Meridian has been one of the only companies on the planet to truly allow their owners a never-ending upgrade path to newer models, and owners of the 861V4 can upgrade to the newest version for a fee. This is a huge plus as many high-end companies have tried to do this, while only two actually have succeeded, Meridian being one of them. This allows owners to offset the cost of the unit over time while the rest of us poor saps are selling off our now outdated AV preamps, often at huge losses. The cost associated with upgrading may seem high at first but actually makes for a large savings over the long haul.
The 861V6 handles all the audio switching and processing while the separate HD621 switcher separates the audio and video signal, allowing the 861V6 to handle only audio feeds, thus maximizing performance, albeit at the complication of another box. The HD621 will pass through the new codecs found on today's Blu-ray discs but you'll need to ensure that your Blu-ray player can output LPCM directly, for the 861V6 cannot decode the lossless audio signals on its own. The two pieces are connected via Meridian's proprietary Comm's cable or BNC terminated interconnect that allows one to control the other.
Aesthetically, the new 861V6 looks almost exactly the same as the older models with the central badge on the faceplate appearing slightly different, though it could just be my memory. A basic panel of buttons run across the bottom right of the face plate, with a large LED display across the middle, and between the two is a flip down panel that houses more advanced setup buttons. The sides of the 861V6 slope nicely back and my review unit was finished in black, though Meridian offers the 861V6 in graphite and silver as well. Custom colors are available for an extra fee. The basic unit can be tailored to suit any system needs, allowing direct digital outputs for Meridian speakers, or single ended or balanced (mine came with balanced outputs) for conventional speaker users. The analog input board allows for up to six pairs of analog inputs or two 5.1 channel inputs or one 5.1 and three stereo analog inputs. Balanced analog inputs have been removed as an option from the 861V6. A host of digital inputs including six coaxial and two optical inputs as well as an RJ45 input for Meridian's 7.1 MHR from the HD621 switcher round out the standard inputs. Three of the coaxial inputs can also be assigned for use as another 5.1 MHR link. Of course a host of control options are here too, including RS-232 as well as Meridian Comms cables and 12 Volt triggers, all of which can be customized to your needs.
The two pieces come packed individually and came to me double boxed. The 861V6's box is entirely black with the Meridian name proudly displayed across the front and a large Meridian sticker holding it sealed along the four bottom edges. Freeing up the sticker and sliding off the top of the box reveals the unit, which comes wrapped in a cloth cover, and the manual, an actual hard bound book, as well as the large table top remote with batteries and a comms cable. All these were secured for shipping with solid Styrofoam, also black. The HD621 was packed similarly in white Styrofoam encased in a more common looking box.
I used the 861V4 as my reference AV preamp for many years so I'm more than familiar with its setup procedures. I quickly tore into the boxes and replaced my current AV preamp; Classe's SSP-800, with the two Meridian pieces and added in my Meridian G98DH for CD and DVD-Audio playback duties. I ran the 861V6 in my reference room, which includes a Sony PS3 and BDP-S350 Blu-ray player, Oppo BD-83SE and BDP-95, EMM Labs TSD1/DAC2 CA/SACD player, Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR, and a Nintendo Wii. I connected the Meridian 861V6 to my Krell Evolution 403 and Proceed amplifiers via Transparent Reference balanced interconnects. I used several speaker systems for this review, starting with the Wharfedale Opus 2-3s, then a Canton Vento system and finally with my reference Escalante Fremont's - all wired using Transparent Reference speaker cables.
The connections are only part of the process of setting up a Meridian system. There are no real setup menus; instead you must use Meridian's own PC based software, downloadable from Meridian's website. I have had plenty of experience with this software over the years and while there is an initial learning curve, it's pretty straightforward and intuitive once you've learned the program. The software also allows you incredible flexibility in surround fields for each type of signal input from each source, so when your cable box sends in stereo, you could run Dolby Pro Logic II, Trifield, THX etc, and when it outputs 5.1 digital you can run discrete, Cinema etc. All of the DSP's can be changed during use from the remote and the defaults can be changed from the 861V6's panel should your tastes or preferences change.
My several year hiatus showed as my initial programming was off, but a quick call to Meridian had me up and running in no time. Once I had everything programmed correctly I went through and set up my speaker sizes, something Meridian does better than any AV preamp on the planet. Instead of setting size as large or small, Meridian gives you a continuum from 1 to 22 for main speakers and 1 to 30 for subwoofers. Just like setting levels on any AV preamp, a tone comes from each speaker and you adjust its level up or down. It's also an excellent tool to find resonant problems in your room and I usually treat them at the same time when doing this step. This is an extra step beyond setting distances (which can also be done in the set up software) and levels, but I find that the processor knowing exactly what is the maximum your speakers can output and not going beyond that does two great things. First it protects your speakers and second it makes sure you get every drop of performance out of them. I love this set up system so much I wish everyone would use it. If any of what I've just said sounds at all intimidating or confusing, know that your local Meridian dealer will more than likely setup your 861V6 for you.
I let the system burn in for a week or so before sitting down for any critical listening. I started off by cueing up the action spy movie "Salt" (Sony) on Blu-ray. From the first sounds of the film I was hooked. The movie starts out with Angelina Jolie as a prisoner being beaten in her cell and the echoes came in so perfectly you felt as if you were in the cell with her. Eventually she is let out of her cell and the world opens up, as does the 861V6's soundstage, giving me a huge sound field that was open and airy yet had power and depth to everything from voices to gunshots.