Meridian 208 CD player/preamplifier Page 2
I first used the 208 as a line-level preamplifier, comparing the effect it had on the sound of other sources with my Mod Squad Deluxe Line Drive AGT passive control unit. (The Mod Squad is still the most transparent full-function passive control unit I have heard.) It might be thought that a preamp stage inside a CD player, with all that RF energy floating around, and in particular one that uses op-amps for gain and FET-switching to implement the remote volume control, might be compromised in sound quality. That didn't prove to be the case here. Though it did add a slight veiling compared with the Mod Squad unit, the 208's line stage was superbly clean, with excellent bass weight and a freedom from electronic glare. Not only is the luxury of remote control of volume addictive, I feel the 208 is good enough when used as a preamplifier that those whose priority is to get the best CD sound should seriously consider using a 208 as the heart of the system, its line inputs used to take tape and tuner sources or even the output of an auxiliary phono stage. (The review sample was not fitted with Meridian's own $250 phono stage, so I can't comment on its sound.)
I also used the 208 to drive the Meridian D600 active loudspeakers that I reviewed a year or so ago (in Vol.12 No.11), its two optical digital outputs allowing each speaker to be driven separately. This proved to give the best sound I had heard from these speakers. If you own D600s, you should seriously consider acquiring a 208. Taking an analog feed from the 208's fixed outputs in order to compare Bitstream D/A conversion with the D600's oversampling multibit DACs wasn't possible, however, as it didn't prove possible to match levels closely enough for rigorous comparison.
Used as a conventional CD player with its fixed outputs feeding the Mod Squad control unit, it was immediately obvious that the 208 produced one heck of a fine sound: open and detailed, with excellent bass extension and a solid, deep, well-defined soundstage. There was little of the sense of treble hash that so often overlays digital sound quality. If you've heard Wendy Carlos's excellent recorded essay on reconstructing the sounds of real instruments with synthesizers (Secrets of Synthesis, CBS MK 42333), you'll be familiar with my feeling that, no matter how closely its advocates say their efforts approach reality, synthesized sound is more akin to shaped and textured noise than to real instruments. Right from the start, no matter how good it may be in some ways, CD playback has always had a similar character, in my opinion, the sound of complex sources like the orchestra tending to become overlaid with HF buzz. This the 208 does to a considerably lesser extent than the norm, to the benefit of the music.
Some might find the 208's sound to be rather laid-back, preferring a more vivid presentation of music's high frequencies. My tastes veer in the opposite direction, however, provided that this laid-back balance is not achieved at the expense of suppressing detail, and detail is something the 208 has no problem in decoding. The piano sound on my recordings on the Stereophile Test CD and the HFN/RR Test CD was both harmonically and spatially correct, the piano image suspended unambiguously in the space between the loudspeakers.
Dispensing with the control unit and driving the power amplifiers straight from the 208's variable outputs gave an even more musical sound, something that surprised me considering that I had felt the 208's line stage to be a little veiled compared with the Line Drive. Used in this way, the 208 approaches Class A performance in the magazine's biannual "Recommended Components" feature. My only criticism would be a slight leanness to its lower midrange.
Reviewing products in isolation is useful in that it gives you a broad idea of their absolute merit. Stereophile readers, however, need to be told of a product's relative performance, how it stacks up against the current benchmark products. I had on hand the Kinergetics KCD-40 and Meridian 206 CD players that I reviewed in Vol.13 Nos.1 and 7, respectively, and the Meridian 203 and Stax DAC-X1t Bitstream and multibit processors. I carried out two sets of tests with the five units.
The first set was with the reference processor or player feeding the 208's line input and the 208's variable outputs feeding the power amplifier; A/B switching could thus be performed with the 208's remote control. In this situation, however, the 208's line stage is in circuit for every source. As it might be felt that the active circuitry would homogenize any differences, I therefore carried out a second set of tests with all the units' outputs driving the Mod Squad Line Drive Deluxe, this in turn feeding the power amplifier. All interconnects were 1m lengths of AudioQuest Lapis. My impressions that follow are based on the results of both sets of tests.
My first comparison was with the Meridian 203 processor that has been so enthusiastically reviewed by Bob Harley and Sam Tellig in recent months. Retailing for $990, the 203 basically packs the Bitstream D/A circuitry from the 208 into a single box, omitting the absolute phase switch and error indicator light. For the comparisons, the 203 was driven from one of the 208's optical data outputs with a 1m optical fiber link supplied by Meridian. To show how critical level matching is with CD player tests, Tom Norton and I were listening to the 203, referring back to the 208; we had listened to a couple of tracks just out of curiosity, concluding that the 203 was more detailed and dynamic. But: "The 203 sounds louder," said Tom. I agreed. It was—by just 0.5dB! Though this would introduce two more sets of contacts into the 203's signal path, I had to lower its output with series potentiometers to match the 208's level before proceeding with my more critical auditioning. (All levels were subsequently equalized within 0.1dB at 1kHz.)
At first, it was hard to hear any difference between the 203 and 208 in either of the test conditions. Tonally, the units were almost identical—which is to be expected, given the fact that both of them are from the pen (pen?) of the same designer and feature identical DACs and output stages. But after several tracks had been played, I began to feel that the 208 was slightly more open in its sound quality. I find the purist guitar and double-bass recording on the Stereophile Test CD, with its fragile recorded acoustic, to be particularly good at revealing small differences in soundstaging ability. The 208 was that little bit better at enabling you to hear the way in which the guitar transients were reflected from the Chapel of Loretto's stone-faced walls. By contrast, the 203 presented the instruments as though they were in a somewhat less reverberant, more anonymous-sounding acoustic. But it was close. I could happily live with the 203.
I said above that the two Meridians were tonally almost identical. The "almost" is because ultimately I felt that the separate processor had a rather less-well-defined, less extended low-bass register. The 203 was leaner; though the 208 had a fatter midbass region, it also had a low bass which seemed to just keep on going down compared with the 203. Curiously, this reminded me of J. Gordon Holt's experience of the two-box Sony R1 CD player, the transport of which supplies an accurate, low-jitter clock signal to the D/A processor in addition to the time-multiplexed stereo audio datastream via a separate optical link. Perhaps—and this is a big perhaps—the better bass performance of the 208 is due to the fundamentally lower jitter offered by an integrated player. (See my discussion of the audible effects of jitter.)
The next comparison was with the Meridian 206, this player using the traditional 16-bit, 4x-oversampling Philips chip set. In my review of the 206 last July, I had remarked that it was the best player to use this chip set that I had heard, even better than the massive two-box Philips LHH1000. In particular, I felt the 206 to have excellent bass weight, well-defined imaging with good depth, and a refreshing freedom from the grainy treble so typical of ordinary CD replay.
With a Stereophile test CD playing in each machine, the tonal differences between them were a little easier to hear than with the 203. The older player was both somewhat brighter and more forward in the midrange and sounded "louder" as a result. The flute on Stereophile's Poem album was consequently more full-bodied on the 206, while piano perhaps had somewhat more harmonic richness than on the 208. Low frequencies were similar, though the 208 did occasionally sound thinner in the lower midrange, the 206 having more midbass slam. As a result, the leading edges of bass instruments, the rosiny guttiness that starts the woody thrum of well-recorded double-bass, had a little more bite via the 208, though they had their full weight with the 206.