Meridian 808.2/808i.2 Signature Reference CD player/preamplifier Page 2
For this review, I focused on the Meridian 808i.2's performance as a standalone CD player. Meridian also supplied me with a pair of their new DSP7200 loudspeakers, so I will examine the 808i.2's performance as an analog preamplifier when I review the DSP7200. I first had the 808i.2 set to what Meridian refers to as Type 1 (CD player with fixed output, external inputs disabled), when it behaves like the preampless 808.2. However, I then reset it to Type 3 (Preamplifier, fixed output), so I could use it to decode the digital output of my Logitech Transporter network player.
The 808i.2 is obviously a Class A player, I thought while using it for my regular listening for a couple of weeksbut I wasn't sure I could point to anything it was specifically doing that would move it to the front of the pack. Then, sorting out the mess of open jewel cases on the floor in front of the system in order to avoid working on this issue's "Recommended Components" listing, I had an epiphany.
It is a truism that our choice of system dictates our choice in music. You tend to focus on recordings that benefit from the system's virtues, not ones that reveal its flaws. Over the past few years, I have found myself playing fewer and fewer recordings of large-scale classical orchestral works. It's not that I'm falling out of love with the musicthough I must admit that, as I get older, I'm increasingly attracted by the intellectual challenge of chamber musicbut that the scale and drama of orchestral music is not as well served by the CD medium as it is by LP. Consider, for example, Vernon Handley's 1990 performance of Bantock's A Celtic Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic (CD, Hyperion CDA66450). Engineered by Tony Faulkner, this is perhaps the most natural-sounding recording of a string orchestra I have heard, with an enormous dynamic range (footnote 3). But at levels approaching what I would hear in the concert hall, the midrange becomes congested, the mid-treble hardened. Decreasing the volume minimizes these problems, but then the scale of the music is also minimized. The SACD medium better serves the sound of an orchestra in full song, but while I have built up a reasonable collection of SACDs, most of my favorites are still available only on CD.
So when I began returning the CDs to their cases and noticed how much orchestral music I'd been playing since hooking up the Meridian, it was apparent that something special was going on, even with early digital recordings. I had been playing: Bernstein's Mahler 2 with the LSO, recorded in England's Ely Cathedral (CD, Sony Classical SM2K 47453); Kurt Sanderling's set of the Brahms symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle (CD, RCA 130367); George Szell's Beethoven Symphonies with the Cleveland Orchestra (CD, Sony Classical SBSK 48396; transfers, like the Mahler and Brahms, from analog masters); and, from Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia, Sibelius' Symphony 5 (CD, London 410 016-2, digitally recorded in 1981) and Symphony 1 with Karelia Suite (CD, London 414 534-2, digitally recorded in 1985). With all of these, the Meridian got the scale right, without the usual midrange congestion or treble hardness intruding. It also got the soundstage depth right, with, for example, the brushed on-beat cymbals in the first movement of Karelia set well back yet without any smearing of the image.
Were these benefits the result of the 808i.2's apodizing reconstruction filter eliminating the time smear from a recording's original A/D converter? I'm tempted to say yes, except that there are many other aspects of digital music playback that also have to be gotten right. But now that I've discovered anew the sonic beauty of so many CDs in my collection, it's going to be difficult to relinquish the Meridian when the loan period is over.
And, of course, the apodizing filter won't fix a recording's balance and mixing problems. I mentioned last month my appreciation of harpist Andreas Vollenweider, though he has not been particularly well served on CD, especially after he began recording in digital. His Dancing with the Lion (CD, Columbia CK 45154), for example, remained bright and brash, even though individual elements of the mixdrums and piano, in particularseemed more fleshed out through the Meridian (footnote 4). But even as I wrote those words while giving another listen to this 1989 recording, the brashness seemed more bearable, more of the music making its way to my ears.
And when a modern recording has been produced with care, and with attention paid to sound qualitysuch as this issue's "Recording of the Month," Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit (CD, Lightning Rod)the Meridian 808i.2 retrieved detail without exaggeration, and threw stable images that hung in the space between and behind the speakers. The 808i.2 enabled the transmission of the music from CD to me in an extraordinarily effective manner, yet without calling attention to itself.
I reached for Sensuous: la musique de 21° siòcle (CD, Warner Japan ECE016), from the DJ Cornelius, aka Keigo Oyamada, in which sampled vocal, guitar, and turntable sounds are mixed with naturally recorded percussion, synthesizers, and intelligent if aleatoric vocals. The drums on "Fit Song" had a superb combination of weight and low-frequency definition via the Meridian. More important, "Gum, Scum" which combines sampled vocal syllables with drums and an eighth-note speed-metal backing, began to make musical sense with the Meridian at the front end and the 750W Musical Fidelity 750K Superchargers driving the Revel Ultima Salon2s at >100dB. This track tends to sound a mess through lesser systems, but the Meridian kept the musical threads separated. In a mix like this, there's no real spacejust what the producer, or in this case the DJ, has decided to synthesize using artificial reverberation. Components that diminish the effect of this process, that smear the soundstage, thus detract from the musical message. The Meridian did as good a job with the Cornelius CD as it had with recordings where there was a real acoustic event, such as the Bantock and Sibelius symphonies mentioned earlier. In this respect, it is the best CD player I have used.
The Ayre Acoustics C-5xe universal player ($5950) has been my primary reference for CD playback since I purchased it three years ago, I used it for my primary comparisons, with the players' levels matched at 1kHz to within 0.1dB. As the Ayre's sole digital output is AES/EBU on an XLR jack and the Meridian has only coaxial and optical S/PDIF data inputs, I fed the Ayre's digital data to a dCS 972 digital format converter, set to do nothing other than pass the incoming data to its outputs. I connected the dCS's coaxial output to one of the Meridian 808i.2's coaxial inputs with a short length of Stereovox XV2 S/PDIF cable. The Ayre's reconstruction filter was set to Listen, which trades off a premature top-octave response droop against better time-domain performance.
Footnote 3: "I am 95% sure the main mikes were Neumann M49s (exBob Auger)," Tony Faulkner told me a few years back. "The location was All Hallows, Gospel Oak, a massive barn of a church close to Hampstead Heath. A wonderful, bighearted orchestra (RPO); a wonderful conductor (Tod Handley). No rehearsals, no concert of the music before the recording sessions. Extraordinary music."
Footnote 4: Following publication of this review, reader Andy Fawcett let me know that Vollenweider remastered his entire catalog in 2005, to remarkable effect that leaves the LP versions sounding "foggy and quaint."