MERRILL AUDIO THOR MONOBLOCK AMPLIFIERS
$4,800 per Pair
DR. JOHN RICHARDSON
Let me be clear here. Up until now my experience with the so-called Class D “digital” switching amplifiers has been a mixed bag to say the least. Some years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with one of the earlier (and more affordable) versions of this type of amp. What I got was also a mixed bag: thunderous and precise bass, seemingly unlimited power reserves and dynamics, but a boring, grayed-out midrange and lackluster treble. While the technology seemed to have some promise, I quickly decided that this was not an amp I wanted to live with.
On the other hand, however, I had a very different kind of experience with another type of amplifier of this ilk: the Class T (or Tripath) design. Based on the now-defunct Tripath amplifier chip, I found this approach to be musical, delicately engaging, and every bit the equal in many ways of the best Class A or AB linear amplifiers I’d spent time with. The only problem was limited power output, meaning that the amps would only perform well with sensitive speakers. I have fond memories of my very first review for Stereomojo some years ago, which focused on the little Virtue Audio One amplifier, an excellent application of Tripath technology. As a matter of fact, I still own that very same amplifier and use it daily in my office desktop system. As a quick aside, Virtue Audio took a hiatus for a couple of years, but I’m glad to see that they’re now back on their feet again selling their wonderful, cost-effective products.
So yes, there was hope in my heart for switching amplifiers coming of age. If one could somehow mate the sonic virtues of the better Class T amps with the power reserves and sheer grunt of the big Class D amps, I and many of my audiophile brethren might hop aboard the train before it leaves the station. After all, these amplifiers offer a lot of advantages from a practical perspective. They’re generally smaller, lighter, and a lot more efficient than the transistor or tube-based amps we all grew up with. And they don’t generate a lot of heat (this goes with the power efficiency I just mentioned). My attic listening room can get awfully warm in the summer, so running an inefficient Class A amplifier just doesn’t make much sense, though it can serve as a great space heater in the cooler months. And compared to the monster amps of yore, the little Class D jobs are considered to be quite “green” from an environmental perspective. You can have lots of watts and still check your power consumption guilt at the front door.
I had read with some interest John Fritz’s stellar review of the Merrill Audio Veritas Class D monoblocks here at Stereomojo. While expensive, I wondered if maybe the Veritas represented that final push to get Class D on even footing with the best traditional non-switching designs. Maybe Class D technology really had finally come into its own.
In talking with John about the Veritas, he let me know that he had in his possession a pair of Merrill’s new Thor monoblocks. These were apparently the result of an attempt to get a healthy portion of the performance of the Veritas compressed into a smaller and more cost effective package. I could tell that John was impressed by what he was hearing, especially since he had just finished up with his review of the Veritas. I was intrigued. When John suggested that maybe I should take a listen, how could I refuse? So with Merrill Audio’s blessing to move forward with my own take on the Thors, here we go...
Like the Veritas, the Thors are the brainchild of company head and founder Merrill Wettasinghe. I’ve never seen a pair of the estimable Veritas in the flesh, but these Thors are freakin’ beautiful! In high end audio looks do count for something, and these amps deliver: each is milled out of a solid aircraft grade aluminum billet and painted shiny jet-black, resulting in a visually stunning piece of modern industrial art. They’re small, with a footprint of only 9 X 9 inches each, but the visual statement is there. High quality exudes from these things, from the precisely chiseled lettering up front to the jewel-like XLR inputs and Cardas speaker binding posts on the rear, to the adjustable footers. These amps come off as a labor of love for their designer and a source of pride for their owners. Oh, and each is supplied with its own custom built Merrill Audio ANAP Power Cord which worked swimmingly, though some inveterate tweakers might decide otherwise.
On the inside (not accessible to the mortal man/woman) are Merrill Audio modified Hypex modules as well as a lot of custom, tested by ear support circuitry. I didn’t even try to wedge my way into the chassis, as Thor is the Norse god of thunder and all else when hell breaks loose, and I didn’t want to risk being struck dead by a thunderbolt (or whatever he uses on pests like me), nor did I want to risk marring that beautiful finish. The whole kit’n’kaboodle, as I said before, is the supposed result of trickle-down technology from the Veritas into a smaller, more affordable package. Kudos to Mr. Wettasinghe for bringing such a beautifully built amplifier to the less-washed masses like me!
There was something of a rhyme and reason behind my efforts of getting the Thors in-house. Normally, I have little to no use for high powered amplifiers, as the speakers I use tend to be of relatively high sensitivity. Recently, though, I’ve had the chance to spend time with the new series of speakers from the English pro audio manufacturer ATC; you can read my review of the new ATC SCM 11 studio monitors here at Stereomojo. I was impressed enough with these speakers that I asked to hear the next version up in the line, the SCM 19s (review in preparation). These are larger versions of the 11s that utilize an even more sophisticated woofer/midrange driver supposedly exhibiting crazy linearity. From what I’ve read, these SCM19s at around 85 dB efficiency like power and lots of it. Hmmm, thought I, I’ll be in need of a big boy amp after all, and the 200 watts per channel offered by the Merrill Audio Thors should do the trick.
One technical aspect that prospective buyers should be aware of is that these amplifiers are balanced-only on the input side. If, like me, you tend to go the single-ended route, you’ll need to invest in a pair of RCA to XLR converters on the amplifier side. Here, Merrill Audio recommends the converters available from Cardas Audio for best results. In my case, Merrill sent along a pair of his own balanced ANAP interconnects ($1149 per pair, up to 3 meters in length), which allowed me to run signal from my Antelope Audio Zodiac’s balanced outputs directly to the Thors. Volume was controlled using the Zodiac’s passive analog attenuator.
When Mr. Fritz delivered the Thors to my front door (what service...), the ATC SCM 19 speakers hadn’t yet arrived, so I hooked the Thors up to my trusty and excellent sounding Fritzspeaks REV 7 monitors.
Before delving into the performance of the Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks, I find it useful to reiterate that I, like all careful listeners, have my own preferences and expectations of what a well put together audio system should do. I’ve always opted for a detailed but musical presentation, with the gear ultimately serving the music. I’m not ashamed to admit that accuracy and precision of both timing and timbre are fundamentally important to me. I want to hear through the recording as much as possible and into the performance, but the overall presentation has to engage me musically. In my younger years, I can recall listening to gear that was wonderfully detailed and transparent, but at a cost to instrumental timbre and musicality. I also recall hearing gear that was pleasing in terms of its full texture and tonal color, but slow and opaque sounding otherwise. At a reasonable price point, it just seemed that these ideals had to remain somewhat mutually exclusive. More recently I’ve noticed that it has become easier to assemble a highly detailed, yet musically satisfying system at reasonable cost, and that’s where I think products like the Merrill Audio Thors make a real statement.
Yes, the Thors are detailed and crazy transparent. I sort of expected this, as that’s the accepted realm of Class D gear according to everything I’ve read and personally experienced. If you dig detail, transparency, accuracy, and precision, you’ll love these amps, and you’ll want them. Badly.
Better yet, the Thorss don’t seem to give up much of anything in the area of instrumental texture, timbre, and color. Here, they compete among the best I’ve heard, especially in their midrange performance. This result I didn’t really expect; I heard delicacy of texture and a bit of pleasant but realistic midrange bloom, but without any unnecessary bloat or addition of texture or tonal color. I thought they’d be good, but not at the top of the class. Lean or lacking verve in the upper bass, mids, and lower treble? Not at all. These Thors are fast, thunderbolt-fast with musical transients, and I feared that they might as a result be rendered less than musical. Again, not the case at all. Seems like we are finally at the point where we can nearly have it all, and at a reasonable price of admission to boot.
I thought that the Thors were an excellent match to the Fritz REV 7 speakers. The REV 7s are a bit warm, forgiving, and maybe a bit looser in the bass than some speakers, for example the ATC SCM 11s I mentioned earlier. The Thor Monoblocks in this case took hold of the REV 7 woofers and brought them into line, providing collectively a sense of improved depth, extension, and resolution of the bass. With a nominal impedance of 4 ohms, the Fritzes were getting every bit of the 400 watts per channel offered by the Thors into that load, and they seemed to really open up with some real drive and punch. I enjoyed the power on tap, and I think the speakers did too. Careful listening demonstrated the ability to look into the soundstage, always a strength of the Fritz speakers, but this time with more of a laser focus. When John Fritz and I sat down to listen to the Thor Monoblocks powering the REV 7s, John commented that he heard that same tightening up of the sound, leading to the REV 7s sounding more like he remembered the ATC monitors sounding when I had them in-house, powered by a big Class A amplifier.
For me, the real test was to see how the Merrill Audio Thors would behave with the new ATC SCM 19 monitors. Here’s where the rubber would be meeting the road. As I mentioned earlier, the ATCs are inefficient by modern standards, presumably due to their sealed box enclosures. Even so, they provide an easy impedance curve, with a nominal value around 8 ohms. I figured the Thors would have no problem dealing with these speakers. My only concern was that possibly the Thor Monoblocks and the ATC monitors would be too kindred in spirit, perhaps leaning toward becoming too lean or analytical together in their
presentation of the music.
My initial reaction once the ATCs arrived was mixed. I heard some promising stuff happening, but I also heard a forward, shouty midrange, recessed treble, and what sounded like a severely over-damped and not so extended bass response. These traits didn’t seem to go away after a day or two, so I switched the Merrill Audio amps out while the speakers continued with their break-in. The Thor Monoblocks don’t hide much of anything, so I think I was hearing the unpleasant throes of the speakers running themselves in; maybe time would ultimately be my ally here. A good MOSFET amp I had in-house made for a much more agreeable bedfellow for the ATC speakers at this early point in the game.
After a few weeks of running in the ATC speakers, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided it was time to give the Thors another chance. I’m glad I did, as I suddenly heard things, good things, that I hadn’t been hearing before. As nice as the ATCs sounded with the MOSFET amp, the extra power and resolution offered by the Thors brought the listening experience to a whole new level. Sure, I still sensed a few minor issues, but now things were moving in the right direction. And more importantly, I was now getting better than just listenable sound out of the system. After about a month more listening to the Merrill Audio Thors/ATC combo exclusively, things are still changing for the better, and I don’t think we are quite done yet.
While the MOSFET amp gave a warmer, sweeter sounding presentation through the ATCs, it was obviously somewhat veiled and a bit artificial compared to what the Thors give me. That’s a fair trade in my opinion, as I’ll take the more realistic and honest sound of the Class D amps in this instance. Again, I need to emphasize that the ATCs themselves are on the truthful and very revealing side (hence their heritage as pro audio monitors), but without seeming overly edgy or overbearing through the upper midrange and treble. In this sense, the speakers and Merrill Audio amps have a lot in common and tend to bring out the best qualities in each other; this is the kind of synergy that can be breathtaking to those of us who wish to appreciate it.
The SCM 19s also revel in the huge power reserves offered by the Thors. Those woofers really do come alive, and it’s a thrill to be able to occasionally run the volume up to rather unruly levels while enjoying little to no audible distortion from the system. Crank up some techno or old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Dynamic swings are excellent with the combo and are enjoyed with all types of music. Orchestral crescendos are just as exciting as massive kick drum thwacks in stadium rock performances.
What the Thors give us then, folks, is a presentation that is both big and clean. Not clean in the typical audio sense, which suggests that there is also sterility, and hence, lack of musicality. I’m talking about clean in the sense that there is no veiling, no artificially added euphony, no excess of anything. Just pure, beautiful music, with just enough natural sweetness to remain ultimately musical. Not synthetic sweetness that comes from saccharine, but from natural sugar, the good kind, in just the right amount. I really had no idea that modern Class D technology could sound this natural and easy in its delivery.
I’ve also found that the Merrill Audio Thors don’t tend to favor one genre of music over another, which is another long-term requirement I have for a successful component operating in a successful system. Jazz, rock, and classical all sounded equally involving. Nuance was there when needed, power and dynamics were on seemingly limitless tap, and always lurking nearby were the correct dollop of tonal color and timbre that I require to keep things interesting over the long haul. Once the Thors and the ATC speakers were sufficiently run in and firing together on all cylinders, I couldn’t be more pleased with the combo. I not only found myself enjoying new music, but also polishing up those old chestnuts that live in the recesses of the hard drive of my Mac Mini that seldom otherwise see the light of day. What a great vehicle for helping me to re-discover my music collection.
Speaking of chestnuts, I figured I’d fall back on a few of my own that I often use for evaluation of gear. Take for example “Sweet and Lovely” from Coleman Hawkins’ album “Sirius” (LP, Pablo, digitally archived). Via the Thors, Hawkins’ horn sounds just huge, with scads of fleshed out overtones, both reedy and metallic. The plucked bass also sounds correct in scale level-wise against the sax, and it is also beautifully defined, with plenty of leading edge attack as well as decay, just like I like it to sound. The instrument also had the resonant body and woodiness that I would expect from the real thing played in an actual acoustic space. Further, I could easily hear the reverberation of the sax as its sounds echoed off the walls of the recording studio or booth. I had a very real sense of the acoustic space in which this session was recorded, thanks to the crazy good resolution and decay offered by the Merrill/ATC amp/speaker combo.
A similar evaluation recording I often use is Shelly Manne’s album “234” (LP, Impulse!, digitally archived), as it allows me to focus in on two important instruments: the drum kit and the vibraphone. I especially enjoy the cut “The Sicks of Us” as it highlights nicely both of these instruments. I was completely drawn into Manne’s drumming, hearing nuances in inflection, tempo, and dynamic that I don’t think I’d ever noticed before. And when I say dynamic, I mean dynamic in contrast, from the lightest touch on the snare to the loudest pounding on the toms and kick drum. The realism was breathtaking, and again a testament to both the power reserves and finesse of the Thors working in conjunction with the ATC monitors. Also, for every thwack on a drum emanating from the left channel, I heard a faint echo from the right channel as the noise reflected off the opposite wall of the recording venue. Equally impressive was the recorded vibraphone, which sounded entirely natural, but never overdone in its complex tonal character and accompanying overtones. As I’ve emphasized before, vibes are tough to reproduce well, but when it does happen, you’ll know it immediately. And here, let me assure you, all was well.
Orchestral and chamber music fared every bit as well as jazz. Trying out the excellent Lyrita recording of “Contemporary Welsh Chamber Music” (LP, digitally archived), I came away impressed again with the overall resolution and detail of the recorded performance. Cellos were full and beautifully fleshed out, displaying plenty of resonant woodiness and body, while piano sounded natural, while still somewhat distant in the soundstage. Lyrita recordings always did a good job of capturing natural and spacious string tone, and this one is no exception. The instruments sounded totally natural, never overdone, in their intonation and timbre; if there was any coloration, I couldn’t detect it. Prospective buyers should keep this fact in mind, as some audiophiles and music lovers really don’t mind a little extra sweetening of the aural experience. Ultimate truth may not be exactly what all of us are looking for, and that’s ok.
One possible criticism I could level at the Merrill Audio Thors as I listened to the Lyrita recording is that they tend to throw a bit of a two dimensional soundstage relative to some other high quality amplifiers I’ve encountered. Not that they are ineffective in rendering natural soundstage depth, I’ve just found that they don’t tend to emphasize it. For example, I get more obvious soundstage depth from my REDGUM RGi60 ENR integrated amplifier. Imaging, however, is incredibly precise, with no wandering or wavering of voices or instruments within the soundstage. There is also plenty of space around performers, thus allowing their voices or instruments to bloom without interference.
Perhaps the most fun I had with the Merrill Audio’s Thors was listening to my rock ‘n’ roll collection. Here the effortless power and dynamics really paid off as I spent many an evening annoying my wife and kids with favorites from my youth. Led Zep, Yes, and the many prog rock bands I used to listen to came alive with the Merrill Audio/ATC combination. I really enjoyed, for instance, Led Zeppelin’s contemporary live album “Celebration Day,” but came away with more knowledge of the outdoor arena venue and imperfect recording techniques and bloopers than before. This sort of thing is again a testament to the precision and resolution of the Thor amplifiers. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the future these amps might be often used in mastering studios due to their uncanny mix of resolution, long term listenability and easiness on the ears.
Other impressive listening experiences came from old (and in some cases recently re-discovered) classics such as Happy The Man’s self-titled album, good studio recordings of Phil Collins’ experimental group Brand x (e.g., “Moroccan Roll” and “Masques”), and Jeff Beck’s “Blow by Blow” (all LP, digitally archived). All were characterized by well resolved and dynamic percussion, colorful synths, and appropriately gritty guitar work. I especially appreciated how the Merrill amps lent their grunt in a velvet fisted fashion to the electric bass riffs that frequently serve to drive the varying tempos of these iconic rock efforts.
Final thoughts? Well, the Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks are an awfully easy component to recommend. As with any component, no matter how good, they aren’t going to satisfy everyone. What can? That said, if you go for detail, dynamics, utmost resolution and musical truth, but without giving away the henhouse of ultimate musicality, then these are a no-brainer recommendation. I haven’t heard the Merrill Audio Veritas, and I’m sure they sound spectacular, but they’re also $12,000. The Thors are $4800, well less than half the price of their bigger brothers. Sure, the Thors are smaller and rate half the power (200 wpc vs. 400 wpc into 8 ohm loads), but how many of us really need more than 200 watts per channel? I mean, really. If the Veritas are truly worth 12 grand, and there are lots of people out there who think they are, then the Thors might well be one of the audio bargains of the decade.
Admittedly, I came into this review hopeful but a bit jaded about the status of modern Class D designs. I’ve now taken my medicine, and I’m ready to recant. These things are a work of art, both visually and sonically. Very well done, Merrill, very well done indeed. In fact, so well done that I couldn't help but buy the demo pair! I can think of no stronger recommendations than that.
Toward the end of my evaluation of Merrill Audio’s fabulous Veritas mono amplifiers (see my StereoMojo review), Merrill Wettasinghe, the genial auteur of the Veritas’ “audio purity”, surprised me by offering up for review its little brother the Thor, a Class D monoblock amplifier named after the Norse God of Lightning and Thunder. In my mind, the Thor, at a little over one-third the price of the Veritas, yet with a healthy 200 watts per channel into 8 ohms, was either going to disappoint or prove to be the better value.
My time with the Veritas jettisoned any misgivings I had about Class D amplification, so I was able to approach the Thor with an open mind. When Merrill suggested that the Thor gives new meaning to the concept of “trickle down”, and allowed that some of his customers preferred the Thor, I was intrigued and impressed by his honesty. I didn’t need to be convinced, and so they arrived and took up residence next to the mighty Veritas. I compared the two amplifiers for a time before turning over the Thors to Dr. John Richardson for his evaluation driving the power thirsty ATC SCM 19 speakers. The impressions that follow are based on an abbreviated evaluation period, albeit one that allowed me to draw some definite conclusions.
The Thor arrived in the same sized box as the Veritas, leading me to expect a similarly sized amplifier. Not so. The Thor’s diminutive stature caught me by surprise (the thing weighs only 15 lbs and is a mere 9” by 9” by 2.5” without footers). The Thor’s compact size makes it rack friendly; expensive amp stands need not apply. When placed side by side, the Veritas and Thor reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito in that classic comedy, “Twins”. As we shall see, there is a fraternal relationship in the sound and features of these two disparately sized and priced amplifiers.
Feature wise, both amplifiers accept balanced only inputs and use Cardas binding posts. Both come with Stillpoint footers and custom power cords. Both are encased in a solid billet of aluminum and feature a downwards firing red LED, letting you know that the units are powered on. All of this is to say that Merrill has invested in the Thor much of the same thinking that makes the Veritas special and a leader in Class D amplification. And in case you haven’t noticed, solid aluminum is rapidly becoming the material de-rigueur for amplifier chassis - vide offerings from Rowland, Boulder, Constellation, and others. Although expensive, and expensive to machine, solid aluminum has many positive attributes: it is highly non-resonant, rejects RFI, and serves as an effective heat sink.
In my review of the Veritas, I lamented its mundane appearance. Maybe it’s just me, but if I drop $12,000 on pair of amplifiers, I want them to make an auditory and visual statement. The Veritas is all business and little show. The Thor is another story. I share John Richardson’s enthusiasm for the Thor’s gloss piano black finish; the Thor tickles my aesthetic funny bone, unlike the Veritas, which leaves me cold. Will we see a Hollywood version of the Veritas down the road?
Although both Class D designs, the Thor uses a Hypex UCD amplification module in place of the remarkable Hypex NCore 1200 module that I raved about in my review of the Veritas. The UCD module is purportedly a “trickle down” version of the 1200. Merrill is mum about the difference between the two modules, and no doubt the use of different modules in the amplifiers contributes to the considerable difference in price between the two ($12,000 vs. $4,800).
As I contemplated this heady state of affairs, that sinister word compromise seeped into what is left of my grey matter, and I felt an aural headache coming on. Thankfully, once the music started playing, I had no need for an aspirin. The Thor’s familial resemblance to the Veritas was apparent from the start, and that proved to bode well for my time with the Thor.
To begin with, the Thor gave up little ground to its big brother in its ability to drive my Wilson MAXX II speakers without any attendant issues related to power or load. There was nothing askew in the spectral balance of this interface --- no thinned out midrange, no undernourished or bloated bass, no piercing highs or acrid smell --- just a coherent presentation that played well with all musical genres. To be frank, the MAXX II is an easy drive with its 92 db efficiency rating and benign impedance curve (min. 3 ohms). Even so, I was impressed with the Thor’s ability to cajole the mighty MAXX into making felicitous sounds, loud and soft, in my large listening room. By the way, Merrill claims that the Thor is stable down to 1 ohm, if you happen to have speakers that dip that low. Apogee and CLS owners take note!
Any one exposed to live music on a regular basis (forget the alter reality of arena or stadium rock) will tell you that one thing that separates most reproduced music from reality is its lack of dynamic completeness. We all have been there, suffering recordings that are compressed in order to win the loudness war when played over radio or through an MP3. Sadly, we hear music that doesn’t swell and is deprived of its ebb and flow. The complete expression of the artist and our appreciation thereof is disregarded in favor of misguided (or worse) intentions.
A famous example making the rounds lately as the result of the Led Zeppelin reissues is the original Robert Ludwig pressing of Led Zeppelin II, which features killer bass lines by John Paul Jones. Played on the table of the daughter of producer Ahmet Ertugen, the cartridge jumped the groove, causing a re-master at Ertugen’s insistence that eviscerated Jones’ bass. That guilty (and now legendary) RL pressing fetches insane prices on e-bay. I have plenty of examples in my collection, most of which are rock recordings. Even some of my orchestral recordings have fallen victim, notably those on the Meloydia label, which refuse to tread into terra fortissimo, depriving trumpets and percussion of their impact heard live.
Thankfully, engineers and producers past and present have cared and do care about realizing an artist’s intention without resorting to heavy handed equalization or dynamic suffocation. The flip side of this coin is the playback gear, which must be a willing partner. A pet peeve of mine is the component that loses its cool when dynamically stressed. I enjoy the sensation of reality that occurs when music is reproduced with its dynamic contours intact (I choose Wilson speakers primarily for that reason). Vampiric components that suck the dynamic lifeblood out of the signal get the stake.
Having noted the Veritas’ compelling ability to swing dynamics freely from ppp to fff, I thought I would be let down by the less powerful Thor. Such was not the case. The Thor was nearly as effective as the Veritas in reproducing, for example, my treasured orchestral blockbusters.
The dark and brooding 13th Symphony of Shostakovich, recorded by EMI with the LSO, features a large orchestra, chorus and bass soloist. This song cycle with music set to poems by Yevtushenko is a denunciation of anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews by the Nazis at Babi Yar. I have always admired this atmospheric recording and Previn’s reading, which plays it straight and lets the sardonic and sarcastic score speak for itself. Sonically, the stage is large and deep, the soloist and chorus are focused and naturally sized, dynamics range from the hushed to the explosive, and the signature sound of Kingsway Hall is laid bare. I have played this recording countless times, and it is starkly revealing of any shortcomings in play back gear.
A case in point: the end of the Babi-Yar movement, where Shostakovich depicts the ominous arrival of the Nazis as they storm the hiding place of Anne Frank and her family, culminating in the knocking down of the door to their inner sanctum. Inferior components run for cover at this juncture. Not the Thor. It did not limit in any way the full expression of the forces involved. The throaty bass soloist, the robust singing of the all male choir, the cataclysmic climax, accented by blaring trumpets, horns, and crushing tam-tam --- all were well served by the Thor (to be expected of the God of Thunder and Lightning!).
The brass in this recording can sound harsh and congested, even with amplification whose power rating suggests that it is up to the task. The Thor readily impressed me with its reproduction of brass that was never strident or dynamically stilted. Trumpets, trombones and horns were served up with their individual timbres and characteristic weight intact. Overall, I was delighted by the Thor’s ability to maintain its composure when hit with demanding passages, finding it to be on par with the estimable Veritas, which is high praise indeed.
When I mentioned that this recording is atmospheric, I was alluding to the ambient sound that was brilliantly captured by Christopher Parker, who famously turned the nobs at EMI and was responsible for the sonic excellence that pervades the EMI classical recordings catalogue. Although the Thor did quite well in depicting the cushion of air in this recording, it fell short of the Veritas’ exceptional ability to separate out the choir and orchestra in their own discrete ambient fields. The Thor also compressed stage depth by a small fraction and moved the performers closer together and forward in the stage, at least compared to the Veritas and my Audio Research VT 100 Mk II. This did not affect the Thor’s outstanding ability to convey the high drama of this music. I also noticed a slight foreshortening of the stage when playing chamber music, in this case, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet’s traversal of the String Quartets of Shostakovich (Decca D188D7), and Beethoven’s Themes and Variations for flute and piano (Turnabout TV34059S). To be clear, the different perspective offered by the two amplifiers in no way diminished my involvement in the music.
Just before the Thor arrived, I took delivery of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon (Island 1745697). I have never heard the original pressing, but I can’t imagine that it bests this immaculately pressed re-master by Universal Music. Recorded close up with only Nick and his acoustic guitar, this spare recording proved to be an interesting listen and one that afforded me an opportunity to compare the transient and resolving powers of both amplifiers.
Not surprisingly, both amplifiers passed on a highly credible facsimile of the singer and his guitar, thanks to their innate neutrality and utter lack of background noise. It was only after extended listening that I gave the nod to the Veritas, which nudged out the Thor by virtue of its more complete rendering of the guitar’s harmonic envelope, the Thor sounding slightly wiry by comparison. If it was not quite a photo finish, it was close --- say half a length. On the other hand, both amplifiers captured perfectly the leading edge of plucked strings and the subsequent resonating buzz. I can well imagine changes in associated gear closing the gap and confounding those who just have to have a pecking order based on price.
Moving on to another recent arrival, the Mosaic box set of Roland Kirk’s recordings for Limelight and Verve hit the platter with a splash and a dash that still has my head spinning in delirious delight. Kirk was a wunderkind who famously played two or three wind instruments at once. A sight to behold in concert, Kirk would intersperse outspoken social commentary with virtuosic playing of tenor sax, flutes, and exotic reed instruments. His penchant for singing while playing the flute inspired Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who covered Serenade to a Cuckoo on This Was, Tull’s inaugural effort.
The sonics on this four LP box set from recordings dating from 1964-1967 are variable: Now Please Don’t Cry, Beautiful Edith, recorded by Verve at Rudy Van Gelder Studios, proved to be the choice cut here. Kirk’s cover of Bacharach’s Alfie spotlights his tenor sax. The Thor provided stiff competition to the Veritas in capturing the deliciously fat tone of the sax, coupled with a breathy texture that you can almost taste. The next cut, “Why Don’t They Know” has a flute intro by Kirk. Both amps equally resolved the delicate yet piercing sound of the flute. Kirk’s chanting at the end of the song, however, came across as slightly more intelligible through the Veritas.
Even though sonically uneven, I Talk with The Spirits is my favorite LP from this set. Here Kirk plays only flute, three of them to precise (flute, alto flute, and African wooden flute), each with a distinctive sound. Both amps were up to the task of resolving their unique sonic signatures, notably the woody sound of the African flute in Serenade to a Cuckoo. This cut also features a closely mic’d drum kit with outstanding presence. Both amps presented the kit in stark relief, just as it was recorded, the Veritas providing a slightly richer tone to the snappy snare drum. All in all, neither amp held back my enjoyment of this incredible set of recordings, which find Kirk at the peak of his powers.
I could go on about the mix of recordings that I played in the limited time I had to compare the two amps. Based on my traversal of the music discussed in this review, it should be clear by now that the Thor is a very close second to the Veritas in all of the audiophile categories - resolution, dynamics, accuracy of timbre, etc. More importantly, the Thor doesn’t stand in the shadow of its big brother when it comes to making music. Throw anything its way and you will be delighted with the even handed manner by which it brings out the best in your recordings. I was and then some .
Forget any lingering doubts you have about Class D amplification. The Thor is yet another shining example of just how musical Class D can be when implemented correctly. Merrill Wettasinghe has taken what he learned in the development of the Veritas and applied it to a smaller, visually attractive chassis, one whose performance comes mightily close to that of the truth seeking Veritas, but incredibly at less than half the price. In fact, the Thor can stand on its own two feet (make that three Stillpoints) and compete with non-switching amplifiers in its power category that cost considerably more. I join Dr. John Richardson in congratulating Merrill Wettasinghe in making the Thor the trickle down success story that it is (do I hear thunder in the distance?). Oh, and for buyers who might wish to upgrade down the road, Merrill Audio offers a $3200 trade-up option for anyone who chooses to ultimately go for the Veritas after testing the waters with the Thor. Quite generous indeed.
The Merrill Veritas has earned our rare...
Congratulations to Merrill Audio!
VPI Classic 2 turntable; Benz Micro SM and Grado Reference cartridges; Denon DVD 2910 SACD/CD Player; Anedio D1 DAC; Alexis ML 9600 Masterlink High Resolution Recorder; Audio Research LS 25 Mk II Linestage Preamplifier; Audio Research PH3 SE Phono Preamplifier; Wilson Audio MAXX speakers; Cabling - Nordost and Transparent.