Meridian Digital Theatre surround-sound music system Page 4

The 800 replaced pairs of tiptop transports and DACs, from mbl and Burmester, but I didn't mourn their absence. Compared to the German duos, the 800 Reference seemed to differ less in sound quality than in operation and ergonomics. The 800 requires no pucks or mysterious trap doors; just hit Open on the remote, insert the disc, hit Play, and enjoy. Going back through all the discs I used to differentiate the Burmester, mbl, and Levinson DACs that I reviewed in December '99, I could not find one that was not completely satisfying on the 800. In consideration of its performance as a player and its configurability as a system controller, the 800 can be considered a really attractive value.

It's not surprising that the sound fed directly from the 800 Reference's transport to the DSP6000s was the same as that via the 861 in its Direct or Music mode; Direct mode uses the 861 merely for a volume control, and the Music simply provides a summed center channel. Consequently, I refer the reader to the more detailed discussion that follows.

The 861 Reference surround controller: Into the labyrinth
Now I was ready for the big step into uncharted regions: The left and right DSP6000s were augmented with a center-channel DSP6000C, this placed about 1' back so that all three were the same distance from my listening seat, and supplemented by a pair of DSP5000s placed directly lateral to the listening position. All were driven by the 861 Reference Digital Surround Controller, which, in turn, got its bits'n'bytes from the 800 Reference DVD/CD player/transport. Though the 861 was clearly intended to be the brains of this bunch, the 800 can be fitted with many of its attributes to function as a controller as well. What's unique to the 861, however, is its inbuilt, reprogrammable modes for decoding multichannel sources (Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, DTS, Ambisonic, etc.) and for synthesizing multichannel performance from two-channel sources.

Setup for this ambitious system was handled by Meridian vice-president Andy Regan and an assistant, but Regan assured me that anyone purchasing this system from a Meridian dealer can expect comparable physical and logical assistance. The process began with the connection of each speaker to the 861 with a Meridian coaxial digital data line similar to a plain-vanilla S/PDIF cable, and with a five-conductor Meridian Comms cable to provide "intelligent control" by the 861. Each pair of speakers---the front L/R DSP6000s and the surround L/R DSP5000s---was daisy-chained to a single digital output, while the DSP6000C was linked to a third 861 output. The 800 Reference was connected by similar but shorter cables. Finally, my analog tuner (and, later, a phono preamp) was connected to one set of the 861's analog inputs.

But if you think that that's all there was to it, you have no idea of the depths of sophistication and complexity disguised by the 861's clean, smooth, black front panels. Andy hooked up his laptop to the RS-232 port and proceeded to load into the 861 and the 800 a series of setups, presets, and defaults to suit the system, the room, and, most important, my preferences.

First, he told the system about the speakers (how many, what type, their positions) and the sources (how many, analog or digital, etc.). Second, with me seated immobile in my preferred listening spot, Andy's assistant carefully measured the distance from each speaker to my nose, and programmed the 861 so that each speaker's level was spot-on in relation to the others. In addition, the phase of the center and rear channels was adjusted to match that of the front speakers when monitored from my couch. Third, each input was assigned a default mode of signal processing. In the case of the "Analog" source, the default was, appropriately, "Music," but the input from the 800 DVD/CD player was assigned multiple names, each with a different default so that I could go from one processing mode to another. Regan then downloaded a copy of all my setups into his laptop, and stole away into the Manhattan night.

All of this took less than an hour, but remember---I had a couple of ringers doing the job. I later connected my laptop to the 861 and found the setup procedures extremely lucid, despite their seemingly infinite flexibility. The 861 informs the program about the hardware and current setup: Thus, one deals only with relevant variables. The procedures outlined above lost their mystery as I stepped from one logical menu to another. For example, the user is prompted for simple descriptive information about the loudspeakers so that the 861 can implement progressive levels of protection from dynamic overload. In certain modes, the user can adjust the width, depth, and even the perspective (subjective distance) of the source.

Of course, the expected parameters for levels, balance, phase, DSP mode, etc., are accessible, and one can customize them for one's situation and taste. A caution, however: The range of options is so wide that it's best to live with and become familiar with the setup provided by the installer before wading in to further customize it. Along the way, as one gets comfortable with the 861, one learns to access all the functions from the front panel or the Meridian system remote without the need to plug in a PC.

So, what can the 861 do? As configured in this sample, it can accept both digital and analog audio inputs, and has multiple analog and digital outputs. Thus, it can be used as an analog preamp/controller, a digital controller, and as an A/D and D/A converter. All signals are piped through the digital signal processor, making it possible for volume control, tone control, decoding, and sophisticated signal control and routing.