In this review, Rick takes a good look at the Merrill Audio Christine preamplifier and the Merrill Audio Element 118 monoblock amplifiers.
Back of the Class?
Ever since their introduction in 1958, Class D amplifiers have been loved by many for their efficiency versus traditional Class A, AB or B circuitries. Theoretically, Class D circuits are capable of achieving 90-98% efficiency, whereas Class B operates at approximately 75% and Class A at 20-50%. This difference gives Class D significant advantages as these amps generate less heat, and require much less space. For these reasons, Class D amps are routinely found in the professional arena such as concerts, stadiums or PA systems. They are also commonly found in active speakers or subwoofers.
Yet, Class D amplifiers have always been plauged with controversies amongst audiophiles, at least in their early days. Despite their efficiency, there are several limiting factors which can hamper Class D performance. Class D amps require the use of MOSFETs that rapidly switch back and forth between the power supplies to produce output pulses. However, MOSFETs have relatively large capacitance hence they need to charge and discharge; this can delay the switching process, causing distortions. As a remedy, some have resorted to using high doses of “negative feedback”, others have resorted to “bridging amplifiers”, but each will bring another set of challenges into the equation, namely loss of detail and possibly adding “graininess” to the sound.
Personally, I belong to the camp of individuals who remain rather skeptical of Class D Amplifiers. I vividly remember my demo of the NuForce Ref 9 Class D amplifier in 2006, back when my system was powered by a pair of McIntosh Labs 2012s. At half the size of a normal shoebox, the NuForce pumps out a whopping 300W at 4 ohms, with a damping factor of over 4000 at any load. It was small and efficient, but the problem was the sound, which was the complete opposite of the MC2102 tube amps. They had tremendous control of the woofers on the Dynaudio Temptations, but the music was analytical and grainy, the sonic image was like a television with the “sharpness” turned to the maximum. My subsequent encounters with the Jeff Rowland 501 Class D Monoblocks or the Audio Research DS450 were much better. While they no longer carry the “edgy” and “analytical” traits of earlier Class D designs, their sonic characteristics remain somewhat unnatural to my ears. I do not hate the sound, but I could not live with them either.
Enters Merill Wettasinghe
In 2018, I received a phone call from Merill Wettasinghe, CEO of Merrill Audio, that he was interested in having Part-Time Audiophile review the Merrill Audio Christine and the Element 118 combo. I explained that “analog” is my area of focus and that I may not be the best candidate for amplifier reviews. I have a large system which centers around the Peak Consult Dragon Legend speakers in a room-sized 18.5 x 29.5”, which calls for fairly large amplifiers, usually in excess of 1000Ws before I am happy. However, we kept the conversation going and in March of 2019, I decided to try out Merrill Element 118 amps.
Wettasinghe comes from an electrical engineering background, with various tenures in semiconductor testing, software development, analog, and digital designs. Later in his career, he took on more sales and management roles in wireless communication. In 2012, “in a moment of madness” (in his own words), Wettassinghe decided to start Merrill Audio from the ground up, that is to say, he is the owner, designer, and CEO of the company.
The design philosophy of Merrill Audio is to achieve sonic accuracy true to the recording, while actively engaging the listener – quite a common order as nearly all manufacturer aims to achieve these two goals. Wettassanghe adds that
Live instruments require a very dynamic range, say the piano, for instance, is very difficult to reproduce accurately with the full dynamics and clarity without crushing all the sound into a jumble of noise. The recording engineer and mastering engineer might change some of this however what is on the musical track need to be reproduced faithfully. Direct to Disk, high-quality tapes and high resolution digital recorded music are some of the best challenges. The lower the distortion, the better the reproduction. The greater the immediacy, the more liveliness the sound. The lower the noise, the greater the dynamic range. All of these are design goals of Merrill Audio.
What separates the Merrill Audio Element 118 amplifier from other Class D designs, according to Wettasinghe, is the bleeding edge circuitry which it employs. Most MOSFETs carry a rather high inductance and capacitance, these new amps use the latest Gallium Nitride transistors which keep inductance and capacitance as close to zero as possible, while eliminating the use of negative feedback. This has led to a very high level of output while achieving extremely low levels of distortion. The 118 Monoblocks are spec’d at 400watts into 8 ohms, and 800W into 4ohms, and 1600W into 2 ohms, measured at 1kHz at 0.005% distortion. Westtassanghe further emphasizes that real distortion happens when you have complex pieces of music or a square wave; these are extremely hard to measure, but very noticeable to the ear. The Merrill 118 has an “Active Distortion” of approximately 0.05%, an extremely low number even at maximum output.
The Merrill Audio Christine and Element 118 arrived in 4 separate boxes, which are well thought out and bombproof. Westtassanghe even made a video on how to unpack the amplifier:
The Merrill Audio Element 118 Monoblocks sport a simple and elegant design, with rose gold front faceplate which is nearly 5mm thick, made of machined and anodized aluminum. The body has a “pewter” finish, also made of thick aluminum, with a dark but shiny finish. The Merrill Audio Christine preamp has a thick front panel, but the body has a powder-coated sheet metal finish. The display letters on the preamp have the largest font size I have ever seen; even from 20 ft away, I could easily identify the volume level, the font size easily topping 150-160. The preamp employs a remote which is identical to the Apple TV. The menu structure is a bit difficult to navigate, but it was made easy by the very detailed owner’s manual.
The Merrill Audio monoblocks and preamp came to me from another reviewer who has had many hours on them which meant these test samples required no break-in. Yet the Power amps have no ON/OFF switches so they remained powered on through our review. The sound did change after the initial 3-4 hours so leaving them on must have some effect on the sound.
The sound of the Merrill Audio Element 118 almost fully eliminated my long bias against Class D amplifier. Not only did they not carry any hint of “grainy” or “analytical” characteristics, but they also ventured into the sonic spectrum of my resident McIntosh MC2KW amplifier which is more relaxed and musical in nature. A strong characteristic which stands out is the apparent “roundedness” of the presentation, that is to say, the edge of the instruments and voices in the acoustic space is smoothed and rounded out. This is quite noticeable string instruments or modern high definition recording. The transient response is fast, but not rushed. The musical pace of the sound is just about adequate, at no time did it feel rushed, or artificially slowed.
I particularly enjoy jazz music on the Merrill gear; they have an immediacy and forwardness to the sound which made the jazz band upfront and up close. The biggest surprise to me is the slightly warmer than neutral tonality, which was not my experience with other Class D amps.
At approximately 700Watts into 5 ohms, however, the Merrill Audio amplifiers did struggle on recordings with explosive dynamics such as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, with James Levine conducting the MET Orchestra (DGG 437 531-2), or the famous Proprius recording Cantate Dominos. The lower octaves are no match against the 2000W McIntosh Mc2KWs, bass drums and low organ pipes did not go as low, as if the speaker’s low-frequency roll-off happened sooner. The chorus became garbled up at high volume (Over 90dB), which is a tell-tale sign of insufficient power. 700Watts is plenty for the majority of the systems out there and likely more than enough, but with 4x 12” drivers on the Peak Consult Dragon Legends with a power demand to push the sound to over 90 dB, they are not quite doing each other justice.
I decided to enlist the help of fellow reviewer Alex Gorovein who has a system better matched for the Element 118. We decided to conduct the review exercise entirely at his house. How did they perform? I shall let Alex Gorovein continue the Merrill story in what follows.
Enters Alex Gorouvein
The Merril Audio Element 118 monoblocks and the Merrill Audio Christine Reference preamplifier arrived at my house as I was reviewing small Italian monitors called Esse Quadro L’Una 146. These little speakers are power-hungry with a sensitivity of 86 dB. As soon as I hooked them up to the monoblocks and started playing music, I knew this was exactly what the speakers needed. With 400 watts into 8 ohms, they truly came to life like never before and delivered a performance that was room-filling, powerful and yet absolutely natural. I really did not expect this kind of sound from Class D amplifiers. If anything, it was the exact opposite. After experimenting with the speakers’ tweeter output settings for a few hours, I found that the highest setting produced the best results. The final veil had been lifted and all the little details and nuances were revealed.
My listening began with more delicate musical choices. Anette Askvik’s excellent track “Liberty” from her 2011 album of the same name is a recent favorite of mine. From the first notes, her delicate voice came out of her image directly in front of me, with accompanying instruments filling the background layers of the soundstage. Sounds of percussion, keyboards, and cello filled the room. Little background details could be clearly identified. With the addition of saxophone halfway through the track, the ambiance of the recording space was revealed.
I continued with a track called “Birds” from the recently acquired vinyl album Nameless by Montreal jazz singer Dominique Fils-Aimé. Another great track where the monoblocks reproduced everything in perfect clarity, including the air around instruments and the voice of the singer. The sound of upright bass on this track was powerful and textured. Dominique’s voice was airy and light. Background percussion sounds were detailed.
Joan Baez’s Diamonds & Rust is another old favorite of mine. Playing it with the Merrill delivered the emotional impact of the lyrics and the music of this classic. Acoustic guitars sounded natural and the entire performance was extremely enjoyable.
My listening notes would not be complete without my impressions of playing metal with the Merrill combo. Crimson Glory’s 1988 album Transcendence has stood the test of time as a true groundbreaking classic of progressive metal, that surely was ahead of its time in many aspects. Metal, by its nature, is hard to reproduce properly on a high-end system — mostly because the music production quality is (more often than not) not up to par. Thankfully, this album does not suffer from these problems — the band paid close attention to the production. As an example, the drums on the album are a combination of both live and sampled drums. The band sampled drummer Dana Burnell performing live drums into a synclavier without any cymbals, and then re-recorded the cymbals live later in order to have complete separation of drums and cymbals. The goal was to achieve a clean sound with complete instrument separation. And this is exactly how I heard Transcendence presented by the Element 118 monoblocks and Merrill Audio Christine preamplifier. Each instrument was clearly distinguished within the soundstage. The rhythm section sounded powerful and convincing, challenging and technical guitar work was easy to follow and Midnight’s soaring vocals filled the listening space and reached stratospheric heights without any graininess or distortion. The beauty of this album is in the fact that all songs are accessible despite being fairly technical — and Merrill amplification really highlighted that for me.
The synergy of all parts in the high-end audio system is extremely important. Not all components work well together. In this case, the combination of Merrill and Esse Quadro speakers was ideal. But with other speakers I tried, the results were less enjoyable. That is not to say that either Merrill or the other speakers are not good, it’s just that some combinations did not work well together. Audiophiles looking into upgrading their systems should do their own due diligence and listen to various combinations carefully before making their final decisions.
The Merrill Element 118 monoblock amplifiers and the Merrill Audio Christine preamplifier are priced at $36,000 and $12,400 respectively. In all my years of writing, I have never indulged readers in value justification. Some audiophiles believe it is a sacrilege for an audio system to cost over $5,000; meanwhile their spouses carry $20,000 dollar Hermès handbags. $45,000 can be chump change for a billionaire; $45,000 is an entire year’s salary for a teacher. I trust that Alex Gorouvein and I have done our diligence to describe the sound to the best of our abilities. If you are in the market for a set of Class D amps, the Merrill Audio Christine and Element 118 are serious contenders in that arena and deserve your utmost attention. It is a star amongst all the Class D combos I have heard.
More more information, please visit Merrill Audio at http://merrillaudio.net.
Review by Richard H. Mak & Alex Gorouvein
Associated equipment: Alex Gorouvein
- Pear Audio Blue Little John turntable with Cornet1 tonearm and Hana EH MC cartridge
- Gold Note PH-10 phono stage
- Gold Note PSU-10 external power supply
- SPL Performer s800 amplifier
- SPL Director DAC-preamp
- Oppo BDP-95 Universal Player
- Bluesound Node 2 streamer
- Ubiq Audio Model One SE speakers
- Esse Quadro L’UNA 146 speakers
- Crystal Cable Special series and BIS Audio Vivat XLR interconnects
- Crystal Cable Special series and BIS Audio AC20 power cables
Associated equipment: Richard H. Mak
- TW Raven AC, JC Verdier La Platine Vintage and Micro Seiki 5000 Turntable
- 12 Arm and Cartridge Combos
- CH Precision 4x P1 Mono, 2x X1 Mono
- Tenor Audio Phono 1
- Kondo SFz SUT and M7 Phono
- McIntosh C1000T Preamp
- McIntosh MC3500 x4
- Peak Consult Dragon Legend Speakers
- Purist Audio Design Aqueous Interconnects
- Purist Audio Design Venustas Speaker Cables
- Emm Labs CDSA SE player
- Oppo Sonica DAC
Other Merrill Audio product reviews on Part-Time Audiophile
- Merrill Audio Cara preamplifier
- Merrill Audio Thor monoblock amplifiers
- Merrill Audio Jens phono preamplifier
- Merrill Audio Taranis stereo amplifier
- Merrill Audio Veritas monoblock amplifiers