Meridian MCD & MCD Pro CD players
While Meridian's rather high-priced amplifiers and preamps have not garnered the best of reviews on their home turf (the English seem to prefer American electronics at the really high end), there is no question that their products are aimed at the serious audiophile market. And at a time when perfectionists are at each others' throats about the merits (or otherwise) of digital, Meridian's expressed commitment to CD, as exemplified by the MCD, must have taken more than a little courage on their part. (In truth, digital critics in the UK are less vociferous and less adamant than those in the US.)
Meridian recognized and acknowledged at the outset that they did not have the experience or the manufacturing facilities to produce a CD player from scratch. This requires the kind of funding and laser technology knowhow that only a handful of major firms have demonstrated to date. But Meridian also suspected, as have many others who still find fault with CD sound, that many of the sonic problems have been due not to the system itself but to imperfections in the extraction of the digital data from the disc and in the D/A conversion and audio output circuitry that follow.
It was known early on that the first players had several measurable imperfections, such as ringing in the extremely sharp analog output filters, intra-channel time delay (through failure to correct for the very tiny time difference between the left- and right-channel output signals), and a tendency for the D/A converters to "track" poorly at very low signal levels. But most engineering types have staunchly maintained that these "problems" were inaudible.
I, for one, was uncertain whether they were or not, and I am still uncertain about some of them. But there is no denying the fact that, as designs have changed—sometimes to address the acknowledged problems and sometimes simply as design changes—there has been an across-the-board improvement in CD sound. The correct assumption, it would seem, is that all imperfections are audible and, therefore, one should try to minimize them all. That is exactly what Meridian has done.
Meridian buys complete CD-101 decks from Philips and starts by discarding their entire audio circuitry. They then beef up the power supply, modify the laser-tracking servo to speed up its focus reaction time (enabling it to better track warped discs), and install a new audio board with improved grounding and shielding, a more precise three-pole analog filter section (the MCD, of course, uses the Philips digital filtering techniques), and output coupling capacitors consisting of an aluminum electrolytic (?!!) with two small bypass capacitors across it.
I don't know which of these elements contribute to the MCD'S sound, but Meridian must be doing something right, because the MCD has established a new standard for CD audio quality. The rather dry, more or less grainy quality that has previously characterized all CD reproduction is gone! For the first time, the sound of the best CDs (Telarcs, RealTimes and Sheffields) is truly liquid and transparent, with an effortlessness that I have not previously heard except from the better analog sources. Even CBS and DG CDs are listenable, although I wouldn't go so far as to say they are transformed into perfectionist fare. Butit is now possible to listen past the hitherto awful, and now merely okay, sound of many of these releases to the exciting performances which sometimes are there.
As for the reproduction of low-level ambience, I cannot say this is any better than from previously auditioned players. On the other hand, I am not one of those persons who felt that there was anything wrong with that aspect of CD reproduction to begin with. Yes, there is less of it than I hear from equivalent analog releases, but I remain unconvinced that the analog is right and the CD is wrong. It is known that random-phase problems with phono cartridges will exaggerate apparent ambience, and it is generally conceded (even among skeptics) that there is nothing about digital that can introduce such random-phase effects. Many digiphobes who claim to hear a loss of low-level ambience are unaware that dithering lowers the effective signal "floor" of the CD to well below their nominal –90dB limit, and they are thus perhaps "hearing" what they expect to hear rather than what is actually there to be heard (footnote 1).
In short, I am very much impressed with the sound of the MCD. But that Philips deck is another matter altogether. When I reviewed the Philips/Magnavox FD-1000 player (Vol.7 No.2), I complained bitterly about how slowly the deck accessed a desired band. This deck is the same—that is to say, slow. It takes six seconds from Play to the first note, and an average of four seconds to go from the start of one band to the start of the next.
Instead of calling out bands by number, one presses the Select button the requisite number of times. A green light on the front panel band-indicator progresses as you press the button; but only up to band 15, at which point it goes back to 1. If you are playing a CD having more than 15 bands, you will be gettin 16, 17, and so on this second time around; otherwise, you will be back at band 1. Hitting Play then gives you the laborious job of watching the laser tracking mechanism slowly catch up to the band you've dialed in—what a pain! How much easier it is to cue any track on an LP, not to mention ease of access with some of the Japanese CD players.
During a phone conversation with J. Michael Wesley of Madrigal Ltd., the US importer, I wondered out loud why Meridian had chosen such a clunky deck for their first CD player. I was told that there were two reasons. First, the. Philips CD-101 was the best-sounding player before modification that Meridian could find. Second, the CD-101 deck had the highest immunity to vibration, and the greatest rigidity (which is important accuracy of laser tracking) of any that Meridian had tried.
Yes, I admitted that I had found it to be as resistant to jarring as any deck I'd used. But what did that have to do with the sound? It's a digital system—pickup of vibrations from the speakers can't possibly cause microphonics or feedback as in an analog player.
That's not the problem, I was told. Vibration of the optical scanning system forces the error correction to work overtime, and many listeners claim to hear distortion that could be attributed to imperfect error correction. I'm skeptical about that. Nevertheless, I learned long ago never to dismiss reported sources of distortion just because I've never encountered them or didn't believe they could be audible. I've been proven wrong too many times to scoff.
So, how much better, now, can CD reproduction get? That's a tough question, because there is no way of knowing how good digital audio is now. This seemingly odd assertion is discussed at some length in my editorial elsewhere in this issue, but suffice it to say there is no way of auditioning a digital master tape without adding to it the audible (and probably) detrimental effects of D/A and analog-audio circuitry. And that circuitry in the Meridian MCD just may be better than what's in the professional digital tape machines. I'll say one thing, though: the MCD has, as far as I'm concerned, elevated CD sound to the point where it is directly comparable with the best analog sound.
To date, then, this is the best-sounding CD player I've encountered. True it has an uninspiring deck, but if all you want to do is put on a disc and enjoy CD sound that's about as good as you're likely to get today, that isn't really important. With that one reservation, the Meridian MCD is most highly recommended.—J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 1: This is a logical argument, but I wonder—just statistically, of course—why not one CD I've auditioned gives me the "you're right there in the room" experience that is not uncommon with analog disc, and is routine on JGH's tapes, both digital and analog.—Larry Archibald