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Product Review - Meridian 508-24 High Resolution CD Player - January, 1998

Stacey L. Spears

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Meridian 508-24

High Resolution CD Player

Two Digital Audio Outputs (SP/DIF and TosLink)

Two Pair Analog Outputs (Balanced and Unbalanced)

Size: 3.46" H x 12.64" W x 13.07" D

Weight: 14 pounds

Price: $3,495 USA

 

 

Meridian America Inc., Suite 122, Building 2400, 3800 Camp Creek Parkway, Atlanta, 30331 GA, USA.Tel: (404) 344-7111 Fax: (404) 346-7111; Meridian Audio Ltd, Stonehill, Stukeley Meadows, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE18 6ED, England. Tel: [44] 1480 52144 Fax: [44] 1480 459934; Web http://www.meridian-audio.com

I remember getting my first CD player as a birthday gift from my mom. It was a Fisher 5 disc CD changer, and it had a very crisp and noise free sound that, at the time, I thought was superior to LPs. Of course, that first CD player had very little software available to enjoy. I went to Korea for a year in 1988, and before I left, the local Tower records had only a row or two of CDs while the rest of the store was devoted to LPs and Cassettes. When I returned to the US in 1989, I was shocked to find the same Tower store had changed 180 degrees. There was now only one row of LPs, and the rest of the store had become CDs. All of the sound characteristics that first grabbed my attention are the ones I now frown upon.

CD players have come full circle in the world of high-end audio. The first players were a single box, having both transport and DAC in the one chassis. What followed shortly was the separation into two completely different products, the CD transport and the DAC. The separation was a plus for most, because the DAC technology was changing rapidly, and it made sense to only upgrade that portion. There have been advances in the transport side, just not as radical as the DAC side. This also gave consumers a chance to mix and match products from various manufacturers. While this improved the overall sound of a single box design, some new problems were introduced, jitter being a big one. This led to a third box, namely the de-jitter box, since its job was to eliminate, not add. So now we have three boxes requiring two digital cables, and clutter is how one might describe it, but, to an audiophile, the bottom line is sound quality. Well, now you can have your cake and eat it too, because high-end manufacturers are re-introducing CD players. The single box designs are back and better than ever, and in fact, today’s CD players are better than the separates from just a short time ago.

Meridian has been producing single box CD players for a couple of years now, and were the first to introduce a high-end CD player back in the early 80s. The 508 series is now in its third generation. The first was the 508, followed by the 508-20, and now we are at the 508-24.

A Look at the design

The new 508-24 looks like the other 500 series products from Meridian, with its black enclosure, a glass top, and display screen. The front panel controls are thin black vertical strips that include Open, Play, Stop, Pause, Display, Previous, Next, and a white Off button.

The back of the 508 has two digital outputs (one coax SP/DIF and one TosLink) as well as two pairs of analog outputs (one pair of balanced and one pair of unbalanced). There are also two Comm control ports to communicate with other Meridian equipment, and the Power on/off switch. The Power switch on the rear kills all power to the 508-24, while the switch on the front puts it into standby mode, keeping the unit warmed up and ready to go at a moment's notice.

I have found that by comparing past designs to current designs I can tell just how forward thinking the manufacturer is. If every year a company puts out a radically different design from the previous year, they might not be planning beyond the company cafeteria. Looking at earlier Meridian CD players like the older 508s, the 506, and their 200 series, you will see that the current models are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The overall design philosophy has not changed. They still have the vertical strip buttons and a similar CD mechanism, i.e., their CD tray has the lens mounted on it. The technology inside is current state-of-the-art, but the overall look and feel are maintained, year after year, indicating smart choices at the inception.

As soon as you open the CD drawer, you will notice that Meridian has placed the transport inside the tray. Gone is the flimsy tray that normally holds the CD, and what they have here is, in effect, a top loading CD player in a drawer design. The best part is that you get the top loading benefits without having to deal with that annoying CD clamp.

You are probably wondering what has changed between the 508-20 and 508-24. Well, it's the DAC circuit board. There have been some threads going around the Usenet groups about the actual transport being updated as well. The Philips transport inside was changed before the 508-24 came along, because that component is now what's available to them The new transport has the same sonic specifications as the older one, with no resulting effect on the final sound quality. The more important update consists of replacement of the Crystal 4329 20-bit chips with the new Crystal 4390 24-bit chips. For those of you who are into specs, here is a small table of comparison between the two chips:

  CS4390 CS4329
Resolution 24-bit 20-bit
S/N 115 dB 112 dB
Dynamic Range 106 dB 105 dB

The 508 uses four DACs operating in dual-differential mode. Meridian claims that the 508 is able to achieve 19-bit resolution, and in order to obtain that resolution, one needs a DAC that has a greater resolution than 19-bits.      What recordings are 19-bit? Anything that has been mastered using either the Meridian 618 or 518 digital audio processors are capable of that resolution. If you want a list of recordings made using these processors you can contact Meridian directly and they will send you the list. Now the 508 does not require such a recording in order to shine. Any and every CD I played through the 508 sounded fantastic! But I will talk about that later. First, let’s get back to what happens inside the player electronically. The 508 actually begins to clean up the signal even before it is decoded, i.e., on the RF signal as it comes off of the disc. The 508 also does some noise shaping to clean the digital signal, much like the 518 reviewed in Secrets previously. {Click here to read review of the Meridian 518.} The Philips transport uses a linear three-beam laser pickup. Meridian wrote the software that controls the transport, and it (the transport) actually adapts itself to each CD you place in it. The signal is de-jittered in the RF domain, so if you are using either of the digital outputs, the signal is re-clocked to remove any jitter that may be around. It first de-jitters the signal in the RF domain coming off the disc, and if you use the digital outputs it de-jitters it again (not in the RF domain).

While the new DAC has the same pin configuration as the old DAC, you should NEVER try and upgrade this yourself. Just because the DAC meets the specs by Crystal’s goals, not every chip may meet the standards set forth by Meridian. Their areas of concern are distortion, noise, and DC offset (with the emphasis being on DC offset, which they are able to correct on the spot should something not be to spec). Also, if you mess something up while attempting the upgrade yourself, I doubt that the problem will be covered under warranty! Meridian offers an upgrade program for anyone who owns a 508-20, so just send in your unit to be upgraded. They are good about getting it back to you quickly.

The navigation and control system

The 508's remote control functions are not like other CD players. With most CD players, there is a "+10" button on the remote (to go to a specific track, such as 15, you have to press the +10 and the 5). To this day, I have not become used to it. My TV remote does not have this button, and my cable remote and VCR remotes also do not have this button. In fact, my PC does not have this button, so why do CD player remotes have this button? Well, I am happy to announce that the Meridian CD player remote does not have this button! You just press the track number directly, such as 1 and 5 to go to track 15. The tradeoff is a slight delay in actually changing to the particular track. I have no problems with this as I feel it is intuitive.  Everything can be accomplished from your easy chair using the remote control, including opening and closing the CD drawer (hold down the function button and press the stop button).

The remote that is supplied with the 508 is the full Meridian System Remote (MSR), and this remote not only controls the CD player but also their surround processor, tuner, DVD player, and digital active loudspeakers. The remote is an elegant looking, well laid-out, piece of equipment. The one downside to the MSR is that it is somewhat large, but it can be operated as it lays on the coffee table if you have good eyes.

The 508 has all the features of a standard CD player. One that I found very valuable is the index. All CDs are broken down into tracks, but some CDs are even broken down into index points within tracks. To access an index, you just type in the track, e.g., 12, but after you enter the 12, hit the decimal key followed by the index number. What the whole thing would look like is 12.3, and this would take you to track 12, index 3.

One heck of a CD transport

The 508 is designed to be used as a single box CD player, but if you are the owner of a digital surround processor such as the Meridian 565, Lexicon DC-1 or one of the others which have a direct digital input. the 508 can be used as a top-notch CD transport. The signal coming out of the 508 is very clean. I tried it with and without the Meridian 518 digital processor in the path and did not hear a difference. I had the 518 in "Gain" mode while listening. The 518 does a remarkable job with my LD player and Audio Alchemy transport, but the effect on the 508 was nil. I did not have the Meridian 500 CD transport on hand to compare against the 508, and this is something I wish I could have done.

There are transports that cost two and three times what the 508 costs, but the 508 is about as good as CD sound can get. Meridian does offer a MUCH more expensive CD player in their 800 series, but the 800 is more than a CD player, hence the name CD Machine.

24 reasons to have this CD player

I just got through talking about what a sweet CD transport this is, but not taking advantage of the internal DACs would be a waste of a very good product. As soon as you press play, you are enveloped by the sweet sound of music, note by note. The sound coming from the 508 is more than mere 1s and 0s. It's pure silk.

Let’s take a typical CD player where the sound is like hard butter, you know, when you take your knife and try cut off some butter for your toast. As the knife tries to slice through the cold butter, what happens is your hand slowly jerks along the butter, chipping it away. This is how female vocals sound to me on a standard CD player. Well the Meridian is like taking a hot knife and gliding it through warm butter. Smooth, oh so smooth!

Earlier I mentioned those high resolution CDs recorded using the 618 and 518 processors from Meridian. I have several of those recordings and enjoyed them all. One of the nicer recordings is the Stereophile version of "Rhapsody in Blue". I remember hearing this recording at HiFi 97 in its native 24-bit 96 kHz format, and I came real close to that presentation with the 508-24. At that moment, one realizes just how important the source component is in the chain of audio gear. The soundstage was like BAM! The performers were right there, playing their hearts out. There was a sense of air surrounding all of the instruments. The 508 had better transparency than any two box CD combo I have heard. Of course, CDs are currently all 16 bit, 44.1 kHz, but there is something about the master being in 24 bit that translates to better sound at the player level.

Obviously the remaining gear is important too, but when I swapped out the player to a lesser unit, I heard an enormous difference. The bass was not in my face, but rather, it was very realistic, tight and well extended in the virtual space created within my living room. The detail was very evident not only on good recordings but also on bad onesl. I was able to hear things that are generally masked in lower quality CD players (though some things should probably stay masked :-), but accurate is what I want, not forgiving.

I like various types of music, but most of my favorites are female artists, such as Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrissette, Tori Amos, Enya, Holly Cole, Jewel, Amanda Marshall, and many others. It is amazing just how much different CDs sound compared to what comes over the airwaves from an FM tuner.  I mention this because most of my friends never just sit down and listen to music. To them, music is background noise, mostly from a radio.  It is playing while they are driving home or working on their PC.  When I demo something like Sheryl Crow on a good CD system, they think I have some special version because they have never heard it sound like that before. If I sound like a proponent of high end audio, I am just that.

Other equipment used with the 508

If you are thinking about the 508, make sure you have a good preamplifier that can pass along the detail from the player. I compared a high quality preamp (Krell) and a lower quality entry level one (mass market), and some of the magic of the 508 was lost with the budget preamp, mostly detail.

Other components used in my tests of the Meridian included Mirage OM-6 loudspeakers, Nordost Flatline interconnects (Digital and Analog) and speaker cables, and the Sunfire CinemaGrand amplifier.

Conclusion

While the 508 has the Crystal 24-bit DACs inside, this is not a 24-bit/96 kHz CD player. However, the use of higher resolution DACs is all but required to get the most from standard 16-bit CDs. If you are waiting for this new audio format (24/96 on DVD Audio-Only Discs) , you will be waiting a long time, missing out on all the wonderful music that is available today.

If you want to forget about your equipment and enjoy the music, then run, not walk, to your local Meridian dealer and give the 508 a listen. Until you have heard what music sounds like through the 508, you have not experienced all that CD can give. If you have already purchased a top of the line CD player for more money than what the 508 costs, you might want to stay home, because listening to how great the music sounds through the 508, at a much lower cost, might be bad for your blood pressure.

Stacey L. Spears


Copyright 1998 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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