|Meridian 861 Version 4 AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Thursday, 01 April 2004|
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First off, Meridian is an audio company and Bob Stuart, the company’s president and head engineer, is an audio purist. As a music preamp, the 861 is built to standards that are competitive with the best, cost-no-object stereo preamps in the world, including the Mark Levinson No. 32 and Linn’s Klimax Kontrol preamp. Of course, the 861 has many more features but it is important to point out how good the 861 is at the basics.
For stereo music, I started with “Theme From Shaft” on stereo SACD (Stax – Fantasy reissue hybrid SACD) for the main reason that the Meridian 861 is the big pimp of preamps. The layering on the track sounded awesome through the 861. The imaging was rock solid and the bass, which is more prevalent later in the song, sounded strong and in control through the WATT Puppies. The high hat and cymbals at the end of the first section of the song were specifically airy but sounded bright. The vocals sounded a bit congested, which was the case through the 861 and the Mark Levinson No. 40. On “Ellie’s Love Theme,” I switched the 861 over to ambisonics, which was a surround sound mode developed in the 1970s that continues to be refined to this day. The track didn’t have the discreet panning that you would hear on a 5.1 mix, but the center and rears added space to this cool instrumental song based around Isaac Hayes on the vibes.
I couldn’t resist special-ordering some of the not-ready-for-primetime DVD dual discs from a record store in Seattle. Audioslave’s self-titled album (Epic/Interscope Dual Disc DVD/CD) is one of the best rock records in years and Sony Music has put a 20-bit 48kHz version on the DVD side of the dual disc. It sounds clearly better than the CD version of the disc and gave me some real rock to play at concert levels on the 861. On “Cochise,” you could hear great power and control from the 861. While the recording’s mix can get cluttered when the entire band is blasting away full steam, during the more delicate parts, you can hear the snap of the snare with authority. On “Show Me How to Live,” you hear the bass player literally dig into the strings as he plays. Lead singer Chris Cornell beams with energy as the drums sound specifically good with deep hits to the floor toms.
Meridian’s Stuart was the guy who told me about Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section on DVD-Audio (Fantasy Jazz – licensed to JVC Music and sold as an import only). I got my copy from contacts in Japan and I reviewed the disc, giving it a deserved 10 for sound. Before you email me asking where to get it (amazon.com doesn’t have it), I recommend you try DVD4Music.com or MusicDirect.com. If you own a DVD-Audio player, you need this stereo title. It is like a time machine back to the moment the musicians were in the recording studio. On the Cole Porter tune “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” I heard unthinkable clarity with the 800-861 connection. I could turn this disc up to levels that are unbearable on all but the best titles on DVD-Audio. The piano tones are intensely rich and the stand-up bass is taut. The drums sound snappy and crisp while Pepper sails above the musical bed like a hero. No one gets a demo of my system without this track.
Other DVD-Audio discs sounded great, too. “Love and Happiness” from Al Green’s Greatest Hits (EMI DVD-Audio) was a treat in surround. The bass sounded round but in control. The organ tone was smooth, yet it had a burning urgency to it. The horns were lively and energetic, but not bright or over the top. On “Let’s Stay Together,” the little details were the difference. The background singers, mixed way back in the 5.1 surround mix, sound ultra-cool, as do the sexy little guitar chops that accessorize the track. The Reverend Al Green never sounded better in my sound room.
The closer for me as to how good the DVD-Audio digital connection is “Roundabout” from Yes’ Fragile on DVD-Audio (Rhino/Atlantic – DVD-Audio). I have heard this track dozens of times on DVD-Audio through Proceed and Mark Levinson electronics. With the 800 powering the 861 the track never sounded better. Despite the age of the original recording, the openness is outrageous. Chris Squier’s bass sound beefy yet detailed. As the epic song develops, I could not help but to air-conduct the different movements of the song. This is where audio gear ceases being just gear and becomes a vehicle to an emotional getaway. By the end of the track, more than eight minutes after I started the journey, I was hearing backup vocals in ways I did not previously know existed, even though I have heard the stereo version of the song easily 1,000 times. To enjoy your favorite music in new ways is a healthy way to justify the steep cost of such high-performance electronics.
TV and Movies
I watch a lot of NHL hockey on TiVo because I am a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, yet I live in Los Angeles, so the games are on at 4:30 in the afternoon. It is great entertainment for me to come home and have a game waiting for me. With the 861 in my system, I found myself using different surround sound modes to try to get more impact to the compressed recordings saved on the hard drive I affectionately call my TiVo. Trifield, which I liked for CDs and SACDs, was often a winner. ProLogic II also had its moments. That was the default Marc and I set up for most TV inputs like TiVo and VCR. The 861 as a powerful surround sound preamp is able to make TV more exciting through better audio and that definitely adds to its value.
For movie soundtracks, I used the 800-861 combination again with excellent results. In “Fletch” (Universal), during the tennis scene, you can hear the tennis balls bouncing and ricocheting all over the place. The 861 keeps the mix moving all around the six speakers. During the dream sequence, you can hear the crowd noise fill the room as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar waxes poetically about the 6’5” Fletch (6’9” with Afro) and his playing ability.
In “Goodfellas” (Warner Home Video), Joe Pesci verbally abuses “Spider,” the teenage kid working the gangsters’ club, for not getting him a drink quickly enough. As the BS develops with Pesci, he cites a Bogart western movie as he pulls out his gun and proceeds to make Spider dance. As he fires off a shot, the gun surprises you, but the blast doesn’t sound like the speakers are going to blow up. It is powerful yet controlled. Later in the prison cooking scene, you can hear the most subtle of details as Paul Sorvino gently slices some garlic. As the razor blade hits the cutting board you can hear the details of the garlic being shaved and the slight thud when the blade hits the board. As the character Johnny Dio cooks steaks in a frying pan, you can hear the sizzle as the porterhouse cuts fry up. At one point, I thought I could actually smell the sauce, although the 861 is good but it isn’t quite that good.