Meridian Sooloos System Reviewed (Audio Core 200, Control 15 and DSP3200 Digital Active Loudspeakers)

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Meridian_Sooloos_System_Review_DSP3200_bookshelf_speaker_and_Audio_Core_200_media_server.jpgWhile you can hardly open a paper or magazine without reading about the resurgence of vinyl, the majority of music is digital these days and for good reason. A well-organized digital media collection allows users to select only their choicest songs from their musical collections. This data can be organized into playlists for different moods or for different family members, further increasing everyone's enjoyment. A music server can be as simple as a Smart phone and a boom box or for those looking for whole house audio distribution, they can get more complicated. The subject of this review is Meridian's Sooloos system: designed for the high-end music lover looking to control their music throughout one or more zones with total flexibility. With this review system I was treated to an all-digital system based on the Control 15 that retails for $7,500, an Audio Core 200 that sells for $3,000, the DSP3200 loudspeakers at $6,000 a pair and a pair of five meter SpeakerLink cables that go for $300 apiece, for a total system price of $17,100.

Additional Resources
� Read more media server reviews by Home Theater Review's staff.
� Learn what we need for a disc-less future.
� Find a subwoofer to boost the bass of this system in our Subwoofer Review section.
� See more reviews in our Bookshelf Speaker Review section.
� Explore more products in our Remotes and System Control Review section.

Meridian_Sooloos_System_Review_Audio_Core_200_media_server.jpgThe Audio Core 200 is a digital preamplifier. This is a unique piece in that it accepts both digital and analog sources but only outputs digital signals for Meridian's own active digital speakers. It is a small box measuring 11 inches a side by nearly four inches tall. The shape is sort of a truncated pyramid so it gets smaller as it goes up from the table. The entire piece comes finished in either gloss black or white. Nine smart control buttons are spread out across the bottom of the front, with a green OLED display above them showing the function of the five middle buttons while the four outside buttons are fixed. A volume knob sits to the right of the keys and display, while a small power button is on the left. The central buttons that control the source selection are completely adjustable to suit your tastes.

A host of inputs run across a recessed panel in the rear of the Audio Core 200 including two USB ports, one for computer audio and the other for maintenance such as firmware updates. Two pairs of analog RCA style inputs and two 3.5 mini-jacks are present for non-digital sources. The mini-jack inputs can also double as additional digital inputs if need be. A proprietary connector for Meridian's own iPod dock and the Sooloos digital systems are included too. Outputs are limited to two Meridian SpeakerLinks as well as a headphone out.

Every source fed to the Audio Core 200 is converted to digital and then up-sampled to 88.2/96kHz. The Audio Core 200 controls all preamplifier functions in the digital domain, including bass and treble controls as well as stereo width and loudness before sending the signals out to the speakers. The preamplifier allows for some two channel DSP processing to compensate for speaker placement, with "stereo width" digitally widening the soundstage, similar to how Meridian's Tri-Field works in their processors. While not a multi-channel device, the Audio Core 200 can also accommodate up to two subwoofers as well.

Meridian_Sooloos_System_Review_Control_15_system_control.jpgThe Control 15 embodies everything needed for a Sooloos system. Storage is provided by a 500 GB hard drive that is large enough for about 1,000 CD's when ripped in a lossless format. A CD drive is built into the base of the display for importing your CD's or you can import them from your computer simply by downloading Meridian's Control PC or Control Mac software. Other Sooloos devices connected to your network will share storage and files with the Control 15 and each other so all storage is additive in a more complex Sooloos system. Measuring 18 inches wide by just over 13.5 inches high and seven inches deep, the Control 15 offers a 17-inch diagonal touch screen that can be tilted from zero to 50-degrees to suit your placement needs. The entire device, sporting a sand blasted aluminum finish weighs nearly 24 pounds - hefty enough to be stable on any flat surface. An RJ-45 connector is there to connect to the Internet and output signals digitally either to Meridian SpeakerLink connections or coaxial outputs. A Meridian Comms connector, IR input, 12-Volt trigger and power input round out the Control 15's connections, which are housed in a little recessed area in the back of the stout base of the display.

Meridian_Sooloos_System_Review_DSP3200_bookshelf_speaker.jpgThe DSP3200 Compact Digital Active Loudspeaker is a two-way design with one 85 millimeter aluminum cone wide-range driver that covers the upper end while a 165 millimeter polypropylene bass driver covers the bottom end. The wide-range driver allows Meridian to lower the crossover point to not interfere with vocals. The speakers are just over a foot tall and a little less than 10 inches deep and wide and they taper down towards the top from the sides and rear. They are a sealed enclosure system that also house two 75-Watt amplifiers and digital to analog converters. A large heat sink runs up the back of the speaker to keep them all cool. Connections are made via Meridian SpeakerLink on RJ-45 cables both in and out, and the speakers have a switch to assign them as either left, right or center channel speakers. The speakers can each be connected directly to a Meridian preamp or run from one to the next and will function identically regardless of how they are connected. Meridian quotes frequency response as 45Hz to over 20kHz with an output of over 105 dB at one meter. The speakers come in high gloss white or black with the grills for the two drivers slightly domed up from the front of the cabinet.

Meridian is one of the best when it comes to digital audio. Their processors and players are consistently among the best of the best and they have used their expertise to produce fully digital systems - such as the subject of this review. In the Sooloos system I received, the signal from the Control 15 through the Audio Core 200 to the speakers is entirely run on Cat 5 cable. This allows for some wonderful things. First, the output of the speakers can be tweaked in the digital domain allowing maximization of bass response, similar to the bass management in Meridian's AV preamps. The speakers themselves are digitally active speakers, so the digital signal enters them via Cat 5 cable, then Meridian digital to analog converters convert the signal to analog and feed a separate 75-Watt amplifier for each driver. Such active speaker systems allow the amplifiers to function to the top of their ability as they each see only the frequencies they need to amplify for their respective driver. This combined with the digital signal processing allows the speakers to reproduce bass up to their maximum output at high listening levels and enhances performance at lower levels as well.

The Hookup
Setting up a fully digital system is more like setting up a home network than a stereo. The only wires used in this system are Cat 5 cables. The Control 15 is wired to your router for access to the Internet. This allows the system to download metadata for the uploaded music. The SpeakerLink output feeds the Audio Core 200 and then each of the speakers is connected to the outputs on the Audio Core 200 or one may be connected to it and the second speaker connected to the primary speaker in a daisy chain fashion. The Audio Core 200, Control 15 and each of the DSP3200 speakers are plugged into the wall and the system is ready to play. I also connected my Mac Pro tower to the Audio Core 200 via a Transparent USB cable.

One thing I really loved about the DSP3200's is that they use three points for leveling and not the typical four. Three points define a plane and are so much simpler to deal with than four. The speakers come with rubber feet and spikes and can also be mounted on stands. Meridian was nice enough to send me the stands as well and they are equally cool. Large bore polished metal posts extend from a large, round dark glass base up to a small platform that bolts to the loudspeaker. The wires for power and the digital signal easily snake through the pillar so cables are hidden when used with these stands. The stands also level on three rubber feet or spikes.

To increase control and allow me to quickly put a lot of my own music on the system I downloaded the Control Mac program as well as the iPad and iPhone apps. The Control Mac allows users to control the system but the interface is not as aesthetically pleasing as the Control 15's screen or the iPad system, but it does make it easy to upload music from your computer to any Sooloos device over your home network. I keep a ton of music in AIFF on my main computer for music server use and the Control 15 easily ingested these files. I did have some issues transferring AAC and MP3 files, what with their varying bit rates, but found that the "complication" resulted in me being able to take better care when ensuring the highest bit rate files were the ones that made it onto the Meridian Sooloos for playback. If you want Sooloos to make files compatible with your portable music devices, think iPod, then you must rip them from its CD drive.

Performance
When talking about a music server, the interface is everything. If you can't find your music or organize it easily it doesn't matter how much it holds or how good it sounds - you won't use it. Fortunately the Sooloos interface is excellent. Control of your music is easy and you can keep a totally open system allowing access to every feature or focus it as you see fit. You can easily group albums into sets if you have several different versions of an album, create themes and even select favorite tracks within an album or favorite albums themselves. The Sooloos metadata adds moods to each album, and you can freely assign any of dozens of different moods to albums to suit your taste. All this flexibility is done in more an interface that's more Mac than PC, making it easy to access all these different features in an intuitive way.

Read more about the Sooloos System's performance on Page 2.

HTR Product Rating for Meridian Sooloos System (Audio Core 200, Control 15 and DSP3200 Digital Active Loudspeakers)

Criteria Rating

Performance

4.5

Value

2.5

Overall

3.5

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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Meridian_Sooloos_System_Review_DSP3200_bookshelf_speaker_on_stands.jpgSearching can be done directly or you can use the focus feature to narrow down your music collection. The focus allows you to sort by number of plays, resolution of recordings, when they were recorded, genres, composers, credits, labels - you can even tag your albums and focus on the different tags you've assigned. While this might sound confusing, it really isn't as the menu structure is well set up and intuitive to use, allowing you to narrow down a large collection easily and quickly. You can even sort by the moods of the music so when you want something calm you can easily get your music with that feel.

The 'Swimming' feature of the Sooloos uses your guidelines to randomly select appropriate music for your mood. Say I want to rock out to some Black Sabbath - I can cue up my favorite album, set the Sooloos to focus on similar albums and start swimming. Thanks to all that mood data,
the Sooloos does a really good job picking tracks that fit your mood. This can even be further tailored to suit narrower tastes if desired. Suffice to say the swimming function works well and the more I used the system, the better it selected music that matched my tastes at the time,
be they loud and aggressive or calm and mellow. The Sooloos would stray just enough to keep my interest yet always keep the vibe I wanted.

I started off listening to Annie Lennox's Medusa (Arista), listening to "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and was surprised at how smooth and spacious the sound was at a relatively low volume. The vocals were lush and well placed with the bass just a tad punchy. I assumed it would fall to
pieces at higher volumes but to my surprise it didn't. The bass actually filled in and the upper registers stayed as smooth and lush as at low volume. I adjusted with the width control on what was already a very spacious track and the soundstage opened up as I increased width
without altering the sound in any negative way that I could discern. I tried placing the speakers just two feet apart and expanded the width control and was quite pleased with how well it did compensating for the poor placement I induced.



Audiophile tracks like "'S Wonderful" from Diana Krall's The Look of Love (Verve) came across well, with a surprising rendition of the standup bass for such a small speaker, all the while maintaining Krall's sultry vocals accompanied by subtle strings. I was impressed by how the DSP compensated for different listening levels, keeping it all together up to some pretty loud
volumes. The bass could have been deeper but these are bookshelf speakers so I really didn't expect even what I got from them. "Cry Me A River" gave me a huge soundstage and portrayed every aspect from the brushes on the cymbals to the standup bass with a liquid sound that made the song so enjoyable.

For aggressive music, I played an old favorite with Filter's Short Bus (Warner Brothers) and while the opening of "Hey Man, Nice Shot" was lively, though the bass was a little soft. Those who crave the visceral impact of music like this will need to add a subwoofer or move up the
line of Meridian's speakers for more low-end punch. While the DSP3200s seemed ever so slightly laid back on audiophile recordings, they can rock as well when given the chance. "Take Another" has slightly less depth to the bass notes which suited the DSP3200s better, giving a solid punch to the bottom end even at high levels while giving a forward placement to the guitars and vocals.

Competition and Comparisons
In this day and age it is impossible to not compare the Sooloos system to the ubiquitous iTunes most of us use on our home computers. While iTunes is a relatively straightforward interface, Sooloos has so much more flexibility and metadata that allows for smart searching and swimming that are simply beyond what iTunes is capable of. Kaleidescape is another media server system, and Kaleidescape can even distribute Blu-ray in uncompressed formats throughout your home, but again the intelligence inherent in the Sooloos system makes it a better music interface and the search features of Sooloos are far easier and more efficient to use. Sonos and Olive are two other makers of music servers but again, they simply do not have the data and smart features, nor ease of control, of the Sooloos system, though their systems are far less expensive.

For more on Sooloos and other audiophile media servers please visit Home Theater Review's Media Server page.


Meridian_Sooloos_System_Review_DSP3200_bookshelf_speaker_in_bookshelf.jpgThe Downside
While the Meridian digital system allows maximum performance from a small speaker, it does tie you into a proprietary system and limits your freedom to expand to anything but other Meridian products. However, you can use the Control 15 with a separate digital to analog converter in a more typical system. It is also possible to use the Media Core 200 as a pre-amp to connect other audio sources to the DSP3200s.

The DSP3200's digital management allows Meridian to maximize the bass performance as well as compensate for placement of the speakers - but they are still bookshelf speakers. Those wanting deep, powerful bass will be better served by larger speakers or by adding a subwoofer.

The Sooloos interface is simply amazing and has so much flexibility you could spend months
working on your library. While I don't really consider this a downside, it can get complicated and in its own way could be viewed as a downside for low-level users. Fortunately you or your dealer can close down the system options if you like to make it less complicated to use.

Conclusion
This is a great system for those where space comes at a premium, as it gives a large sound in a very small space. The Meridian's DSP processing produces a huge sound with plenty of low-end even from these small bookshelf speakers, while the Audio Core 200 allows you to tailor the sound in the digital domain to compensate for poor placement or to suit your tastes.

The Sooloos music server interface is simply the best made, period. The Sooloos's smart features and extensive meta-data make the system amazingly easy to use and function in a way that is hard to believe until you live with it for a while. Once you do, no other music server will do.

Additional Resources
� Read more media server reviews by Home Theater Review's staff.
� Learn what we need for a disc-less future.
� Find a subwoofer to boost the bass of this system in our Subwoofer Review section.
� See more reviews in our Bookshelf Speaker Review section.
� Explore more products in our Remotes and System Control Review section.


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