Meridian 568.2 Digital Surround Processor 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Bryan Southard   
Monday, 01 September 2003

Introduction
There’s no more important nor complicated component in your A/V system than that of the surround-sound preamp. It is the controls, processor and distribution center of your entire music and movie playback system. A high-performance A/V preamp can make your system sound like an audiophile’s most racy dream while controlling the increasingly complex sources of your system with ease. A poor sounding AV preamp, and they are out there on the market, can make music sound like cats scratching on an aluminum door. A poorly thought-out AV preamp will leave you wishing you had the inputs needed to allow you to keep up with the latest in AV technology like DVD-Audio, SACD, HDTV, component video switching and beyond.

Meridian Audio is renowned for manufacturing audio/video components that perform at the very highest levels, competing directly with the likes of Mark Levinson, Krell, Lexicon, Theta and others that aspire to make the finest AV gear on the planet. The Meridian 568.2 Digital Surround Processor is a cutting-edge, feature-packed A/V preamp that retails for $6,995, or $7,745 outfitted with the Meridian MHR Smart Link option for use with either the Meridian 598 or Reference 800 players. This preamp is entry level for Meridian but finds itself in a marketplace that starts with preamps from Anthem and Sunfire at about half the cost and directly compared to Proceed’s AVPII (which is soon to be branded as a Mark Levinson component) and Krell’s HTS.

Set-Up
I connected the Meridian 598 DVD player (reviewed May 2003) via Meridian’s proprietary Smart Link digital connection. Smart Link allows you to connect a digital component like a DVD player digitally to an AV preamp. Movie studios and record labels fight this kind of technology over copy protection fears, but because the Meridian system is proprietary, they can offer it to the consumer. For audio enthusiasts, avoiding conversion of the digital audio on a DVD-Audio, DVD-Video or CD title before it gets to your AV preamp can be as significant as lifting a blanket from your speakers.

In terms of video switching in my system, my Faroudja NR Series scaler performed all needed switching. I completed the original calibration of the 568.2 on my PC laptop using Meridian’s sexy setup software. Later, my set-up was optimized by our staff expert, world-renowned acoustician Bob Hodas, who made the most of the calculations suggested by his Meyer Sound SIM measurement system.

Meridian provides their homemade software for system set-up. This software needs to be run from a PC (sorry, MAC users), due to the factory-provided, one-meter cable install is most definitely completed from a laptop. The software is impressively powerful and relatively easy to employ for an end user like myself. The Meridian setup software allows for intricate setup options that other preamps only dream about. For instance, when connected via the digital Smart Link connection from the Meridian 598, you can simply program the 568.2 to handle any software in any different manner. You might like DTS-encoded discs to be played in multi-channel with a little more sub and less surround outputs. When programmed, every time it sees a DTS-enabled disc, you will get exactly what you want. This goes for as many source inputs as you desire, allowing you infinite control of everything from your television-based ProLogic signals to your 16/44 music discs. If you like two-channel PCM played in Tri-field (matrixed surround sound for three speakers across the front of your soundstage), consider it done. Once you’ve completed the set-up, it’s as easy as placing a disc in the drawer and letting the 568.2 play. If you are computer savvy enough to use e-mail, you will have no problem with this programming method. However, when making an investment in components at this level, it is 100 percent acceptable to demand that your dealer performs the installation and initial calibration of your gear. This type of service should be considered part of the purchase price of such luxurious A/V componentry.

Features
The Meridian 568.2 combines a completely digital surround sound processor with an ultra-high-performance digital preamplifier in a single chassis. This product type is just the ticket for those who love their music as much as their movies (if not more) and want a no-compromise solution in a minimalist package. And minimalist it is, measuring a mere 12.7 inches in width and 13.1 inches in depth, sitting 3.5 inches tall with a weight of a scant 10 pounds.
The 568.2 will accept both digital and analog sources, and handles all current two-channel and multi-channel formats, including PCM, Dolby Digital, DTS and MPEG. The 568.2 will also accept direct digital feeds from other capable Meridian players.

Inputs are sparse for an A/V controller in comparison to the competition, yet there are enough connections to manage a basic yet high-end A/V system. Available inputs include four 75-ohm RCA digital inputs, compatible with up to 24-bit data, two RCA analog inputs, one stereo 24-bit Delta-Sigma DAC input, and an optional Smart Link connection that accepts encrypted digital information from Meridian players.

As for outputs, there are four 75-ohm digital SPDIF outputs for connection to Meridian digital speakers, four analog stereo 24-bit Delta-Sigma DAC outputs, eight single-ended outputs for peripheral speakers such as surrounds, rears, center speaker and subs, and three balanced outputs for amplification to your main and center loudspeakers. For video, the 568.2 provides a composite video loop with OSD, and a S-Video input which also has OSD. It provides two Meridian communication ports for system control from a single Meridian remote. If your system complexity requires additional connectivity, Meridian offers their 562V.3 Digital Controller and Video Switching unit, which retails for $2,700.

For processing power, the 568.2 incorporates two Motorola 56002 processors running at 66 MHz, two Motorola 56367 processors running at 150 MHz, and a single Motorola 56007 running at 82 MHz. Additionally, there are a host of available accessories from Meridian to optimize your system, ranging from rack parts and beyond. I suggest you consult your retailer for a complete list of accessories, as well as the benefits that accompany them.

What makes a Meridian A/V preamp special is that, unlike most other manufacturers, the company purchases their DSP engines blank and writes the software code in-house. Why is this important? Most A/V companies simply purchase their DSP engines from the likes of Analog Devices, which designs very good processors, but the best engines they have are 32-bit devices. Equally, they are somewhat generic and designed for the masses. Meridian codes theirs with 48-bit precision, creating a considerably more resolute and transparent sound. There is no questioning the considerable benefit of this method, yet the investment is simply one that most companies either can’t afford to make or don’t have the expertise to implement. This method of programming also allows Meridian to update their DSP code to provide the end user with the ability to upload revisions. Later in my evaluation, I will discuss how I put this to the test.

Meridian’s MHR Smart Link connection has given us a revolutionary look at the future of the digital world of consumer audio by allowing a direct digital connection between two digital devices: a DVD player and an A/V preamp. While the music industry has placed restrictions on digital connection at 44 or 48 kHz to best protect itself from piracy, Meridian worked with the governing forum to gain the approval to output multi-channel 24-bit/96 kHz information directly from both their 800 and 598 players, into either the 568.2 or Reference 861 processors.

The 568.2 provides the option of upsampling PCM audio streams to the processors maximum native resolution of 24-bit 96 kHz. There are many players and processors that can accomplish this, yet most will not give you the option. As with the Mark Levinson No. 390S, you do not have the choice. In that case, Madrigal questioned whether any purchasers would ever want to hear music in a lesser resolution. The answer to that is perhaps there are few, but plenty argue that upsampling is not the best for all, if any, PCM music. For this application, Meridian gives the listener the choice.

The Movies and Music
My reference system has historically segregated audio playback from video, due to my unwillingness to compromise my stereo music reproduction for sake of video or multi-channel entertainment. I own the Mark Levinson No. 32 Reference Preamplifier, an outrageously expensive stereo preamp that has defined two-channel performance. The way my system worked was, I would process stereo music through the No. 32 and movies through a second A/V preamp, most recently the Anthem AVM20. This was a great way of staying true to my stereo reproduction, but it made my system complicated and impossible for my spouse to start and operate without considerable and ongoing instruction. The Meridian 568.2 offered me the chance to look at a more simple way to enjoy the best, highest-end playback of audio and video in one chassis. The question is…. is less more in a dedicated high-end system that has developed into a significant home theater and multi-channel music playback system? Only the music and movies will tell.

In March of 1971, the Allman Brothers Band provided one of the most inspired performances the rock world has ever seen. The imported release titled The Fillmore Concerts (Polygram) will stand as one of the greater rock performances of the time. This country blues ensemble defined an entire musical genre, becoming the springboard for such bands as Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws, Molly Hatchet and more. This performance is a painful reminder of what was lost in Duane Allman’s eventual death – a shock to the entire music world. In the song “No Way Out,” from Disc One of this two-disc set, Dickey Betts’ guitar tone and Duane’s infectious slide-tone was revealed superbly. Greg Allman, in my eyes the greatest blues voice of my generation, sounded extremely detailed yet not negatively analytical. His voice had huge depth and was laid back very well without appearing unnecessarily distant or vague. When compared to the Mark Levinson No. 32, which had a slightly greater palpability, the 568.2 sounded more live and, due to the upsampled information, brought you closer to the “live” event. The No. 32 has a little additional depth but less information in the greatest details. The 568.2 was surprisingly pure and endearing. Dickey Betts lead in this song is one of the more classic rock leads ever and was portrayed deliciously. Duane’s slide playing in this song is absolutely mind-boggling in content and was reproduced with exceptional texture and pace. With both the No. 32 and 568.2, the slide tone was sweet and had accurate timbre balance. There were aspects of both that I loved. Again, I found the 568.2 to have slightly more information and life, with the No. 32 taking the clear edge in purity. I must note that the 568.2’s evaluated performance was achieved in combination with the Meridian 598 player, a collaboration that worked with great synergy and coherence.

In the song “Stormy Monday Blues,” written by the master bluesman T. Bone Walker, Greg’s voice again extended itself in complete separation from the speakers. There was detail that was not just present, but seamlessly integrated into the sound field. I played with the different DSP modes throughout the period of evaluation and found that at times I preferred modes other than the simple “stereo” DSP. With this recording, I liked the “music” DSP for its added spaciousness. DSP modes have come a long way, but I have never heard better and more pure DSP selections. The 568.2’s DSP options were more than a manipulated sound – they were an adventure into alternate venues. I found myself toggling between DSP modes to fit my taste for the given listening session, something I would have never dreamed of doing years ago. The 568.2’s DSP options are by far the best that I have ever heard. Never before have I looked upon digital audio “manipulation” as a positive. Meridian pulls off the feat tastefully, even for a discerning ear.

When compared to the best stereo reproduction that my system had yet seen from the likes of the Mark Levinson No. 32 (about $12,000) and Linn Sondek CD12 ($20,000) combo, the Meridian 568.2/598 combo (about $15,000) was right at their coattails. This is a huge endorsement, as the Meridian set-up is so much more versatile and powerful in terms of features and expandability.

Sticking to the blues theme, Eric Clapton and B.B. King’s collaboration Riding With The King (Reprise) is a fantastic 5.1 DVD-Audio release. I went to the irresistible cut “Key To The Highway.” The 568.2 lacked any noticeable negative artifacts when compared to sessions where I played the disc on a more affordable Kenwood DV-5700 player in my Anthem-Mark Levinson rig. The Meridian pairing had a fantastic midrange and great detail in the top end. Its sound could be described as laid-back, but not overly gentle. Its treble was rich and full but also very revealing, without the slightest of edge or etched sound. In this cut, you could literally experience the pure soul exuding from King’s fingertips. I have always been a fan of Clapton but, as I’m sure he would concur, he may never approach the heart and soul of the legendary King. King’s guitar was portrayed in gigantic detail and had the punch and attack of an actual performance. I think I found the most notable improvement over other A/V preamps to be in the quiet sections and its ability to decay naturally. The combination of the 568.2 and 598 was stunning on this recording. I have never before felt closer to reproduced instruments. In the song “Marry Me,” the 568.2 showed hugely percussive impact and dynamic range. Combined with my reference Mark Levinson No. 436 amplifiers, the bass and drums had butt-kicking slam. The drums were very focused and sounded downright mean. The Meridian set-up made multi-channel listening a dramatic adventure – a buzz that far surpasses any audiophile tweak ever invented. It drained more than just information from DVD-Audio recordings, and additionally could portray the feeling you expect to hear exclusively at a live music event.

In the past five years, movies and HDTV have become an increasingly important element of my life, thus I have invested in additional speakers, amps, projectors, screens, etc. In my hours watching films, I have found the movie “Pearl Harbor” (Touchstone) offered the perfect opportunity to evaluate an A/V preamp. In Chapter 22, as the Zeroes made their way towards the harbor, the sounds of the engines were crystal clear and very real. Perhaps more impressive was the finesse and ease with which information was received. The 568.2 could handle an abundance of information while avoiding congestion or any confusion. This needs to be heard to be truly understood and appreciated. I was hearing this soundtrack from a completely new perspective. My concern was no longer how good a particular aspect sounded or how detailed the highs were, but rather how completely cohesive my system sounded as a whole. There was complete separation between the screaming soldiers being terrorized by death all around and the planes overhead. As they swam through the water and bullets ripped all around, the subtle detail made me feel as if I were in the water. This was a very impressive segment that completely moved me, clearly the best cinema sound that I have experienced. It scares me to think that the Meridian 861 could even be that much better, but I am going to get a chance to hear it in my system very soon.

The Downside
Some may applaud the diminutive size of the 568.2. I think that it is a little too small, or at least too narrow. I see little reason why it doesn’t extend to the full rack width. This wouldn’t be an issue, except that it limits the real estate necessary for ample connections, forcing you to purchase a second unit to handle anything more than the most basic connections. By basic, I mean that you lack the inputs to run multiple players and your game machine at the same time. Most A/V preamps today provide more connectivity than you could dream of ever using, yet the 568.2 is decidedly sparse. However, with the purchase of a Meridian 562V.3 at $2,700 and a separate chassis, you will have all the switching and connections you will need, albeit obviously at an additional cost.

Although I found Meridian’s set-up software a joy and the next best thing to sliced bread, it requires a portable PC. This software is also Windows-based, which means that Mac users (reports say as many as 11.5 percent of the installed computers out there run a Mac OS and maybe an even higher number of potential Meridian clients, considering Mac’s lifestyle advantages) are out of luck. Set-up from the face of the unit is possible, but so cumbersome that you will go out and buy a portable PC out of sheer frustration. I simply recommend you purchase any Meridian new from an authorized dealer and insist that they set it up for you. If you are buying Meridian used, factor into your price working with a local dealer to make sure your system is up to date with the latest software and programmed for your specific system.

As mentioned in the Meridian 598 review, I had a love/hate relationship with the Meridian remote. On one hand, it is large and uncomfortable to handle, yet on the other hand, its layout is nice and it controls your entire system. It has the best reading IR sensors that I have yet seen, registering inputs from the oddest and farthest angles in your room, and is frankly simple to use. My final verdict on this remote is a thumbs-up, yet others will undoubtedly give it a thumbs-down. One thing that you cannot deny is the ease of control when manipulating both the Meridian player and preamp. My largest annoyance is the remote’s lack of backlighting. This is a huge downside, in that this is a video product, and video is viewed in the dark. Meridian is not alone in this flaw, as many A/V manufacturers skip this detail, yet it is my belief that the A/V industry needs to immediately backlight their remotes.

Conclusion
The Meridian 568.2 falls into an interesting price point. At $6,995 to $7,745, it is expensive in relative terms but a value when you consider what it does and how well it does it at its price point. I would guess more than 50 percent of users must factor in the additional cost of $2,700 for the Meridian 562V.3 Digital Controller for ample video switching. This brings a fully loaded 568.2 in closer to Lexicon’s MC12 preamp than Proceed or Krell’s units in terms of price. In terms of performance and cool factor, the 568.2 is in a league of its own.

For multi-channel music and movies, the 568.2 performed phenomenally well. It supplied enormous detail and musicality. When auditioning standard CDs, The 568.2 compared favorably to the absolute best two-channel preamps available today – cost no object. I found the audio performance of the 568.2 to be one of its strongest advantages. While DVD-Audio and SACD are exciting and something I would not live without these days, let’s not forget that the majority of music that we now own, and possibly will ever own, still remains on CD. Add in studio grade upsampling and tasteful DSP modes like Trifield, and you give even more value and life to your old record collection.

The 568.2 handled DVD-Audio with perfection and movies sounded simply magnificent. The Meridian 568.2 is a preamp that performs and reproduces every format without compromise. It proved to be easy to operate, easy to set up and, most importantly, it made music and movies hugely enjoyable. Unless you have the nearly $20,000 for the Meridian 861, you can consider the Meridian 568.2 to be one of the top five best AV preamps on the market and the perfect segue for the audiophile looking to do more with his or her system, without compromising audio quality. There is no compromise in a Meridian 568.2.
Manufacturer Meridian
Model 568.2 Digital Surround Processor
Reviewer Bryan Southard





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