|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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There are few companies that are as synonymous with excellence in digital design as Meridian Audio, and perhaps no other company has etched its corporate fingerprint into the future of high-performance digital music and movies more deeply than Meridian. Powered by the vision of company founder and technical leader Bob Stuart, Meridian has pioneered MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing), the universally accepted technology used for DVD-Audio highest-performance audio playback. Even before the advent of MLP technology, Meridian has been creating innovative products, including digital speakers and modular components that actually live up to the company’s promises of future upgrades.
The Meridian 598 is a single-chassis player that will read many different discs, including both DVD-Audio and DVD-Video discs, plus CDs that are dedicated to DTS surround sound music, standard 16-bit CDs and more. The 598 is Meridian’s answer to consumer demand for a more affordable version of their critically acclaimed reference transport player, the Meridian 800. The 598 measures just over 12.5 inches in width, 13 inches in depth and a scant three-and-a-half inches in height. The component weighs 14 pounds and sells for between $5,200 and $6,000, depending on the options selected.
The Meridian 598 plays seemingly every current digital format, with the notable exception of SACD, the competing format that has been entrenched in an ugly battle with DVD-Audio for the title of “the next CD.” While Meridian is certainly rooting for DVD-Audio to win the format war, they are also in the electronics business and need to sell good amounts of high-dollar gear to grow and thrive. If this ultimately means making an SACD player, then who knows, someday they may. As far as the 598 goes, it is designed to play everything but SACD at the highest possible level possible at this price point.
Some music enthusiasts wonder why Pioneer, Denon and others can make a combo player for under $1,000 that plays both DVD-Audio and SACD. The problem with an ultimate level combo player, and “ultimate level” is certainly where Meridian comes in, is the fact that DSD and PCM are technologies that require basically different signal paths and processing. Some much less expensive combo units convert DSD to PCM as a way to keep costs down and convenience high, but some mixing engineers say that this conversion defeats many of the advantages of SACD. A combo DVD-Audio/SACD player from Meridian would likely cost a fortune at retail, because they would keep the PCM and DSD pure. Meridian has said if they were ever to make an SACD player, it would be its own component, going on to remind us that four of the five major record labels (WEA, EMI, BMG and recently UMG) are at some level publicly supporting DVD-Audio and that DVD-Audio is going to win. I guess everyone plays their politics when they get the chance.
The Meridian 598 is a well-built piece of electronics. It has a solid feel and styling that will suit a variety of decors, especially contemporary environments. The 598 is a pretty simple-looking chassis, dressed in black from head to toe. The faceplate has long slender vertical buttons to control the unit’s functions. The top of the unit has a smoked glass plate with ventilation slots at the rear. The rear panel has a nice layout, providing minimum yet sufficient room to make the necessary connections. Meridian offers two basic versions, digital A/V output for compatibility with capable Meridian processors, and an analog version to connect via multi-channel analog inputs contained in almost all of today’s surround sound preamps. There are also three video options that can be used with either of these options including standard BNC, Progressive Scan output, or SCART. The version that I am reviewing is one containing the proprietary digital MHR Smart Link connection, connected to the Meridian 568.2 preamp processor. Very few DVD-Audio players can connect to a preamp or receiver digitally, but this Meridian is one of those few on the cutting edge.
At the rear of my review unit, there are video outputs in both S and composite video for connections directly to a video source (if you choose not to switch elsewhere), coax digital outputs for connections to Meridian digital speakers, and a MHR Smart Link connector for hooking directly to either the Meridian 568.2 or 861. Additionally, there are two communication connections for cross talk between other Meridian components in your system, a power plug connector and an on/off switch.
One of the most impressive features with the 598 is its proprietary MHR Smart Link connection, allowing the 598 to send multi-channel digital signals to Meridian preamp/processors. This is the first such connection to be officially sanctioned by the music industry for DVD-Audio. This is ultra-cool, as it allows the digital signal to be transferred losslessly directly to the surround processor. Without this link, the music industry forces manufacturers to output digital at either 48 kHz or 44.1 kHz, whereas the 598 can output 24-bit 96 kHz signals directly to Meridian processors. It also avoids an unnecessary level of analog to digital conversion found in all non-digitally connected DVD-Audio systems, which noticeably and negatively affects your sound. Additionally, the benefit of a direct digital connection applies to standard CDs, which the 598 will automatically upsample to 24/96 kHz. This is only the beginning. When paired with either the Meridian 568.2 or 861, the processor will recognize any type of disc that you place in the 598 and will use your programmed defaults in the preamp. If you put in a DTS-encoded disc, it will recognize this and default to the programmed presets that you have selected for playing this format. The same goes for movies and music on any digital disc. The Meridian 568.2 and 861 have Meridian’s unique software, which allows you to program different settings with a PC for each of these formats, including speakers to be used, output levels to the speakers, sub levels, and more. With this link, you can set the processor to play all standard CDs in Trifield, play in a matrix surround or default to two-channel stereo. You simply place a disc in the 598 and push Play, and the system will recognize and set up the rest. The ease of use of this component is nothing short of refreshing.