Meridian Digital Theatre surround-sound music system Kalman Rubinson August 2003

Kalman Rubinson wrote again about the Reference 800 & Reference 861 in August 2003 (Vol.26 No.8):

They say you never forget your first time, and that's certainly true of my first experience of the Meridian Reference 800 player ($17,000-$19,000) and Reference 861 preamplifier-processor (also $17,000-$19,000), reported on in the February 2000 issue. As it was also my first exposure to multichannel sound—in the context of a full Meridian system including their DSP6000 and DSP5000 powered speakers, no less—I was deeply impressed.

Now I can look back and see what I missed. I failed to take the time to audition the Meridian electronics with my own amps and speakers, and I had no discrete, uncompressed multichannel discs. At the time I was preparing that review, DVD-Audio and SACD were only talked about, not yet experienced.

This time around, things were different. First, I ran the 800-861 with my reference stereo system and with my multichannel system, each consisting of amps and speakers with which I'm intimately familiar. Second, this most-recent version of the 800 player is equipped to play DVD-A discs and to send the high-resolution signals, stereo or multichannel, to the 861 processor in digital format via Meridian's MHR protocol.

For multichannel, this is implemented with three two-channel digital interconnects between the 800 and the 861. This makes Meridian one of the first firms to permit all-digital processing for volume, channel, and bass management without additional D/A and A/D conversions. A few other manufacturers have developed comparable proprietary methods, and soon there will be a widely implemented industry standard for this to appear in all such devices. In addition, these v.3 editions of the Reference series offer upsampling of all sources.

Like the first time around, Meridian delivered, installed, and set up the 800-861 in my stereo system. They were mated with the Sonic Frontiers Power-3, Bel Canto eVo2, or Classé CAM 350 monoblocks, and the Revel Ultima Studio loudspeakers. A Sony XA-777ES SACD player and Sonic Frontiers Line-3 preamplifier were the alternate route.

The performance of the Meridian 800-861 was as remarkably excellent as before with all sources—even redigitizing the Sony's analog output—and all power amps. I expected that. What was new was the 800-861's ability to play DVD-Audio discs, and in that capacity the pairing also excelled. Playing stereo DVD-A tracks, the Meridian combo surpassed anything I'd heard before from DVD-A. Indeed, its superb stereo performance confirmed my status as a noncombatant in the war of the DVD-A and SACD formats.

A good comparison was afforded by the simultaneous release of Ray Brown's Soular Energy on SACD (Groove Note 10153) and DVD-A (Hi-Res HRM2011). The DVD-A arrived first, so I'd played it many times before the SACD arrived. When I finally got to compare them (DVD-A via Meridian, SACD via Sony), I was hard-pressed to decide on a preference. Sure, I could just discern a little more "airiness" with the SACD, and, at times, a little more "palpability" with the DVD-A—but I suspect there were just too many variables at work for me to assign the cause of these minor differences.

But the "Red Book" CD track on the Soular Energy SACD, played and upsampled by the Meridian, was as magnificent and detailed as the more advanced formats. Particularly with reissues, but sometimes with new releases as well, the Meridian 800-861 made a strong case for the total adequacy of "Red Book" CD. Detail, mid- and high-frequency smoothness, and overall balance were nigh impossible to fault. Of course, that assumes decent recordings, such as those mentioned above and below. In fact, whether I used the 800-861 as a player feeding the Sonic Frontiers Line-3 or I drove the power amps directly from the 861, the 800-861 brought out the best from all CDs.

However, the Meridian combo revealed that, with more recent recordings, the new media had a considerable advantage over CD. The 24-bit/96kHz stereo track of Bucky Pizzarelli's Swing Live (Chesky CHDVD222) was both transparent and very direct. Compared to the stereo track on the SACD (Chesky SACD223) via the Sony XA-777ES, the DVD-A via the Meridian 800 seemed to lack a little sizzle, but was a bit more revealing in the midrange of most of the instruments. Subtle details of what was going on off-stage were slightly more apparent (and often distracting) on the SACD. Through either machine, the CD layer of the SACD suffered by sounding more closed-in.

Moving the 800-861 to the multichannel system meant a fair amount of hefting and schlepping and wiring and reprogramming. With some long-distance guidance from Meridian, I manipulated the setup options on my laptop and uploaded them to the 861. Although I used the presets that Meridian had provided, I soon found that I needed to switch quickly from direct to Trifield without passing in sequence through all of the 861's DSP options.

Trifield, a proprietary Meridian DSP mode, extracts mono and surround components from a stereo source, but in a way that I found superior to Dolby Pro Logic for music. In a multichannel system, Trifield offers control of image width, surround low-pass filtering, and center-channel equalization. So I highjacked the unused LD and VCR2 input buttons by copying all the CD and DVD settings to them, but with Trifield, rather than Direct, as the default DSP setting.

Also needed for this system were additional cables. I used Solution six-channel cables from RS Audio Cables. These, like the Harmonic Technologys I used for the other multichannel players, are nicely color-coded and let me wire up, error-free, in no time at all. Their spring-loaded Canare RCAs made a secure fit at the Meridian and power-amp ends. The power amps used were the Bryston 9B-ST or the new eVo6 powering Paradigm Reference Studio/60s, Studio/20s, and CC speakers, with a Paradigm Servo-15 subwoofer on the bottom. The 861 was programmed for precise time alignment and amplitude balance among the speakers, and allowed me to adjust crossover and bass management independently for the main, center, and rear channels. Everything seemed just right, and it made for consistently satisfying listening.

But as great a delight and discovery as multichannel was, the Meridian combo added the icing to the cake. I began with the Simon Rattle/BPO recording of Mahler's Symphony 10 (EMI 4 9394 9), which, for the first time, fully justified the manner in which the multichannel mix had been done. Prior to this, the changeover from stereo to multichannel opened up the space, but the ambience seemed a bit overdone, the bass a bit lumpy. With the 800-861 and either power amp, there was consistency from top to bottom, and the hall ambience was prominent but not excessive. In fact, the rear channels seemed louder but more integrated than with other players or processors.

Jumping back to the 18th century, I reveled in the theatrics of Handel's Theodora (MDG 932 1019-5). The sense of place (a live performance at the Stadthalle Wuppertal) was very strong, but the distinctions and balance among orchestra, chorus, and soloists were excellent—the overall effect was simply thrilling. I followed up with MDG's DVD-A sampler, Breakthrough...into a New Dimension (MDG 906 1069-5), which contains 14 marvelous demonstrations of multichannel sound, including an excerpt from Theodora, and only the Widor Toccata disappointed. But even that one ain't half bad, and, after all, might be a fine realization of the sound of an organ with which I am not familiar.

What I can conclude is that the Meridian Reference 800-861 made all of the multichannel DVD-As I had, as well as my system itself, sound better than ever, and certainly equal to what I get from SACD. Not being a format ideologue, I pick discs for their music and performance. Unfortunately, there are all too few multichannel DVD-As for me. Most of the music I like is still only on CD or SACD or, surprisingly, stereo-only DVD-A. But even there, the 800-861 excelled and surprised. As a straight two-channel CD or DVD player, it was unsurpassed in my limited experience, but Meridian's Trifield DSP often added an irresistible frisson of spaciousness and presence.

The opening track on the demo disc from German drive-unit manufacturer Manger, "Musik wie von einem anderen Stern" (Like Music from Another Star), is of church bells recorded fairly close-up. They have great presence in stereo, but Trifield took me into the belfry. Positively hair-raising! The effect on real music was, generally, marvelous. Livingston Taylor's "Isn't She Lovely," and his a cappella "Grandma's Hands," whether from the Manger CD or the Chesky originals, are often used for demos because of the impressive delineation of the central voice in a realistic acoustic. Trifield solidified Taylor without adding unnatural weight, while opening up the ensemble space beyond what stereo can do.

The final track, "Jazz Variants," from the O-Zone Percussion Group, is taken from Klavier KD 77017 and was, in Trifield, the best demo of impact and transient performance I'd heard in a long while. Every instrument was hard and tight and, when played with force, could be felt. Trifield freed the sounds from the positional constraints of the stereo pair and enhanced the presence of the ensemble to formidable levels. What a kick!

The Trifield magic didn't always work. While extremely effective in increasing the presence and spaciousness of Freddie King's Texas Cannonball (Hi-Res 72435-37924-9-7), especially his cover of Bill Wither's "Ain't No Sunshine," it did little for Leon Russell (Hi-Res 72435-37925-9-6). Since these discs share much in their original production, as well as their transfers to stereo DVD-A, I was surprised that, in Trifield, King's deeper voice was enhanced and his guitar fairly leaped from the speakers, while Trifield made Russell sound thinner and smaller.

But perhaps the best demo of Trifield was with an SACD from Pentatone Classics. This label uses a fixed array of five microphones approximating the spacing of the five speakers of a multichannel home system. Thus, the L/R channels on the multichannel tracks are pretty much the same as the stereo signals on the SACD and CD layers. Haenchen's performance of Mahler's Symphony 5 (Netherlands Philharmonic, Pentatone 5186 004) is a full-sounding but graceful and somewhat angst-free performance. Aided by the rich acoustic of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, it sounds great in multichannel SACD via the Philips SACD1000 and the McCormack MAP-1 preamp. But I was amazed when I popped the disc into the Meridian, played the "Red Book" CD layer via Trifield, and heard an entirely equivalent and satisfying soundfield.

Note that I said that the Trifield effect on CD was "equivalent," not "equal," to the SACD playback—there was more specificity in the direct and ambient sounds of the multichannel track. Nonetheless, until the resounding applause at the end of this recording, I think many would accept the Trifielded CD track as the real deal.

My only complaints about the Meridian Reference 800 DVD-Audio player and 861 preamplifier-processor are that the remote control is not as well-designed and friendly as the system deserves, and that the system twice required me to reboot it in order to clear up control problems. These are minor issues. The point is that, playing CDs and DVDs, the 800-861 combo performed and sounded as transparent and natural as any other player system in either of my systems. The Trifield DSP is a greatly advantageous feature that deserves more recognition. I felt confident that whatever little silver disc I put into the 800-861, it would sound superb. Short of adding an SACD transport to the generous chassis (I won't hold my breath for that), the only conceivable improvement for the superb Reference 800-861 combination would be to reduce its price so that many more people could enjoy it.—Kalman Rubinson