Merason frérot DAC Review
David Price is more than a little surprised by this small Swiss digital-to-analogue converter…
Switzerland – one of Europe's smallest and quirkiest nation-states – has a thriving homegrown hi-fi industry – think AVantGarde, darTZeel Audio, Goldmund, and Revox. Oddly though, it's almost all high-end. Perhaps it's because – per capita – it's one of the continent's wealthiest countries?
Despite this, Merason's wee frérot costs just £995. It's a shrunk-in-the-wash version of the company's substantially more expensive DAC1, with all the high-end bits stripped down. In relative terms, it is tiny but still promises grown-up Swiss sound.
Inside its dinky 50x225x180mm (HxWxD) case, you'll find a Burr-Brown PCM1794A DAC chip with an analogue output stage that offers the choice of balanced or unbalanced operation via RCA or XLR output sockets. The buffering circuitry runs in full Class A mode, and various specially selected components are fitted. Short signal paths are evident – unsurprising considering its size! Round the back are two TOSLINK optical digital inputs (24-bit/192kHz), two coaxial digital inputs (ditto), and a USB digital input (24/96). Finally, there's a single 9V DC power input, aspirated by a small offboard power supply.
The front panel is a case of 'less is more' – you get a 5-way input selector and just two green LEDs, one for power and the other for signal lock. Shame there's no indication of the sampling frequency or bit depth of the signal it's decoding. Still, the casework is nicely made and finished, feeling more expensive than it actually is.
The frérot is more than a little special – it's far better than its size suggests. Musically, this DAC ticks along like a Swiss clock and never falters. No matter what programme material you play, it comes back with a grippy, propulsive, energetic, and bubbly sound that's never less than fun. Its big-hearted musicality is totally out of proportion to its diminutive dimensions.
It's like a little terrier, going for the music's rhythms as if its life depended on it. It gnaws at the very fabric of the recording, picking up a good deal of detail with not just confidence, but ebullience. Regular readers will know I'm a big fan of Chord Electronics DACs, but even I had to admit that this gives little away to the excellent Hugo 2 portable.
With densely packed indie guitar songs such as Lush's For Love, this wee widget just dives right on in and parties. It's a pretty compressed recording, with guitars drowned in effects and dense female vocal harmonies. Yet the mini Merason captured the song's drama, belting it back out at me without sounding strident. This is down to its fine sense of timing and an almost glass-clear midband. Okay, we're not talking dCS Vivaldi levels of detail here, but the frérot is way better than it should be at the price. By contrast, Audiolab's perfectly respectable M-DAC Plus, which is only one good night out down the pub cheaper, seemed bland and low energy.
It's very good down low, too, although I'd respectfully suggest that bass isn't its core competence. Some classic dance music from Chic (under the nom de plume of Sheila B Devotion) showed that it doesn't deliver vast tracts of bottom end. Spacer was a joy to hear, with a sinewy walking bass guitar line that made for a wonderful groove. Yet my flares weren't flapping, and my speakers' bass bins remained fully intact. Whilst you would never describe the frérot as 'lean', it's not exactly full fat. Still, at this price, the goes for Chord's Hugo 2, too.
Soundstaging is excellent. Mad Man Moon by Genesis showed that it's not exceptionally wide but more capacious than you might expect from such a baby box. Better still, the instruments and vocals within are located with rifle-bolt precision. That's much of why this classic rock track sounded so good – the music glistened with instrumental texture, vocal timbre, and subtle rhythmic inflections. Also, it handled the subtle changes of dynamics very well, as some parts of the music and lead vocal line were accented during the crescendos. Stage depth was good for a DAC of this price, but more expensive designs do better.
I know it's small, but overlook this at your peril. Merason's frérot is not – as its size would suggest – a toy. Far from it. Those wanting a no-frills, high-performance DAC that doesn't take up half their system rack should give it a serious look – and listen. Even if you're not short of space, it's still one of the finest sounding digital converters around near its price right now.
Visit Merason for more information
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
Posted in:Hi-Fi DACs Applause Awards 2021
Tags: whole note distribution merason
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