Meridian 598 DVD-A/V Player 
Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players
Written by Bryan Southard   
Thursday, 01 May 2003

Introduction
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.

The Music
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.

More Music
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.

The Movies
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.

The Downside
Changing tracks on the 598 was unusually slow. It would typically take a couple of seconds between when you pressed the track-skip button and when the track advanced. I suppose that this isn’t the biggest issue – what’s the hurry? – but I often waited a bit, thinking that the infrared sensor didn’t read, and therefore pushed the button again, later advancing a couple tracks at once. This won’t be an issue for those who employ a little patience, but it might be for serious coffee drinkers.

I had a love/hate relationship with the 598’s remote. This remote is fantastic in many ways, with a plethora of available functions and the best reading sensor system I have seen, but the unit is extraordinarily large. It is far too big to hold in a single hand and not something that found a comfortable resting spot on my lap for extended periods. Its buttons were well-placed and had a great feel, yet due to the size of the remote and the sheer number of options, it could be difficult to navigate in the dark, a problem that is exacerbated by its lack of illumination. It is not uncommon to have remotes that lack backlighting, something that defies logic. Here we have a device that is clearly designed to be operated in either minimal lighting or complete darkness, yet without backlighting, you are forced to navigate by brail.

The Meridian 598 plays virtually every format today from DVD-Audio, to DVD-R and MP3 discs, yet it does not play SACD, a formidable high-resolution audio option. SACD is a competing format and Meridian has as much at stake in the war as any, yet in today’s world, flexibility is the name of the game. The solution, if you have a Meridian 500 series preamp and DVD player digitally connected, is to order your preamp with a 5.1 analog input and use that for SACD from a dedicated SACD player. This is possible because you will connect your DVD player via the proprietary digital connection. Problem solved, with the advantage of being able to use the preamp for bass management. Ah, the best of both worlds.

Conclusion
The Meridian 598 is a player that performs at the highest level in every category. It is hard to argue that DVD-Audio is anything other than the most exciting new format to hit your ear in many years, and right now nobody does DVD-Audio better than Meridian. The 598 plays multi-channel music in ways that have never heard before. If you either haven’t heard DVD-Audio, or haven’t heard it done well, should give this player a listen -- it will reset your expectations and make you rethink your audio upgrade path.

When it comes to movies, this player performs leagues beyond any player that I have had in my system. Its sounds spectacular and its video is deliciously alluring. Colors and images have incredible depth that are lost when I switch back to other high-end players. This is the best video player that I have ever seen. I don’t want to know what the Meridian 800 looks like because I fear I cannot justify the expense; it is hard to believe it gets better than the 598.

When it comes to stereo music, the 598 performs very well. In fact, I prefer it to the much-respected and comparably-priced Mark Levinson 390S CD-only player. It is not the very best-sounding player I have ever heard, a title claimed by the $20,000 Linn Sondek CD12, but it is no slouch in comparison. The Meridian 598 is solidly designed and very reliable. Because of its performance and its wonderful interaction with the Meridian 568.2, I found myself using my A/V system more than ever before. I think that the ease of going from movies to music, in a variety of different formats, all with a single player, was something that drew me to my system more often. If you follow the development of my system over the years via the associated equipment links at the end of reviews, I have long been known for complicated A/V systems with multiple players, something the Meridian combo has changed.

If you are looking for a single player to handle both your movies and music at very close to the highest conceivable level, look no further. You might ask me to lead you towards a combo DVD-Audio/SACD player in its price class that compares solidly, but I can’t. I am afraid the Meridian 598, for what it does, is in a class of its own.
Manufacturer Meridian
Model 598 DVD-A/V Player
Reviewer Bryan Southard





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