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Part 1

Musicweb Listening Room

Equipment Upgrade

A major upgrade was recently made to our equipment with significant improvements to the quality of sound now enjoyed…which is just as well considering the cost involved!

The most significant change has been the replacement of the trusty Chord Electronics

CPA3200 and DSC1100, along with the Proceed CD transport. These three items have now been replaced by a Meridian 808i, a CD player incorporating a digital pre-amp.

The result stated simply, is that the system, which is strictly two channel and used primarily for CD / CDR / DVD, now sounds superior in virtually every respect, and achieves better sound than we had dared to hope from our domestic environment. An additional bonus has been the result achieved from analogue cassettes replayed by a venerable Nakamichi BX300, the output of which benefits significantly from the processing effected by the Meridian.

The reduction from three boxes to one, admittedly large, box has also tidied up and simplified the racking required which could improve domestic harmony in some households.

The system therefore now comprises:

Meridian 808i

Pioneer PDR-609 CD recorder

Chord 1200B power amp

Nakamichi BX300 audio cassette recorder / player

Denon 2900 DVD / universal player

Interconnects include Chord Chorus balanced leads from the Meridian to the 1200B, and

Nordost speaker cables

B&W Nautilus 802 speakers (bi-wired)

So: a major return from a fairly hefty cash layout, albeit eased by the good people at Music Matters in Solihull whose co-operation regarding part-exchange made the venture possible.

However, the exercise was not without its problems, and for those interested in hearing about the trials and tribulations of someone else’s upgrading, the full story follows.

It began with me thoughtlessly asking David Clifford of Music Matters what he considered to be the weak link in my CD replay system; a system with which I had hitherto been quite contented. I have no idea what made me pose the question, it certainly wasn’t a desperate desire to be parted from cash, but it just goes to show that ill-considered remarks can often have expensive consequences.

David’s first recommendation was not what I expected at all. He suggested I tried some Base support platforms under my key components, which proved to be very effective, and for a relatively modest outlay made a worthwhile improvement. Enthused with the results of this experiment I was thus lured into pursuing matters further.

His next suggestion was that I should hear a Metronome transport, a product designed and manufactured in France and a name previously unfamiliar to me. As usual I was offered the facility of an extended home trial, and being a very satisfied user of Chord Electronics products I asked to hear their Blue transport as well.

Sadly the Blue was dismissed almost right away on the basis of its ergonomics as, being a top-loader with the controls and display also on the top, it was totally impractical for mounting in a conventional rack. The Metronome on the other hand, is a very impressive piece of gear, beautifully yet sensibly designed and made, and includes the option of up-sampling which sounded very good to my ears. Extended listening provided much pleasure, and I found it delightfully revealing on vocal recordings and those of relatively small ensembles. However, larger scale orchestral works and operas which represent a large element of my listening made the distinction between the Metronome and my existing Proceed more difficult to perceive, and a price tag exceeding £5K made it easier to reject.

It was only at this point that David drew my attention to the Meridian 808i, as he knew that some years previously I had suffered serious disappointment with a Meridian 800 . It had been the sympathetic response from Music Matters to that problem which helped make me such a devoted customer of theirs.

Despite my reservations I grudgingly agreed to try the 808i.

The first session was almost the last.

The first two discs I tried produced a mechanical clattering noise, quite audible before the disc even started to play, and one never experienced before with numerous players, all of them considerably cheaper than the Meridian’s £8250 price tag!

Fortunately further experimentation showed that most discs load and play normally.

The second problem, immediately evident, was the machine’s display. Not only is the range of information provided inferior to that of the Proceed (I prefer to see the time remaining on each track), but the display itself is much smaller, and almost illegible unless viewed from a relatively narrow arc in front of the machine. At more oblique angles the background loses contrast, and you are left trying to distinguish yellow characters on a light green background. As I sit facing the speakers at the end of my room with the equipment located along a side wall, the display is therefore extremely difficult to read. The otherwise admirable remote control is also similarly ineffective at even moderately oblique angles.

Another failing is that the balance control, whose prime function in my opinion is to compensate for room anomalies, defaults to 0 each time the machine is switched to ‘Standby’.

Finally, each time a fresh CD is loaded there is the sound of electrical interference similar to that caused by a faulty light switch, played through the speakers.

Frankly, demonstrating this expensive new purchase with one of the ‘problem’ discs and the output not muted generates either ridicule or pity…’you paid how much?’

In view of the statement in Meridian’s own literature that: "Thus the 808 is offered as an exquisite music-only player, embodying the very best of our art and technology", stretches credulity beyond reason. One wonders whether the author has ever used this machine outside a laboratory, or even if at all.

You may also wonder in view of such a host of fundamental deficiencies, which would probably not be encountered on £99 budget electronics from the Far East, why did I persist in listening to the damned box, particularly as I was so exasperated by the sheer ineptitude of some aspects of its operation.

As you may imagine, the unfortunate David Clifford who had installed the demonstration machine, suffered the first salvo of ranting and duly promised to report our findings back to Meridian. Meanwhile, he suggested, why not just leave it in place and try listening to it, which is what I did for several weeks.

Initially I had hoped that Meridian would come up with some positive response, but the first excuse to filter back was that ‘all key personnel were away at a conference/exhibition/seminar’. This unfortunately revived memories of similar tales trotted out during my disenchanted phase with the 800 five years previously. The problem then became that ‘suitable transport mechanisms were difficult to source’, or ‘that alterations to the software would be too complex etc etc’. Eventually it became obvious that they were either unwilling or unable to address any of these issues. And all the while their box was working its insidious magic, producing sounds the like of which I’d never heard from outside a concert hall, and sometime better than those I’d heard within.

At the end of the day it all came down to deciding whether the good outweighed the bad, and on balance I decided it did, as the adverse features although irritating did not detract from its primary function

I must say though, having worked for many years in Technical Sales Management, it still appals me that despite being a prospective customer for a Special Limited Edition ‘flagship’ product, no direct contact was made by Meridian, not even a ‘phone call. Dumping responsibility onto the unfortunate dealer seems hardly fair.

Happily, some of the problems are now less irksome.

For example, the mechanical noise is only present on some older CDs, and is only really intrusive while the disc is loading and for perhaps the first ten minutes of play. It then ceases.

In all fairness, Meridian have since come up with a seemingly plausible explanation, although I know of no other manufacturer who suffers similarly.

And the remote control can be made to function more easily by bouncing the signal off a nearby wall!

The display has been excused on the grounds that ‘it sounds better’ although I can hear no difference even if it’s turned off, but perhaps that’s my ears, (although I don’t really think so).

Another anomaly I encountered is that when playing external digital sources through the built-in pre-amp, the display informs me that the DVD/ DVD-A/ or SACD I’m inputting is in fact a CD! Prompted by curiosity, when I loaded some of these discs into the machine, the display then identified their format perfectly, although of course it won’t play them!!

Meridian’s response when this was reported to them apparently, was to suggest seemingly without being ironic, that if the display irritated me I should turn it off; which demonstrates a breathtaking ability to miss the point, and is hardly confidence-inspiring.

In conclusion, I must emphasise again how delighted I am with the sound quality of the 800i.

But sadly, I continue to be frustrated by the knowledge that a company, so talented and whose products are capable of such sublime music reproduction, should seem from my experience so indifferent or even arrogant, when it comes to the relatively simple provision of Customer Service.

Thankfully, the Warranty period on this item is five years. I wonder whether I’ll need it.

David Dyer

With grateful thanks to all the staff at Music Matters who have patiently endured the trauma of this particular sale.

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