Meridian 800 CD/DVD-A/V Player 
Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Sunday, 01 October 2000

Meridian’s 800 is their flagship source component, responsible for reference level playback of compact discs, DVD-Video discs, DVD-Audio discs and beyond. The 800, like its AV preamp brother, the Meridian 861, is vastly configurable and highly programmable, allowing the end user to elicit incredible playback feats with true ease. Pricing starts at $19,440 for a basic CD/DVD transport, while a fully loaded unit complete with 5.1 analog outputs, Meridian’s proprietary digital output and an internal video processor weighs in closer to $25,000.

Music lovers dedicated to stereo-only playback can use the 800 as a CD player and/or high-performance audio preamp that drives the owner’s existing high-end stereo amplifier(s) and speakers. Alternatively, the 800 can be directly and digitally connected to Meridian’s cutting edge digital speakers. If you subscribe to the less is more theory, these configuration options are as good as it gets, and if you are simplifying a stereo system, you can sell off your DAC and stereo preamp in order to finance an investment in an 800.

For movie and surround sound buffs, the Meridian 800 is the highest end of high-end playback devices. The 800 will play DVD-Video discs, CDRs, CDs, DVD-Audio discs and others without missing a beat. Physically, the component is dressed elegantly in black and stands four rack spaces tall. The 800 has a rack mount kit for more permanent installations, which is an option I quickly learned I needed for my system. The theme of simplicity is best expressed on the front of the unit, where the single disc tray opens and shuts via a stealth opening on the front left section of the faceplate. Just to the right of the tray are the basic component controls like “play,” “pause,” “stop,” “fast forward” and “off.” These controls are available to the touch on the front of the unit. Directly above the hard buttons is another level of player controls that are hidden by a slick panel that flips up. Pressing anywhere on this panel unveils options for menu navigation, level controls and more. Above the secret panel is a digital readout that displays track and/or chapter information and more with a modern green glow.

Meridian is no newcomer to the high-end market. Their products, unlike many from other highly-touted companies in the industry, truly live up to their promises of upgradeability. When investing this kind of coin on a source component, you would be crazy to expect anything less, but it is not uncommon to quickly find the end of the road with pricey AV gear as new formats and feature sets are announced. There was a point early on when the 800 didn’t offer DTS decoding, but it does now. It didn’t always allow high-resolution digital connectivity with the 861 preamp, which it also does now. However, one oft-requested upgrade is the addition of SACD playback, which will likely never grace the feature sets of the 800. While on the surface it looks like a political play by Meridian, which authored MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) that powers the best DVD-Audio has to offer, the truth is that DSD and MLP reportedly need separate processing in order to be truly high-end components. Therefore, adding SACD to the 800 would be cost prohibitive. If Meridian were to do an SACD player, they say it would be a separate component. For now (and maybe forever), they are strongly behind the DVD-Audio format.

One of the most unique features of the Meridian 800 is its high-resolution, proprietary digital connection from the 800 to another Meridian AV preamp (or Meridian digital speakers). Normally, DVD-Audio (and SACD players, too, for that matter) is required to be hooked up using six analog audio connectors into a six-channel input on your receiver and/or preamp. The purpose of this is to deter people from stealing the music and is mandated by the record labels. To this day, there still is no standard for which a DVD-Audio or SACD player from Brand A can be digitally connected to an AV preamp or receiver from Brand B. That is, unless a manufacturer has its own special connection between players and that is exactly what Meridian has with the latest version of the 800. You can order a digital connection card for your 800 and 861 (at an additional cost) that makes your system so much simpler to connect. But the system’s best advantage with this innovation isn’t simplicity – it’s performance. In the standard hook-up scenario, you have to convert the digital information on a DVD-Audio disc to analog (six channels) and run it into your AV preamp, which then converts it back to digital, processes it and then takes it back to analog again, so your amps and speakers can have their way with the sound. With a directly digital connection to your AV preamp, you eliminate an entire level of A to D and D to A conversion from your audio system, which is tantamount to removing 1,000 pounds from your Porsche 911 before you test for zero to 60 times on a race track. Direct digital audio connections are a big deal and are what customers should demand for their gear. Six-channel analog doesn’t provide the copy protection that the record labels think it does, but it does keep people from investing in DVD-Audio and/or SACD, which is a shame.

The Music
The Meridian 800 is my last equipment review before I move from West Hollywood to a slightly larger location in West Los Angeles, which has given me cause to do a few blow-out listening sessions. With Tower Records, The Viper Room and the Whisky a Go-Go gleaming below seemingly in approval, I started off with the normally dull-sounding “Houses of the Holy” from the standard CD release of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti (Atlantic). The majority of my audio comparisons come between the 800 and Proceed’s greatly maligned PMDT DVD-Video CD transport, connected by analog outputs into the Mark Levinson No. 40. While the Proceed was known to struggle with a software bug or two or three (rumor is that this is why Harman dumped the Proceed brand), the PMDT was a smokin’ good-sounding CD transport. Playing “Houses of the Holy” on the 800, you can hear an audible improvement in depth, which is the kind of development that makes you struggle against the urge to turn up the volume. While there is a bit of analog hiss on the CD from the master tapes, the three-dimensionality is notable when listening to the Meridian 800. It sounded incrementally more like a performance and less like a recording with this system.

On Rickey Lee Jones’ cover of the Jimi Hendrix jewel “Up From the Skies” from Pop Pop (Geffen), the 800 takes zeros and ones etched on silicon and turns them into a truly liquid musical performance. Jones’ voice beams in front of a punchy-sounding stand-up bass that is tight and delicious. The acoustic guitar fills, albeit not very Jimi-like, pop pop from the sound stage in between the verses. With the Meridian 800 in the loop, the music just sounded sexier.

Speaking of Jimi, real Jimi recordings don’t sound like the more modern Pop Pop album. Real Jimi is found on the CD import of Jimi Plays Monterey (Polydor), which archives the left-handed virtuoso’s initial return from England to the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967. This was the beginning of a very special time in history for music and this performance might just be the brightest you will hear (yes – better than Woodstock). The intro track “Killing Floor,” a Muddy Waters-inspired blues frenzy, captures the exact emotion of the artist with his adrenaline raging as he returns from capturing fame in the U.K. to really play for his long-haired brethren. The long and painfully awkward tune-up process only gives the track more sonic believability. Any performing musician who tells you he isn’t a bit nervous before he fires up the first few notes and chords of his (upside-down) Strat is outright lying to you. Almost 3:00 into the track, a squeaky Brit introduces the U.S. to nothing more than “the Jimi Hendrix Experience” and you explode into space without needing a booster rocket. On the Meridian 800, Jimi separates himself from the two-dimensionality that I have been accustomed to on this CD, with his voice taking on a presence that is rarely heard on live recordings of the day. His first solo grinds it out carefully at first as Mitch Mitchell blasts cymbal crashes like a bull in a china shop. Jimi’s chop work quickly transitions from nervous to mind-boggling with an unbelievable response from the crowd. As Jimi warms up and the mixing engineer tries to adapt to the sheer genius flowing through the speakers, the guitarist breaks out “Like a Rolling Stone,” which sounds outrageously believable on the Meridian 800. Jimi could play the juiciest little riffs behind his hip and soulful vocals. Ironically, Hendrix was supposedly always self-conscious about his singing. The Meridian 800 gives you that little extra bit of resolution, so that you can hear each and every inflection in his performance, which gives lie to Hendrix’s fears about his vocals.

The most outrageous the Meridian 800 sounded for CD was on the remixed version of The Wall (Columbia). On “One of My Turns,” you would swear the 800 in stereo was connected to a Pro Logic II surround processor, because the groupie who asks a series of stupid questions like “Are all these YOUR guitars?” moves around the stereo soundstage as if the CD was mixed for 5.1. When Waters comes in, his voice has a thick and manly quality to it that sits atop a dull-sounding keyboard. Later on Disc Two, the final sequence of songs starting after “Comfortably Numb” is nothing short of spellbinding when being played back on the Meridian 800. On “The Trial,” the vocals sound like everything Broadway should sound like but doesn’t. You can hear the orchestration and chorus with great detail, without drawing attention from the vocals. Once again, you hear depth that you don’t normally expect from a high-end CD player.

Inspired by the concept of incredible runs of songs on classic records, I spun Sgt. Pepper’s (Capitol - Apple Records) to “When I’m Sixty-Four.” The beer garden feel of the song is more revealed than ever, with woodwinds and bells (or xylophones) sounding spectacularly realistic behind the vocals. The song was jaw-dropping for anyone I played it for who has heard the number enough times to understand the difference. By the end of “A Day In The Life,” when every “e” is hit on four different pianos at once, you feel as if you need a cigarette, thanks to the orgasmic resolution made possible by the Meridian 800.

Switching back and forth from CD to DVD-Audio with the 800 is a dangerous habit because there is literally nothing CD can do to compete with DVD-Audio in terms of sound quality. Whether it is stereo or a surround DVD-Audio title, the audio is so much better than CD that it is frightening.

On the recommendation of Bob Stuart at Meridian, I hunted down a copy of Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section on DVD-Audio, mixed in stereo. From the moment I received the disc from Japan, I have been in awe. Even the best CD demos I played shone because you could hear little details on important recordings in ways you can’t on other CD transports. With the 800 playing DVD-Audio, you transcend from hi-fi to audio heaven. Music sounds refreshingly liquid, live and real. Snare pops are dynamic while horns growl with a sexy snarl. High hats ring with accurate decay that CD simply cannot reproduce. If you are not blown away with the sound of Art Pepper in stereo DVD-Audio, played back through the Meridian 800, you might need a soul transplant. This is the best I have ever heard stereo playback, including on trips to recording studios, as well as every hi-fi show I have ever attended.

But stereo is only part of what the DVD-Audio format has to offer. Surround sound is what the format was really designed for and 5.1 surround allows the mixing engineer to paint aural pictures in three dimensions with the help of six speakers instead of just two. Bluesman Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit – Nonesuch) is one of the most significant recordings to grace the DVD-Audio format. In surround, you are transported directly to Havana (to the dismay of the FAA) right from your living room. The mix captures the luscious nature of the acoustic performance, but the surround mix is not shy about mixing percussion to the rear speakers on tracks like “Chan Chan.” The guitar solo rings with a three-dimensionality that you can’t hear anywhere else.

Most of my listening was done via the 5.1 channel analog output of the Meridian 800 into a Mark Levinson No. 40 preamp, but as mentioned earlier, the Meridian 800 is capable of sending a proprietary digital signal straight to Meridian’s 861 AV preamp, which I also have in my system for review. You might ask, what is the advantage of the direct connection? It is a big one, considering that you can remove an entire level of analog to digital conversion from the musical signal when playing back DVD-Audio. The most striking example of the advantages of the direct digital connection came on the newly-released DVD-Audio of Queen ‘s The Game (DTS Entertainment) and “Another One Bites The Dust.” The bass on the track sounds round and beefy, while Freddy Mercury’s vocals are commandingly in the front of the soundstage. Brian May’s periodic guitar fills adorn the rear channels with incredible presence and resolution. His rhythmic chops add on to the verses to accompany the ever-present bass line.

The best the DVD-Audio format sounded on the Meridian 800 was on “Long Distance Runaround” from Yes’s Fragile (Rhino). Chris Squire’s rumbling and rounded bass line punctuates the foundation of the track, while Steve Howe’s soft-sounding guitar chops move from the rear of the soundstage to the front. Wakeman’s pulsating rhythmic work during the verses is never lost when listening on the Meridian 800 as it can be on a player with lesser DACs. Cymbal crashes explode with resolute sound in ways that before I have only heard live.

All of the oohing and ahhing over the audio of the Meridian 800 is an audiophile fantasy, but many of the people will make the investment in the Meridian 800 because of its video quality. Your great video system is only as good as the source and the Meridian 800 is as good as it gets for DVD-Video playback. Its audio advantages, like a direct digital connection, also benefit movie soundtracks, but it is the internal parts, quality and video DAC design (and its $20,000 price tag) that separate the Meridian 800 from the rest of the high-end AV market.

When playing the male model scene in “Zoolander” (Paramount Home Entertainment), you can see vivid orange in the flames as the characters douse themselves in 93 octane and accidentally light themselves on fire while frolicking in spraying gasoline. Next, in the eulogy (u-goog-ol-y) scene, you can see subtle detail in the Manhattan skyline behind Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) as he retires from male modeling. Later in the scene, modeling agent Maury Balls (Jerry Stiller) drinks a glowing bright orange beverage, which has excellent contrast as it sits on his desk.

In “Goodfellas” (Warner Home Video), when young Henry Hill gets busted for selling cigarettes, you can see the red of the Pal Mall boxes more crisply than with the Proceed PMDT. You can see the Hollywood makeup job on the actors in the daylight, which is incredibly hard to reproduce accurately. Later in the scene, when Robert De Niro’s character tells young Henry Hill that he did good, the Meridian 800 corrected many (but not all) of the flaws I blamed on the D-ILA technology of my projector. You can see into the wrinkles on De Niro’s face, which on other DVD players get lost in darkness because of a lack of contrast.

The Downsides
The Meridian 800 sets the level of performance for CD, DVD-Video and DVD-Audio, so it is hard to find fault with the way it sounds and looks, but there are some important weaknesses that need to be addressed for those readers thinking I was about to proclaim the Meridian 800 the world’s first “perfect” audio-video component – because it isn’t. First flaw is its remote, which at first glance seems like a full feature unit, but it lacks programmability and needs two hands to use. It is not backlit and over time proved to be awkward. Worse, when I went to fast-forward tracks on the Meridian 800, I often shut the entire unit off because the on-off button is located directly next to the fast-forward button.

Lack of SACD playback would be an easy place to pick on the Meridian 800 for those who demand it all for $20,000 in a component, but for good reason, the unit doesn’t have it, and because DSD would need its own completely separate processing and signal path, you are likely never to see SACD on the 800. What you might be surprised by is how good hybrid SACDs like Dark Side of the Moon (with Red Book CD layers on them) sound when played back in the 800.

At around $20,000, the way the unit is constructed isn’t cheap, but it is not up to the physical standards of components like the Linn CD12 or the Mark Levinson No. 40. While there is nothing wrong with the black plastic of the 800, it lacks the sex appeal found on other insanely expensive AV components. This also includes the card bay, which is not as over-engineered as that of the Mark Levinson No. 40 card based preamp.

For movies, CDs and especially DVD-Audio, you cannot do better than the Meridian 800. While its cost is prohibitive to nearly all AV enthusiasts, its groundbreaking design and even better performance is worthy of envy from all AV enthusiasts. For those with less money to invest in a source component, but who would love to have nearly all that the Meridian 800 has to offer, they offer the 598 player (in the $5,000 range), which also does a great job on CD, DVD-Audio and movie soundtrack playback.

When you are designing your dream system (even if it is in a daydream), you will want to be sure to add in the Meridian 800 as your main source component. It doesn’t matter if you have an all-Meridian system or nothing from the digital gurus in your rig – this component can beat any in its category. Strike that – the Meridian 800 is good enough for its own category.
Manufacturer Meridian
Model 800 CD/DVD-A/V Player

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