World Premiere 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.
Over / Under The Hood
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.
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.
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.
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
1. Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny – Beyond
the Missouri Sky [Verve/180g LP]
2. Flim & The BB's – This is
a Recording [Warner Bros/Redbook CD]
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]
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.
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!
Element 116 Specifications