While 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.
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The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
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.
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.