MERRILL TARANIS STEREO AMPLIFIER

$2,500

 

Review by

JOHN FRITZ

Stereomojo Senior Reviewer

 

 

 

Not a Lesser God

 

Merrill Audio is on a roll.  Its Veritas and Thor mono amplifiers ($12,000 and $4,800/pr. respectively) have been widely praised in the audio press, including reviews here: we were so impressed we gave them our Maximum Mojo Award.  In fact, the flagship Veritas monoblocks were our 2015 amp of the year! Perhaps even more significantly, after auditioning the Veritas in his system at home, our publisher James Darby bought the pair as his new reference amps! You can’t get a better recommendation than that.

 

In addition, he has named the Taranis our first Product of the Year for 2016- Best Value Amplifier. Yes, Merrill is definitely on a twelve-foot-submarine-sandwich size roll!

 

 Moreover, the buzz has it that Merrill’s $15,000 Jens moving coil phono preamplifier is a giant killer.  Until recently, however, Merrill’s lineup did not include a stereo amplifier.  That gaping hole was filled when Merrill announced the release of the Taranis stereo amplifier with a surprisingly affordable price tag of $2,500 (by high end standards) and a whopping 400 watts per channel into 8 ohms.  That prompted me to think that if the Taranis came close to the performance level of the Veritas and Thor (Merrill touts its “trickle down” philosophy), it would represent the best value in Merrill’s line-up and present a serious marketing challenge for its costlier siblings.  

 

The Taranis continues Merrill’s penchant for naming its products after mythological Gods or places (ala Nordost).  First it was Veritas, the Roman Goddess of Truth; then Thor, the Norse God of Lightning and Thunder; and now Taranis, the Celtic God of Thunder.  Frankly, I am used to purchasing gear with a less lofty sobriquet.  Naming an amplifier after an ancient deity may seem pretentious if not supercilious.  Yet from a marketing standpoint it is a stroke of genius.  Imagine calling the Taranis the Merrill Audio S-400.  It just isn’t as memorable and certainly not as educational.  And it does not provide fodder for us reviewers. 

 

Speaking of which, by the time I installed the Taranis in my system (Dr. John Richardson had it first) it had morphed into Harpacrotes, the Greek God of Silence.  You see, it was DOA, a puzzlement in that it had worked just fine in John’s system.  Perhaps the Taranis was intimidated by my towering Wilson MAXX II speakers.  In any event, back it went to Merrill, who reported that one of the power supply filter capacitors had gone bad.  The “fixed” unit was speedily returned, only to find it still cowering in silence, a loose power wire the culprit this time (yikes!).  Three times the charm and the once snake bit Taranis now performed without incident (I had zero issues with its more expensive siblings, btw, and Merrill reports it has had no problems with other Taranis units out for review.)  

 

Like the Veritas and Thor, the Taranis is a Class D design.  Some of you may be inclined to stop reading at this point and move on to a review of a tube amplifier.  That would have been me before I encountered the Veritas and Thor.  My time with them brought about a sea change in my thinking about Class D and solid state amplifiers in general.  Although I remain a thermionic disciple, I no longer consider Class D to be Lucifer’s progeny.  Class D has matured to the point that marquee companies like Mark Levinson and Jeff Rowland have included, with varying degrees of success, at least one Class D amplifier in their line-up.  In Merrill’s case the success of its designs is due in large part to the well regarded Hypex NCore amplification module, versions of which are found in all of Merrill’s amplifiers.

 

Obviously Merrill had to make some compromises to get to this fractional price point in its lineup.  The first thing you notice about the Taranis is the steel sheet metal chassis and shiny steel face-plate that take the place of the expensive aluminum block chassis of the Veritas.  Aluminum and steel are known for their ability to reject EMI/RFI, aluminum being more effective as well as more expensive.  Merrill’s decision to use steel strikes me as reasonable compromise.   There is one thing that bothers me, though, and it is the prolonged ring that results from striking the top cover with a finger (the audiophile equivalent of tire kicking).  I tried damping it with VPI bricks and I didn’t notice a difference sonically, so perhaps it is not an issue.  Yet, I still wonder if some internal damping is in order.

        

Other cost cutting measures are to be found in the mundane sorbothane footers and generic 20 amp IEC power cord shipped with the Taranis.  The Veritas and Thor feature Stillpoint ultra-mini footers ($450.00) and a Synergistic fuse ($590.00).  They are available as options for the Taranis as well as an upgraded power cord from Waveform Fidelity ($500.00). With them you are likely to get even closer to the performance of the top gods, but Merrill gives you choice: if you are happy with the stock unit, great. If you want an improvement, you can add them later, either from Merrill or another brand.

 

Speaker binding posts are copper plated/Rhodium instead of the gold/Rhodium plated Cardas XLR inputs used in the Veritas and Thor.  Again, the cost cutting here seems entirely logical, as Merrill has opted to spend more on the innards to get the biggest bang for the buck.  Most notably is the inclusion of the same power supply found in the $12,000 Veritas. 

 

Merrill also did not skimp on something almost always reserved for the best, most expensive amps: a fully differential XLR balanced input stage designed for maximum noise rejection with high input impedance of 100k. Usually such a stage adds about $2,000 to the price of an amp. The total price for the Taranis is $2,500. You do the math.

 

The Taranis has a digital power meter that registers from -60db to 0db, with color gradations to let you know where you are in the range.  I don’t understand why Merrill has included a power meter here and not in its more expensive amplifiers, especially if it is  trying to keep costs down. If you must, needle style VU meters are the way to go!  To me, they are sexier and invoke images of the golden age of audio.  Digital meters remind me of, well, early digital. Publisher's note - if you've been in a recording studio lately, you will see LED meters and not the vintage needle style Vu meters. ProTools software uses segmented LED graphics for meters as well. My 20+ year-old Nakamichi casette deck uses segmenteds. Come to think of it,  the studio I worked in circa 1975 had a Flickenger board with segmented meters. Dan Flickerger invented the segmented Vu meter as well as the parametric EQ.

 

At least the digital meter can be turned off by a small switch located under the chassis where a mute/operate switch is also located.  Those with chubby fingers may be annoyed as you will have to feel around to locate them and there is not enough room to insert yourfingers without partially lifting up the 25 lb. Taranis.  If you opt for the Stillpoint footers they will elevate the chassis so you can easily gain access unless you have NFL linebacker sized fingers.

 

After spending loads of time enjoying the Veritas and the Thor, I know that they have their own brand of magic, not to be mistaken for the “tube magic” adored by tube fans.  Certain defining characteristics contribute to this magic, the first and most obvious of which is the incredibly low noise floor.  Merrill’s amplifiers are dead quiet.  Noise is to Merrill as Sarah Conner is to the shape shifting assassin in Terminator II – to be eliminated with unflappable determination. 

 

Even the best tube units (and many other solid state units I have heard) cannot match Merrill’s feat in eliminating noise.

                       

The next salient characteristic, which is related to the first, is a resolving power that borders on the miraculous.  Everything on a recording is starkly revealed, which, as you may surmise, can be a good or bad thing.  A 24/96 recording I made of a 30 piece choir was reproduced, warts and all, as a stunning facsimile of the real thing, thanks to the deep diving Veritas.  It is apropos that the Veritas is named after the Goddess of Truth, as it speaks the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help itself.  The remaining noteworthy aspects of Merrill’s amplifiers are speed without etch and an unfettered dynamic range.

 

How does all of this add up to magic?  Merrill’s moto, Audio Purity, sums it up nicely.  The sound Merrill has wrought is pure, unadulterated and refined.  It is relaxed and nimble, yet it can deliver a knock-out punch when called for.  It suggests reality with the best sources.  You can listen to it all day and at high levels and never suffer listening fatigue unless you want to torture yourself with some grunge rock.  Where it deviates slightly from the sound of the best tube amplifiers is in its handling of sustain and decay of notes.  To my ears fine tube amplification better captures the complete note (attack, sustain, decay), although some may argue that what you are hearing with tubes is an effect caused by distortion components and a certain sluggishness inherent in output transformers (OTL amplifiers are said to not suffer from this “sluggishness”).   

 

How does the Taranis stack up against the mighty Veritas?   One would suppose that the Taranis, at about one-fifth the price of the Veritas, would be seriously lacking in comparison, but that was not the case.  If it does not totally capture the svelte, refined, and infinitely grain free sound of the Veritas, the family resemblance is unmistakable.   The Taranis is musical in its own right, even if does not spin the enchanting web that the Veritas does.  On the other hand, the Taranis has none of the irritating qualities that plagued early Class D amplifiers.   A caveat:  there was an artificial “tint” to the Taranis’s sound that disappeared after a break in period, which thankfully was measured in hours and not months like some other products. But still, the Taranis sounded very respectable right out of the box.

 

Let me start with how the Veritas and Taranis differ sonically.  When first installed in my system, the Taranis exhibited a slight rise around 100hz-150hz, which constitutes the upper range of the bass guitar.  In fact I noticed it in my traversal of jazz recordings that prominently figure acoustic and electric bass.  I had no such experience with the Veritas and Thor, whose bass plumbed the depths without any significant peaks or valleys.  Nor do I have this issue with my Audio Research VT-100Mk II.  Wilson MAXX II speakers are extremely sensitive to room placement and present an eccentric load to amplifiers in the bass range.  Suspecting that there was an amp/speaker/room interface anomaly at play, I set about moving the gargantuan MAXX speakers, eventually finding a location that tidied up the bass response.  A slight exuberance still remained at 100 hz but it was not musically distracting.  Bear in mind that using a $2,500 amp in a system this transparent is a true challenge to any amp at any price. You may not have the same experience with the Taranis in your system, but if you do, be prepared to experiment with placement of your speakers to get things right.  That is half the fun unless you own Wilson speakers.

 

The next difference is literally a matter of perspective.  The Taranis brings you closer to the performers, a front of the hall view, compared to the mid-hall vista of the Veritas.  Which you will prefer is a matter of taste, and which is accurate is subject to debate.

 

 Accurate or not, I prefer a close up perspective with small ensemble jazz.  I want to be in the studio or club with the jazz greats.  The Taranis brought me closer to Joe Morello’s drum kit in Take Five, Sonny Rollins’ sax in Way out West, and Miles’ trumpet in Kind of Blue.  With classical music it can be a mixed bag.  I do not cotton to orchestral recordings that let you peer down the throat of the tuba player, or make the bass drum or triangle sound like they are solo instruments located upstage.  A close(r) up view generated by your equipment can exacerbate injudicious use of multiple, close-up microphones.  For an extreme example, check out Frank Zappa’s London Symphony Orchestra (CD - Kent Nagano conducting).  I was astonished when I read of a recording engineer who recently employed sixty plus microphones in order to capture each musician’s individual performance.  I can just imagine the resulting sonic mishmash!   Before you get the wrong idea, I am not saying that the Taranis is flawed - you may like it’s up front perspective with all sorts of music.  And to be clear, the Taranis’ up front perspective did not significantly shortchange the dimensions of the soundstage in comparison to the Veritas, which is a remarkable feat considering it is a stereo amplifier and not monoblocks.   

 

In all other respects, the Taranis comes so close to the vaunted performance of the Veritas that I wouldn’t want to live on the difference.  To keep the comparison fair, I played recordings that I used to assess the Veritas and Thor (all LP’s unless noted).  First up was Fairy Tales featuring the late Radka Toneff accompanied by pianist Steve Dobrogosz.  For those who don’t know, Toneff was a Norwegian jazz singer and a troubled soul who, tragically, committed suicide at age 30.  A collection of covers and Toneff originals, Fairytales features Toneff’s chilling vocals, sounding somewhat like a depressed Karen Carpenter.  Cuing up Fairy Tales, I recalled how I was awestruck when I played it through the Veritas.  The Veritas totally stepped aside and allowed the fullest and most lifelike expression of the artists as I never heard it before. 

 

The Taranis followed suit.  I was duly impressed by its ability to resolve Toneff’s inflections and aspirations and the way it captured the synergy between Toneff and Dobrogosz, which is felt as much as heard.  Tonally and dynamically, the piano here sounds as real as it gets (yes this is a digital recording but it doesn’t sound it except it avoids the flutter you sometimes hear in an analog recording of a piano).  For a thrill, check out the punctuated key strokes in “Come Down in Time”.  As delivered by the Taranis, you will hear pad striking strings with such force that you will have no doubt as to the piano’s classification as a percussion instrument.  

 

The Taranis’ dogged refusal to impose itself on the musical proceedings had me shuffling through my vast collection of vinyl in search of greater insight into the music inscribed in the grooves.  My jazz collection has grown exponentially in recent years so I thought a traversal was in order.  Invitations to the party were extended to Jamal, Dolphy, Blakey, Brubeck, Coltrane, Miles, Rollins, Sun Ra, Weather Report, Brand X and other jazz greats.  Dolphy was Out to Lunch, Rollins was Way Out West, Brubeck was taking five, Blakey was spending A Night in Tunisia, Miles was Kind of Blue, and Sun Ra was visiting Saturn.  Seriously, I had a grand time listening to the masters plying their craft, aided by the Taranis’ convincing reproduction of the natural tonalities and textures of acoustic instruments, if a bit on the analytical and dry side compared to my Audio Research tube amplifier.

 

Brand X was a fusion band from the seventies and early eighties whose membership included, off and on, one Phil Collins of Genesis fame.  I was never a big fan of this genre but on recommendation of John Richardson I picked up a copy of “Masques” while shopping at the Rock and Roll Graveyard, a used record store in Frederick, Maryland.  I have since acquired two more Brand X recordings, from which you can glean that I like their music.  With virtuosic musicianship and an impressive collage of sound, there is a lot to like in the band’s unique blend of rock and jazz, full of wit and whimsy.  One of many highlights is Percy Jones on fretless electric bass.  His technique reminds me of the great Jaco Pastouris of Weather Report fame.  In “Ghost of the Mayfield Lodge”, Jones treats the bass as a lead guitar as he duels alternately with guitarist John Goodsell and percussionist Morris Pert.  Jones’ bass was lithe and otherworldly textured as reproduced by the Taranis.  In “Earth Dance”, Jones lays down a funky line that pierces the mix without dominating it.  The Taranis had no trouble revealing the intricate subtleties of his playing, although the Audio Research dug slightly deeper texturally.  

 

Acoustic bass is very revealing of amp/speaker interface (not to mention your room’s acoustics).  Getting the right balance of body and string sound can be tricky.  In Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (which he calls his love letter to God) bassist Jimmy Garrison’s lyrical solo at the end of “Pursuance” itself sounds like a prayer to God.  Through the Taranis his bass was taut, woody and only occasionally slightly fat, although this did not affect pace or timing.  Turning to the polar opposite in bass lines, Scott LaFaro’s incisive and frenzied bass  in Waltz for Debby was crisp without etch, and sounding of a piece as he moves up and down the fret board.   Ray Brown’s walking lines in “Mistreated but Undefeated Blues’ from Soular Energy propelled the band with confident assurance, the Taranis providing the pace and timing this cut demands.    

 

No, I don’t have a bass fetish.  But, but - indulge this drummer/percussionist for a moment as I turn briefly to recordings that feature drums and percussion instruments.  From a reviewer’s standpoint, drums and percussion  can be most telling of an amplifier’s ability to render transients free of overhang, etch and ringing.  Not only that, many an amplifier misses the mark when asked to reproduce skin tone and the difficult to get right sound of cymbals among other things.  To that end, I pulled out a 45 rpm all analog recording on RCA victor of Japanese percussionist Sumire Yoshihara performing Stockhausen’s Zyklus Pour un Batteur.  Musically, this is a piece that only a tap happy percussionist could like.  It features a battery of percussion instruments including bass and snare drums, marimba, tam tam, toms, bells, and a plethora of smaller instruments.  Yoshihara impresses here with blazing speed and a deft touch in this direct to disc recording.  Sonically, this is perhaps the most realistic recording of percussion I have ever heard, aided by a sumptuously warm acoustic.  The Taranis captured the explosive impact of hard struck drums and resulting resonance with startling authenticity.  The  woodiness of the marimba was there as well as the metallic drone of the tam-tam and the shimmering overtones of the bells.  All in all, the Taranis passed this difficult test, with slightly higher marks going to the Audio Research in the category of timbre, while the Taranis edged out the Audio Research in impact and dynamics. 

 

Forgive the digression.  Let me return to jazz, this time giving some of the superlative reissues from Sams Records a spin.  Cut from the original master tapes, and with authentic packaging, these Jazz recordings from France definitely deserve your attention.  I have four - the Donald Byrd Quintet, (Vol. 2); the Chet Baker Quartet; (Donald) Byrd in Paris; and Jazz Sur Seine.  The later features Barney Wilen on tenor sax and three out of the four members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, including Milt Jackson who is found here on piano and not his trademark vibraharp.  The master tapes must be in excellent condition as they sound as fresh as if they were recorded yesterday and not in the mid to late 1950s.  Musically this is mostly well played bop mixed with standards and, of course, Chet Baker’s West Coast cool.  The Taranis’s transparency allowed the texturally rich analog sound of the tapes to flow freely in my system.  Whether it was Byrd’s swinging trumpet or Art Taylor’s muscular drumming in Clifford Brown’s “the Blues Walk” (Byrd in Paris), or Wilen’s fluid sax in “Swinging Parisian Rhythm”, or Chet Baker’s buttery tone, the Taranis will show you why you need to pick these up before they are sold out.

 

With its CD player sized dimensions, the Taranis provides no clue as to the horsepower that lurks within.  Believe me; the Taranis packs a punch that bellies its smallish appearance.  Compared to the Veritas monoblock, also rated at 400w/channel, the Taranis gives up little ground in its ability handle dynamic swings and extreme SPLs without the hardening or congestion that you typically hear when an amplifier gives up the ghost.  The Taranis did not chafe when presented with testosterone infused recordings such as Jennifer Higdon’s (no wise cracks please!) Concerto for Orchestra (Telarc CD), in which the orchestra takes a trip to the gym and given a workout you won’t believe.  For those who like to Rock the Casbah, the Taranis will keep AC/DC and Led Zeppelin fans happy with its gutsy drive and forward momentum.   Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (Led Zeppelin III, Jimmy Page reissue) proved an unexpected surprise when I played it for my non-audiophile brother whose ears will never be the same.  Unless you have speakers that make extreme or unusual demands on an amplifier, the Taranis will have no problem driving them even in large rooms (mine is 9x18x30).  After all, it is the God of Thunder!   

 

The Taranis is not all about thunder and lightning, though;  it can handle delicate passages with equal aplomb.  I have a recording for solo harp exquisitely played by Susan McDonald.  This Delos LP was recorded on a Soundstream digital recorder in 1979.  My inner analog child forbade me to get close to it at first but I am glad I did as the sound is truly excellent.  Thanks to its insanely low noise floor, the Taranis revealed extremely low level information, such as delicately feathered strings at the ppp level, and faint hall sound, even better than the Audio Research.  The Taranis had no trouble distinguishing between the delicate sound of the Irish harp,  the brilliance of the Paraguayan harp, and the fuller toned concert harp.  Its speed was displayed on glissandos as I was able to (almost) hear each string along the way.  Moving from harp to piano, and to another excellent sounding digital recording on LP (Chopin Nocturnes-Barenboim, DG), the Taranis revealed the subtle dynamic contrasts that give shape and feel to this collection of “night pieces”.    

 

Merrill Audio continues to amaze.  The Taranis exceeded my expectations for it and then some.  For $2.500.00 you get mighty close to the performance of the Veritas and Thor, and that makes the Taranis a stone cold bargain.   If you have been thinking about getting into the magic that Merrill has to offer, but can’t afford  the Thor ($4,800) or Veritas ($12,000), check out the Taranis.   I think you will be impressed.  And don’t fear the Thunder -Merrill offers a 30 day trial period.  

 

                             

 

 

 

 

 

The Taranis gives new meaning to the concept of trickle down.  I would say that in this case the trickle is a torrent and the Taranis is a bucket capturing most of what the Veritas has to offer, making it a thundering bargain.  It offers an authentic 400 w/channel and will power just about any speaker out there.  My only caveat is that like the Veritas, it may be too much of good thing. Can you handle the truth?

 

The Taranis would be at home in any system that has other quality components. It would be an exceelent amp with which to build a high bang-for-your buck system. it's powerful enough to drive any speaker including electrostats comfortably. It doesn't sound like tubes, but it doesn't sound like solid-state, either.

It sounds like music - real music. While it is extremely detailed, it never sounds etched or fatiguing. Listening for hours is a pleasure.

 

System matching will be important if not critical.  Mating it with a high quality tube preamplifier promises a synergy that will likely win over even the most vocal of doubters. Bravo Merrill!

 

Specifications:

 

400 watts/8 ohms
600 watts/4 ohms
1.5milli ohms output impedance
100k input impedance
0-50khz +0/-3db Frequency response
26db gain
+/- 80 volt Maximum output
26 Amp Maximum Output
130db Signal to noise
0.005 THD+Noise

 

 

The Merrill Taranis, with its huge power, ultra-low noise, ultra transparency as well as outstanding musicality at a high-end entry level price, is an easy selection for our 2016 "Best Value Amplifier".

 Congratulations Merrill!

 

 

Equipment used:

VPI Classic 2 with Benz Micro SM cartridge, ARC PH 3 SE phono preamp, ARC LS 25 Mk II line stage, ARC VT 100 Mk II amp, Oppo 105 PDB Universal player, Wilson Audio MAXX II speakers, Chang Lightspeed power conditioner, Transparent and Nordost cabling.

 

 

 

 

 

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