Merason DAC1 Mk II | REVIEW

Merason DAC1 Mk II

I have an ongoing dilemma with reviewing digital audio. I never seem to have all the pieces I need to test out DACs, streamers and servers. (Digital cables can occasionally be an issue as well.) Why? Because I still don’t own a DAC of my own. I just thought I’d review DACs until I felt I really needed one, and then I’d pull the trigger on something down the road. That’s why I had to beg Mark Sossa of Well Pleased Audio Vida to lend me the Merason DAC1 Mk II converter when I did.

This was a few months ago, when both the Antipodes Oladra music server and the Innuos Pulsar network streamer were lounging idly around the periphery of my listening room, waiting for their purposes to be fulfilled. Mark and I had been discussing a review of the Merason DAC1 Mk II for quite a while, and suddenly the Time Was Now. Fortunately, Mark was Johnny-on-the-Spot and had the Merason shipped to my house in just a couple of days. I don’t like starting off a review with a stodgy account of the beginning of the review process–“my editor called me and asked if I was interested, and I said yes!”–but my digital gear struggles highlight my need to choose a DAC and be done with it.

Words and Photos by Marc Phillips

The Merason DAC1 Mk II, however, was far more than just a quick solution to a sticky problem. I have a warm place in my heart for the Merason Frerot DAC I reviewed a couple of years ago–it was the first DAC that adhered to my Five Minute Rule, where I wanted to hear music no more than five minutes after plugging in the USB cable. (Or coax, or S/PDIF, or whatever else you got.) It was also the first DAC I reviewed that sounded truly nice to my ears, mostly because it lacked that “phase-y” quality I encountered early on with DACs and streaming.

You might recall that Dave McNair reviewed the Merason DAC1 shortly before that, and gave it his enthusiastic approval. So you might think that the Merason DAC1 Mk II is merely a new improved version of that DAC, but it’s a little different from that. It’s reflected in the increased cost–the Merason DAC1 was priced at $6,000 USD, while this Merason DAC1 Mk II costs $8,500. But the world of digital-to-analog converters is constantly moving forward at a quick pace, and a second version of a stellar product often says volumes about the original design, and not the latest improvements in tech.

Am I ready for an $8,500 DAC? I had the same hesitation while reviewing the $29,000 Antipodes Oladra music server, and I had to up my digital game and do a little research first. The Merason DAC1 Mk II however, was as simple and easy to use as any other DAC out there. In this case, it’s all about sound quality, and I’m all over that. When it comes to the DAC of my dreams, I don’t need endless features or connectivity options. I want it to be simple and I want it to sound great. I’ll pay handsomely for those qualities alone.

marc phillips system

Inside the Merason DAC1 Mk II

For me, Merason is Daniel Frauchiger, the Founder and Managing Director of this Swiss company. I know Daniel–I usually meet up with him at High End in Munich. We’ve downed schweinshaxe together, along with some nice German beer. He seems quiet and serious, but he’s always up for some fun. And he makes great DACs.

The path he took was unique–he started in the ’90s as a mechanic but he was always fascinated with audio reproduction and the technologies behind it. Here’s the basic story, as told on the Merason website:

“Daniel turned to audio engineering because he didn’t understand why digital audio reproduction still couldn’t keep up with analog when it came to musicality and emotion. He set out to find someone who had designed a promising circuit for digital-to-analog conversion. Together they further developed the circuit until Daniel was satisfied with the result and could henceforth enjoy high-resolution digital music alongside vinyl and audio tape. Thus the first product from Purson, now Merason, – the DAC1 – was born.”

The Merason line of DACs starts with the affordable Frerot DAC, which can be matched to the pow1 external power supply–which I thought improved the sound quality across the board when I reviewed it. Recently, the Merason Reuss joined the line-up, placed in between the Frerot and the DAC-1. The Merason DAC1 Mk II is the current flagship, and it offers all the latest in terms of features and technology and, of course, digital thinking. For example, there are 12 power supplies in the DAC1 Mk II, with each of the two output channels using a separate linear supply with an oversized transformer.

Daniel explains the changes from the original to the Mk II:

“For some time now, I have been thinking about how the DAC1 could be further improved in the constant search for something even better. I knew that this would not be easy: our DAC1 had won several awards, the reviewers agreed that the DAC1’s sound was outstanding, and we received a lot of positive feedback from distributors, dealers and enthusiastic users.

“I saw potential on three levels where I wanted to start:

“The first concerned the layout and construction of the PCB. The PCB of the DAC1 was 2-layer, which meant that signals, power supply and earth had to share the space and preferably not get in each other’s way. A multi-layer structure would not only significantly increase the limited space, it would also make it possible to better shield the sensitive signals from interference and ensure the power supply with a much lower impedance. The argument against a multiple construction was that this would build up capacitance (hence the original 2-layer construction), which could have a negative effect on the sound. A test immediately showed that this fear proved to be unfounded.

“The second was the choice of components. Whereas in the previous DAC1 only THT components were used in the signal path, the test showed that surface-mounted components (SMD) produced a significant sound gain due to shorter contact paths and less metal mass. At the same time, the mica capacitors previously used for low-pass filtering were replaced by polystyrene capacitors, as it was found that these were superior to the mica capacitors in the new constellation.

“As a third measure, the way in which the power transistors were mounted and cooled was improved. An ingenious system with disk springs guarantees optimum contact pressure on the heat sinks at all times. In addition, by mounting one transistor on each side of the heat sink, a possible drifting apart of the temperatures could be further reduced, which further reduced the already low harmonic distortions.

“All in all, the three levels of measures result in a calmer sound. The sound stage has become even wider and deeper. The dynamics have increased; it seems as if the new DAC1 Mk II plays louder than its predecessor, although the levels have remained the same. At the same time, the resolution is even more detailed and the bass even more intense. The transparency has increased once again, and – assuming a high-quality playback system – the sound now floats completely detached in the room. In short: the new DAC1 Mk II now plays in a higher league.”

The Merason DAC1 Mk II employs two Burr Brown 1794A converter modules for starters, but Daniel adds his magic from there:

“For a 5 dB improvement in dynamic range, each channel has its own device. The analog current signal is elaborately converted into a voltage signal in a discrete setup, which is buffered in Class A technology and routed to the output. The DAC1 Mk II is fully balanced, i.e. a total of four independent channels are implemented from the two converter modules to the output.”

Input formats allowed include everything from 44.1 kHz@16 bit to 176.4 kHz@24 bit (USB) to
192 kHz@24 bit. Input connectivity options include one USB, one RCA, one Toslink and one AES input. (I used RCA as well as the Computer Audio Design USB II-R cable for USB.) The Merason DAC1 Mk II is also a Swiss product, which means that the fit and finish are stunning, and the innards are laid out in a very clean and neat fashion with the highest quality parts possible. Despite all that, the DAC1 Mk II weighs just 12 pounds, and is small enough to be placed comfortably on most equipment racks.

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I auditioned the Merason DAC1 Mk II in a number of system configurations during its stay. I used it, of course, with my laptop as a server, streaming Qobuz–although I’ve decided to stop evaluating converters in such a limited manner during a review. (I’m beginning to think my laptop was the cause of all that “phasiness” I encountered early on, not the DAC.) The Antipodes Oladra music server and the Innuos Pulsar network streamer presented an incredibly stable digital platform for my audio systems, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that the Merason was an ideal tool for judging the sound quality of the other digital components in the chain.

The Merason DAC1 Mk II, quite frankly, is built for speed. By that, I mean it’s simple and streamlined in operation, and glorious when it comes to sound. That’s what I’m looking for in a converter, after all.

I was also able to use the Merason DAC1 Mk II for my new, sprawling headphone rig–it was a perfect match for the Innuos Pulsar network streamer in this configuration. (By perfect, I mean that the Innuos and the Merason combined to deliver some of the best sound quality I’ve heard while streaming.) This is the point, once again, where I start rhapsodizing about days passing by quickly, curled up on the sofa, engaged in one listening marathon after another.

marc phillips system

Merason DAC1 Mk II Sound

So many manufacturers of DACs, streamers and servers talk of “analog sound” as an ultimate objective for digital playback, and I have to admit they have my attention when they make such claims. Indeed, my favorite DACs are the one that seem to diverge from the type of digital we’ve been experiencing with CD players all these years. While CD players have been called “analog-like” in the past, I believe newer digital technologies do a far better job of realizing that auditory illusion.

I’ll mention one of my favorite DACs for just a second–the Lab12 DAC1 Reference I nominated for 2023 Best Value and 2023 Product of the Year. (I know that some of you will immediately ask me which DAC I prefer, the Merason or the Lab12, as soon as this review goes live. Please don’t.) What the Lab12 DAC achieves is a tube-like sound from my digital formats, a warm and soft and seductive sound that’s similar to what the Lab12 Integre4 integrated amplifier brings to a hi-fi system, as well as the Lab12 Melto2 phono stage. It’s a “trademark” sound I love.

The Merason DAC1 Mk II is, after all, twice the price of the Lab12, so it doesn’t make sense to compare them directly. But the Lab12 gives me an analog sound that reminds me of classic turntables–Thorens and Garrard idler-drives, Linn Sondeks, EMT. (I dig each and every one of those designs, by the way so that’s a compliment.) The Merason DAC1 Mk II, however, reminds me of modern analog rigs that extract an incredible amount of information from the grooves in a far more neutral manner. The Merason doesn’t sound like “digital,” but it does push me down the road to analog sonic perfection where I’m hanging out with Kronos, Tech-DAS or Nagra ‘tables. I hear a poise in the Merason, a confidence that suggests you’re getting it all and it’s being delivered in an effortless manner and it sounds like music every step of the way.

What does that mean? First, the Merason had more detail, more dynamics, bigger imaging and soundstaging and low frequency performance that was far more solid and stable. The Lab12, on then other hand, is going to whisper in your ear and make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. If my digital ambitions were more advanced, I could see owning both DACs–just like I can see the reason for owning two phono cartridges, or two loudspeakers with completely different design approaches.

Here’s the best part: while I sense that the Merason DAC1 Mk II is retrieving more musical information than I’ve heard from any DAC I’ve reviewed so far, there was never a moment where I thought that the sound was “digital.” To be honest, I avoid product reviews where I suspect that might be the outcome. If your gear lacks warmth and romance, you really don’t want me reviewing it. I’ll probably send it back to you.

The precision of the imaging on the Merason DAC1 Mk II, as well as the Big Sky Country soundstaging, was very effective at providing the space needed for a more relaxed and open presentation. (My favorite gear tends to emphasize size over intensity.) Good things happen when everything has space to move around, breath and flourish. Even with the headphone rig, I was surrounded by big open spaces.

Merason DAC1 Mk II

Listening Sessions

I mentioned that the Merason DAC1 Mk II was matched with the Innuos Pulsar network streamer and the Antipodes Oladra music server for the bulk of its stay. For a few weeks, in other words, when all of the pieces were in place, I had a full-fledged audiophile sound system that possessed some of the same impressive qualities I hear in big systems at the high-end audio shows. When I first started playing around with DACs and streamers and servers, I always had that sense that I wasn’t doing everything I could to extract the best performance. I constantly imagined some digital audio guru walking into my listening room, making a few changes to the connections, and proclaiming, “There. Doesn’t that sound much better?”

Once I had the Innuos and the Antipodes and the Merason chugging along in unison, I felt like one of those gurus who sits in the corner of an exhibit room and runs flawless demos all day long with a smart phone. Once again, I’ll clearly state that the reason I was finally persuaded to join the world of digital streaming was to play DJ for myself, and to do it in a way that was spontaneous–I hear one song, and it reminds me of another, and another and then I realize I’m up several hours past my bedtime. Call me a workaholic.

The Merason DAC1 Mk II was a brilliant guide for my first encounter with Peter Gabriel’s i/0, his first album of new material in over twenty years. I hoped that i/o would benefit from the passage of time in the same way Tool’s Fear Inoculum did–namely, that a musical performer or group already known for lavish production would take modern recording technologies and deliver some true reference recordings for the first time. i/o is dense and ambitious–I expect no less from Gabriel, but I didn’t expect the multiple layers of my appreciation.

At 73 years old, Peter Gabriel hasn’t missed a beat. He’s still endlessly intelligent, imaginative, and joyfully/mysteriously global. I know, a mere DAC doesn’t create those kinds of impressions, the performance does, but Gabriel casts such a wide sonic net that the Merason’s sense of control and organization makes it easier to digest, arrange and fall in love with this complex music.

The Merason DAC-1 was also the converter I was using when I finally dug into the “Definitive Version” of New Order’s Low-Life. I love this album because it was one of three favorites released in the mid ’80s that consoled me when I moved from Southern California to Virginia after college and was instantly mired in musical culture shock. (The other two, by the way, were The Smith’s The Queen Is Dead and R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction.) In other words, this album always has deep meaning when I listen to it, and when I hear a remastered version that sounds this good I expect to feel emotional.

Let’s face it–like Peter Gabriel and Tool, New Order’s earlier output is more impressive for content than audiophile fireworks. This new version of Low-Life is so crystal clear, so deep and layered and quiet in its presentation, it gets about 50% closer to what it would sound like if it was recorded today and not 1985. The Merason had a hand in making me truly emotional about this experience, mostly because I was reminded of how Low-Life sounded when I was young and inexperienced (yet still enthusiastic) about being an audiophile. While I listened to this new edition, I remembered the time I invited one of my buddies over to hear “The Perfect Kiss” from Low-Life. I couldn’t explain why I loved that track so much because I was a classic rock kinda dude back then and I hated dance music. “There’s just something lurking underneath this music, something dark and fascinating,” I told him. “Blech,” he replied. “Turn it off. It’s disco.”

The point? When more of the music gets through, it gets you thinking about everything important. The Merason DAC-1 Mk. II did that time after time. This is the sort of device that forces you to re-evaluate all of your favorite and not-so-favorite music, unearthing more reasons to listen to just one more track before you go to bed.

Merason DAC1 Mk II

Merason DAC-1 Mk.II Conclusions

After exploring the world of digital audio over the last couple of years–even more intensely through 2023 than I thought possible–I’ve developed some solid opinions when it comes to DACs. At a recent high-end audio show, I sat with a bunch of industry people (yes, we were smoking cigars) and someone in the group described converters as the digital equivalent of a phono cartridge. The DAC, like cartridges, adds most of the flavor when it comes to the sound of your rig. I had to agree with that assessment–I’ve found that DACs sound very different from one another. I’ll even go as far as saying that the DAC must be auditioned by its prospective owner before buying, because a digital rig needs to include a device that caters to your personal preferences.

I’ve run into a number of DACs that are ideal for my taste in high-end sound. Aside from the Merason Frerot, there’s the CEC DAC-1 I reviewed a couple of years ago–that was the first time I fell in love with a DAC purely based on sound quality. The Lab12 DAC I reviewed earlier this year was another stellar choice–the tubes really gave my digital rig an instantly “correct” tonality that satisfied my need for analog-like warmth. I was also mightily impressed with the inboard DAC in the Audio Note UK Cobra integrated, especially with its unsurprising synergy with the Audio Note UK CDT One transport.

Then there’s the Merason DAC-1 Mk.II. This is the DAC that has impressed me the most so far on the basis of sound–at least in my reference system. It’s not just about the warmth, it’s about the way it combines that analog-style tonality with loads of detail. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse when I say that lone combination of strengths is my ultimate goal in this hobby, but that’s what my favorite gear accomplishes with aplomb.

Add in ease-of-use and a no-nonsense user interface, and the ability of the Merason DAC1 Mk II to work seamlessly in a number of system configurations, and it becomes obvious that Merason, and Daniel Frauchiger, is at the forefront of digital audio in 2024. Highly recommended.

pta reviewers choice

Merason DAC1 Mk II

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