What most non-audiophiles say when they see my system for the first time -- after “Wow, those speakers are huge!” -- is this: “You still listen to records?” By which they mean vinyl LPs, their implication being digital playback formats are of course superior to analog, and that I should get with the times. As politely and non-condescendingly as I can, I try to explain that, in my opinion, the very best analog rigs reproduce recorded music with higher fidelity than the very best digital rigs. Their response is usually skeptical -- until I prove my point with a demonstration. Most doubters then become converts -- or at least feign agreement.
During my time with the Merrill Audio Jens phono stage ($15,449 USD), I often felt like one of those green, wide-eyed visitors -- and I was listening to my very own system.
Design and setup
The Merrill Audio Jens is a two-box affair. The main box (16”D x 17”W x 3.5”H without footers) is quite elegant in appearance: a stainless-steel case with a faceplate electroplated in rose gold. Behind a small window in that faceplate are rows of LEDs indicating varying stages of operation. The case rests on four IsoAcoustics Gaia III feet (add 2” of height). The smaller outboard power supply, housed in its own stainless-steel case (9” x 10” x 14”), has a faceplate of black acrylic. The two boxes are linked with a supplied umbilical cord. All inputs and outputs are via Furutech single-ended jacks (RCA) of pure copper. The Jens is entirely solid-state.
According to Merrill, the Jens was developed and tested over seven years, the goals being high gain and very low noise. They worked to ensure that phase shift would remain “natural and smooth” while undergoing RIAA equalization. According to founder and principal Merrill Wettasinghe, “If the phase shift is all over the place, that will cause listener fatigue without the listener even being able to pinpoint the cause. This was one of the greatest challenges in designing this phono stage.” He explained that those seven years were devoted to the painstaking design and testing of the Jens’s multiple steps of power regulation, interior layout, PCB design, and even the footers. When questioned, Merrill expanded on those thoughts:
The unique design of the Merrill Audio Jens phono stage does not have one magic bullet, but utilizes around 20 specialized, highly tuned engineering techniques. Each of them adds to the very low noise floor and the organic musical nature of the product. Jens Waale -- scientist, audio engineer, and colleague of mine -- spent over seven years refining some of these techniques to come up with the original circuit design, which was then commercialized by Merrill Audio with enhancements. The external power supply was set up to deliver a high voltage, high current, and the first step in isolation and power regulation. Once in the main chassis there are four additional power-regulation steps down to each stage, each with isolated power and noise regulation. This drops the power-supply noise to an extremely low level that is measured with very sensitive RF instruments.
Circuit boards are hand-designed on CAD software to define every trace for minimum interference and lowest impedance. Due to the nature of phono stages, this had to be run several times to get the improvements to the point where 72dB, or 3981 times amplification, would not produce total noise above the threshold we were looking for. Part of the circuit board hand-design was component selection and placement. Only mil-spec components with very tight tolerances were used. Placement and components were critical to avoid cross-component interaction and parasitic capacitance and parasitic inductance. There are more than a dozen engineering techniques used to bring the Merrill Audio Jens phono stage to as close to theoretical design specifications as possible.
Because my system is fully balanced, Merrill provided a single-ended-to-balanced interconnect from their ANAP series of interconnects ($1250/1.5m pair). My record player comprised only Clearaudio products: an Innovation Wood turntable ($11,000) with a 9” Universal tonearm ($5000) and a Stradivari V2 cartridge, the last outputting 0.6mV ($4000). The Jens’s gain is fixed at 70dB, which should accommodate all but very-low-output moving-coil cartridges.
The loading for each channel can be adjusted within a range of 25-5000 ohms using two knobs on the rear of the main enclosure. The number of clicks determines the load. I eventually settled on 500 ohms (nine clicks), having found that setting to sound best. Merrill has announced that they’ll soon introduce a revised version of the Jens that will sound the same but have: additional inputs; front-panel adjustment of loading and memory settings; two types of attenuation, which will permit the use of moving-magnet cartridges; and a greater range of loading options. An even more advanced version, which Merrill claims sounds better, is to be introduced in early 2021. This model, the Element Jens, will feature balanced output as well as equalization settings for specific record labels.
Before doing any listening, I let the Jens warm up for a solid hour. First up was Miles Davis’s Nefertiti (LP, Columbia/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL2-436), and within the first few notes of Herbie Hancock’s “Madness,” I knew I was hearing something special. The improvement wrought by the Jens was startling. Davis’s trumpet had significantly more bite and air, its tonality and the sounds of his breaths belying the fact that this music was recorded more than half a century ago. Ron Carter’s double-bass lines were more solid and went deeper, while Tony Williams’s cymbals had the metallic sheen and natural decays of a live event. Percussive attacks hit harder and faster than I remembered -- the acoustic envelope of air emerging from each instrument was more pronounced and vivid. This all resulted in a more dynamic sound without an increase in volume.
Listening to “Malletoba Spank,” from an excellent reissue of Duke Ellington’s Jazz Party in Stereo (200gm LP, Columbia/Analogue Productions AAPJ-8127), I was struck by just how crisp and perfectly rounded the sound of the bells were. Never had I heard so much sparkle from this 1959 recording. My listening notes are replete with such remarks as “Digital simply can’t do this!” Everything had a timbral rightness that, in my humble opinion, can be only approximated by the finest digital gear I’ve heard -- and I’ve auditioned digital rigs costing as much as some small homes. Great digital can convey most of the magic of a recording, but the very best analog equipment makes the experience just a bit more intimate. It’s difficult to perfectly articulate, but much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s test for obscenity, I know it when I hear it. Music through the Jens was fleshier, with more texture.
Instruments had more body, the position of each on the soundstage more precisely distinct, even incisive, but not in the way that word can sometimes be synonymous with strident. No, this sort of sharpness brought me closer to the performance, with no listening fatigue or added brightness. Merrill’s goal of achieving smooth, natural phase shift has been achieved in the Jens -- it revealed so much detail in the music, and in the most organic, unforced way. It was akin to watching a movie on a five-year-old 4K TV, and then again on the latest ultra-high-resolution QLED display. Everything is more vivid and focused: colors are more natural, faces look more human, the entire viewing experience is more powerful. With the Jens, I experienced a similar improvement of resolution, this time of sound.
Voices, too, were stunning through the Jens. Listening to Diana Krall’s sultry singing of “No Moon at All,” from her Turn Up the Quiet (LP, Verve VERLP35218), made for an even more intimate connection with the music. The Jens not only fleshed out more detail, but let me better realize the feeling in her singing and playing. Her deft piano playing was conveyed with better tonality, with individual hammerstrokes more clearly defined and the resulting resonant tones lingering longer as they decayed. The Jens’s noise floor was one of dead silence -- absolutely no noise at all. This let me hear not only more microdetails but deeper into the soundstage.
Lesser analog rigs often fail to convey the power of a full symphony orchestra. Under less than ideal conditions, trying to reproduce a big orchestra in full swing can become a cacophony of congealed sound. Listening to Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bare Mountain, with the legendary Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1959 (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2423), was an unexpected treat -- I’ve played this LP for many years on various incarnations of my system, but had never felt it to be a standout recording. Through the Jens, the strings were more distinct in the mix than I’d remembered. Timpani sounded much more full and resonant. Woodwinds were revealed as having richer tone and more body. My big Tannoy Westminster Royal GR speakers ($60,000/pair) moved tremendous volumes of air with no sign of congestion or blurring, filling my room with the pressurized soundwaves I experience at concerts. Similarly, each section of the orchestra was presented distinctly -- even in very dynamic passages, the various sections remained distinguishable and in their proper positions. This made the experience of listening to this recording through the Jens viscerally alive. Through lesser phono stages, such passages can often collapse into dissonant messes.
The solid-state Jens fit very nicely into my otherwise all-tubed system, preserving the qualities I most value in tube sound. My system’s slightly warm sound was retained, yet everything else was improved on, particularly at the frequency extremes. I’m a bass fanatic -- when I listen to jazz, a good double-bass sound can capture a disproportionate amount of my attention. With the Jens, I found myself even more distracted than usual. There was just more pluck and texture and sheer sound to home in on.
Listening to “Barbados,” from Arne Domnérus et al.’s Jazz at the Pawnshop (LP, Proprius PRLP7778), I noted how the bass extended lower than I’d remembered, forcing me to reconsider my long-held assessment of this album as being a bit bass-shy. I then found that the album’s highs needed a similar rethink. In “Limehouse Blues,” Egil Johansen’s cymbals had more of that shimmering metallic sheen that’s so difficult to faithfully reproduce. Through the Jens, the decays were palpable. There was now significantly more air around Domnérus’s clarinet, and the sound of Lars Erstrand’s vibes had much more sparkle. I’ve enjoyed this live recording for many years, but the Jens took it to another level. Even the background ambiance of audience chatter and clinked glasses took on a whole new dimension. The Jens let me hear new nuances in recordings I thought I knew cold.
My excellent McIntosh Laboratory C1100 preamplifier ($12,000) has a quite capable tubed phono stage that, I feel, compares well with decent standalone phono stages in the $3000-$5000 range. It gets most things right, and is particularly adept in the midrange. That said, the Mac’s phono stage is not nearly in the Merrill’s league. As I switched between them throughout my listening for this review, it became obvious that the Jens easily bettered the C1100 in high-frequency extension and retrieval of detail. Through the Mac, bass doesn’t go quite as deep as through the Jens, or have the same fullness of texture -- nor do cymbals have as much splash and shimmer. The Mac reproduces a generally gorgeous midrange, but even there its sound has less meat on the bone. I couldn’t hear as deep into mixes, and instruments weren’t as well defined on soundstages. Don’t get me wrong -- the C1100’s phono stage is very nice indeed, and more than enough for those who don’t lust for the ne plus ultra of analog sound. In fact, until I heard the Jens, the C1100 did not leave me wanting. Alas, the Jens has spoiled me.
I’ve used several fine phono stages over the years, including models from Conrad-Johnson and Audio Research. I don’t recall having ever experienced quite the level of resolution of sound or my own involvement in the music as I have with Merrill Audio’s Jens.
At $15,449, Merrill Audio’s Jens phono stage represents a serious investment in analog sound. Only well-heeled vinyl enthusiasts with systems of commensurate quality will be able to experience the level of aural veracity it makes possible in the home. My time with the Jens has proved transformative -- it has forced me to re-evaluate my own system, and where I rank the importance of the phono stage in the component hierarchy. If you’re shopping for a phono stage at anywhere near its price, I strongly recommend that you audition this product from Merrill Audio.
. . . Jeff Sirody
- Speakers -- Tannoy Westminster Royal GR
- Amplifiers -- McIntosh Laboratory MC2301 (monos)
- Preamplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory C1100
- Speaker cables -- Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 6
- Interconnects -- Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 6 and 7
- Turntable -- Clearaudio: Innovation Wood turntable, Universal tonearm, Stradivari V2 cartridge
- Power cords -- Purist Audio Dominus, Purist Audio Aqueous Aureus, and ElectraGlide Ultra Khan
Merrill Audio Jens Phono Stage
Price: $15,449 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, LLC
80 Morristown Road, Unit 3B, #275
Bernardsville, NJ 07924
Phone: (415) 562-4434