Meridian Digital Theatre surround-sound music system Page 5

The 861 can process two-channel PCM input, Pro Logic, DTS, MPEG, and MLP. (I had no suitable source material for the latter two processes.) Pro Logic, DTS, and MPEG were also available in THX modes, supposedly optimal for domestic listening. Both DTS and MPEG come in "Music" variants. Compared to the original DTS, designed for theater use, DTS-Music has a lower output from the low-frequency effects (LFE) channel, but MPEG-Music is quite vaguely described. From a PCM input (such as S/PDIF from a CD or DVD player's digital output), the 861 can process the following formats:

Direct: Plain vanilla two channel
Stereo: As above plus subwoofers Music: Two channel plus an extracted center channel
Trifield: As above except that the L/R channels are reprocessed as well
Ambisonic: Transforms UHJ format matrixed signals into 4-7 channels
Super: Similar to Ambisonic, for recordings made with coincident microphones
MusicLogic: Multichannel synthesis with L/R and F/R steering
ProLogic: Phase-amplitude matrix decoding for Dolby Surround
THX Cinema: ProLogic plus frequency correction/EQ and rear channel decorrelation
Mono: Either mono from center channel only or via all speakers (Party Mode!)
Academy: As above with additional EQ for older mono soundtracks
TV Logic: A variant of ProLogic affording greater intelligibility for studio-based TV

With all that to choose from, we set up my Meridian remote with the following inputs:

CD: Trifield HS: data upsampled to 24-bit/88.2kHz, no rear speakers
LP: Trifield LS: no upsampling, no rear speakers
TV: Direct: two-channel HS
Tape 1: Direct: two-channel LS
Tape 2: Trifield: LS plus rear speakersRadio: Music

When I selected Tape 1 (two-channel, no upsampling) as my input, the system sounded just like the original two-channel system with only the 508-24 and the two DSP6000s---and that, if you've been with me all along, was pretty great. In fact, using Direct LS as a baseline was equivalent to comparing the processing modes and advanced sources to current state-of-the-art audio. The next step was to pop in a 24/96 audio DVD, like Classic's DAD of John Lee Hooker's Mr. Lucky (Classic DAD 1007), and to realize that the 800/861 sounded like the CL-20 on super vitamins, with some considerable slam in the bottom end.

But when I went back to the 16/44.1 CD and switched over to Direct HS, letting the 861 upsample the CD to 24-bit/88kHz for the DSP6000s, the results were surprisingly similar to the DAD! Even though I did hear a difference between the original and Kevin Halverson's 24/96 remastering, I'm hard put to express a preference.

Ignoring that forest for the trees, the DAD and the upsampled CD sounded equally detailed throughout the frequency spectrum, and each offered a fine sense of presence. The ambient field was more acute in the DAD, but was also hotter and closer. Both were more immediate than the original at 16/44.1.

The issue of upsampling, however, proved to be only the tip of the 861 iceberg. Sticking with traditional two-channel sources, I spent weeks sampling all the suitable (and some of the unsuitable) DSP modes. The Music and Trifield modes use only the front three speakers and were always preferred in their HS (upsampled) variants, for the reasons described above and in J-10's treatise on the dCS 972 upsampler (Stereophile, February 1999). These three-channel modes seemed, to varying degrees, narrower, less airy, and less capable of pinpoint localization than was Direct. Trifield, however, offered seductive tradeoffs that ultimately made it my default listening mode for normal two-channel sources---including CDs, LPs, and radio.

George Faber's "Count the Tears," from Sure Beats Workin' (PopeMusic PMG2023-2), features a strong central solo voice fronting a small ensemble; Trifield gave the voice a presence and a solidity I had not heard before, but did so without making the voice any louder, or upsetting the subtle balance between the voice and the rest of the ensemble. I tried the switchover from Direct to Trifield with many solo voice/instrument and combo discs, and the results were consistently successful. I guess Paul Klipsch was right all along. I'm old enough to remember his HI-FI Show demos, with a Klipschorn in each corner and a Heresy at mid-wall: If you want solid center-fill, put a speaker there to do the job.

I came to regard the loss of air and the narrower soundstage as acceptable concomitants of the richer, tighter, better-defined central images. "Audiophile air" began to seem an artifact rather than an enhancement. With Trifield, there also seemed to be more going on within the ensembles on orchestral and opera recordings. The listening window was cleaner, the instruments just a bit closer, although the width of the window was a bit narrower compared with Direct. The soundstage was also quite stable, with none of the contraction and expansion that often accompanies dynamic changes in volume.

My old favorite, Bernstein's DG recording of Mahler's Symphony 6 (DG 427 697-2), is a bit steely but extremely spacious and wide-ranging. There was slightly less space in Trifield than in Direct, but that space was better defined. Instrument localization was definitely not enhanced by Trifield, although I suspect it was no worse than it would be in a real concert hall with the visual cues eliminated. The Music mode was similar to it, but a bit too narrowed and phasey to my ears. In other words, there were too many tradeoffs, even though I occasionally preferred Trifield with live FM broadcasts.