Meridian G98 DVD/CD Transport 
Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players
Written by Bryan Southard   
Friday, 01 April 2005

Introduction
Some look at music and movies as a way to pass time and fill their otherwise silent world with time-consuming chatter. Others look upon them as two of the world’s more precious forms of art. If you have found this review, we know which camp you’re in. For nearly 30 years, Meridian has been dedicated to creating products that excite the senses of those who crave the aural perfection of a live musical performance or a home theater experience that rivals the look of film. The G Series is the newest and most affordable line of products from Meridian that leverages state-of-the-art technology from Meridian’s flagship line, the reference-level 800 series, into smaller and more affordable gear that is more within the reach of many music and home theater enthusiasts. The G98 is an ultra-high-performance CD/DVD transport, complete with a powerful video processor and scaler capable of displaying broadcast quality video at a retail price of $5,995 to $6,495, depending on player configuration.

The G Series comes with a bold new look that is, in my eyes, a huge improvement over its predecessor, the 500 Series. Although I never disliked the traditional black face of Meridian gear of the past, the G series comes dressed in silver with a dark glass top reminiscent of the 500 series. Gone are the thin vertical bar-like buttons, replaced with larger paddle-style buttons. The interface of the G series is all new, with a bigger and bolder vacuum fluorescent display that can be read from quite far away. The overall feel is solid and the fit and finish is amongst the very best this industry has to offer. The transport tray is smooth and silent and the buttons have a silky touch.

The remote is similar to the large Meridian remotes of the past, which I have always loved. However, the new remotes are covered in metal, nicely backlit and have superb infrared reach. I found that I could push a button from anywhere in my room, with the remote facing any direction, and the unit picked up the signal. The new Meridian remote is the best factory remote in the industry.

In this price range, there are few competitors for the Meridian G98 – in fact, with some of the features on this unit, there are almost no equals, let alone superiors. The G98 comes in two basic configurations, the G98DH and G98AH. The difference between the two is that the G98DH has Meridian’s MHR Digital SmartLink, which allows it to speak to a capable Meridian Surround Controller in the digital domain, eliminating a level of D/A and A/D conversion. This connection is made using encrypted data for a higher level of decoding and reproduction. The SmartLink also provides the Meridian Preamp/Controller with signal source information, so it can switch processing modes automatically. What this means is that you can set up different configurations for DVD-Audio and DTS Music playback, just to name a few possibilities. When you play the disc, the controller can sense the format and default to your preferred settings. Since I currently have the G98DH connected to the G68 surround processor, I can decide that I want more sub with DTS and no sub with CDs, so when I push play, the system automatically knows the format and provides me with my desired output. The G98AH is designed without the digital SmartLink connection and provides analog outputs for use in any surround processor.

Having used the Meridian 598 and 568 as my reference source and preamp for more than two years now, I am quite familiar with Meridian’s strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the biggest weakness for me was the limited width of the 500 series, which left me short of the necessary connections to maximize my system options. To remedy this, Meridian sold an outboard chassis that provided the additional connections. All new with the G series is a wider rack-mountable chassis measuring 17.32 wide, 13.78 deep and a 2U rack height of 3.5 inches. The new wider chassis is complete with all the connections that you could desire. These include three digital coax outputs for the MHR SmartLink feature, a digital 15 Pin D-Sub connector output, a digital coax auxiliary output and HDMI out. Since the G98 has an internal video processor/scaler, complete with Faroudja DCDi de-interlacing technology, it provides inputs for outboard components such as TV, games, etc. Included are two composite inputs, one component input and three S-Video inputs, along with a HDMI output that supports 480P, 576P, 720P and 1080i.

The G98 supports most current digital formats, including DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, DVD-R, VCD, CVCD, CD/DVD-AV (Dual Disc). The only format notably missing is SACD. Conspiracy theorists have rumored that its omission was political, yet the facts are much more simple than that. With a few audiophile record labels as exceptions, the audiophile cult has moved on from SACD to DualDisc, so that they can add video to their offerings, as well as migrate their discs from the audiophile section of the record store to the more traditional CD bins.

The Music
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.

The Movies
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.

The Downside
A product like this has few downsides, although it is my duty to nitpick. As SACD playback is featured on other players at this price level, this lack in the G98 is something hardcore audiophiles may frown on. As a reviewer, I still need to have an SACD player of some sort in my system for reference purposes. Most consumers at this point can skip it or keep their older SACD players. I am pretty sure we have seen the end of the SACD movement, with major labels and indies moving towards DualDisc. Nevertheless, in comparison with other players, you get SACD playback in one chassis, which is both convenient and adds value to a player at this price.

Programming the G98 can be difficult for the non-technocrat and even a Meridian-savvy end user might need some support. With the price of a G98, it should be expected that your dealer will take care of you when setting up a G98. Make no mistake, this is no DVD player from Costco that you can plunk down and have rolling in three minutes. At the same time, you can craft the settings for the G98 in ways and to levels you can’t find on other high-end DVD players, which is a great advantage. What some do-it-yourselfers may consider a disadvantage is the fact that they aren’t as in control of their gear when they aren’t setting it up themselves. If this describes your sentiments, Meridian is more than willing to talk you through the steps on the phone. Their customer service and support from the Atlanta offices are topnotch.

Although connectivity is hugely improved over the 598, the back of the Meridian G98 is still very tight and awkward. Initial installation is not so bad, but getting back behind my rack for changes proved to be a tedious task. This brings us back to your retailer or custom installer doing your set-up. I think it should be their problem to make your system wire up perfectly. That is what you are paying them for, isn’t it?

Conclusion
For many, investing $6,000 in a DVD player seems absolutely absurd. I’m commonly asked whether the average person could even tell the difference. The best answer comes from actually sitting the questioner down and showing what the player can do for music and movie playback. In less than five minutes, doubters are sold on the value of having a good source component driving your home theater system.

The performance of this player is noteworthy from every aspect. The video that comes from this player is nothing short of remarkable. Meridian went to great lengths to perfect the video section and it is a complete success. As a CD music source, there are players out there that perform at a slightly higher level, but no other DVD/CD player that I have seen or heard other than the pricey Meridian 800 outperforms the G98. With the combination of the world’s best video scaler manufacturer and Meridian, a company that has mastered the digital domain for AV, you have a player that outperforms its class.

There is no comparably-priced player that I have seen that can touch the G98’s video prowess, combined with its stereo and multi-channel audio playback. Even at its price, this player must be considered a value and among a handful of best source components available today for home theater at any price. If you love music or want to see DVDs as close to the source as possible, the Meridian G98 is where you should splurge for your system, even if it is the only Meridian component you buy.
Manufacturer Meridian
Model G98 DVD/CD Transport
Reviewer Bryan Southard





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