Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.

Merrill Audio Christine line-stage preamplifier

Merrill Audio Christine  line-stage preamplifier

Bringing really high quality audio into your home requires a number of things to come together. Firstly you need the money, and as I used the term “Really high quality” you are going to need quite a bit of it. But secondly, you are likely to find good use for a really discriminatory ear. This is not as easy as it seems because worthwhile experience is hard to come by. For example, the convenience of modern-day streaming solutions that offer an abundance of reasonably priced options can also provide excellent musical performance if handled with care but, if you want to swim in the deep end of audio’s bottomless pool, that care is a lot more complicated than “plug ‘n’ play”: Caveat Emptor has never had more resonance.

Those who do take time to master the art of discriminating listening may speak with one voice, but almost all of them share a common language. And the first phrase they learn in that language is, “really, really good preamps are thin on the ground.” There are a lot of line-stages and preamplifiers out there, at all prices. But the top-notch ones, the ones that make music sing – I’d be lucky if I could call on maybe a dozen or so first-rate designs. So, when I had the chance to live with the Merrill Christine, I was intrigued because this is an analogue design from a small manufacturer who completely (upon first investigation) understands the wonderful things such a device can bestow upon a music system. As a result, Merrill Audio, with its Christine line-stage and the complimentary Kratos power supply upgrade, attempts to join that select list of line-stages and preamplifiers that actually do what they are supposed to do as part of the whole ‘preamp’ deal.

The Christine is part of a small, but growing, range of amplifier products from US-based Merrill Audio, and it’s named after the wife of founder/designer Merrill Wettasinghe. Christine (the line-stage, not Merrill’s wife) is a two-box design comprising the control unit itself and the Kratos power supply, connected by a dedicated umbilical. Interestingly, Merrill suggests that, due to the design of the Kratos, there is no need for anything other than a bog‑standard mains lead. There is a less uncompromising Cara line preamp, the Jens phono stage, and a trio of Class D power amplifiers; the stereo Taranis, the middle-ground Thor mono amps, and the range-topping 400W Veritas. There is also a range of cables from the company.

The main control unit has a 24-carat gold-plated aluminium fascia and a huge display window. The gloss gold is a matter of taste but, as someone who has been known to moan about displays that are only fully legible when you are standing a few feet away from them, I applaud Christine’s clear communication through what looks bit like a dot-matrix-type of illumination. Now I can see, from my customary listening position, which input is selected and what the level of each channel is set to. In fact, I could probably see it from your customary listening position, even if that’s on the other side of the planet, so large is the read-out. The display is simple, but I like it and it can be switched off if you find it intrusive, or selected to operate only during the duration of a command.

The entire line-stage is fully balanced front to back and I completely understand that some manufacturers are very keen on this. Personally I do wish though that Merrill had included some single-ended connections as not all power amplifiers or source components are endowed with ‘proper’ balanced connections. But this speaks to the Christine’s no-quarter-given approach. Use the line-stage with a pseudo-balanced source or power amplifier and it shows up the absence of a ‘proper’ balanced connection. So, the absence of balanced-single-ended converter cables is well-justified on sonic grounds. This does limit the pile of compatible source components and power amplifiers, although it also makes Merrill’s own designs major front-runners. I typically have a preference for single-ended over balanced in those electronics where both were offered and I could compare them, but in this case, the balanced option was so key to getting the product to deliver on its promises, single-ended was quickly consigned to the dump bin for the duration of the test. Having said that, I totally agree that this comparison is not made on a level playing field and completely respect the choice of those manufacturers who have chosen to go down the fully-balanced route. If your system is largely single-ended then Merrill will happily supply convertors. Less than ideal perhaps, but still effective.

Somewhat uniquely, there are no controls on the Christine itself. Remote commands are made through the well-known Apple unit which, though rather small and easily mislaid, works well enough. It enables any one of the four balanced inputs to be selected and controls the volume and the menus, through which you can set things like minimum and maximum volume or to invert polarity. It is quite comprehensive and there is a truly excellent owner’s manual to guide you through the user-adjustable options. That being said, I spent a day with the remote hidden down the back of the couch, and a few hard buttons on the front panel would have turned the air less blue.

 

I knew I was going to have the Christine for a couple of months and was able to slot it directly into a range of equipment at a range of price and performance points. One thing that emerged from this process fairly quickly is this is not a line-stage to be taken lightly, and hooked up trivially. This is a top-notch line-stage that demands equally top-notch components up-and-downstream. Any potential limitations along the way and the resolution of the Christine throws them into sharp relief, which is what a good line preamplifier is ultimately supposed to do.

What’s more, it did its job with some aplomb. Obviously it was always going to offer a different view of the music depending on the rest of the system, but this is where the excitement lies in audio reviewing at this level. The music is the reference and not the equipment and the Merrill passed all its early auditions with flying colours before settling into place as if it belonged.

It is quiet. I mean really, really quiet in that rather black, silent way. Bandwidth was excellent too and it carried this effortless feeling of movement, common to all great audio, into whatever it was asked to do. The immediate impact and difference in the presentation was hard to miss. Broad, tall, and deep, and with an unreconstructed feel about it which was both interestingly different and I have to say, enormously attractive. A truly exceptional line-stage should knit the limitless facets of the music together in a self-contained way so each individual part is easily accessible to the ear and yet within the whole musical picture. The best line-stages manage this in a way that no other component does. You can focus on the most minute of dynamic shifts or fall for an exquisitely phrased line of musical text, but it should always be a part of the whole. The Christine passes this test with flying colours and it does so with an ease and lack of system-born tension that makes listening relaxed, confident, and easy.

This is the area that many outputs that operate in the digital domain show their limitations. The best I have heard is the output stage on the dCS Vivaldi, but that is exceptional, and so many are rather deconstructive and miss out describing the instrumental timbre, pitch, and character of instruments, leaving them instead sounding somewhat pinched and over- processed. The same applies to vocals – the words are clear enough, but there is often little sense of the lung power driving them from the mouth, or the human articulation and phrasing that gives them meaning, and an emotional connection beyond mere lyrics. I still prefer the more organic and melodic commentary of a dedicated high-end line-stage, and the Merrill Christine invites the listener to really explore the music. To some, a line-stage is merely a source selector with a gain control: this is the case for the defence, and it’s compelling!

One of the great cliches of audio reviewing is the description of the soundstage as being either 3D or, even more crass, holographic and where the Merrill Christine is concerned, I would really like to avoid such descriptions. But, it is difficult as the way that the music is framed is both these things and it makes the system attractive to listen to. Instruments hang in the air way outside the boundaries of the loudspeakers and those elements of the mix that are central are right there, slap in the middle of the picture, bursting with presence and life. Small changes of depth and positioning either in the acoustic, or the mix, are stunning. I have to say that the way the music is presented through the Merrill is exceptional and can be captivating. If you like this expansive landscape of sound then you are going to love the Christine.

The Christine is an extraordinarily wide-bandwidth design (it’s claimed to have its -3dB point at 1.5MHz and is said to be ruler-flat from DC to 750kHz), and this can prove challenging to some amplifiers. Some wide-bandwidth power amplifiers are – paradoxically – not designed to ‘see’ an equally wide-bandwidth preamp, and the power amplifier can make the amplifier combination seem almost too refined. On the other hand, hook the Christine either to an amplifier with no extended-frequency expectations, or one that is designed to ‘see’ a wide bandwith preamp in place, and the sound is transformed to become hyper clean, extended, and precise. I prefer the Merrill’s approach for its intrinsic honesty, especially as when the amplifier combination is ‘right’, it becomes an open window on the audio and musical worlds.

Somehow, the Merrill Christine manages to combine the two seemingly disparate sides of audio: detail and enjoyment. The Christine has oodles of detail on tap, allowing the listener to dig deep into their recordings, pull out the most hidden parts of the recording, and lay them open for investigation. But it is always ‘open’, not ‘bare’. So often, this kind of hyper-analysis comes at the expense of the musical enjoyment and is often directly equated to brightness. The Christine manages to tread this path well, not adding undue ‘clarity’ to the midrange and treble, and not getting in the way of the actual reason why we listen to audio equipment in the first place – musical satisfaction and enjoyment. This comes over as an ease that means the Christine virtually guarantees hours of fatigue-free, immersive listening.

 

From an audio box-swapper’s perspective, running through a range of different amplifiers (each operating in balanced mode), with each new design hooked to the Christine, I admired the Merrill’s ability to let their particular characteristics shine. The wonderfully natural transparency of good valve amplifiers and their ability to superimpose musical phrase upon phrase, and the unassuming, yet commanding power and tonal palette of the best of solid-state designs were left intact, even though the system was musically quite different with each of them. All remain absolutely on the ball rhythmically (something I have only recently come to value highly) and the Christine is quicksilver when it comes to pure speed, musical flow, and movement, however complex. Most of all, the Christine’s performance points to an equally fine presentation from the company’s trio of power amplifier options. They may have more of an uphill struggle however, thanks to the audiophile’s knee-jerk dismissal of Class D.

So, it’s a thumbs up for the Merrill Christine and its Kratos power supply. Give it a serious system to control and it will just lay the music out before you without exerting any apparent stranglehold or imposing too much of its own character on the power amplifier. It is tight, nicely controlled and also tonally quite sweet and I would imagine that it will have broad appeal whether you listen with your heart or your head.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Two-box Line-stage (control unit and PS)

Inputs: 4 x XLR

Outputs: 2 x pairs XLR

Input impedance: 100k balanced

Signal to Noise ratio: >110dB

Dimensions: Christine – 10 × 44 × 38 cm
Kratos – 12 × 18 × 19.5 cm

Weight: 6.8kg

Price: $13,000 including world-wide shipping

Manufacturer: Merrill Audio

URL: www.MerrillAudio.net

Tags: FEATURED

By Nicholas Ripley

More articles from this author

Read Next From Review

See all
Rosson Audio Design RAD-O planar magnetic headphones
REVIEW

Rosson Audio Design RAD-O planar magnetic headphones

Take a planar magnetic driver, add a range of exceptional - and occasionally wild - finishes, and you have the makings of a great set of headphones, argues Simon Lucas.

FinkTeam Kim stand-mount loudspeaker
REVIEW

FinkTeam Kim stand-mount loudspeaker

FinkTeam uses Star Trek names, and this two-way stand-mount is named after Ensign Kim from Star Trek: Voyager. He's the one that always bounced back no matter what. Steve Dickinson might not be a big Trekker, but he thinks there's a lot of good to hear in the Kim.

Keith Monks Audio Works Prodigy Hero image
REVIEW

Keith Monks Audio Works Prodigy Record Cleaning machine

Jimmy Hughes has a record collection that's the envy of many reviewers, music collectors and even some music libraries. That collection needs cleaning, and Keith Monks is the answer!

SOtM sMS-200ultra NEO SE
REVIEW

SOtM SMS-200 Ultra Neo SE, TX-USB Ultra SE and SPS 500 SE streaming system

South Korea has long been a centre of excellence for electronics. That reputation is now moving on to high-performance audio, thanks to brands like SOtM. Jason Kennedy investigates.

Sign Up To Our Newsletter