When was the last time your heart was sent racing by the opportunity to audition a preamplifier? Yup, line stages are not the most exciting components. They just sit there, allowing you to select your source, and adjust the volume, right? Yawn.
Yet, when UPS pulled up outside my house with the new Cara preamp from Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, I felt a surge of anticipation. Merrill always seems to make a good sound on the show circuit, and this $3,500 USD unit was priced far below its reference line. Indeed, the company’s $12,400 USD Christine line stage is one of my favourites. My pulse quickened even more.
As I made a spot for the Cara in my cabinet, I thought some more about the lack of love that preamplifiers tend to engender. If the design is pretty simple and the parts decent, surely this boring little box should just let the sound of your other gear pass through, right?
If only it were that simple. After a while in this hobby, most listeners learn that everything matters. And, another stretch of time after that, it becomes apparent that the preamp may matter most of all. This is because if that central control unit is not up to snuff, it can add all types of colorations to those more carefully auditioned “exciting” components.
Doing no harm
Peter Walker, the designer of the famous Quad electrostatic loudspeakers, believed the theoretically ideal preamp would be a “straight wire with gain.” That doesn’t sound too difficult to achieve, but in practice, it turns out to be pretty challenging.
Some audiophiles have tried to eliminate this system middleman altogether with passive devices or by going directly from a DAC’s variable digital output to their amps. I’ve heard that approach achieve fair results, but there’s usually something missing. To me, the music often lacks weight or fails to come alive.
So, the bottom line is: How much are you going to have to pay to get an active line stage that offers a reasonably transparent window for your music? In today’s audio market, unless you’re playing at the entry-level, it’s fairly common to face spending $7,000, $10,000 or even $15,000. Those chasing that elusive last 10 percent in ultimate sound quality easily could push that to $30,000 or more. Yikes.
If you choose carefully, though, could you maybe — just maybe — find a world-beater for far less?
Merrill’s new Cara seeks to answer that question. It is not the cheapest line stage on the market, but it is tagged at far less than many units. Plus, it comes from an engineer, Merrill Wettasinghe, who is known for innovative circuit design and for packing his products with top-drawer parts. How much — if any — would Cara resemble her talented big sister, Christine? Let’s find out.
Unboxing the boxes
The Cara arrived extremely well-packed in a box with custom foam lining. The unit itself was protected by a lush, silken bag, which was my first surprise for a product of this cost. The next surprise was that there was a second package. This turned out to be the line stage’s power supply.
Putting all the potentially noise-inducing parts in a separate enclosure is something normally seen in a few cost-no-object line stages, such as the $30,000 Mark Levinson No. 52. Not only does the Cara come with an external power unit, it is exactly the same as the one used by the Christine. Merrill calls it the Kratos.
The Kratos is about half as wide as the Cara. The power unit has a gloss-black faceplate that features the company logo and two red LEDs that light when it is operational. The back has an IEC plug for the beefy supplied power cord, as well as a locking umbilical cable for connection to the Cara. There also is an on/off switch.
Apart from that, the Cara came with an extensive, well-organized manual and a slender Apple remote. More about that later.
The Cara, named after Wettasinghe’s daughter, has a polished chrome faceplate with a blue LED screen in the middle. The display can be toggled to indicate the source, mute and off. Most of the time, it shows two large numbers, representing the volume level of each channel. Here, too, the design is very similar to the Christine.
Under the hood, the Cara is a solid-state, fully balanced design. Wettasinghe is such a firm believer in the merits of balanced operation that he installed only XLR inputs and outputs (gold-plated Cardas Audio jacks) on the back of the preamp. He supplied a pair of RCA/XLR adaptors, but since I’ve run my reference system balanced for many years, I did not use them.
I removed my reference preamp, the Mark Levinson 380s, from my rig and inserted the Cara. I connected the Merrill line stage to the outputs of my Mark Levinson No. 30.5 DAC with 1.5-meter AudioQuest Sky interconnects.
Connections to my Merrill Thor monoblocks were made with 2-meter AudioQuest Lapis cables. The CD transport was a Musical Fidelity M1, with its signal sent out over a Kimber/Illuminati Orchid digital cable. Speakers were Revel Studios, paired with Transparent Reference XL wire. My turntable was out for modification, so I listened only to digital sources.
Getting started with the Cara was fairly straightforward. I attached the power cord to the Kratos, connected the umbilical to the Cara and flipped the “on” switch. The red lights on the Kratos blinked on and the Cara’s display showed “off.”
Now comes the part where those who don’t like to read manuals will run into trouble. The Cara has no front-panel buttons. The Apple remote must be “paired” to the line stage, which involves pushing the “menu” button and the “right” button together for several seconds. The Cara’s display then reads “pair,” after which it prompts you to push the “up,” “down,” “left” and “right” buttons. Finally, you are instructed to “save” the settings, followed by a “done” notification.
I went to the menu and selected input 1, which I had chosen on the back for my DAC. The blue LEDs on the Cara showed “IN 1” and then I toggled back to the volume display, which read “0 0.” I loaded in Paul Desmond and Jim Hall’s Bossa Antigua and punched repeat play. I raised the volume to 35 and heard music begin playing at a background level. I let the system burn in that way for a week.
I started my proper audition by pausing the jazz CD and turning the volume up to 80 — louder than I would eventually use for regular listening. I placed my ear near the tweeter and midrange of both speakers. I heard nothing.
Next, I lowered the volume to 65, restarted Desmond and Hall, and plopped down in the sweet spot on my couch. What followed was promising, with Desmond’s alto sax having a beautiful tone as well as a gently propulsive rhythmic drive. Hall’s mellow Gibson ES-175 guitar, meanwhile, can be hard to hear clearly on some systems when he’s not soloing, but with the Cara I was able to easily follow his intelligent comping behind the leader.
Next I switched to U2’s “Beautiful Day,” from All That You Can’t Leave Behind. This is a heavily produced track, likely intentionally mixed loud and somewhat “hot” to grab your attention coming out of a car radio. On some high-end systems, the Edge’s guitar can sound, well, edgy, and Bono’s vocals border on strained and assaultive.
On the Cara, however, I just soaked up the textures of the Edge’s trademark sound, while Bono and the processed background vocals were smoother than I expected and nicely separated from each other in space. Adam Clayton’s bass also was rounded and tuneful.
I moved on to the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” from a remastered Japanese SHM (super high material) pressing of Some Girls. I never get tired of listening to Keith Richards and Ron Wood lock into this song’s groove. With the Cara, I could hear their interplay clearly, distinguishing Keith’s looser rhythm lines from Ronny’s slinky fills and punctuations. Mick Jagger’s vocals also were focused and his cockney lilt — usually more noticeable on slower ballads — was evident.
Track after track, the Cara seemed to present music with impressive dynamics, vivid tonal color and excellent soundstaging. In addition, the high frequencies had an admirable degree of refinement, while bass was deep, tight and well-paced. Along with all that — or maybe facilitating it — the Cara had one of the “blacker” backgrounds you’re likely to hear from anything under $10,000.
The Cara proved to be quite a performer. Compared with my much more expensive Mark Levinson 380s, the Merrill line stage only came up slightly short on liquidity and high-frequency polish, but it was not as dark and had a less-plummy bottom end.
I also borrowed a Christine from Merrill, just to see what an additional $9,000 would buy. The Christine was jaw-dropping, with more bandwidth, superior speed, greater detail and a wider and deeper sound stage. It definitely earns its price difference. But when I switched back to the Cara, I didn’t feel like I’d stepped too far down the ladder. The family resemblance was remarkable.
When I talked to Wettasinghe after my home listening was completed, he explained that his chief goal for the Cara was to achieve as little internal noise as possible within his budget. This seems like a no-brainer for any piece of high-end equipment, but I’ve come to realize there’s low noise and then there’s really low noise.
Taking distortion down to almost the vanishing point brings many benefits, especially for a preamp. With the Cara, Merrill Audio has done that. The fact that Wettasinghe accomplished this in a $3,500 product — with a separate power supply, dual-mono operation and flagship-level fit-and-finish — is stunning. My advice is to buy one before Merrill figures out he could be charging a lot more.
Frequency Response: 8Hz to 200kHz 0.1dB
THD: 0.002 percent
Inputs: 4 inputs with individual gain presets
Outputs: 2 outputs with individual level presets
Volume range: -99db to + 15db (0 to +115)
Power: External supply with 110V/240V
Display size: 1.25″ high x 6″ wide, blue LED dot matrix
Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, LLC
80 Morristown Road, Unit 3B, # 275
Bernardsville, NJ 07924
(415) 5MA-HiFi (562-4434)