|Meridian 800 CD/DVD-A/V Player|
|Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Sunday, 01 October 2000|
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Switching back and forth from CD to DVD-Audio with the 800 is a dangerous habit because there is literally nothing CD can do to compete with DVD-Audio in terms of sound quality. Whether it is stereo or a surround DVD-Audio title, the audio is so much better than CD that it is frightening.
On the recommendation of Bob Stuart at Meridian, I hunted down a copy of Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section on DVD-Audio, mixed in stereo. From the moment I received the disc from Japan, I have been in awe. Even the best CD demos I played shone because you could hear little details on important recordings in ways you can’t on other CD transports. With the 800 playing DVD-Audio, you transcend from hi-fi to audio heaven. Music sounds refreshingly liquid, live and real. Snare pops are dynamic while horns growl with a sexy snarl. High hats ring with accurate decay that CD simply cannot reproduce. If you are not blown away with the sound of Art Pepper in stereo DVD-Audio, played back through the Meridian 800, you might need a soul transplant. This is the best I have ever heard stereo playback, including on trips to recording studios, as well as every hi-fi show I have ever attended.
But stereo is only part of what the DVD-Audio format has to offer. Surround sound is what the format was really designed for and 5.1 surround allows the mixing engineer to paint aural pictures in three dimensions with the help of six speakers instead of just two. Bluesman Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit – Nonesuch) is one of the most significant recordings to grace the DVD-Audio format. In surround, you are transported directly to Havana (to the dismay of the FAA) right from your living room. The mix captures the luscious nature of the acoustic performance, but the surround mix is not shy about mixing percussion to the rear speakers on tracks like “Chan Chan.” The guitar solo rings with a three-dimensionality that you can’t hear anywhere else.
Most of my listening was done via the 5.1 channel analog output of the Meridian 800 into a Mark Levinson No. 40 preamp, but as mentioned earlier, the Meridian 800 is capable of sending a proprietary digital signal straight to Meridian’s 861 AV preamp, which I also have in my system for review. You might ask, what is the advantage of the direct connection? It is a big one, considering that you can remove an entire level of analog to digital conversion from the musical signal when playing back DVD-Audio. The most striking example of the advantages of the direct digital connection came on the newly-released DVD-Audio of Queen ‘s The Game (DTS Entertainment) and “Another One Bites The Dust.” The bass on the track sounds round and beefy, while Freddy Mercury’s vocals are commandingly in the front of the soundstage. Brian May’s periodic guitar fills adorn the rear channels with incredible presence and resolution. His rhythmic chops add on to the verses to accompany the ever-present bass line.
The best the DVD-Audio format sounded on the Meridian 800 was on “Long Distance Runaround” from Yes’s Fragile (Rhino). Chris Squire’s rumbling and rounded bass line punctuates the foundation of the track, while Steve Howe’s soft-sounding guitar chops move from the rear of the soundstage to the front. Wakeman’s pulsating rhythmic work during the verses is never lost when listening on the Meridian 800 as it can be on a player with lesser DACs. Cymbal crashes explode with resolute sound in ways that before I have only heard live.
All of the oohing and ahhing over the audio of the Meridian 800 is an audiophile fantasy, but many of the people will make the investment in the Meridian 800 because of its video quality. Your great video system is only as good as the source and the Meridian 800 is as good as it gets for DVD-Video playback. Its audio advantages, like a direct digital connection, also benefit movie soundtracks, but it is the internal parts, quality and video DAC design (and its $20,000 price tag) that separate the Meridian 800 from the rest of the high-end AV market.
When playing the male model scene in “Zoolander” (Paramount Home Entertainment), you can see vivid orange in the flames as the characters douse themselves in 93 octane and accidentally light themselves on fire while frolicking in spraying gasoline. Next, in the eulogy (u-goog-ol-y) scene, you can see subtle detail in the Manhattan skyline behind Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) as he retires from male modeling. Later in the scene, modeling agent Maury Balls (Jerry Stiller) drinks a glowing bright orange beverage, which has excellent contrast as it sits on his desk.
In “Goodfellas” (Warner Home Video), when young Henry Hill gets busted for selling cigarettes, you can see the red of the Pal Mall boxes more crisply than with the Proceed PMDT. You can see the Hollywood makeup job on the actors in the daylight, which is incredibly hard to reproduce accurately. Later in the scene, when Robert De Niro’s character tells young Henry Hill that he did good, the Meridian 800 corrected many (but not all) of the flaws I blamed on the D-ILA technology of my projector. You can see into the wrinkles on De Niro’s face, which on other DVD players get lost in darkness because of a lack of contrast.
The Meridian 800 sets the level of performance for CD, DVD-Video and DVD-Audio, so it is hard to find fault with the way it sounds and looks, but there are some important weaknesses that need to be addressed for those readers thinking I was about to proclaim the Meridian 800 the world’s first “perfect” audio-video component – because it isn’t. First flaw is its remote, which at first glance seems like a full feature unit, but it lacks programmability and needs two hands to use. It is not backlit and over time proved to be awkward. Worse, when I went to fast-forward tracks on the Meridian 800, I often shut the entire unit off because the on-off button is located directly next to the fast-forward button.
Lack of SACD playback would be an easy place to pick on the Meridian 800 for those who demand it all for $20,000 in a component, but for good reason, the unit doesn’t have it, and because DSD would need its own completely separate processing and signal path, you are likely never to see SACD on the 800. What you might be surprised by is how good hybrid SACDs like Dark Side of the Moon (with Red Book CD layers on them) sound when played back in the 800.
At around $20,000, the way the unit is constructed isn’t cheap, but it is not up to the physical standards of components like the Linn CD12 or the Mark Levinson No. 40. While there is nothing wrong with the black plastic of the 800, it lacks the sex appeal found on other insanely expensive AV components. This also includes the card bay, which is not as over-engineered as that of the Mark Levinson No. 40 card based preamp.
For movies, CDs and especially DVD-Audio, you cannot do better than the Meridian 800. While its cost is prohibitive to nearly all AV enthusiasts, its groundbreaking design and even better performance is worthy of envy from all AV enthusiasts. For those with less money to invest in a source component, but who would love to have nearly all that the Meridian 800 has to offer, they offer the 598 player (in the $5,000 range), which also does a great job on CD, DVD-Audio and movie soundtrack playback.
When you are designing your dream system (even if it is in a daydream), you will want to be sure to add in the Meridian 800 as your main source component. It doesn’t matter if you have an all-Meridian system or nothing from the digital gurus in your rig – this component can beat any in its category. Strike that – the Meridian 800 is good enough for its own category.