This barely scratches the surface. Merrill is convinced that speed is the most important consideration in the design of an amplifier. According to Merrill, a fast amplifier “requires stable circuitry with accurate reproduction capability during extreme speed occurrences. Since overshoot and ringing are the most significant obstacles of speed, the Element 118 amps are carefully crafted to maintain this high speed and are engineered to eliminate the anomalies that cause overshoot and ringing.” So, PCB boards are manufactured to the highest standards and further engineered for greater temperature stability. And with 3.6kg of pure copper per amp, heat management and distribution keeps a steady temperature environment on the PCB boards, a condition essential for consistent and high-performance linear operation when the amps are pushed to the limits.
To also create that stable power amplifier circuit, Merrill has used a range of technologies, from PCBs designed to limit parasitic inductance to new fabrication techniques. But perhaps most crucial of all is Merrill Audio’s ZXOL circuit featuring a completely open loop design zero feedback design! No feedback designs are relatively common in valve circuits but not so much in solid-state designs. Eliminating feedback has two distinct advantages, though; speed capability is increased significantly and a gain in the clarity of musical information is achieved. Since there is no signal loopback, all the feedback loop distortions, as well as the attendant time delays, are eliminated.
The Element 118 Power Amplifier Monoblocks were engineered with what Merrill calls “360-degree integration” in mind. This process involved evaluating all factors that contribute to the amp’s sonic performance and then only selecting those aspects that will accomplish that goal most effectively. That goes right down to the speaker terminals, which use the latest top of the line Speaker Binding Posts from WBT featuring direct copper posts.
All of this technological sophistication is as nothing if the thing doesn’t sound any good! This was the trap the early instigators of Class D suffered, as the potentially great system just didn’t sound any good. But the Element 118 could be almost a proof of concept because as power amps go, it’s one of the best.
A crucial aspect of the sound is that speed Merrill strives for. This is no small deal, as the Element 118 really shifts up a gear. There are a handful of amplifiers that create a sound as fast and as precise as this, but one of the few that is still in production is DarTZeel. The two have a lot in common sonically, although the Element 118 is perhaps even more neutral-sounding than the Swiss triumph. This comes across in every piece of music you play, and it comes over quickly too; that two-second piano scale at the start of ‘Misty’ on Donny Hatherway’s Everything is Everything[ATCO] says it all. It’s vibrant, in the room... and what follows is one hell of a voice. The speed of the Merrill means there is no overhang or limits imposed upon his soaring voice. Just those first few bars led to a complete Donny Hatherway tip for a while, and at each point you got a sense of temporal ‘rightness’ that was backed up by an extended and fundamentally accurate presentation. In particular here, although the voice is front and centre, that whirlwind speed means the amplifier is a master at playing horn sections. They are played without any sense of overhang or slowing of what can be a very fast-paced instrument.
That speed is backed by a dynamic range that borders on the infinite, and I think here more than anywhere the Merrill design shows just how weak the anti-Class D argument really is. Mahler’s Eighth [Solti, Decca] on Class D is supposed to sound a bit grey; here it simply flies along, full of musical energy and sheer musical joy. Couple that dynamic range with the speed of the design and a very refined coherence falls out of the mix, too.
A perfect partner here is the most logical one – Merrill’s own Christine Reference preamplifier. Apart from it being a stylistic match, aside from the Element 118 taking a lot of its design cues from the Christine, the two fit into the same category of ‘lightning-fast reflexes’. It’s a formidable combination and one that really rams home what Merrill is trying to do here. These are two of the fastest and best amps out there, regardless of the name on the front or price tag hanging off the rear.