Meridian 861 Version 4 AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Thursday, 01 April 2004

Introduction
A lot of promises are made by high end audio-video companies. The highest performance, the best value, the latest features and best of all products that are “future-proof.” I hate to break it to the industry, but there is no such concept as a future-proof AV component in any category – preamps, speakers, sources, etc. The closest I have found to something future-proof so far is Meridian’s flagship AV preamp, the 861. Now in its fourth version, Meridian’s 861 boasts even more features in its single chassis, including automated room correction and a direct, proprietary digital connection between their DVD-Audio/Video players and the preamp.

The Meridian 861 is a vastly powerful AV preamp that can be configured any number of ways. It has balanced outputs, unbalanced inputs, component video cards, digital input cards and a powerfull new DSP card that facilitates Meridian Room Correction in conjunction with the new version 4 Meridian software. The pricing starts at around $16,000 and can top $20,000 when fully loaded. My review unit came loaded with everything but the room correction card, so after a few months my 861 went back to Atlanta, home of Meridian America (the head office and factory is in Huntingdon, England), for a quick upgrade. I also ordered my unit specifically for rack use, which is important because the standard chassis and faceplate need to be modified to fit perfectly in a rack.

Set-Up
The 861 is an expensive component and if you are dropping the kind of cash required to call an 861 yours, then your dealer is required to program your preamp and make it really sing. There are some user-friendly buttons on the front of the unit, but all Meridian gear is best programmed using a PC. Their software is very robust and allows a tech-savvy end user or a dealer to dial in every last detail of your system, from the name of your inputs to the distance of your speakers from your listening position to the type of surround sound that you would most like to hear on your TiVo.

Meridian’s vice-president of technology, Marc Koval, came to my house to get my 861 firing on all cylinders. The process, including setting up the room correction card, took the pro about one hour. Most of the time was spent figuring out what cables to use for what sources, since I had changed preamps twice in recent months. We assigned different sources like TiVo and VCRs and sound for HDTV to the best possible inputs. We created three separate inputs for the Meridian 800 player: one for DVD movies, one for DVD-Audio and another for CD. They all have different inputs and default surround sound options, which now automatically come on just the way I like them.

The Meridian Room Correction that is part of the version 4 software is another good example of Meridian keeping their promise to their best clients. It allows for notch filtering in the lower frequencies in order to deal with some of the most common room maladies right in your preamp and neatly in the digital domain. You do need a PC and a sound pressure meter to make the room correction software run. After about 30 minutes of test tones (during which you need to stay really quiet to avoid messing up the measurements), the Meridian software was able to find only a few places it wanted to add filters. I was surprised to see so few changes, considering my speaker placement had been completely changed since room tuning guru Bob Hodas had last been to my room. Moreover, I think my room is physically pretty lame. The Meridian 861 disagrees. With the notch filters easily switched on and off, I was able to hear the changes, and you wouldn’t want to live without them. What I learned when working with Marc Koval was the fact that Meridian’s room correction doesn’t deal with any high-frequency issues. I have been using room correction and EQ in my systems for nearly 10 years and one of the things I like to do is roll down the highest frequencies of my Wilson WATT Puppies to the slightest level. Bob and I now use Meyers Sound professional analog EQs between the outputs of my preamp and my power amps. What that system can’t do is roll down the tweeter in my Wilson WATCH center speaker. In order to do that, I will need another stereo analog EQ just for the center speaker. While this will help make DVD-Audio, SACD in surround and movie soundtracks sound better, it is an expensive option. Nevertheless, the Meridian room correction is a great new feature for the technology-laden preamp. I wouldn’t opt out of it, and if you have an older unit, I would surely order the upgrade from a dealer immediately.

Digital Connection For DVD-Audio (and digital video?)
AudioRevolution.com readers wonder why every AV company can’t make connecting DVD-Audio players this simple. Most DVD-Audio players need a total of eight cables to make the player work: six RCA analog audio cables, one digital audio cable for digital audio for DVD-Video, DTS CDs etc and an analog video cable. Some newer players even have a digital video cable (a very, very cool feature), which means potentially even more cables to connect a DVD player to a preamp.

Meridian’s got a better way to connect their players to their preamps. Using three coax digital cables, you can connect a Meridian player with the digital audio output option to a Meridian preamp with the digital input card. This only works between Meridian components, but it does remove an entire level of analog to digital conversion. Don’t think for a second that this is a small issue in terms of sound quality – it is huge. It is tantamount to removing a big heavy spare tire and a few lead bricks from a race car. One of the reasons why the Meridian is one of the best-sounding preamps in the world is because it gets straight digital rocket fuel coming in from Meridian DVD players, delivered in ways every other high-end company has yet to figure out how to do.

Other Bells and Whistles
The 861 is a software-driven preamp that now has all of the coolest surround sound processing features: THX EX, DTS ES, Pro Logic II and many more. One of the areas the 861 really excels in is its own surround sound processing. Meridian’s Trifield is my absolute favorite processing mode of any preamp I have ever owned or played with. Trifield takes a stereo signal and reprocesses for playback in the front three speakers and the subwoofer. This is perfect for stereo SACDs and traditional CDs specifically because Trifield sounds so good. Gone are the days of the “church” and “stadium” fields from those Yamaha receivers circa 1991. Meridian’s surround sound processing is at a level we couldn’t have even dreamed of then.

Meridian has a new remote. The old one looked cool, but it was really dated. It was not backlit and required two hands to use. The new one still needs two hands, but it’s far more intuitive and easy to use. In a darkened room, all of the buttons light up. Making the 861 and the 800 jump through hoops is pretty simple. The old remote got tossed in the trash by Marc Koval. Anyone with an 800 or 861 that doesn’t have an AMX or Crestron should order a new remote from a Meridian dealer and also toss their old remote in the recycle bin.

The Music
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.

The Downside
The 861 does things other high end preamps wish they could, but the preamp is not perfect. For starters, there are no knobs on the front of the unit. In using the machine, the lack of buttons makes things difficult to operate sometimes. Knobs have found their way onto the new, more affordable G Series Meridian gear after 20 years of knobless gear from the digital AV leader. When programming the name on an input, you can only input five letters. Other high-end preamps allow you the ability to customize the name of your inputs more accurately.

While setting up the Meridian 861 with a PC is a powerful experience, I feel that the average high-end guy doesn’t have as much control over the unit as he would with other high-end preamps, unless he dedicates himself to making himself proficient with the Meridian software. It is certainly not impossible for those who are motivated, and Meridian America is really good about giving support over the phone. In the end, your dealer should be the one who runs the programming into your 861 just as Marc programmed mine.

Video transcoding is a really nice feature found on the Mark Levinson No. 40. The No. 40 is as much as $13,000 more in price and is currently not in production. I personally have a No. 40 and the video transcoding is a really nice feature. It allows you to convert video signals from anything to whatever format you might want. In my case, I output all of my video sources to component video right into my Faroudja NRS. This works a little better than with the Meridian 861, because you don’t have to switch inputs on your preamp as often as I have to with the 861. I have an AMX remote system on order, which will do all of this switching automatically, so this issue might become moot for me. However, for now it is one feature I would love to see make its way to the Meridian 861.

Conclusion
I give the Meridian the highest grade as an AV preamp. Its audio heritage is purebred and you can hear how it excels over all of its competitors, above and below its price. As a system, the Meridian Digital Theater is a force to be reckoned with. It is the most simple, most high-performance route to music and home theater soundtrack playback. As a front end, the Meridian 800-861 pairing is truly impressive. Its technological advantages over the competition are many. The digital audio connection is the kind of technology that gets audiophiles to join a 12-step program and get with the world of multi-channel music and home theater. DVI and HDMI video switching is going to make the 861 even more powerful.

Most important in endorsing the Meridian 861 as one of the single finest audio-video components in the entire world is the fact that Meridian has kept their promises to their early adopters who bought 861s when they first came out. This product remains relevant – scratch that – cutting-edge years after its introduction and continues to get better. For the music fan who wants to get more from his collection of stereo recordings, the 861 is a champion. For the home theater enthusiast who wants to hear every possible detail in a movie soundtrack, the 861 is up to the challenge. This is one hell of a preamp.
Manufacturer Meridian
Model 861 Version 4 AV Preamplifier
Reviewer





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