Music in the Round #69 Page 2

To use the Mac mini for audio, however, I needed a music program. I had no plans to use iTunes—my prior experience with it was not a happy one. Besides, I require high resolution and multichannel playback, and despite iTunes' convenience, Apple tightly controls its file-format repertoire. I took the easy way out and installed JRiver Music Center/Mac v.19, to take advantage of my experience with Music Center 19 on the PC. It was the right choice—the interface was familiar, and on the first day of use I was able to get it to create libraries of the PCM, FLAC, DSD, and ISO files stored on my NAS. I'd hoped to use JRemote on my iPad and avoid running my plasma display, but so far, no go. Apparently, HDMI handshaking tells the mini when the display is disconnected (off), and it then disconnects both audio and video output. I could comfortably use the iPad as a controller, but not without having the display on. I'm not sure yet, but I believe there might be a solution for this.

So, easy-peasy, I was up and running, playing all formats in stereo and in multichannel, but there were limits. I could get no higher resolution than 24-bit/96kHz—not too shabby, but not what I was aiming for. No matter how I fooled around with the Mac's MIDI Audio and Settings menu, nothing higher was available. When I set JRiver to output 24/192 and played such a file, it played—but at 24/96. And when I checked JRiver's audio setup, all outputs had been reset to 24/96! Playing DSD or ISO files gave the same result. Now, I know that HDMI can handle all of these formats, and I confirmed with Marantz that the AV8801 can accept them from a disc player connected to the same HDMI input to which I had connected the Mac mini. I can understand Apple's lack of support of DSD. However, Apple Support states " which type of audio works with Macs, using HDMI? Apple supports 8-channel, 24-bit audio at 192kHz, Dolby Surround 5.1, and traditional stereo output."

Although this seemed to be a Mac problem, this Apple newbie was reluctant to point a finger. I began a discussion with Apple Support that is still ongoing. It surprised me that they were unaware of this problem, even though I found numerous references to it, even on Apple forums. They did say that the hardware was capable of the quoted spec via HDMI, but that the current OS might be limiting it. They do not yet have a solution, but suggested that it might be fixed in the next OS version. For the moment, I must be content with 24/96 (footnote 1).

Despite all this, I'm very happy with my Mac mini setup, and find that its sound quality, playing the same recordings from the original discs or from the files, is comparable to or better than I get from my Oppo BDP-103 universal Blu-ray player. So far, so good—but, to further explore the software problems mentioned above, I decided to look at other music-player programs. I found two that supported multichannel playback: Decibel and Audirvana Plus. Both worked well, though each is less comprehensive in its music management than JRiver Media Center 19.

Decibel v.1.3.1 was simple to install and was up and running instantly. Its user interface was simple, and the sound was direct and dynamic. However, it recognized none of my DSD or ISO files. Since I have no intention of transcoding all of those to PCM (JRiver does this on the fly), this is a big problem for me. Nonetheless, Decibel's rendering of my go-to 24/96 5.1-channel FLAC file of Willie Nelson's Night and Day (DVD-Audio, (Surrounded-By SBE-1001-9, out of print) was notably punchy and immediate.

Audirvana Plus v.1.15.12 did handle DSD and ISO files as well as FLAC, although, compared to JRiver, it loaded them quite slowly from the NAS. (It was noticeably quicker with directly connected drives.) Audirvana also includes a SysOptimizer option that sets the program's task priority (Standard, Very High, or Extreme) and, during play, disables some Mac functions: Spotlight, Time Machine, and the recognition of USB devices. With this maximally invoked, it provided the most transparent and spacious sound of the three music players. Its only drawback was, again, its limited file-management capabilities: Like Decibel, Audirvana Plus depends on iTunes for those facilities. I understand that the impending v.2 will include its own music management.

All three music players were compatible with Dirac's Live room-correction software. A quickie Dirac Live calibration achieved system synergy, despite the odd combination of Monitor Audio Silver8 loudspeakers (review in the works) at front left and right and my Paradigm Studio/60 and Studio/20s for center and surround duties. Overall, this turned out to be an exciting experiment—one that is ongoing, as I sample more new software and hope for satisfaction from Apple with regard to sample rate. Please, all I really need is 24/192 via HDMI . . . for now . . .

Meridian Reference 861V8
It amazes me that I have had the Meridian Reference 861 in my main system for more than a decade. While its appearance has not changed significantly, at least from the front, internally it has been almost completely transformed over the years. I bought it as a V2 and immediately had it upgraded to V3. It went to V4 in 2006 and to V6 in 2011.

All of these updates have been worthwhile, but some have been significant. V4 added Meridian Room Correction, which, with a little effort, is one of the most effective room EQs in dealing with room modes (See "Music in the Round," July 2006: . V6 required a whole new mainframe but added, as described in my May 2011 review, "SpeakerLink connections for Meridian's DSP speakers, inputs for MMHR, an 'endpoint' card for optimal performance with Meridian's Sooloos music-server systems, a unique, proprietary apodizing upsampling filter for all digital inputs, and 24-bit/192kHz DACs" (See "Music in the Round," May 2011.


Slipstreamed into this evolution was the companion HD621 HDMI audio processor, which added off-chassis HDMI input/output with the hi-rez audio diverted to the 861, and the integration of the Meridian Digital Media System, née Sooloos, by means of a dedicated connection.

As in the earlier versions, the innovations in the 861V8 are distributed between two categories: users of Meridian's DSP loudspeakers, and all users. Although I'm in the second camp, I must acknowledge that the most obvious changes require that Meridian speakers be connected to the 861V8 with SpeakerLink, Meridian's proprietary screened, twisted-pair, RJ-45-terminated digital cable. This combination is endowed with extraordinary capabilities, among them Enhanced Bass Alignment (EBA) and Centre Elevation, as well as the fundamental advantages of speaker DSP control and a digital path that extends from the source component to each speaker's power amp.

EBA ensures that all bass and upper frequencies arrive simultaneously at the listening position, thus audibly improving the acoustical phase response. The price paid is an overall latency in the sound, significant only when there is a video signal to which it must sync. (Meridian provides options for that.) Centre Elevation, of course, will be welcomed by those who have a center speaker placed below a video display, flanked by L/R speakers at mid-screen height. I have heard demonstrations of EBA and Centre Elevation, and they are uncannily effective.

For the rest of us, there's still much new to appreciate: a linear power supply for lower noise, an ID29 Digital Input Card that includes an audio USB input, an improved ID41 Digital Media System Card, and redesigned oscillators and clocking that, Meridian claims, reduce jitter by 40%.

I can't comment on the ID41—I haven't acquired a Meridian Digital Media System because it's still restricted to two-channel music files. However, the 861V8, like its predecessors, made a great impression: improved clarity, lower noise, and overall smoothness with all digital sources. When I fed it directly from the Baetis XR2 server's dedicated S/PDIF output at resolutions up to 24/96, the resolution and soundstaging were superb, and on a par with those of the exaSound and Mytek DACs. Moreover, I found that the wonderfully effortless micro- and macrodynamics induced more relaxed listening than with the other DACs.

The 861's new USB input might offer even more potential. With it, the 861V8 can accept a 24/192 input, though it's unclear if the central processing is still at 24/96. Despite having endowed the 861 with 24/192 DACs, Meridian's Bob Stuart maintains that there is no audible advantage in resolutions higher than 24/96. However, this is still a two-channel input, and in the 21st century there's no reason for such a restriction in a multichannel processor. After downloading the Win8 USB2 driver and installing it in the Baetis, I selected an output resolution of "24 bit, 192000 Hz (Studio Quality)," with the Meridian Explorer (sic) as the default speaker output. This, too, resulted in Meridian's characteristic combination of detail, dynamics, and ease with sources from 16/44.1 through 24/192, but aside from finding 44.1 and 48kHz sources a bit less distinct than ones with higher sample rates, I didn't find that the 861V8's USB input was preferable to its S/PDIF input with the same files.

Overall, the Meridian Reference 861, especially in its V8 incarnation, is still my favorite audio preamplifier-processor to live with. With proper configuration and competent room equalization, it sounds marvelous with all sources and in all modes, and its ease of use is unparalleled. Remarkably, each incarnation seems to improve it in all of these parameters. Some of the enticing new improvements require the use of Meridian's own DSP speakers, which is unsurprising, but Meridian could make multichannel fans rejoice by expanding the 861's USB input to multichannel. If they did, I'd be all over it—again.

Next Time in the Round
I will cover two new products from NAD's Master Series: the M17 preamplifier-processor, which employs NAD's proprietary modular design; and the M27 seven-channel amplifier, featuring nCore technology.

Footnote 1: While this was not germane to multichannel playback, I installed a Korg DS-DAC-100m, which happily played 24/192 files as well as DSD, native or upsampled. The Korg, however, uses the Mac's USB port and Korg's proprietary software and drivers.