Meridian MCD & MCD Pro CD players George M. Graves II Review
It is interesting how, as audiophiles, we tend to rate the acceptability of a component according to our expectations of its capabilities. I know people with $10,000+ stereo systems who are perfectly happy to listen to the audio emanating from their mono VHS or Beta VCRs! This audio isn't even up to the performance standards of a good AM radio station—why do these people put up with it? Because they expect no better (footnote 1).
None of us expect an FM tuner, regardless of cost, to sound as good as our phono equipment. Ditto, our cassette tape decks. We know the level of performance that we can rea1istica1ly expect, and we pitch our threshold of quality acceptability accordingly
Enter the CD player. We have been told that this marvel of technology will replace our venerable phonographs because it is perfect! Thus, we expect it to sound at least as good as, if not better than, a fine phonograph system. So who could blame audiophiles for sending up howls of displeasure when the first-generation digital players did not come up to their expectations? When one looks at the analog sections of these CD players, it is easy to see why they were found wanting. The quality of circuitry and parts in the audio sections of most CD players looks more like that of the output sections of cassette decks and FM tuners than the phono stages of record-playing equipment.
This is where the small British company of Meridian comes into the picture. Realizing that the analog section of previous CD players has been the probable cause of the despised Digital Sound, they took the best consumer player that they could find (the Philips/Magnavox unit) and reengineered its analog section with an ear to bringing these machines up to audiophile quality.
Opening the small but beautifully constructed MCD, I noticed that the entire back third of the top printed circuit board seems to have been stripped of components. Lifting this board for a peek underneath, I saw that a smaller board had been mounted piggyback fashion over the stripped area. The components found on this small board are discrete transistors, a pair of Signetics 5534 IC op-amps, and some high-quality resistors arid capacitors.
Curiously, two 68µF tantalum electrolytics were also found in the signal path of this new board. Meridian has taken a very puzzling approach to improving this player. According to Walt Jung, in his treatise on capacitors for Audio magazine a couple of years ago, tanta1um electrolytics are the worst of all types of capacitors for passing audio signals. Also, Meridian states in their literature that there are no ICs in the signal path of the modified unit. I traced the Meridian circuit with the Signetics linear data book in hand, and the Signetics 5534 op-amps are definitely in the signal path. And op-amps are quite definitely ICs. I have nothing against 5534s they are about the best op-amps around. I only mention their presence because it would seem to contradict one of Meridian's claims for the MCD.
Comparing the MCD to the sound of my reference player (a Magnavox FD1000 with electrolytic output capacitors replaced by like-value polypropylene units) was an interesting experience. My modified Maggy (footnote 2) sounds much better than a stock unit, especially in the highs. The poly capacitors have orders of magnitude less dielectric absorption than do the FD1000's factory-installed aluminum electrolytics. This means that dynamic high-frequency distortion is reduced considerably, an improvement so apparent that even non-audiophiles can readily hear it.
The Meridian player, an even more extensively modified version of a player essentially the same as my reference unit, should have sounded better still. But I have to report that the sound from this unit is a mixed bag.
On the plus side, the Meridian images much better than my reference player. It gives a wider stereo stage, and each instrument is much more solidly placed. To test imaging, I used several real stereo recordings—ones which had been recorded either with a single-point stereo microphone (the Sibelius), or were recorded using an X-Y stereo pair (the Ginastera). I feel that only with true stereo recordings (that means no multi-miked Londons, DGs, RCAs, if you please) can the imaging capabilities of a component truly be judged.
The opening of Ginastera's Panambi Suite (Zoltan Rozsnyai, Philharmonica Hungarica, Realtime CD RT2003) consists of varied orchestral texturings used to evoke a primitive mood. As the piece opens, the cellos play a low, chorus-like melody. This is then picked up by the brasses, and finally echoed by strings and percussion. When played back by the Maggy, the cellos seem to be a little left of center, but vaguely so. When they pick up the melody, the brasses seem very far back in the orchestra, but it is hard to pinpoint any instrument laterally. With the Meridian, the cellos are exact1y where they should: halfway between center stage and far right. The brasses are easily picked out left to right, but they don't seem very far behind the cellos. This tells me that the Meridian does not reproduce as fine a sense of front-to-back perspective as does my reference player, but is able to place the instruments more specifically and realistically in the lateral plane.
On the other hand, the string sound of my Magnavox player is smoother and more detailed than it is on the Meridian, which actually sounds somewhat gritty and dark in comparison. The strings on Sibelius' Andante Festive (Neeme Jarvi, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, BIS CD222) have a smooth, ethereal texture in this recording. My reference player brings out this quality with none of the steeliness of the Meridian. It sounds almost as if the Meridian has high amounts of harmonic distortion above about 5kHz.
From the moment that I saw those two tantalum electrolytics in the output, I wondered if they couldn't be the culprit; one Sunday afternoon I could stand the suspense no longer. I carefully bypassed the two tantalum capacitors, and connected the Meridian up to the outboard box containing the two 20µF polypropylene caps I use for my Magnavox.
The Meridian's high end just opened up! The strings became sweet and effortless. The top became light and airy The darkness was gone. Curiously, the soundstage became deeper, while maintaining the extraordinary height and width noticed earlier. Now the Meridian lives up to its promise and is the best-sounding player I have ever heard.
I suggest that Meridian consider ditching those tantalums. Since I know that there is no room in this unit for polypropylene capacitors—they are huge, one 20µF audio-grade polyprope measuring 2" long by 1" in diameter!—I suggest that Meridian redesign their analog section to balance the output with no DC. They can then dispense with output capacitors altogether.
Meridian has improved the original Philips (Magnavox) player immensely. There can be no doubt that the Meridian sounds far superior to an unmodified FD1000. But as long as that fine signal must pass through two tantalum capacitors on its way to the listener's ears, the true potential of this unit will not be realized.—George M. Graves II
Footnote 1: With a little low-end boost (below 60Hz, max at 40Hz) a non–hi-fi videocassette can sound better than what one hears in a movie theater. And since most of what people listen to from a VCR are film soundtracks anway, they probably figure they're ahead of the game with the sound they get.—J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 2: Please note: "Maggy" apparently refers to Magnavox, while "Maggie" and "Maggies" refer to Magnepan!—Larry Archibald