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July 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Merrill Audio Taranis Stereo Power Amplifier
A fine example of modern audio engineering.
Review By Tom Lyle

 

Merrill Audio Taranis Stereo Power Amplifier

 This is the second Merrill Audio component I've reviewed for Enjoy the Music.com, and the third that I've had in my home. Two have been power amplifiers; the Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks I reviewed a few months back and the Taranis featured in this review. Both have taught me that any preconceived notions I have had regarding Class D amplifiers had to not only be reexamined, but entirely revised. The upper stridency and other anomalies in the upper midrange and treble that were typical of the Class D amps of yore were not present in either of these amplifiers, and is proof positive that there is no longer a need to handicap this class of amplifiers when reviewing them – at least not when these amplifiers are designed properly, as they obviously were by Merrill Audio. This $5000 a pair 200 watt per channel Thors can and should be compared to other amplifiers within their price range and above, and other high-performance high-end amplifiers regardless of class. It was also a pleasure to have reviewed the Merrill Jens phono preamplifier in my system while reviewing the Kiseki Purple Heart phono cartridge for this issue. This was not only highly useful in reviewing this phono cartridge, but it demonstrated that Merrill Audio can also compete with other larger more established audio manufactures when it comes to cost-no-object components.

Soon after I finished my review of the Thor monoblock amplifiers, president and founder Merrill Wettasing suggested that I try his Taranis power amp. Although the Taranis is a lower priced power amp, he said that it might be more useful in my main system where I use electrostatic speakers. At 200 watts each the Thorsare mighty fine monoblocks, but I did find that they were more useful in my second system where they drove the smaller, more efficient floorstanding speakers I had at that time, a pair of Bowers & Wilkins CM10 S2 i reviewed two months ago and my reference EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature. However, in my main system my reference speakers are the quite inefficient Sound Labs electrostatic monoliths, which have an impedance that can dip below 1 Ohm when asked to play loud, dynamic passages.

The fact that the Taranis amplifier can drive a pair of inefficient electrostats is not their only attribute. Merrill Audio designed the Taranis stereo amp specifically for audiophiles who might not be able to afford their more costly amps, but wish to take advantage of the performance that Merrill amps have been known for. The Taranis is built around the Hypex Ncore N500, which according to Merrill Audio allows audiophiles to hear in their systems the advantages of the Ncore and the technology that is also used in their top of the line Veritas power amp, but at a lower price. Of course the Taranis has "ultra-low" distortion specs from input to output, and Merrill Audio paid particular attention to the input stage's high-current drive that delivers to the output stage a signal that possesses "ease, speed, detail, and power like no other". The output stage of the Taranis uses the previously mentioned Hypes Ncore NC500, which is an Ncore output stage. The icing on the cake is that the Taranis looks fantastic, with its polished front panel and power meters.

 

Gear
The input stage of the Taranis is a fully differential design, usually found in much more expensive designs, which aids in rejecting noise, and has a very high input impedance of 100,000. The inputs stage's peak to peak signal of 13.5 Volts with 300mA of current to the output stage is why it has no problem driving the challenging load of inefficient speakers such as my reference electrostats. The amp generates some heat while running, but the sonic advantages are well worth this inconvenience. There is also a full separate power supply filter in the Taranis' input stage which has two separate stages, an input buffer for full high impedance isolation and a differential high current line driver. On their website Merrill Audio claims that the Taranis uses the same power supply as their high-priced Veritas monoblock amplifiers, so it has the voltage that enables it to drive electrostatic speakers and the like, while "providing low noise, high dynamics and high voltage that very few linear power supplies can match".

 

Struck
When I unpacked the Taranis I was struck by how similar the cabinet looked compared to the $15,000 Merrill Audio Jens phonostage that I recently borrowed. They seem to share the same steel chassis that Merrill Audio designed to lower the amount of EMI/RFI interference, and they both have the same, very attractive, mirror finish stainless steel front panel. The main difference between the two is that the Taranis has power meters on its front panel that display the power from -60dB to 0dB in steps, and changes from green, to yellow, to red as the power increases. Internally, the Taranis uses silver plated copper wire with Teflon sleeves throughout. On its back panel it has balanced XLR inputs sourced from Cardas that have a gold plated housing with a rhodium plated case with silver plated copper pins. The speaker binding posts are also pure copper plated with rhodium, and a Furutech IEC pretty much guarantees that one's power cord will be more than securely connected to the Taranis.

 

Connected
I easily connected a run of bi-wired MIT speaker cable between the pair of Sound Lab Dynastat speakers and the speaker binding posts of the Taranis. The reference power amp in my main system is a Pass Laboratory X350.5, which rests on the lowermost shelf of an Arcici Suspense equipment rack. At over 130 pounds the Pass amp wasn't going anywhere, so I placed the Taranis on the commercial carpeting in front of the rack. I supported the amp with three large, no-name cones to lift it off the floor a bit. This might have been unnecessary as my home was built in the late nineteenth century and has one of the sturdiest wooden floors I've even walked on – or jumped up and down on – in an unsuccessful attempt to make unsuspended turntable's tonearm jump out of the grooves of a record. The preamplifier feeding the Taranis is a Balanced Audio Technology VK-33. The analog front end of my system consists of a Basis Debut V turntable that rests on the top plate of the Arcici rack, with a Lyra Kleos or Kiseki Purple Heart phono cartridge mounted on its Tri-Planar 6 tonearm. This tonearm is one of the last that was built by Herb Papier, the original owner of the company, but I recently had it updated by Tri-Planar's present owner Tri Mai. I had the ‘arm rewired and some minor updates made to its business end to lower its resonance frequency, and also some minor work was performed on the tonearm's cueing mechanism. The sound quality of the Tri-Planar didn't change, but its functionality improved because the wire Tri Mai used is much more flexible than the original, and I can now raise and lower the stylus while in mid-play and it will end up in the same spot it originally was tracing every time I do this. But I digress. By the time I had the Taranis in the system the Merrill Audio Jens phonostage was gone, and I was back to my reference Pass Labs XP-15. While not as nice (or expensive) as the Jens, I quickly became accustomed to the Pass Labs unit's outstanding performance.

Merrill Audio Taranis Stereo Power Amplifier

The digital front end of my system has remained unchanged since the beginning of the year, which is surprising given the evolutionary nature of digital playback. A few NAS drives are hard-wired to a rather powerful Dell XPS PC which contains digital files of varying resolution, from crappy bootleg mp3sto downloaded DSD music files. The innards of this PC are optimized for music playback through its USB ports, and Furutech USB cable takes that signal and feeds it to an AURALiC Vega DAC. The balanced outputs of the Vega are connected to the BAT preamp. Also connected to the Vega is the digital output of an Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition universal disc player for when I occasionally spin DVD-Audio or other silver discs with a decodable digital signal. The analog output of the Oppo is connected to the preamplifier for the playback of SACDs in lieu of a player/decoder that can read and decode a DSD signal.

The listening room is wired with two dedicated 20 amp power lines fitted with a pair of cryogenically treated two-outlet AC wall receptacles made by Virtual Dynamics. All the front-end equipment is connected to a pair of PS Audio Power Plant AC regenerators. The preamplifier, DAC, and phono stage is connected to the larger of the two, and the turntable is connected to its own PS300 Power Plant, which is set to deliver a pure sine AC sine wave. This Power Plant can also change the speed of the turntable by delivering a 60 Hz sine wave for spinning the turntable's platter at 33.33 rpm or by setting it to 81 Hz for 45 rpm. The power amp and a Chang Lightspeed CLS power conditioner, which powers the electrostatic speakers and Velodyne HGS-15b subwoofer, is connected to one of the 20 AC lines, and the other is used to power the two PS Audio units. Throughout the system MIT, DH Labs, Audio Art, Virtual Dynamics, Cardas, Kimber, and Merrill Audio interconnects and speaker cables rotate in and out of the entire system or individual components when needed and occasionally on a whim. Echobuster Acoustic Treatment panels – absorptive panels behind and to the sides of the speakers, reflective behind the listening position – transform the room's acoustic qualities from acceptable to exceptional. The LPs lining the walls certainly aid in absorbing stray sound waves, and look pretty cool, if you ask me.

 

Big
Connecting the Merrill Taranis to the rest of the system was no big deal. I use the balanced XLR output jacks rather than its unbalanced RCA's of my BAT preamplifier every chance I get, so the fact that the Taranis only accepts XLR cables in this case was an advantage. At 400wpc the Taranis had no trouble at all driving the Sound Lab speakers, which if underpowered lose treble energy and sound weak – losing much of their sense of realism and involvement. But from the first album I played through the Taranis it was obvious that I was listening to a power amplifier that had many positive traits. Although, I think it's important to put things into perspective – at $2500, this amp is not inexpensive. A younger version of me would have to scrimp and save to be able to afford an amp such as the Merrill Audio Taranis. Now that I'm a grizzled audiophile veteran (ahem) my reference amplifier is nearly eight times the price of this amplifier under review. Even though I've reviewed plenty of lower-cost high-end equipment, I can't help but make comparisons to the Pass Laboratories X350.5 that normally resides on the lower shelf of my equipment rack. And although the Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks helped in conquering my fear of Class D amplifiers, the awful memories of earlier Class D models of yore that did not impress remain. But despite my distaste for older Class D amps, these amps did have some positive traits, mostly in the lower frequencies.

So as I expected, the Taranis' bass was a monster. Its bass was, tuneful, pitch specific, and was able to reproduce a signal as low as any program material that passed through it. I thumbed through my records and scrolled through my files in an attempt to find material with enough bass to demonstrate to myself – and enjoy – the bass prowess of the Taranis and thus my system. One notable album was Kraftwerk's The Mix, which has as its first track their new for the 1990s mix of "The Robots". Not only does this track have a deep low-end thanks to Kraftwerk's bass synthesizers, but two bass parts occur simultaneously, each constructed with a different set of parameters resulting in two disparate tones. The Taranis made it easy to follow each bass part and it was easy to make distinctions between the timbres of these two distanct bass parts. I have both a CD ripped to FLAC files and the LP version of The Mix, and the recording is definitely good enough that it can be played on less than acceptable gear and still sound fine, but when reproduced by a high-end system this album can be mesmerizing, and the Taranis and its sophisticated circuitry was able to demonstrate how great this recording really is.

My review of Merrill Audio's Thor monoblocks wasn't that long ago, so in my mind's ear were the memories are still rather fresh. These monoblocks are proof that times have indeed changed when it comes to the sound of Class D amplifiers. The sonic positives of the Thor amps weren't only in their bass response, but throughout the frequency range. And as my listening sessions continued with the Taranis, it also proved to be a great amp. So good, the fact that the output section of the Taranis is Class D did not even enter into my mind. So I reviewed the Taranis as a stereo power amplifier. Period.

 

Obsessed
Lately I've been practically obsessed with Sir George Solti's recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that was recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s. For years I've been listening to copies of both the Decca and London Records pressings of the double LP set, but a few years ago I was lucky enough to score a copy of the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs pressing, so it is this version that I used for this review. During the first few minutes of this monumental recording the Taranis demonstrated that Sir George sure knew how to take advantage of the right side of the orchestra and the timpanist, which added an enormous amount of power to this already powerful masterpiece. With the Taranis as part of my system, it was able to separate the instruments in the large orchestra and simultaneously render a realistically scaled soundstage between, behind, and slightly in front of the speakers, with instruments and groups of instruments placed discernibly throughout its expanse Electrostatic speakers are strange beasts in the way that some of the instruments or groups of instruments seem to be emanating from different parts of the speaker's large panels. The Taranis was able to take advantage of this quality. For instance, a solo woodwind would appear near the center of the speaker, about six inches to the right, and two feet higher up on the speaker, near its edge will be a cymbal crash. But other instruments or groups of instruments might appear between, in back of, and slightly in front of the speakers, along with the ambience of the hall, which might be a bit more diffuse, but placed way behind the speakers. No amplifier in any system is able to reproduce a realistically sized orchestra, and of course one's listening room has as much to do with this as anything else. But the Taranis was able to recreate many layers of sound, and the instruments of the orchestra were reproduced with a semblance of the real thing. To follow the instrumental lines of Beethoven's complex scoring of this masterpiece is one of my greatest audio and musical pleasures, giving me the sense that despite human's constant failings as a species; Beethoven was able to create this combination of beauty and complexity, of childlike innocence and immortal genius. It gives me hope. Plus, it's cool to hear a sound system reproduce such a thrilling and realistic sound. And it was also cool to hear the Taranis be such an integral part of reproducing this work in such a fine manner.

Merrill Audio Taranis Stereo Power Amplifier

Comparing the Merrill Audio Taranis and my reference Pass Labs X350.5 is not really a fair fight; the price difference is too vast. Nonetheless, this Pass Labs amplifier has been in my system for nearly two years, so I couldn't resist comparing the two. Despite their considerable price difference, the Taranis did not embarrass itself during the rather long audition period. As I said above in the body of this review, the Taranis has many positive characteristics. Not surprisingly, though, the Pass Labs demonstrated what type of sound is possible when one spends eight times as much on a power amplifier. In regards to these two amps, and I realize that this is a broad swath of the frequency spectrum – the difference between them lies mostly in the way they reproduce the midrange and the treble frequencies. The Pass Labs amp has a more complex, palpable midrange, and its treble is subjectively more extended and has a lifelike sparkle that is difficult to describe but easy to hear. The Pass Labs also sounds "larger", a good part of this due to its soundstage, which is wider, deeper, and constructs a more complex lattice of instruments and voices than the Taranis, although the Taranis is certainly not deficient in this area. In fact, the Taranis is not deficient in any area – after listening to the Pass Labs amp for a while, then switching back to the Merrill Audio Taranis, it was quite surprising how it was able to reproduce the signals it was fed with a musicality that belies its relatively low asking price. In that respect one should consider the Taranis a bargain, although calling a $2500 stereo amplifier a bargain might be a stretch. But everything is relative, and in the world of audiophillia, we take what we can get when it comes to good deals.

 

Modern
The Merrill Audio Taranis stereo power amplifier is a fine example of modern audio engineering. President and founder Merrill Wettasing has managed to design a power amplifier that not only sounds great, but looks great, too. I've had a few visiting audiophiles in my listening room that saw the Taranis' cabinet and guessed out loud that it must cost upwards of ten thousand dollars. After an audition these same audiophiles were mighty impressed not only with the sound of my system, but that I was getting this sound using a power amplifier that "only" cost $2500. The Taranis' bass response is impressive; it can drive very difficult speaker loads, can untangle the most complex of recordings, and is able to reproduce a recording with a very lifelike sound. If one is shopping for a power amplifier within the Taranis' price range, or even well above the Taranis' price range, it would be quite a shame if the Merrill Audio Taranis power amp wasn't at the top of one's list.

 

Ratings
My ratings tend to be very conservative. I reserve a 5 note rating for the best I’ve ever heard at any price. A rating of 3 notes is excellent.

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Solid-state stereo amplifier
Frequency Response: 0 Hz to 50 kHz (+0/-3dB)
Output Power: 400 watts per channel @ 8 Ohms (600 watts per channel @ 4 Ohms)
Output Impedance: 1.5 mOhms
Input Impedance: 100k Ohms
Gain: 26dB
Maximum Output: +/- 80 Volts, 26A
Signal To Noise Ratio: 130 dB
THD+Noise: 0.005%
Price: $2500

 

Company Information
Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, LLC
80 Morristown Road, Unit 3B, #275
Bernardsville, NJ 07924

Voice: (415) 562-4434 
Email: Sales-123@merrillaudio.net
Website: www.MerrillAudio.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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