I’m sorry, did someone say “gold”?
You don’t really see real gold very often — the actual metal — not in audio’s high-end, nor even in life generally. Certainly not big hunks of it. Maybe it’s the economy, or that current styles and trends have moved away from copious quantities of obvious bling.
I remember the big gold Rolex watch, the tasteful chain, cross or bracelet. I remember pining away for these things. And I distinctly remember my turn from Apollo to Selene — not just because silver looks fabulous with my dark luscious locks (which aren’t so dark anymore), but because I could actually afford it. Ah, those halcyon days. So sweet. So much Ramen.
Anyway, I say all this to preface my review of a new phono preamplifier from Merrill Audio, the $15,449 Jens. It’s got gold. Lots of it. Splashed across the frontispiece like a someone bled out the sun-god. And yes it’s real — 100% 24 karat electroplated gold.
The Jens was something of a surprise, coming as it does from Merrill. Merrill’s previous work has centered around the newer Hypex Class D amplifier modules, which we reviewed in his flagship Veritas amplifier as well as his lower-cost Thor monoblock amplifiers and his stereo Taranis amplifier. I suppose it’s fair to say that designer Merrill Wettasinghe is a new-school kind of audiophile! But aside from one of those offerings being an integrated, they’re just amps. So … a phono seemed out of order, at least to me and my occasional German sensibilities.
Happily, I was hallucinating. Reaching back to the dusty archive, I shook loose the recollection of the Cara — the Merrill Audio linestage/preamp that’s coming next (where “next” is AXPONA 2016) — which reset my internal balance, restored peace and order to the galaxy, and could also happily round out the components in your all-Merrill next-gen audio system. Next stop, the Infinity Gauntlet.
As I mentioned, the Jens is a phono pre. But did I mention that it’s dynamite?
First thing to mention is that the Jens is a solid-state phono pre. What’s actually in the mirror-clad case is something of a mystery as Merrill didn’t (and doesn’t typically) share his topology, design, methodology … or much of anything, other than functionality. The only thing that I know is that there are no live animals inside this box — at least, none that you have to feed.
From that luscious front panel, you can see a large LED cutout panel. Contained within, you’ll see sets of LEDs that will light up, giving an indication of the unit’s readiness/status … and that’s pretty much all you get.
Around the back, there are single-ended binding posts for inputs and outputs, and the requisite grounding post. The only visually (and functionally) interesting addition is the loading mechanism — which is variable, from 5Ω to 5,000Ω. To do this, Merrill has included a pair are dials (one per input) — this, combined with the pairs of LEDs on the front panel, tells me we have a fully dual-mono design.
The Jens features a small external power supply, which Mr. Wettasinghe tells me is “immune to power cords” — there is enough internal filtering, apparently, that “better” power cords provide no sonic benefit. I tested it. He’s right. A proprietary power cable with a stick-and-twist connector is used to link the main chassis to the power supply.
The chassis is steel (for EMI/RFI shielding), and my demo unit has a sparkly sand-blasted-looking (but completely smooth to the touch) finish. Labels are stenciled on. Stillpoints footers lift the Jens off your shelf. Inside, the manual says that Teflon insulate “silver-plated pure copper wire” is used throughout the power circuit, and “pure copper” is used in the audio signal path. Furutech posts round out the physical features.
Total gain is 70dB — obviously, think “low-output moving coil” cartridges only — with RIAA matching to within .1dB, with channel matching to .1dB as well.
The overall chassis, while of higher-than-average material quality (the one here has an upgraded sparkly-metal paint-job), appears to be a bent-metal box, which — despite the obvious bling of a gold face plate — still manages to create a rather “plain” overall impression.
I asked Merrill about this aesthetic choice, and he gave me an audible shrug over the phone. According to Merrill, there was a point in the design process where they could have kept going with finessing the case, but when he ran the numbers, the production costs inherent with their design were already so high that major tweaks and upgrades would have done additional horrors to the final price tag. I shrugged right back at him, suggesting that this might be okay — and I meant it — because this quality of sound would be right at home in a much more expensive box. Said another way, this may well be the least expensive offering at this performance level.
That said, the faceplate, clearly the highlight of the look with that dipped-in-liquid-gold look — and it is quite striking — just really seems like it ought to have more on it or in it, or be able to do more than it does. Part of this has to do with the large blank “screen” that is front and center on the panel that almost looks like it could be an LCD display, just one that happens to be turned off at the moment. An LCD panel would be cool, by the way; but here, the only thing that happens in this large-ish space is the pair of colored status-LEDs. Personally, I’d do away with the LEDs altogether, or better still, put them somewhere else on the chassis — maybe facing down, like they are on the Veritas amplifiers — and instead use that large golden surface to show off some interesting laser etching or something. Tucked away in the rack, this lack of intricacy is probably less of an issue as all you’d really see is the splash of gold, but still, for this price, I’d like to see more going on — perhaps in Version 2.0.
I think this phono must be cheating.
I’m not exactly sure how, it has to be true. Seriously, there’s really no way to characterize my expectations as being met. Or rather, “merely” met. Lemme back up a second.
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure that it’s the nCore topology (probably the >60dB of feedback) that makes Merrill’s flagship Veritas amplifiers sound spooky-quiet and super-smooth. This is, at the same time, unbelievable and heretical — but the unequivocal truth is that those amps sound incredible. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I’ve found, depends entirely on the loudspeaker they’re driving.
As I said, I don’t know what’s under the hood of the Jens. But it sounds different from my recollection of the amps. The Jens is warm, full and — dare I invoke the cliché — tube-like. You can insert your own gasp, here. Now, I don’t mean “rolled”, either. I do mean, instead, “fulsome”, with big well-rounded and deeply dimensional spaces carved out of the soundstage. Meat. With bones. But not all Paleo and fraught with regret and privation, but instead, the goods were delivered with a crisp crust and just perfectly cooked, with an eye-popping red-wine reduction, spectacularly prepared garnish, all served up an elegant settings. You know. The kind of place where grabbing that business end of the ribeye and swinging it around like a manly club … would be frowned upon … but, depending on the night, would probably still draw a random “hear hear” of appreciation. This was classy, but not fussy, if you get my drift. More Anthony Bourdain than Joël Robuchon.
I ran the Jens in front of the ultra-capable Pass Labs INT-60, into my vintage Quad ESL-63 loudspeakers (refurbed by the magnificent Electrostatic Solutions, and nary a feather was ruffled from the Hens Who Cluck At Audio Heresy. I played it into the king of all tube amps, the massive BorderPatrol P20 EXS into the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers (reviewed here), and those Hens remained quite content. That is to say, the Jens was damn near flawless.
I played some Satchmo, because Satchmo, and “Saint James’ Infirmary” came through with a merry evil dread to it. I think part of why I love this LP has to do with the bass harmonics, which are just to die for (ahem). But it’s the big, brassy horn up front and center that sounds wet and sharp, offset with Armstrong’s classic throaty growl of a voice that sets this one-off on its own high shelf. I felt the spit-valve empty on my shoe. It was awesome. And gross. And awesome.
For fun — and because the Doctor told me I must — I pulled out Tron and queued up “Derezzed”.
This track the Good Doctor likens to a medieval torture chamber, full of terrible secrets lying in store for the unwary [audiophile]. Okay, he never said that, and it’s more than a little overwrought, but the idea is there.
Quite a lot happens down in the nether regions of the audio spectrum on this track — sound that is quite literally lost when the speakers are anything but full-range, and when they are, any amp that cannot keep up comes up looking a little thin, foolish, and flabbergasted. Anyway, the point — tubes tend to have trouble keeping up here, and the only other phono preamp I’ve seen completely unfazed by “Derezzed” was another solid-state design. Score two for the Jens.
That phono is amazing. But … it’s not necessarily the best phono I’ve heard. I love it, don’t get me wrong. I’m also not getting rid of it, so bugger off. But I’ve recently spent time with both the Arion phono ($6,395) from Luminous Audio as well as the PH150 ($7,900) from ModWright.
If you’ll recall, the Arion is a solid-state design and showed off reference-setting bass response. The PH150 showed a cross-band linearity that rivaled any solid-state contender, but then added heaping doses of liquid tone on top. In the end, it was difficult to choose between them — albeit for fundamentally different reasons — so both now sit on my Editor’s Choice list.
These two phonos crossed paths with the Jens, which was a bit lucky on my part, so let’s dice that onion now.
First off — the Jens is more than twice the price of the Arion, but is closer to it in sound. The Jens sounds like it has a bit more bite to it — by which I mean that transient textures have more definition to them. Additionally, the Jens does not appear to have a limit to its top-end — it just goes and goes and goes. That “air” is exceptional for a unit that has the low-end presence that this phono stage seems to have. While the Jens probably matches the Arion for bass reach, it’s not pronounced in any way. The presentation is seamless, top to bottom.
Second off — the Jens is almost twice the price of the PH150. Here, the difference is a little less clear. As I mentioned, the Jens shows a coherent top-to-bottom sweep, which seems to stretch just a bit farther, both up and down. That is, the PH150 seems a little sweet up top and a little sweet down low (which it’s not) by comparison to the Jens. Interestingly, the “tube-like” character of the Jens, when compared directly to actual tubes, is less tube-like and more solid-state like. Not a bad thing, just a thing. For what it’s worth, I noticed the exact same thing between the PH150 and my reference Raven, though in both cases, the separation on this sonic parameter is not large. What this actually means is a bit harder to describe than it is to say, but stereotypically speaking there is a meaty solidity (recall the t-bone waving bandit alluded to earlier) to solid-state that isn’t usually there with an all-tube design. Conversely, with tubes (again, stereotypically) I hear deeper into the soundstage, as if the images have a more complex 3-D character to them than they do through solid state gear. The Jens doesn’t so much split the difference as borrow heavily from both buckets — I hear everything I want to (and more besides — this is a quiet preamplifier), and I’m left scratching my head at what stereotype I think would best fit that sonic fingerprint and I got nothing. To me, that’s interesting!
Physically, however, it’s a different game. Both the PH150 and the Arion have a significantly more sophisticated chassis, and as I’ve stated, this matters. The Arion is similar to the Jens in that there’s not a lot available to do on the box — all of the settings are internal and require a screwdriver to get at. The Jens, of course, has loading dials (with nice wooden knobs), but they’re all the way around the back and therefore not exactly easy to use. But that said, the Arion looks like it’s supposed to be that way — it has a tank-like construction and a menacing demeanor — it means to sit there, on your rack, and scoff at your weakness and lack of manliness.
The PH150, by contrast to both, has big and fat knobs that just beg to be fiddled with, and the casework looks expensive — there are laser-cut panels, etching, and — hey — an LED mood light! Honestly, I am really quite taken with this unit’s look, feel, and usability — and this is only one of the many reasons why I think the ModWright is a class leader.
In the end, the Jens is a very accomplished sonic performer. My opinion after 10 minutes wasn’t altered after 10 hours, 10 days or even 10 weeks. The Jens is just fantastic. Sonically, I haven’t heard anything that can keep up with it.
On the downside, the functionality is a bit “purist” (no variable gain, loading is all the way around the back) and the packaging (big gold face plate notwithstanding) dances a bit too close to pedestrian for my preference.
On the other hand, the Jens is kind of like Lynn Swann, if you’ll pardon the diversion to 1970’s NFL trivia.
Swann was notorious for stunning athletic feats — specifically, for long-yardage catches that happened at the improbable end of an incredible leap into the air. Given that he was also a trained in ballet before heading off to play college ball, I suppose this isn’t shocking — not like actually seeing him actively defy gravity — but again, just looking at him standing there wouldn’t lead you to expect the performance powerhouse that he turned out to be on the field. He was “stealthy” like that.
And this is what the Jens reminds me of: grace and power, even if it’s wrapped in an unassuming package. Sometimes “stealth mode” is just the thing.
So, if you’re an audiophile looking for ultri-fi performance, I think the Jens might be the bargain you’ve been looking for. To get something clearly better could cost you an arm, leg, or maybe a Tesla.
In my own experience, the Jens was nothing short of electrifying.
- TW-Acustic Rave AC-3 turntable
- Kuzma 4Point tonearm
- Lyra Etna moving coil pickup
- TW-Acustic Raven Phono
- BorderPatrol S10 and P20 EXS amplifier
- BorderPatrol Control Unit EXD
- WyWires Diamond Series speaker cables
- WyWires Diamond Series single-ended interconnects
- TelWire HC and Pi Power Cords
- Audio rack by AudiAV
- Platforms by EdenSound
- DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers
- Quad ESL-63 by Electrostatic Solutions
- Pass Labs INT-60 integrated amplifier