During the 1-minute anode circuit's power-up delay, the horizontal indicator tube ramps up softly to finally display its chrome-dome head in an attractive, not too bright green glowing through a silver-rimmed hole in the fascia. All frontal controls respond to the operator with tight, positive actions that promise years of trouble-free service. Even little details like the different feet for the main and outboard units clearly benefit from extreme attention to detail. In short, the entire dual-mono concept with its tube-regulated external power supply serves as shining example for how SOTA preamps should be approached. Where the Merlin acts old-fashioned and relinquishes ground to valved challengers from BAT, Conrad-Johnson and VTL is in its lack of remote control. 20 years ago when Klimo started, this convenience feature was deemed plebeian and mid-fi. But since, it has reasserted itself in the High-End, especially in the micro-processor controlled, numerically displayed arena.

Those hi-tech iterations allow precise -- and more importantly, repeatable -- output calibration in 0.5dB steps. Turns out that the latter-day variants of Klimo's Merlino, Merlino Gold and Merlino Gold Plus do offer remote conveniences, albeit by way of motorized pot. In this class, that's no longer competitive. Motorized attenuators never stop exactly where you want them to, and, more importantly, don't allow exact repeatability unless they were stepped and had some kind of visual markers to prevent you from having to count click stops. At the end of the day, I believe that customers shopping in this range of ultra-performance preamps consider -- and have every right to consider -- performance not merely in isolated sonic terms but as a package deal. This includes appearance, build quality, reliability, features and sound. The Merlin soundly delivers on four out of five and only gets a slight mark on the second, constructional excellence - the rear panel will temporarily bend inwards when you leash up tight RCA connectors that require a stout push to slip on.

With these matters duly noted, let's proceed to why you could find yourself seriously questioning the need for remote control when faced with the kind of uncompromised sonics as delivered by the Merlin Plus. I'm one of those who calls the amplifier/speaker interface the critical sonic fulcrum where 85% of the general sonic flavor is concocted, with the speaker being the dominant force in the entire system/room equation. From that perspective, a preamp should refrain from dilution and alteration. It should become the hollow bamboo of Zen which, because of complete self-effacement and invisibility, allows the Divine music to manifest. But what if -- without any impact on transparency, clarity and immediacy -- a preamp could transform the final sonic outcome at your listening seat into a more finely aged variant of your carefully distilled aural wine - same vintner, same grape stock, same bottling year, simply left to age, mature and ripen longer in its seasoned wooden barrel? What if? This indeed became the questioning orientation whereby I found myself entering this review. The Eastern Electric MiniMax, an entry-level priced comparator, would provide context and serve as affordable reminder for high-performance sanity.

To get an initial take on the lay of Merlin's glens and shady boughs, I headed straight for the massive challenges of the nearfield xrcd re-release of Decca's famous 1963 Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra as conducted by composer Benjamin Britten himself [JVXCR-0225-2]. Compared against the Bel Canto Design PRe6, Merlin distinguished himself instantly in three specific areas - texture, mass and dynamics.

These were interrelated. Dynamic range on this already very dynamic recording was expanded further. These larger swings created grander scale, hence heftier mass. Contributing to this effect was a tacit texture reminiscent of skin with particularly good underlying blood flow - besides a healthy rosiness, it creates a sense of plumpness. A side effect was slightly less keen separation of the intersecting counterpoints during the concluding mass fugue and greater awareness of analogue tape hiss. The French horn swoops were snottier but massed strings during climaxes had more bite. Soundstage enjoyed more lateral extension but the solid-state pre created more penetrating intelligibility in the depth domain. If the PRe6's overriding attribute was ultimate transparency in a visual sense, allowing you to look far and wide and move through the soundstage with uncanny precision, the Merlin's senior quality was a tactile sensation. This communicated more physicality by pressing towards the listener like so many tiny hands. The BCD component instead invited one to move toward the music in spirit. One was more here, the other more there; one more emotive, the other more mental, pointing at the domain of conceptual abstraction.

In a nutshell, that one paragraph describes the differences - and thereby, the heathen Merlin who fought the Christian doctrine's patriarchal destruction of the indigenous Celtic goddess worship tooth and nail. Sli na slainte. End of review. Alas, neither Dusan, US distributor Ted Lindblad nor you, dear reader, would feel quite satisfied. Hence we shall tease out these distinctions at greater length. Be forewarned, however - in the end, it will amount to exactly this, said so many different ways. Which, as brother Chip likes to frown, is what they pay us reviewers the big bucks for. Redundancy. Verbosity. Variations on a theme. Moto Perpetuo. Take Rasa' Shelter [New Earth 2401-2, 2003], a very tasty neo-Kirtan affair of Sanskrit mantras and devotional hymns put to WorldBeat ambiance and organic grooves in a Deva Premal, Singh Kaur, Jai Uttal style.

The Klimo sounded bigger and meatier if slightly less precise. Considering leading edges, the transistor preamp seemed to be endowed with more speed, translating as heightened crispness but less subsequent body. Accordingly, percussive sounds were more acute on the PRe6, sustains fleshier on the valve unit. Merlin's presentation didn't sound denser where its images were concerned, but denser between these images - as though space had become less spacious and more manifest matter. Bass accents in particular had more heft, leaving deeper footprints in the sand, this likely due to the Klimo's massive power supply. Kim Waters' vocals acquired more physical presence, but the PRe6 didn't sound not present - merely a lighter presence. Where the Merlin defied expectations was in treble lucidity.

Forget roll-off, damping, shading - extension and openess were every bit the Bel Canto's equal. The slight parallel lessening of air -- that perception of diaphanous lightness, of cotton taffy -- was simply a function of Merlin's greater weight. That reconfirmed the initial impression of body versus space. Compared to my recollection of the Audio Zone AMP-1 and 47Lab Shigaraki 4717, two units with exceptional image density but a concomitant lack of airiness, the Merlin pulled off this balancing act with amazing alacrity. Another very admirable asset came to the fore during late-night listening. Seriously shelved-down playback levels ascertained that the Klimo's fortitude with dynamics behaved in linear fashion even during appropriate-for-11:00PM, christian-civilized sessions rather than pagan mayhem outings.

Thus far, Dusan Klimo's thermionic recipe clearly netted dynamics, oomph and body. What it avoided like the Roman plague of King Arthur's days were tonal midrange enhancements. The saturated thickening effect of Eastern Electric's affordable MiniMax when outfitted with certain NOS tubes was not part of Merlin's repertoire. Unless I'd learn differently from Mr. Klimo himself, that seems plainly not a goal he strives for; or why he employs vacuum tubes in the first place. Time to investigate Merlin's layering technique, something that tube preamps are said to pull off extremely well, by differentiating each rear-ward foot of soundstage beyond the frontal boundary with heightened acuity.