This is the second Merrill Audio component I've reviewed for Enjoy the Music.com, and the third that I've had in my home. Two have been power amplifiers; the Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks I reviewed a few months back and the Taranis featured in this review. Both have taught me that any preconceived notions I have had regarding Class D amplifiers had to not only be reexamined, but entirely revised. The upper stridency and other anomalies in the upper midrange and treble that were typical of the Class D amps of yore were not present in either of these amplifiers, and is proof positive that there is no longer a need to handicap this class of amplifiers when reviewing them – at least not when these amplifiers are designed properly, as they obviously were by Merrill Audio. This $5000 a pair 200 watt per channel Thors can and should be compared to other amplifiers within their price range and above, and other high-performance high-end amplifiers regardless of class. It was also a pleasure to have reviewed the Merrill Jens phono preamplifier in my system while reviewing the Kiseki Purple Heart phono cartridge for this issue. This was not only highly useful in reviewing this phono cartridge, but it demonstrated that Merrill Audio can also compete with other larger more established audio manufactures when it comes to cost-no-object components.
Soon after I finished my review of the Thor monoblock amplifiers, president and founder Merrill Wettasing suggested that I try his Taranis power amp. Although the Taranis is a lower priced power amp, he said that it might be more useful in my main system where I use electrostatic speakers. At 200 watts each the Thorsare mighty fine monoblocks, but I did find that they were more useful in my second system where they drove the smaller, more efficient floorstanding speakers I had at that time, a pair of Bowers & Wilkins CM10 S2 i reviewed two months ago and my reference EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature. However, in my main system my reference speakers are the quite inefficient Sound Labs electrostatic monoliths, which have an impedance that can dip below 1 Ohm when asked to play loud, dynamic passages.
The fact that the Taranis amplifier can drive a pair of inefficient electrostats is not their only attribute. Merrill Audio designed the Taranis stereo amp specifically for audiophiles who might not be able to afford their more costly amps, but wish to take advantage of the performance that Merrill amps have been known for. The Taranis is built around the Hypex Ncore N500, which according to Merrill Audio allows audiophiles to hear in their systems the advantages of the Ncore and the technology that is also used in their top of the line Veritas power amp, but at a lower price. Of course the Taranis has "ultra-low" distortion specs from input to output, and Merrill Audio paid particular attention to the input stage's high-current drive that delivers to the output stage a signal that possesses "ease, speed, detail, and power like no other". The output stage of the Taranis uses the previously mentioned Hypes Ncore NC500, which is an Ncore output stage. The icing on the cake is that the Taranis looks fantastic, with its polished front panel and power meters.
The digital front end of my system has remained unchanged since the beginning of the year, which is surprising given the evolutionary nature of digital playback. A few NAS drives are hard-wired to a rather powerful Dell XPS PC which contains digital files of varying resolution, from crappy bootleg mp3sto downloaded DSD music files. The innards of this PC are optimized for music playback through its USB ports, and Furutech USB cable takes that signal and feeds it to an AURALiC Vega DAC. The balanced outputs of the Vega are connected to the BAT preamp. Also connected to the Vega is the digital output of an Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition universal disc player for when I occasionally spin DVD-Audio or other silver discs with a decodable digital signal. The analog output of the Oppo is connected to the preamplifier for the playback of SACDs in lieu of a player/decoder that can read and decode a DSD signal.
The listening room is wired with two dedicated 20 amp power lines fitted with a pair of cryogenically treated two-outlet AC wall receptacles made by Virtual Dynamics. All the front-end equipment is connected to a pair of PS Audio Power Plant AC regenerators. The preamplifier, DAC, and phono stage is connected to the larger of the two, and the turntable is connected to its own PS300 Power Plant, which is set to deliver a pure sine AC sine wave. This Power Plant can also change the speed of the turntable by delivering a 60 Hz sine wave for spinning the turntable's platter at 33.33 rpm or by setting it to 81 Hz for 45 rpm. The power amp and a Chang Lightspeed CLS power conditioner, which powers the electrostatic speakers and Velodyne HGS-15b subwoofer, is connected to one of the 20 AC lines, and the other is used to power the two PS Audio units. Throughout the system MIT, DH Labs, Audio Art, Virtual Dynamics, Cardas, Kimber, and Merrill Audio interconnects and speaker cables rotate in and out of the entire system or individual components when needed and occasionally on a whim. Echobuster Acoustic Treatment panels – absorptive panels behind and to the sides of the speakers, reflective behind the listening position – transform the room's acoustic qualities from acceptable to exceptional. The LPs lining the walls certainly aid in absorbing stray sound waves, and look pretty cool, if you ask me.
So as I expected, the Taranis' bass was a monster. Its bass was, tuneful, pitch specific, and was able to reproduce a signal as low as any program material that passed through it. I thumbed through my records and scrolled through my files in an attempt to find material with enough bass to demonstrate to myself – and enjoy – the bass prowess of the Taranis and thus my system. One notable album was Kraftwerk's The Mix, which has as its first track their new for the 1990s mix of "The Robots". Not only does this track have a deep low-end thanks to Kraftwerk's bass synthesizers, but two bass parts occur simultaneously, each constructed with a different set of parameters resulting in two disparate tones. The Taranis made it easy to follow each bass part and it was easy to make distinctions between the timbres of these two distanct bass parts. I have both a CD ripped to FLAC files and the LP version of The Mix, and the recording is definitely good enough that it can be played on less than acceptable gear and still sound fine, but when reproduced by a high-end system this album can be mesmerizing, and the Taranis and its sophisticated circuitry was able to demonstrate how great this recording really is.
My review of Merrill Audio's Thor monoblocks wasn't that long ago, so in my mind's ear were the memories are still rather fresh. These monoblocks are proof that times have indeed changed when it comes to the sound of Class D amplifiers. The sonic positives of the Thor amps weren't only in their bass response, but throughout the frequency range. And as my listening sessions continued with the Taranis, it also proved to be a great amp. So good, the fact that the output section of the Taranis is Class D did not even enter into my mind. So I reviewed the Taranis as a stereo power amplifier. Period.
Comparing the Merrill Audio Taranis and my reference Pass Labs X350.5 is not really a fair fight; the price difference is too vast. Nonetheless, this Pass Labs amplifier has been in my system for nearly two years, so I couldn't resist comparing the two. Despite their considerable price difference, the Taranis did not embarrass itself during the rather long audition period. As I said above in the body of this review, the Taranis has many positive characteristics. Not surprisingly, though, the Pass Labs demonstrated what type of sound is possible when one spends eight times as much on a power amplifier. In regards to these two amps, and I realize that this is a broad swath of the frequency spectrum – the difference between them lies mostly in the way they reproduce the midrange and the treble frequencies. The Pass Labs amp has a more complex, palpable midrange, and its treble is subjectively more extended and has a lifelike sparkle that is difficult to describe but easy to hear. The Pass Labs also sounds "larger", a good part of this due to its soundstage, which is wider, deeper, and constructs a more complex lattice of instruments and voices than the Taranis, although the Taranis is certainly not deficient in this area. In fact, the Taranis is not deficient in any area – after listening to the Pass Labs amp for a while, then switching back to the Merrill Audio Taranis, it was quite surprising how it was able to reproduce the signals it was fed with a musicality that belies its relatively low asking price. In that respect one should consider the Taranis a bargain, although calling a $2500 stereo amplifier a bargain might be a stretch. But everything is relative, and in the world of audiophillia, we take what we can get when it comes to good deals.