Stuart Smith takes a listen to the $15 000 Element 114 Class D power amplifier from Merrill Audio.

The Merrill Audio Element 114 is the least expensive of the American brand’s Element series of amplifiers but still comes in at $15 000, which put it up there with some seriously stiff and well-known competition. We’ve been long-time fans of Merrill’s work and have used his Thor monoblocs  ($4800 a pair) as our reference in both the top-end system and the mid-priced system, however, this new range of amplifiers takes the whole Class D thing to a new level when compared to Merrill’s previous offerings.

BUILD, FIT AND FINISH

The Element 114 weighs an impressive 20kg and the finish is undoubtedly of a very high quality, though the polished top plate is something of a fingerprint trap.

On the front of the amp is a touch screen that displays the model name and if you touch it will display the version and serial number. In honesty I think the amplifier could do without this screen and I also think it would perhaps look better, though it has to be said the Element 114 does look rather handsome, though rather blingy, on the rack. Of course, the Element range is Merrill’s attempt at breaking that high-end market and there is a somewhat unwritten rule at this kind of level of product that the product must not only perform in an exemplary fashion but it must also look the part too; personally, I think the Element 114 looks fantastic in its nickel and rose-gold finish. The additional plates on the top and sides are plated rather than anodised (plating is “a softer, more absorbent material”), but these plates also help with the all-important dissipation of heat.

The amp sits on the excellent Gaia III isolation feet from IsoAcoustic and Merrill tells us that the whole of the chassis is designed to minimise external vibrations.

Round the back of the amp you have a pair of balanced XLR inputs (there are no RCA inputs) that are of Merrill’s design and Teflon and Rhodium plated, a pair of binding posts from WBT (0710 CuMc) and a 20 Amp IEC power input. The binding posts will accept spades, bananas or bare wire and are a change from the excellent Cardas binding posts used on the Thors we have. I’ve described the Cardas binding posts, they are very different in design to any other posts I’ve seen, as the best in the world and I would have liked to have seen them here too, though the WBT posts are less fiddly and allow for the use of bananas and bare wire, where the Cardas posts will only accept spades. Actually, the WBT posts are very secure and do grip the spades very tightly. The power input, as mentioned, is of the 20 Amp variety so your normal IEC cable won’t work but it does ensure, in my opinion, a better and more secure fit. The socket used is Furutech’s and are Rhodium plated. What is missing though is a master power switch which means that the amp has to be turned on and off at the wall socket – we don’t have switched sockets and so the amp had to remain on the whole time it was in the system.

Inside the 114 I’m assured that the PCB boards are as good as they can be and to help with heat distribution no less than 8 pounds of copper per channel has been used. Merrill believes that effective heat dissipation is vital in maintaining a steady temperature for the PCBs to allow them to perform in a linear fashion.

Wiring of the 114 is all stranded Silver-plated OFC that has been sleeved in Teflon, which Merrill says is used for its “low parasitic impedance and dielectric characteristics”. Everything is hand soldered.

The 114 uses Gallium Nitride transistors which are employed for their speed and the overall circuit uses Merrill’s ZXOL design which features a completely open-loop design with zero feedback. This elimination of feedback is vital, says Merrill, to eliminate feedback loop distortions and time delays.

I’ve mentioned the substantial weight, but whilst a big amplifier the 114 isn’t huge measuring 430mm x 254 x 418 (WHD).

The amp is rated at 200 Watts into 8 ohms and doubles all the way down to 2 ohms where it gives 800 Watts. Merrill says the amp is “load invariant” and will go down to 1 ohm without getting flustered.

After completing this review I asked Merrill to give me a bit of an idea of where he was coming from with the 114 and received the following. “In looking for new designs, I am always looking for faster, better cheaper. In this case, it was much faster and much better, and for the quality cheaper also. Prior issues that I had were the support from the vendors on the OEM modules, the quality of the modules and of course the sonics. While they were good, they certainly were not world-class or top of the line.  Hence in discovering the Gallium Nitride Transistor (GaN), I found that I could get Zero dead time, and have Zero Feedback. The Zero dead time, removed any issues with Class D distortion that other companies tied to clear up with heavy feedback loops, whether advanced or not.  The heavy feedback took a toll on the energy of the system and weighed the music down. It seems like it was there but not with ease.

Since this design did not have dead time, it could also have zero feedback, which created an ease of music presentation, just like you hear in live music. The added speed was a bonus. Part of the speed is also the extreme control on the speakers which makes it stop and start almost instantly. The horns – on a good direct to disk, just seems like it is in the room with you. This made it world class, competed with all the top of the line amps in the $100k range and still was only priced between $15 and $36k. The GaN transistor alone was not sufficient to accomplish all of this. Advanced circuit design, advanced PCB design and advanced manufacturing was a large part of being able to get away with zero feedback on such a fast, open circuit. If the GaN transistor was used the same old way, then you are back to older issues of speed, detail, nuance and being musical. There is simply no edge on the ELEMENT series and simply crystal-clear window into your music.

Another factor in the design since I was starting from scratch was to make it look good. Since this was a Bugatti of Audio, it had to look the part as well. Hence the unusual step of the finishes. No blue lights though. I find that tacky. This design was to be elegant, statement-like and a centrepiece, even when just resting. “ Let’s see if he achieved this.

SOUND QUALITY

For the duration of this review, I have used the amp with the LampizatOr Big 7 DAC being fed by a Melco unit. Cables were by Tellurium Q other than the power cable which was a generic unit that came with the amp – there was an upgraded power cable in the box (a significant extra cost) but this had an American plug so couldn’t be used. The rest of the power cables in the system were Atlas, as was the power distribution unit. Speakers used were the Avantgarde Duo XD, Xavian Perla and Jern.

This was a review unit that had been elsewhere previously so no running in was required but I did let it get up to heat before doing any critical listening.

What I love about the Thor amps we use is their transparency and their ability to almost disappear in the system, but from the off, it is clear that the Element 114 is a better amplifier. Better is, of course, a subjective word, but from the very first few bars of music, it was clear that what we have here is an amplifier that is in a higher league. Our Thors are very quiet indeed, but even into the 107db sensitive Avantgarde Duo XDs the 114 was silent, utterly silent. This low noise floor is a very important consideration in my opinion as it allows the listener to hear nothing but the music – inky black backgrounds and all those kinds of audio reviewer clichés can be used here if you wish. Sounds and music do seem to come from nowhere and this silence allows you to hear spatial cues and space around the music – effects, room and recording space.

Dynamics are great and playing a drum solo really brings out the speed of this amplifier. There is no overhang with this amp with hits starting and stopping when they should, but when reverb is added or a cymbal hit, the effect is just as it should be with the amp adding pretty much nothing of itself. There’s a famous quote that does the rounds in audiophile circles that says the perfect amplifier is a “straight wire with gain”, or something like that, and this is the holy grail of all amplifiers and the 114 gets pretty close to this in my estimation. Purely as an analytical tool I’d personally love to have this amplifier in our system on a permanent basis, but then others may prefer a less clinical (clinical is not a bad thing in my book) presentation offered by valves and other designs of amplifier. What flavour and character I do hear here is coming from the DAC, I believe. The dynamic ability of this amp adds slam and immediacy to the music you are listening to and this slam adds a degree of excitement and “edge of your seat” anticipation. Seriously, I found myself sat forward in the listening chair looking for what would come next and what small detail of the recording I’d missed in the past. Around writing the above I had an email conversation with Merrill and he mentioned that he thought the amplifier was fast and transparent without being clinical – so we are certainly on the same page in this regard and it would seem that Merrill has achieved his goal. Poor recordings or poor rips are given no place to hide, however, and this amp did highlight that I may need to look at one or two of my rips and redo them.

Detail is all there, and this is what often separates the good from the really great amplifiers in my book. Our amps are transparent but the 114 is more transparent… if that makes sense. You get to hear all the little nuances in a recording that you know are there. Obviously, an amplifier can only work with the signal it is given and cannot, or should not, add anything to the mix that is not on the recording, but I did find myself “looking” further into the recording and further into the sound-space that has an almost reach out and touch quality to it to hear more of the texture and make-up if individual sounds. I suppose one way to, perhaps badly, describe the 114 is that it is like looking at a painting through a pair of dirty glasses and then giving then a damned good clean – spectacle wearers I hope will get that analogy.

Big recordings are presented with the correct scale and simply recorded acoustic guitar and vocal likewise, but conversely, sounded intimate. I threw all our killer tracks at this amplifier (Daft Punk’s Contact, Hardfloor’s Once Again Back etc) and never once did I feel it was anything other than very accomplished.

Towards the end of the review process I was fortunate enough to have sent a pair of well run in Audiovector R3 Arreté loudspeakers, and whilst I don’t yet know these speakers as well as I should and will, I did find that they were an extremely good match for this amplifier, allowing the EMT “tweeter” to really do its magical thing with the soundstage and space. What I also enjoyed with the R3s was the feeling that the bass parts of recordings were held fully in control by the amp.

CONCLUSION

I liked this amplifier a great deal and sonically I think it is a fantastic performer that offers the serious listener a tool that allows them to enjoy the whole of what is presented on a recording. If you are a high-resolution file listener then I believe this is where the 114 really does come into its own, however with poorly recorded or mastered tracks, or files of low resolution, I found it to be pretty unforgiving to the point of me being unable to listen to a handful of tracks; the amp really does lay bare a recording.

So, in terms of sound quality, I’d say that Merrill has achieved the goals he set out in his statement to me, though I did not have the opportunity to compare to amplifiers in the $100K range so cannot make comment on that part of his statement.

Fit and finish are very good and my only criticism with regards to the casework is the inclusion of the touchscreen; I feel it offers pretty much no purpose, is superfluous and adds a cost that need not be there. Had the touchscreen served a purpose this amp would have got the Outstanding Product award as it does sound amazing. I also don’t like the fact that the amp has to be left on all the time. Both these criticisms may seem like minor points, but when looking at products at this level it is the small details that matter.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: Tank-like and solid. Excellent quality components. Will be a bit blingy for some.

Sound Quality: Slam, speed and control are the order of the day here.

Value For Money: Not cheap, though it does seem to offer reasonable value when compared to other high-end offerings.

Pros: A fast and insightful amplifier that will allow you to experience pretty much exactly what is on the recording.

Cons: A bit blingy and that touchscreen doesn’t look great and is superfluous in my opinion. No master power meaning it is left on constantly.

Price: $15000

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Smith

Review Kit: Melco Library, Lampizator Big 7 DAC. Cables by 02A, Tellurium Q and Atlas. Speakers by Jern, Audiovector and Avantgarde.

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