Meridian G68 Digital Surround Controller 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Bryan Southard   
Sunday, 01 May 2005

Introduction
There is no piece more important to your home theater than your AV preamp. It is the brains, the heart and the soul of your entire AV system. It’s your system’s interface, switching unit and arguably the piece of gear that is more responsible for the sound of your system than any other. If your surround controller is easy to use and sounds great, your system will sing – anything less than that and you could be riddled with frustration and/or stuck with sound that doesn’t meet the standards you should expect when making a significant investment in high-performance audio/video electronics. I have had most of today’s best surround preamps in my system and have determined that this is the area where you least want to short yourself.

At first glance, all comparably-priced surround controllers appear similar, yet when you are able to live with them for an extended period, you’ll find specific likes and dislikes in all areas of ownership. Important factors are ease of control and sonic performance for not just a couple but rather every format you own or aspire to own.

The Meridian G68 Digital Surround Controller is an amazingly sophisticated surround processor that packs a ton of processing power, provides room correction and has real-world features such as an AM/FM tuner, broadcast quality video switching and intelligent source decoding, just to name a few. It sells for between $6,995 and $8,995, depending on the configuration.

The look of the G-Series is completely revamped in a very positive way. Larger and nicer-feeling paddle-like toggles have replaced the thin bar-like buttons of the 568. The display is larger and provides more information. The chassis is now full width and has a much nicer finish to it. G-Series chasses come in either pearly silver or all black finish that is many times nicer than the older Meridian finishes. The chassis has the familiar Meridian 800 Series smoked glass top to accent its new look. As a former 568 user, my favorite change is the addition of a new rotary volume control on the right front face, giving you old style flexibility for volume and setting changes with a silky yet solid feel.

The G68 measures a standard rack width of 17.32 inches wide, 13.78 inches deep and a 3U rack height of five-and-one-quarter inches, with an overall weight is 22 pounds. There is also a new rack-mount kit for the G-series, complete with black-brushed aluminum faceplates, fans in the trays and front side connectivity for convenient connection to camcorders and other peripheral gear. The Meridian G Series rack-mount kit retails for $499.

The Meridian System remote is all new and has major improvements over its predecessor. The remote is silver aluminum-faced and provides full functionality. The Meridian remote has always been relatively large at eight inches by four-and-a-half inches, but this has never been an issue for me because it is functionally superior to other remotes at the price point. New for the G-Series is superb backlighting and larger square-shaped buttons. Similar to the system remote of past, the new remote has the best infrared reach of any remote I have seen. It will contact the G68 when pointed in any direction, regardless of reflective surfaces. It worked for me like an RF remote when in the same room as the controller.

Set-up
For the past couple of years, I have referenced the Meridian 568/598 player/processor combo in my main AV system. For the purpose of this review, Meridian thoughtfully flew out their in-house pro, Marc Koval, to help me with the set-up. Basically, there are two ways to configure the G68. You can do so either from the front panel or from the remote control, using the front panel or OSD. But the better and more sophisticated way is to use Meridian’s PC/Windows-based software, connected to the G68 from your laptop through a serial cable. This software program is very intelligent and walks you through the set-up, showing you schematically what you are connecting. However, as intuitive as this program is, it’s not for amateurs who aren’t really proficient with computers and proprietary software. As always, I recommend that you make sure your local retailer helps you with the configuration of your G68. When you buy Meridian, you are paying for professional set-up, so you should take advantage of it.

Features
The G68 is packed with features that you would expect from a preamp of the Meridian brand at such a price. Few deny the effect of poor room acoustics on an AV system. Because most AV systems go into living rooms rather than professionally-treated recording studios, the G68 provides pretty powerful room correction. Getting started is as simple as placing the provided microphone and beginning the set-up sequence. The G68 will then read the test signals in your room and compensate for bumps and dips in your sound spectrum. This serves to help blend the upper and lower frequencies for a more coherent and balanced response. Once pooh-poohed by snotty audiophile magazines, room correction today makes more sense to music and movie lovers with ears and the desire to get the most from their AV investment as it is installed in their rooms.

Like many AV processors today, the G68 provides video switching for your video sources. The G68 does it better than perhaps any AV preamp I have ever seen, reviewed or tested. The G68 provides broadcast quality pass-through so good that is damn near impossible for me to tell the difference between the source direct into my Vidikron Vision Two eight-inch CRT projector and running through the G68.

The G68 has what is perhaps one of the more overlooked features of the last few decades, an AM/FM tuner. You may be questioning the relevance of an AM/FM tuner in these days of satellite radio, such as XM and Sirius, yet it’s a real format that provides content. I use it to listen to a few local radio shows, some Giants games and even some non-right-leaning morning talk occasionally. I lived without a tuner for many years, so its return was welcome. Understanding how much better terrestrial radio is in Europe than in the States also points you as to why there is a tuner installed. FM is still a meaningful way to learn about and listen to music across the pond.

When the G68 is fed from either the Meridian G98, 800 or 598 player via SmartLink, Meridian’s proprietary encrypted digital connection, it has what Meridian calls their Smart Source feature. This feature monitors the digital input signal and automatically defaults to the proper decoding software and personal settings. What this means is that when you go through the set-up, you can program the G68 to handle each format differently. If you listen to DVD-Audio, find that you are annoyed with abundant rear channel information and want to lower its output, you can program the G68 so that when it sees DVD-Audio information, it automatically defaults to, say, minus three dB. Or if you find that you like more rear or center information during movies, you can set the G68 so that when it detects a Dolby Digital signal, it automatically loads your settings. I set up the G68 so that it has sub for DVD-Audio and movies and no sub for CD playback. Many set the G68 to add sub to CDs and default to Meridian’s Trifield mode, creating sort of a three-channel stereo mix. Beyond the flexibility of the programming and the ease of use, the most important feature of Smart Link is its sound. Many AV preamps today require an additional level of analog to digital conversion from your DVD player to your preamp. DVD is a digital format and, on a Meridian system, you keep your digital audio in a digital format until the AV preamp. Less has always been more in high-end audio reproduction – that is, until some record exec gets paranoid about you stealing a song. Meridian’s system gets you around the problem and keeps you close to the music that is mixed and mastered on the disc. This is one of the best reasons why the Meridian G Series sounds so good for both music and video playback, explaining its use in mastering labs and recording studios all over the world.

Another key to the G68’s sonic success is its vast processing power. The preamp uses five Motorola 56367DSP chips, which operate at 150 MHz, delivering over 750 million instructions per second. They process at 48-bit precision throughout. This assures that DSP processing is done outside your audible range and provides the best possible sonic performance. The Meridian G68 is a digital processor, so it automatically converts analog signals to digital, using a 24-Bit Delta Sigma converter. The digital signal is automatically re-clocked to reduce digital timing errors known as jitter. The difference between the best and the worst-sounding digital signals is often associated with jitter and the G68 does a great job in circumventing this issue. The benefits of this conversion are that you can therefore turn two-channel CD music into surround or three-channel Trifield and so on.

The G68 provides all of the current DSP modes. In the past, just the mention of DSP for anything other than movies made my skin crawl. The thought of the ancient “Stadium” and “Hall” modes brings back bad memories. Let me go on record by saying that Meridian’s DSP modes are the real deal and are in a league of their own. Among these DSP modes are Direct, Trifield, Music Logic, THX, Dolby Digital, Digital THX, DTS, DTS THX and many more. As you experiment with the different DSP modes, you are treated to a new perspective on the highest sonic quality, allowing you to enjoy your sub and expensive center and rear speakers, even if mainstream record labels are slow to mix your favorite music for discrete 5.1 surround sound.

Inputs and Outputs
Meridian has four different versions of the G68, depending on your system requirements. All configurations come with a huge array of connectivity. Gone are the woes of the 568’s lack of available real estate to provide all the necessary connections. The back of the G68 is loaded with a plethora of available connections, depending on your model. The four G68 models are only differentiated by the connections provided. The right option depends on your connection needs, such as balanced I/O, digital and analog connectivity and more.

The Music
I began my listening tests with one of my favorite DVD-Audio discs, Crosby – Nash’s Another Stoney Evening, recorded at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles back in October of 1971. Following the fame generated from their first major public showing at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, as a trio including Stephen Stills, this recording was billed as “the loosest show on Earth.” This is a great pressing full of acoustic guitars and harmonizing vocals. In the opening cut “Déjà Vu,” Graham Nash’s acoustic solo has incredibly realistic impact and decaying sustain. Being a great fan of Martin guitars, the distinct sound of the two guitars is absolutely infectious. Graham’s guitar has solid projection and tone. I found a particular fondness for the sound of his open sting buzz and its ensuing resonance. At the conclusion of this tune leading into “Wooden Ships,” the crowd’s applause remains very well shaped and, although in the distance, very detailed and impactful. In this song, voices are sweet and focused without becoming analytical. The G68 has a relaxed liquidity without sounding dull or soft. I took a liking to the sound immediately. The G68 provides a better sense of live impact than I have heard from a multi-channel preamp while remaining sweet and effortless. As the vocals in the cut start in, there is a nice blend of harmonies while the voices remain distinctively separate, exactly as they would in a live unamplified acoustic performance. In the song “Triad,” the vocals are nicely centered and realistically textured. Nash’s vintage Martin is open and immediate and has a fantastic percussive feel. I next listened to this tune using the stereo PCM track in 24/192 and, although there are areas of improved instrumental focus, overall the MLP version is more live and the vocals better positioned.

Chicago’s first album, released in 1969 under the name Chicago’s Transit Authority, proved to the world that happening horns belonged in a real rock band. This record was one that shaped the earliest years of my life with its powerful ballads comprised of solid guitar and horns. On Chicago’s 2002 CD release, The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning and the song “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (Rhino), the piano in the intro is well formed and has a nice percussive body, as live piano does. This recording has sounded flat to me on other systems, but through the Meridian G68 via the G98, this recording is more energetic and full of life. Horns are detailed and solid while displaying a sense of ease and effortless attack. Subtle details like the background vocals develop well and are extremely complimentary, rather than a distraction to the music. This is clearly the best I have heard this CD sound on any system.

To best test the G68’s analog inputs, I reached for the incredible, remastered 30th anniversary LP release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (EMI). This heavy virgin vinyl version is a true masterpiece and one of the best newly mastered LPs I have heard. On “Money,” there is information all over the stage, from the sound of change rattling to chimes; the G68 delineates the information extremely well. Gilmore’s guitar sounds, from his echoed Stratocaster tones to the clean-sounding whah strums, are reproduced to perfection. I was initially skeptical about the analog information being converted to digital, but the G68 does a great job and the information is detailed, presented without any noticeable digital artifacts. The guitar part in this song goes down as one of the better signature leads in rock. The G68 provides vinyl with a rare blend of articulation and detail, without any sign of analog jitter or synthetic overtone.

The movie “Ray” was one of last year’s surprise hits in the theater, one that was recognized solidly by the Academy of Motion Pictures for its heartfelt view into one of the last century’s greatest musical geniuses. In Chapter 19 of the DVD, Ray (Jamie Foxx in his Oscar-winning performance) moves from Atlantic Records, the company that put him on the map, to ABC, which makes him an unprecedented financial offer. Ray then collaborates with a full orchestra for the tune “Georgia on My Mind,” a sonic masterpiece that the G68 provides in full splendor. The emotion in this song is captured incredibly as Ray proceeds to own the audience. The video in this movie was a good test for the Meridian G-Series. The cast’s dark skin tones and jet black hair is displayed with fantastic contrast through my CRT projector. In the review of the Meridian G98, I decisively remarked that the G98 provided the best-looking video I’ve seen. Through the G68, it was a blend of sonic genius and video heaven. This may sound like too much praise, but the Meridian G68/G98 combo is that good. One look at the video representation of this combo and you will be hooked yourself.

The Downside
The G68 is a powerful digital surround controller and the set-up can be a challenge for the do-it-yourselfer. As suggested earlier, I had the luxury of having Meridian do the set-up at my home. When you purchase from your local retailer, they will undoubtedly come to your home to set you up. However, the fact remains that changes to the set-up are not child’s play. It requires knowledge and an aptitude for high-tech manuals. Some will relish the flexibility, yet others will likely find frustration. As stated earlier, it is most advisable to have a Meridian dealer complete your set-up.

The G68 comes in several different configurations, based on your input and output needs. I applaud Meridian for providing this flexibility, yet on the other hand, many could someday find that their needs have changed and may require modification or replacement. With the proper choice, this set-up is so good that you might never make a change, thus negating the relevance of this concern.

Conclusion
I have had the distinct privilege over the years of auditioning some of the best gear the world has to offer. Over time, my interests in AV have evolved from more traditional two-channel playback to full multi-channel playback for both music and home theater. There was a time where I kept two completely different systems, one for music and another for movies, to avoid polluting my cherished music playback. Thanks to a short list of companies like Meridian, I can now enjoy one multi-channel set-up that’s worthy to reproduce all formats at the highest level. I can have one central system that reaches complete audio/video nirvana from a single chair.

As mentioned earlier, I have been referencing the Meridian 568/598 for a few years now and, other than a few nuances, it is fantastic. The Meridian G68/G98 combination has completely eclipsed the performance of the 5 Series with far better sound, more connectivity, a better physical look and video that is the best this industry has to offer, bar none. From DVD-A to SACD and movies, as well as CD and LP playback, the G68 remains detailed and open, articulate yet liquid and effortless in every aspect.

At its price, the Meridian G68 is one of the finest AV preamps money can buy – and money can buy you a preamp costing upwards of $20,000 or even $30,000 at the ultra-high price points in the home theater industry today. For music, this combo performs with effortless perfection and handles movies with equal grace. Regarding video quality, I can’t say enough. If you have a local retailer and can afford this level of performance, don’t miss the opportunity to audition the pair. An AVR Top 100 Award for the G68 and G98 are no-brainers, if I have any say (and I do). The question is, when considering dollar for dollar value, are they better than the $50,000 Meridian 800-861 combination that AVR’s publisher uses as his reference? I am sure we will be arguing about this towards the end of 2005 as we pick the best products of the year.
Manufacturer Meridian
Model G68 Digital Surround Controller
Reviewer Bryan Southard





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