Meridian 208 CD player/preamplifier Page 3

Again, however, even though the multi-bit player was no slouch in this regard, the Bitstream player was that little bit better at decoding the sense of space in a recording. On both my piano recording and Robert Harley's guitar and bass recording on the Stereophile Test CD, there was just that essential bit more of a sense of sonic reality via the 208. And on Peter Mitchell's organ recording on the same CD, the ostinato offbeat eighth-notes at the work's beginning were more easily placed in space.

How did the 208 stack up against the Kinergetics KCD-40, a player that has received universal approval in the high-end press for its musicality? Again, tonally, there were audible differences between the two players. The Kinergetics was softer-toned in the highs, the 208 leaner in the lower mids; both fell slightly behind the 206 in bass weight. But spatially, I was hard put to hear any difference. Both had a similarly solid sense of a soundstage hanging between and behind the loudspeakers. Both had equally valid presentations of the music.

The 208 is obviously up there with the best-sounding players and processors. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to put it in the ring with the best-sounding CD sound I have heard, that from the Stax DAC-X1t, a processor which both gets the closest I have heard to analog and costs a cool $12,000! Again, one of the 208's optical data outputs was used to feed the processor.

With the exception of the occasional listening session at LA's or RH's, I hadn't listened to the Stax for some months—since I compared it with the 206, in fact. With the first track to bounce back the laser beam, Jennifer Warnes's "Ballad of the Runaway Horse" from Rob Wasserman's Duets (MCA MCAD 42131), that feeling, as Sam Tellig put it, of there being "more there there" came back in spades. Not only did Miss Warnes's lispy contralto hang there in space between the speakers, but there was a believable but admittedly totally artificial sense of space occupying the loudspeaker end of the room. "Delicious" is the only word to describe the spatial spread of the accompanying "Ooohs" that come in the second verse as decoded by the Stax.

Switching to the Meridian closed-in the sense of space slightly but also flattened the individual images within that space. It was still excellent; it just didn't have the same degree of palpability as the Stax. Tonally, the more expensive processor presented the voice with somewhat less of a phlegmy edge, the 208 sounding a little leaner through the midrange. The 208's midbass was also fatter than that of the Stax, the tube processor having lows that were as deep but more cleanly defined.

The ultimate test
All things considered, however, the 208 produced some of the finest sound from CD I have heard in my listening room, even if, as Larry Archibald remarked after we had spent an afternoon auditioning the Infinity Modulus system fed by the 208 and the Linn, "Your LP player still sounds better."

I decided, therefore, on one final listening test, one that I rarely try as, with the exception of the Stax, I have yet to hear CD replay come close. This was a particularly cruel test, as it involved playing the Chopin track from the Stereophile Test CD on the 208, its fixed outputs feeding the Mark Levinson No.20.5s directly, then comparing that sound with that of the original 15ips analog master tape with the balanced outputs of the recorder (a Revox PR99, my A77 on which the recording had been made suffering from senility), again feeding the Levinsons directly. There was therefore no preamplifier or volume control of any kind to degrade the sound. Loudspeakers were the Monitor Audio Studio 10s, interconnects AudioQuest Lapis.

As I mentioned earlier, the 208 sounds particularly fine on this track, decoding an excellent sense of space and throwing a well-defined piano image. But when I played the tape, as much as I enjoyed the sound of the 208 in isolation, the tape had a sense of solidity, of reality, that transcended the sound from CD. Okay, no matter how good the player, a CD is only as good as the A/D converter with which the original analog signal, from microphone or tape recorder, had been transferred to digital. In this case, I had used the Nakamichi A/D to transfer the analog tape to R-DAT, a processor which had seemed to sound very good. But even played on the otherwise excellent-sounding 208, it was like comparing superb, even enjoyable hi-fi with something that had much of the palpability of the real thing.

Operationally, the 208 was a doddle to use, track access being fast and the remote-control functions intuitive to grasp. Unlike the 206, the control logic now allows tracks to be selected directly with the "Next" button or the numeric keypad, without the "Play" button having to be pushed. Like the 206, though, the 208 still ignores subsequent commands while it is acting on the current one; you can't control volume, therefore, while the player is searching for a selected track, which is a minor inconvenience.

If typical CD sound resembles shaped and textured noise, Meridian's 208 joins that select group of components that more closely approaches the ease and spectral purity of good analog sound. Yes, I still preferred the ridiculously expensive Stax processor, but remembering that the 208 costs a quarter that highflying component's price, and considering that it includes a superb-sounding, remote-control line-level preamplifier, and that it is, at least in the eyes of this audiophile, beautiful, it can almost be considered good value for money. Buy it and live happily ever after. But to be honest, if you have an older CD player with a good transport—something like the Marantz CD94, for example, or even the Meridian 206—you can probably get quite close to the 208's sound with the $990 Meridian 203. Now that's a bargain!

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