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Meridian 861 Version 4 AV Preamplifier Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 April 2004
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Meridian 861 Version 4 AV Preamplifier
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ImageA 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.

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?) 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.


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