Little did I know that our freeway exit marked Chexbres hides a famous audio company. It's just past the roundabout off Route de Chardonne. We take it whenever we head west towards Lausanne or Geneva. As such, Merging Technologies SA in Puidoux turned out be literally down the mountain from us. For me that made 'em a leisurely 12-minute drive downhill, taking the car across windy country roads through pastoral fields, horse and sheep pastures and mature woods. Many before had done it. In digital alone, Antelope Audio, Benchmark Media, Berkeley Audio Design, dCS, Lavry, Meitner, Mytek and Weiss spring to mind.

Now it was the turn of Merging Technologies. The pro-audio experts would merge into upscale consumer hifi with the pending launch of their NADAC. That's shorthand for network-attached D/A converter, with emphasis on the Ravenna Ethernet protocol. My contact Dominique Brulhart, head software engineer of Merging Technologies, cites a Geneva address in his email signature. Yet their actual assembly facility is in a zone industrielle near our 'hood. That likely lowers rent over what Geneva digs like Goldmund's and darTZeel's would charge. Whoda thunk? Robert Kelly of German Physiks for one. It was he who, from his past days at dCS, was very familiar with the Merging folks of Pyramix workstation fame. It was he who had suggested that as part of their bridge crossing from pro to hifi, Merging touch base with this nearby hifi journalist. Robert knew me from having worked on two German Physiks reviews. He also knew just how close we were. The tangled webs we weave without knowing.

And so it came about that on April 21st, I made my way down to Route du Verney 4 for a 2:00 o'clock meet, no GPS required. All I knew about Merging at that point was that they were Swiss (duh), very established and famous in their sector and actually considered the authority on contemporary DSD mastering DAWs. And, they were primed to soon make noise in ambitious home-audio applications with three versions of a DAC platform that would cater to 2-channel, 8-channel and 16-channel applications. Shuffling through some index cards in my little gray cells, my short list of Swiss audio companies kept growing quite out of proportions with the compact size of this small nation. Consider Active Audio, Audio Consulting, Audionautics, AvantGarde HighEnd (not to be confused with German hornspeaker company Avantgarde Acoustics), Boenicke Audio, CH Precision, Colotube, darTZeel, DaVinci Audio Labs, Ensemble, Goldmund, Holborne, Illusonic, Job Sys, Klangwerk, Le Son, Nagra, Orpheus Labs, Pawel, Piega, PSI, Relec, ReQuest, Revox, Rowen, Soulution, soundkaos, Stenheim, Stereolith, Swissonor, Swiss Cables, Thorens, Vovox and Weiss Engineering. There will be more. But as my informal list stands, it's already quite stacked particularly on upscale firms which pursue the market's luxury end. Now Merging had added themselves as a serious name. Time to learn more specifics on how said seriousness would apply to our publication's core focus: quality 2-channel home audio.

The two-channel NADAC—price TBD but less than €10'000—lives inside a 19" square enclosure with big rounded corners. It offers a BNC word-clock input configurable internally as a word-clock output; coax, Toslink, USB, AES/EBU and Ethernet digital inputs; and XLR/RCA analog outputs plus 6.3/3.5mm headphone sockets on the front. The headfi ports are fronted by their own Sabre DAC. This allows for source selection and volume control independent from the main outputs with their dedicated 8-channel ESS chip. Hence the master volume is another on-chip digital attenuator which is controllable via the frontal multi-function knob; or via Merging's software panel which can be installed on a computer or tablet. At present there are no plans for an IR wand. The high-contrast display shows volume level, selected input and data format. It also accesses menu layers where any device on the LAN may be selected and assigned to the main or headfi outputs; the brightness of the logo backlighting adjusted; the main output voltage trimmed by 6dB in the analog domain; and such. Whilst the digital board is identical to the Hapi pro deck, the op-amp based output stage and headphone amplifier are upgraded and specific to the fully balanced NADAC platform. There's enough space inside the big casing to scale up to 8- or 16-channel duty. Such expansion might possibly be retrofittable too. The onboard power supply is a shielded SMPS.

On-site system with PSI Audio active 3-way monitors driven balanced off the NADAC with a MacBook source.

Given that first production was still 3 weeks out during my visit, I was allowed to look but not tell where the prototype innards were concerned. Hence no gutted pix.

Talking with the Merging team, I detected a lot of solid confidence. That was based on their professional background and success with high-profile mastering and recording clients. How much of that success can be migrated into the consumer sector is the big question and gamble. Particularly the DAC segment is growing more crowded by the day. Then there's the not insignificant offset of distribution chain margins between pro and consumer markets. They're different models with different multipliers. Finally there's perception. "What do the pros know who work happily with crappy Yamaha NS-10 monitors" is one possible perspective. Another is that listening to a 352.8kHz DXD file from Morton Lindberg of 2L over the same DAC engine which was used to master it might just be the epidemy of awesome. Companies like Linn, Chord and Nagra have long since legitimized switch-mode power supplies. The Sabre chips enjoy a very good reputation though they've become quite ubiquitous too. Just think AURALiC, Cyenne, exaSound and Resonessence decks below €5'000. For ultimate hifi usage, opinion also diverges on whether op-amp based gain/buffer stages and digital attenuation are the cat's meow even when they exhibit flawless measurements. Here engineering-driven pro companies are bound to encounter beliefs and findings that circulate amongst our kind which could strike them as - well, curious to put it mildly. At this juncture, Merging Technologies in fact have no clue how upscale audiophile customers will react to their deck's performance. But that score card will soon begin to get its first comments. And we'll be amongst those to make some of them. Stay tuned.
PS: For the average home listener, USB 2.0/3.0 have more than sufficient bandwidth to distribute high-resolution music and video. Whether in that context Merging's pro-audio focus on Ethernet will matter and prove to have any sonic advantages remains to be seen. After all, most of us are not concerned with sync'ing up multiple digital devices for multi-channel applications as you would in recording studios. And resourceful firms like Bel Canto have already overcome the distance limitations of USB cabling with ST glass fibre. It will likely be the modern networked home with its multiple computers in various rooms which most benefits from the Ravenna Ethernet protocol. That embeds a high-precision clock in the data transfer and allows multiple simultaneous send/receive paths between shared network devices to now access the same or multiple music libraries at the same time. Think multi-room applications and distributed sound.