World Premiere Review!
In the past three years Enjoy the Music.com has reviewed four Merrill Audio components. In 2015 Ron Nagle reviewed their Jens phono stage, which won not only a Blue Note Award 2015, but also an Enjoy The Music.com's 20/20 Award. Plus, that year I reviewed Merrill Audio's Thor monoblock amplifiers, and later that year the Taranis stereo power amp. In May of 2017, I reviewed the Merrill Audio Christine Reference preamplifier, which was awarded a Blue Note Award 2017. Readers of Enjoy The Music.com might think that Merrill Audio has given to us some sort of under the table enticement to its writers, particularly yours truly. No, we have not received any payola. The truth is, besides being fantastic components, Merrill Audio components have been well received by not only the audiophile press, but they've also been well received by the audiophile community, who have been purchasing many of their products, and in doing so have kept Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs founder, President, and Chief Engineer Merrill Wettasinghe quite busy.
Merrill Audio isn't the largest audio company in the world. Not by a long shot. Which makes it even more surprising that they've been able to produce so many products with top-notch sound quality. But, to be honest, another reason that I review so many Merrill Audio components is that it's been very easy to acquire them – Merrill Audio's facilities are located very close to my home. Mr. Wettasinghe has never had to ship these components to me, he merely has driven by and dropped them off at my home, and when I'm done with my review has come by to pick them up. Even though there are a few other audio companies located close to my home, Merrill Audio's are much more than good enough to continue to say "yes" when offered the chance to review another of their components.
The chassis is decorated with nickel and rose gold, and instead of anodizing the cabinet, it is plated, which creates a softer, more acoustically abortive surface. There is no need to use an amp stand with the Element 118 since each cabinet is supported by four solid stainless-steel outriggers. On the bottom of each are GAIA II footers, made by Iso Acoustics that provides further isolation and absorption. Of course, it is what's inside the cabinet of the amplifiers which is most important. Merrill Audio claims that this is by far their most ambitious design mostly because they are using open loop, zero feedback, and zero deadtime, with gallium nitride transistors, which are better than most transistors used in other solid-state amplifiers because that have close to zero capacitance, which allows fast switching. Merrill Audio claims that these transistors are "efficient, reliable and don't have the slow recovery characteristics of the MOSFETS with its large gate capacitance. Plus, the gallium nitride transistors can operate in the GHz range. Gallium nitride transistors offer a fast, clean, low distortion power capability", and so Merrill Audio claims that are "natural and smooth in their musical capability".
Regarding the Element 118, the layout they employ with the internal printed circuit boards (PCBs) in this amplifier has reduced the parasitic capacitance and inductance to near zero, and allow close to zero overshoot and ring, and therefore zero deadtime. The term "deadtime" might be the most important consideration here, and so it is worth explaining a bit further. The transistors in even some recent designs of some otherwise quite decent sounding Class D amps could not switch fast enough, thus leaving gaps when one of their transistors switch off, and the other to switch on. One can provided enough feedback to remove this type of distortion and smooth this defect over. This electronic "sleight of hand" will reduce the distortion, but as it does it also removes detail and low-level information. This feedback could also make these amps sound more than a bit "slow". So, some of these manufacturers then tried to reduce the switching time in the power supplies using various methods, but that introduced overshoot and ring as FET transistors have capacitance, and there is only so much you can do without introducing sonic flaws. Merrill Audio has managed to introduce this type of amplifier with zero dead time, such as in the Element 118 monoblock.
The gallium nitrate (GaN) transistors have close to zero capacitance, which results in zero deadtime and therefore immediate switching. And so, there is no overshoot and ringing. Merrill Audio's Merrill Wettasinghe told me that after this was accomplished in the design of the amplifier, he then designed and re-designed the circuits, the layout, the PCBs, and the transistors until there was zero overshoot and ring. And after doing this, since the distortion was eliminated, there was no reason to use any feedback at all. He went on to tell me that he is very proud of not having to use feedback, because even Class A amps use some feedback to control distortion and gain. He also claimed that besides all the above, he designed an overbuilt, finely designed output stage and everything else he could, including the power supply, wires, input stage, and made every part as first-rate a one could imagine, even down to the type of speaker posts. He went on to say that all this attention to detail paid off, because this amplifier has "a very musical tone, that is open wide and fast…this is not like your slow, putzy (sic) old amps". The Element 118 uses Merrill Audio's proprietary ZXOL design, and their "advanced" power supply technology to provide one with an amp that can compete with all power amplifiers, regardless of their class.
The analog front end for the first part of the review consisted of the recently reviewed Analogue Artisan A1 turntable with its 12" Mongoose tonearm with remote VTA / SRA. On the tonearm were mounted either the excellent Gold Note Tuscany or the recently reviewed Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue. Via Accusound XD cable, this time terminated with unbalanced RCAs, the tonearm of the Mongoose 'arm was connected to my reference Pass Laboratories XP-15 phono stage, which in turn was connected to the preamp de jour. After the Analogue Artisan setup was returned to the manufacturer I mounted those same phono cartridges on my reference Tri-Planar tonearm which was mounted on a Basis Debut V turntable, for its speed controller I used an older PS Audio P300 Power Plant. On the digital side, 99% of the time I listened to files stored on hard-drives connected to my computer-based music server. A Furutech USB cable was connected from the computer's USB output to the USB input of an EMM Labs A2 digital-to-analog converter, and its analog outputs connected to the same preamp as the turntable. The power cables of all the front-end equipment and preamplifiers were connected to PS Audio's top-of-the-line DirectStream P20 AC power regenerator (review forthcoming). I also used a Chang Lightspeed ISO 9300 power conditioner for power cords from the subwoofers and cables from the speakers that power the electrostatic panels.
Connected to the Element 118 monoblocks' speaker posts was a 12-foot run of sonically unmatched Westlake speaker cable which ran to the speaker posts of my reference speakers, the Sound Lab Majestic 545 full-range electrostatics. The speaker's deepest bass was augmented by a pair of 1250-Watt, 15-inch Velodyne subwoofers. On the walls of the dedicated listening room are acoustic treatment panels, most of the walls are lined with shelves filled with LPs, and the floor is covered with commercial grade carpet. There are a pair of dedicated power lines that run directly to the home's circuit box in the basement, to which all the audio equipment, and only the audio equipment, is connected. I've mentioned in some previous reviews that the walls of the room are painted blue, and this color is claimed by some to bring down one's blood pressure, and slow respiration and heart rate. I'm not sure how much of that is true, especially when I'm playing certain types of music at more than healthy volume.
Even after only a short audition, I could tell that the Element 118 monoblocks certainly sound accurate and natural, but I suppose Merrill Audio is claiming that these amps are more accurate and more natural sounding than other amplifiers. Therefore, I'll stop beating around the bush and claim that Merrill Audio's claims are spot on. And not just that, but Merrill Audio might be showing some restraint, mostly because the Element 118 are statement amplifiers, and can be compared to the finest that I've ever heard in my system, which include some mighty fine pieces of kit that have been passing through my system during the last couple of years. When considering an amplifier for one's system, one must consider system matching more than anything else, as in the obvious "are these amplifiers the right ones for my system", and, "Is 400 Watts per channel enough, or too much power for my speakers?". These are questions all audiophiles must ask themselves regardless of the price of an amplifier, but even more so with the Element 118, because at this level of refinement they possess. Admittedly, the differences between other solid-state 400 Wpc amplifiers anywhere near this price range aren't going to be huge. At least they shouldn't be huge. Good speakers and good systems deserve a good power amplifier.
And if one's system can be built around the Element 118, or conversely, the Element 118 can fit into one's system what sonic benefits is one likely to observe when they do? When I replaced the reference amplifier(s) in my system with the Element 118, I did not only hear an improvement some sonic traits, such as the tightness of its bass frequencies, the transparency of the midrange, and the clarity and extension of the upper treble, but I also heard differences between the Element 118 and my reference amplifiers that were simply differences. I know, "different" doesn't always mean "better". Sometimes different just means different. The nuanced differences between high-end amplifiers means that personal tastes might come into play more than anything else. But the Merrill Audio Element 118 monoblocks sounded wonderful in my system, and the difference between it and my reference(s) were not negative differences, in any audiophile approved parameters that I considered during the review period.
I spun the LP by alto and soprano saxophone player Sonny Fortune Long Before Our Mothers Cried when I was well into this review period. This album is a great test for a system, not only are the instruments on this album cover the entire frequency spectrum, there is enough going on to make it a test for many sonic parameters that one might be looking for in any component or speaker. This album was pressed in 1974, so it's an all-analog affair, albeit on a US label manufactured in the early 1970s. For the most part, with LPs from that era one could pretty much guarantee that the vinyl is less than 100% non-recycled, but still, this copy might have been one that came off the press early in the run, because the surfaces of this near-mint condition vinyl sounded fairly quiet. About 6 months ago I was reading an essay about this release on the website London Jazz Collector.
The author of this piece remains anonymous, but he seems as if he's about my age, saying that in the early seventies when it came to fusions of jazz and rock, like me he'd most likely be listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Larry Coryell, Santana, or Chick Corea's Return To Forever, never being exposed to this artist, mostly because he seemed to put more un-filtered Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz into the mix. Had I heard this Sonny Fortune album at that time I'm almost positive I would have liked it. Starting off this record is a 15-minue long Afro-centric percussion title track, mixing lots of other styles, both jazz and rock, and as the album proceeds, it seems to cover all the bases – ballad, post-bop modal, new thing, free jazz, funk, cinematic and spiritual, but all in the style that most would consider fusion. But this is Sonny Fortune's version of fusion.
As I said, it's a great test for a system, not only because of the varied material, but more so because there's not only Fortune's sax and flute, this album features three percussionists, trumpet, piano and electric piano, along with the requisite bass guitar and drums. The Merrill Audio 118 seemed to revel in this material, not only delivering to my speakers exactly what was etched into the grooves of this 43-year-old record, but also an exact copy of what it heard from components that made up the analog front-end. More than anything else, I felt totally immersed by the music.
The midrange on this recording is a bit forward sounding, but that wasn't why I felt immersed. The Element 118 simply let me hear this character of the recording, almost as if it wasn't making any judgments, it seemed as it was just reproducing exactly what was pressed onto the record. But I felt as if the percussion was not only spread throughout the huge soundstage that surrounded my speakers, but surrounded me, letting me hear enough details in the recording to enable me to "see" each instrument in this space. The soundstage was more than a bit crowded, the mixing engineer didn't pan the three percussionists too widely apart from each other, but that hardly mattered because the 118s enabled each sound, each instrument, each snap and crash of the drum, each blat of the trumpet, and in particular the overtone heavy richness of the sax, to have its separate space in the soundstage.
And even though it was a crowded soundstage, each instrument was still surrounded with air, so I could not only hear the front "surface" of the instrument, but its sides and rear, making each instrument a replica of a three-dimensional sonic organism. It was astonishing how I could "see" in front of me, mostly between the two speakers, a host of instruments all in their own sonic compartments in space, yet I could hear the individual characteristics of each instrument. It was sort of meditative, where my attention would turn to just one of the conga players, then I would pick up on Fortune's sax for a while, then bathe in the piano that was spread out before me – located in the front towards the bottom portion the soundstage in a horizontal arch in front of and to either side of me. But often I would take in the entire band as a whole, as if I was either eavesdropping on their playback session, or I was alone in the studio, the master tape playing back only for me.
I suppose the best one can hope for when auditioning, and hopefully one day becoming part of one's system, is a component is one that has no distinct qualities. What I mean by that is one where no sonic traits stand out, the component only allows the qualities of the music to stand out. A piece of equipment like that would leave me with little to discuss in a review, and so I would only be left to describe the music that is being played, and the method and/or methods in which the designer has achieved this. I've pointed out what I heard when I played the Sonny Fortune album, but those qualities were largely a reflection of what the recording and my front-end and speaker system are capable of. The Merrill Audio Element 118 is practically a poster-child for this type of component, in this case a pair of monoblocks that expertly raise the gain of the signal to an appropriate level to be able to be passed onto my speakers. Obviously, this feat is much more difficult than it sounds, as you have read in my technical description of the Element 118. Merrill Audio seems to have gone through quite a bit to make this happen. The results in my system spoke for themselves. Yes, it's fun to listen to a record or digital file and bask in the sound, but I find it much more enjoyable to bask in the music that is playing. Or I could do both!
For example, when I played the DSD file of Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, I could clearly hear everything on this recording that has led me to believe that it is one of the greatest renditions of this masterpiece I have in my collection, and also one of the best sounding I have in my collection. I could spend quite a bit of time discussing what I heard when listening to this version of Daphnis et Chloe, listing all the audiophile traits one should expect from an amplifier in this price range. And so, for example, one should expect these monoblocks' low end to have been as deep and thundering as the speakers would allow, and of course each instrument and group of instruments in the orchestra should be in separate and appropriate compartments of the soundstage. One should expect that the transient response should be as natural as can be, considering that this recording was likely made with only a few microphones, and although this RCA Living Stereo sounds a bit further back in the hall than some of my other favorites, perhaps row M rather than row K, but I still felt as if I was a sonic witness to an empty-hall performance recorded almost 60 years ago to the day.
Some of other traits that I heard coming from my speakers were particular to this listening session with the Merrill Audio Element 118 monoblocks, such as the unusually beautiful string sound that often eludes the BSO on some of their records from this era. The upper strings glistened, with body and a "reach out and touch" kind of tonality. During the climaxes the right side of the orchestra and the bass drum ignited the low frequencies of my speakers, but I was continuously drawn to the string sound, not just the high strings, but the lower strings from the right side of the orchestra, starting with the cellos, sonic evidence of the Element 118's extraordinarily transparent midrange. This was especially true of the lower midrange frequencies, when combined with the amplifiers' phenomenal transparency, seemed to cause tiny ripples in the air which surrounded me, which I was able to feel on my exposed skin. But, as I mentioned more than a few times, I sense that these traits were simply those that my system's front-end were capable of, in this case the digital powerhouse that is the EMM Labs DA2 digital-to-analog converter being fed and then decoding the DSD file's signal. The DA2, if the not the best DAC available, is certainly the best that has ever been in my system, was able to show its stuff on this excellent recording.
It is often humbling to realize that there are mega-expensive audio components in this world that in comparison make my system seem like it's been assembled with budget gear. Yet, the electrostatic speakers in my system are particularly adept at recreating a string sound, and like the DA2, the Sound Lab Majestic 545s might not be the best electrostatic speakers available (they aren't even at the top of Sound Lab's line) but they are ideally matched for the size of my listening room and possess the latest technological advances that Sound Lab has incorporated into their new line, and give them the ability to faithfully reproduce the different genres that are in my rather large, diverse music library. The Merrill Audio Element 118 monoblocks make these facts patently apparent.
After an audition, and especially after one takes a look at these handsome amplifiers, I can imagine that these monoblocks would be difficult for one to resist. Although, there are some audiophiles that might want an amplifier with a sound that has more of a "personality" than the Element 118 monoblocks, one that does not have as much of a "just the fact ma'am" temperament. For example, the Blue Note Award winning McIntosh MC611 power amplifier that Steven Rochlin and I reviewed not too long ago has a bit more of a euphonic sound mixed in with its other attributes. But the Merrill Audio Element 118 is a brute.
A transparent, very powerful, refined, good looking, but admittedly pricey brute. I could imagine a well-healed audiophile purchasing a half a dozen of these amplifiers to power the speakers in the home theater/media wing of their house. If this is done, I would hope that they would also donate a chunk of funds to a charity that they (or better yet, I) find worthy. But I would not attempt to talk them out of it. I would have no reason to.