Meridian 263 D/A processor & 200 CD transport Page 2

The 200 is also unusual in that Meridian makes all the pcbs and wrote the control software. Most manufacturers buy ready-built servo boards (and sometimes even the entire decoder board) and use the standard control software. Meridian has optimized servo performance with its own four-layer pcb (four-layer boards are expensive) and its own laser pickup control software. This is said to result in better sonic performance. Moreover, the 200 uses sophisticated tracking strategies to keep the laser on track, reportedly resulting in less error correction having to be performed on the recovered data. The 200 also features careful layout and shielding to achieve a clean recovered signal (indicated by the "eye pattern," footnote 2).

In addition to improved sonic performance, custom software provides features not found on standard units—the multi-room capability built into all Meridian products, for example. The 200 uses two microprocessor controllers, one controlling the servo systems, the other governing the input commands and front-panel display.

The digital output stage uses what is reported to be a very low-jitter precision reclocking circuit right at the output. The main oscillator is next to the output circuit. A toroidal transformer couples the digital output to the RCA jack.

Appearance, build quality, and functionality are all first-rate. The 200 and 263 make a visually attractive and ergonomically appealing combination. The 200 had a few quirks I wasn't used to: When skipping a track, the 200 continues playing the previous track for a few seconds rather than instantly seeking the requested track.

The first thing that struck me about the 263/200 combination was its extraordinary sense of ease and lack of treble hash. The layer of white-noise–like digital grundge so often heard riding over the music was noticeably absent. This gave the presentation a remarkable smoothness and purity. The treble was softer than I'm accustomed to hearing from digital—particularly low-priced digital. Moreover, the treble didn't have a metallic or hard character. Instead, there was an analog-like gentleness. Consequently, long listening sessions were fatigue-free; there wasn't the desire to turn the music down—or off—after a few hours.

In fact, I rate the 263/200 combination as among the least fatiguing digital front ends I've auditioned, regardless of price. It's up there with the Levinson No.30 processor and No.31 transport pair ($22,500) and the Linn Karik/Numerik CD player ($5850). No, the Meridian system didn't have some of the qualities that put the Levinson front end in a class by itself, but it had a similar sense of ease, comfort, and relaxation.

Compared with the Sumo Theorem, the 263 was softer in the treble, had a warmer overall balance, and was less analytical-sounding. Although the 263 had a gentle smoothness, there wasn't the often concomitant lack of musical detail. Many processors without an aggressive treble achieve their smoothness at the expense of obscuring musical information. The presentation isn't offensive, but neither is it musically involving. The 263 struck a good balance between revealing real musical information and not sounding analytical. I cannot overemphasize the value of this balance in a product's ability to provide long-term musical satisfaction. If the product errs on the side of the "ruthlessly revealing," listening quickly becomes fatiguing. If the component turns the music into a bland, syrupy mess, the music is less compelling. The 263 wasn't overtly soft. Rather, I found myself being able to listen for long periods at high volume and discovering a lack of fatigue and a desire to continue listening.

Another characteristic that made the 263 and 263/200 pair so easy to listen to for long periods was their natural portrayal of instrumental and vocal textures. The mids had a complete lack of glare and hardness. The harmonic structure of instruments' timbres was rendered with ease and smoothness. Violins sounded as if played with bows instead of hacksaw blades. Saxophone had a warm, round, and fat texture, rather than sounding thin, reedy, pinched, and metallic. The 263 was the antithesis of coarse, strident, and aggressive.

Moreover, the grain overlaying the music was gone, leaving a sense of harmonic "rightness" and warmth. The 263's ability to render natural timbres produced a compelling palpability. I'm not talking about soundstage immediacy, but the impression that the instruments were real, with natural rather than synthetic textures.

Despite the 263's terrific sense of involvement, it had some weaknesses. These were apparent both in single-presentation listening and in comparison with the superb PS Audio UltraLink (which is more than twice the 263's price) and the Sumo Theorem. First, the 263's bass tended to be soft and warm rather than taut and well-defined. The 263 lacked the solid, ironfisted presentation heard from the Theta products or even from the UltraLink, a processor that has good but not outstanding bass. Again, this was less a factor on classical music—particularly small-scale or choral works—than with rock, blues, and jazz.


Similarly, the 263 was less dynamic-sounding than the UltraLink and Proceed PDP 3, lacking the punch and slam of these two processors. Rather than being visceral and driving, the 263 was more polite, refined, and subtle. Drums didn't have the explosive kick and power heard from some processors. Compared with the $300-less-expensive Cobalt (by Theta Digital) 307 DAC, the 263 lacked deep, driving bass and the tight, punchy reproduction of bass drum. On the first record by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (Warner Bros. 9 26124-2), the superbly recorded bass guitar didn't have the depth, tautness, power, or rhythmic drive of the UltraLink or, especially, the PDP 3. How great a liability the 263's soft bass and somewhat limited dynamics are will greatly depend on individual listeners' sonic and musical tastes (and associated components).

Soundstaging was excellent and unexpected at this price level. There was a solid impression of images hanging in space, with depth, air around image outlines, and separation of individual instruments. The 263 was able to present music as a collection of distinct images rather than as a homogenized and synthetic continuum. Many inexpensive processors fail in this area; the 263 was a refreshing change. Moreover, image focus, soundstage delineation, and transparency were all superb. The 263 threw a palpable, well-defined spatial presentation between and behind the loudspeakers. Compared to the PDP 3 and UltraLink, the 263 had less of that "see-through" transparency, but was among the best I've heard at this price level. The 263 was a little more opaque and thick than the UltraLink, slightly reducing the ability to see back into the soundstage. The Theorem, a processor that excels in transparency, was also better than the 263 in this regard. Generally, the 263's spatial perspective was less vivid, immediate, and incisive than the other three processors.

Overall, these characteristics added up to a presentation that some will enjoy more than others. Although I had specific criticisms of the 263—particularly dynamics and bass tautness—I found it immensely musical and enjoyable. The 263's freedom from treble hash, lack of midrange glare, and wonderful sense of ease made up for its shortcomings. This degree of smoothness, refinement, and beautiful portrayal of midrange textures was unprecedented at this price. Indeed, the 263 rivaled the Mark Levinson No.30 in its allowing me to enjoy the music without being assaulted by it.

Interestingly, the 200 transport had many of the 263's characteristics. The sense of ease was heard with the 263 driven by all four transports on hand: the Meridian 200, Levinson No.31, Proceed PDP 3, and Marantz CD-11 Mk.II. When auditioning the 263/200 combination, the 263's best qualities were enhanced.

Switching between the 200 and No.31 revealed the 200's strengths and weaknesses: The Meridian transport didn't have the detail, transparency, or soundstage depth of the reference No.31, but neither did it add grain, forwardness, or etch—as did the Marantz CD player used as a transport. Commendably, the 200's shortcomings were those of omission rather than commission. Although the 200 was excellent, I felt the $2500 Proceed PDT 3 was the better transport. The Madrigal unit had tighter, deeper, and more powerful bass by comparison. The PDT 3 also had better dynamics, with more punch, kick, and rhythmic drive. The 200 tended to be softer, more laid-back, and less incisive—very much like the 263 DAC. On small-scale classical music—Gary Schocker, Flutist (Chesky CD46) for example—the 200's more recessed presentation was a plus, but on any music with power and drive, the PDT was the transport of choice. On Robben Ford's Talk to Your Daughter (Warner Bros. 9 25647-2), the punch and rhythmic drive of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Roscoe Beck were better conveyed by the PDT 3. The PDT 3 also had greater transparency and soundstage depth. Nevertheless, the 200 fared well in relation to the excellent Proceed transport, considering the $1050 price difference.

Beyond the specific analyses of various sonic strengths and weaknesses, I found the 263/200 combination immensely involving musically. The lack of electronic artifacts made it so easy to forget about the playback system and just enjoy the music. This is, I believe, a more reliable indicator of a product's ability to provide long-term musical satisfaction than a dissection of individual characteristics.

The Meridian 263 digital processor and 200 CD transport formed a synergistic pair that rivaled many much more expensive digital front ends. Their best quality was an extraordinary sense of ease, gentleness, and freedom from fatigue. In this regard, the 263/200 is among the best digital sources I've heard, regardless of price. The 263/200 also presented midrange textures with a lack of grain, glare, and hardness that was unique at this price level. These qualities were apparent in both the 263 and 200 when used separately with other transports and processors. As a combination, they brought out the best in each other, and offered a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable musical experience.

Compared with the Sumo Theorem, an excellent $799 converter, the 263 had a softer treble, warmer tonal balance, and fuller bass. By contrast, the Theorem sounded a little on the etched and analytical side, as described in my original review. The Theorem, however, had greater soundstage transparency and superior dynamics.

Different listeners value different things in music reproduction; the 263/200 will appeal to some listeners more than to others. If you're into driving bass and explosive dynamics, the 263/200 may not be to your taste. If, however, you value refinement, ease, and lack of digital artifacts such as glare, stridency, and fatigue, the Meridian combination holds some very pleasant surprises.

I can say without hesitation that the Meridian 263/200 combination is the best-sounding digital front end I've heard anywhere near its $2350 price. It is quite simply a steal. Considering the 263 alone, it is the best converter I've heard under $1500 and warrants a solid Class C recommendation in Stereophile's "Recommended Components." If you can spend $2000, I recommend the PS Audio UltraLink; it was clearly the better processor. At any budget below $2000, however, the 263 should be on the short list of processors to audition. Further, the 200 transport is an equally great bargain; it had many of the same musical qualities heard from the best transports, and enhanced the 263's best characteristics. This enthusiastic recommendation must, however, be accompanied by the caveat that the Meridian's type of presentation may not appeal to all listeners.

Give these new Meridian products an audition. You may find yourself, as I did, happily playing music hour after hour and forgetting about the hardware.

Footnote 2: See "Jitter, Errors, and Magic" in Vol.13 No.5 for a capsule description of how data are recovered from a CD.
Meridian Audio Ltd.
North American Distributor: Meridian America Inc.
351 Thornton Road #108
Lithia Springs, GA 30122
(404) 344-7111

Ortofan's picture

... Bob Stuart's engineering expertise?
If so, maybe you'd rather get the player that JGH would have bought:

Indydan's picture

Meridian gear has always been over priced and under performing.