In the world of cutting edge digital, one name is known by all - Meridian. Meridian has been making some of the finest sounding digital playback systems for over 30 years and has just recently released their new flagship AV preamp, the 861V6 ($26,000) along with its accompanying HDMI switcher/audio processor the HD621 ($3,000). The HD621 is a separate video switcher and audio processor that allows owners of older Meridian AV preamps to take advantage of the new codecs offered by Blu-ray. These two units are designed to be at the center of the most elite home theaters on earth.
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 This allows owners to offset the cost of the unit over time while the rest of us poor saps are selling off our now outdated AV preamps, often at huge losses.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; Classé'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.
Read more about the performance of the Meridian 861V6 AV preamp on Page 2.
I went with something a bit more whimsical next, Tim Burton's remake
of "Alice In Wonderland" (Walt Disney Home Entertainment). The film has
tons of great demo material from the subtlest ticks of small pins and
swords to the thud of the bloodhound's feet. Every aspect of the
soundtrack was clearly and distinctly portrayed with an openness rarely
heard in my home theater. The stretching sound of Alice growing in the
initial antechamber after the fall was awesome and the sound of her
coming through the rabbit hole was incredible. The strings of the score
were open and spacious while voices were crystal clear and well placed.
Even the subtle sound of the smoking caterpillar seemed real, almost as
if he was smoking in front of me.
Television viewing was equally enjoyable with the Meridian 861V6 in
my system. The preprogrammed surround fields enabled me to get the best
surround sound from every feed from my cable box. It was easy to swap
the surround processing from the remote if I wanted to try something
different. I did notice that sometimes when the 861V6 switched
processing or type of digital feed when switching from a commercial
back to the regular program a short pop occurred. The processor quickly
locked onto signals however, so nothing was ever missed.
I cued up the Grateful Dead Working Man's Blues (Rhino) on DVD-Audio
via my Meridian G98DH transport. "Uncle John's Band" was amazing in the
detail and space I was treated to. The guitar notes were plucky and the
bass lines stayed tight while voices were clean and accurate. I skipped
to "New Speedway Boogie" and was placed dead center in the band as if I
was in the studio with them.
I moved onto an old classic DVD-Audio in Emerson Lake & Palmer's
Brain Salad Surgery (Rhino) and from the opening track of "Jerusalem"
and onto "Toccata" got all the space and openness one could ever want
with tight bass lines and a huge soundstage. The clarity and separation
from the Meridian were exceptional, and should be, as in this setup the
G98DH is merely a multi-channel transport and the entire decoding comes
from the 861V6. I found the DAC's to be exceptional and this setup gave
me one of the best surround demo's I've ever done in my home. The
balance was perfect and the air and space made my room seem larger
while the bass management system Meridian employs allows the AV preamp
to maximize each speaker's bass output and truly adds to the depth and
fullness of the sound.
Two-channel material through the 861V6, in direct two-channel mode
or in Tri-Field, gives the music a huge and deep soundstage, deeper
than the direct mode. Whether I was listening to Jimi Hendrix's Blues
Album and the acoustic 12 string version of "Hear My Train a Comin'" to
his Live at the Filmore East and the song "Machine Gun," the guitars
stayed hard and powerful as you'd expect. Engaging the 861V6's
Tri-Field DSP made it so the sonic image totally enveloped me. The
details and ease of music from the 861V6 was so inviting it made even
older recordings musical and spacious, providing for a whole new level
Competition and Comparisons
At the $26,000 price point the Meridian 861V6 doesn't have a whole lot
of competition because few manufacturers offer $26,000 AV preamps. One
such company that does offer a comparable AV preamp, at least in terms
of price, is Krell and their 707 AV preamplifier. At $30,000 the 707 is more than the 861V6; however it can decode all
the latest surround sound formats via HDMI as well as handle 3D -
something the 861V6 cannot.
Looking past the 861V6's price tag, another AV preamp to consider is
which like the Krell can decode all the latest lossless audio codecs
as well as handling 3D, and at $9,500 retail - though I firmly believe the Meridian 861V6
sounds better when it comes to both music and movies.
For more information on AV preamps including the latest news and
product reviews please check out Home Theater Review's AV Preamplifier
and Surround Sound Processor Reviews page.
The Meridian 861 is a highly flexible device and as such can be
complicated to set up, so unless you are a die-hard do-it-yourselfer,
have your dealer install this piece and save yourself the headache.
I understand the idea of having the video separate from the audio,
and it does make for the best sound, but the two-box system adds
another level of complexity. This also precludes the 861V6 from having
any onscreen information. On the flip side, thanks to the MHR output of
the HD621 switcher, anyone who ever bought a Meridian AV preamp, even
the now vintage '5' series can experience the benefits of the
uncompressed codecs offered by Blu-ray as long as their player decodes
I actually really like the tabletop remote Meridian offers: it is
well backlit and the keys are laid out logically. You can even
customize the labels to suit your system, but I would have really
preferred it to use RF over IR. I don't really see this as a major
downside as most anyone spending this kind of money on an AV preamp is
likely using another remote control from the likes of Crestron, AMX or
The only real pitfall of the new 861V6 and HD621 HDMI switcher/Audio
processor are a total lack of support for legacy video formats. I was
able to use my Wii via component through the component input on my
G98DH DVD player, but for those who do not plan to buy a Meridian DVD
player, you can only use HDMI for video sources. Secondly, the switcher
will pass the uncompressed codecs of Blu-ray but the 861V6 can't decode
them so in order to use them you need to add a Blu-ray player that can
convert the output to LPCM. Thirdly, the switcher is not HDMI 1.4
compliant and as such will not pass 3D video. Since the video is
completely separate, no onscreen information is displayed, not even
Meridian has been at the top of the world of digital audio for a long
time and for good reason. Their gear offers an open and spacious sound
that is unmatched, and their support of their customers with continued
upgrades to current models is also something literally unheard of even
at these price points. Consumers can know that Meridian has your back
when it comes to making a significant investment in an AV preamp, where
other companies will let you down.
While the 861V6 is a complex piece, one that really needs an
experienced person to install and setup, once you get it up and running
it will reward you with sound that is simply marvelous. While $26,000
retail is anything but cheap, after spending some time with Meridian's
new 861V6, I know why I relied on a Meridian AV preamp as my reference
all those years, for they've always made and still make one of the
finest AV preamps in the world. If you wanted to make the argument that
the Meridian 861V6 was the best sounding AV preamp money can buy - I
wouldn't argue with you. It's just that good.