Meridian MCD & MCD Pro CD players Anthony H. Cordesman on the MCD Pro
There are very few seminal products in audio; most are but slow steps in evolution. We may forget this in the face of all the hype surrounding each new product, but for all the changes in technology, improvements in sound quality are usually quite small.
The Meridian MCD Professional compact disc player is, however, likely to be recognized as a seminal product in at least one important sense. It is the first CD player to be able to compete head-on against the most expensive analog tonearm, turntable, and cartridge combinations. It can compete even using Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, Krell, and Levinson electronics, and speakers as demanding as the Infinity IRS and RS-1b. This is not to say it sounds like an expensive analog front end; its competitiveness lies in providing merits in areas where analog is weak, and which offset analog's superiorities in other areas.
The Meridian MCD Professional is a follow-on to the Meridian MCD, which drew high praise in these pages. It is also something of an interim product originally intended to be produced in very limited numbers (a total of 100 to be sent to the US), to provide radio stations and recording studios with advanced electronics while Meridian completed work on a more advanced transport. Its popularity has forced Meridian into higher production rates, with consequently wider availability here.
I should make it clear why you may prefer to wait for the new Meridian, which should be out about the time you read this review. Like the MCD, the Pro is based on the Philips CD-101 top-loading chassis, which offers an exceptionally rugged and stable platform but less convenience than a front loader. The Pro's programming features are as slow and limited as were the MCD's: it's awkward to use with those few CDs containing more than 15 tracks, and there are no fancy read-outs or remote controls. (Please, gentle readers, write and tell us how often you actually use all of the programming features and read-outs on your CD player—or be honest enough to tell us you find them as confusing as hell!)
The unit runs far too hot to leave on constantly, and the on/off switch is in the rear; it makes a God-awful thump when turned on or off. The absolute phase switch is inconveniently located under the front panel (and makes a minor thump). The top-loading door is awkward to release. More significantly, the Pro has the same horrendous hum field evidenced by every Philips (and many non-Philips) player I have tested. If left turned on, it induces significant hum into most moving-coil cartridges located within 18–24".
The MCD Pro adds a whole new "black box" of electronics, built into the bottom of the player, to the original MCD. This box has a separately regulated power supply, and the manufacturer claims for it the following features:
• New D/A converters with additional decoupling and compensation.
• An improved integrator with better compensation.
• A discrete FET oscillator with a better clock that results in better resolution of high-frequency information under dynamic music conditions. This provides 40 dB less jitter and modulation than in earlier generations of players, and allows 16-bit resolution to be achieved under dynamic music conditions versus 10 bits for many other players at high frequencies (footnote 1).
• Digital phase correction and an absolute phase switch to adjust for different software.
• DC-coupled analog output circuitry to improve bass response, with a servo to prevent DC output to a preamp.
I can follow the reasoning behind such improvements, but, to be quite honest, I lack the credentials to evaluate them against all the competing concepts now being advanced. If you want to know how far Meridian pushes the original Philips technology with respect to the long promised Philips 16-bit chip, or the latest Sony digital filters, I simply cannot tell you.
I can tell you, however, that the deck has several additional features that make up for its lack of bells and whistles in programming, and which may lead a truly dedicated audiophile to buy one (if he/she can find it). These include:
• An absolute phase switch. This may be inconveniently located, but it clearly demonstrates that the imaging and soundstage on about one-fifth of the CDs can be significantly improved by reversing the phase. I do not personally believe that it is relevant to talk about absolute phase, given the cumulative phase mix and drift inevitable in any recording, but I have found that average phase has enough audible effect that a 180° shift can sometimes improve the sound. (Please note that cumulative phase shift can exceed 360°, and is rarely coherent within 20–40° in even the best recording.)
• A functioning error correction light. This is illuminated when the error correction circuits are operating. As the Meridian manual points out, it is rarely triggered, and usually with negligible loss in sound quality. The light does go on for long or frequent periods on some CDs, though; such a light is useful in uncovering low-quality CDs.
• Pre-Emphasis Switching. The MCD, just as do all CD players, automatically recognizes those CDs with pre-emphasis, and applies de-emphasis when appropriate. The unique feature of the Meridian player is that it has an LED that tells you when a disc is pre-emphasized. My conclusion: most Japanese CDs use pre-emphasis, and the European CDs, which don't, often sound sweeter and cleaner in the highs.
• A rubber disc damper. Silly as it may sound, many CD users have found that slight improvements in sound take place if two CDs are loaded piggy-back in the drawer, or a black disc placed on top of the CD. Nitty Gritty, in fact, sells adhesive discs as accessories. The additional disc seems partly to stabilize the disc, and partly to help fill in occasional gaps in the silver coating on the back of the disc. Meridian has gone one step further by providing a rubber damping disc that helps lock a CD on the proper plane for scanning as well as provide a black back-up. It does help—up to a point; if you hear even a slight noise once the disc has started to play, the damper may be off-center. Stop the player and center the damper.
Whatever the value of any given bit of this new technology, the final result is extremely impressive. I have run this CD player through every practical test I can think of; it competes with any other signal source I can find. Let me give a few examples:
• The deep bass extends flat to 16Hz using the RCA test CD as played through the Infinity IRS. It is incredibly smooth on a 20–125Hz bass sweep. In fact, there is sufficient bass power to present problems for many speakers, which deal with the added bass extension by distorting, doubling, or muddying the bass. On true full-range speakers and subwoofers of the RH Labs, Janis, and Entec quality, the bass is tight and flat; it outperforms any analog front end or consumer open-reel tape I know of.
Only the SOTA, closely followed by the VPI—and using the most rigid tonearms and the best cartridges—approach this bass linearity. These analog combinations, however, cost two to three times as much as the Meridian, require exceptionally good placement for low acoustic breakthrough, and are still slightly inferior. No competing CD player, including the latest Sonys and Missions, can equal this level of performance.
• The upper bass and lower midrange are normal in both timbre and dynamics. On every competing player I have heard (I just completed a survey on this subject for Audio), this area sounds slightly recessed, tending to accentuate the upper octaves. The only other CD players I have found that avoid this are those that seem to deliberately roll off the highs; they show a slight, measurable roll-off on test discs, and definitely soften or muddy the upper octaves. The Meridian measures "flat" within the reasonable limits imposed by CD test disc variation (about ±0.5 dB).
• Timbre is much more musically coherent than on other CD players, and virtually all analog record players. In the case of analog, I suspect this is more the result of record production problems than cartridge design. Even the best recording studio has no practical reference as to what analog front end is flat. The studios choose as best they can—and few choose well. CD playback is far more consistent.
• The Meridian Pro lacks the apparent rise in the upper octaves common to most CD players. It is remarkably free of the tendency of such players, and even the best cartridges, to alter timbre sufficiently so that vocal and instrumental balances vary, either recessing or throwing the voice forward. This is an acid test of timbral accuracy.
This does not mean that all recordings will sound more flat on the MCD than on other CD players, and some recordings will prefer a good moving-coil phono cartridge for playback. The close-in, front-of-the-hall sound we're accustomed to is missing. The Meridian sounds more like tape, or those few cartridges—the Adcoms, Dynavector DRT, or Shure Ultra 500—that actually measure flat.
• The Meridian MCD Professional approaches the best moving coils in terms of upper midrange/treble life and detail. It still lacks the ability, found on the very best analog front ends, to extract musically natural transients and low-level harmonics. It is difficult to determine what is accurate here, however, since the best analog cartridges have a slight upper-octave rise and, generally, have residual traces of ringing, low-order harmonic distortion, and phase shift of kinds that actually enhance both apparent life and imaging.
The MCD Pro does wonders for choir music, most of which, on CD, sounds bad to awful when played on first-generation Sony players or early Philips players. It directly competes with the best moving-coils on the few CDs where the source material is as good as that available on LP. Jazz at the Pawnshop is a good example, as is Dave Grusin's Mountain Dance (note that only the British audiophile pressing of Mountain Dance competes with the CD). Lovers of Telemann and Vivaldi—whose instrumentation has tended to sound more painful on CDs than that of later composers—will again hear halfway natural highs on those few CDs on which the producer had a good initial recording and monitored his work with decent speakers and electronics.
• The imaging, depth, and soundstage data reproduced by the Meridian MCD Professional is state-of-the-art—and horribly revealing of the poor quality of most CD recordings, many of which exhibit the classic loss of depth and air that comes with careless overproduction and overprocessing. Using Jazz at the Pawnshop, the MCD Pro provides detail equal to the analog recording, even listening through an IRS-III with the best electronics. This assumes, however, comparison to a moving coil cartridge loaded down to something approaching its input impedance. The super soundstage moving coils—the Clearaudio/Veritas, Alpha 2, and Shinon Red—will produce slightly more apparent detail even at their proper loadings. The Pro does not provide the kind of exaggerated imaging and air resulting from high impedance loading of moving-coils.
• The Meridian Pro has some heretofore unmentioned weaknesses. It is not totally free of what I associate, rightly or wrongly, with less-than-state-of-the-art output stages. It may not be able to extract quite as much upper octave data from some CDs as the Sony CDP-520ES or '620ES. I associate its sound characteristics with good transistor preamps of less than the quality found in a Krell, Klyne, or Motif: slightly dry high end, loss of air, and narrowing of the soundstage.
It does not have what I regard as "CD analog sound": the general tendency to give everything the sound character of a mid-fi receiver or preamp. It is superior to the third-generation Sonys in this regard—a flaw that gravely undercuts the practical value of the otherwise massive improvements in the Sony '520 and '620.
The Wheat and the Chaff
The good news is easy to summarize. The Meridian MCD Professional is clearly the best "elite" CD player I have heard. It outperforms the McIntosh MCD7000, Nakamichi OMS5 and OMS7, and Revox B-225 in virtually every sonic respect, including bass, harmonic detail and air, fatigue-free highs, and lack of "transistoritis." It clearly outperforms the latest Mission 7000R, which actually rivals the regular Meridian MCD. The 7000R has arguably better upper midrange and treble detail than the regular Meridian MCD, but has failed to correct its overly fatiguing sound, and lack of bass energy and midrange warmth. The 7000R does not compete with the MCD Pro in any of these respects.
As for the more run-of-the-mill Yamahas, Philips, Kyoceras, Magnavoxes, Marantzes, NADs, NECs, Pioneers, Denons, Technics, older Sonys, Hitachis—they are simply not competitive. Regardless of their respective claims to advanced technology, they lack harmonic detail, their upper octaves are at least faintly harsh, their bass is weak, they demonstrate occasional incompatibility with given CDs, and have that mid-fi receiver sound character. These characteristics don't keep them from being very listenable, and competitive or superior to equally-priced sound sources; they do put them far below the state-of-the-art.
The bad news is more complex. The MCD Professional costs $1400; it's hard to come by; it will soon be superseded. And there other players I can't comment on: the Adcom, Cambridge, Discrete Technology, PS Audio, and other high-end players still in development. Some of the Professional's features can be had with the regular MCD, which has been improved significantly since its early reviews in Stereophile. The MCD sells for $700, but the Professional is embarrassingly better.
I would opt for the Meridian MCD Professional, or wait to see what the new generation of elite players will bring; some should cost only about half as much. If I did not have the bucks and still wanted an interim CD player, I'd choose the cheapest Magnavox around (now well under $250 at discount houses), and either bypass the output capacitors, or remove them and add a black box using high grade polys (footnote 2). This el-cheapo modification will give you sound far superior to 90% of the top-priced CD players on the market, and bring you close to the Mission 7000R or Meridian with the vast majority of today's CDs.
Further Bad News: A Dearth of Source
I shouldn't give the impression that the superiority of the Meridian MCD Professional means there is a flood of CDs with either audiophile quality or great performances. CD can offer superior bass, timbral accuracy, and linearity to compensate for some remaining weaknesses in harmonic sweetness and transient detail. But, boy the bulk of the CDs are poorly produced, accentuated in the high end, flat in soundstage, and brutally over-revealing of multimiking.
It is painfully clear that audiophile record labels are having one hell of a problem moving into CD. The somewhat bass-heavy and treble-shy character of most Telarcs suited the early CD players, but only the most recent Telarcs stand the test against the new generation. Sheffield's CDs seem to reflect a love/hate relationship: love of money and contempt for the medium. The end results are generally mediocre CDs that highlight the middle-aged "bubble gum" rock/jazz/pop character of most Sheffield discs. Even Opus 3, which issued nothing less than outstanding analog recordings, seems fairly erratic in CD. Proprius and Reference Recordings are exceptions, but scarcely offer a cornucopia of choice.
It is far from easy to find any source of useful CD reviews, one that pushes recording artists and engineers to do their best. The coverage in the undergrounds is negligible, erratic in scope, and/or mindlessly hostile. The traditional hi-fi press is bland, equally erratic, and/or solely interested in promoting the medium (and thus their advertising). The new US and British CD magazines have the aesthetic credibility of a syphilitic hyena. The only magazine that even tries to fully and ethically cover CD is the British Hi Fi News & Record Review, and I must still award it one of its own "Golden Turkey" awards for "the most debased and confused use of a top rating (Category A* and A) for CD sound quality by music reviewers who either know far more about music than sound or must have reference systems of distinctly questionable quality."
Whether you love sound or music, the Meridian MCD Professional is still only a seminal light at the end of the CD tunnel; the analog record remains this month's king. The mind boggles at what will happen with 8mm tape and DAT entering the struggle.
Whatever the potential promise of 8mm, imagine the harm that will be done to any effort to make CD a fully mature medium when Japan throws another half-developed ringer into the high end. Imagine the quality of the recordings that will emerge when already-confused engineers try to produce the proper audiophile quality master for 8mm, CD, analog record, and DAT. Will they even try? How many people will be driven to video by yet another high-end format of uncertain initial quality—and the high-end feuds that will follow?
The tragedy may well be that the Meridian MCD Professional is a seminal advance in an industry marching determinedly to the rear.—Anthony H. Cordesman
Footnote 1: I question whether it is correct to specify 16-bit resolution for a player that uses 14-bit D/A converters, even with the oversampling technique. It may be that it provides resolution as good as the 16-bit converters, but they're not operating with 16-bit resolution.—Larry Archibald
Footnote 2: George Graves, who riled up Madrigal with his tantalum-capacitor accusation, will be writing an article on do-it-yourself capacitor bypassing; it should be ready just before or after Christmas.—Larry Archibald