From The Outside, Everything Looks Right
I was reminded of what I love about Teutonic design aesthetics when I first opened the box and removed the flagship Merason DAC-1.
Have you ever gone to the part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and seen the display of medieval armor and weapons?
Even a millennium ago, the armor and weapons used by knights and crusaders in battle had a very nationalistic vibe. The French suits of armor borrowed their look from a Parisian palace for the aristocracy. The Italian armor looked like it was made by people whose descendants would craft Ferrari bodies, and the German armor and swords were all business, a medieval Mercedes but with some Bauhaus angularity.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
Switzerland isn’t exactly Germany–maybe there is something in the water that runs off the Alps and shit. Maybe it’s the beer. Design and construction of products having an undeniable amount of performance, precision, and attention to detail without unneeded flourish is the order of the day for these folks.
I like this. I like it a lot. It’s practically in their regional DNA! Or the beer.
I Want A New World Without The Order
There seem to be LOTS of DACs out there. I’ve noticed many audiophiles are quite passionate about what they consider to be the BEST DAC, or at least best for the money.
Even more than other components, it‘s all about the accuracy. And the good sound of course. But it’s that dang accuracy as a means to good sound that seems so important to a DAC having exalted status. Some of y’all who know me also know I don’t give a rodent’s hind end about accuracy, or her first cousin naturalness–mainly because those kinds of attributes are essentially unknowable. I simply want it to sound good to my ear.
Regardless of the circuit architecture, I feel that DACs fall roughly into three categories:
- Low-end offerings that are not horrible but not very good. Inexpensive and utilitarian.
- A larger group that mainly strives for accuracy in whatever way that is measured. Low noise. Low jitter. Some might call this group accurate but also a bit boring or even worse, flat or dry sounding. Mostly affordable though not exactly cheap.
- A smaller group that is intentionally designed and voiced to have some pleasing sonic vibe. Some like to call these DACs musical. Some in this category will claim to be accurate. Some will fess up to being intentionally euphonic. Many have vacuum tubes. Prices will also vary widely with some being on the upper end.
Present-day digital design has gotten so good even cheap DACs sound pretty good to my ear. Well, it’s still digital…so let’s not always blame the poor DAC okay? Wait, that’s what we audiophiles do. We blame the gear for what we don’t like about the sound and then try to find what piece of kit will change that for us. I am guilty as charged.
Tech Low Down
Sorry, just kidding. I’m usually a geeky tech head but for some reason, I don’t care a thing about what’s inside the Merason DAC-1. I don’t need to know cause it’s undoubtedly well thought out and executed with the ultimate in Swiss precision.
I could rattle on about the clock, the processor, the isolation of the analog circuitry from the digital stuff, blah, blah, blah. Maybe I’ll look it up later. Hey, I’ll ask Grover!
Technical Commentary by Grover Neville, Contributor
The Merason DAC-1 is a curious little piece of kit. Somewhat humorously, the board still has a note about being designed for “Purson”–the previous name of Merason I believe. The DAC-1’s conversion is based on a dual Burr-Brown (now owned by Texas Instruments) PCM1794A chip, and as the manufacturer claims does indeed appear to be all discrete and symmetrical throughout, from the I/V stage to the output buffer. The miniature heatsinks and very high-grade low-loss mica capacitors were a refreshing sight at the price point – these parts, and the downstream DC filtering output caps can exceed 20 euros a part even at quantity. Thermally-coupled transistors seem to back up Merason’s claim of Class A operation and as with the rest of parts selection the transistors all seemed high quality. Dual toroidal transformers used for separate duties are potted and shielded, and of a modest size – not always a bad thing with toroids where stray fields can be an issue. Some cursory internet searching (and some help from google translate) indicate that the DAC-1 uses one of the built-in Linear Phase filters on the PCM1794A chips. The rest of the design seems to follow this line of thinking, and while there’s nothing particularly exciting or unusual about the Merason DAC-1, there is a certain joy in seeing simple concepts executed to an exceptionally high standard. This is a unit where little details stand out, such as the single instance of point-to-point wiring between the power supply and input stage, or the output DC filter caps being tucked underneath the board. My guess is the former was done for ground plane reasons (and usually indicating the designer actually listened to the unit) and the latter for space and production engineering reasons. Both are signs of a careful attention to detail and intentional, informed design.
Okay, it handles sample rates up to 192K, has 4 digital inputs (AES/EBU, spdif, USB, and Toslink optical), and a choice of unbalanced RCA or balanced XLR outputs.
I found the looks of the Merason DAC-1 to be quite appealing. A glossy white front panel with a couple of nice feeling switches that have a very audible and satisfying click when engaged. The hefty and solid feeling case has a cool metal mesh on the top to vent all the heat that those hard-working precision components (whatever they are) are putting out. The front panel and general look of the DAC-1 remind me of Weiss Engineering–the Weiss Gambit line of studio digital processors, to be precise (which of course is Swiss). I like a little blingy-ne$$ to the vibe but I don’t want to pay for it. If something sounds amazing and is simple and functional with a subtle classiness to the look, I’m in heaven. Makes me feel like all that cash went into the stuff inside that is responsible for the sound. Whatever that stuff is. I’ll find out eventually, ok?
As usual, I couldn’t resist a quick listen upon installation in my system. The Merason DAC-1 sounded great from the word go. After a few days of leaving it on and running voltages corresponding to ones and zeros through it, things sounded a little better. What a surprise. Not.
At this point, I haven’t taken the time to figure out the actual low down on any particular component’s correlation to burn-in time and results. As imperfect and unscientific as it is, I have found some things seem to get better after being on for a while. Some things don’t seem to change much at all. I am ready to admit this effect may be completely psychological. But so is EVERYTHING about listening to music – especially for an audiophile. So where do we draw the line? Ever wonder why things never sound worse after being burned in? Or how someone can cure their cancer by taking a placebo? What effect does quantum mechanics have on all this?
If I think some aspect of the sound is real or not, then that is MY reality, which is the only reality that matters. Change my mind. Burn-in rant over.
I tried all the different inputs on the Merason DAC-1 including the AES/EBU, which happens to be one of the output choices on my California Audio Labs CD transport. I know that there exists a hierarchy amongst some audiophiles about which digital transmission standard sounds best. I also know my experiences in recording and mastering studios in the early days of digital taught me that spdif and optical were inferior sounding to balanced 110 ohm AES/EBU digital. USB for pro or home audio didn’t even exist in those days and when USB started to creep in, many were skeptical. My experience these days has resulted in feeling like properly designed gear doesn’t care anymore. It all sounds the same to my ear and nulls 100% bit for bit in a studio null test scenario, which was the case for the Merason DAC-1.
I A/B’d different DACs fed by different outputs from either my Innuos Zen Mini streamer using Roon to play Qobuz or the CAL CD transport. All formats sounded the same to me except for playing 192K using optical, which was extremely quiet compared to AES, spdif, and USB. So quiet that no sound could be heard. Oh right, that’s cause Toslink only goes to 96K. Drrrrrrr.
Even if all four input choices on the Merason DAC-1 sounded the same, switching to different DACs being fed simultaneously from the same source revealed small but clear sonic differences.
So what are these small sonic differences you ask? And how small?
Small doesn’t mean insignificant. I’ve found, especially when comparing DACs, that those small differences seem to magically transform into a BIG DEAL as my ear becomes fine-tuned to variances. This is, of course, the nature of audiophilia and it’s on full display when it comes to DAC evaluations. Once my ear becomes used to identifying those tiny differences, swapping DACs is an eye-opener. I have to be very focused yet unfocused at the same time. Too focused and I miss the forest for the trees. Too lost in the music and my brain doesn’t have the room to form judgments. Kind of like mastering music.
After consulting my tarot cards to help determine when proper burn-in was achieved, I made sure all the cables in my system were directionally correct. That was followed by fine-tuning the system with various isolation pucks and power filter devices. Feeling like everything was now in order and it was a good ear day, I sat down to do some serious DAC listening. But first coffee. Always first with the oat milk latte.
Damn, there I go pulling your leg again. I didn’t do any of that. Except for the coffee.
Throughout several listening sessions in my home system, a clear picture emerged. I also took the Merason DAC-1 to my studio for a death match with a Prism Dream DA-1 to provide further intel, which I will reveal in a bit. Initially, I did a lot of comparing to other DACs. Later I simply listened to the DAC-1 on a wide variety of music. For me, the Merason DAC-1 was the clear winner.
Listening to music through the DAC-1 gave me a feeling similar to what I experienced when the most excellent Tidal Audio Prisma preamplifier was in my system. A feeling akin to putting on my favorite Brooks trainers for a leisurely walk through the park when the weather is perfect. The feeling when driving your car after getting it back from the shop after a full tune-up, or starting a craftsman project knowing you have ALL the tools necessary. There is zero to be concerned about so I can simply enjoy the victory of simply being with this activity.
For my ears – especially when listening to music in a digital format – this feeling is gold.
So what is it about the Merason DAC-1 that gives me the feels? The DAC-1 like other HiFi components that float my boat sits firmly in the Event Horizon zone of being extremely clean with non-detectable levels of coloration yet just a pinch of mojo. This mojo I refer to is in the form of a slight softness to the texture of the upper midrange. Let’s say the energy between 2 and 5k, that same area where our ears are most sensitive and in my case most easily fatigued by any excess of or distortion residing therein.
Music played through the Merason DAC-1 doesn’t sound subdued or dynamically mellow. But compared to some other DACs I have on hand, it’s the slightest bit relaxed. This incredibly small amount of smoothness is what I need when listening to a digital source, to be able to unconsciously forgive and absolve the music for being born in digital form. “Calm down, everything is gonna be ok little PCM file. It’s not your fault. We can hang out now since I got this attractive Swiss box for you to use. Those big arrogant discs with grooves won’t ever bother you again, I’ve made sure of that. Those bitchez can’t even.”
As nice as that relaxed nature is, my ear wants plenty of detail, gobs of layering, nuanced dynamic contrasts, slammin’ bass, and to have the DAC make me a sandwich at the end of a listening session. Is that too much to ask?
Compared to my other DACs the Merason DAC-1 had as much and in some cases more detail while retaining it’s wonderfully seductive relaxed listenability. Hey, wait a second. Didn’t I say the same thing about the infinitely charming BorderPatrol SE-1 DAC? Yes, I did.
The difference here is that the Merason has a similar easy-on-the-ear factor that I love about the BorderPatrol DAC, but the Merason is just that much cleaner. It has more detail, a wider and deeper soundstage, and a deeper and punchier low end. The low end is large AND tight. Complexity with no messiness. It’s also noticeably less thick in the midrange than the BorderPatrol. The BorderPatrol has just a bit more of a nose in the mids. I kinda like that but after comparing it to the Merason’s midrange portrait, it was a bit distracting. But there’s a huge difference in price here.
I’m not going to go down the list and pick apart everything that I heard, however I will declare the Prism DA-2 to be the only one that felt more accurate than the Merason DAC-1. In head to head, level-matched tests I set up in my mastering studio, the Prism had an uncanny resemblance to the sound of the Merason, except without the slight smoothing effect in the upper mids. The Prism was more present in this part of the spectrum, yet without any unwanted edge.
The test also pointed out that the output level of the Merason using the balanced outs is only three volts, which is a bit low for pro audio nominal output level. This translates to 6db lower than the Prism, which I have at -18 dbfs for the DAC/ADC roundtrip through the analog playground. Just to clarify, the 3-volt analog output of the Merason balanced outs (which on a lot of gear is usually in the range of 6db hotter than the RCA outs) is on the low side but still has PLENTY of juice for any home hi-fi setup, just less than optimum in a studio situation.
During focused listening while switching DACs, I could always pick out the Merason DAC-1 with its pleasingly fleshed-out midrange and plenty of smooth-sounding detail in the upper frequencies, all without the fairy dust on top or an extra helping of image width that some of the other DACs exhibited. This was most noticeable when comparing the DAC-1 to the Berkeley Alpha II. The Alpha II is a long time favorite of mine for its sound and features. Many folks love the sense of detail and spaciousness to the soundstage, but for me, the Merason DAC-1 communicates more of a holistic vibe as opposed to shining a bright light on every little textural element of a mix like I hear with the Alpha II. I routinely felt a sort of relaxed attention when listening with the DAC-1, a certain feeling of rightness that let me focus on the music.
We Don’t Wanna Change We Just Wanna Change Everything
So by now, you should be able to tell I loved this thing. Is the Merason DAC-1 perfect? Of course not. Nothing is.
There are lots of excellent sounding DACs in this price territory. With an MSRP of $5,000, it’s my opinion the Merason DAC-1 is a serious contender for best DAC at any price. Sonically, it competes toe to toe with the high priced big boys. 5K is not exactly loose change but I’d still be impressed even if the DAC-1 was substantially more expensive.
What you get is a product that seems to be built for the audiophile that is primarily interested in performance and doesn’t require a lot of fancy features or gold-plated-with-a-screen visuals. I kind of missed a readout indicating sample rate, but whatever. Not a deal-breaker for me. Neither is a lack of DSD or MQA capability. And there are no user-selectable filter choices to mess with my head. Remote? Nope. The Swiss DAC that is NOT the Swiss Army Knife of DACs. And proud of it. Imagine that.
You might be looking for that elusive DAC that doesn’t appear in any of my previously delineated categories.
That would be Category 4. Category 4 is reserved for DACs with a super high degree of linearity that decodes every squeak of information in a bitstream without sounding edgy and hyper-detailed or dry and antiseptic. Music just issues forth in a full-flavored way without any trace of extra edge or any extra euphonic colors. Fresh brewed iced tea with just a hint of sweetness.
This small field of Category 4 contenders usually costs as much as that clean used Porsche you always wanted.
I’ll wait on the Porsche and enjoy my digital music a lot more now – with the extra cash still stashed in my mattress. Highly recommended.