Meridian Digital Theatre surround-sound music system Page 8

There is no question that the Meridian Digital Theatre system auditioned here performed admirably, and that its individual components were equal to the best obtainable conventional devices. The system was beyond significant reproach in its reproduction of two-channel discs, and the realization of multichannel material was limited only by the source. As an obsessive audiophile, I'd be very happy with the Meridian system, but wonder if another amplifier might have made the speakers sound warmer, or if I could somehow pipe my LPs to the speakers' amps without intervening A/D and D/A conversions. As a music-lover, I could live blissfully with this Meridian system for the foreseeable future.

One could reasonably compare the DSP6000 with any combination of Class A-rated DACs, amps, and speakers. What one sacrifices in being able to mix and match, one gains in synergy, and simplicity and flexibility of control. One also saves big bucks on speaker cables and interconnects! The DSP6000's sound was transparent and tight, with great bass power. It can be optimally tailored with its DSP-based tone controls, but I think the DSP6000 will appeal to devotees of precision more than to those who prefer warmth. Extended listening is required if you are considering it: you're auditioning not just a new speaker system, but new amps and DACs as well. Considering that it includes an entire system, less only the digital source, the decidedly serious asking price of $19,950/pair is far from unreasonable.

The 800 Reference is as perfect a transport/player as I've experienced with present-day sources, and its architecture, including programmable DSP and plug-in cards, seems as future-proof as can be. Whether used as a transport in the context of a Meridian system or as a player with other components, I usually preferred the 800 when comparing it to other digital sources---it was sometimes an equal but never an inferior. As with the DSP6000, the $16k price of the 800 Reference buys a lot of functionality, as it includes an excellent upsampler and system control facilities. Oh, I almost forgot: it does video, too.

The 861 Reference is, to my knowledge, the most flexible and capable device in audio. It can accept any analog or digital input, provide any analog or digital output, configure and control two-channel to 7.1-channel audio systems, and its DSP brain can recognize and process all known audio-signal formats except HDCD. The DSP engine seemed to neither add nor subtract anything from the music, and its digital volume control was as transparent at all levels as those of the dCS Elgar and the Z-systems rdp-1.

In its two-channel modes, the 861 gave me as good an experience as I have obtained from each source, and the enhancements of Trifield were even a step beyond. With Ambisonic and Dolby Surround sources, the 861 provided the tools for maximizing performance and minimizing distractions. Performance with Dolby Digital and DTS sources seemed limited only by the compromises of the media themselves. Add to that the potential to encompass as-yet-unknown processes via DSP programming and plug-ins, and it offers as much insurance against the winds of technological change as is possible. It is a formidable machine.

The big picture
Even with the best recordings and equipment, two-channel stereo means that the direct sound of the performers is mixed with the ambient cues from the side walls, the rear walls, and even the ceiling, and is directed at you from a pair of speakers. The result is that music and ambience are heard through an aperture, or soundstage. Thus, the entire musical event takes place just beyond the speakers, and one listens from a room whose own relatively short reverberation times make little contribution. As two-channel stereo has advanced, we have enjoyed progressively wider and clearer windows into that soundstage, and this has permitted us to resolve more of the direct sound and environmental cues. But despite the inspired work of recordists and mixers, we remain hopelessly separated from the event by the conflation of direct and reverberant sounds to two front channels. How can all of the collapsing echoes of an acoustic sound come from the same direction as the original sound?

I've begun to think of two-channel audio as similar to watching a football game from a private "sky box." It's comfortable, and the ability to hear and see detail is superb, but the event is going on "out there," not "in here." The players, the crowd, and the stadium announcer are all in front, their sounds coming to you through the front window. If you move to the front of the box, the aperture (soundstage) subjectively widens but still circumscribes the event.

But move out of the box and into the stands---or, better yet, down to a midfield seat---and the entire experience is transformed. Sure, the sounds (and sights) of the players are still in front of you, but much more widely spread, giving you a greater resolving power. The crowd is now all around you; using directional cues, you can more easily distinguish them from the sounds of play. Finally, the stadium announcer booms overhead, and you hear the echo bounce off the stadium's opposing walls. Where's my beer and hot dogs?

Having multiple channels can do away with this separation between listener and musical event. Telarc's DTS discs and Delos' Dolby Digital 5.1 music recordings are perfect examples because I can compare them with same producers' two-channel versions. By removing the constraining soundstage window and encompassing my listening room within the reverberant soundfield, these recordings provide a greater sense of presence, place, and reality in multichannel than they do in conventional stereo. I am less aware of the acoustic properties of my room because these are superseded by the injected ambience. In spite of this, the performers are not bloated, nor do they surround me. Despite the resolution limits of DD and DTS, I can hear great intricacy and richness in the music.

Multichannel reproduction gives the same immersive experience in the musical event. I don't want to sit in the middle of a string quartet, symphony orchestra, or big band. I do want to hear, in my listening room, what it sounds like in the concert hall or club room. More than ever, I am convinced that the future of high-quality music reproduction is multichannel. The Meridian Digital Multichannel/Surround System is ready now. How long must we wait for the software to catch up?