Marc Phillips // parttimeaudiophile.com
My review of the Merason Frerot DAC is the first time I’ve ever done a formal review of a stand-alone digital-to-analog converter.
I do have plenty of experience with DACs over the last few years, but in most cases we’re talking about an inboard DAC or a digital product that includes a DAC because, well, why not? I use DACs to stream Qobuz, and most of the time I’m merely using an AudioQuest DragonFly—the Black, Red and Cobalt models are the only DACs I’ve actually owned or used for longer than a few weeks.
Lately I’ve had a hankering to spend more time streaming through my main system, as opposed to my laptop, and that requires another type of DAC. Over the last few years, I’ve had a few of those inboard DACs in review products such as the Rotel Michi X5 integrated amplifier, the Bryston B135³, the Rotel A14 and a Simaudio Moon 390. Most recently, I enjoyed the flexibility of having a DAC inside the Innuos Zen Mini music server I just reviewed. But when I ship those products back, it’s time to remove that 20’ AudioQuest Cinnamon USB cable, hang it in the Big Cable Closet, and go back to streaming Qobuz on my laptop.
I’m feeling that I need a more permanent solution.
Why is the Merason Frerot the first DAC I want to review? Well, I spent a lot of time discussing DACs with two of our reviewers, Dave McNair and Grover Neville. Whenever there’s a DAC that needs reviewing in general, I usually call on either of them because they’ve had a lot of seat time with various DACs for their day jobs, and those two are always hiding out in the virtual Part-Time Audiophile War Room and talking about DAC things in their little DAC language of theirs. I always felt left out. So I asked them to help me find a DAC to review that was a) easy to use, b) relatively inexpensive and c) sounds great enough for me to seriously consider as a viable source within my reference system.
The Merason Frerot was the first one mentioned.
The Digital to Analog Converter Blues
You see, I’ve had problems with using DACs in my main system, at least so far. I love the convenience and the flexibility and the sheer pleasure of having immediate access to millions of recordings. I don’t like it when DACs are glitchy, or when the owners’ manuals are not walking me through everything like I’m an idiot because I might just be an idiot when it comes to this stuff. Drivers that won’t download, functions that require additional downloads, things just not working like they should—I’ve experienced it all. And it turned me off. That explains Choice “a.” Choice “b” is important because I don’t want to start off at the top reviewing some dCS stack that I’ll never fully understand.
It’s simple. If I went shopping for a DAC right now, I’d be looking at something priced like the Merason Frerot.
Then there’s Choice “c,” the part about sounding good. That’s one of the biggest things that’s kept me from actually buying a DAC as a permanent part of my reference system. On those occasions that I have a DAC in the big system, I’m usually lukewarm about the overall sound. It’s fine, but I’m generally back to spinning LPs within a couple of weeks. I’ve heard plenty of amazing sounding DACs at high-end audio shows, producing state-of-the-art digital sound. I know what’s possible. I know what an amazing DAC can do. I’m just not getting that at home.
Among the DACs I’ve tested in my main and ever-evolving system, some felt glassy, some felt a little restricted in dynamics or low frequencies, some were just kinda okay, good enough for evenings on the veranda with hundreds of my friends but not for some serious driving time. I wanted my digital streaming services to sound at least as good as my $4500 CD player that’s now almost a decade old, and hopefully better when it came to the hi-rez FLAC and WAV files I have stored in a spare hard drive. For years. Because I get turned off. I forget I even have this stuff.
Merason Frerot at Your Service
When Dave McNair reviewed the $5500 Merason DAC-1 a few months ago, I paid attention when he talked about HOW GOOD IT SOUNDED. That’s what I wanted to experience. When I found out that Merason had a tiny, somewhat minimalist and reasonably priced DAC, I said “This must be the place.”
Since Mark Sossa of Well-Pleased Audio Vida is the US importer and distributor for Merason, and most of us at PTA already know and like the guy, it was fairly easy to ask him for the Frerot. Or maybe he asked me, I can’t remember. It was just so natural to say yes because I was so intrigued with Dave’s take on the DAC-1.
The Merason Frerot is described as an entry level version of the DAC-1, although with the same technology as its big brother. Merason’s Daniel Frauchiger uses a very similar circuit layout for both units, but the Merason Frerot features a single Burr Brown PCM 1794A chips, compared to the pair in mono configuration on the DAC-1. There have been minor concessions on parts quality for the Frerot, which is to be expected. But Frauchiger is satisfied that the tiny Merason Frerot has that same essence as the larger DAC.
As I mentioned, I set up the Merason Frerot DAC to perform two basic functions, the ones that are important to me—streaming Qobuz through my main system, and combining the Merason with the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 2 music server that I’ve already reviewed. The Zen Mini is the only Innuos music server to include its own DAC, and while it’s a minimalist unit—one designed to compete at the level of most inboard DACs—it sounds good enough to make the Zen Mini a fairly complete and satisfying product.
Once the Merason was in the system, performance rose from “this is pretty darned good” to something roughly the sonic equivalent of that older CD player I use. (By the way, it’s the Unison Research CDE, which has dual-mono DACs and tubes in the output stage and it’s still one of my favorite one-box players, which is why I still use it.) I’ll admit that a lot of those files I streamed were probably 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, so yes, it sounded like my CD player—maybe a little on the cool side of neutral.
I searched out some hi-rez tracks on Qobuz and wound up listening to Roger Waters’ Amused to Death all the way through for perhaps the first time. (I’m not a fan of Roger’s solo stuff—David Gilmour is my “favorite Beatle.”) I was impressed with the width of that immense soundstage, as most people are, but I felt that so much of the music was flanking me, settling out further on the horizontal plane than I’ve heard in a long time. Hmmm, the Merason Frerot was starting to capture my attention.
When I switched to my “high-end audio exhibit room” playlist from the Innuos server, composed of some of my favorite hi-rez CDs from FIM, Analogue Productions, Mo-Fi and more, I felt satisfied that the Merason Frerot was serving as a viable source in my system—not for the convenience but for the sound quality.
At this point I was ready to say that the Merason Frerot, at $1350 USD, was easily the best DAC experience I’ve had at home. Solid digital sound, plenty of color and texture to the music, some extraordinary imaging and soundstaging fireworks as I mentioned, and an ease of use that simply hasn’t been matched. I plugged this in without even consulting the owners’ manual, I knew where the wires needed to be plugged, and boom! Been happy ever since—until Mark Sossa dropped a bomb.
Merason Pow1 LPSU
The Merason Frerot DAC now had an optional matching LPSU (linear power supply unit) for an extra $900 that, in Mark’s opinion, took the DAC to a whole new level of performance. I’ve reviewed enough products in the last year with optional power supplies that wind up being essential, so I took him at his word. Plus, that $900 price is very appealing. I’d pay, like I said, $1350 for a DAC as good as the Merason Frerot. But if you told me that I could add another $900 and achieve a huge performance improvement, I’d probably call my credit card company and tell ask them, with sugar on top, if they’d raise my credit limit.
This LPSU, called the Merason Pow1, is a perfect visual match for the Merason Frerot. Stacking them makes these singularly diminutive boxes a little more noticeable on the rack. While I took a few photos like that, I’m not a fan of ever stacking components. That’s becoming more and more difficult since so many of the individual components in the review system are two-box affairs right now—the Pass Labs XP-22 preamplifier and XP-27 phono stage, the Innuos and its LPSU, the Brinkmann Edison Mk. II phono stage that even comes with an HRS base—and it’s filling up the shelves of my normally spacious and accommodating equipment rack from Fern and Roby.
That’s a long way to go to say I kept them apart for serious listening. No, I don’t pay myself by the word.
Mark Sossa was right. The Pow1 LPSU made a huge improvement to the sound of the already thrilling Merason Frerot. The music simply expanded in every direction, bigger, more transparent, more finger-poking realistic. That incredible digital sound at those high-end shows, the one that eluded me at home? This was it, finally.
Let me tell you how I know. When I stream Qobuz through my laptop, with an AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt and whatever headphones I’m checking out, I can drift for hours. I could play DJ for myself on Qobuz. It’s like Wikipedia articles—oh, just one more and I’ll go to bed. I don’t want to stop listening unless I have to. Ordinarily, that feeling doesn’t transfer to streaming through my main system.
Here’s an odd but accurate way to put it: it took an external LPSU to get me to a level of streaming where I feel I can say “okay, I can start here.” Buying the Merason Frerot DAC with the Pow1 LPSU would ultimately shift the way I listen to music, with more time spent playing Infinite DJ and less time managing the piles and piles of CDs in my house right now.
Of course, that brings up why the Innuos was so impressive to me—it made me realize I no longer needed a CD collection. With the Merason gear, I feel like I can ask myself a certain question for the first time: Do I want to play CDs and LPs, or do I want to stream? Suddenly, I want to stream.
In other words, the Merason Frerot DAC with the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. II, both units with their respective LPSUs, is easily the tool I could use to pry myself away from the burden of physical formats. We’re talking about a four-box rig that only costs around $4000, which is slightly less than my trusty CDE was when it was new, in 2011. My CD player sounds great, as do a host of others, but c’mon. Do you have the space for millions of CDs in your house right now, or would rather they be in the cloud? That’s the question I’m asking myself right now.
I’m starting to relax a little more about the future. I’ve dipped my toes into the digital waters, and I can see where it goes. I finally went out and bought a new car, my first since 2005, and there’s so much tech in these vehicles now. Now I can jump in my car, start the engine, and the entertainment center will automatically start streaming Qobuz straight from my phone, which is still in my pocket.
I love this stuff!
The Merason Frerot DAC and its LPSU mark an even more important step toward my unfettered comfort in the face of awesome technology. I am not afraid. Reviewer’s Choice Award, please. Put it right here.