Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, LLC, was founded in 2010 by Merrill Wettasinghe, who not only earned a BS in electrical engineering and an MBA, and enjoyed a career in R&D and marketing with Hewlett-Packard, but has long had a passion for purity of sound. In 2011, Wettasinghe released the first Merrill Audio amplifier, the Veritas monoblock ($12,000 USD per pair, discontinued). The Veritas was considered a breakthrough product not only for its sound quality, but also for being one of the first amplifiers to be based on Hypex’s Ncore NC1200 class-D power module. At the time, it was also one of the few amps to use point-to-point litz wiring of ultrapure copper, rhodium-plated binding posts of solid copper, and top-quality XLR connectors -- all made by Cardas.
In 2015, confident that he could improve on the Veritas in several key areas, Wettasinghe began designing its successor and the topic of this review, the Element 118 monoblock ($36,000/pair), named for the position in the periodic table of elements of oganesson (Og), a chemical element first synthesized in 2002. The Element 118 is Wettasinghe’s latest attempt to prove that class-D amplification has a place in high-end audio, and need not be relegated to driving woofers. In fact, he believes that class-D amplification, when properly designed from input to output, has the highest potential of delivering the most accurate, most holistically convincing reproduction of live music.
His attempts to achieve this goal did not come without challenges, not least of which was how to minimize the inherent noise and distortion produced by the on/off switching of high-frequency output devices. A common solution is to introduce high levels of negative feedback, but Wettasinghe rejected that because it also introduces harmonic issues and, perhaps worse, lower overall gain. It took him two years of design, modeling, and testing before he was ready to produce something tangible, then another two years of refining the build and further tests, before the first Element 118 rolled off the production line. In late 2018, Wettasinghe also released a smaller, less powerful version of the Element 118, the Element 116 monoblock ($22,000/pair); by the time this review is published there will be a stereo version, the Element 114 ($15,000).
The Element 118s arrived in standard cardboard boxes, but the packaging within was more in line with what I’ve seen for amplifiers shipped in custom-molded flight cases. Each 118 was wrapped in a luxurious red-silk sheath, and held in place by pieces of molded foam that needed to be removed in a specific order (a video on Merrill’s website illustrates the exact process).
When I’d fully unpacked the 118s, a couple of things struck me right away. First, all exterior panels other than the faceplate are made of 1/4”-thick nickel-plated steel. Merrill says that they use nickel plating instead of anodizing because it’s softer-looking and more absorbent. The faceplate is of 1/2”-thick milled aluminum with an elegant rose-gold matte finish, and delicately beveled from its center to its 3/8”-thick edge. At the center is a touchscreen with ten levels of brightness. On each side panel is a rose-gold aluminum acoustical damper etched with gently curved lines reminiscent of musical staves. On the top plate are two more dampers of similar size, these finished with a subtly alternating grain texture, and engraved with the Merrill Audio logo.
The Element 118 measures 13.7”W x 8.7”H x 20.4”D without its outrigger supports (see below). On the rear panel are, at lower left, a 20A Furutech IEC inlet with rhodium-plated blades, and above it a 12V trigger input; in a row at the center of the rear panel are four top-tier WBT-0710 Cu mC speaker binding posts able to accommodate spades, banana plugs, or bare wire; at top right is a rhodium-plated Cardas balanced input jack (XLR). The Element 118’s 65-pound weight is supported by two one-piece outriggers of polished stainless steel that are seamlessly integrated with the visual design, and add 4.4” of width and 2.1” of height to the amp’s overall dimensions. Each outrigger itself sits on two IsoAcoustics Gaia II isolation footers, which add a measure of vibration absorption, and isolation from whatever surface the amp is placed on.
Set up on the floor between my Paradigm Persona 7F speakers, the Element 118s dripped class and elegance -- but at $36,000/pair, they need to do more than look pretty. I asked Wettasinghe to walk me through the amp’s signal path and highlight the unique aspects of its design. While he was prompt to respond, he wouldn’t tell me much -- the circuit design is proprietary. Here’s what I can tell you.
The Element 118’s chassis and all of its internal parts are manufactured offsite, and assembled and tested by Merrill. The secret of the performance of all Element-series amplifiers is twofold: First is their use of gallium-nitride (GaN) transistors, which dramatically outperform most other transistors, particularly MOSFETs; because they can turn on and off almost instantly, and operate in the gigahertz range, they avoid the charge and discharge times associated with channel/gate capacitance. This, in turn, negates the need to compensate for any distortion or deadtime, and thereby makes the use of negative feedback unnecessary. I asked Wettasinghe how many GaN transistors the Element 118 contains. “Very few,” he said. The second secret is the result of using cutting-edge, custom PCB boards capable of eliminating all but the minutest amounts of parasitic inductance and capacitance.
All Element amplifiers are open-loop, zero-feedback designs using what Wettasinghe calls a Zero Crossing Open Loop (ZXOL). He noted that the entire layout of the PCB with GaN transistors is unique. The PCB was designed inhouse using sophisticated software typically used in RF and high-speed digital design. All Element-series circuits and parts were modeled using 3D CAD software to simulate the design. From computer to reality took but three revisions before the amplifier was ready for production, but much was involved in each revision. Placement tolerances were less than 0.5mm in some places, and all internal wiring in the Element series is of oversize, silver-plated, oxygen-free copper sheathed in Teflon and strategically placed. The two heatsinks on each amp together total eight pounds of pure copper, to maximize heat dissipation, and power is provided by an LLC Resonant power supply with power-factor correction, and a custom-built transformer implemented as part of the inductor. “This arrangement allows for better and more immediate power delivery, adjusting to the power requirements on the fly,” Wettasinghe told me.
The Element 118 is specified to output 400W into 8ohms, 800W into 4 ohms, or 1600W into 2 ohms; its gain is specified as 26dB, its signal/noise ratio as 110dB, and its damping factor an eye-popping 4000! All Element-series amplifiers include power-supply protection that monitors the input and output voltages and currents; if the amp detects a voltage or current that exceeds a specified value, it shuts itself off.
I connected each Element 118 to the Paradigm Persona 7F nearest it with Kimber Kable Select KS-6063 speaker cables, and to my Audio Research Reference 6 preamp with Kimber Select KS-1116 balanced interconnects. My primary review system comprised a EMM Labs DV2 DAC and Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M monoblocks, supplemented with my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC and a pair of McIntosh Laboratory MC1.25KW monoblocks for points of comparison. All interconnects were Kimber Select KS-1116, and power was fed from a Torus AVR 20 power conditioner though Clarus Crimson power cords.
Appearing often on Merrill Audio’s website is the phrase “Audio Purity,” which I think aptly describes the Element 118’s overall sound quality. Class-D amplifiers are generally assumed to produce tight, deep, powerful bass, but to sound somewhat sterile elsewhere in the audioband. Their sound is also often described as “digital,” and in some cases that’s fairly accurate.
But not when describing the Element 118. When I try to describe the sound of this amplifier, the terms that immediately come to mind are transparency, focus, articulation, speed, and power -- but there was more than that going on. There was also a distinct sense of pace, rhythm, and timing, each of those attributes complemented and almost bonded together by a fullness of sound that quickly let me forget I was listening to a class-D amplifier.
The Element 118 had another trick up its sleeve: Its ability to make my speakers, more often than not, “disappear” from my room as the apparent physical sources of the sound. Whether or not this happened with a particular recording of course depended on such factors as the quality of recording and the other gear in the system -- but when I listened to Ray Charles and Norah Jones sing “Here We Go Again,” from Charles’s Genius Loves Company (24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC, Concord/HDtracks), using the primary review system noted above, Charles’s voice was firmly planted slightly to left of center, Jones’s slightly to the right. This performance sounded real enough for me to immediately assume that Charles and Jones were sharing the same vocal microphone. Layered slightly beneath them, bass notes sounded solid, coherent, and fully extended among the encompassing presence of Charles’s keyboards. Jones’s piano, overdubbed to complement Charles’s keyboard after the basic tracks had been laid down, floated in my room, adding a sense of warmth and richness. Listening to this track with eyes closed, I couldn’t have told you where my speakers were.
Sticking with bluesy fare, I cued up Eric Bibb’s Migration Blues and listened to his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” (16/44.1 FLAC, Stony Plain). Again, with eyes closed I found it almost impossible to pinpoint the locations of my speakers based on what I was hearing. Bibb’s voice was projected deep into my room, with an escalated sense of scale and intricacy most likely due to his closeness to the vocal mike. Yet despite this almost hyperresolved depiction of his voice, I heard no sibilance or grain, and as I raised and lowered the volume, the overall tonal balance remained unchanged. The near-holographic projection of Jean-Jacques Milteau’s harmonica at left center was also arresting, unimpeded in dynamics yet alluring in its delicate decays. I also appreciated how easy it was to differentiate Bibb’s seven-string guitar from Michael Jerome Browne’s five-string banjo. Placed directly beneath his voice at center soundstage, each of Bibb’s picks of guitar string was precisely delineated, tonally differentiated from the others, with gratifyingly long decays against the subtler, shorter, yet clearly more hollow notes of Browne’s banjo.
Wanting to hear how the Element 118s would handle more lively music, I played some pop. Here more than anywhere else, the 118s made obvious the fact that if the quality of the recording itself was sub-par, so was the sound it reproduced. But find a decent recording, such as Beck’s Sea Change (16/44.1 FLAC, Universal) or Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia), and you’ll be rewarded with a musically engaging sound as replete with inner detail as with ambience. I have both albums on standard “Red Book” CDs and in high-resolution formats: Sea Change as a 24/88.2 FLAC file from HD tracks, and Born in the U.S.A. as a 24/96 DVD-A ripped to FLAC.
I began with the CD of Beck’s “The Golden Age.” The Element 118s put forward a sound holistically convincing if not quite as musically engaging or as inviting as I’m used to hearing from this track. The sounds of Beck’s acoustic-guitar strings in the opening seconds were crisp, fast, and tightly focused just to right of center, as I’ve come to expect, but they lacked a bit of body. I got a similar impression of Beck’s voice, which sounded tonally accurate but a bit thin. The soundstage was wide enough, but not as deep as I’m used to. In the hi-rez version the music flowed with better senses of realism, body, and three-dimensionality, and was overall more enjoyable. The percussion instruments at far right now imaged well past the right-channel speaker’s outer side panel, Beck’s guitar sounded weightier and with more body, bass notes seemed to go deeper, and I could now hear a subtle thump to the kick drum. The electronic effects toward the end of the track were also better defined and more substantive than with the lower-rez version.
I noticed similar changes when comparing the CD and DVD-A of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” I quite enjoyed the CD version through the Element 118s -- it sounded more nostalgic. But in the DVD-A version I was able to hear more of everything: the resonance and decay of Springsteen’s voice was more prevalent, the thump of the kick drum was weightier, the knocks of the wood blocks at far left came across as both bigger and more nuanced, and the plucked electric-guitar notes at far right were more concise. With this 24/96 track I also realized just how quiet the Element 118 is -- the inky-“black” background no doubt contributed to my being able to hear more microlevel detail. The Element 118 may be the most transparent amplifier I’ve ever heard.
Comparisons: reaching new heights
I began by pitting the Element 118s against McIntosh Laboratory’s MC1.25KW monoblocks because, technically, visually, and sonically, these two amplifiers couldn’t be more different. The MC1.25KW ($25,000/pair, review forthcoming) is a class-A/B, quad-balanced, 158-pound beast with a specified output of 1200W into 2, 4, or 8 ohms. Its appearance relies heavily on an old-school aesthetic balanced with modern-day refinement, while the Element 118 looks more svelte, classy, and ultramodern. The MC1.25KW performed on a par with the Element 118 in terms of bottom-end grunt and dynamics, but couldn’t match the Merrill in microlevel detail, tonal purity and balance, and bass definition. In “Masters of War,” I could hear far more detail in Eric Bibb’s guitar strings and air in his voice through the Merrills. The big Macs seemed to gloss over these microlevel details, leaving me with a smoother, warmer, more relaxed sound. I also found the strings of Browne’s banjo more difficult to hear through the MC1.25KWs, which made differentiating that instrument from Bibb’s guitar more challenging.
I had similar results with Beck’s “Sea Change”: his guitar lacked some of the bite I reveled in with the Element 118s, and string decays were vanishingly subtle by comparison. Perhaps the most obvious difference was how much more tonally balanced the Element 118s sounded than the McIntoshes. The latter were consistently clean and neutral in the midrange, but at lower to moderate volumes the bass was slightly recessed, and the top end sounded rolled off by about 2dB. But the big McIntoshes began to come into their own when I buried the wick a bit and turned up the volume (think 95+dB). The top- and bottom-end tonal imbalances seemed to disappear, and microlevel details began to come across that were more in line with what the Element 118s could fully reveal at half the volume. The MC1.25KWs’ power and dynamic drive, particularly in the bottom end, was also beguiling in a way I never quite heard from the Element 118s. At levels of 95-100dB, the Merrills sounded sharper, highly controlled, and uncompressed, yet hyperdetailed. At these levels, what most impressed me about the Element 118s was their bass performance: rock solid, highly detailed, tonally differentiated, and exceedingly controlled.
My reference Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M monoblocks nicely split the difference between the Merrills and Macs, though overall their sound is more akin to the Element 118s’. With most music, the Sims consistently sounded a tad darker than the Merrills. Bibb’s voice appeared somewhat farther back on a slightly less expansive soundstage, and the W-7Ms lacked just a hint of the Element 118s’ inner detail and airiness. Through the Element 118s, the kick drum in “I’m on Fire” was slightly more prominent, and microlevel details were a wisp easier to hear. This, combined with the Merrills’ greater neutrality, made them the more enjoyable amps to listen through -- until I pushed them past that 7/10s mark. At higher volumes, the playing field leveled dramatically. The thump of the kick drum in “I’m on Fire” was now virtually identical through the two pairs of amps, as were the decay of the wood blocks, the body and dimension of Springsteen’s voice, and the size and spaciousness of the soundstage. The primary difference now was in tonality: the Element 118s were more neutral. At ridiculous volume levels I appreciated the Merrills’ unwavering bass control, but always found the Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7Ms easier to listen through, though not quite as inviting as the McIntosh MC1.25KWs.
Merrill Audio’s Element 118 monoblock amplifier has opened my ears to how far class-D amplification has come. It’s meticulously assembled, chock-full of high-quality parts, encompasses innovative technology, and to my eyes is as elegant as it is unique to look at. The Element 118’s sound proved utterly transparent, fastidious in its presentation of detail and nuance, and capable of producing stupendously accurate, controlled, powerful bass -- all while providing a benchmark level of neutrality.
If you’re in the market for an exotic-looking amplifier that shies away from no speaker, the Element 118 deserves to be considered. Highly recommended!
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers -- Paradigm Persona 7F
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
- Amplifiers -- McIntosh Laboratory MC1.25KW monoblocks, Parasound Halo A 51 (five-channel), Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M monoblocks
- Preamplifiers -- Anthem AVM 60, Audio Research Reference 6
- Digital-to-analog converters -- EMM Labs DV2, PS Audio DirectStream, Simaudio Moon Evolution 780D
- Sources -- Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player; Intel NUC computer running Windows 10, Roon
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus (USB), Clarus Crimson (S/PDIF), Kimber Kable Select KS-1116 (balanced)
- Speaker cables -- Kimber Kable KS-6063
- Power cords -- Clarus Crimson
- Power conditioner -- Torus AVR 20
Merrill Audio Element 118 Mono Amplifiers
Price: $36,000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Four years parts and labor.
Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, LLC
80 Morristown Road, Unit 3B, #275
Bernardsville, NJ 07924
Phone:(415) 5MA-HiFi (562-4434)