[Soundstage!] - NY Marty Keane

The Meridian 518

July 1996

I once read an interview with Stephen King, the famed horror author, in which he was asked where his story ideas came from. His response was that he would first write a story outline and then put it away for a while, sometimes months and sometimes years. He would then pick up the outline when the time was right, blow off the dust, and settle in to write a million-selling novel. This, as Doug (famed Soundstage! master) will tell you, is my writing method as well.

Many, many (many, many, many, many...DAS adds) months ago I wrote a preview to a review of the Meridian 518 digital processor/preamp for this page. Those were the early days of Soundstage and the preview was well received by Doug. In fact, Doug liked it so much he wanted more. He wanted a full review. He wanted any review. Unfortunately, Doug would have to wait. In fact the review notes gathered a lot of dust while I went out and got hitched to a wonderful woman - Kelly (she is, I met her...DAS). I never thought the whole wedding process would take as many months as it did. Now, after much fanfare, I'm happily married and once again tinkering with my system and typing away at my keyboard. The great wait for the Soundstage! Meridian 518 review is over.

Before we get into the real nitty gritty behind and about the Meridian 518, let me tell you a little about my current system. I'm using a California Audio Labs Delta transport feeding a Meridian 563 Digital-to-Analog Converter with a Wonderlink II AES/EBU digital cable. The Delta is a solid transport -- very bare bones, very basic, and very good. The 563 is a solid all-around DAC with a fairly neutral sound. The 563 is connected to a Proceed PRE preamp, which sends its signal along to a McCormack DNA-1 Deluxe amplifier. The amp sends its signal to the final destination, Von Schweikert VR-4 loudspeakers, through bi-wired Straight Wire Duo speaker cable. The room is a good size for the speakers, 21'0" x 13'6" x 10'0" ceilings. All of the equipment, except for the amp, sits on a Solidsteel rack. All in all, I find that this system puts together a lot of great mid-priced equipment and it creates beautiful music.

Anyway, let's put the Meridian 518 in and see what happens. The only question is where to put it. The 518 is a simple-to-use, but complex machine. It's your basic audio Sybil, with several different personalities or uses.

It can be a digital preamp. If you have an all digital system, then go ahead and put your preamp back in the box. Just Use the 518 to control the volume/gain going to your amp. This setup was simple and worked very well. I simply popped the 518 in line between my DAC and my amp and changed the 518's setting to tell it how to act. The result was marvelous. The 518 taught me a valuable lesson that my preamp is not as transparent as I had thought. The sound coming from the system when using the 518 as a preamp was just a little cleaner. The silences were more silent and the dynamics of the music seemed to increase just a little. I was listening to my Kiko (by Los Lobos) CD and was amazed at how much more information was coming from my system. It was as if I was hearing the CD for the first time again, totally transfixed.

My only question was the cause for this revelation in the music. Was it taking the Proceed preamp out of the system that worked wonders or was it putting the Meridian 518 in? It was time to move things around. I put the Proceed back in the system and moved the 518 in line between the transport and the 563 DAC. The DAC now fed the Proceed and the system was back to normal, except with the inclusion of the 518. I zeroed out everything on the 518 so that it was in bypass mode and listened again. It sounded like what I was used to hearing in this room. So, I decided to start playing around with the 518 and really put it through its paces.

The 518 is first and foremost a digital audio processor, as Meridian claims. In the manner in which I now had it set up, it was in resolution enhancement mode. In this mode the 518 does many things. First, it de-jitters the signal coming from the transport before sending it on to the DAC. This feature is always on. Its next method of resolution enhancement is word-length adjustment. The 518 allows you to select the input word length from 16 to 24-bit and output word length from 16-24 bit. What is the advantage of this, you ask? CDs are 16-bit and many of our DACs are 20-bit or 24-bit. The word lengths do not match. What the 518 does is take the 16-bit word coming from the CD and adds empty zero bits to it increasing the word length. This does not add digital signal or sound, just digital bits. The new word length should be matched to your DAC. This matching, according to Meridian, will greatly improve the efficiency and sound of the DAC. So, in my case, with a 18-bit DAC in the 563, I selected 16-bit word input and a 18-bit word output.

Does it work? In a word, yes. The sound was a little closer to what I heard when using the 518 as a preamp. I wish I had a 24-bit DAC on hand to try this with because I'm sure the improvement would have been greater. The next thing to try was the dither shaping that the 518 provides. When a digital recording is made there is a dither shape applied to the digital signal by the recording engineer. When playing back a CD, adjusting the dither is like micro-adjusting the sound of your system. In effect, you can change the dither shape of the output signal going to the DAC. This is a highly subjective process. In my case, dither shape C worked best with my DAC in my system. The sound was now better than I had ever heard in my system before. The soundstage was more defined and seemingly more open.

Spatially, front to back, things were happening that had not been heard before. CDs can often sound a little dry. What the 518 does is give them a little "wetness". It's not warmth, it's realism.

You can also play with pre-emphasis. After I put the 518 into pre-emphasis mode, I left it there. It gave yet another level of improvement. According to Meridian, this increases the perceived dynamic range. I don't quite understand it - but it works.

Lastly, and this was the 518's best feature in my opinion, is the unit's ability to increase the digital gain of the signal before it goes to the DAC. Some of my absolute favorite CDs lately have been the Cello/Tim Duffy recordings of Guitar Gabriel and other old blues musicians. The recordings are very simple and very good with minimal processing. The only problem with them, and this was not learned until using the 518, is that the CDs are made with very little digital gain. The 518 allows you to fix that, by adding gain to the digital signal before it goes to the DAC. If you add too much gain, the 518 will tell you it's clipping and you can adjust it down a little. Well, after I upped the gain to where it was just clipping, Guitar Gabriel was in the room with me. Really, the improvement was that good. It was as if you took a blanket off each of the speakers. Kelly, my wife and audio advisor, was totally amazed when she heard this. Granted that most CDs are mastered with adequate gain, but if you have any CDs that were not then the 518 is a "must buy."

The 518 can also be used to master digital recordings. I don't have the equipment to do this but can easily imagine the great recordings I could make with the digital power of the 518.

Well, that's all I can tell you about the 518 and my experience with it. I think it's an exceptional piece of audio engineering and a worthwhile addition to a digital front end. Personally, I won't be using it as a preamp. I proved to myself during this process that it wasn't the Proceed that was hurting my system, it was the 518 that was improving it. I think the 518's resolution enhancement features and digital gain adjustments are worth more than its value as a preamp. Stick it in between your transport and DAC and hear your system transform itself. It's that good. Is it worth $1,700 US? Yes, if you can afford it. This type of processor can do so much more than a simple upgrade to a better DAC that it's definitely worth looking into.

Hold on one second though, somebody's knocking at my door. It's our friendly UPS delivery person and he has an Audio Alchemy DTI Pro-32 to give me (courtesy of Mark Schifter for review). With many thanks, I carry it into the sound room and sit it down next to the 518. It's weird but it looks like their's some condensation on the 518. The rest of the system is fine. It's not humid or damp in the room. What's going on here? And then it hits me, the 518 is starting to sweat. The competition is in the room, on the same shelf. Stay tuned for the audio olympics, with the 518 going up against the DTI Pro-32 this summer. Right here on Soundstage!

....NY Marty Keane

NY Marty is Sneakin' a Peek at the Meridian 518....
Is Digital Getting Better?

December 1995

When I was but a young man going to college, I jumped feet first onto the digital bandwagon. I sold my albums, retired my Harman Kardon T-60 table/Grado cartridge, and bought the Technics CD player. I think it was the first one off the line.

Those were happy days. No more Discwasher. No more skips or flying needles during wild parties. This CD stuff was easy. No muss, no fuss. Heck, you could put on a CD and get down to business with your best babe for a whole hour! In fact, that's probably what I liked most about the CD.

Today, I've got a steady babe, a big pile of CDs, and a pretty good sound system. Do I often kick myself for selling my albums? Of course I do. But long ago I became a digital-based audiophile and there's no turning back.

I'm not unhappy, mind you. Sure, I've heard some amazing vinyl systems and do believe that the sound from vinyl is wonderful - maybe better. But digital is the future. It's easier, smaller, simpler and, frankly, I'm stuck with it. Maybe you are, too.

So, let's make digital better. That's what several companies are doing. Last year Pacific Microsonics introduced HDCD. What I've heard so far I've liked. The only problem with HDCD is software - there's not much out there. And another thing, who can afford to buy their CD library over again when (and if) it's released in HDCD?

I think the better approach is the one being taken by companies like Audio Alchemy, Sonic Frontiers, Meridian and many others. These companies are engineering equipment that will extract every bit of music from your existing CD collection.

And, a drumroll please, I have one of the latest pieces of this equipment sitting on my rack. It's the Meridian 518. Meridian bills this box as a resolution enhancer. It's that, and much more. It goes between your transport and DAC and does all sorts of stuff to the digital signal before your DAC gets it.

A full review will follow in a few weeks but here's something to whet your appetite. By the way, I'm an audiophile, so listening is what I do best. My apologies to Meridian and engineers worldwide for any misunderstandings I may have and screwups I make when explaining digital processing. Please be gentle with me.

The 518 is a bit pricey at around $1,700 US, but for that money you get a lot of features. Here goes:

It probably does more than this but I haven't figured everything out yet. As to the sound, the 518 has me glued to my listening seat. CD after CD has sounded better than ever. Is it worth the money? Check back with me in a couple of weeks when I'll print the whole review. Is Digital Getting Better? You bet it is!

Stay Tuned.......more to come.....NY Marty