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.