Product Review - Meridian 800 DVD Machine - January, 2001
Meridian 800 DVD Machine
Formats: DVD Video, CD Audio, CD Video
Drives: Up to 2 internal
Audio In and Out: Up to 11 analog inputs. User-adjustable sensitivity. Re-nameable legends. Up to 11 digital inputs. Re-nameable legends. 32 to 96 kHz sampling and up to 24-bit precision. Digital and analog tape loops. Independent copy and 2-room+ capability. 2 to 8 digital outputs. 2 to 8 analog outputs.
Video Output: 1 Composite, 1 S-video, and 1 Component.
Signal processing: Meridian’ s proprietary DSP software to provide the following Modes: Error Correction. Resolution Enhancement. Digital Gain Control with 48-bit resolution. Upsampling to 88.2 or 96 kHz.
Size: 6 3/4" H x 19" W x 16 3/4" D
Weight: 30 Pounds
MSRP: $14,500+ Depending on options, USA
Meridian America Inc., Suite 122, Building 2400, 3800 Camp Creek Parkway, Atlanta, Georgia 30331; Phone 404-344-7111; Fax 404-346-7111.
Meridian Audio Ltd., Stonehill, Stukeley Meadows, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE18 6ED, England; Phone  1480 52144; Fax  1480 459934; Web http://www.meridian-audio.com
We recently put in many hours on the Secrets DVD Benchmark. A lot of hard work went into inspecting the various details of several DVD players. Why was the benchmark conducted? We were on a quest looking for “the” reference DVD player. Many different people have called various DVD players “the” reference player. All of those proclaimed DVD players were included in the DVD Benchmark. We upset a few people when we pointed out that some of those reference players did not deserve the title.
What is a reference player? It has to be well rounded in all areas. It has to have great video, great audio, able to deal with problem discs, handle the various features of the DVD format, fill in the blank.
The 800 is not Meridian’s first DVD player. It is really their third. Meridian’s two previous DVD players, the 586 and 586.2, like most of the current high-end DVD players, were built on top of someone else’s technology. This is not the case with the 800. The 800 is the worlds first true, built from the ground up, high-end DVD player.
Rather than duplicate explanations of the tests we performed during the DVD Benchmark here, you can go to the Explanatory Benchmark Articles and get the information there. In particular, look at the Meridian 800 Benchmark Test Results.
A Detailed Look Inside
Meridian chose not to include such user controls as color (chroma), brightness, and contrast. Neither does it have unnecessary controls like tint (hue) and sharpness, which have no place on the component outputs. Instead, only a few controls are actually available. You choose which high-quality output you want active, either the S-Video or Component. You also choose where you want the black level to be: 0 or 7.5 IRE. In their current software version, they call the black level settings "black" and "extended black". The new 596, which is the little brother to the 800, has taken a more accurate approach by just saying 0 or 7.5 IRE.
I mentioned that you must choose which outputs would be active. All DVD players have a chip that is called a video encoder. This is where the digital data from the MPEG decoder gets converted into analog composite, S-Video, and Component Video.
Meridian chose to use the Analog Devices 7175 video encoder. This particular video encoder only has four 10-bit/27 MHz DACs. One video DAC is always on for the composite video. Two of the DACs are shared, Y is used for both the Y in YC and with the Y in component. The C in YC is shared with the Pb in component. The Pr of component gets its own DAC.
If you have the output set as S-Video, but you are using the component connections on the back, then the screen will be blue. This actually turns out to be a Meridian bonus. The YC din connector is a poorly designed connector that has been known to literally fall out. You can actually use the Y and ‘Pb’ BNC outputs from component as your YC outputs if you modify your TVs YC input to accept two BNCs. I have seen this done on occasion.
The 800 is not a PC, so why does it have a ROM drive?
DVD players are not required to play any format other than DVD. People don't like to have too many boxes around, and manufacturers know this. That is why all DVD players can play CDs. The computer industry is a little different than the normal consumer electronics (CE) industry. The tolerance for components in PCs is much less, so this is why you don’t usually find new PCs with more than one type of optical media drive. ROM drives must support all of the various formats that you may want to include in a PC.
Meridian spent a good portion of the 800 development working on the drive and pulling off the bits. They went so far as to write their own ATAPI drivers to have 100% control of the drive. This is the same approach they took on their CD players by writing their own control software.
Unlike a conventional DVD or CD transport, a ROM drive reads at speeds much faster, e.g., 2x up-to and greater than 48x. Why does this matter? The 800 spins at a minimum of 2x and is reading ahead. If the 800 encounters an error, it can perform a re-read at this point at a much faster speed. The 800 can read the data several times and compare the bits just to be sure it has perfect data, before it is time for the data to go to the DAC. It's this ability that gives the 800 superior error correction and concealment.
We published a brief look at CD vs. CD-ROM vs. DVD/DVD-ROM error handling in the benchmark, so I will not bother with it here except to say that CD's error correction algorithm is not as robust as the one for DVD. With that said, it's rare that you find a CD with a problem. Most drives do a great job at concealing data. It’s when you have a disc that has been abused that you really appreciate the 800's prowess.
DVDs, even with their improved error schemes, have been a problem for many DVD players. It’s still a young format, so it may just be a matter of improving the production process. The 800 is nothing short of magic at dealing with some of these errors. Our Scratch The Dog test DVD caused every DVD player to display a pixilated image on chapter 2, with one and only one exception, the 800. It played as if the disc had nothing wrong. The 800 made it out to chapter 5, and then would go no further. Some players made it further, but showed only a screen full of big pixels. Something else the 800 did on Scratch was with the audio. Even on chapters 3-5 where the 800 showed pixelation, the audio played with rarely a problem. The same cannot be said for the other players which bleeped and blurped from chapter 2 on.
What about MP3s? At the moment, the 800 does not support MP3s, but their new 596 does. This is all in software, and it’s just a matter of Meridian releasing an update for the 800.
While we are talking about updates, the 800, like the 861, is software upgradeable. The 800 has two serial ports on the back. One is dedicated to the x86 processor on-board that is the DVD control system. And no, you will not find an “Intel Inside” sticker on the front panel because Meridian is using an AMD 186 processor.
Just to give you an example of how things change in software, when I first got the 800, it was running version 1.5 software. At this time, the onscreen logos were of a fairly high IRE level, the “No Disc” text would never go away if you did not have a disc in, and the subtitles always defaulted to on. When I installed version 1.6, all of the above changed. The text levels were now a much lower IRE, the “No Disc” text times out after a few seconds, and subtitles now default to off. They even changed the, not so aesthetically pleasing, blue background that you get when CDs are inside to a black background with an even lower IRE logo.
Since the 800 requires two software updates, one for each serial port, it is not recommend that users install updates in the 800 themselves. Dealers will handle it for you.
If you have one of the first generation 800s that does not support DTS, then you will need to hold on a bit longer before you can upgrade to 1.6. I can only say please be patient. In the near future, hopefully in the 1st or 2nd quarter of 2001, the 800s will get an update for DTS.
The 800 uses the C-Cube ZiVA-3 MPEG decoder. Early 800s were based on a previous version of the ZiVA decoder that did not support DTS. C-Cube is now up to the ZiVA-5, which should be available sometime in the first quarter of 2001. Meridian may be waiting for this decoder before upgrading the 800, I don’t know for sure.
The PC industry could learn a thing or two from Meridian. Both the 800 and 861 implement a card cage design. If you want to upgrade the 800, you do not have to pull the top off like a PC. You simply twist a couple of thumb screws in the back and slide the card out. This design even allows you to keep the 800 series rack mounted and still swap out cards.
First In First Out (FIFO)
There are three FIFO buffers in the 800. The first FIFO exists in the 186 processor, the second is in the MPEG decoder, and the third is on the digital input card. The first two FIFOs are small compared to the last FIFO that does majority of the work. Why are three FIFOs used? It all goes back to the reason Meridian chose a ROM drive.
If you look at other designs, including Meridian's 500 series CD players and transports, they all try and clamp the disc. Some CD and DVD transports have taken a top loading approach where you must put the disc in, then insert a clamp on top of it. The clamp is used to reduce vibrations. The 500 series CD players and transports from Meridian have a small carbon fiber clamp that comes down and sits on top of the disc.
Meridian has done an about face with the 800 and has taken a radically different approach to stabilizing the disc and the data. They have implemented a multi-FIFO buffer system. As we stated above, the 800 reads the data from the disc at a minimum of 2x normal. The three FIFO buffers really isolate the output from the ROM drive. Each FIFO gets data in bursts and smoothes it out and then passes it on to the next FIFO. By the time the third and final FIFO is reached, it's streaming smooth data, which is completely independent of what the drive is outputting.
If you would like to see the 800 in a little more detail, including a 3600 view, along with the various cards, please click on the virtual 800 icon shown below. We do want to warn you that the file size is approximately 712 KB in size and it may take a while to download. The file also requires that your web browser has a Flash plug-in. You will be prompted to install Flash if you do not already have it installed.
Since consumer electronics have been around a long, long time, you might think it would be fairly simple to design and build robust products. But, now that everything is going digital, products have become much more complex. It fact, they get more complex every day. A DVD player manufacturer really has a lot to deal with because DVDs themselves are so complicated.
Just like they wrote ATAPI drivers to optimize the ROM drive, Meridian has also implemented their own DVD navigation software. This is no easy task. Just look at all problems people have been reporting with various DVDs and DVD players.
The 800 not only handles complex discs and features well, but it also does it quickly. On many players, it takes seconds to go from one menu to the next, but not the 800! Even the layer change on the Meridian is noticeably faster than the majority of DVD players.
However, there are a couple of criticisms that I have for the 800:
1. It does not properly handle DVDs authored as slide show. Many test patterns on the Avia DVD are like this. They play fine, but you can’t pause or navigate backwards. Meridian is not the only one with this problem, and slide show is not that common, but I hope this gets resolved in the future.
2. I wish Meridian would implement a cache, so as I am pressing Chapter Next on my Disney DVDs, it would just figure out how many times I pressed it, then jump past the annoying commercials. Instead, it goes a couple of chapters, stops, and then goes again.
If you read the DVD benchmark results on the 800, you will know it scored high in all areas that we believe are important.
The 800 supports both PAL and NTSC in their native format, and it can even transcode between the two. In the current software, you have to select which output you want, PAL or NTSC. I am hoping that a future release will add a third option to auto detect the format. (This option is available in the 596.) I had to search high and low for a PAL DVD that was not region encoded so I could test the transcoding. The disc I used was from a TV series filmed in the states at 30 fps. Since PAL is 24 fps, it had to be transcoded when it was encoded. It really did not help that I had the 800 transcode it back from PAL to NTSC. As you can imagine, the end result was not perfect. I consider the transcode a plus, but its always best to watch something in its native format.
Video Frequency Response
So many DVD players strive to make the picture sharper because they want to catch the consumer’s eye sitting next to the other brands. This is the same “trick” that TV manufacturers have been using for years by cranking up the gray scale to make the TVs look brighter while sitting next to their competition. I am pleased to report that Meridian has not stooped to this level; they are not artificially enhancing the image by purposely introducing ringing. They are presenting you with the real information that is contained on the disc.
The interesting thing about the sharpness is that you may think it’s even more important to enhance the image when it’s going to be displayed on a larger screen. The exact opposite seems to be true. Many DVDs use edge enhancement to make the image appear sharper. Sometimes that enhancement goes overboard, and you end up with little halos around objects. The DVD players that contain large amounts of ringing will make that halo stand out much more to the point of it being distracting. The 800 accurately gives you what’s on the disc, so if there is excessive edge enhancement present, it will not remove it but it will also not highlight it. In order for a DVD player to be reference, it must deliver all of the possible resolution of the format without introducing ringing.
"Jurassic Park" is a classic reference demo laserdisc, but the DVD leaves a lot to be desired. One of the complaints many people have is the over zealous use of edge enhancement. I watched this film on DVD, and while I did see a bit of edge enhancement, it's nothing like it was being described on the Internet forums. A week later, I was over a friend’s house calibrating his new Pioneer 510 TV. When I finished, we looked at JP on his Pioneer DVD player. Holly Cow Batman! It was edge enhancement city! I even turned down both the TV and DVD player’s sharpness controls, but it did not remove the ringing. This really made me appreciate the accurate picture the 800 delivers.
Signal to Noise Ratio
The 800 was designed with the big screen in mind. They have done a wonderful job of keeping the video noise levels as low as possible. This is a matter of using high-quality parts, good board designs, and multi-layer boards. Many companies advertise that they use four-layer surface boards, and Meridian is now touting the six-layer boards. Has anyone ever told you why these multi-layer boards are important? The quick answer is that the layers allow you to isolate the signal paths from each other. This becomes even more important when you are mixing digital and analog components on a single board. The multiple layers allow you to keep those signals isolated from each other. If a DVD player cannot deliver the lowest possible video noise, then it cannot be considered a reference DVD player.
Well, on "The Fifth Element", which is everyone’s reference DVD but mine, I have never seen the film look better. I like looking at the reconstruction sequence to see flesh tones being rendered, along with the fine detail in Milla’s complexion. (Prior to the thermal bandages.) I then usually jump to the Diva scene to see the detail that is shown in the audience. The black tuxedo that Bruce Willis wears is clean from any video noise. The deeply saturated reds and blues throughout are also noise free.
Component Channel Timing
We all can hear the benefits of aligning the arrival times of sound from the various speakers in our home theater. This is just as important if not more so in video. The 800 component channel time alignment is as good as its gets. If the three component channels are not properly time aligned, then fine detail on edges will be smeared, and it cannot be considered a reference DVD player.
Another disc I find useful is Disney’s "Tarzan". I just wish the 800 would cache my commands so I could skip past those darn commercials quicker! I like to look at chapter 12 when Tarzan transitions from a boy to a man. The deeply saturated colors are completely free of any video noise, and the transitions between the colors are sharp. Animation films are not kind when you have timing errors.
Another disc that shows the importance of a well rounded player is "Shakespeare in Love". The queen's costumes contain fine detail and will show halos around that detail if a player has excessive ringing. All of the costumes used are a velour type material that are very colorful. These deeply saturated colors were absolutely free of video noise. The transitions in the clothing from one color to the next where sharp.
Streaky Reds aka the MPEG Bug
Secrets was the first to bring up this bug in a publication with our progressive shootout. It has been around for a while but has slipped under everyone’s nose. The majority of DVD players out today have this problem. Why do I mention it? Because the design of the 800 will one day render this bug extinct!
It’s only really noticeable on an interlaced display if you A. know what to look for, and B. press your nose against the TV screen. On a progressive display, your chances of seeing it improve. However, many people still don’t notice it. I have been using the 800 with a Faroudja video processor that - through some feat of video processing voodoo - hides or masks the bug. I have heard that the S&W G2 also hides the bug.
Unlike so many DVD players today, the 800 is probably one of the only DVD players on the planet that will be able to correct the problem. When I say correct the problem, I mean you will need to swap out the MPEG decoder card. There is no use bothering Meridian about it at the moment because C-Cube and the other MPEG decoder makers need to fix the problem first.
This bug is not isolated to DVD players. It has been seen in HDTV set top boxes, digital cable, and anything else that is stored in MPEG-2. I want to emphasize that not everyone will notice this problem. We have provided photo's in Part 5 of the DVD Benchmark, and people are still unable to see it in their own systems, so . . . .
Meridian, unlike many audio companies, has chosen not to use the Crystal Sample Rate conversion chip to perform their upsampling. Instead Rhonda, their DSP Gal, has done it all in house. Colin Miller, our Digital Audio Editor has taken the time to explain upsampling vs. oversampling for us.
So, about upsampling . . . does it work? First, I am going to tell you it is not a night and day difference. On some music, like Kid Rock, I could not hear a difference. Yes, I do listen to Kid Rock now and then. I also like Shania Twain, Tori Amos, Ani Difranco, Matchbox 20, and some other stuff like that. Not all of my music is of audiophile grade but that does not mean I can’t enjoy it on a high fidelity system.
I own a few Chesky recordings on both the 96/24 DVDs (aka DADs) and the original 44.1/16 CDs. I spent a fair amount of time comparing "Brick House" by Sarah K. I believe both came from the same high quality recording, and the 16-bit version was just down-converted with care for the CD release. Actually, I had a brief chance to have two 800s at the same time, and this made the comparison much easier.
I went back and forth between the two discs several times, and I really could not tell them apart. Does that mean a difference does not exist? Of course not, but with the 800, I could not discern any difference. I tried this with the 800 as a two-channel preamp and in a full Meridian digital theater. The 16-bit recording is exceptional, and the 800 is able to fully resolve all of the fine detail that is available in our 16-bit format. At the moment, I think getting the most out of CDs is more important than playing the small handful of DADs, SACDs, or DVD-A titles available. CDs are going to continue to be the main source of music in the forseeable future. Then there’s MP3s . . . .
I repeated the above tests with a Rebecca Pidgeon CD that I have on both a 96/24 DAD and the original CD. My results were the same. Chesky produces excellent 16-bit CDs and when played back on an 800, they directly rival the 96/24 versions.
Comparing against SACD is much more difficult. I have the Sony DVPS9000ES SACD player and the Chesky Rebecca Pidgeon Raven SACD as well as the CD. For this test, I did treat the 800 as a CD player using the unbalanced outputs. I fed both players into my Sunfire Tube Preamp. I then fed the output into a Theta Dreadnaught power amplifier using balanced cables. The amp delivered its power into a pair of Mirage OM-6 speakers. Once I matched levels, I sat back and listened.
I chose "Spanish Harlem" as the track of reference. To be honest, I don’t feel I could tell them apart in my little subjective tests. Both sounded wonderful. Again, this is another example of a great recording done by Chesky. The only other SACD disc I had on hand was the sampler included with the 9000ES. I did not own any of the CDs on that sampler, so I could not make a direct comparison.
I want to be clear here. I am not saying that DVD-A and SACD are not an improvement over standard CD. What I am saying is that the 800 taps the full potential from the CD format.
Meridian High Resolution (MHR)
MHR was created to allow Meridian to transmit a secure high-quality signal from their DVD player all the way to their speakers. If they were to sit around and wait for the industry to offer a solution, there would be no reason to upgrade their DSP speakers to support 96 kHz because the industry is, as my drill instructor used to say, “Moving like pond water, and pond water don’t move!”
MHR has two advantages. First it allows Meridian a secure method of getting a high-quality digital signal to their surround processor and speakers, and second, it is supposed to reduce the possibility of time base errors (aka jitter). This is important because higher sampling rate signals are supposed to be even more susceptible to time base errors.
Tweakers, may you rest in peace.
While I have no way of objectively measuring jitter, I did make a discover that will send many tweakers running (probably to their e-mail software to flame me). I tried several digital cables and many tweaks, and except for the PS Audio Power Plant, nothing made a difference!
For digital cables, I tried the stock thin anorexic-looking Meridian cable, a Canare digital cable, and two audiophile digital cables costing between $200 and $400 each. What was my conclusion? In subjective tests where I knew which cable was being used, I could not hear a difference. Perhaps I am going deaf, but I doubt that. With the 800 and MHR, you don’t have to worry about listening to the cables; you just listen to the music. For the record, I am now using that little blue anorexic cable that Meridian supplies. Just think of the money you will save. Of course, there is the possibility that all the digital cables I tried are just plain perfect :->
Since the various digital cables did not make a difference, I though I would try out a couple of popular tweaks that I had sitting around. I have a Townsend Seismic Sink Isolation Platform, a Bright Star Little Rock that is heavy and sits on top to reduce vibration, and some brass cones that are supposed to “tune” out the problems. I am sorry, but none of them made a lick of difference on or under the 800. In fact, because none of these popular tweaks affected the performance of the 800, I have it rack mounted in a Middle Atlantic equipment rack.
The only tweak I found to have any effect on the 800 is the PS Audio Power Plant. It made a measurable difference on the noise floor (see benchmark data on the 800 in a previous report).
The 800 is called the DVD Machine and rightly so. It’s not only a videophile DVD player and an audiophile CD player, but it’s also an audiophile preamp. For most, this part of the 800 may never get used. I only looked at this portion because it's part of the package. In day-to-day use, I would never use it. I only spent a small amount of time listening to it in this fashion.
The 800 can be equipped with an analog input card. It is also possible to include analog outputs in both unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR. As we found in the DVD benchmark, the balanced outputs are the best choice to use.
For the purist who feels they need a true analog bypass, the 800 may not be your bag baby (said in my best Austin Powers impression). However, the A/D converters on Meridian's analog input cards are exemplary! I have fed both the six-channel analog outputs from an Onkyo DV-939 DVD-A player and the SACD outputs from the Sony 9000ES into my 861 and had wonderful results.
The 800, when used as a preamp, has a 48-bit volume control that is a mixture of digital and analog. In my listen tests with the Chesky DADs, the best way to describe the 800's preamp performance is as fantastically passive. The down side was that I had to do all of this in two-channel stereo. For those who want a killer setup like this, it would behoove Meridian to offer a 3rd channel for a mini Trifield system.
It’s hard to describe, because it’s a digital preamp with the CD player built right in. It’s better than any separate CD player/preamp amp combination that I have heard. I need to qualify my previous statement because I don’t really listen to a lot of different preamps anymore.
The 800 is the video reference to which all other DVD players are going to be held. It is the closest DVD player to reference that I have yet seen on the market, and I have seen all of the high-end players! It does have the MPEG bug, but then so do the rest. But unlike the rest, the 800 is fixable with a simple card swap.
The audio side of the 800 is a perfect match for the video side. Meridian’s homegrown upsampling is superior to the Crystal solution, and their MHR will allow Meridian to be one of the first, if not the only, DVD player manufacturer to offer DVD-A in the digital format.
- Stacey Spears -
© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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