Review: Merlin Music Systems TSM-MXr Monitor

Category: Speakers

Is this whole Merlin speaker thing some sort of cult?
That's what some folks believe, in spite of many best-in-show awards and professional accolades it seems that Merlin's fans are nearly rabid about the qualities of these high end speaker systems. After hearing a pair of MMe's I decided to take the plunge and hear what all the fuss is really about!

NOTE: My most recent system was Magnepan 1.6 with Mye stands powered by Odyssey Stratos, Rogue Metis preamp and Jolida and Oppo CD players. An interesting side note: I usually preferred the far less expensive Oppo with the Maggies. These days expensive gear is not always superior, and synergy is everything.

When you're looking at speakers in the 2-3K range and up, you've already heard a group that's started with wonderful designs like the Revel M22 and Dynaudio 140 along with the added cost of good stands. You may have forgotten costs altogether and listened to some of the super-high end monitors from Focal and Revel. You've probably spent time with Dunlavy and Proac and explored the fine offerings from Totem & many others. This is true high end territory and a lot is expected.

Before I get to the nitty gritty details of my review of the Merlin TSM-XMr's, I'd like to start by cutting through the haze of a few misconceptions. I paired the Merlin monitors with a Emotiva XPA-3, Manley Stingray and even a Denon reciever. The sound was never anything less than fantastic. That's not to say that the pairing with the Denon was as good, but rather with the Stingray it became MORE fantastic. I say that because I want to forever end the idea that these speakers don't play well with others. I also started with some inexpensive Monster Cable and in no way did this cripple the speakers. I eventually added Cardas because part of this hobby is experimentation and tweaking!

Breaking them in....
Though I was told they put some hours on them at the factory, I let these play for a few days, racking up an additional 100 hours or so before I really sat down with them. They're still breaking in and improving.

With the Denon receiver...briefly.....
The Denon imparted a smooth midrange, but the speakers lacked weight and dimension. Overall the sound was somewhat cold, but again not in a way I didn't enjoy. Even with a mid fi receiver I was bathed in detail and a very realistic tonality. Perhaps the only serious limitation here was a much smaller soundstage. With the Denon I was most aware of the "box" effect and the Merlins couldn't quite disappear, an ability they're noted for. But at the same time, on many recordings they came CLOSE to that magic and I simply had a ball listening to music. I did not spend much time with this pairing, but I wanted to be clear; the Merlins will make music while you save for better power. .

Emotiva XPA....briefly...
The Emotiva XPA series is noted by many to be squarely and happily aimed at the home theater market. I generally agree, but I still heard very sweet music with the pairing. Again, soundstaging took the bigger hit against the Manley tubes. It was a far from subtle difference. To make things even less "audiophile" oriented, I also used the latest UMC-1 processor from Emotiva., which is hardly looking to beat down doors for 2 channel listening. The Merlins would not be denied in their transparency and ultimately musical nature. Listening to several tracks from the Mumford Brothers CD I marveled at the resolution and rhythm.; Much to my surprise the Emotiva gear did not sound overly bright. Again, this session was short. I was eager to return to the amp of choice, which had also been used for break-in...The Manley Stingray II.

With the Stingray II tube amp from Manley...
Now we're talking! While Bobby was building my Merlins I let the Stingray break in powering some SVS monitors I had lying around. They sounded pretty good! Of course the Merlins were a whole other world. This amp created the image magic and helped the Merlin's show their stuff by simply not being in the room. On the better recordings, with eyes closed, it was not possible to know where the speakers were! (Of course I KNEW where they were, but the effect was astounding). This was the synergistic excellence I had hoped for and the roughly 7K worth of amp and speakers was out-dancing many far more expensive systems I've heard over the years. This was being accomplished without any real tweaks, partial break-in times and mid-fi CD player and cables!

Getting low and fast...
Next up was my beautiful MJ Acoustics 150 MKII subwoofer. This small sub is at least as good as the REL models and perhaps a bit better. With it's well thought out and versatile controls along with a remote I was able to blend the smallish sub seamlessly. With the sub the Merlins now filled out at the low end and sounded unbelievable. Suddenly I felt like this was every bit as musical as the VSM's, but with a lovely bottom end that completed the picture. Of course adding the same sub to the VSMs.....ah, there's the rub!

Better Cables....
I started with a cheap set of Monster Cable speaker wires; the stuff they sell at Target for 30 bucks. Bobby said "have fun!" and not to worry about speaker cable for the moment. He was right. The cheap wire was just fine and really did not get in the way at all. Quite frankly I think many people would be fine with this stuff, but I warped to conventional wisdom and installed better speaker wire. Enter the Cardas SE9, which is hardly a super expensive speaker cable. A 4 meter pair will still cost around 1000 dollars, more than most people's whole system. Insanity is relative! I'd love to report that the Cardas cables were not up to snuff, but they were a wonderful addition to the system. Detailed and smooth, these cables are a terrific match. Things were still grainless at the higher registers, but the speakers now had better defined bass and I could easily hear greater space around the female vocals while listening to Long Black Veil (The Chieftans). I plan to also try a few others in the coming months. I will still need to compare the cables to others before drawing any strong conclusions, but I like what I hear thus far.

So what does this all add up to....
In short, these are the best monitors I've ever heard and they are among the best speakers period. I prefer them to my wonderful Magnepan 1.6 pair and they make music better than anything I've heard from Revel, Dynaudio, Snell, Focal, Totem, B&W and pretty much the who's who of the speaker world. But read that again! I said that they make MUSIC better. They MAY not out-resolve the top of the line B&Ws, nor do they offer the punch of the top drawer Revels or the womp of some super duper multi array monsters. Those are "speakers" and quite excellent indeed. The Merlin TSM-XMr is something else and much closer to being a musical instrument than any other speaker I've heard. They open an extreme window of clarity into a recording that is quite remarkable, allowing for a layered image where even complex passages still convey a very real sense of space around individual instruments and voices. For music lovers this is the greatest compliment I can give any speaker designer and builder. I felt much the same way about my Royd speakers many years ago, a true hero of small speaker design. And audiophiles take note, if you love to play with gear as much as listen to music, the Merlins will also oblige by being utterly transparent, allowing component characteristics to penetrate with ease. It's no shock that some Magnepan owners have upgraded to Merlin speakers. And with that many will say that the Merlins DO in fact resolve with the best when better gear is mated to them. But there are limits both to my sanity and funds to explore those grounds. A good friend said, after hearing my Merlins, "These would suit anyone because they are completely gear transparent."

What they did best....
Vocals were beyond critique, bordering on SPOOKY for being so lifelike. On better recordings the imaging and boxless sound impressed by simply removing the speakers from the room. The same went for small ensemble recordings where the human ear can focus on a single instrument with ease. The Merlins did not just reproduce the violin; they got out of the musical path almost entirely, or such was the effect. It sounded like it was "in the room", a rather tired expletive in the high end world, but very applicable here. This effect was something I often enjoyed with the Magnepans, but the Merlins do it even better and without the need for an exact sweet spot. Additionally, on vocals the Maggies often presented a singer as "larger than life" conveying a three dimensional image, but also one that was not scaled correctly. Perhaps, due to their size, the Merlins handle this issue with ease. On more complex classical passages the Merlins once again played the recording with a minimum of coloration. Incredible detail met resolution but not in a way that broke the music down into components. They stood out as both analytical and outstandingly musical. Coherence and continuity is at such a high level as to challenge monitors I heard costing 3 times the price. The overall continuous nature of drivers and cabinet remained intact to the point where I often felt I was listening to a single driver! I fought to hear the speaker, but usually the music carried me away. Treble was grainless, liquid and honest sounding. Midrange characteristics seemed completely controlled by the amp and associated electronics. With the Stingray the presentation was slightly forward, which is what I like as it tends to be more involving for me. Bass response was a true delight. While the TSM's don't plumb the depths, neither do they demand a sub. Against my stone fireplace wall, they generated a good amount of kick on Lyle Lovetts' Pontiac. In my theater room they were more bass challenged, the bass thinned out considerably, but sounded even more rhythmic and quick. Adding the MJ sub was a requirement for me in that setting.

Where they failed to excel....
To be honest, the only shortcoming of the Merlin TSM-MXr is that it's not a VSM; it's larger and costlier brother (I have only heard the older VSM). It has usable bass below 45hz and that's certainly impressive, but don't expect anything close to a visceral bass slam without a sub in the mix. I see no reason to play heavy metal or club music on these speakers. Those recordings are rarely well done and the Merlins will simply expose that. Large scale orchestral music will never be as impactful, even with a sub, as on a big speaker. That's not to say they don't do extremely well, but if listening to great organ recordings was my #1 hobby, I'd look for a different speaker and certainly not a monitor of this type. When listening to orchestral passages I could not generate the pressure levels of such an event, but I am certain that I heard more of the music than on larger systems. Again....These are windows into music. To reinforce my impressions I had a friend come by for a listen. His systems include speakers like Magnepan 3.6, Totem The One and his own pair of older TSM-MM's. He's part owner of a audio shop so he changes systems like the wind. Upon hearing a Verve recording of Billie Holiday on the new Merlins he said it was the best vocal presentation (of her) he'd ever heard. Next up was Norah Jones and the immediacy and realism was downright startling.

What about those other speakers.....
The minute someone tells you that their Flagasm 407's blow away the Nookem Super 9's, you know you've got an "audio racer" or just a flat out snob on your hands. I heard the Focal Utopia line and they are a great speaker. But I found them less musical and certainly quite colored Could it have been the associated gear and room? You bet. Speakers at this level are often so good that any tiny element can tip your ears to favor one or the other, but the Merlins are the least colored of ANY monitor I've heard to MY ears. Do I think the Merlins are better than the Utopia? Yes. Do I think that some will prefer the Utopia and be just as right as I am? Absolutely. I happen to like the Revel M20, which is a colored speaker that I enjoy. If you want everyone to agree that you bought the best speaker, car or cigar, life will be a tad frustrating!

Other Speakers I auditioned.....
Totem The One (Anniversary Edition), Revel M20 & M22, Dynaudio Contour s1.4, Revel Ultima Gem2, Focal Diablo Utopia, Focal Chorus 816 and quite a few others ranging from 2-15K, both full range and monitor, from Harbeth to B&W. My goal was to find a speaker as transparent as possible; a speaker that did not "sound like a speaker" if you will. I've found the Merlins opened a window of transparency with the least coloration. That does not automatically make them best for everyone.

I have a few, but they are thin. The Merlin TSM is a pretty plain-jane looking speaker unless you get the top-of-the-line MXr, though fit and finish are very good. The MXr version will get you a gorgeous finish and a somewhat different sounding speaker (I have yet to compare them though), but the wait for a pair is quite long, usually 10-12 weeks. Then again...if you want something this special it's not going to be sitting around "in stock." The time factor is going to effect a few buyers since there's a ton of high end speakers out there boxed and ready to ship. That simple reality comes against the joy of eventually owning and enjoying a uniquely refined and executed speaker design. It's your call. I don't like the binding post system, though it's very effective; it can be a bit awkward to work with due to a single clamping screw for two terminals. My wife doesn't like the grills because they are not mirror imaged. Looking at them, she said "It looks like we have two right or left speakers." The grills are usually off anyway and she loves the finish as much as the sound.

Few people will be unhappy with a pair of Merlin TSM-MMi or MXr speakers. They will not play to ear splitting levels or slam you in the belly with bass. But they will provide a musical experience that few speakers at even triple the cost can replicate.
Bobby told me that that these speakers are his life's work. He has entered the ring with some very heavy contenders and has proven that you can still score a knock-out in a very crowded division of high end audio. Unwilling to rest on his past successes he continues to refine the product. This is a superior execution of speaker design that gives up no real ground to far pricier designs and it's ongoing evolution is part of that success.
Bobby is another reason to buy a set of Merlins. He's a very nice fellow who appears to love audio and will happily share his enthusiasm with you. He does this in a very down-to-Earth manner that makes the buyer feel at ease during the buying process. While I bugged Bobby for cable and amp ideas he was always willing to provide support well after the check was cashed. Following delivery we had a couple of talks regarding placement and break-in. He's not just selling speakers; he's trying to get the music right for his customers. The man and his speakers deserve a lot more attention.

My rating for the Merlin TSM-MXr Monitors:

Sound quality *****
Aesthetics ****
Build quality *****
Value *****

In other words....Go buy a pair!

Associated gear
Skylan 4 post stands, Manley Stingray II Tube Amp, MJ Acoustics 150 MKII sub, Cardas SE9 speaker wire

Similar products
Totem The One (Anniversary Edition), Revel M20 & M22, Dynaudio Contour s1.4, Revel Ultima Gem2, Focal Diablo Utopia, Focal Chorus 816 and quite a few others ranging from 2-15K, both full range and monitor, from Harbeth to B&W
I have the MME and my room size is 16 X 20 and they sound great with a rel sub

I have a room that is 28x18 and it's a theater room. We are building a music room soon. The TSM's do an amazing job and continue to improve.
I have a Rega Saturn coming for a visit this Tuesday as I continue to see out players. What CD player are you using???


I am using the Marantz Sa11-S2. Great sounding player.
Specifically, which speakers in the $7,500 to $15,000 range did the Merlins top?


Hi, Daniel

I did a lot of listening over a few months. (and perhaps even more in the last few weeks!) I don't like to make claims that a speaker is "better" than another. It offends people in some cases. Plus there is always the issue of rooms, associated gear and listening tastes.

Some of the speakers I listened to were as follows: Focal Diablo Utopia, Revel Gem2 (and several larger versions), Magnepan 3.6 (Owned the 1.6 last year), Totem The One (and some of the larger models). Quiet recently I had friends visit me. They own Vandersteen 3A and Proac D38, two excellent designs. My friend with the Proacs preferred the Merlins. We all agreed that the Vandersteen is a fantastic speaker, but was incapable of matching the detail of the Merlins. The main issue with the Proacs was a midrange that made music sound like speakers. They could not disapear.

At this point with the Merlins I'm very impressed. Some of my friends are even more impressed because they are being powered by a Manley Stingray II with Cardas se9 wire. Good stuff, but hardly the final word for these speakers. The Proacs, for example, are fed by a Jeff Rowland amp and Classe CD player. That system's cost is three times higher. He's using cables that cost as much as my amp. Perhaps there are less expensive components that would enhance the Proac's performance.

Finally....I am a guy who likes ribbons and some hybrid designs. I like a fast musical transducer just as much as a neutral one. The Merlins are the only two way monitor (thus far) that feeds my aural requirements in that arena.

But I could tell you that I heard Megospehere 007's for 100K and the Merlins were better. Doesn't mean a thing. YOUR ears are the one component that absolutely differs from mine. The latest generation of Merlin speakers have, in my opinion, dialed in the last nuance of neutrality and detail possible for such a design...or nearly so. If you get anywhere near the Mahopac area of NY you can hear them for yourself!


BTW, also spent some time with Harbeth and the about to be dissolved Snell audio. I remain a fan of Snell products. Sad to see them go, but I hear that they might become re-branded as it were.

I also listened to the Harbeths but the Merlins did something for me that the Harbeths could not.
Agreed on the Harbeths, though I'd be really giving them short thrift if I didn't mention that they were quite good. But the Merlins simply exceed all of my expectations every time I listen to them.

I own the older version, the TSM-MMs, since 2001, and it is the first speaker that I have not wanted to upgrade from after owning it for 2 years, and I have it for nearly 10 years. I have made numerous upgrades to every other component in my system, but have not desired to upgrade these speakers. I used to own Mini-Utopias, Celestion SL-700s, ProAc 1SCs, etc, and none of them are as musical or as enjoyable as these Merlins. Of these, the Mini-Utopias were the most impressive sounding, but I grew tired of the uneven output - they sounded like a speaker with no bass driver (compared to the Merlins), and the Merlins sounded less colored. The Celestion SL-700s were fantastic speakers and are the closest in performance to the Merlins, but the Merlins are more musical and less colored. The ProAcs were dark sounding and the least desirable of the 4 speakers, although I bought them for a reason, they are quite good - but not in comparison to the Celestions and Merlins.

I completely agree with the excellent review above, but one aspect of their performance that was not discussed was their bass. They do not go very deep (as is true with all monitor speakers), but the bass they do produce is tight, accurate, and extremely musical - perhaps the best bass I have heard from a monitor speaker. I was not aching for a sub, as I loved their bass, but I had heard so many good things about the REL Storm III paired with the TSMs, that I bought one. Wow, what a nice addition! I was very happy with the Merlins, and believe I would still own them if I did not buy the REL sub last year, but the REL was a nice complement to these speakers. I do not plan to upgrade them ever, altough I will continue to audition possible replacements. I auditioned many speakers in the past 10 years, the Harbeths most recently, and was very impressed with them; however, they were not as musical and uncolored as the Merlins. Unless I find a true gem of a speaker, the only upgrades that are likely are the mods that Bobby has made to these speakers, as he is constantly perfecting his the TSMs and VSMs. I believe this is one of the main reasons for their tremendous performance - Bobby started with an excellent design, and over the past 15 years or so, has been perfecting this design and then releasing updates that can be added for minimal cost. I am looking forward to having them upgraded to the TSM-MMe in the near future, but I am so happy with them as is, I keep putting off the upgrade.

As a former, musician, sound engineer, audio store repair tech, audio store salesman, and speaker designer/builder; and a current electrical engineer and acoustician, I cannot recommend these speakers highly enough.
hifiguy, thank you!
but do the mme upgrade and take them to the next level. it is inexpensive, takes only a day or two and can really make them right. some new parts, lead freeing and modifications to the tweeter face plates. imho, they would be somewhere between the mme and the mmi in sound and performance. also look at the master rc link on the site. these two upgrades would be good for about 60% and be profound, imho.
best, b
Regarding the bass of the Merlins....Someone, in reviewing the larger VSM's, made a comment that is quite applicable. They said that the Merlins went down low, but did not create the kind of bass that slams a person in the chest...something that owners of big subs and bigger speakers may be used to. Upon going to a concert he listened carefully to the bass and noted that nothing "slammed" him the chest at the live event either! Well of course it didn't. The music was not dealing with a "tiny" listening room.
I can make the same observation. I've been front 5 rows at concerts and bass never hits me that way, yet many folks have come to expect this effect from a home system, with deep notes rumbling their guts.
This is usually not good bass quality. It's loud, deep and impressive...perhaps even fun, but it's not what's usually heard at a live venue. I can name some VERY big names in high end speaker design that make bass in this way. Merlin is not one of them.
Within their range the TSM's create astonishing bass. It's accurate and nothing more.


Not sure I can agree that bass slam is not a natural concert occurence.

What kind of concerts are you referring to?

Pop/rock live concerts involving electronic amplification often produce that kind of slam, even in large venues. You can feel the pressurization of the air which adds a visceral effect to the experience. It is often strived for in this kind of music and is evident on similar recordings.

Cheap live productions often do this but do it badly, resulting in slopy bass that dominates and ruins everything. Good productions of a similar nature in decent venues get it right and teh bass is perfectly balanced with slam just like a similar good home system playing bass heavy music recorded well to capture the slam without being to the detriment of the rest. BTW, getting these recordings to sound good with lots of bass slam at home without negative effects on teh rest has been one of the most challenging aspects of getting my system built and tuned in well. A lot of it involves the amp used and room acoustics as much as the speakers themselves.
Hi Mapman....

Amplified arena's are certainly variable. Years ago I went to a Pink Floyd concert and that certainly had "slam" as I was close to some powerful speaker arrays.
Still, I don't recall the gut churning that I've heard from some speaker and sub systems in moderate sized rooms.
As for classical music, I rarely hear/feel slam as I do in a big system and I think you're quite right to a degree; the room is certainly a factor.
In the end we get bass reproduced in (usually) a much smaller room than it was performed. As an example I was listening to Magnepan 3.6 with a pair of Fathom 113's and the system was very impressive. Still, even in a room most would call quite large, I found the bass set to a unrealistic level. My friend and I could not agree on what the accurate settings were and I could only assume he had "gotten used" to the bass. Frankly....I felt that the Magnepans sounded best with NO sub at all in most cases.
I do feel that a lot of designers look at the lows and highs like "top speed" ratings and work to push them. After all, a speaker with solid and authoritative bass is impressive in the showroom and speaker design is a business just as much art.
The more I listen to these Merlins, the more I feel my fccus is shifting further away from frequency extremes. With that...yes, I DO use a nice sub with my TSMs, but my bet is that many people would find it set unusually low, adding just a subtle and seamless fill to the low end.



Yes, I have yet to experience any small monitors that cannot benefit from a well integrated sub for certain kinds of music where there is a lot going on in the low end and conveying power and/or majesty is part of the potential listening experience . My Dynaudio monitors come closer than I ever thought possible with such a small speaker when I acquired them, at least in a smaller room, to the extent that what was missing was quite subtle and really did not bother me much practically. Still, I knew something was missing in comparison to larger speaker designs and even to my own separate Triangle monitor + sub combo at the time.

My impression of the TSMs is that they are designed to do what they do to the max and in conjunction less so to push the limits of the low end which can be accomplished more practically and to better effect by adding a sub. By the time a design can do this well, it is usually technically no longer a small monitor but something bigger.
The soundstage of the TSM's is huge, quite a bit better than on my Magnepan 1.6....also recently listened to 3.6 and Vandersteen 3a, Proac D38. Those larger speakers have more bass and in taking in a first 30 seconds, they seem "larger" at first. That impression quickly fades as we come to realize that the Merlins enhance/color nothing. Those speakers I mention above are certainly very good.

I can only say this: I'm extremely happy with the Merlins and I hope more people hear about them. I believe that experienced listeners would find these (with good system/room matching) about as good as it gets.

How much does the upgrade to the mme version cost? Sonically, do modifications to the tweeter face plate, lead freeing and the rc master link result in a huge difference? Have the drivers been changed from the ones used from, say, 2000? I'm just curious because I heard a pair of TSMs around then and they were quite good, although not clearly better than several other monitors in the same price range. Thanks,

upgrade from what specific model daniel?
the changes can produce a profound improvment in sound.
new versions of the woofers, a different hand made tweeter, new terminals, wiring harnesses, hf q circuits, cryo and a new cablinet material all make for big improvments imho.
2000 was 10 years ago and since then we have made 4 significant improvements to the speaker.
best regards, b

While I can't give you info on costs, I can tell you what the owner of previous TSM-MMe hears with my newer version. He finds them even more transparent and continous. So much so that he scuttled our plans to make a direct comparison. To the best of my knowledge the new TSM has a different tweeter & cabinet material (not small changes) along with a variety of other changes, any one of which would make a difference of course. If you get deeper into audio you'll quickly learn that even subtle mods can make or break a design.

You can do a lot of reserach here and on other boards and you may also study all of the reviews. The accolades, from a wide range of users is just about 100%. The recent improvements also appear to be garnering the same response.

On a related sidenote, my friend changed the wiring on his Proacs and that simple tweak made a significant improvement. It comes as no surprise that the Merlin changes allow for even greater sonic improvements.

As noted, it was a TSM, manufactured probably in 1999 or 2000. I was just wondering about the upgrades and the cost of those upgrades. Thanks,

Daniel 22, if you own a pair of TSMs (I think you said you only heard a pair 10 or 11 years ago), or know someone who does, why not give Bobby a buzz over at Merlin?
He will explain the merits of the upgrades in detail along with the costs. There are also a ton of owners who have gone for the upgrades....don't see any complaints! ;')

I'm currently trying a borrowed pair of cam400 amps by Classe with the Merlins with interesting results (compared to the Stingray and Odyssey). I will post an update once I'm confident the speakers are 100% broken in. My search for the right CD player continues though!

Are you still using the SE9 Cardas? I just ordered a pair Of Quadlink Cold Forged for my Merlin TSMXe speakers, hope i like them, have not received them yet. What do you think? Thanks for any info.