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Merrill Audio Veritas Monoblock Amplifiers

DSCN2723 The Veritas mono blocks from Merrill Audio ($12,000/pair) are the latest audiophile darlings, and represent the current SOTA around Class D amplifier technology, sporting as they do the new Hypex Ncore 1200 modules. The modules have been made available to OEM manufacturers for a year or so now, and have tended to fall in one of two classes – these are the big ones. I’m not going to go into the debate around the glories of Class D sonics generally, or even if there’s glory there, nor will I delve into the technical superiorities, again, assuming there are any to explore. This has all been done and quite frankly, I have nothing to add to that conversation whatsoever, except to touch on the basic biases that audiophiles seem to have with these amps and see how far stereotypes go. We’ll get to that. But before I do, let’s talk a little about what it is we’re looking at.

First, take the Ncore boards. Here, they’re completely out of reach, encased as they are in a big ass block (hereafter, a BAB) of aluminum. Getting to them would require removing all those stickers labeled with warnings of your rapidly evaporating warranty, so I didn’t get a pic of the interior of the chassis – but I’m sure you can imagine “bomb shelter for PCB” in your head, and that’d really probably do just fine. On the outside, the chassis is wrapped up in a satiny finish – your choice of red, silver or black. My demo pair was a much-abused show-floor set that had “made the rounds” and the finish was pretty much hosed, so I didn’t take too many photos of them. I’m told that “Pledge” is not the preferred method for prettifying them – so, feel free to keep that out of the audio room and away from your gear.

The binding posts are those Cardas doohickeys that clamp down superbly on the spades of your loudspeaker cables. Assuming your loudspeaker cables have spades. Mine, sadly, did not – as, very helpfully, the Magnepan loudspeakers I’d originally planned to use them with only take bananas. Which means I’d need a pair of cables with bananas on one end and spades on the other … yeah, that’s exactly what I didn’t have on hand. Pardon me while I roll my eyes, but while I do understand and respect the designer’s right to select components for performance and overall superiority, I have to say that this doesn’t always translate into something particularly easy to cope with. Anyway, a week later I had in hand a set of banana-to-spade adapters from Xhadow, and I was back in business. Oh, another warning – the Veritas only come with XLR inputs. If whatever you’re using as a preamplifier only carries single-ended outputs, might want to order a pair of adapters before your amps arrive.

Enough kvetching. Lemme just tell you that my back loves the Veritas! I spend far too much time recovering from lugging 100lb+ amplifiers around; I’ve had to resort to all manner of shenanigans to get them in and out of position (I swap a lot of gear for, hopefully, obvious reasons), including settling the heaviest and most likely-to-be-moved bits on wheeled dollies. Not terribly audiophile (and a little ghetto, if I was being honest), but terrifically effective. But … I digress. Anyway, 33lbs is hefty and maneuverable and that made the entire affair much more pleasant.

Gear

I just knew that my $5,500/pair Magnepan 3.7’s were going to freak with all that power on tap. 700 watts into 4 ohms was the most I’ve ever been able to dump into them, and while I’m sure that they (technically) didn’t actually need anywhere near that much juice, I was pretty sure it couldn’t [cough] hurt. Yeah. Speaking of “wildly unnecessary power”, I also had a pair of Tekton Desisgns Pendragon SEAS loudspeakers on hand. At $2,500 a pair and 95dB sensitive, these loudspeakers were just begging to bring the rock-concert to the listening room. 700 watts into these 4 ohm loudspeakers is absurd on its face, so, naturally, I figured that’d be a fun addition. Another high-sensitivity loudspeaker, the $12,000/pair Orangutan O/96 from DeVore Fidelity, was on hand doing duty in another tube-based system – so I shanghaied them into the testing for no good reason whatever. Rounding out the picture was a pair of loudspeakers from TIDAL Audio, the Contriva Diacera SE. AT $65,000/pair retail, these Accuton-based transducers are among the finest loudspeakers ever made; while not necessarily a “good fit” for an amp pair that retails for $6,000 each, they were here and “why the hell not” seemed like an excellent plan to me.

For the rest of the audio chain, I used my Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC as both source and preamplifier, paired with the excellent Berkeley Audio Alpha USB converter to pull signals off my MacBook Pro. Late in the mashup, I got a chance to hear some DSD recordings played back through a LampizatOr DSD DAC prototype, which mean leveraging a proper preamplifier – to that end, I used an Emia autoformer-based passive to try and get as transparent a sound as possible.

Power cables came from Triode Wire Labs, a pair of which are packaged with the Veritas monos as a standard option – a nice touch. I’ve been chatting with Triode Pete for a couple of years now, and have had great results with his power cords, so I leveraged them for the rest of the gear as well. For signal cables, I used my typical mix of WyWires Gold and Silver cabling.

Use

Powering them up was a little bit of a challenge, mainly because I’m a little brain damaged, but just so you know, the button to bring them to life is located under the chassis. The front-center lip of it, actually. That is, it’s not actually in any particular line-of-sight when they’re all set up and sitting on your rack. Knowing is halfway to doing; they’re propped up on a set of Stillpoints footers, so there’s plenty of room to stick your fingers under there to get to the button. I mean, unless you have big sausage fingers and then you may have some finagling to do. Anyway, once powered on, a blue LED “running light” shines down onto whatever they’re sitting on so you can tell at a glance whether or not your going to be getting sound. Which is, actually, really helpful as this may be the only warning that your speakers are about to explode. You know. With sound.

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Detail and Deep Space

You know the cliché about “blacky blackerstien and his inky-black blackiest black” backgrounds, I’m sure. Well, grab your chisel as we’re gonna need to pound this monoblock into the meme. It’s … ((  … quiet … )). Really quiet. I didn’t think the damn thing was on. In fact, one of them wasn’t and I couldn’t tell until I dropped the needle on some Neil Young and the sound pulse blew g-force waves into my rather plastic face. That’s when I realized about the LED. Yeah. Like I said, brain damaged, okay? Anyway, yes, the “blackgrounds” are super-duper deep and sound can and will rise up like Nessie on a dark night – just BAM – and then gone again, slipping back off into the void from which it came.

This is the main reason why I tend to think this will be an amp that will cold crank its way right into the cockles of many an audiophile’s lonely, dark heart. The “blackdrop” is just perfect for raising a leviathan of detail even with the most mediocre of recordings. It’s just superb. Air, light, space – all were present in amounts that were unfair and totally disproportionate to what you will (probably) be used to – this is the real deal, and if you haven’t been privy to personal time with some notable Swiss electronics – Soulution, for a specifically apropos example – you now can get a pretty good idea of why some audiophiles are coo coo for Cocoa Puffs about that Swiss-made product line. My silly little detail-test is the title track off of Roadhouses and Automobiles, by the late and great Chris Jones. This track, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, has an “effect” layered into the mix about (watch me waving my hands here) 12dB-ish down – notably, a chorus of crickets. And this track, with these monos and the Tektons, figuratively dumped me into an early summer night, completely surrounded by these bugs. They were everywhere! Very cool.

Other cool bits? Precision. With the LampizatOr DSD experiment on the big TIDAL loudspeakers, I had a chance to play with fun “tunes” from some of the few DSD file providers out there on the Internet, including DSD File and High Definition Tape Transfers. One of those tracks, “Fasten Seat Belts” from DSD-File’s “Opus 3: DSD Showcase 2” sampler, is an exercise. I mean that just the way I wrote it. It’s an “avant garde” piece of acoustical wizardry, and about as dynamic a piece of “music” as I happen to have on hand. Percussion and organ are the major players and there are several segments to the piece that had my eyes zipping across the soundstage, visually tracking the auditory tapestry unrolling and unraveling in front of me. At the end, I was more than a little worn out – like I’d just been jumping rope for the entire piece. This was even more remarkable to me because I had thought this track something of a muddy mess when playing it through another system – but here, the amps and speakers tracked in a way that was not only utterly uncompressed, but composed, structured, and simply effortless. Mallet strikes were startling, clean and brassy with natural decays; the organ was deep and resonant, the subterranean notes in the bewildering flourishes separable and distinct. Fine, I don’t actually love the piece of music, but with this pairing, I was able to respect the hell out of the effort it took to make it.

Matching these amps up with the DeVore loudspeakers was less entertaining. These loudspeakers do just fine with solid-state electronics, generally, but paired with the Veritas, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something was off. While there was plenty of detail, the soundstage was 2-dimensional and a bit foreshortened. Tonally, the presentation felt lean, and the timbre more than a little artificial. Not a happy synergy.

Paired with the Maggies, tone and timbre were much more satisfying — but like I had anticipated, it was the bass that truly stood out. These panels, usually good for a satisfying mid-30 Hz extension when sitting in their rigid Mye Audio stands, gave the illusion of bass speed – Dean Peer’s Ucross, always a great disc to use when breaking in any system, was blistering  uncompressed speed and unmatched thwack! Bringing in DeadMau5 and Noisea was not only possible on the big panels, but actually fun. Sure, a sub would have flexed the walls a bit more convincingly, but judging from the screams of outrage emanating from other portions of the house, and how successfully I was able to drown them out, I think the pairing quite successful.

That kind of audiophile

I’m not necessarily convinced that the “best” amp is a solid-state amp – or that it’s a tube amp, either. I belong to that weird camp that holds that the best amp is the one that matches best to the loudspeaker it’s paired with. That is, the amp-speaker pairing is a best thought of as a system, as, perhaps, a single element. Good system synergy, then, ought to be paramount to any preferences or biases to particular design preferences. That’s me. And that’s also why I have a tube system and a solid-state system – so I can “do either” and be as fair as I think a reviewer ought to be.

That said, no one is ever going to mistake the Veritas for a “tube amp”. It’s just not. In fact, my audition time elicited absolutely no desire to reach for the descriptor “tube like”. This amp reminds me of a luge run – it’s fast, it’s exhilarating, it’s wild, and if you wanted coddling, you should have stayed by the fire up at the lodge sipping your amaretto-laced cocoa, you pansy. I’m paraphrasing a point that designer Merrill Wettasinghe is unapologetic about – if you want a tube amp, get one. You want speed, power, detail and an altogether thrilling sound? Merrill Audio has you covered.

It comes down to philosophy, honestly, and the disconnect between the competing camps isn’t one that’s well explained or even discussed. For lack of a sharper or more elegant tool with which to joint the audiophile community like a side of beef, I think you could make the case that there are two distinct camps within it. One favors tone, the other favors detail. Pretty simple, eh? Yeah, I like it. Obviously, this is oversimplified, but bear with me a second. I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot of folks into high-end audio that really do love that thrilling hi-fi sound. They’re detail freaks. There’s a level of transparency possible now that just blows what’s left of their hair straight back, and that is the sound that they crave like it’s some kind of audio meth. Then there’s the other crowd, the one that uses terms like “organic” and “lush” and they talk in reverent tones about something they call “musicality”. I’ve been bouncing between the camps for years but I don’t want to say that either is right or wrong. That’s absurd. It’s like saying spaghetti is “right” and ramen is “wrong” – that’s just weird. That said, it’s fairly obvious that this amp is clearly going to cater to only one of the two camps. So, if you’re a detail freak (or play one on TV), you have to check out this amp. If you’re a “horn guy” or a “tube guy”, well, how about them Redskins? Man, they sure do suck, don’t they?

It’s worth asking the question: “what kind of audiophile are you?” There are no wrong answers here, but I know many audiophiles that would pretty much park on the Veritas like it was some kind of scenic overlook and start building the home they’d want to retire in. Paired with the right loudspeakers (like the Tektons or the TIDALs, for example, but I’m told ESL speakers might be even more insane, if that’s possible), the effect of all that flat-response and zero-noise can create a presentation that is entirely otherworldly. It’ll raise the hair on your neck. With the Maggies, it was the masterful sense of control that caught my imagination. With the Tektons, it was the crazy silences. Choose well and these could easily be “good enough” to forgo a painfully expensive safari into the wilderness of the ultra high-end.

The Veritas are high-power amplifiers capable of performing audio miracles that have been typically reserved to components five times their cost and one-quarter of their size, and no, that’s not an exaggeration. Class D audio has come a long way by just about anyone’s measure and this latest from Merrill Audio is worthy of being called an evolutionary marvel. Quite honestly, I really didn’t expect this type and this level of performance from them. If you’re “that kind of audiophile”, you have to check them out. Just hold on to your hair.

DSCN2660 DSCN2676 VERITAS Front

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3 Comments on Merrill Audio Veritas Monoblock Amplifiers

  1. Tom Canavan // July 15, 2014 at 10:49 AM //

    Scott- I just had the opportunity to hear these amps in my system and you totally nailed it! I have always been a tube guy, so I really relate to your comments. I just HAD to comment after reading your “luge ride” sentence- it had me laughing out loud and it’s so, so right! Wonderful review!!

  2. When you said the Orangutan didn’t match well, did you use both the DAC preamp and the Emia preamp? I’m asking because (as you probably know) DAC preamp can’t attenuate very far without losing resolution, which is particularly an issue with high-efficiency speakers or high-gain amps.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // January 12, 2014 at 11:00 PM //

      Yes, had to use the external — the attenuation with those speakers needs to be pretty high on anything working as a preamp.

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