Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, LLC, was founded in 2010 by Merrill Wettasinghe, who not only earned a BS in electrical engineering and an MBA, and enjoyed a career in R&D and marketing with Hewlett-Packard, but has long had a passion for purity of sound. In 2011, Wettasinghe released the first Merrill Audio amplifier, the Veritas monoblock ($12,000 USD per pair, discontinued). The Veritas was considered a breakthrough product not only for its sound quality, but also for being one of the first amplifiers to be based on Hypex’s Ncore NC1200 class-D power module. At the time, it was also one of the few amps to use point-to-point litz wiring of ultrapure copper, rhodium-plated binding posts of solid copper, and top-quality XLR connectors -- all made by Cardas.
I’ve been a reviewer of high-end audio gear for 22 years now, but precisely two years ago my expenditures on gear took a sharp decline. That was when I announced that “Jeff’s Getting a New Stereo System,” for reasons explained in that article. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still hanker for products I’ve heard or seen, whether at shows or in press releases from manufacturers, and it doesn’t mean I don’t still get super-enthusiastic about cool gear.
When I was a teenager growing up in South Los Angeles in the 1960s, the most vaunted among us were the guys who tinkered with their cars and souped them up with fuel injection, overhead cams, dual carburetors, heavy-duty MacPherson strut suspensions, and 8-track super stereos with speakers arrayed in the dash, the doors, and the rear deck under a tinted back window. This was the SoCal car culture celebrated by the Beach Boys in “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Don’t Worry Baby” -- male-teen sexual prowess sublimated and distilled into small fleets of superb, gleaming machines and gallant jalopies. A guy I knew in my neighborhood was always under the hood of his ’50s Dodge coupe, working some sort of magic I had no clue about. His father and uncles were partners in a gas station and garage, and my friend had been a grease monkey since childhood, at first just pumping gas and changing tires and spark plugs, but quickly advancing until he could swap out stock parts for custom, fine-tune an engine’s timing, raise a car’s suspension, and supercharge everything in his inline six engine until it could accelerate faster than a stock V8. He was a marvel among us and his wheels were so cool, he got all the girls we could only dream of dating.
A few months ago, I commissioned a new audio rack -- a double-wide, overbuilt, steel-and-wood monstrosity. Well, I recently got a call from the craftsman, Jason Trauzzi, who told me it was nearing completion. He was building the rack from 2” square-section steel tubing, a top shelf of 2”-thick walnut, and three lower shelves of 1”-thick walnut. The smartphone photos he sent me were stunning -- I figured I’d better get the rest of my ingredients in order.
ECM 2626 B0029977-02 (CD), 2626 7739824 (LP)
Formats: CD and LP
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Two years ago, ECM released Small Town, a collection of duo performances by guitarist Bill Frisell and double bassist Thomas Morgan. Recorded in March 2016 at the Village Vanguard, the album’s eight tracks drew songs from different genres -- jazz, rock, country, film soundtracks -- to create a wonderful example of two musicians intimately communicating with and bringing out each other’s best.
As soon as Doug Schneider approached me about my reviewing Constellation Audio’s Revelation Andromeda phono stage, I hopped on their website and snooped around.
You gotta love these guys. They offer two -- count 'em -- phono stages, and not just because LPs are now big on Instagram. No, Constellation Audio is spreading analog love around, like soft butter on toast.
I have two German Shepherds, one of whom, Cutter, is just shy of three years old. He comes from a strong working line and, as such, has very strong drive. Recently, he was sitting at attention on my back patio, which is screened in -- a nice place to be in late fall or early summer. I still don’t know what he saw at the rear of our property -- deer or squirrel or fox -- but whatever it was, it needed chasing down now, and the screen covering the bottom section of that end of the patio put up little resistance to his determination. He went through it as if it wasn’t there. My wife insisted I do something about it.
In late 1972, Audio Research Corporation released what would become one of ARC’s bestselling preamplifiers of all time: the SP-3. While available, the SP-3 earned praise for its low noise levels, wide soundstages, and awe-inspiring transparency. More than one audio publication described its overall sound character as “a straight wire with gain.” ARC sold thousands of SP-3s at $595 USD before discontinuing the model in 1976, but what I find interesting is how much of the SP-3 remains evident in more recent ARC models. By today’s standards, the SP-3’s faceplate of brushed bronze over satin black, rotary analog controls, and big pushbuttons look dated, but the three-box segregation of the faceplate and orientation of controls aren’t all that different from those of ARC’s SP-20 preamplifier ($9000, recently discontinued). Then there was the SP-3’s tube complement: six 12AX7s in the analog stage with two 12AX7s in the tone control circuit. This arrangement in the analog stage, albeit with different tubes, can be found under the hood of the subject of this review: ARC’s Reference 6 preamplifier.
Musical Performance: ***½
Sound Quality: ***½
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
Vinyl’s health -- it’s grown in sales every year since 2011 -- continues in a physical media marketplace that’s otherwise shrinking. In 2018, LP sales in the US alone totaled nearly 17 million units, and close to one-third of revenues from physical recording formats. So it’s a little surprising that some record labels have been slow to take advantage of this revitalized segment of the market. Verve’s foot-dragging is especially puzzling given the fact that the label is, with Blue Note -- now committed to reissuing much of its catalog on vinyl -- part of Universal Music.
I was so impressed with Rethm Audio’s Maarga loudspeakers, which I reviewed last year, that I spoke to Mark Sossa, of Rethm’s US distributor, Well Pleased Audio Vida, to arrange to buy a pair of Rethm’s magnum opus, the Saadhana. My timing was serendipitous -- Jacob George, the sound architect at Rethm, told me he’d made some improvements in the Saadhana, and that I’d be sent the first pair of units to incorporate them. The changes included a complete redesign of the bass chamber and driver configuration, improved woofers, and new isolation footers -- George promised substantial improvements in the already excellent bass reproduction.
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