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June 2019
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Superior Audio Equipment Review

World Premiere Review!
Merrill Audio Element 116 Versus Veritas Monoblock Amplifiers
Comparative thoughts on two premium amplifiers from Merrill Audio.
Review By Dr. Michael Bump

 

Merrill Audio Element 116 Review

 

  Some of my favorite, albeit rare, audiophile experiences have been what some might refer to as "blind shootouts." Not just A/B sessions with similarly priced, similarly designed audio components, but true variety pack shootouts between significantly varied designs and price points. These experiences have been healthy cleansing reminders for me to avoid listening with my eyes (or my wallet), and keep my ears on the music. In the May issue of Enjoy the Music.com's Review Magazine, Roger Skoff offers a candid explanation as to why each of us is ultimately the "expert" when it comes to defining the two primary determinates of audiophilia: "What's good?" and "How can you tell?" The common response to this of course is one most of us have heard countless times: What do your ears tell you? The clarity of this response lies in the inherent subjectivity of audiophilia, that each of us has a formed opinion as to what the end-game in musical sound reproduction should be. Sure, we might all agree that a common denominator would include an accurate representation of the recorded event from every possible sonic parameter. Still, there's that sub quotient to the equation whose formula is deeply personal and can only be known to the listener, who, upon hearing it, recognizes it instantly. After all, audio personality is what makes this crazy infatuation go-round.

Listening with our own ears seems simple enough, but the path towards an (in)formed opinion is riddled with distractions manifested in many well-intended guises – guises which often move the ball from the listening goal to the equipment goal. Don't get me wrong – like all of us, I continue to research techs and specs to help better understand an equipment designer's sonic objectives. As a professional musician and not one who is otherwise well-versed in electrical engineering, I love learning about the scientific and mechanical processes by which well recorded music is presented at the highest levels. But even the most articulate narratives, comments, reviews, etc. cannot account for my ears' first impressions.

To be clear, when it comes to teaching, producing and reproducing music, I'm obsessively detail oriented. It is a consequence of my formal Western European musical training (specifically, being a percussionist!). This doesn't preclude the value of groove, feel, soul, vibe, or other emotive expressions, but compels me to need every 't' crossed, every 'i' dotted, before I can consider the latter. Thus, my audio system has evolved with these guiding professional values – Gotta have everything at the table in just the right place before I can begin eating. When Merrill Wettasinghe invited me to listen to and compare his new Element 116 monoblocks with my personal Merrill Veritas monoblocks, I sensed I would be playing with fire when it came to a highly resolving design with which I was already familiar, yet offering a quantum leap forward in resolution.

 

Merrill Audio Element 116 Review

 

Over / Under The Hood
The Element series of monoblock amplifiers (118 is $36,000, the 116 is $22,000, and lastly the 114 os $15,000) are essentially a completely new conception of Class D technology from the previous Merrill Audio offerings (Veritas monoblocks, Veritas Twin [dual mono], Veritas, Siamese Twin monoblocks [twice the headroom of the standard Veritas], Thor, and Taranis monoblocks). Whereas, the Veritas are designed around the Hypex NCore NC1200 power modules, the Element 116 takes advantage of the latest, faster transistor material technology using Gallium Nitride (GaN). Additionally, Merrill has developed a zero feedback, open loop proprietary design within the Element series (Code named ZXOL), that provides a quantum leap forward in both detail and immediacy. These innovations, combined with the LLC for the power supply, have placed the Element designs at a new level of sonic clarity and realism. Additionally, it should be noted that both the Veritas and the Element 116 are no slouches with power output, both offering up to 1,200W into 2 ohms, easily providing enough juice for most any speaker. WBT speaker binding posts on the 116 are built like a tank – beefy, with fantastic grip and feel. IMHO, a significant improvement on the Cardas binding posts on the Veritas (which only accept spades or wire).

Both the Veritas and the Element 116 are true fully balanced differential designs with both input signals floating (XLR cabling will be necessary). Although I run JPS Aluminata pcs (15A IEC) in-house on the Veritas, the 116 require a 20A IEC, thus I was obliged to use the Merrill Audio ANAP (also an excellent power cord!) that Merrill included.

Close attention to platform isolation is certainly a forte in both the Veritas as well as the Element 116 – The former using (3) Stillpoint Ultra Mini Risers, with the latter incorporating GAIA III footers from Isoacoustics. Another example of the top-shelf materials found throughout these exceptional amplifiers.

It should be mentioned that, although I find the slim simplicity of the Veritas aluminum block chassis both very attractive and practical, the design and build of the 116 chassis is an altogether different direction. Incredibly elegant – fit-n-finish of the brushed gold accouterments against chrome is beautiful, offering an unquestionable state-of-the-art appearance.

 

Merrill Audio Element 116 Review

 

Evaluation
Over the years, I've enjoyed numerous amps of various topologies…NAD, Simaudio, Pass Labs, Atma-Sphere, Conrad Johnson, to name a few. I became intrigued with the efficiency potential of Class D, having an opportunity to listen to systems with the likes of Mola Mola Kalugas, Nord Acoustics (cannot recall the model), Theta Digital Prometheus, as well as the Veritas. Impressive clarity, sparkling transients, and an uncanny air around sources were consistent impressions, though not all possessed solid control of lower frequencies. The Veritas were the only Class D's that seemed to really get it right across the entire frequency spectrum across all amplitudes.

As professional musicians, my wife and I have crafted a home audio system that serves both downtime as well as critical listening of recording project drafts, reference study, etc. So, we really have to get it right when it comes to truth-in-source reproduction – no artificial colors or sweeteners. I think we're pretty close, or at least for what our budget will allow. Thus, when we chose to retain Merrill's Veritas monos a few yrs ago, it was after numerous auditions listening for that major step forward towards authenticity. IMHO, the old negative clichés of digital amplification have lost their relevance in the sonic realism offered in contemporary designs such as those by Merrill Wettasinghe.

 

Merrill Audio Element 116 Review

 

The Veritas are sonically attractive on a number of levels: Transient clarity, overall speed and accuracy, spacial resolution, well-placed sources, and an organic authenticity to each source, which I particularly admire. The Element 116 really does take these same fundamental qualities and expounds on them in every direction.

While both the Veritas and 116 offer large fortes in speed and accuracy, the PRAT of the 116 is uncanny. Clarity seems to simply flow with this power plant behind the source. Every minutia recorded from the musicians is present in the listening experience in as natural a manner possible. Neither the Veritas nor the 116 ever come across as sterile for the sake of detail, but rather in an engaging and non-fatiguing way. What the 116 offers above the Veritas is a more tactile experience. Everything flows with an immediacy and sense of 3-dimensionality. The 116 seems to help lift the top and bottom off the frequency spectrum, allowing the timbral characteristics of both instrumental and vocal sources to sound wonderfully realistic and natural in the acoustic space. Definitely no artificial colors or sweeteners here! I suspect much of this affect has to do with increased air/spacial awareness – essentially no noise discerned. Sonic image is deeper, more holographic when compared to the Veritas – backdrop is pitch black. Ease of listening through and around musical sources is impressive, yet the intent of a composite entity is never lost. Equally, any vestiges of subtle over ring or distortion which may be present on certain recordings when powered by the Veritas seem to have disappeared with the 116.

 

Merrill Audio Element 116 Review

 

The word 'robust' often popped into my stream of written consciousness while listening with the 116. Robust in the sense that all of the transient definition and overall frequency spectrum of the Veritas is given more presence through the 116. It's true that the 116 offered a tighter punch in the lower frequencies (I ended up dialing out my Velodyne DD10+ early in the evaluation process, whereas I enjoyed having it with the Veritas). However, for me, the robustness of the 116 was defined through its overall presence and faithfulness to the recorded musical sources.

 

A Few Reference Examples
I enjoyed listening to many of my reference recordings with both the Veritas and 116, and will offer three favorites for comparison:

1. Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny – Beyond the Missouri Sky [Verve/180g LP]
Being a Missourian, as well as both Haden and Metheny being native Missourians, this great recording is naturally a part of my reference collection. One might assume this to be a straight-on jazz album, however it actually serves as a platform for these good friends to stretch out in many, often indefinable directions that create some interesting dialogue, harmonic explorations, and contemplative musical landscaping. Above all, this is simply a fantastic sit-back-and-drink-in-the-beauty of-all-that-your-audio-system-can-provide recording. Wonderful artistic presence. Both the Veritas and 116 do an excellent job of bringing the artists into the room, however here is where one can truly enjoy the tactile goose bumps that the 116 offers. Every subtlety and immediacy of the performance allows one to simply get lost in the music. Cliché perhaps, but quite true here.

2. Flim & The BB's – This is a Recording [Warner Bros/Redbook CD]
A classic early 90s recording of jazz/fusion session greats that, for a time, had a pretty kickin' band of their own. Bassist, Jimmy "Flim" Johnson (James Taylor, et al), and other Minneapolis-based musicians were originally the guinea pigs for locally-based 3M Company, who began experimenting with digital recording via a 50.4 kHz recorder prototype in the late 70's. The BB's self-titled debut album of 1978 was only the second ever commercially available digital recording. This is a Recording represents one of their finest projects, and a reference/test recording I've been enjoying for evaluations since 1992 (many of you will remember the theme song for the TV soap, All My Children, which can be found on this recording).

 

Merrill Audio Element 116 Review

 

Among the most effective test tracks is a tune entitled, "According To Anthony," which is both spacial and expansive in instrumental individuality, as well as exploration of instrumental range and articulation. In fact, this was one of the key examples that coaxed me into pulling the trigger on the Veritas a few years ago. Now having studied this track several times with the 116, the grip on low frequencies really comes to light – tight and true to timbre. This is a fact of not only bass guitar, but also drum separation within the kit, down to the density of the felt on the bass drum beater. Again, there's a strong tactile presence of the drum kit on this tune, as heard through the 116. The heavy-handed groove Bill Berg lays down leaves no doubt as to who's in charge.

3. Stacy Kent – Dreamer in Concert [Blue Note/Redbook CD]
Along with her husband and musical conspirator, Jim Tomlinson on saxophones, Stacy Kent has steadily developed as one of our finest contemporary 'light' jazz female crooners, her prolific list of covers continually mesmerizing. Her soft, intimate vocal character has always driven me nuts – her seeming obsession with articulation and punctuality seems to twist up a smile on me every time. Stacy's intimate vibe finds it's highest compliment in a live setting, as its here that one can really appreciate the kindred spirit that is her band.

Dreamer in Concert is one of those live recordings that is so well mic'd & mixed that it makes La Cigale theater sound like a quaint Paris café on a late summer evening, and a great vehicle for enjoying staging and holographic imagery within a quality audio listening environment. In comparison, the Veritas and 116 help present this in true fashion with no detriment to width or depth. Both bring Stacy front and center with natural air between her and the band, allowing the listener to touch every transient nuance of her voice to a level that one can plainly see the facial expressions necessary for her to produce those qualities so unique to her voice.

Perhaps there is some irony in that the quaintness of this particular recording actually comes across beefier with the 116, both in terms of imagery and identity of each individual musician. The timbral uniqueness of each and how they contribute to the whole is easy to identify. Here's where you can really hear that robustness mentioned previously. In particular, tracks 2 & 3 ("Ces Petits Riens" and "Postcard Lovers," respectively) offer wonderful examples.

 

Merrill Audio Element 116 Review

 

Conclusions
Audio purity through a minimalistic design via the shortest signal path possible – 'Purity' being defined as musical neutrality. This continues to be one of Merrill Audio's primary guiding design principles. These design concepts inherent in the Veritas and Element 116 provide the listener with a highly accurate presentation, given the source signal. They keep one's ears focused on the music, and make you keenly aware of any anomalies in the chain. Of all the positive characteristics held within the Veritas and 116 designs, I tend to value this the most.

Summarily, it's fair to say that, in my opinion, the sonic presentation of the Element 116 is as confident as the Veritas, with a sizably more tactile authority. The noise floor is jaw droppingly low. What this reveals is a seemingly limitless but non-artificial frequency spectrum, coupled with a truthful reveal of timbres inherent to acoustic sources (partic. guitar and pno). Again, all this contributes to a very tactile sonic experience. As Merrill so aptly states, "It only takes an instant to realize you're listening to something quite special." Indeed.

I sense anyone auditioning monos in this price bracket will find the new Element 116 delivers some of the best amplification anywhere, and clearly competitive with many designs priced well above. My congratulations and thanks to Merrill for his continued forward thinking in audio design! His efforts have made this musician very happy!

 

Reference System
Preamp: VAC Signature mkII SE (w/ phono)
Amplifier: Merrill Veritas monoblocks
Digital Source: Esoteric K-03
Analog Source: VPI Scoutmaster Signature (w/ Dynavector XV-1s cart)
Speakers: Daedalus Athena v.2
Sub: Velodyne DD10+
Cables: JPS Aluminata powr cables, interconnects (XLR & RCA), JPS SC3 speaker cables
Power Conditioning: Running Springs Haley

 

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: Class D Amplifier
Veritas Specifications
Power: 400 Watts @ 8 Ohms, 700 Watts @ 4 Ohms, 1,200 Watts @ 2 Ohms
Frequency Response: 0Hz - 50kHz 0/-3dB
Gain: 26dB
S/N: 128dB
Input Impedance: 90 kOhms
Output Impedance: 3 milli Ohms
THD: 0.004% at 200 Watts
Current: 38 Amperes typical max
Inputs: 1 XLR Balanced
1 Remote Trigger. 12V for remote turn on/off
Outputs: 2 pairs Cardas binding posts for bi-wiring (spades, wire)
Dimensions: 17" x 12" x 3" without footers (WxDxH)
Weight: 35 lbs. each
Price: $12,000

 

Element 116 Specifications
Power: 300 Watts @ 8 Ohms, 600 Watts @ 4 Ohms, 1,200 Watts @ 2 Ohms
Frequency Response: 0Hz to 50kHz (+0/-3dB)
Gain: 26dB
S/N: 110dB
Input Impedance: 100kOhms
Output Impedance: 4 mOhms
THD: 0.01% at 300 Watts
Current: 40 Amperes
Inputs: 1 XLR Balanced 
One Remote Trigger. 12V trigger, 3.5m, 20mA
Outputs: Two pairs Cardas WBT binding posts for bi-wiring (spades, bananas, wire)
Dimensions: 16.9" x 16.5" x 4.3" (WxDxH)
Weight: 44 lbs. each
Price: $22,000

 

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

Voice: (415) 562-4434
E-mail: info@merrillaudio.net 
Website: www.MerrillAudio.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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