|Meridian G98 DVD/CD Transport|
|Home Theater Video Players DVD Players|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Friday, 01 April 2005|
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The Buena Vista Social Club DVD-Audio disc (World Circuit) is a fantastic tribute to the music and legendary musicians of Cuba. Complete with a spicy mix of acoustic instruments, this Ry Cooder collaboration is one of my favorite recordings in this format. On the track “Chan Chan,” I heard details that were much refined over what had been offered over the Meridian 598 player that I have been referencing. The trumpet in the distance had an analytical blend of detail, while remaining very liquid and live. This trumpet is back in the mix, but because of the resolution of the Meridian player, its sound was very immediate. Often, when instruments migrate deep in the stage, they become vague and, although engaging, they are handicapped with limited information. In the case of the G98, you could hear acoustic instruments with sense of space and distance that you won’t find anywhere other than with the top players in the world. I have heard this Buena Vista Social Club DVD-Audio recording played back on some of the best systems in the world, including my former reference system featuring the Meridian 500 series gear, and found the G98 audition to be amongst the most musically engaging of all. Nuances from subtle guitar strumming to the distant and layered percussion were well-placed in the stage and sounded both detailed and effortless, the way great music sounds in real life.
I loaded up Yes’ Fragile DVD-Audio (Rhino) for another taste of high-resolution music. After much playing, I decided to review this disc using the 24-bit/192 kHz stereo tracks. Sometimes I am in the mood for multi-channel music and at other times, I want to reap the pleasure of high-resolution playback without the multi-channel interpretation of a modern-day engineer.
In the song “Long Distance Runaround,” I was treated to a very detailed and beautifully mixed listening session. Yes was the very first live performance that I experienced in my youth and this session with the classic Fragile album brought me closer to that mind-expanding evening than I have been to date. There is quite a bit of debate about whether stereo playback can really bring you to the live event now that engineers have the tools to deliver you music in surround on DualDisc or DVD-Audio. Short of the green lasers reflecting off Rick Wakeman’s sequined shawl, listening to Fragile on DVD-Audio was like being right there in the EnormoDome. Percussive instruments had explosive impact and were set back appropriately to avoid overpowering the mix. Instruments had real-time attack without being forward or the least bit fatiguing. Vocals were pure and unaffected by digital artifacts when compared to the analog LP version, using a fully loaded Linn LP12 rig. Following this audition, I applauded the virtues of high-resolution DVD and the G98’s ability to squeeze the most from a worthy recording on CD or DVD. Audiophiles clinging on to old snobby old technologies could be wooed to break out the Platinum card by the sexy musical power of the Meridian G98.
In my testing, I wanted to see how the G98 did with compact disc playback, since this is the format of the majority of our music collections, no matter how many DVD-Audio, SACD or DualDisc titles we own. Looking to one of the most popular demo CDs from the heyday of the format, I spun up Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (Warner) CD. In the hit track ”So Far Away,” there were details such as the tambourine strikes that were impressively immediate and crisp. Upon replay after replay, you could clearly hear incredibly natural decay that normally is missing in the 16-bit world. It is this kind of detail that takes the average listening session and make it everything but average. When I originally auditioned the Meridian 598, I owned and referenced the fantastic Linn CD12, a reference CD player, at a price of $20,000. My feeling at the time was the 598 provided equal detail but lacked the sheer sense of realness of the CD12. Images with the Linn sounded more palpable and were more at ease. The G98 is a whole new bird and a step up from the 598. My ears are sensitive to digital artifacts and sheen and the G98 provided music completely void of these annoying distractions. It has been quite some time since I had the CD12 in my system, but from what I can remember of its sound, the G98 is quite close in terms of liquidity, pace and reality. This is a big compliment, because the CD12 is the best compact disc player I have ever heard.
The song “Money for Nothing,” although a bit clichéd as an audio demo, can sometimes sound compressed and congested and for that matter downright busy when not reproduced at its best. I was surprised to find such delineation between the sometimes-overwhelming synthesizer track and the drums and vocals. The crescendo that builds in the intro of the song is musically exciting but can collapse the soundstage even on very good musical playback systems. When playing the track from CD on the G98, Mark Knopfler’s vintage Stratocaster sounded remarkable, nicely textured and only minimally compressed – most likely more the effect of elements in the recording than the playback. Strikes from Knopfler’s strings had the percussive impact that you expect from a live guitar performance.
Like most of you, I own a vast collection of recordings on compact disc. The performance of the G98 with standard CDs was a tremendous treat. In recent years, I have migrated back to LP listening to gain the joy and ease of analog music, but the G98 has brought me back to digital music, not as a conscious decision but rather indirectly as the sweetness and detail of the playback is unmistakably delicious.
In recent years, my audio/video habits have changed from mostly music-oriented sessions to sit-downs that feature an equal portion of music and movies or HDTV. When the San Francisco Giants are on in HD and I can see in splendid detail the effects of the Clear and the Cream on Barry Bonds’ arms, I simply cannot pry myself from my easy chair. DVDs and HD films on the G98 can be equally compelling, especially for movie-themed summer barbeques with esteemed guests. After eating enough day-long smoked ribs, my guests are treated to a movie in my dedicated deco theater that makes them wish they never had to go to the cineplex again. This theater is now powered at its core by a Meridian G98. Before I received the G98, I asked Bob Stewart of Meridian what to expect from the video side of his new G98 player, to which he replied with a playful grin, “Its perfect, broadcast quality.” Anyone who knows Stuart, one of the AV industry’s most important figures, knows he is not one to exaggerate or over-hype his own components like other more flamboyant high-end AV stars. Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait for the boxes to arrive after the CES tradeshow to experience what he was talking about.
I like to reference “Gladiator” (DreamWorks) for its clean transfer, variance in contrasts and pure coloring. I selected DTS Digital Surround over the Dolby Digital 5.1 track due merely to preference. In Chapter 8, “A Soldier’s Death,” the sound of snorting horses and gentle hooves against the leaf-covered loamy dirt was nothing short of amazing. The detail of this entry was the best that I have heard. Visually, the contrast was very high when viewed through my eight-inch CRT analog video projector. Details were crisp and colorful. When I first viewed the Meridian 568’s video capabilities, it was the best that I had the opportunity to view in my system. The G98 added another level of improvement, with color saturation that was truly filmlike. I compared the G98s internal 480P scaler to my reference outboard 720P Faroudja NR series scaler and there was no noticeable difference. Although the scaled resolution was higher with the outboard scaler, the increased clarity from a direct digital feed, with one less cable, seemingly made up for the difference. As the horses race off following Maximus’ (Russell Crowe) escape, the separation and impact was immense. As this scene migrates towards his resting point, there is a gut string classical guitar strumming along with the symphonic blend of instruments. This mix was clear and separated nicely with solid impact.
In Chapter 27, following his final fight, Maximus falls to the ground. This scene is great for motion detail evaluation and contrast. The difference between the blacks in Maximus’s hair and the gleaming light from the sweat in his strands was perfect – again, the best I have viewed. Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie comes as Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), the sister of Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) leans over the dying Maximus in profound sadness, you can focus on single strands of her hair blowing against the candy blue sky. With virtually every player, you will find the slightest stair-stepping in her wind-blown strands, yet with the G98, there are none. It’s absolutely amazing. The curves in the single strands flowed with ease, with no visual artifacts, even when viewed from a mere few feet from the screen. This provided a great view into the video capabilities of the G98. As good as this player is with digital music and movie soundtracks, its best strength is perhaps its video reproduction. It provided a completely filmlike look.
I then took a quick glance at the Avia Guide to Home Theater disc (Ovation). I like to reference the video test patterns in Chapter 7 to see what is happening. I viewed the wedge resolution pattern and saw complete separation between darks and lights with little to no bleed. There was an inherent sharpness between the gray tone lines that was better than I have yet seen. It was clear that the G98’s video was at the top of its game.