Recently, we read an article stating that there would be about 20,000 hi-fi brands worldwide today. Choosing from all these brands is not easy, but every now and then products come our way by chance. At the last X-FI fair we heard a set of great sounding mono-blocks of which we didn’t know the brand name. It turned out to be a set of Merrill Audio Element power amplifiers. Above all, we remember the exceptional control and the spacious soundstage. Now time for a review of these power amplifiers: the Merrill Audio Cara
Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs is a relatively young company from New Jersey. Owner Meril Wettasinghe has had a passion for hi-fi for a long time and after a successful career in finance he started his own company. His mission is to deliver high quality at relatively achievable prices. A noble goal but not so obvious for a relatively small company. That’s why Merrill Audio tries as much as possible to be present at fairs to show their products. No large media campaigns, but all the more focus on quality and a more specialised approach.
This approach pays off especially for their power amplifiers, which are highly regarded internationally. Today we are looking at a crucial component for controlling separate power amplifiers: a preamplifier. In this case the Merrill Audio Cara, named after the daughter of the owner.
The rest of the portfolio consists of three power amplifiers, two preamplifiers and a phono stage. A look at the site shows some ‘teasers’ for future products in which the announcement of a digital player stands out the most. Something to look forward to!
Construction and appearance
The Merrill Audio Cara is a fully analog preamplifier that has only balanced inputs and outputs. Owner Wettasinghe clearly believes in this approach because also his other pre- and power amplifiers in the range are only available with balanced connections. This conscious choice has its pros and cons, of course, but above all it shows that this company has a clear philosophy and that it stands fully behind it.
Although the power amplifiers are unanimously praised for their looks, they are real gems, opinions about the appearance of the preamplifiers are divided to say the least. We already noticed this at the product announcement a while ago. Either you hate it or you love it. Your editor belongs to the last group because bling is my thing.
But visitors at your faithful servant’s home were not always enthusiastic. Yet we find the steel, shiny front without buttons but with large blue OLED screen has a special appearance. When you put the Cara or the more expensive Christine (named after his wife!) in your system you make a statement, that much is clear.
The data on the screen is very large and perfectly readable from the listening position. If the blue LED lighting disturbs too much, the screen can be dimmed or switched off. Then this preamplifier may look better in the average hi-fi rack and looks more like the regular silver devices. On the other hand, we find the exceptional readability very user-friendly and we are not distracted by the blue info on the screen (in dimmed mode). At the back we see beautiful golden Cardas XLR connectors (even bling at the back) of which two are outputs and four are inputs. Simple and tight, just the way we like it.
We asked owner Merrill Wettansinghe for more information about the design of the Cara preamplifier:
“The Cara Preamplifier was designed with a budget in mind that would have similar performance to the Christine Reference Preamplifier, with excellent noise rejection and balanced circuits on the input that mimic a transformer input in noise rejection and performance. The original design goals were exceeded but the price-point maintained. In our measurements of the Cara Preamplifier we obtained a 1kHz square wave with an output voltage of 7 volts”
“There is no overshoot or ring, yet it maintains the speed of the square wave edge with only a slightly rounded corner at the top showing that bandwith limitations of the Cara Preamplifier which extends to 200kHz flat, and 700kHz at -3db. A specialized circuit and multi stage power supply (Kratos) was used to provide an ultra quit sound and excellent speed.”
The preamp’s been a bit of a neglected component the last couple of years. Many d/a converters have a lossless volume control nowadays where no more bits are ‘crunched’ and which often perform very well. Yet a separate preamplifier often brings just that bit of magic into a system that many are looking for. We are curious what the Merrill Cara will do in our new reference set.