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 of enjoyment.
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 Classe's SSP-800, 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 to LPCM.
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 Control4.
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 volume.
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.