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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Audiophile Review!
Merrill Audio VERITAS
Class-D Monoblock Amplifier
"The Evolution of Class D"



Brevis
Price: $12,000 per mono pair
Likes: Class D accuracy, quality build
Dislikes: pricey, no onboard RCA input
Wow Factor: Class D has really evolved

by John Gatski
  Although analog amplifiers, with their beefy power supplies and massive build, still dominate the audiophile landscape, Class D (or digital amplifiers) has been quietly (and cooly evolving) into quite good sounding iterations. I am a big fan of the Rogue Audio tube/Class D hybrid amp, and I have quickly become a fan of the more upscale Merrill Audio VERITAS monoblocks reviewed here.
  Priced at a high-end price of $12,000 per pair, the Merrill VERITAS monoblock amplifier is a Class D amplifier that utilizes the Hypex NC1200 Class D module, tweaked by designer Merrill Wettasinghe. Unlike a Class A or AB amplifier, the Class D design operates very efficiently in terms of power use, and can offer significant power in small, lighter boxes that use a fraction of AC power of a conventional amp.
  The knock on Class D has been varying sound quality, with descriptions from edgy to sterile in varying degrees; good for the less sensitive bass frequencies but hard on the ears in the midrange and treble.
  However, newer Class D amps have come a long way and amps like the Merrill VERITAS, show that you can get a very musical, detailed, and spacious  stereo image that is smooth but accurate.

  This pricey, yet extremely detailed, musically neutral amplifier offers a classy, pedigreed look and exudes a sonic character that extracts the last bit of accuracy from the best sources and preamplifiers.

  Designer Merrill Wettasinghe, president of Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, says that VERITAS showcases the company’s “audio purity” philosophy. “The design philosophy was not to get in the way of the music. That means the audio signal has to be amplified cleanly, with the full dynamic range and speed and not get bogged down by the load,” Wettasinghe explained.
  According to Wettasinghe, the VERITAS amplifier was designed around Class D and SMPS power supplies, as this design can deliver “extreme sonic performance” at a reasonable cost.
  “Music is much closer to a square wave then it is to a sine wave,” he elaborated. “The unconscious recognition of live music is the immediacy of the sound - notes, vocals, percussion. Getting the rise time is critical in music reproduction and should be the audio holy grail — rather than childhood-reminiscent, euphonic warmth.”
  Wettasinghe said that Hypex Class D design was chosen because of its potential sonic superiority over any other circuit or design, including Class A. Having a 2 milliohm output impedance and power/frequency response that is independent of load, means more accurate reproduction of the signal.

Quality, precision parts used extenisvely in VERITAS

  Wettasinghe added that the VERITAS circuit design addresses “critical Class D factors such as dead time and distortion, which are  prevalent in other Class D circuits, and are greatly minimized here by using appropriate 5th-order feedback loops. While some have chosen to slow this module down, I have chosen to let it free — without ring and overshoot.”
  In addressing the VERITAS switch mode power supply, Wettasinghe points out that an equivalent linear power supply for such a power amp would be more than a hundred pounds and ten times larger. He said the VERITAS’ overall efficiency is 85 percent at higher power levels.

Features
  The VERITAS monoblock is a beautiful, solid, high-end amp that feels and looks upscale. Although each amp only weighs 33 pounds, they are rated at 400 watts output at 4 ohms (800 at 4 ohms/1,200@2 ohms). The signal to noise is positively DAC like at -128 dB. Distortion spec is .004 percent at 200 watts. Factory rated gain is listed at 26 dB. Other specs include damping factor, 2,000 at 4Ω; and a frequency response from 0 Hz to 50 kHz, 0/-3dB, Gain: 26dB.

Hypex NC1200 module is key to VERITAS design

  The VERITAS was built with high-grade circuit boards, premium components and ultra thick PC boards for the surface mounted components. High-end power cords and Cardas XLR to RCA converters are also available as options.  It is a high-end looking amp with a refined feel. For $12,000 it should exude a certain top-tier appearance and build, and it does. The back panel includes Cardas balanced XLR inputs and IEC AC cord connection. Color options are red, black and silver. Each amp comes with mounting feet.

The setup
  I am no stranger to Class D amplifiers as I have listened to various iterations in pro and hi-fi since the 1990s. I actually own a Rogue Audio Medusa hybrid/tube Class D amp that uses Hypex modules as well. The Rogue is quite transparent and leans more toward the accuracy and vibrancy of a solid state amp than a traditional tube amp. It sounds great with my electrostatics.

  Via the electrostatic ML Montis, the VERITAS really shined its spotlight on The Anthony Wilson Trio’s — Our Gang SACD. Because of the plump, midbass of the Hammond organ playing, some amps can sound soggy on this recording. But from the first play of the title cut, the VERITAS nailed the tone balance perfectly.

  So with the Rogue and a plethora of other amps for comparison, I eagerly put the VERITAS into the EAN evaluation system. Components included a Benchmark DAC3 HGC DAC, Mytek Digital Brooklyn DAC, an Oppo Sonica DAC and a  Resonessence VERITAS DAC/preamp (some coincidence, eh?).
  For straight-ahead preamps, I linked the VERITAS to a Rogue Audio RP-5 tube preamplifier, an older Coda (still one of the most accurate out there) and a Pass Labs XP-10 MOSFET preamp.
  For comparison amps, I had on hand the aforementioned Rogue Medusa hybrid tube/Class D stereo amp, a Pass Labs INT-160.8 integrated (review upcoming),  and a new Bryston 14B SST Cube.
  Speakers included my MartinLogan Montis electrostatics, ATC SCM40 (review upcoming), a pair of Amphion Argon3S stand speakers and a pair of Westlake LC8.1 stand speakers. Cables were all Wireworld Eclipse including speakers cables and interconnects and digital connections. Power cables were from Essential Sound Products.

The audition
  The Class D amplifier criticism always seems to be that it lacks warmth and character versus analog amps, but as a reviewer who plays music, and records music as well as listen via the finer hi-fi products, I appreciate the detail, accuracy and bass precision of Class D’s better amps.
  They also have come a long way in delivering this precision without the harshness of the original Class Ds, thanks to developers such as Hypex, and the innovative manufacturers such as Merrill and Rogue Audio who implement these modules.
  Like the Rogue Medusa, I found the VERITAS, super clean and a master at transient response. There is a readily apparent air around instruments such as violin, drum cymbals, piano notes and classical guitar that magnifies hi-res recording accuracy. It is not a warm filter, analog quality, but a precise presence that allows me to listen deep into the music.
  Via the electrostatic ML Montis, the VERITAS really shined its spotlight on The Anthony Wilson TrioOur Gang SACD. Because of the plump, midbass of the Hammond organ playing, some amps can sound soggy on this recording. But from the first play of the title cut, the VERITAS nailed the tone balance perfectly.

Simple, but effective, back panel with balanced line input

  The snare hits, the jazz guitar note runs and the drum cymbals came through with a blend of space and dynamics that showcase the warm DSD recording. Like the Rogue Audio Medusa, the Merrill VERITAS also made an impression when I played the uptempo cut “Time Flies” (love that drum kit). The really good Class D amps keep control of individual dynamics of the various instruments of this recording — without blurring them together.
  And I am happy to report that the VERITAS is pretty darn smooth sounding. It did not exhibit any of the “digititis” of cheap Class D amps. Even at loud levels, I did not experience any ear grit on the Anthony Wilson Trio SACD.
  Switching to (no pun intended) a violin recording, 2L’s MOZART Violin Concertos 
(Marianne Thorsen, violin; TrondheimSolistene,Øyvind Gimse, conductor) at 24 bit/352 DXD, I wanted to hear if the VERITAS could transit those string to bow harmonics of the violin without succumbing to the edginess of old Class D or even hard-sounding analog solid state amps.

“The design philosophy was not to get in the way of the music. That means the audio signal has to be amplified cleanly, with the full dynamic range and speed and not get bogged down by the load.” 
—Merrill Wettasinghe

  Again, the sonic impression via the hi-res download was one of spacious detail and complexity of the violin playing, but it was not harsh. It was not warm or rich, but  quite neutral. Damn I like that.
  Okay, how about trumpets and other instruments? Those can sound hard through hi-fi gear, just by the nature of the instrument’s sound projection. So I popped in the Miles DavisSomeday My Prince Will Come SACD. The hi-res transfer of Mr. Davis’ highly rated 1963 recording sounds fabulous with good amplifiers with an intimate yet open performance of the small combo. Trumpet and sax tones are dynamic but a little understated as is the bass and drums. Cymbals, and snare have an open airy quality.
  The VERITAS duo and ML’s really nailed this recording as well. That precision in the upper bass to low treble removes a veil that lesser amps leave on the recording playback. While listening to this album, I did not think about analog, digital, MOSFET, bipolar, tube, etc. I just simply enjoyed the wide space presentation of each instrument and that uncanny accuracy VERITAS projects. I had the same sense of music when I auditioned the Rogue Medusa. I think the better Class D amps are perfect for electrostatic speakers.


ML Montis, VERITAS  excelled in transient response


  With the accurate, precision persona the Merrill amp had in spades, I had to listen to one of the transient rich recordings ever made, the Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD, recorded by Tom Jung for DMP in 2000.
   As mentioned many times in my reviews, the drum cymbals and percussion of the title track is one of the best demo tracks for room “air” and the realistic portrayal of space from a  recording.
  And as I expected the VERITAS projected the cut with precise relay of the upper register piano notes attack and decay, as well as those brush, airy drum cymbals. And when you hear the drummer rolling the drum stick around the snare in stereo, it is like you are sitting right there. That was the clincher for me.  Nowhere did I here an etched, thin quality to the music. Music sounded like music. It was warm, not cold , hard or soft; it was great sounding performances coming out of this amplifier.
  With the impressive impression of Jazz and Classical, I switched off to Pop Music. Fleetwood Mac — Rumours, in 24-bit, has a bright EQ’d character that is detailed, but can sound edgy if the amp takes it over the line. When playing the hit “Dreams,” the treble splash of the cymbals does get pushed, but the VERITAS revealed the brightness without descending into grain. It just sounds a little bright, like the recording. But man, the open space around the drums and multi-tracked acoustic guitars on the song’s chorus is really brought out by the VERITAS.
  I popped in the limited SACD version of Celine DionFalling Into You, a fantastic sounding, 1996-produced hi-res Pop album with a mix of hits, ballads and uptempo dance songs.

Special edition SACD gets royal treatment via Merrill amps

  Ms. Dion's powerful vocals shined on the Eric Carmen cut "All By Myself." Her voice was full and emotive with a massive dose of dynamic range in the final chorus. I did not get a sense that there was anything artificial about the albums via VERITAS. No Class D blandness or emotion disconnectedness. In fact, quite the opposite, the amp’s precision character allowed me to hear deeper to the mix.
  How about dense, hard Rock music? I played the HDtracks 24-bit download of NirvanaNevermind. The fuzzy guitars and haze of Grunge hangs over this album, but the hi-res mix opens it up. Good amps can bring out the separation of instruments and vocal mix without exacerbating Kurt Cobain’s guitars sonic hardness. I have played Class D amp pro speakers that sounded awful with Nevermind.
  That was not the case with the Merrill VERITAS, they kicked out the open, sonic haze of Smells Like Teen Spirit without imparting extra tizziness. Again, the neutral nature of VERITAS makes it seem less compressed than conventional amps.
  Overall, all these listening impressions were repeatable with different pairings of the other speakers and preamps. Each component added their own bit to the equation, but the VERITAS was always clean, dynamic and presently detailed through every pair of speakers. The ML's ability to deliver space front  to back and side to side made it a go-to match up with the VERITAS. But the ATC SCM40 three-ways also really worked well with the Class D amps. An accurate speaker paired with an accurate amp sure fills the bill in my book.


  When I reviewed the Rogue Medusa in 2012, I was plenty impressed with its Class D hybrid design, with abundant treble detail, midrange accuracy and succinct bass performance. In comparison, however, I think the new VERITAS ekes out even more “space” and “air” — and generally sounds smoother than Medusa, which is now a few years old (maybe a tube upgrade is in order.) The Merrill monoblock‘s premium parts selection, plus the upgraded design tweaks, push the VERITAS to the next level of Class D. Of course, you pay for it in the list price.
  The only functional negative (besides having to shell out $12,000) regarding the VERITAS is that there are no onboard single-ended RCA inputs.You have to use unbalanced-to-XLR converters to connect RCA cables. You can order the Cardas XLR-to-RCA converters as an option, about $165 for a pair. You can also purchase optional Cardas power cords.

The verdict
  For those willing to shell out $12,000 for high-end power amps, I have no problem recommending the Merrill VERITAS Class D amplifier as a luxury class audiophile product. This pricey, yet extremely detailed, musically neutral amplifier offers a classy, pedigreed look and exudes a sonic character that extracts the last bit of accuracy from the best sources and preamplifiers.
  Yes, the pair is much pricier than mid-tier priced audiophile amps, but not as expensive as say the $80,000 XS Pass amp, or some of the Boulder amplifier models. In fact, there are numerous $10,000 plus high-end amplifiers that audiophiles are willing to buy — just like there are $100,000 cars that rich folks will plunk down their money on.
  As a luxury class amplifier implementing a first-rate Class D topology, the Merrill Class D VERITAS deserves a listen, and it receives the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

   John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via email: everything.audio@verizon.net

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Portable Audio Review!
Shure SHA900 DAC/HP Amp:
"Sonic Finesse From New Handheld"

©Everything Audio Network

Brevis
Price: $999
Likes: audio quality, battery
Dislikes: 96 kHz native limit
Wow Factor: HQ-audio delivered
More Info: Shure SHA900

by John Gatski
  In my nearly 30 years of reviewing audio products, Shure Inc. has never made a product that was not high quality. Microphones, of course, wireless systems, headphones and now a series of portable D/A converter/headphone amplifiers.
  Such is the case of the compact, battery powered SHA900 headphone amplifier/DAC. This well made, great sounding unit sports a 24-bit D/A converter-to-HP amp circuit that is quite detailed sounding and as accurate as more expensive portable DAC/HP units.
  Although the SHA900 comes to us via a company known for its professional audio products, the SHA900 (and its big brother, the KSE1500 with electrostatic ear buds), can be used with smart phones, tablets, computers, etc. via USB digital input, or simply take the smart device’s onboard source analog output and go analog in.
  A pro recording, or a golden eared musician who likes to record and edit could use it for editing and recording tasks via a music production laptop. A hi-fi buff can mate the SHA900 with the analog or digital outputs (via Micro USB to USB or Micro USB to Apple Lightning connector) to smart phones, tablets, computer, etc. However you plug into it, the SHA900 is guaranteed to make the music sound good.

Features
  The $999 SHA900 features a Cirrus Logic D/A chip/headphone amplifier and a Cirrus Logic A/D to convert analog input signals to digital (for reconversion to analog). The unit is quite simple with a small LED display, top-mounted rotary control which doubles as a menu navigator/selector control. On the left side is a power button and a hold button. The bottom houses a selector switch for USB or analog input. The line IN and HP outputs are on the top panel.
  The unit is powered by a lithium battery, which can go as long as nine 10 hours for a signal using the DSP and up to 20 hours if using a purely analog signal chain hours depending on how much gain you use and the sample rate of the music.

  The SHA900 offers pro-caliber, hi-res sonic quality with excellent stereo width and depth. It is a revealing HP monitoring set up for headphone hi-fi buffs,  seasoned audio pros and talented musicians who like to do their own music production.

  Speaking of sample rates, the Shure can output 24-bit audio, up to 96 kHz sample rate. I thought the SHA900‘s 96 kHz limit was puzzling — since high-res music played from smart devices, computers, etc. is played up to 192 kHz sample rate or higher. As of early 2017, nearly all high-quality DACs, consumer or pro, can natively decode at least 192 kHz and even higher sample rates.
 After my inquiry about the reason for the SHA900‘s limited sample rate ceiling, a Shure product specialist told me that the period from design to finished product was a lengthy process (several years) and that the 96 kHz was the norm when the design started. By the time the SHA900 hit the market, he said, the 192 kHz sample rate had become the norm.
  According to a Shure, “we were aiming to make a portable product, and many of the portable sources out there have a limited sample rate. Apple's iOS is limited to 96k, and iTunes 48k. Many of the higher end DAPs don't require an external DAC, but can definitely still benefit from the functionality of the amplification via the analog input.”

  I am happy to report that the SHA900 is up there with the best of the $1,500 and lower-priced portables — in terms of resolution and space. With the EQ bass setting, in the flat position, the SHA900 is very accurate.

  Though the 96 kHz limit is inherent in the SHA900, you can still play 192K audio and higher sample rate music, as most software players can downsample to the highest rate of the connected DAC. For example, the USB Audio Player Pro Android software player played audio from as high as 24-bit/384, downsampled to the Shure’s maximum 96 kHz rate. And it still sounded good. It is better to have DACs decode native sample rates, as opposed to down sampling, but minimal resolution loss is often not perceived when the downsample process is effective.

Perfect control blend
  To give compatibility for all sorts of players, the Shure SHA900 features onboard low/high-gain control, limiter and an adjustable EQ with a loudness boost, de-ess mode and user-defined custom memory EQ settings.


Small, but informative display


  To access the various menus, you simply push the volume control twice to access the Menus window then rotate the knob to select the Equalizer, Audio or Utilities folder. The EQ settings are in its namesake folder; they include Flat, Low Boost (extra bass), Vocal Boost, Loudness, De-ess and four memory defined EQ presets that the user enables. 
  The Audio menu allows for Low/High Gain, Limiter and indicates the maximum sample rate. The Utilities Menus include adjustments for Display, Battery Info, Firmware/Hardware Info, Factory Reset option and a “Disable Charging” mode for use with the USB input.
  
The setup
  It took a while to get a review sample of SHA900, but it was worth the wait. Having briefly auditioned one almost two years ago at a professional Audio Engineering Society Expo, I liked what I heard from a basic pair of Shure HPs. I was curious to hear them with my own cans.
  I utilized the SHA900 in a variety of playback scenarios with different headphones and players:
•As a headphone amp/DAC with an Android phone and Android tablet, using the USB Audio Player Pro software player, playing hi-res music from HD tracks.
•As a headphone amp/DAC with an Apple Macbook Pro (using the USB connection) and listening to hi-res music from HD tracks and my own hi-res dubs.
•As headphone amp/DAC for monitoring audio recording, mixing and the mastering of several hi-res 24/96 tracks in the recording/editing program Audacity (the best one you can get for free IMHO).
  Headphones included a pair of Oppo PM-2 planar magnetic HPs, Shure top-of-the-line SRH1840 (no bigger fan of these headphones than me), the AKG K702 Anniversary HPs, and a pair of Sennheiser HD650s.
  I connected the SHA900 to an HTC-One M8 Android phone and played an assortment of hi-res tracks through the USB Audio Player Pro, my favorite smart device hi-res audio player. You need an USB OTG cable to allow the Android system to transmit the audio from the smart phone/tablet via USB, but it works well.

The audition
  Using my AKG K702 Anniversary HPs, I played a 24/96 dub of the Warren BernhardtSo Real, a DMP SACD from 2001. The first track, “Autumn Leaves,” has substantial dynamic range with a big ole Steinway piano and luscious drum cymbals. A good headphone playback system allows the listener to hear the “space” in between the instruments. The portable Oppo HA-2 HP amp/DAC, for example, and the iBasso DX-80 HP amp/DAC/player all do a great job relaying that space from the aforementioned track.
  Ergonomically, the SHA900 is easy to operate. I did not open the manual at all, except for looking at the specs. Battery life was phenomenal — with up to 9 hours between charges.

  I am happy to report that the SHA900 is up there with the best of the $1,500 and lower-priced portables — in terms of resolution and space. With the EQ bass setting, in the flat position, the SHA900 is very accurate. Yet, it is not harsh sounding like I have heard in other HP amp/DAC combos. The Shure cannot be faulted on its audio quality. It is audiophile all the way.
  On classical guitar music from the Gene BertonciniBody and Soul SACD 24/96 PCM dub, the intricate string picking, combined with an airy recording room made for a smooth, percussive, broadly spaced stereo image. Again I was impressed with the SHA900.

SHA900 decoding hi-res from a smart phone

  On the Mercury Living Presence, Complete Bach Cello Suites — Janos Starker, I definitely could hear the complex string textures from the cello recording in all that glorious space that the performance is noted for. The cello tone was full, yet I could pick out the room reverb cues, Mr. Starker’s subtle breathing and low-level bow noise.
  All the headphones performed well with the Shure SHA900. The AKG K702 and Shure SRH1840, with their big, open image impression, the Sennheiser HD650's tight, pulsing bass and the Oppo PM-2's planar-magnetic ribbon warmness were revealed with plenty of volume. The high-impedance AKGs had to be turned up a bit more to get it louder, but it played loud enough for me.

Computer playback mate
   Being that Shure is a pro audio company, I naturally put the SHA900 into music editing duty. I edited a number of classical guitar samples that I had made in hi-res 24/192 with the Audacity record/edit program on my Macbook Pro.
  I simply connected the headphone amp to the computer via the USB cable and selected the Shure SHA900 as the player in the Mac Audio settings (and in Audacity’s audio settings). I also had to set the Mac’s audio output to the 96 kHz sample rate since the SHA 900 only does 96 kHz max sample rate. Any music I played through the SHA900 was downsampled to 96 kHz.

Shue SRH1840 is a revealing mate for the SHA900

  With the Shure SHA900 inline and active, I could easily make my edits, as well as QC the recording’s quality via the SHA900 and the HPs of my choice. With an accurate set of phones, like the Shure SRH1840, the SHA900 audio exhibited a definite pro-caliber sonic quality with lots of stereo width and depth. I could hear all the bits of room echo and subtle string squeak, etc. It is a revealing HP monitoring set up for both seasoned audio pros and talented musicians who like to do their own music production.
  Ergonomically, the SHA900 is easy to operate. I did not open the manual at all, except for looking at the specs. Battery life was phenomenal — with up to 9 hours between charges. The only niggle I have with the SHA900 is the previously mentioned lack of the native 192 kHz sample rate decode. If Shure would remedy the sample rate, the SHA900 would be dang near perfect.

The verdict
  The SHA900’s $1,000 price tag is definitely an audiophile price, but I do not see it as overpriced. It is very well built and the audio is top notch. The better the headphone, the better it sounds — and the DAC conversion is first rate as well. Airy, wide and deep soundstage with abundant detail.
 After much consternation about the sample rate limit, I ultimately decided to give the SHA900 an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award. It indeed sounds that good. In fact, it surpasses a few standalone home audiophile DAC/HP amps that I have heard.

   John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via email: everything.audio@verizon.net