"This is unlike other amps." Merrill's excited claim had continued with "which simply throw the image flat on the front wall. It should sound holographic." Which it very much did. With our DC-coupled class A/B amps of Bakoon AMP-13R, Crayon CFA-1.2 and LinnenberG Liszt caliber—all of which run massively broader bandwidth than the 114—I simply hadn't heard any in a long while which couldn't or wouldn't do that. Michael Børrensen's 2.5-way towers below did express next-level resolution beyond our resident best speakers if also at four times their price. At first, the 114 did not seem to hit next-level turf but played on familiar ground if also with low-Ω power headroom well beyond our biggest amp. It would thus be capable of loudness and control stunts exclusive to it if we had the shot ears, capacious mansion and silly-inefficient speakers to pursue them. But we don't. The 114 would thus have to make its arguments not on the basis of copious power, extreme dynamics, enclosure bling or mode of operation.
With fully balanced COS Engineering D1 DAC/pre with analog volume and Soundaware D100Pro as SD card transport.
After a brief upstairs visit whilst Living Voice OBX-RW3 loaners completed their downstairs review laps in the big rig, the 114 would move there, too. But my first few dates took place in the smaller room where the 25wpc of Bakoon's baby amp are perfectly adequate. Clearly the 114's overkill power spec didn't hamper its finesse in the least. My initial focus with still the Danish speakers on hand was the 114's top-end performance. With ribbon tweeters weighing just 1/100th of a gram powered by N52 super neodymium, I had treble excavators sans pareil. As I put it in their review, "they made my attention feel like an expert grave robber who could track the lingering ghosts of the long dead". With the best class D I'd heard until then, treble sophistication and information reveal still trailed our ultra-bandwidth class A/B amps. Could Merrill's switching GaN reset those markers?
Wooden couplers from our Kroma Audio speaker stands protected the shiny top of the 114 whilst being mounted.
During quick boot-up which shows firmware version and serial number, the Element 114 checks on 'byron and antibyron balance', then 'stabilizing quarks vs antiquarks'. Merrill does pack some humor. Unless one has a switched wall outlet or power distributor with an off switch of course, having to unplug a power cord to shut down a statement amp does admittedly seem a bit, um, agricultural. On sonics, Merrill's humor simply turns dead serious. He prefers no power switch. 18-watt standby power draw certainly won't have a big impact on your utility bill. And, believers in thermal ramp-up won't have to put up with any warm up. Gratification should be instant. As the stock photos promised, the Element 114 is very much the looker even though its champagne/copper-with-polished-stainless look won't match anything else. But if a maker wants to distinguish his ultra-heavy rare element, he is pretty much forced to part ways with the ubiquitous black or silver options.
The DD cup challenge: class D GaN zero feedback vs class D Mosfet mega feedback. Unlike what Merrill had done for stock UcD/Ncore boards, Purifi's proof-of-concept demonstrator hadn't been tuned with silver bullets aka boutique parts, deluxe chassis or even a custom input buffer. It was a cheap stockskate hence handicapped. Still, it was my top D-oozy. By contrast, it was warmer, thicker and decidedly more clumped up center stage. The 114 applied perfectly even image density across a far broader soundstage. Both amps were soft in the sense that their transients rendered natural not hard or chiseled. Børresen's wondrous ribbon is ultra pure and slightly sweet, thus differs from Mundorf's air-motion transformer in the Acelec Model One I had in just then and already heard in Gryphon's Mojo and Kaiser's Chiara. The AMT plays it edgier and more explicit. Perhaps its 5:1 acceleration advantage of squeezing rather than pushing the air causes a top-heavy dynamic imbalance over its partnering ScanSpeak doped-paper mid/woofer?
Back on the Børresen, the key differentiator on the attack score was that Purifi's leading edges were enveloped in minor blur or fuzz. Merrill's weren't. One type softness was slightly imprecise like drawn by softer subtly smeared lead-tip pencil. The other was simply clean. The upshot was that the 114 went deeper on separation and specificity to point at Merrill's greater holography. With it it assumed our household's premium class A/B status whilst the warmer cozier Purifi approximates our still warmer class A Pass Labs. In my world, the key quality a hifi should exhibit is energetic transmission of the encoded musical charge. Here the 114 was—sorry but you knew this was coming—the more elemental. It was faster. It better jumped across the physical gap of 'music over there' and 'listener over here'. That requires a particular action which I call transmission. The warmer Purifi amp without benefit of costly custom tuning expressed more of a comfort sound. It was perfectly pleasant, attractive and benign but neither was it as compelling nor was it as resolved. Its transmission was lazier hence less effective. How much extra performance could one tap if it was massaged with boutique parts and custom-tuned SMPS? I haven't a clue. Unbelievably, my loaner still has a Hypex power supply from the company Bruno Putzeys left to now compete against.
Colored crayons. Taking temps on actual class A/B, I juxtaposed the 114 with Crayon's balanced/bridged 64/90wpc into 8/4Ω CFA-1.2. That uses proprietary current feedback, a medical-grade SMPS and high bandwidth. As the numbers show, Merrill's far more robust supply power doubles all the way down into 2Ω. It'll go dynamic places where the Austrian will compress. In this context of a load with very linear impedance below 1kHz and mellower SPL, that didn't matter. Sonically things now were most equivalent but not identical. The Merrill had a subtle advantage on contrast ratio, perhaps from an even higher signal-to-noise ratio. That was a small general difference. A particular one was its somewhat weightier bass. This retained the Crayon's wonderful cat-paw elasticity without ballooning. It simply made the slightly deeper footprints in the sand to remain with the playful feline image. How about the other end of the bandwidth?
On "Schindler's List" from Nemanja Radulovic's Carnets de Voyage | Journey East album on Deutsche Grammophone, both amps slightly disagreed on his most intense bow action starting at 2:23. With the 114, the violin's tonality became more forward or slightly wiry whilst the Crayon only got louder without modulating the timbre. This was repeatable. Which was truer to the recording? Who'd know? Given my next test, I would side with the Merrill. On Des pas sous la neige, Joël Grare plays a clavicloche of 3½ octaves worth of chromatically tuned Swiss cowbells and is recorded with high dynamic range. If you play back "Battements d'ailes dans le brouillard" over speakers as lucid and responsive as the Børresen then turn up the wick as though you sat very close, the vertical rises of the loudly struck bells with their first millisecond of upper-harmonic peaks, clear as refracted diamond light, are stunning. One feels as though in a Tolkien saga deep inside a mountain where artisanal dwarves fashion enchanted weapons with clanging hammers and gossamer sounds.
On the matter of speed as subjectively gauged by how steep and high the leading edges rose to discernably capture the 2nd and 4th harmonic an octave and two octaves above the fundamental, the Element 114 red-lined higher. That lightning-y sense of oscillating metal molecules triggering instantaneous flashes of brilliant overtones was stronger with the class D amp. Here it was of zero concern that I had no absolute reference for the sound of enormous Swiss cow bells. A relative reference by way of contrast between two different readings was all it took to recognize that one was even more descriptive and believable than the other. Having transformer-less ribbon tweeters on a series crossover as my magnifiers was a special boon from the dwarfs.
Spinning up "Promenade" from the Vassilis Tsabropolous / Anja Lechner album Melos on the very protective ECM label [hence only a Spotify not YouTube link] with percussion by U.T. Gandhi, the triangle's very exposed silver strike at 0:17 and again later plus many deeply embedded far gentler recurrences rose even more unfettered. Vassilis' high piano tones had more bell-like resonance with the 114. The cheaper Crayon whose designer too is an expert with RF circuity had to accept 2nd place. On representing the 'Swiss sound'—more visible members of it than our in-house examples from smaller brands would include CH Precision and Goldmund—the Merrill in this duel was the last amp standing. Would this hold downstairs with a superior source, state-of-the-art preamp and mono amps beyond the Crayon? No doubt already, the Merrill was one wickedly quick amp just as promoted by its maker. No fake news there.