Music in the Round #50 Page 2
I compared the BD-A1000 with the Sony XA-5400ES SACD player using the Marantz AV-7005, AudioQuest Carbon HDMI cables, and SACDs and BDs that I had in duplicate. The Marantz's readout indicated that both players were outputting 176.4kHz, but while I could distinguish them by ear, choosing a preference was difficult. Sara K.'s voice in "Set You Free," from her Hell or High Water (SACD/CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.4039.2), was slightly mellower and more forward through the Sony, but the Yamaha countered with superior delineation of instruments and ambience while retaining a quite convincing rendition of K.'s voice. The curious thing is that, each time I switched between the players, each spinning a copy of the same album, I was impressed with what the "new" player offered, whether Sony or Yamaha.
I repeated this comparison with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony's recording of Verdi's Requiem (SACD/CD, CSO-Resound CSOR 901 1008) and reached a similarly complex conclusion. That this recording is a little thin and bright, was apparent with both players. Still, the Sony sounded decidedly more "present" and palpable, especially with the solo voices, while the Yamaha offered a bigger, more spacious soundstage. The Sony had more weight, especially in big climaxes, but I was more involved while listening to the Yamaha.
The wonderful Blu-ray set of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010 (BD, Rhino 525668) served only to confirm that, without an exact reference standard for what the original sound actually was, the players offered two different but equally satisfying renditions. Bass was richer and more prominent with the Sony, but seemed to extend deeper and with better delineation with the Yamaha. I got a better sense of the stadium environment with the Yamaha; the Sony made it sound more like a very good studio recording.
I did a similar side-by-side comparison of the Yamaha with Oppo's BDP-83SE universal Blu-ray player, this time in my Manhattan system with Meridian and McIntosh electronics and AudioQuest Vodka HDMI cables. The Oppo's output was sampled at 88.2kHz, and since the Meridian HD-621 can't handle sample rates above 96kHz, the Yamaha automatically reset its output to 88.2kHz. The playing field was thus level. I used the Pipes Rhode Island anthology (CD, Riago CD 101), Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music's set of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (SACD/CD, Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461.62), and Ole Bull's delightful La Verbena de San Juan, with violin soloist Annar Folleso and Ole Kristian Ruud conducting the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (BD+SACD/CD, 2L 2L-067-SABD). With the pipe organs recorded on Pipes Rhode Island, I found the Yamaha was able to render the various church acoustics more naturally, though I did take pleasure in the Oppo's slightly richer midrange.
With the Bach, individual instruments seemed a bit more rounded through the BDP-83SE, but there was a distinctly greater sense of ensemble with the BD-A1000, if tinged with a bit of tizz. The contest was more lopsided with the Bull. Although both players beautifully presented the solo violin at dead center, I found the Yamaha's re-creation of the very surround-y orchestra beguiling, with amazingly taut and powerful low-bass.
I assessed the BD-A1000's analog outputs in two ways. First, I fed them into the stereo analog inputs of the Marantz AV-7500 and the Meridian 861 and allowed both to redigitize the Yamaha's analog signal so that I could A/B it with itself via HDMI. Allowing for the fact that the analog signals were being subjected to additional processing, the Yamaha sounded clean and open, and much like its HDMI output. Second, I compared the Yamaha's stereo outputs to the analog outputs of the Sony and Oppo players via the Parasound Halo JC 2 BP preamplifier. Here, too, each followed suit, except that the Yahama's more noticeable lack of midbass warmth might sound thin in some systems, its prodigious bass notwithstanding. The BD-A1000's HF detail and delicacy were less tolerant of bright recordings than were the smoother trebles of the Oppo BDP-83SE or the Sony, but were similar to that of Oppo's BDP-83.
You may be as incredulous as I was that there was a difference between players used as digital transports via HDMI. Yet, as I compared the Yamaha with the others in both of my systems and with a variety of recordings, the consistency of what I heard forced me to accept it: The other players presented soloists and ensembles more directly, and brought them into my rooms. Conversely, the Yamaha BD-A1000 was better able to re-create larger spaces with larger ensembles, albeit at the expense of some midbass richness.
Yamaha's Aventage BD-A1000 is a sharp-looking, great-sounding machine that will play any extant digital format well. It sounded better in my better system, where I could really relish its low-frequency performance. It also offered a remarkably broad, deep soundstage that, given the right recordings, transported me to the concert hall more convincingly than did the other players. The Aventage BD-A1000 works for me.
Meridian 861 Reference v6 Digital Surround Controller
My first Meridian component was a used 201 preamplifier that I picked up in a shop in Virginia while on a vacation two decades ago. It was an analog preamp with a phono stage, a separate power supply, and a remote control as large as the preamp itself. The remote should clue you in to the fact that, analog though it was, the 201 was controlled by a microprocessor. Inside were circuit boards studded with many discrete components such as would raise the neck hairs of most high-end "purists" of the day.
I experienced my next Meridian products when I reviewed a full 5.0-channel Meridian system. That was a revelation, and my curiosity about multichannel sound became a commitment. The 861 Reference v2 processor in that system ran counter to the styles of the late 1990s, with a modular construction that had more in common with contemporary personal computers than with typical high-end audio components. What the 861 v2 offered was a degree of control and audio processing beyond the expectations of the typical audiophile, along with outstanding sound quality, and the promise of continuing upgrades to keep pace with new formats and codecs.
I bought an 861 Reference v2, and soon unhesitatingly upgraded it to v3 and, later, to v4. The addition of a multichannel analog input board allowed the 861 to accept multichannel signals from SACD and, now, Blu-ray players, but that incurred additional A/D conversion that, while ostensibly transparent, was less than ideal. But with the rise of HDMI, Meridian was faced with the issue of whether to incorporate the video-based communication link into a new input board, and thus introduce high-resolution (and high-frequency) digital video signals into a complex and sophisticated audio-only component. Instead, Meridian opted to keep the 861 Reference v4 isolated from digital video, and its potential for noise that could corrupt the audio signal, by offering the HD621 HDMI Audio Processor ($2995). This box provides six HDMI inputs, and separates the digital audio signals for output to the 861 via multiple S/PDIF-like connections, or via Meridian Multichannel High Resolution (MMHR) using an RJ-45 Ethernet-like connection. It also offers the possibility of upsampling with Meridian's apodizing filters.