Merrill Wettasinghe with his Merrill Audio Christine Preamplifier at Nack Labs
When you think about it, the room is arguably your most important component. I am well aware of the sound of mine, a 12' W x 8' H x 32' L living room. I had a choice: setup on the long wall for soundstage width, or setup on the short to maximize depth. In either case, there would be compromises. For domestic reasons, I went for depth knowing full well that width would forever be an issue. There's no getting around it—my room will never be convincing as a bonafide performance venue.
So you can imagine my delight when I installed the Merrill Audio Christine Preamplifier and it produced the widest soundstage I've ever gotten.
Listening to Jazz in the Key of Blue, Jimmy Cobb Quartet (Chesky SACD344), the instruments on the sides are pushed way out towards the edges, noticeably wider apart than my CH Precision L1 preamp places them. The guitar images just behind and inside the left speaker; Roy Hargrove's trumpet and the double bass are smack down center; and Jimmy Cobb's drum kit inhabits the area around the right speaker.
It's not like the early stereo Ping-Pong effect, where they are forced to the outer margins and leave a hole in the middle. The images are naturally dispersed across the span of the stage. My first thought was this preamp must have great channel separation, but on second thought, I'm not so sure that explains it. I spoke about it with the designer, who sent me this explanatory note:
We spend an enormous amount of R&D in the design of the circuit, PCB copper traces. Next, final assembly is hand wired and individually soldered, and channels are perfectly matched. Power supply delivery and filtering is maximized with multiple stages for the lowest noise and fastest transients without overshoot and ring.
He didn't want to reveal too much other than suggesting it's the combination of great specs plus perfect channel matching. Noise reduction was mentioned often:
Consistent with our low noise requirements, we chose separate analog volume controls for each channel and implemented them as a gain control rather than as a passive signal attenuator. Again, these decisions have been made with the goal of achieving the lowest noise floor possible.
I noted, however, the pace-setting width did not carry over to the depth, which is somewhat shallower than I get with the CH L1.
Hargrove is known for smooth and expressive playing, with beautiful tone and great control. Occasionally he lets loose a flurry of high notes showing off the instrument's power. If you've ever been in a room with a live trumpet I don't have to tell you about its dynamic range. And this is a Chesky SACD, which advertises no compression or limiting.
Meanwhile, the Christine stayed cool as a cucumber—no strain, no stress. I wasn't surprised; I was expecting it. The Christine is kin to the Jens Phono Stage from Merrill Audio, and the Jens wowed us first and foremost in this way. The manual claims it has an "unprecedented 115 decibel (dB) range." I'm not sure how to interpret that number. I can only report the circuit capacity of the unit seems limitless.
Then the Christine pulls off something one better.
At the Session
Imagine a typical audio session. The guys are critiquing the soundstage, evaluating the type of border a system gives images. This can range from sharply etched to vague and amorphous. The quality of the holographic illusion created between the speakers is discussed. There is a request for more beer…
This has always struck me as suspect. At a live, acoustic event you can hone in and localize instruments, but they never, ever, have sharply drawn borders. While they may have some 3D presence, it's never solid and palpable like a hologram. We may like these effects, but imaging and soundstaging do not occur like that. Surely you know they are artifacts.
Most gear creates edges that seem harder and less than natural; the Christine gives them soft ones that seem just right. And the 3D artifact is present but not overdone.
Kratos power supply
The Christine's transient is a bit unusual. As Sheldon put it, the transient hits well, but has a soft landing. Its speed is outstanding and it is wholly without abrasiveness or irritation. The notes fly by without calling attention to their arrival, and decays linger. This treatment promotes good musical flow and creates quiet excitement without being ostentatious. I described it in the Jens review:
Comparatively speaking, attacks are fast and straight-edged, yet manage to feel soft; they don't hammer you. How that is accomplished I don't know. And decays are longer than I'm used to. When the damping pedal of the piano is not engaged, the note trail seems to go on forever. Timbres are well developed and the Jens connects the notes in a flowing stream.
You get a lot of room acoustic. Orchestral recordings sound like you're in a big hall.
That border treatment and transient handling combined with the wide open dynamics allows the Christine to sidestep the sense of over-control I get from most Ref Class components. Designers build-in protections to keep noise and artifacts from accruing. Sometimes they are overzealous, resulting in a sense of the signal being held down. Quite often the listener perceives the signal being managed or restrained.
I don't get that with the Christine. The control must be there, but it's kept below our awareness. This is why I'm so enamored with how it handles staging. The signal roams unbounded in a manner I'd describe as free-range dynamics. (Yes, like those farm animals which are allowed to graze freely and cost an arm and a leg.). This is surely the Christine's strongest appeal.
The Christine/Jens Effect
Merrill told me the Christine's response characteristics precisely match the Jens. It's true. That means the frequency sweep is dished up with goodly portions of body and warmth and a little boost in the upper-bass/lower-mids that imparts extra heft. The bottom is excellently controlled, perhaps even more than the mids or treble. It is very smooth: a harmonically rich, burnished, signature sound.
The Christine had the same effect on listeners as the Jens. Back when I put the Jens in stream, people stopped what they were doing and paid attention. I dubbed it the "The Jens Effect." This should be modified to "The Jens/Christine Effect."
At my request, the Jens phono stage came along with the Christine. I wanted to confirm the high grade I gave it last year. Both the Lamm LP1 Signature phono stage and the L2.1 Line stage saw play time, in addition to my reference CH Precision gear. It's interesting that the sound of these solid-state Merrill components is closer to the tubed Lamm gear than the solid-state CH Precision.
The majority of the system was wired with Kubala•Sosna Elation! balanced interconnects and power cords connected to K•S XPander Power Distributors. A couple of Stage III wires—the Triton power cord and Gorgon interconnect—were wonderful ancillaries. Consider them a mandatory audition for the Christine (or Jens). One of each Stage III wire with the balance K•S made for best sound. I use the same combination with my reference system.
Cosmetics are more functional than luxe. The sole nod to luxe is the front panel, which is constructed of 24k gold-plated, polished aluminum, lending the component a very distinctive look. Coincidently, or not, I found the intense golden hue of the faceplate an apt reflection of the units sound.
Very high-quality parts are used throughout: the XLRs are copper with rhodium plating, sourced from Furutech; only silver-plated, pure copper wires with Teflon sleeving are used in the circuit; the built-in spikes are from Stillpoints. The unit is housed in a steel chassis to limit any EMI/RFI interference.
The Christine, like the Jens, uses a single locking umbilical to connect to the Kratos external power supply housed in a small, grey aluminum box.
The thing to get used to is there are no switches on the front panel. You'd better have the remote in hand when you drop the needle or you won't be able to un-mute the preamplifier, change the volume, etc. The remote takes care of everything.
Another thing is the display, particularly the brightness and the very large font size. Even at its lowest setting, it is like something designed for the visually impaired. And it only shows the volume level. I also need to know which input is active.
The Christine is balanced and only has XLR In/Out; there are no RCA jacks on the unit. (In contrast, the Jens is single-ended and only supports RCA In/Out.) Very likely you will need adaptors. The choice to go this way is explained in the manual:
We decided that optimizing it for the lowest possible levels of internal noise would take precedence over the inclusion of extra circuitry. Hence the Christine Reference Preamplifier eschews single-ended inputs and circuitry that may induce noise in favor of the inherently quiet circuitry of balanced inputs.
Out of the blue I became acquainted with the Jens Phono Stage from Merrill Audio last year. It turned our heads as it proved to be a real groove bandit, plundering deeply and retrieving buried treasure.
The Christine Preamplifier is now available with similar voicing. All the characteristics I liked in the Jens—outstanding resolution and dynamics, warmth, liquidity, flow and ease—I'm finding in the Christine.
There are no criticisms to report concerning the sound of the Christine. It sounds right from the first notes. Both of these products had a charm-like effect on people; they stopped what they were doing when I put either in line and took notice.
My only caveats have to do with functional limitations (no support for single-ended Ins/Outs) and the user interface (remote control adjustment only).
While the Christine does not quite scale into the nether regions like my CH Precision L1 preamplifier, at its price point it's killer. I can't think of a competitor that would stand up. I urge you to consider adding it (and the Jens) to your short list for audition.
Merrill Audio is on a roll and I'm getting to be quite a fan. I am eager to see what the mind of Merrill comes up with next.
Jens Phono Stage
Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs