Audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts alike have learned to be weary of the term "future-proof," as history has proven it is synonymous with the term "BS" when it comes to investing in audio-video gear. Ask the guy with a five-year-old, $20,000 60-inch 720p plasma about future-proof and prepare for him to spit venom at you. Ask anyone with an HD DVD player about future-proof and you are likely to hear that they are not willing to be early adopters for new AV formats in the future. But mention future-proof to a Meridian 800 series owner and watch him smile, because Meridian, the ultra-high-end electronics company from England, has provided a meaningful way to keep the world's most feature-packed and best-sounding surround sound AV preamps relevant since the mid-1990s in a world that has seen everything from SACD to DVD-Audio to 720p to 1080p to HDMI to HD DVD to Blu-ray and is about to experience the insane video of 4k. This said, the Meridian 861 has been there at the absolute cutting edge of technology for AV preamps longer than any other component in AV history. There should be an award for this kind of feat but, sadly, there is not.
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The Meridian 861 is a single-chassis AV preamp that is card-based, not unlike the now-discontinued Mark Levinson N° 40 AV preamp. Depending on the needs of your system, you can configure your 861 with multi-channel audio inputs, a card for proprietary high-resolution audio inputs from other Meridian players, video inputs of various varieties (not HDMI in the 861, however - it's an external solution at this point) and much more. Pricing is around the $20,000 to $24,000 range, depending on which inputs you need, want and/or desire, because Meridian basically has them all. Version 1 units can actually be upgraded to the latest Version 4 units, both in the States and in England. Meridian 861s have kept their value over time, while other high-end AV preamps at one point or another have dropped like a stone.
Sonically, the Meridian 861 is one of the smoothest and most open AV preamps on the market at any price. True audiophiles know to match a Meridian player with an 861, even if it is from the lower Meridian G series line-up, as the proprietary link from player to preamp is the most direct, sexy-sounding way on today's market to get from a disc to your speakers. Meridian's sound is without question British in terms of its poise and lack of sizzle. It's a bit laid-back, but its openness and realistic soundstage transcend geographical stereotypes. The 861's configuration requires you to use a PC to set up the inputs and is quite complex. Most consumers just have their dealer do the set-up and leave it at that. Hardcore enthusiasts learn to love the depth and complexity of setting up a Meridian preamp, as you can basically make it do anything you want it to do once you learn the ropes of the often quirky software.
Read The Downside and Conclusion on Page 2
• No AV preamp has delivered on the promise of staying current longer and through more AV formats than Meridian's 861. This is the sole example of future-proof in all of home theater electronics.
• Sonically, the Meridian 861 can safely be put up against the best stereo preamps - let alone AV preamps - for audio quality. It is open, resolute, dynamic and three-dimensional-sounding. Even if you used it just for stereo, the Meridian 861 could very well be the best-sounding AV preamp on the planet Earth.
• The build quality of the 861, specifically the plastic front plate, isn't up to the standards of other big-dollar AV preamps on the market today. The internal chassis of an 861 is made of metal, but the plastic front and small LCD screen were much more relevant in 1994 than they are today.
• No HDMI switching in the unit leaves Blu-ray enthusiasts needing an external Meridian 4x1 switcher, which is far less slick a solution than those found on lesser-sounding HDMI switching AV preamps from Denon and Integra. They have the ability to receive HD video and audio in HD formats like Dolby True HD and DTS Master Cinema and switch them with ease. The 861 requires you to send HD video to a video processor or a switcher and will not accept audio in the latest HD formats. One would assume an upgrade card with HDMI inputs cannot be too far away, but to date, nothing has been announced.
The Meridian 861 still might very well be the best AV preamp in the world at any price, despite its lack of HDMI inputs. The consumer-grade preamps that have all of the latest bells and whistles cannot hold a candle to the Meridian 861 in terms of sound quality, digital room correction, stability, attentive customer service and overall value. For those who want the best, Meridian remains at the top of the A list with their 861 AV preamp.