Music in the Round #50 Page 3
At this point in the saga, Meridian had been advancing their digital-processing and D/A-conversion technologies in other products, particularly the 808.2 Reference, which John Atkinson called "the finest-sounding CD player I have yet heard" in his April 2009 review. For the 808.2, Meridian, in their words, "designed a much improved analogue output card. It has better analogue, digital, power supply and clock circuits . . . partly possible because CPLD (Complex Programmable Logic Device) technology had improved since the original 808." This would be transferred to the 861, but "with different combinations of balanced and unbalanced outputs. . . . However in both 808.3 and 861v6 the clocks are also used in a different way. Where possible (from analog, CD or Sooloos) we have a pull-clock system that gives the jitter isolation benefit of the FIFO system but with an even more stable output clock."
The hardware and clocking improvements had other consequences. "For example, the reference oscillators were upgraded to lower noise and more controllable designs and relocated on the digital output cards to squeeze extra performance. Stereophile readers can find out about upgrading 861 Reference v14 to v6 status by emailing Meridian.
On the outside, the 861 Reference v6 ($25,995) looks like a shiny new 861 with a new Meridian "M" escutcheon on the front replacing the word "Meridian," but under the skin it's all new. Some older modular boards are still compatible, and an array of new boards and functions is offered. Most significant are SpeakerLink connections for Meridian's DSP speakers, inputs for MMHR, an "endpoint" card for optimal performance with Meridian's Sooloos music-server systems, a unique, proprietary apodizing upsampling filter for all digital inputs, and 24-bit/192kHz DACs.
I have said before that speakers and room acoustics are the biggest determinants of system performance, and that the electronics, assuming they are of requisite quality, can have only a much more subtle effect. Since I have been listening to music in my Manhattan room for years, and the acoustics and speakers have been a constant for months, I expected that swapping out only my v4 for the almost identical v6 digital processor would require that I go through lengthy comparisons with my reference discs to hear any differences. But I was absolutely stunned. It was as if the entire system had been wiped away. I was hearing music with newfound clarity and smoothness.
The changeover occurred with my FM tuner tuned to WQXR and their oh-so-familiar voices. No longer were those voices overripe, as if the announcers were too close to the microphone; instead, they sounded natural and seemed to be right in the center speakerwhich, of course, was not even playing for this two-channel broadcast. With all voices, and with music, there was a sense that the cobwebs had been brushed away, particularly those that affect the low end of the human voice. I immediately hauled out Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's disc of Handel arias with Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (SACD/CD, Avie AV0030), one of my references for voice quality, balance of soloist and orchestra, and all-out loveliness. The hush the Meridian seemed to cast over the room I attribute to its exquisite delineations of Lieberson's voice and of the instruments, each of which was placed securely in the soundstage and unencumbered by false interchannel cues. The midrange and treble were delicately pure and transparent.
This clarity and lack of distraction benefited every recording I played, from Pavlo Beznosiuk's instrument in J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (SACD/CD, Linn CKD 366) to Szymanowski's hugely powerful King Roger with Mark Elder and the Vienna Symphony (BD, C Major 702904). Everything seemed to emerge from a velvety silence uncloaked by spurious resonance but fixed firmly within the recorded ambience. The 861 Reference v6's delivery of power and dynamics was readily demonstrable with the opening movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, in the classic recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (SACD/CD, RCA Living Stereo 66377). From the opening solo-violin passages, through the building crescendo with its emphasis on brass and upper strings, to the blossoming of the orchestra with the low strings, I felt the size and weight of a full symphony without electronic limits. And the drum kits in any track on Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010 (BD, Rhino 525668) let me appreciate how the Meridian's huge "music to noise" ratio contributes to dynamic impact.
Sure, I used Meridian Room Correction (MRC), carried over intact from v4 to v6 of the 861, and it did contribute to the quality of the sound. Depending on the profile chosenMusic, 2 Channel Logic, Multichannela total of 15 to 23 filters was applied to up to six channels (in my system, two B&W 800 Diamonds for front L/R, one B&W 802D center, two B&W 804S surrounds, and one JL Audio Fathom f113 subwoofer). But the major impact of the 861 Reference v6 was clearly audible even before I switched in MRC. MRC only put the icing on the cake, smoothing the in-room response of all the speakers below 250Hz, and shortening decay at several frequencies to create an overall room decay of about 350 milliseconds. From 250Hz up, the 861 v6 applied no EQ, and all was open and grainless.
How to reconcile the internal complexity of Meridian's 861 Reference v6 with the disarming purity of the sounds it reproduces? If I had to, I could ascribe it to the long and logical evolution of the 861, during which Meridian has spared no technological expense in the effort to improve all aspects of performance from the perspectives of both engineering and psychoacoustics. Still, it perplexes me that all of its sophisticated machinery leaves fewer fingerprints on the music than do simpler designs. I just have to accept this latest version for what the 861 Reference has always been and still is: the best-sounding audio processor I have heard.