The Merlin's are a pretty easy speaker to drive. I don't see why 30 watts wouldn't work. I believe the ARS integrated amp Bobby P. recommended was about 30 watts or so too.
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I have the ZH 230 and like it very much. I think it is an improvement over the ZH 270 (as you might expect from Mr. Berning)
I do not think you will have a problem running the Merlins as they present a fairly flat impedence....of course the size of your room and loudness at which you play music also matters.
Yes I have and both are terrific amps. I am using Tonian Classic 12.1s which are 97db and flat impedence but they do respond well to some drive. My room is 15x25x11.
The ZH230 has the ability to tailor the amp to the system/speaker with different tube combinations. I think it has a more refined sound than the 270
The ZH230 shares many of the same virtues of the ZH270 (for obvious reasons) but has improved over the latter having slightly less grain and more natural sounding, extended highs. The first attribute that really jumped out in terms of character difference was the top end, followed by improved refinement across the board. During listening that weekend, we were directly comparing the new ZH230 with a ZH270 modified with nearly all available upgrades. As great as the ZH270 was and still is, the ZH230 is clearly the more evolved design. You will not be disappointed with the ZH230.
I actually own the last Prototype together with a Prototype Pre! It seems disappropriate to discuss money on the web, as anything said, will never disappear; I feel free to describe my feelings about this gear, which in truth, tells more about me, than about the gear - right?
Beside that, I feel, your mentioned sum seems reasonable, as it is an exceptional amp all the way, but, as I said above, I felt that already about the ZH270:
270 is used in my Studio with a Wadia S7i and Stella Opus/Novus Speaker system, they can use the added oomph, and the slightly darker sound of those speakers, whereas the ZH230 goes REALLY well with my VSM MXE.
I can add, although Berning amps never go down, mine did: Or rather a power tube failed. I just want to be fair and give context.
It is supposedly easy on Tubes, but hey, we all die!
I just had the Pre 1 and the ZH 230 in my home this past weekend. I found both pieces to be exceptional. I use a mac mini feeding a Sonicweld Diverter HR which in turn feeds a Metrum Octave. My pre/amp combination consists of a Music Firs Audio Reference and a Graaf Modena amplifier or my Acoustic Reality Thaumaturge amps.
I am currently running the Modena. I tested the pre by running the Metrum Octave direct into the ZH230 and controlled via Pure Musics 64 bit volume control (dithering off (I am not a fan of dithered volume controls, i can hear the noise shaping effects)). This yields a very very pure sound and gives me a baseline to hear what other components in the chain (in this case the pre) are doing.
The Pre 1 did very little to the signal, it did in my opinion make the music a tad prettier. Nothing obtrusive or over the top, I just preferred listening with the Pre 1 as opposed to not having it in the chain.
Now comparing the Pre 1 to the MFA Reference, in my opinion was no contest with the MFA sounding more refined solid and simply in a different league. Now in all fairness, the Pre 1 is a $8.36k (w/o the phono, the one I auditioned had the phone and was $12.4k) while the MFA is $16k with no phono capability. The MFA had a more visceral and connected sound overall. The Pre 1 did sound better than my MFA Classic but that unit has less than 30 hours on it and is not in use i.e. it is sitting on a shelf waiting for other components to complete a 3rd system and has not been "juiced" in some time and it sounded like it when i put it in the system LOL. The classic usually takes about an hour to start to come up when it has been sitting dormant.
As far as active preamps go I would ratethe Pre 1 as one of the best I have heard.
The amp is very very very good and i may be picking one up. In comparison to the Graaf, I found almost the same results as the preamp comparison, I prefer the Graaf as it has more weight (gravitas) behind it. I would say the transparency of the two units is about equal but the ZH 230 does do something with the treble that is a little more exciting than the Graaf. It is as though the treble from the ZH230 is a bit more romantic but I am talking a very very very slight euphony, none of that rose colored crap :)
I think you could build a wonderful system around the 2 pieces and it would take quite a bit more money to equal or beat them.
For full disclosure I heard the ZH 230 on another occasion in my system with the stock setup i.e. high feedback (the way it comes from the factory) and stock tubes and I did not care for it. It had no weight to the sound no meat on the bones so to speak. It reminded me of most modern delta sigma dacs in that it had a sorta super transparent sound with seemingly little substance.
I talked to the sales guy about this and he said it was the feedback setting and to his credit he brought it the way it comes from the factory. I asked him on the follow up audition to set the feedback to what he thought was optimum. He did this and installed telefunken tubes (I believe they were telefunken) and that did the trick. The amp was now transformed and sounded wholly different with weight and body.
Overall I prefer my MFA and Graaf, but I will say these two pieces came pretty close. Another listener thought the Berning had a better bottom end than the Graaf, yet that claim was made when the Berning was playing a song that the Graaf did not play when in the chain, I can not agree with his finding.., but we all have our own way of hearing.
The next day I ran the Graaf in balanced mode and it exceeded what I had heard from it when run single ended in a way I would not have believed if someone had told me. I will not try to explain it because quite frankly it was so big a jump from single ended mode I think one would need to experience it.
I am glad I had a chance to hear the Berning gear in my home in my system and as I stated I may pick up the amp for my second system :)
Anyone who has read my comments should know that I write about what I heard and I am not interested in coloring my opinion because it may hurt someones feelings. This is a hobby and if more magazine reviewers would just be brutally honest I think a lot of us would waste a lot less money on crap products :)
I find it quite interesting that the telefunkens added more weight and body. Along with the Seimens tubes I find telefunkens to be leaner and more transparent, not necessarily the most preferable choice if weight and body is a consideration. I have tried many combinations of tubes with the teles being the least preferable in my system. I've have the zh270 for almost 10 years with Merlin VSMs and though I haven't heard the zh230 would expect the results with this tube to be similar. What I like most about the amp is that you can get color flavors from source and pre-amp choices. The Berning can be the foundation of presenting a signal to the speakers while minimizing colorations found in most tube amps. Not a choice for everyone of course but I find no loss of harmonics at all, just less exaggeration brought on by second order distortions and less evident in this design. Of course the ZOTLs work nothing like a typical OTL or transformer coupled one or any amplifier I am aware of, efficient operation, flexibility and superb performance.
The feedback setting, for a more resonant fuller sound would be low which also increases output impedance/damping. The tradeoff is less extended highs and low frequencies and a bit of loss of transparency relative to normal and medium settings, the beauty being you make the choice of what works best in your system and to your taste. There are many avenues to explore with this amp as I have discovered over the years which is why it still has this fascination, it is never the limiting factor.
Tubgroover: I was told that most of the added weight was in fact a result of the feedback setting so perhaps you are correct concerning the tube. I did not do a comparison with low feedback and stock tubes vs the Telefunkens thus I can not speak to the actual sole contributions of the tube, though if I were a betting man I would say that added nothing but goodness to the sound :)
Indeed it is a flexible device and though I did not like what I heard ini stock form, I did hear potential :) I'm pretty good about yearling a product and even if it is not my cup of tea right away, I can sometimes hear it's potential to be much better. This is why the ZH 230 was invited back into my home :) it paid off!
Thanks for the info concerning the effects of the tubes...