Hardware Reviews

Merason DAC1 MkII: digital inspiration

Merason DAC1 MkII review https://the-ear.net

Merason DAC1 MkII digital to analogue converter

When I reviewed the original Merason DAC1 a nearly three years ago what struck me about it was its speed and agility, it sounded like a Rega turntable or more obscurely a DNM preamplifier. Which in my book is a good thing, it means that music sounds less processed and more immediate, more real in fact. But this wasn’t enough for Daniel Frauchiger, the engineer who founded Merason as he has subsequently found various ways to improve the sound quality of the Merason DAC1 with only a few fundamental changes to components.

The full width case has changed a bit and looks slightly more conventional than the acrylic fascia and stainless of the original, the DAC1 MkII is anodised aluminium all round, this is probably a good idea from a commercial standpoint but lacks the purist aesthetic of the MkI. That said it looks very nice in gold especially, I was loaned the black finish which is the most likely to appeal to the market and found its simplicity of display and controls easy to use, the only oddity is the naming of the USB input which is called ‘aux’.

Merason DAC1 MkII review https://the-ear.net

Under the skin there have been a number of small but important changes to the circuit, as Daniel puts it “The layout of the PCB has been slightly optimized, the structure and the routing completely renewed. This results in a significantly reduced impedance and thus allows the almost loss-free power supply of the individual components. In addition, the shielding against external interference is even better.” Merason is using more SMD (surface mount) components which result in shorter signal paths and lower losses. The power transistors are placed opposite one another on the heatsink and fixed with disc springs for a more precise contact pressure and better balanced temperature equalisation which apparently reduces harmonic distortion.”

Balanced temperature for output devices is not something that I have come across before, possibly this is because no one has bothered to mention it but either way it shows an attention to detail that goes beyond the norm, and the norm is pretty obsessive. The DAC1 MkII continues to use a pair of Burr Brown 1794A converter chips, one per channel for greater dynamic range. This chip limits the DAC’s conversion abilities to PCM at a maximum bit/sample rate of 24/192. From a musical point of view this is one reason why the original DAC1 sounded so good but those impressed by specs may be put off by the absence of DSD processing. Most streaming sources can convert DSD to PCM so from a practical point of view this isn’t an issue but DSD purists may feel that this is a compromise. SACD players do not output DSD except over proprietary connections.

Merason DAC1 MkII review https://the-ear.net

The DAC1 MkII offers optical, coaxial, AES and the aforementioned USB inputs, the coax input as well as the RCA outputs are on WBT Nextgen connectors, XLR connections are provided so that the balanced output of the analogue output stage can be sent straight to a preamplifier. There are no attempts to provide volume control, headphone output or filter alternatives, Merason has made the decisions for you in the latter instance and presumes that its users will have dedicated devices for provide the former functions. This is a purist device and the results suggest that the approach pays dividends.

Sound quality

Using an Network Acoustics modified Lumin U2 Mini streamer with LDA power supply as a source and connecting with muon2 USB cable the results were deep, relaxed and calm with Keith Jarrett’s Testamentlive piano concert in London, the backgrounds being clearly quieter than I am used to. This means that you can hear the instrument’s harmonics trail away, defining the acoustic of the venue in the process and get a clear sense of the intimacy of the performance. A lot of the atmosphere from the event is contained in the background and the DAC1 MkII digs down into this to render a complex and three dimensional picture which brings the performance to life.

Merason DAC1 MkII review https://the-ear.net

With London Grammar’s Hey Now the reverb may not be natural but it’s still possible to hear more of it, you get a stronger sense of the space around the vocal and that voice images superbly. When the bass synth comes in to deliver the power of the piece it doesn’t upset the timing, rarely have I heard this track sound so musically compelling. It’s one of those songs that puts a lump in your throat but is often more about sound than groove, the DAC1 MkII proves that it certainly has one of those.

With Gianluigi Trovesi and Stefano Montanari’s original instruments playing variations on Dido and Aeneas the majesty of the sound is delivered in full effect, the spirit of the music recreated in highly convincing fashion, convincing enough to get the air baton flailing around. The degree of subtlety that the DAC1 MkII delivers is very attractive but not merely from a sound aesthetic viewpoint, the music flows in extremely natural fashion as well, sweeping the listener up and providing a degree of involvement that digital systems often struggle to achieve.

Merason DAC1 MkII review https://the-ear.net

It gets the lilting groove of Steely Dan’s Babylon Sisters down perfectly, the Purdie shuffle that defines the rhythm on this song is as clear as day, it locks you onto the beat without masking any of the other instruments or voices and the bass line is soo solid. It feels as if they have all the time in the world, and by all accounts the recording took nearly that long, but the results when reproduced with this degree of precision and musical fluidity are more than worth it. The sales of Gaucho were likewise very rewarding. The way that the Merason refreshes tired tunes like this is a real treat, it reveals precisely why they have remained so popular for so long.

An older piece with an even stronger groove in Ike and Tina Turner’s Proud Mary is certainly “Nice and rough” as Tina puts it in the intro, this is a stonking tune that when played with the degree of precision and clarity on offer from the DAC1 MkII has an intensity that’s hard to imagine many being able to match. The way it puts the performance in the room is thrilling even with less than high fidelity recordings like Frank Zappa’s Roxy by Proxy album, it was aided on this occasion by the rather splendid Sonus faber Amati G5 speakers which undoubtedly helped the experience come alive, but it didn’t do this with my usual DAC that’s for sure.

Merason DAC1 MkII review https://the-ear.net

Rarely have I found myself writing lyrics down so often as I did with the Merason, there is something about its ability to deliver the energy and the message is a totally coherent fashion that inspired this. It happened with Babylon Sisters and Proud Mary if not Penguin in Bondage. The Merason made it abundantly clear that the Auralic Aries G2.2 is a spectacular streamer and made the comparison with the G2.1 a very swift process, producing some thoroughly inspiring music along the way. A DAC will always be limited by what goes before it and this Merason is no different but it produced enthralling music with both the streamers that I used, the Aries was clearly superior to the Lumin but both made me want to press play more and pause less.

Merason DAC1 MkII verdict

The DAC1 MkII is a more even handed and refined converter than its predecessor, you get all the magic of the music without a slightly edge of the seat experience because the new DAC1 is essentially more relaxed and background noise levels are lower. It is highly transparent and revealing while avoiding the spirit dulling neutrality found in other high end DACs, in other words it is alive to the vitality and spark of the music and delivers high resolution in a fluent and extremely engaging fashion. Truth be told I have made enquiries about purchasing a DAC1 MkII so that I can continue to enjoy it. Interestingly Merason have recently released the Reuss DAC at a lower price point and I might give that a spin before taking the plunge, if my patience holds up.

Specifications:

Type: PCM only digital to analogue converter
Distortion THD+N: <0.006%
Signal to noise: 120dB
Digital inputs: USB 2.0, coax on RCA, optical on Toslink, AES on XLR
Wireless inputs: none
Analogue outputs: single ended RCA, balanced XLR
Maximum bit/sample rate: 24-bit/192kHz via USB
Output Voltage: 3V RMS balanced, 1.5V RMS single ended
DAC chip: 2x BurrBrown 1794A
Accessories: none
Dimensions HxWxD: 100 x 450 x 290mm
Weight: 5.5kg (12 lbs)
Warranty: 3 years

Price when tested:
£7,000
Manufacturer Details:

Niedal Audio Lab
T +41 33 243 28 16
merason.ch

Type:

digital to analogue converter

Author:

Jason Kennedy

Distributor Details:

Auden Distribution
T +44 791 768 5759
http://www.audendistribution.co.uk

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