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December 2013
Best Audiophile Product Of 2014 Blue Note Award
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power Amplifiers
Being faithful to the original performance.

Review By Jules Coleman

 

Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power Amplifier  One can enjoy the benefits of viewing paintings without having an interest in the nature of painting practice and absent a desire to learn how to paint. Similarly, one can enjoy listening to live music without having an interest in learning how to play an instrument. It is a further question whether one's appreciation of art or of music is enhanced if it is accompanied by appropriate intellectual and practical curiosities. My view is that not only is one's ability to appreciate art and music enhanced by possessing the appropriate curiosities, the lack of curiosity diminishes one's ability to appreciate either.

Appreciation has a cognitive component. My capacity to appreciate contemporary art, while better than most, hardly compares with my wife's who is a trained painter and art historian. I lack the vocabulary and conceptual framework to fully grasp the work, locate its significance – if it has any – and to assess its absolute and relative merits. I certainly cannot judge what its marginal contribution is to its period, let alone to the history of art more generally. In commenting on art work – especially contemporary art – I am by no means reduced to expressing my likes or dislikes, but by comparison to the truly learned I am a novice, have little to add, and am better served by listening than by trying to contribute to the conversation.

Even if you agree that an ability to appreciate art and music requires knowledge, calls for curiosity and seeks to provide insight, you may wonder what this has to do with audio systems: or with listening to music and assessing audio systems. For some would argue that what matters about an audio system is how it makes us feel, not what it makes us think. What kind of knowledge is necessary in order to appreciate or assess an audio system? What kind of knowledge or insight must a music system provide – if any? After all one's capacity to appreciate and assess home audio systems and the experiences they create does not depend in any obvious way on one's knowledge of how amplifiers are made or speakers designed. Nor does one's appreciation of music reproduction depend on yearning to have the skills to design and build electronics, interconnects, cables or resonance control devices, though having the practical skill to do so may – and I emphasize may – help one put together a satisfying system.

This is all obviously true, which leads us back to the question with which we began. Even if both theoretical and practical knowledge of art and of music is necessary to fully appreciate or access either, what kind of knowledge, if any, is necessary to fully appreciate and assess audio systems? The answer is that anyone who wants to appreciate audio systems, let alone claim an ability to assess them, must have a defensible view about what the purpose of an audio system is. Absent a proper understanding of what an audio system is, what its proper aim or goal is, means that all the technical knowledge in the world is likely to go for naught.

Now I am sure that there is no shortage of quick answers to this question. Many will say that the purpose of an audio system is to reproduce or recreate a musical event captured on CD, LP or tape. Do those who advance this view mean to identify audio systems with Xerox machines? I hope not; but if not, what do they have in mind by the terms ‘reproduce' or ‘recreate?' Others will urge that the purpose of an audio system is to create certain emotional responses in the listener: the fuller the range of emotions that one can access through listening at home, the better. It's all about what the music makes you feel. Well I have no doubts about the value of having access to a full range of emotions as a result of listening to music, but all sorts of music systems – from car radios to Bose radios – can do that. I don't think the range or the depth of the emotional responses we have to listening to recorded music is correlated with the quality of the system. I am sure many of us are as emotionally moved in all directions listening to our iPods and car radios as we are listening to the best high end audio has to offer.

So you tell me; what's an audio system for? The answer to this question is the knowledge we need in order to appreciate and assess home audio systems. I am not sure I have an answer, but let's try to work through how to think about it. Maybe we will answer the question fully and satisfactorily. Maybe we will have to be satisfied by making some progress.

 

How To Think About The Purpose Of An Audio System
We have to begin somewhere. Now there is at least one important feature of all audio systems with which we are familiar; and that is that they provide some kind of connection between two distinct events: the one that is captured on the recording and the one that results from the recording being played on the system. These events are themselves composed of many events: the composition of the ‘piece:' the event or (in most cases) the many events involved in performing the piece (including the edits, the mixes, the mastering and more), the transmittal of all this to a playback medium – tape, record, audio file; the listening experience when the tape, record, file or what have you is played through a ‘system' in your room (your room of course being as much a part of your system as the venue is part of the recording.)

Artistic as well as technical judgments and interpretations are involved every step of the way. No one in the chain from composer to listener sees the process as analogous to producing Xerox copies of anything that precedes it in the chain. Instead, all the events in the chain from composition to the listening experience, have an essential interpretive dimension. These interpretations are governed by norms and thus involve evaluative judgments. To be sure, everyone in the chain, if pressed, should be able to explain his or her choices by appeal to the norms he or she accepts, and if pressed further should be able to justify or defend the norms themselves. The process of creating a music listening experience in the home is part of a creative process and itself involves interpretive choices.

If this is right, and I am sure it is, there is at least as much art as science to an audio system. Creating a musical experience in the home involves so many prior judgments, evaluations and interpretations, we cannot allow ourselves the conceit that there is nothing more for an audio system to do beyond recreate the original. Thus, I find the audiophile slogans – e.g. ‘the audio system should be transparent to the source,' or ‘the audio system should disappear,' and so on – unhelpful for many reasons. First, they understate or distract us from the significance of the interpretive dimensions of the entire process. Secondly, and in many ways more importantly, they are inconsistent with the plain fact of our experience: namely that all sorts of obviously flawed systems are musically persuasive and satisfying whereas many technically flawless systems are virtually unlistenable.

We cannot settle for misleading slogans and pretend they are answers to extremely difficult questions. Indeed, it may be worthwhile to explore just how difficult these questions can be. Suppose there were no original performance? The conventional view is that an audio system ‘takes' the original event in the form it is presented (tape, CD, LP, etc.) and turns it into a listening experience. If the conventional view is correct, then all that is left is to determine whether a particular system does this job well or poorly.

It is not that simple, however, and to see why let's consider a couple of different thought experiments. Consider first a challenge to the idea that an audio system is an instrument for turning an original performance into a listening experience. We can fashion this challenge in several ways, but I want to focus on one aspect of the equation: namely, why should we suppose that an audio system should be evaluated in terms of the relationship between the original event and the listening experience. So one may ask themselves "What purpose does the existence of the original event serve in our assessment of an audio system?"

Let's see if we can motivate a skeptical approach to the relevance of original performance to the assessment of an audio system; and if we can, then we have to question the standard ways of assessing audio systems, all of which advance some or other version of the view that the listening experience should ‘reflect', ‘reproduce' or otherwise ‘recreate' the original performance. We can motivate skepticism in more or less radical ways. Let's begin with the less radical approach. In this scenario, we take as given that an audio system cannot create a musical experience de novo. It is the kind of device that has to be fed some stimulus itself in order to do so. Thus, we need some event to trigger the audio system to do its work; and for the purposes of our thought experiment we can assume that this event is a recording of some sort that contains an original performance of a musical piece; and we can suppose further that this is the same piece that is presented in the listening experience.

So we assume that audio systems need a triggering event that is the recording. Once triggered, the audio system creates a musical experience. Why should we care whether that experience reflects, recreates or reproduces the triggering experience. Suppose the experience your system creates is as intellectually demanding and satisfying and as emotionally rewarding and complex as you like; and that it is demanding and complex in musically significant ways. Why should we care about whether the experience it creates bears any particular relationship to the original performance? It certainly seems possible that we could assess an audio system entirely in terms of the character of the musical experience it produces without making any further reference (beyond its role as causal stimulant) to the original performance. Worse, why should we care whether the causally stimulating event was the original performance, or indeed any performance at all?

Why should the cause be music in any shape or form? Why can't it just be a matter of our pushing a button? Imagine we had a menu of performances that our audio system could produce for us and all we had to do was choose one, push the button and voila, our system would create the relevant experience for us. If it created wonderful, rich, intellectually rewarding, aesthetic pleasing and emotionally complex experiences would it matter that the system created the experience out of whole cloth?  To be sure, we no longer have an audio playback system, but we do have an audio system. And isn't that enough? Is the experience produced satisfying in just the way any kind of satisfying audio listening experience should be? If it is, what is added by the objection that we no longer have a conventional audio system – one that serves to connect the original event with the listening experience? Arguably, nothing at all!

This thought experiment invites the idea that an audio system should create the right kind of audio experience: deep, insightful, rich, complex, and so on. It matters not how it does this; and it certainly should not matter whether there is an original performance that triggers the experience; and a fortiori it cannot matter whether the listening experience creates the experience it does in virtue of the relationship it bears to that experience. It is what we hear and not it's connection to some other event that matters – or so the argument goes.

The most radical version of the skeptical argument would drive us even farther away from conventional wisdom. For why should it really matter that there is a musical event that our audio system produces in our listening room? Isn't it enough that our ‘audio system' produces the right kinds of thoughts and emotions, and by that I mean the ones characteristically associated with particular pieces of music? Indeed, this is just an extension of the familiar idea that the goal of an audio system is to get out of the way, to allow one to be immersed in the cognitive and emotional dimensions of the performance. The skeptic is merely taking this idea one step further. Why not get rid of the music itself and simply find a machine that creates the characteristically appropriate responses. Not only do we not need an original performance; we don't even need a listening experience. All we need is a machine that produces the right kinds of responses: the right kind of psychological or mental states.

If we start by eliminating the importance of the original performance, we will no doubt be led to eliminating the importance of any performance – even the one that is the listening experience in the home. All that matters are the various psychological states that are characteristically associated with music. It is the having of, or being in such states that is valuable about music (at least for listeners) and so the true aim of an audio system is to produce those states. It is simply a fact about our current technology that we produce them the way we do, but that is a contingent feature that should not carry the evaluative significance that it does. There is no need, for it does so, no matter the state of technology. For if the true aim of an audio system is to create certain kinds of distinctive psychological states, then we should seek to identify what those states are and then evaluate audio systems by the extent to which are able to create those states. And if we move in this direction, why should we care one bit about the relationship between the original event and the listening experience?

I hope you don't misunderstand what I am doing here. I am not endorsing this view. I am trying to present a series of related thought experiments that are designed to make us think about the point or purpose of an audio system. These are skeptical arguments and they begin with one underlying thought. If what is important about audio systems is their ability ultimately to produce certain psychological states that are characteristic of a musical experience, then much of the conventional view about the point of an audio system goes out the window; for not only should we not worry about whether the system reproduces the original event (accurately), we shouldn't worry about whether there is an original event at all. In fact, we shouldn't worry about whether there is a genuine or real listening event. All we should care about is whether the ‘system' creates the right kinds of psychological or mental states?

 

How Do We Respond To The Skeptic?
Philosophers will tell you that there is always a choice to make when faced with skeptical arguments. The natural thought is that one has to find a way to respond to the skeptic's challenge. Personally, I view this as a fool's errand. An alternative approach is to try to understand what feature of the world or our experience of it the skeptic's argument is pointing to that we have somehow missed or inadequately appreciated or explained. In other words, we can look at the skeptical challenge as a way of focusing our own thinking about the world and our experience of it. In this case, instead of trying to find an answer to his challenge that will meet with the skeptic's approval – there probably isn't one – we should look to uncover why we think there is something important and valuable about the way in which audio system's connect original events with listening experiences. And in doing this – or at least in trying to – we will also illustrate the general points I made at the outset, namely that a certain kind of intellectual curiosity and knowledge is essential to appreciation audio systems (as much as it is required to appreciate art or music).

Let's see what progress we can make on this front. The skeptical argument invites us to think about two different things: the first is whether having a musical experience at all should play a role in assessing an audio system or whether instead a system should be assessed entirely by the psychological states it creates.

The second problem the skeptic asks us to think about is this: even if we can explain to ourselves why some actual listening experience is essential to the idea of a successful audio system, what is the importance of the relationship between that event and the so called original event, the one captured on the recording?

Approaching the question ask the skeptic does from the view that what matters to the listener is what he experiences and not its causes turns the conventional wisdom on its head. For in the conventional view, the original event is what matters and the goal is for an audio system to create a listening experience that is as close to the original performance as possible! Failing to achieve that goal is what marks the system as a failure no matter how satisfying the experience may be that the audio system is capable of creating! In contrast, pursuing the subject starting from the psychological states (of the relevant and characteristic sort) and moving backwards, we have difficulty explaining why an original event is necessary, let alone why a successful audio system is one that recreates or reproduces it in this way or that. Working forward from the original performance to the psychological states presupposes precisely what needs to be explained, namely, the importance of the original performance.

 

The Best I Can Do
The skeptic is actually forcing us to identify what is valuable to the listener and to the listening experience. He is presupposing that what is valuable is being in certain kinds of psychological or mental states. And it is no surprise that if this is all that the listener values that it is hard to explain why an audio system should be concerned with the original event, let alone recreating or reproducing it in any way. It makes the though that the audio system should be transparent to the source entirely mysterious.

So to answer our question we need to distinguish among different kinds of values that are associated with music and accessible to us through audio systems. The first kind of valuable experience is associated with being in the appropriate psychological states characteristically caused by listening to music. However one gets into that state, whatever the cause, the states themselves can be intellectually and emotionally challenging and rewarding, and to the extent they are, they are valuable for those reasons. This is the value the skeptic emphasizes to the exclusion of the others.

The second kind of valuable experience is being in those psychological states as a result of actually listening to music or a musical event. That there is a different kind of value in the second case can be made plain by considering an example that has nothing to do with music. It may well be desirable to have the psychological state associated with being complimented for being a good or a generous person without anyone actually complimenting you. Of course, it may also be a defect in you if you find yourself in such a state on a regular basis though you are wicked, unkind, uncaring and a narcissist. (I know a few such people, don't you?) But even if we suppose the psychological state you find yourself in is appropriate in that you are kind, caring and generous, the experience of being put in that state as a result of someone complimenting you for your kindness and generosity is an altogether different thing and valuable in its own way for that reason.

This second kind of valuable state is one that in the audio context can be secured as a result of the listening experience and does not require an original performance. It requires only the production of a musical experience in the room in which you are listening. It does not require that this listening experience be in any way connected to an original performance. So how are we going to find our way not only to the necessity of the original experience, but to its connection to the relevant psychological or mental states that we seek when listening to music? The answer is both straightforward and elusive at the same time. In short, we need an original performance because some of the most interesting and significant things we want to know and feel are ‘about' that performance. We play the disc, the tape or the LP because there are features of that performance that we want to observe, understand, feel, appreciate and so on.

To be sure we have general kinds of desires and interests that are in the broad sense musical and those can be satisfied in a number of ways. And sometimes we just put anything on the CD player or turntable to get us in the appropriate mood or put us in the desired place. And in all honesty, as I see it, the existence of an original performance is not really necessary in these cases. It's like putting on the car radio while driving to listen to music. We do this because of the ways in which music in general or of a certain type affects us. Indeed, in the majority of cases, certainly in the modern world, music is a kind of background to our lives. For most of us most of the time, rarely does its role in our lives reach much beyond that.

But there are times, more often for some of us than for others, that listening to music plays a different role; when it is much closer to reading a novel by a particular author – as opposed to any novel. It is facts about the particular author we want to learn or experience: the way he or she constructs the story, develops the characters, poses and resolves various problems, choices and dilemmas. Features of the original are the objects of our interests. So too in music – not always, and maybe not often, or at least not often enough; our aim is to learn about and to feel the experiences we do as a result of that engagement. In other words, there are interests we have in particular performances themselves: the composer's intention, his or her interpretation of the piece, the conductors reading of it, the performer's interpretation, even the mixer or the editor's take on it; and so on. Sometimes we want to get into those heads and those hearts. Our being able to do so is distinctively valuable, and can only be secured by the existence of an original performance.

I am not saying that this is the ultimate value of listening to music or even that it is more valuable than just being in the right kind of psychological or mental states: the kind characteristically produced by music; nor am I saying that it is more valuable than being in those states as a result of listening to music. I am saying only that it is distinctively valuable; and that were it not for this value and the role it plays in our lives, we would have no real need for audio systems that re-produce or re-create anything. We could well be satisfied by devices that create the psychological states in us or that create de novo a musical experience that does. The only reason to have an audio system that plays back a recording of any sort is because of the interests we have that are ‘about' that recording or performance.

Is this an uplifting or a deflating revelation?

Both actually. On the one hand, if we are to ‘see' into the original performance, then we need an audio system that is up to the task. And that system will be in play even on the many occasions when we are simply listening to music for the many other reasons we have for doing so. This is the reason why having a high quality audio system matters. In order for it to perform its task when it is actually called upon to do so, it must perform when our ambitions are not nearly so noble. On the other hand, the extent to which audio systems are called upon to provide insight into an original performance are few and far between – certainly for the great majority of those who listen to music, and frankly, even for the rest of us, more often than we care to admit.

It is no wonder then that high-end audio is a luxury good and a niche market at best. That's not going to change and for a very good reason: there is no point to having such a system for most people most of the time. It is not a rational investment for most people, even most people who enjoy music, even those for whom music matters a great deal; even for those who in a sense couldn't imagine living without music in their lives. Once we recognize that we are dealing with an extremely small group of individuals for whom a high quality audio system really is essential to satisfying a distinctive kind of emotional and intellectual need, there is no denying that the most depressing fact is that so many ‘audiophiles' spend so much of their time and energy listening to the equipment – and not for the contribution the equipment makes to one's ability to gain the relevant emotional and intellectual insight into the performances.

I understand the many perfectly legitimate ways in which one can be enamored of the machine. A house is for living in, but one can still admire its architecture. Automobiles are for getting from place to place, yet it is easy to understand why some love the sheet metal, the intricacies of the design and so on. At the end of the day, as they say, it's about the music, not the hardware. Actually, it is more complicated than that. It is not fundamentally about the hardware, but neither is it about the music as such. Rather it is the connection between the musical performance and particular emotional and intellectual interests we have.

 

What Then Is The Aim Of An Audio System?
Surely this is the source of the conventional wisdom that the ideal audio system is one that disappears to leave the listener immersed in the original performance or one that is transparent to the source. Of course, the audio system cannot literally disappear, but it can leave as little imprint on the listening experience as possible. The aim is full transparency, but this is the best in practice that we can do. It is easy to see the lure of the conventional view, but I think it is terribly misleading. Why? My view is motivated by one simple truth though I am sure it is controversial. If we are honest about our experiences listening to home audio systems, we will admit that we have been in the presence of undeniably flawed systems that are absolutely wonderful in every way that matters musically; and we will admit as well that we have been in the presence of technically flawless (or nearly flawless) systems that are nevertheless musically wrong or unpersuasive. What the former produce is musically convincing or persuasive for all their flaws; what the latter produce is musically void for all their technical proficiency.

Does this mean that ‘colored' systems are as good as more transparent ones? Is it just a matter of choosing one's preferred colorations? Frankly, I am not sure what it would be for a component or system to be colorless. Whether or not something is colored depends on the baseline: the class of comparison. Real instruments in real spaces played by real people and listened to by other real people are colored; they are colored by the context. Played under other circumstances they would sound differently than they do. But you will object that by what you mean by ‘color' is an addition or subtraction to the original recording that is the result of the component or playback system.

But we praise music halls and venues for their colorations. My listening room is kind to upper frequencies and less than helpful to deep bass notes. Disney Hall emphasizes the leading edge and reduces the weight of every note. Carnegie Hall warms and softens the edges. Everything has character; why shouldn't audio components. And why is having a coloration of some sort necessarily an evil or worse? But you will object again that there is something especially unwelcome about colorations in audio components for the aim of an audio component or system is ‘fidelity.' Carnegie Hall and the Bowery Ballroom have no such aim. They have their strengths and weaknesses, but their failures are not matters of fidelity!

 

Fidelity
Fidelity is an interesting concept and worth exploring. We use the term in a variety of contexts. A polity exhibits fidelity to its institutions to the extent it supports them and protects them against attack. Fidelity to law is a commitment to support the institutions of law and to be governed by them. It is not a commitment to obey law merely in virtue of its being law. There is something to the idea that fidelity is connected to faithfulness. Fidelity is closer to the concept of faithfulness than it is to accuracy and truth. An audio system must be faithful, but this leaves us with two questions: what does faithfulness consist in; and what must an audio system be faithful to? A successful audio reproduction is not merely beautiful, but insightful. Through it the listener can gain insight into the composer's intention, the performer's interpretative judgment, the depth or complexity of the music; and so on.

A system that allows the listener to experience subtle counterpoints, contrasts in dynamics, humor, irony, malaise, are better for that. Don't we distinguish among novels in this way; and even intellectual or academic essays and books. I much prefer reading an academic book in which I can sense the author's struggle with the problem she is addressing, her knowledge of the pressures that are its source, is so much more rewarding to me than reading works written by authors who present their views as if the problems they are addressing pose no powerful obstacles to their resolution.

And even beautiful and simple musical pieces are beautiful, if not necessarily deep, as a result of choices: choices that the composer has made, the conductor has made, the performers have made, the engineers have made; and more. The best audio systems provide me access to those features. Such systems reveal truths, insights and are faithful to the underlying work in ways that Joe Friday's ‘nothing but the facts' could not hope to be – nor does it aspire to be. Facts in the hands of dullards reveal noting and certainly not abiding truths.

A great audio system challenges the mind and the heart and soul. It provides insight into work when there is insight to be found and it reveals the lack of it in the vast majority of work. If pure accuracy or transparency to the source were the road to this experience then we should be hard pressed to explain why systems that fall short of the ideal do so much a better job of moving us in the right ways while so many systems leave us cold and alienated. It is not just that they are unpleasant to listen to. Some technically proficient systems are quite pleasant to listen to. There is nothing irritating or harsh about them. Still they are almost entirely without soul, insight, or challenge. It is not enough that an audio system provides insight, emotional engagement and intellectual challenge and reward. It must do it for the right reasons.

This is a hard idea to grasp especially in this context, but let me try to illustrate what I have in mind drawing from examples in other contexts. Strong evidence and truth are the right kinds of reason for belief; humorousness in the right kind of reason for laughter; culpable wrongdoing is the right kind of reason for indignation, resentment and guilt. Wanting something to be true in spite of evidence to the contrary is the wrong kind of reason for belief; innocent or excusable wrongdoing is the wrong kind of reason for resentment, indignation or guilt. In the former cases the response is apt or fitting; in the latter cases it is not. But what makes the response apt in the one and inapt in the other? The answer is in part that it is appropriate to laugh as a result of hearing something humorous; appropriate to feel resentment when one is wronged; and appropriate to believe when confronted with the truth. The response is caused in the right way for the right kinds of reasons.

 

The Right Kinds Of Reasons
Turning to audio if you listen to Jeff Beck's live version of ‘A Day in the Life' and you find yourself in tears or otherwise moved emotionally because you remember that Jeff Beck was seriously injured in a car accident, then you are moved to tears for the wrong kinds of reasons. That is obvious. And if playing ‘Yellow Submarine' makes you laugh because your stereo system emits laughing gas while playing the tune, which too is the wrong kind of reason. It is more difficult to characterize what would count as the right kinds of reasons – the right kind of uninterrupted causal chain between the original recording and the insight and emotions we experience as a result. Whatever the response one has to the listening experience it must be in virtue of features of the playback that express or capture musically valuable aspects of the performance: correct tone, timbre, dynamic realism, narrative resolution; and so on.

The basic idea is that a successful audio system is one that connects the listening experience and the original performance in the right ways for the right kinds of reasons and in doing so enables the listener to have certain distinctive kinds of emotional and cognitive responses. The listener can see more deeply into the composer's intention, the performer's interpretative choices, the struggle or emotional dilemma meant to convey and so on; and does at least in part in virtue of the right kind of musical cues that have been transmitted by the system – including tone, timbre, dynamic realism, contrast between macro and micro dynamics and counterpoint, and so on.

The simple truth is all sorts of systems are capable of doing this to greater or lesser degrees even if they are technically flawed in some ways; or even if (perhaps, sometimes because) they are ‘colored' in particular ways. At the same time, technically flawless systems sometimes cannot get within a country mile of doing so. In addition, different listeners respond to different musical values differently and assign weights accordingly.

My friend, David Chesky, is moved more by being able to follow various individual lines throughout a piece than others might be. He is a composer and that makes sense. My son, Jeremy, who is an indie/pop musician is moved more by being able to sense the integration or resolution of playback than he is by dynamic slam. It makes sense because he is a songwriter and a student of creative writing as well. He wants to be able to discern the narrative: the story.

There is no one thing a serious listener is looking to grasp or experience from the performance. The more different kinds of insights and appropriate emotional experiences a system makes available, the better. On the other hand, some listeners are experienced enough and self-conscious enough to know what they are looking for: what kinds of emotional experiences and insights are particularly important to them: why, in other words, they are drawn in the ways they are to music. It is not unreasonable for them to search for an audio system that provides the kinds of insight they seek – even if it fails to be fully revealing in other ways. An audio system has to act on the original performance in some ways, if only to organize it, to give it structure as a listening experience. It is not a microscope designed to let us see all the available parts and make of it what we will. Which brings me to the:

 

Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power Amplifiers And The Back Story
Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power AmplifiersI have been mulling over issues like these for years, but I was stimulated to write about them now as a result of my experience with the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power Amplifiers. But first the back-story. For several years I reviewed primarily turntables, tube preamplifiers, low powered tube amplifiers and horn loaded loudspeakers. During that period I constructed a reference system comprised entirely of Shindo equipment – from TT to speaker system. Given my interests, the Shindo system represented the ne plus ultra in audio as I was likely to come by given constraints of room size and money. I never doubted that there were other audio systems that were as commanding and persuasive as my reference system, but that's a little like someone who owns a Ferrari allowing that Lamborghinis may also be pretty good too (Editor's Note: i'd rather have a Lambo than a Ferrari, and this is coming from someone who not only daily drove but also regularly tracked a Ferrari! Also interesting to note many of my old Ferrari friends have also changed to other marques including Bentley, McLaren and others. Hmmm....)

I lost interest in being a reviewer for several reasons. I feared that I had run out of things to say. More importantly, I doubted my ability going forward to fairly judge the quality of alternative audio components – so familiar was I with the Shindo approach/sound and so enamored of it. I sensed that tossing in someone else's preamplifier or amplifier into my system would be unfair in that I would always find the net result somewhat less satisfying than the system I had constructed: and for good reason. After all, I had put a great deal of effort into creating a system that was completely successful in the ways I explained above. So with fewer and fewer components to review and a growing worry about my ability to remain objective or helpful, I gave up reviewing.

Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power AmplifiersSoon thereafter I had to let go of my reference system. Friends helped me put together a system of equipment on loan and I was able to enjoy music listening to it, but not in the way I had grown accustomed to. While perfectly enjoyable, the system afforded little insight into the music. It was only when I realized what I was missing that I began to think seriously about what is special about high end audio and how to think about the norms for assessing high end systems.

Recently I have taken up a new academic post which includes my being a member of the Clive Davis Program in Recorded Music at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University. I had spent thousands of hours with and thinking about recorded music, and now I was going to be paid for doing so. If I was going to teach about recorded music, I had to continue to learn and think about it. In my case, that meant returning to reviewing and constructing a new reference system. Fortunately for me, I had a soft spot in my heart for electrostatic speakers – and for one reason above all others – coherence. Over the years I have owned Quad ESL 57s, a pair of KLH9s and the earliest versions of the Koss Model 1-A electrostatics.

I always wanted to have a go at the larger Sound Labs. Of all the electrostatics I have heard, my initial impression of the Sound Labs was the most favorable. They are as close to full range as an electrostatic speaker can be, coherent in the way that only electrostatics can be, and in my limited prior experience extremely revealing of upstream components. So I resolved that I would begin my new journey by installing a pair of Sound Lab Majestic 845 electrostatics in my home. These had recently undergone changes with which I was not familiar, and Roger West, the wonderful and generous owner and designer of Sound Lab was very accommodating. He loaned me pair for review and they sit (a misleading term in that they actually dominate) my listening room. With the Sound Labs in place the next questions concerned amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, and sources.

Several manufacturers were kind enough to offer electronics suitable for use with the Sound Labs, notable among them the good people at Pass Labs with whom I had been previously familiar, and Merrill Wettasinghe – whose equipment was recommended to me by Steve Rochlin and Larry Borden – but with which I was entirely unfamiliar. The Pass equipment arrived first and I installed it along with the Sound Labs, the absolutely wonderful CD player and a trusty Well Tempered turntable. Once I got a feel for the Pass/Sound Lab sound, I invited Merrill to bring his amps over and I would insert them into the system.

 

Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks
Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power AmplifiersI am a holist about audio systems and find it hard to evaluate components individually beyond the character they display in conjunction with the other components in a system. The confidence I have in making claims about particular components beyond their fit in a particular system depends in part on what I know about the other components and what I can discern about the underlying character of the component I am reviewing. As I have said many times before, the heart of an audio system is the preamplifier. The one I have on hand consists of Pass Lab separates: their top of the line phono and line stages, each with its own dedicated power supply. In a nutshell, the setup is full-bodied, harmonically rich, extended top to bottom and revealing. The sources included the new Well Tempered TT and the Meitner SA2 CD player. The speakers were the Sound Lab Majestic 845, though I also listened to the Merrill amps for several weeks through the Sanders hybrid electrostatics that Merrill uses as a reference and which were also recommended to me by Larry Borden. Reviews of all of these components are forthcoming over the coming year.

In reviewing the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power Amplifiers, I did most of my listening through the Meitner CD player. I was not confident that I had fully dialed in the connection between my cartridge and the Pass phono stage and did not want whatever uncertainty existed on that front to impact my sense of the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks. In addition, I would have plenty of time to listen to that combination when my attention is turned to reviewing the Pass Labs preamplifiers. As I mentioned, I listened to the same system with the Pass Labs Class A Monoblocks, but not long enough to make any comparisons with the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks meaningful or reliable. My focus was exclusively on gaining whatever insight I could into the character and quality of the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks.

 

The Basics
Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power AmplifiersIn their earlier iterations, Sound Lab speakers were a beast of a load to drive and more than a few amplifiers died trying; or maybe it would be better to say that they were so frustratingly difficult to drive that many an amplifier blew a fuse trying. Pardon the humor, but the difficulty of the load was notorious, if not quite in the league of other amp killers like the Martin Logan CLS. That was then; this is now. The Majestic 845 is rated at 8 ohms and possesses a sensitivity of 89db. Thus they presented no difficulties at all for the VERITAS Monoblocks, which deliver 400 watts a side into 8 ohms (700 into 4 Ohms, 1200 into 2 Ohms). The VERITAS Monoblocks are a Class D design and employ the Hypex Ncore NC1200 and Hypex SMPS1200A700 modules noted for speed and clarity and general high performance. Quoting from the website:

The signal paths are designed to be the shortest possible... Keeping wires short removes the requirement for shielding, and lets the speed, control and dynamics of the sound come through the power amp unhindered.

The VERITAS are designed to minimize noise and maximize speed and clarity. Fully balanced and biwired from the board, the VERITAS are a model of efficient design. Relatively light at 35 pounds the pair and compact at 17" x 12" x 3" (WxDxH) sans footers, the amps are fashioned from aircraft grade aluminum and are available in a variety of colors. The ones I have in for review are black and entirely unobtrusive. They have a welcome ‘blingless' look that is nowadays refreshing. The understated appearance on the outside belies the attention to detail that characterizes their construction – both inside and out. The Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks retail for 12,000.00 USD including worldwide shipping.

 

In Play
Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power AmplifiersI have had limited experience with Class D amps, and my experience has been mixed. The earliest versions were soft and a little bloated, while less expensive versions sounded a bit tinny and harmonically incomplete to my ear. Until Merrill Wettasinghe, the head honcho and designer of the VERITAS Monoblocks showed up at my doorstep with his amps, I had no particular interest in listening to another Class D amp. The Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks changed all that. To get to the conclusion first, the VERITAS Monoblocks power amplifier is a superb match with the Sound Lab speakers. It is excellent and has the rare quality of providing a fixed point around which a music listener can construct a wonderfully insightful audio experience. More on this below.

VERITAS is the Roman goddess of ‘truth,' and it is obvious from speaking with him and listening to the amplifier that Merrill Wettasinghe is committed to the view that components should be as truthful to the source as possible. In his view truthfulness is a matter of accuracy and accuracy in turn is determined by the elimination of noise and distortion. The best components are those that are transparent to the source. The amplifier is designed to leave as little imprint on the signal it receives as possible and to send it along as quickly to the speakers as possible.

There is no question that the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks achieves these ambitions. To be sure, distortion is not a friend to music or to the listening experience, but speed and transparency needn't lead to a musically revealing, coherent or complete or even satisfying experience. Again, components are neither microscopes nor Xerox machines. Their value as elements of a high end system depends largely on their ability to provide insight into the original event, not to repeat it or merely to present it. The components of an audio system, taken together, should must integrate the elements in a musical experience and give the listener access to it as a whole.

And this is where the VERITAS Monoblocks shine. For while it may be designed for speed and transparency, it provides so much more. It provides a coherent and integrated picture that in conjunction with the other components in the current system allows one to see deeply into the original event. Its most remarkable feat in the current set up is that it provides an intellectually rewarding and emotionally satisfying experience at once: neither at the expense of the other. It balances beauty with truth. Truth is not the same thing as accuracy. Many of the truths we come to know are revealed to us in ways that have less to do with accuracy than insight. Think of psychoanalysis. The truths we learn about ourselves in psychoanalysis do not depend on the accuracy of our reporting of facts and experiences in our lives. There is a place for accuracy, but it is never a substitute for truth.

 

Some Specific Characteristics
The Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock power amplifiers are fast and transparent. They are also powerful and dynamic, very extended both top and bottom. The Sound Labs are full range loudspeakers with a surprisingly deep and dynamic bottom end – for an electrostatic. The VERITAS Monoblocks control the bottom end fully as they do the entirety of the audible range. To confirm my impression of the amps ability to provide a deep and convincing bottom to the music, I listened to the amps through the Sanders hybrid electrostatics. In that design, the lower octaves are produced by a transmission line loaded woofer. The result was staggeringly powerful and persuasive. In virtue of their hybrid design the Sanders are capable of moving more air than are full range electrostatics. For me, the overall effect is less musically convincing than the Sound Labs (reviews of both to follow), but it is easy to see why someone who is drawn to ‘dynamic slam' would be drawn to the VERITAS/Sanders match.

Merrill is quite open about the character of his amplifiers. He is not drawn to producing a rich or sweet sound; and the VERITAS Monoblocks are neither. While they are not sweet or rich, they are harmonically developed and tonally satisfying. Here, the match with the rest of the components in the system is important. In the current system, the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks were able to display its truly extraordinary nature: fully revealing in a completely integrated way. The amps are an ideal fixed point for a system that calls for power and subtlety, yet one that is not otherwise thin or spare. In the current system, the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks provide the near perfect compliment. Unlike other electrostatics the Sound Labs do not sacrifice body for speed. Whereas other electrostatics can sound paper thin, the Sound Labs are anything but. At the same time, the Pass Labs preamps are not quite as rich or full bodied as are its Class A amplifiers, but they are harmonically extremely well developed. That is because, while not cool, the VERITAS Monoblocks shies away from adding an element of warmth. On its own terms, it sounds more like Disney Hall than Carnegie Hall.

Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock Power AmplifiersI find this aspect of the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks extremely attractive, not because I prefer Disney Hall to Carnegie Hall: quite the contrary in fact. Rather it is because the VERITAS Monoblocks are so true to the designer's ambitions that it makes it much easier to construct a satisfying system around them. The combination of the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks and the Sound Labs provides a nearly perfect fixed point. If you seek more richness and sweetness then you can match the set up with a preamp and sources accordingly. The VERITAS Monoblocks will add nothing of its own and the Sound Labs will reveal it all and are capable of doing so in a uniquely coherent and integrated fashion.

When I think of other components I have reviewed over the years in an attempt to find a useful comparison to the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks, the closest comparison I can think of is the Gradient Revolution loudspeaker system. In my review of the Gradient Revolution, in characterizing the speaker, I wrote, "the Gradient Revolution neither edits nor imparts its character onto the signal it receives. But unlike, say, the Beauhorn, the Gradient is not just a 'pass-through' design: it integrates the information that comes its way. What it will not do is prejudge or evaluate the music. It interprets the signal as music. The listener doesn't have to put the details together to make musical sense of it, as one sometimes has to do with certain other non-editing designs. But the Gradient is neutral in the important sense of not prejudging the material. It does not believe that it is the listener's burden to interpret the details as music. That's its job. But it does believe the evaluative task falls to the listener."

The Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks are to amplifiers as the Gradient Revolution is to speakers; and that is high praise indeed. The key is to find the right speakers and other components to match with it: not to get the most out of it, but because it will allow those components to reveal their character fully. I am confident the VERITAS/Sound Labs match is an excellent place to begin your quest. I would suspect that the VERITAS Monoblocks are also a wonderful match for large planar speakers, a combination I am looking forward to trying myself at some point.

The Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks are faithful to its designer's vision. More importantly, it is faithful to the original performance. What you hear is what you get; what you learn and feel is up to you. The VERITAS Monoblocks makes sure of that. You may well be drawn to the VERITAS Monoblocks for their raw power and transparency. But you will fall hard for them because of their subtlety, their way with music and connection they allow you to make with it: the insights there for you discover, just as the emotions are there for you to experience. And that, my friends, is as they say, the truth.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Solid-state power amplifier
Power: 400 Watts at 8 Ohms, 700 Watts at 4 Ohms and 1,200 Watts at 2 Ohms
Input Impedance: 100 kOhms
Output Impedance: 3 mOhms
Damping factor: 2,000 at 4 Ohms
THD: 0.004% at 200 watts
Current: 38 Amps typical max
Frequency Response: 0 Hz to 50kHz (+/- 3dB)
One Audio mute button
Gain: 26 dB
SNR: 128 dB
Input: Balanced via Cardas XLR with silver pins, rhodium plate and gold plated body
One Remote Trigger. 12V for remote turn on/off
Output: Two pairs of speaker outputs via patented Cardas rhodium over billet copper posts
Power Output: One IEC Furutech gold plated
Warranty: Five year transferable
Stillpoints Ultra Mini Risers Footers
Synergistic Research Tunnel Fuse
Power Cord: MA-10 Custom Power Cord for VERITAS by Triode Wire Labs.
Accessories: Cardas RCA to XLR adaptors (optional)
Dimensions: 17" x 12" x 3" (WxDxH without footers)
Weight: 35 lbs.
Color Options: Bordeaux, Platinum, Nano Carbon Black.

 

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

E-mail: Sales-123@merrillaudio.net 
Website: www.MerrillAudio.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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