by John Richardson
Enter Taranis…. Or as I like to call it, Taranisaurus Rex. Yep, like that big meat-eating dinosaur that wreaked havoc over the primordial plains. A real monster you say? Ha! Yes, there’s a reason for the comparison — we’ll get there, shortly.
Actually, Taranis was the ancient Irish (as in Celtic) god of thunder, which as names go, represents something of a pattern for Merrill Wettasinghe’s newest amplifier creation. Indeed, this is the Merrill of Merrill Audio, the guy who finally convinced me that Class D is really quite swell when it comes to high-end audio amplifiers.
As soon as I got the press release for this new design, I was more than mildly intrigued, as were several of my audio friends, all of whom had heard one or more of Merrill’s other designs, which feature the 200 watt per channel Thor and 400 watt per channel Veritas, both monoblock amps. The thing about the new dual-mono single chassis Taranis was its output power — 400 watts per side — and its price: $2500. It also featured the Hypex Ncore NC500 module as its output stage, which puts it in the same family as the $12,000 Veritas mono amplifiers. After seeing the specs and a pre-production photo, I wanted to get my hands on one, and bad! If it got anywhere close to Merrill’s other amps performance-wise, Taranis could be an amazing deal indeed.
As always, it seems to take months (and sometimes even years) for a concept product to finally be ready to be unleashed on the general public. So it was with Taranis, and I waited the aforementioned months on pins and needles to finally get the call from Merrill that a production sample was ready for review, and that’s how “Rex” finally gained entry into my listening room.
Upon arrival, the monster really seemed more like a pussy cat, especially following directly on the heels of the 250 watt per channel Pass Labs X-250.8. In fact, the two amps crossed paths literally with one another on the same day. The funny thing was that it took two pretty big college guys to move the Pass Labs amp down the stairs, whereas I tucked the 400 watt per channel Taranis under my arm and made my way easily upwards toward my listening room. I’ve learned, though, that Class D is a different type of animal and shouldn’t be underestimated based on mass alone.
I have owned Merrill Audio’s Thor monoblocks now for about a year, and they are amazing in their build quality and attention to detail, especially for the $4800 asking price. Those babies feature machined aluminum billet casework, Cardas connectors, and Stillpoint footers. They even come with their own very high quality custom-made power cables.
Compared to the Thor, I noted immediately that there was some cost cutting involved in the outward appearance of the Taranis. You have to cut corners somewhere if you’re going to offer this type of technology and power in a $2500 amp. What I got was relatively thin sheet metal casework and a thin stainless steel faceplate, polished to mirror smoothness. Not at all unattractive, mind you, but certainly not the work of art that the Thor is from the outside. Likewise, the XLR inputs on the rear panel, while still Cardas, didn’t seem to be quite the same quality and appointment of those on my Thors (Merrill tells me that they are mounted internally instead of externally to the chassis), and the speaker posts were of a more generic, but still high quality, variety. Gone also are the Stillpoint footers, replaced by tacky (as in “slightly sticky”) hemispherical Sorbothane feet, though I see that Merrill offers Stillpoints as an upgrade option. Finally, the buyer gets a stock power cord, as opposed to the upgraded ones offered with the Thor and Veritas. That’s ok, as I assume most owners will want to use the aftermarket power cable of their choice anyway, and I’m sure Merrill will supply one of his for a nominal charge.
The amp also had a couple of other oddities, if I can call them that. These consisted of two small toggle switches on the bottom panel. The one on the right is the standby switch. The amp is on as soon as you plug it in, but it is brought out of standby by flipping that little switch. The only problem here is that the switch isn’t very accessible. I actually had to lift the front of the amp up a bit to get at it. The other switch actuates the LED level meters on the front panel (more about these later); there is also a wooden knob near the switch that is used to control the brightness of the LEDs. I can only imagine that these switches are on the hard-to-access underbelly so as not to clutter the quite striking front panel of the amp.
Oh yes, about those LED level meters: they’re so “1980s” looking, as in right out of “Back To The Future.” Or maybe I recall some like that on KITT, the talking car from “Knight Rider.” Really. You’ll either love them or hate them, and if you hate them, you at least have the option to turn them off using the switch. I chose to keep them on for the sake of cool retro nostalgia (I was a teen in the ’80’s), but I ultimately prefer classic back-lit analog meters.
All in all, I found the Taranis to actually be pretty nice-looking and well-enough-built that is worthy of its $2500 price point.
However, we know that from a performance standpoint, it’s what’s underneath the fascia that really counts. Based on the power to mass ratio (really quite high here …), I’d wager that this amp is all about power efficiency, from its power supply all the way to its output devices. For someone like myself who grew up in the traditional world dominated by the supremacy of linear power supplies, big iron, and class A/AB output devices, all of this business seems not only newfangled, but also a bit scary. Can a 25 lb. amplifier really output 400 watts per channel into 8 ohms, or 600 into 4 ohms without somehow cheating physics?
The proof is in the listening. With all proper connections made (I opted to use my own Tel-Wire power cable), the amp was gingerly turned on and taken out of standby, upon which I heard a slight “thump” from my speakers and noted two blue LED indicators lit per channel; these mean that the amp has self-tested and is ready to go. My hopes high, I sat down and took in some initial listening impressions.
The Taranis sounded actually quite decent right out of the box; in fact, surprisingly so. Powering my ATC SCM19 Version 2 monitor speakers, the amp sounded powerful, offering up a big, full, and authoritative presentation in my large listening area. With extended auditioning, the amp definitely improved, especially in terms of openness, but not by leaps and bounds as I have experienced with some other new gear.
After a full month with the Taranis in my system, I’d decided that things had calmed down enough to make some critical listening evaluations. I ended up using the Taranis two ways: first, driving the ATC monitors by themselves, and next, driving both the ATCs and my Shahinian Double Eagle passive subwoofer simultaneously. Neither is an easy task for any amplifier due to the low sensitivities of both speaker systems, both of which like power and lots of it to really perform at peak. Based on specs alone, if there was ever an amplifier up to the task of driving difficult speakers, Taranis would probably be it.
Keep in mind that Merrill Audio’s most expensive amp is called Veritas, which is Latin for truth. If this Taranis is something of a descendant of the Veritas, then we should expect some semblance of truth in its musical presentation. To my ears, that’s precisely what one gets provided the rest of the system is up to the task. Cue up a very well recorded performance of acoustic instruments or voice in natural space to see what I’m talking about.
Where to find some natural-sounding recordings then? Ah, I have the answer! A few weeks ago I attended a local sale and found several compact discs and LPs, each for a buck. Among the records were a couple of audiophile chestnuts from the olden days that I didn’t have: Rob Wasserman’s Duets and Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat both in pristine condition, and obviously owned by the same meticulous audiophile. Hey, if Jazz at the Pawnshop had been there too, I would have also snatched it up for another dollar.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of the music on these records sounds dated, and I’m not a huge fan of either artist, but both albums are very well recorded, offering up a nice sense of natural timbre and acoustic space. I can see why both were considered must-have “demo” albums back when I first started getting involved in high-end audio.
A third record picked from the same lot that I think is musically the choice of the bunch is Unfolding by Edgar Meyer; this is the first studio recording where he is joined by the likes of Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and Mark O’Connor. This is a lovely bluegrass/jazz fusion work from 1986 that highlights all performers in a natural acoustic while still being expertly recorded and produced. Interestingly, a bit of background investigation showed that this release never hit it big amongst the audiophile community like the first two records mentioned did.
We’d expect that the Taranis can rock with the best of them, and we’d be correct. I’ve played some of my favorite rock and fusion tunes through it at ear-splitting levels, and the amp has never let me down in any way. What I’d expect such a powerful amp (and a switching amp as well…) to have more trouble reproducing is nuance; you know, that slight inflection of voice or instrumental tone that really draws one intimately into a performance. That’s why I chose to evaluate using the records listed above.
Well, I’ll just cut to the chase then. I couldn’t get Taranis to trip itself up. At all. Merrill Audio’s newest offering was nothing but a pleasure to hear, no matter what type of music I threw at it.
Let’s start with Wasserman’s Duets (LP, MCA, archived digitally). Upon first hearing this album, I almost had to force myself to tolerate it all the way through. What vapid music, I thought. Thanks at least in part to the Taranis, my next few listens were considerably more rewarding, as I could begin to appreciate what these performers were trying to get across to the listener. Some of the cuts are really quite charming, though I still can’t get past Rickie Lee Jones’ whiny, child-like voice. It took me maybe four or five listens to finally “get” why people rave about Jennifer Warnes’ rendition of “Ballad of the Runaway Horse.” Still, I think my favorite cuts are the non-vocal ones, such as “Duet” and “Over the Rainbow” as these allow me to better focus in on Wasserman’s plucked or bowed string bass.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the hungry ATC SCM 19 monitors will happily take all the power they can get before they really come alive. I felt that the Taranis was therefore an excellent match to these speakers, as the high output power enhanced both bass texture and extension. I just heard more of the bass there than I normally do, and that’s a good thing indeed. Even without the subwoofer engaged, I heard plenty of extension and detail in Rob Wasserman’s acoustic bass, seemingly even more than I do with my Merrill Thors in place. The notes were tight and fast when called for, but could also be appropriately fat and lugubrious as well. The Taranis really helped to give me the kind of resolution and impact in the bass that I’ve always known the ATCs were capable of, but that I hadn’t really yet coaxed from them. Bringing in the Shahinian subwoofer just added icing to the already delicious cake, providing that last bit of extension, texture, and low-frequency room ambient that the ATCs alone couldn’t quite get.
Moving on to Famous Blue Raincoat, (LP, Cypress, digitally archived), otherwise known as Jenny Warnes’ first audiophile hit parade, we get even more of a display of touch, texture, and inflection in Ms. Warnes’ voice. Here, these attributes were especially obvious on songs such as the title cut and “Song of Bernadette” that really highlight the voice itself instead of a lot of cheesy ‘80s vintage pyrotechnic accompaniment (my apologies to lovers of this album…). In these, as well as “Ballad of the Runaway Horse” from “Duets,” Warnes sang as if she really owned the tunes. The Taranis let all of the emotion through, giving me a good impression of a real person singing real notes in real acoustic space. Until I heard and lived with Merrill Wettasinghe’s designs, I wouldn’t have believed that a Class D switching amp could capture so much natural texture, timbre, and feeling in the human voice. That Taranis accomplishes so much in this venue for so little money seems a wonder indeed.
I’ve had so much fun with Edgar Meyer’s Unfolding (LP, MCA, digitally archived) that I’d be remiss if I didn’t use it as part of my evaluation. Equally well recorded as “Duets” and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” I found this record to be a veritable audio feast of acoustic instrumentation. It tilts a bit more into the realm of bluegrass than jazz, which may be one reason why it wasn’t as well received by the audiophile community and remains something of a rarity. Try out a cut such as “After Dark” for a real education of some of the sounds one can get out of a violin (or is it a “fiddle” in this context?) and a string bass. Again, tonality is spot on via the Taranis, and it’s easy to almost suspend reality when listening in the dark, convincing yourself that you are listening to real instruments and not a facsimile thereof. As in the Wasserman “Duets” album, I got a real appreciation of the depth and texture of the string bass, no matter how Meyer chose to employ it. I’m sure the interaction between the ultra-clean power of the Taranis and the ATC speakers’ ability to reproduce taut, fast bass deserve the full credit for reproducing this album so enjoyably.
Next up was a bit of instrumental music from the Renaissance, in the form of songs performed at the court of the Catholic monarchs of Spain between 1474 and 1516. Yep, that means Ferdinand and Isabella, of Christopher Columbus fame. The songs are expertly performed using ancient instruments, percussion and voice by Jordi Savall and his ensemble Hesperion XX (cd, El Cancionero de Palacio, Astree). This is the type of music that I’d think ought to sound absolutely delicious through a low-powered vacuum tube amplifier driving efficient speakers. Harmonic texture, intimacy, and spaciousness are the names of the game here, and again not something I would expect a powerhouse amp such as the Taranis to handle all that well. Hard rocking Led Zep this isn’t. Again, the Merrill Taranis more than surprised me in a nice way in its ability to convey the delicacy and feeling of these works. Male and female voices were reproduced with plenty of natural decay on the trailing side, as well as with the realistic body and purity of the real human voice. This disc also nicely highlighted the amp’s ability to place the performers in a real acoustic venue, with a nice sense of airy spaciousness. As with other Merrill Audio designs I’ve heard, soundstage depth was very well reproduced, though I didn’t notice the soundscape moving quite as far beyond the speakers laterally compared to other amps I’ve had in-house. Again, it was depth of tone and harmonic texture that really drew me into these performances. In short, Hesperion XX were a joy to listen to with the Taranis in the audio chain.
I especially enjoyed hearing lots of my classic jazz collection played through the Taranis. I could choose pretty much anything as a good example, but I’ll toss in another new compact disc I picked up recently. On that note, has anyone else noticed how prices on used vinyl are steadily creeping upwards while compact discs can now be routinely purchased at thifts and yard sales for a dollar or less? I find these days I’m actually adding more cheap silver discs to my collection than anything else. That’s a far cry from my early audiophile days where folks literally gave their vinyl away and used compact discs routinely went for $10 or more apiece! This disc in question is a fun one by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet highlighting two recording sessions from the late ‘50s collectively called “What Is There To Say?” (cd, Columbia Jazz Masterpieces). I’ve enjoyed this outing because it’s a bit unusual: the quartet doesn’t employ a piano, but rather just baritone sax (Mulligan), trumpet, bass, and drums. It’s a little different, but I like it. With the Merrill Taranis running the show, I got a very nice sense of interplay between Mulligan’s horn and Art Farmer’s trumpet. Both instruments sounded natural and unforced, with the baritone sax taking on an almost silky character, so smooth it sounded. Conversely, the trumpet had that sense of brassy bite that such an instrument should have when played well, incorporated with that slight touch of “spittiness” trumpets are known for. Getting to a more up-tempo tune such as “News from Blueport,” I also appreciated the dynamic jump factor that comes at its beginning, on the heels of two of the more ballad-like compositions. The drum kit really comes alive here, dead center and slightly back in the sound stage, demonstrating a great deal of dynamic swing and touch, all of which Taranis reproduced to near perfection.
Facing off: Battle of the Thunder Gods
It’s the question on everyone’s minds: how good is this Taranis against the nearly twice as expensive Merrill Thor? Is it fair to pit brothers against one another like this? In short, yes. I have two brothers of my own, and my mom would say we were pitted against each other pretty much every day. Sibling rivalry, or boys being boys? Who knows … Keep in mind here that Taranis has a distinct power advantage (400 watts vs. 200 watts per side), but Thor can be mighty sneaky with his better build quality, finesse, and attention to detail. Let the lighting and thunder roll ….
One thing I’ve always appreciated about the Merrill Thor amps is their smooth presentation, but one that doesn’t seem to cloud detail or resolution at all. Everything on the recording is there, but never to the point of irritability. No, you probably won’t ever mistake the Thors for any classic tube amp, but neither will you put them in the same category as some of the more forward sounding solid state amps that were popular some years ago when listeners seemed to crave detail for the sake of detail (I won’t name any names here). I wouldn’t call the Thors overly lush in any way, just smooth and pretty in presentation.
In contrast, I’d have to say the Taranis definitely sounds more powerful and punchy when driving my ATCs, but it lacks that last bit of refined smoothness possessed by the Thors. Which is a better fit will really come down to one’s own listening preferences and accompanying gear, especially speakers. In my system, I’d say the Taranis is more of the monster, having more fire in his belly. Equally detailed compared to Thor, Taranis is maybe a bit more forward, bringing some extra illumination to the party. In this sense, no one could classify the Taranis as a “dark” sounding amp, though I could possibly see some folks labeling the Thors as ever so slightly on the “dark” side thanks to that smoothness making itself known. It’s interesting to note that it was this very sense of luminosity exhibited by the Taranis that also really made me like the Pass Labs X-250.8 amplifier that I recently reviewed, as it gave that amp a bit more “jump factor.”
Comparing both amps reproducing Jennifer Warnes singing “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” I’d swear that the Thors made Rob Wasserman’s acoustic bass sound a bit more legato than it did with the Taranis, and Warnes’ voice sounded just a tad silkier, with a little bit more body, dimension, and spaciousness around it. In short, images seemed more three-dimensional throughout, ensconced in an even deeper soundstage than I had gotten before with the Taranis. Altogether, I’d say that the Thors provide a more distant and spacious perspective, with Taranis giving a more up-front and immediate presentation. Both are nice; now you, the listener, need to make your choice to best suit your fancy! I will tell you unequivocally that you won’t go wrong either way, as these amps most definitely share a real family resemblance, and it’s genetically strong.
Wrapping it up
So what do you get from a Merrill Audio amplifier that costs $2500? A heck of a lot. Build quality is on par with what one should expect at this price point, and is actually quite similar to my REDGUM integrated amp that is slightly more expensive. Where the Merrill Taranis really struts its stuff is in its performance, and that’s the way it should be when we are looking at the so-called “budget” end of the high-end. Yes, the amp is a bit quirky in its user logistics and styling (that mute switch comes immediately to mind, as do the LED level meters), but I’d classify it as one of the better, or maybe even best, deals going right now in high-end audio. The thing is just that good. You need power? You’ve got it! And the icing on the cake is that you not only get loads of power to drive those more challenging speakers out there, but it’s refined power, the kind you want to keep listening to all day and night.
While I think ultimately I slightly prefer my Thors in my own system, there will be things about the Taranis that I will definitely miss. For some program material, I actually prefer the up-front presentation of that amp, and I will miss that last iota of bass extension and body it provided that the Thors just don’t quite get when coupled to my ATC monitors.
I won’t lie when I say that I expected great things out of Merrill Wettasinghe’s latest amplifier design. Anyone who has experienced his other Class D amps would also expect no less. What really got me was how little (if anything…) was given up sonically in this, his least expensive offering. If you are hankering for a really good taste of what the really powerful (and expensive) “superamps” out there have on offer, but can’t, or won’t, pay the price of admission, give the Merrill Audio Taranis a good hard look. That it can probably also drive just about any speaker out there is just more money in the bank for you. I don’t see how anyone could be disappointed, especially at this price point.
Mr. Wettasinghe continues to impress me even more with each of his designs that I hear, especially as he plumbs the lower end of the audiophile price range with his amps. And that’s good news for real-world audiophiles, good news indeed. Long live “Taranis”-saurus Rex!