a folksy blues breakout. Just one of countless examples. This track is an unleashed sonic odyssey. With the Merlins, it becomes a delight. A an immediacy that can be arresting, but expressed effortlessly in the flow of music. Maybe a better word is transparency, but I am not sure what that implies in audio context. The Merlins articulate a natural balance. This seems to be a common theme in audio reviews and the threads I’ve read here. My comments will sound redundant to people who follow them, but It’s absolutely true. There is something spectacular in the detail I hear. This becomes obvious with familiar favorites, but reviews were forgotten. In my time with the mmi’s, there is not much thought of exquisite highs, visceral bass or mid rage purity. Not to be misunderstood, they excel in every parameter mentioned. Nothing hollow, everything I hear is full of substance. My opinion, it is pointless to dissect their sonic characteristics without putting them in context. It’s just so well integrated, all sounds right. As they settle in, I don’t know if they continue to get better, or my conceptual framework regarding home audio is changing. The mmi’s are refined in an artistic fashion without sonic flares. Their language is music. A good thing if you’d rather listen then analyze, maybe not so good if you’re an amateur trying write an objective review. (I’m doing the best I can)
Some 30 years ago, I assembled a system. Eminent Technology LFT-3 planers, AR SP-8 and D-115 amplification which probably fell well short of the power needed to truly make them sing. I was not as discriminating back then. There is a track, Johnny Hodges, Papa Knows, on Everybody Knows. The credits list Carney on baritone sax. Towards the end, he comes in left of center. With the attack and decay of each note, the ET’s allowed me to hear the flow of air resonate on the reed. The paradigms could not express it with any sense of realism or prominence. I thought it was more of an issue due to digital source. Aggravating when you know something is missing. To my delight it is beautifully detailed with the mmi‘s, restoring the intimacy I remember. As I recall the ET’s could resolve better. There wasn’t a hollow sizzle then fizzle effect, but they always sounded too aggressive to me. It’s too long ago to make a fair comparison (back then the source was vinyl). I am certain the mmi’s effuse Hodge’s band with more sensual warmth, one of the things I’ve always enjoyed most about the sound of his ensembles. To some extent, it may be better synergy in matching components. I briefly paired the mmi’s with PS Audio’s Trio C100. There was some compromise. The results could not match the glowing spatial appeal of the Rogue, but there is no drastic collapse of extension, no confusion in details and that beautiful tonal purity remained intact. Overall, I did feel the PS does noticeably narrow the higher frequency bloom of female vocal crescendos. Extended notes do not resonate with the same distinction in the acoustic bodies of a stand up bass, guitar, mandolin, dobro …. Also true, Hodges’s sax not as ripe, nor Nilsson’s range expressed with such full-bodied ease (never sounded better then it does on Knnillssonn). If I didn’t have the Rogue for comparison, would probably not mention any of this, but tubes do sound better. An experiential learning curve involved here. As time goes on, there may come strategic upgrades, but in no way feel compelled to do so.
One more thing I have to mention. If you enjoy vocal harmonies, you’re going to have a love affair with these monitors. Vocal textures, dynamics and resolution are in a word, wonderful. Hot Club Sandwich, Hit That Jive Jack, on Live At Old St Paul‘s. It sounds a bit close-miked with deflated extension, but a trio of voices swings into life, stays consistently focused with enough spatial ambience to create a realistic image. What I can hear, is an exceptionally talented band, the dig they have for the music and rhythmic swing. Voices blended perfectly in interactive harmony. It’s exciting to discover a well engineered recording, but when I’m focused on the music, the Merrlins won’t gleam or strive to compensate for shortcomings. They always remain true to the performance, and leave me with an enhanced appreciation for artistic flair; an expanded perspective. Important if you enjoy variety in all genres. The Roches (on Moonswept) and Merlins, knocked my socks off. After some time with the mmi’s, I began reflecting more on just how imaging characteristics influence the accurate placement of performers. I am enamored with the way the they present an image. Voices arranged together sound utterly natural. Not etched in rigid compliance, there is dimensional harmony. They emerge from a distinct direction, and expand in space with such rich tonal character. The Robert Shaw Coral, on Opera Choruses. I was totally unprepared for this. Beautiful music that captured my attention on occasion, but usually in the background with the Paradigms. When voices blossomed on the Merlins to spread across the room, I couldn’t break away. The entire impact of a full chorus with orchestra on stage, no, not quite, and limits to sound levels that can be achieved without strain, but still, the only word that consistently comes to mind is glorious!
To put my impressions in perspective. Every word expressed is heartfelt, based on an short but intensely focused time with these speakers. They were written while listening, with some references noted. I hope audio terms as I understand them are used in proper context. My listening area is not large, but hardly constricted (15x18 with beamed ceilings), and playback for source materials certainly not state of the art. I’m offering no phantom credentials to validate my opinions. My experience with contemporary audio design is limited. I would not characterize myself as a seasoned hobbyist, and only an occasional enthusiast. After everything is in place, I prefer to set it and forget it. There are other designs I would have liked to audition, but never found the opportunity. The motivation to post this review, is simply to offer a point of view for people who may be interested. As far back as I can remember, music has animated my mind and emotions. Time after time, hour upon hour, the mmi’s are totally gratifying. Perhaps a subwoofer for full orchestrations, but I have never had much luck trying to integrate subs with seamless results. The foundation of the mmi’s is rendered with solid presence and harmonic richness, I am more then pleased.
It goes without saying, music greatly enhances the lives of everyone who may be reading my thoughts here. Undoubtedly there are other well executed designs that may offer the audio purest alternatives with greater rewards, and the quest becomes the only point that validates an exotic hobby. Technical innovations are easy to promote and quantify, artistic thoughtfulness a more subjective standard. When your mind can balance both, it becomes time to savor the results. In the still of the night, with a clear head and music that touches heart and imagination, I’m not left wondering how much more satisfaction there can be. Everything is relative. Your own perceptions and priorities may lead you in a different direction. I think Merlin has evolved a speaker for the music lover with finite resources and uncompromising standards. I consider myself fortunate to have found them by chance, and in a way feel as if I have no right to own something so extraordinary without going thru a painfully long process of trial and error. My thanks to Bobby at Merlin, and to all who have taken the time to express their impressions in these archives. The TSM’s are deserving of every accolade bestowed upon them, and more.
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Over some 40 years i can recall designs from