We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may surprise you! This month we're featuring Merrill Wettasinghe, Chief Music Officer of Merrill Audio. Based in New Jersey, Merrill Audio offers high-end audio amplification that meets, and perhaps exceeds, the expectations of audiophiles worldwide. Merrill Audio has earned many awards over the years for their mono and stereo solid-state products.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. My auntie was a big fan of country music, Hank Williams. She had reel-to-reel tapes of Hank Williams, and would play the guitar and sing as well as Hank Williams could. The song that was most often played on the reel to reel tape with separate performances by my Auntie accompanied by the guitar was, "I'm so lonesome I could cry", by Hank Williams. I was fascinated, by both the music, the singing, the reel to reel sound even back then. When I was eight, I started studying the practical and Theory of Classical Piano and continued for eight years, which gave me a sincere appreciation and love for music and its nuances.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. My Uncle was a big audio buff. He had the JBL Olympus C50 with the 15" woofer (pictured above), 15" passive radiator, and horn tweeter, Driven by McIntosh MC2205, McIntosh C32, Thorens TT with Ortofon MC cartridge and step-up transformer. Everything was LP's back then. Based on his recommendations we upgraded our system from my power amp on Toshiba speakers and TT to McIntosh MC2105 with the McIntosh C28, Kenwood KD650 direct drive TT, and Pickering MM cartridge, Pioneer HPM-150 speakers. This was the cat's meow for me at that time – 1978, when I was 17.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. Nostalgia takes me back to my Uncle's JBL Olympus C50 speakers. We listened to wonderful old music back then – Louis Armstrong and Sergio Mendez were just some of those favorites. Everything was vinyl and reel to reel. A lot has changed from then, but the old step-up transformers with the hysteresis problems for Moving coil cartridges and the Older Warmer Moving coil cartridge still brings back good memories.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. The high-end Audio company decided to start me around 2007 :). Prior to that, I was always working for a large company – as an Engineer, in Sales and then Executive Management, so I always purchased my equipment. Mark Levinson's 332 amp, 360 DAC, 37 transport and 380s preamp were my last purchased system. First I built a passive "preamp" (more accurately, attenuator) so I would have greater transparency between the DAC and the amp. This was popular privately and I took this public using the Light Dependent Resistors (LDR) and a microprocessor to control the horrible non-linearities that the LDRs had.
Hypex was introducing the Ncore around 2011 and Hypex was excited to have me try them out. This was the next product – the VERITAS Monoblocks. I took input from everyone I could from power cords, to footers, to wire, etc. It was all designed in. This was so good even Hypex Mola-Mola could not beat it. That was when the company was born, 2012, and took off in 2013. My equipment is known for musical immediacy, micro detail, tone, and timbre. And I still am today, with every product, simply setting the next bar for the audiophiles to reach.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. Informally, the first product was the Passive Preamplifier with microprocessor-controlled LDRs. This was in 2012, prior to official formation. The first formal product was the VERITAS Monoblocks. Although I had been designing amplifiers and preamps for many years, this was the first Class D amplifier and proved to be groundbreaking – some might even say mind breaking - for audiophiles who were used to the old slow Class A and Class B products.
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. Those days and still today, the chance to fully demonstrate what music should sound like as recorded, not smoothed over or micro-details removed. This is the challenge and I like to educate with examples and have A/B comparisons with my equipment. As with all young growing companies, I have to focus on a few items at once with limited investment and high inventory costs of manufacturing, research, distribution, and dealers.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. The products have become more sophisticated, and with new technologies are more expensive to build. The latest ELEMENT series of amplifiers using the most advanced transistors called Gallium Nitride (GaN) transistors, which are so fast and placement-critical that the boards have to be X-rayed to make sure everything is placed correctly during manufacturing. This has to be done by machine for extreme precision placement. The Merrill Audio ELEMENT series of amplifiers use the GaN transistor to provide the full micro-detail of music, full bodied, and music from the low frequencies to the top-end.
To take advantage of the GaN Transistors, we had to use very sophisticated software for the printed circuit boards so that the full board had the same characteristics with minimal parasitic inductance and capacitance throughout. This allowed high speed with a very natural musical reproduction. This was a lot of initial work but the results are stunning. All this research will now trickle down to all the new products coming out like the Tape Head Preamps, the new Christine MK II preamp, the ELEMENT Preamps, and other amps.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. The new ELEMENT series of Amplifiers has certainly become the most popular since introduction. Once anyone hears them in their system, they then become a new reality.
The MASTER Tape Head Preamp is quickly catching up but that is a niche market for Reel to Reel enthusiasts. Anyone who has a reel-to-reel with a direct head output is simply amazed at how live the Tapes sound with the Merrill Audio Master Tape Head Preamp. The noise floor is reduced dramatically and the dynamic contrast/range is much greater. It simply brings a new appreciation to high-quality Master or very well dubbed Master Tapes.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its' features?
A. I have been asked by many to introduce a preamplifier for the ELEMENT series. This will be the ELEMENT Christine Preamplifier. The upgrade will be lower noise floor, greater dynamic contrast, better micro detail, and wider frequency bandwidth. The result is more on the immediacy and musical reproduction of difficult instruments like the complex orchestra or piano pieces. It will have an optional DAC and phono stage, and a home theatre bypass. Still all balanced. Some of the new technologies will be Bluetooth streaming and Bluetooth app control.
Also included will be extraordinarily innovative Tone Controls. Yes, Tone Controls. A throwback but very nice to have. It won't be your grandfather's tone controls with all phases being shifted willy nilly but a special circuit that keeps the phase intact. Of course our signature immediacy, power, micro detail will still be there with this Tone control circuit. It is a big secret of how we do this!
The MASTER PRO Tape Head Preamp is also being introduced as requested by many reel to reel recording and playback folks. The frequency adjustments at three key frequencies are the new features of the, following the MASTER TRIDENT which was extremely well received.
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. What is high-end today will be medium to low-end tomorrow. There will be greater use of the newer technologies like Gallium Nitride (GaN) transistors not in just amplifiers but in power supplies and preamps. We are introducing a GaN power supply shortly.
Other industries like wireless, aircraft, microprocessor, and image processing will introduce new ways of reproducing audio in electronics, and there will be better chasses, as well as wireless transmission of sound. High-end audio will get a lot more complex to build but will be at least 10x better in sound reproduction and ease of use. AES has already defined 22 channels for Home Theatre. Will audiophiles expand out of two channel and into an immersive audio experience?
Other innovations are more digital processing but hopefully not killing the sound. The digital processing will allow for everything from room control to complete removal of capacitors, inductors, transformers as filters, and crossovers in speakers. The greater complexity will result in greater engineering needs but an order of magnitude great immersion in the performance of the music.