|Meridian 598 DVD-A/V Player|
|Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Thursday, 01 May 2003|
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Years back, some audiophiles feared the inevitable rise of multi-channel music, sighting concerns that their beloved “soundscape” of instrumental accuracy was going to be violated by four additional speakers spewing effects designed to appeal to the lowest level of music enthusiasts. Needless to say, those audiophiles were not just wrong but also a bunch of snobs. With the future of audio now upon us, let the truth be said: multi-channel releases are the most exciting thing to happen to recorded music since the invention of stereo. Recording engineers speak of music in surround as giving them the tools they always wished they had back when they were mixing classic albums for stereo. Granted, having six speakers to work with is power that can corrupt a mixing engineer, and there are certainly cases of that on the shelves of the high-resolution and 5.1 sections of your local record store, but just as the engineers learned to master better-sounding CDs as the format matured, the same goes for surround mixes. It is a rarity today to find a real stinker of a surround mix as a major release in either format.
I started my musical testing with Don Henley’s The End of Innocence (DTS Entertainment 5.1 CD). This release is an involving mix on a disc loaded with hit songs. On Track Two, “How Do You Want It,” the saxophone is placed deeply in the stage, with a great tone and palpable texture. There is no doubt whatsoever of the positive effect that the multi-channel mix and added resolution of the disc benefits this cut. Henley’s voice is placed solidly, with better than expected detail, in the center of the stage. His image is notably effortless. Even in the best two-channel systems, the center image can lack strength or sometimes take focus on the listener’s part to get great pinpoint imaging. For this reason, the center channel reinforcement helps, yet it doesn’t make Henley’s voice forward, just more seamless. This recording sounds reproduced, yet extremely live in nature. The 598 resolved information that I didn’t previously know existed on this 5.1 music CD, such as trailing vocal decay that made me frustrated at having missed this for so long. On Track Five, “New York Minute,” the organ intro is delightfully spacious and live-sounding. Henley’s voice again has pinpoint location, suspended with a sense of ease, in tremendous detail. In comparison to other high-end CD players I have had in my system, the Meridian reproduces this 5.1 CD with more ease, which adds to the air and reality of the music.
Next, I spun up a DVD-Audio release that showcases two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Eric Clapton and B.B. King, with their release Riding with the King (Reprise). This recording is outright awesome. It has resolution that standard CDs could never even dream of, with a mix that tends towards overall room and event accuracy rather than dramatic effects for creative impact. In the song “Key to the Highway,” the guitars are displayed in lively splendor. Kings’ guitar tone sounds more detailed and balanced than I have heard it before on any incarnation of my system, with a timbre accuracy that gave me goosebumps. Clapton supplies tasty guitar riffs that are subdued in comparison, realizing he is sharing the stage with one of the most emotionally powerful bluesmen ever. The information from the rear speakers is nicely mixed and supplies the necessary rear room ambience and a faint reproduction of the stage activity. I have been spinning DVD-Audio discs since their inception a few years back, with my most recent reference being the Kenwood DV-5700. With no insult intended to the much less expensive and very impressive Kenwood, the Meridian 598 performs at a level so far above anything that I have heard that I felt as if I was hearing a whole new format. Awhile back, I had found myself feeling only lukewarm about this format once the newness had worn off. The 598 has solidly changed this opinion. With its excellent internal bass management and unmatched resolution, it provides an incredibly balanced and infinitely resolute reproduction. When directly contrasting DVD-Audio discs to the same discs recorded as 16-bit/44.1 kHz, there was no comparison with regard to resolution and overall available information. The DVD-Audio discs clearly overshadow the 16-bit editions. If you prefer the absence of rear and center channel information, you can simply listen to them in stereo mode, in many cases still taking advantage of the added bits and more frequent sampling rate. There are a lot of options when mastering a DVD-Audio disc. Decisions are made about putting high-resolution stereo tracks on some DVD-Audio discs, along with MLP and a default (Dolby Digital or DTS) surround playback for DVD-Video players. The content of a specific disc is entirely up to the label and the artist, which is important to know so that you won’t be too disappointed if you don’t find high-resolution stereo tracks on a DVD-Audio disc that you’ve bought because it has a movie clip on it. There are only so many bits to go around even on a DVD-Audio disc that is exponentially larger than a CD.
Twenty years after the advent of the format, the majority of everyone’s music collection is now on compact disc. Some of us are old enough to have collections, at one point or another in time, in practically every reproduction format since LPs. And here we stand (reluctantly in some cases) at the cusp of yet another change. However, although consumers embraced the CD relatively quickly, the public is being cautious about this next move. This makes it increasingly more important that a player of this level performs at the very highest level with the bulk of your music collection.
One disc I listened to at the start was the amazing Johnny Cash’s latest album, American IV: The Man Comes Around (American). Cash has entertained enlightened fans for just short of five decades, with more glowing accolades than a CPA can count. Cash has recorded better than 1,500 songs on no less than 500 different records. As for accolades, how about 11 Grammies and a lifetime achievement award for starters? Over 100 different artists have recorded his classic hit “I Walk the Line.” His music has transcended worlds far beyond Nashville. With his failing health, Cash could very well be his last release. In the song “Desperado,” a soulful remake of Glen Frey and Don Henley’s classic tune, Cash’s trademark gravelly voice is positioned solidly in the center of the stage with huge detail. There is no question that the Meridian 598 can image with the very best, but what really impresses me is the ease in which the images are displayed. The 598 has a very musical midrange, both pleasant in its attack and incredibly resolute. Something that I have grown to love about this player is its ability to seduce me, making me feel that I am hearing every bit of information, yet never fatiguing me in any way. All CD players have strengths, yet the best strength that a player can have is the ability to make you want to listen to more music at a louder volume. The 598 makes me feel just this way. I first listened to Cash through the 598, then switched to my longtime reference, the Sonic Frontiers Processor 3/SFT1 combo, a dated pair that was once considered by many to be the best that money could buy. I felt that the Sonic Frontiers rig made the instruments sound more real. The strings had more timbre and more natural surrounding body, sometimes referred to as texture. The 598, however, had more “bits” of information. I felt a greater sense of depth with the 598, no doubt due to the added information. In the end, I found that there are recordings that I prefer with the 598, and others that I prefer with the Sonic front-end. In the song “We’ll Meet Again,” Cash’s voice is again more detailed with the 598, down to his distinctive vocal chord crunch, and the instruments have a greater sense of depth. If I were picking between the two players strictly for two-channel music, I might lean towards my Sonic front-end, yet that is a fraction of the 598’s capabilities. I directly compared the Meridian 598 to the similarly-priced Mark Levinson No390S, a player only capable of two-channel CD reproduction, and preferred the 598 in every category. Both players provide comparable upsampling and are vastly improved in detail over my Sonic Frontiers rig, yet the 598 has a more relaxed stage presence and is preferable with all genres of music.
I recently outfitted myself with a new video system. Gone was my aging Sony seven-inch CRT projector, which made way for a Vidikron Vision 2 eight-inch CRT. I connected the Meridian 598 via its component connections though my Faroudja NR Series Scaler, and to the projector using a Transparent premium component and RGB cables. For those who have not compared video cabling, these Transparent video cables are expensive but undoubtedly the very best that I have found.
I reached for a personal video reference, “Shrek” (DreamWorks), and went straight to the scene in Chapter 2, where the donkey is narrowly and unexpectedly saved by the Ogre. I immediately noticed the incredible detail in the grasses and surrounding landscape. Perhaps “noticed” isn’t the right word -- knocked off my chair might be the more appropriate term. The Meridian 598 provides an image that is so far above what I have seen in the past that the difference is almost inconceivable. In an industry that is chock-full of reviewers proclaiming their exuberance over items that cost a king’s ransom, which general folks often consider to be mere morsels, this is an improvement that will stagger all who encounter it. The reds in Lord Farquaad’s jacket are notably more vivid, having migrated from a minor gradient to many distinguishable shades. Images such as Shrek himself are considerably more three-dimensional, with more defined edges. Shadows are among the greatest improvements. The 598 provides such increased resolution that my contrast ratio is notably higher. Blacks are blacker and whites are noticeably whiter. Scenes in the castle with the fire-breathing dragon and molten lava become so three-dimensional that it took my breath away. The dangerous part of reviewing is that there’s no going back from this. My checkbook wished I had never found out how good the Meridian is.
On the mega-box-office smash “Gladiator” (DreamWorks), a disc that I often use to demonstrate my movie system, I went to the scene where Maximus requests a soldier’s death. Sonic details from the crunching brush to the horse’s breath are fantastically reproduced. On other players that I have reviewed in the past, these details could become somewhat brittle at higher volumes, but this is not the case with the Meridian 598.