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Digital Signal Processing is today no rarity, although (as you’ll see elsewhere in these pages) there’s still no shortage of the more traditional approach to system building, where analogue sources (or digital sources and a DAC) deliver analogue signals to an analogue amplifier where volume, tone and other adjustments can be made in the analogue domain, before the signal is amplified to drive a pair of passive loudspeakers.
Other companies have come to accept that — especially in today’s largely digital world — it makes better sense to keep the signal digital for as much of the system chain as possible. Volume adjustment, tone and even complex EQ can be calculated in the digital domain without the distortions introduced by physical analogue components.
digital speakers under its belt,
these D6000s released in 1990
What’s remarkable about Meridian in this regard is that it started doing this not a few years ago like everyone else, but nearly three decades ago. Its first “digitally-driven” D600 loudspeaker appeared in 1989, and then the DSP6000 in 1991. So while such digital-domain processing has become an increasingly used strategy in the last few years at all levels of hi-fi, most companies are still learning the art and fine-tuning the results. Meridian has had 30 years to evolve the techniques embodied in its 21st-century range of what it refers to as its ‘DSP loudspeakers’.
The DSP range
At the top of those DSP loudspeakers is the Special Edition DSP8000, standing 135cm tall, with each cabinet weighing 105kg. We had the pleasure of spending time with those for our previous edition of Audio Esoterica. But at the other end of the range is the Special Edition DSP5200, less than a metre tall, and a distinctly more manageable 35kg each. Despite having a mere third of the range-topper’s bulk, they maintain the full DSP philosophy — and indeed Meridian makes the point that it’s with such smaller speakers that the DSP can really come into its own, by enabling the delivery of great things from the smaller cabinet size.
A reminder here that while these look like loudspeakers and are listed as loudspeakers, their input is digital, so that they are in fact a full system excepting only the source signal. The amplifiers are part of the speakers, and are driver-specific in that they form a completely matched audio system. Also inside the ‘speakers’ are DSP crossovers, again optimised precisely to the known driver characteristics, but also adaptable to the owner’s requirements to allow room optimisation, even to tweak according to the material being played. The digital-to-analogue converters, too, are inside the DSP5200SE cabinets, handing off the final signal to the amplifiers with the absolute minimum of intermediary circuitry.
Within this internal DSP are various Meridian innovations made possible by keeping the signal digital this far through the system chain. We’ll get into those in more detail below — first let’s look at the physical speaker itself, and what’s required to bring that digital signal to the inputs of the Special Edition DSP5200.
Small is beautiful
These smaller speakers are far less imposing than the towering DSP8000s, and as we encountered them, in the listening suites of Audio Visual Integration in Taren Point (see above), they looked positively friendly in terms of both accommodation and style. The finish on the pair we auditioned was an entrancing piano gloss white which oozed quality while neatly disappearing into today’s modern décors with a minimum of impact. Black is the other standard colour available (see below). But any of the Special Edition range can be ordered in the purchaser’s choice from 270 ‘Meridian Select’ colours.
Compared with the side-firing drivers used on Meridian speakers higher up the range, the driver layout of the DSP5200 is relatively conventional. The front baffle hosts twin 160mm polypropylene long-throw bass drivers to handle the mid and bass frequencies, and above those a 25mm beryllium-dome tweeter sits within a short horn designed to control dispersion and to best couple the tweeter diaphragm to the air for improved efficiency. The beryllium tweeter, used here with dual voice-coils of silver, is part of the elevation of Meridian’s DSP range to ‘Special Edition’ status. Although notoriously hard to machine and manipulate, beryllium has long been recognised as offering ideal tweeter characteristics, being half the density of diamond yet still seven times more rigid than aluminium and over twice as ‘fast’. Such a tweeter, says Meridian, allows the SE speakers to control transients across a wider frequency range. Here the upper response is quoted to 32kHz.
Another upgrade for the SE edition is the use of clamp rings on the larger drivers, which provides additional isolation of the bass and midrange drivers from residual vibrations in the cabinet, again aiming for additional control and so detail in their lower frequency performance.
And those cabinets follow the construction of all Meridian’s DSP speakers in using timber interlaminated with a layer of aluminium, which keeps the entire speaker both rigid and shielded from interference.
The complete cabinet stands on adjustable machined foot assemblies, with spikes if you remove the rounded adjustable feet.
While the DSP5200SE doesn’t have the two-part cabinet of the DSP8000SE, it still makes use of Meridian’s Enhanced Bass Alignment (EBA) to ensure time alignment between the different drivers. And while some manufacturers incorporate physical adjustments to align different sections of their cabinets, Meridian does its final refinements within that internal digital processing too, the idea being to overcome the progressive delay of lower frequencies, where the bass arrives late (and the lower the frequency, the later it arrives). Meridian points to this effect as causing music to lose its impact, become boomy, and reduce the sense of space, but by using a combination of digital filters and time delays Meridian allows the mid
and high frequencies to ‘wait’ while the low frequencies catch up, “delivering perfectly-timed music playback, additional clarity and an open, transparent sound-stage”, it promises.
Sending the signal
Having described the speakers, it’s time to examine how they receive their signals from your sources, and how the signal is then processed within the speakers.
This is, as noted, Meridian’s great point of difference. The inputs to the Special Edition DSP5200 speakers are not analogue speaker terminals, but digital RJ45 type sockets, like your Ethernet home networking, but here called SpeakerLink, Meridian’s digital connection system.
One advantage of this is immediate — you won’t be shelling out for expensive speaker cables. Another is that SpeakerLink connections can be chained through from one speaker to the next (there’s an output as well as an input) which can reduce even these cable runs, particularly between speakers. Meanwhile SpeakerLink’s digital flexibility means a system can, if more convenient, be ‘star’-connected rather than chained.
The corollary of this convenience is that you need what Meridian calls an ‘end-point’ device to marshall your sources and deliver a SpeakerLink output. For home cinema you might be using Meridian’s G68 Digital Surround Controller, or for stereo its 808 Reference CD player, or its impressive UltraDAC (or both). Very convenient (and relatively affordable) may be the company’s new 200 Series of products, which include a multichannel converter to SpeakerLink in the 271 Digital Theatre Controller, and two Zone Controllers — one powered, and the little 218 Zone Controller not, but still supporting both master and slave SpeakerLink outputs, as well as a SpeakerLink input. With additional inputs — one analogue pair and one each of optical and coaxial digital — in addition to its streaming abilities, the 218 is a neat solution.
We should note that the DSP5200 has two other input types — S/PDIF coaxial electrical digital input to connect a local source, and sockets also for Meridian’s ‘Comms’ system control; each input has an associated output to chain on those signals. But if you’re using the SpeakerLink connection the separate Comms connections won’t be required, since SpeakerLink carries both two balanced digital connections (in a Meridian system, digital audio is distributed in pairs of channels) and the Meridian Comms control in that single RJ45 connection.
Sooloos and Roon
The endpoint choices described above each provide physical inputs for external sources but also for Meridian’s app-based “intuitive visual music management interface”, Sooloos. And given the family inheritance, as it were, between Sooloos and the not dissimilar but rather superior Roon, Meridian end-points are also Roon endpoints.
Both Sooloos and Roon are software products which provide lush app interfaces for iPad along with intelligent searching and focusing to make navigation of your music collection a complete delight. Sooloos is free, but requires both a Meridian endpoint and a Sooloos Core, the ‘core’ being your music collection stored perhaps on one of Meridian’s own Music Cores (a kind of NAS drive and local player in one), or potentially on a QNAP NAS drive running Sooloos software. Roon is more flexible — you can store your music collection pretty much anywhere on your network, including on PCs or in iTunes on a Mac, and it’ll index it all and offer it up for serving to a Meridian endpoint but also to many other places — your iPad, any AirPlay-equipped device, other pieces of hi-fi released in recent years as Roon-ready. Its interface is also slightly more clever, and even more pretty than Sooloos. But you have to pay an annual membership for Roon, currently $119 per year or $499 for ‘lifetime’ membership.
We’re familiar with both systems, and use Roon daily for our music collection, so continued to do so when listening to the DSP5200SE loudspeakers in situ in the listening rooms of AudioVisual Integration in Taren Point, south of Sydney.
Inside the DSP5200SE
With your end-point in place, the signal travels digitally to the Meridian speakers via SpeakerLink. This happens at high resolution, though many will be surprised to find this supports a maximum of 24-bit 96kHz. High-res files of higher resolution will be downsampled by the Meridian endpoint to this level (or the appropriate multiple, e.g. 88.2kHz for 176.4kHz files). Meridian’s Matt Holland has previously explained this choice to us as follows, making the point that there is more to digital quality than bits and sampling frequency.
“We measure resolution in terms of noise, jitter, time smear, not just bit-depth and high frequency extension,” he says. “We also do not believe there is any technical argument to support operating at bit-depths higher than 24-bit, as a correctly dithered 24-bit signal, when correctly converted to analogue, has no quantisation noise and more dynamic range than any recording microphone or studio preamp can capture.”
Having said that, he notes that their ambition in the future is to increase the maximum sampling rate of the SpeakerLink system.
One type of file can exceed this limitation, and that’s MQA — Master Quality Authenticated files, an innovation of Meridian which has since been spun off into a separate company (albeit in the same building, as a UK press colleague recently informed us). All Meridian’s speakers and endpoints are MQA-enabled to ‘unfold’ these packaged files to the highest level available, which is currently 24-bit/192kHz.
And as Mr Holland notes, there is far more to the processing in the DSP5200 than taking the file from SpeakerLink and converting it for replay. Behind those SpeakerLink connections each Special Edition DSP8000 uses two of NXP’s Freescale CMOS 24-bit DSPs (56367) running at 150MHz, and on all incoming signals Meridian uses its proprietary jitter-reduction technique — a FIFO (first-in first-out) buffer reclocking using an independent output clock to reset any timing errors in the incoming signal. CD-quality and lower signals arriving via SpeakerLink are upsampled to 88.2kHz and 96kHz for the Digital Signal Processing within, with this upsampling also applying apodising correction, using a unique Meridian filter that avoids pre-ringing, so it can be steeper, potentially cleaning up the effects of less efficient filters used by the ADCs
or other upstream processing.
With the processing and crossovers under-taken in DSP, twin 24-bit multi-bit delta-sigma DACs with 128x oversampling are deployed to deliver the inputs to three independent power amplifiers rated at 75W each — one amplifier for each driver. These are described as extended-bandwidth analogue electronics, optimised to deliver high-resolution recordings, with little more information available as to their build (our DSP8000SE review had a little further if somewhat speculative information).
Meridian makes the point that its DSP is even more relevant in a smaller speaker like the DSP5200 than in its largest model. Without the sheer driver count and size, the DSP can compensate, it says, boldly claiming “the performance of a traditional loudspeaker eight times the physical volume”, and a maximum output level of 116dB at 1m.
And we reckon it would indeed be interesting to sit someone blindfold in front of the DSP5200SE and have them guess what size of speaker was playing. Because from the first track on which we raised the volume, Night Train by Antonio Forcione, there was such a presence to Sabina Sciubba’s soft central vocals, suspended in what hi-fi folks like to call inky blackness, that the performance was spellbinding. Every finger slide and pluck from the twin guitars were perfectly rendered with precision and space that became hallmarks of the presentation as we listened on.
Nor was there a lack of scale to the sound from these metre-high speakers. On the classic recording of Walk on The Wild Side the depth of the bass extended right down to the bottom E
without any diminution of size, and Lou Reed’s vocal was beautifully sharp in the middle between the panned strumming guitars.
There was slam and kick too — what a kick drum pop was delivered behind Elton John’s Jamaica Jerk-off from the 24/96 of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, and how the percussive drum-rolls rolled across the soundstage! This track is one of our regular testers and we don’t recall ever hearing the arrangement so brilliantly clarified into individual elements. This speaks to Meridian’s boast of being kings of timing, with that apodising filter cleaning up previously-applied pre-ringing. The result feels entirely intimate, with the sense of genuine reality that comes only from the best of systems.
Following that lead we tried our kd lang favourite The Air That I Breathe, and sure enough from the opening mallet taps hard left, to the breathy vocal and the brushed snare hard right, all impeccable — and we heard a doubled bass note just before the guitar entry that we’d never before noticed. Reaching the crescendo of complexity in the chorus climax, there was just a little masking of the harmonies where a little extra edge would lift them forward, but no sense of stress at all. On Joni Mitchell’s later recording of Both Sides Now we similarly wondered if the saxophone was fractionally short of presence, but such thoughts were swept away by another thrillingly isolated vocal — the subjective silence of the Meridian system’s rock-bottom noise-floor was a constant thrill — while the upright bass was fully delivered in frequency terms, and without the slight upper bass bloom we’d noticed from the larger Meridian 8000s.
Could they rock? Dear me yes, as from The Flaming Lips’ complete re-recording of ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ we blasted forth Any Colour You Like, which seems to thrust electrical current straight from the studio to your ears, brilliantly presented and soundstaged by the Meridians, with all the benefit of minimal signal paths keeping things tight and crunchy. We ran Led Zeppelin’s In The Light at 24/96, and aside from sounding impressively dynamic as a band, Bonham’s drumming was positively spot-lit, the cymbal taps tingly and the tom power tangible, while JPJ’s bass runs in the middle eight were fully formed and substantial. And again, thrilling soundstaging as the organ and guitar overdubs slide across the soundstage. How big that Hohner Clavinet!
To clear our ears, we turned to Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, and the Meridians pinpointed perfectly the unusual piano tone on this recording (Jarrett had been given a smaller Bösendorfer with a lighter more percussive tone than his normal piano, but how he uses it!). The Meridians presented this recordings as if Jarrett was in the room, again so intimate, and with just amazing timing. Only his off-mike moans and audience applause made the hall acoustic tangible, and here a slightly odd effect of this being all forward of the performance plane rather than surrounding the listener.
The same effect was apparent when listening to a Stereophile soundstaging test — all forward, no sense of behind.
As for bass limitations from the speaker size, we ran Neil Young’s Walk With Me, which has bass content that goes to the low 30s of hertz. The Special Edition DSP5200 system threw the bass out massively, while still having no problem holding onto an excellent expression of his vocal — we could hear him moving back from the mike, again something we’ve never before noticed under the sheer energy of this track.
Having Tidal available via Roon, and a wealth of MQA files available via Tidal, we took some time to hunt ‘MQA Studio’ tracks which would light the Meridian 218’s blue light, rather than merely the green light which indicates just MQA encoding. We were most impressed by Clapton’s I Shot The Sheriff, which really did sound like studio playback rather than an old classic from the 70s. The remaster of Waits’ ‘Blue Valentine’ also lit blue and yielded more joy, with impeccable clarity to Wrong Side of the Road, and while we might still turn to vinyl for our favoured presentation of this album, we suspect that would sing just as finely through the 5200s as well.
PLUS EIGHT CHARACTERS TO SHOW
SOURCE AND VOLUME, OR CURRENT
SAMPLING RATE. IT CAN BE BLANKED IF DESIRED.
It is only six months since we spent time with the Special Edition DSP8000, and from our recollections and notes, these more compact DSP5200SE active speakers have so much going for them we might even be inclined to pick the smaller over the larger. They’ll be easier to incorporate into most homes, and while there was less of the larger speakers’ effortless scale here, they nevertheless sounded bigger than their dimensions might suggest, and the sound was perhaps even better controlled, in the tightness of the bass in particular, while the imaging and soundstage were equally thrilling, with the same benefits in that regard from the time-sensitive Meridian digital signal chain. They can unfold the wealth of MQA Masters in high-res on Tidal, we love the Roon interface and the easy control by app, and the passing of files above 24/96 over the network was handled so transparently that we never lacked anything from the reduction in resolution of some files, and are inclined to agree with Meridian that ‘enough is enough’. Remember also that your amps are included here in these active speakers, while Meridian’s new 200 Series components simplify the system required to provide the SpeakerLink connection to those internal amps — and even more so if you budget for using Roon software, rather than Sooloos.
It’s all different enough that anyone thinking about a conventional ‘source, amp and speakers’ system will need a shift in their thinking to compare that path with Meridian’s very different active speaker solution. But then it’s precisely those differences that make the Special Edition DSP5200 speakers so attractive.
Meridian Special Edition DSP5200 active loudspeakers
Inputs: Meridian Speakerlink (RJ45), S/PDIF coaxial digital, Meridian Comms (BNC)
Outputs: Meridian SpeakerLink (RJ45), S/PDIF coaxial digital, Meridian Comms (BNC)
Internal power: 3 × 75W each
Drivers: 1 × 25mm beryllium dome; 2 × 160mm polypropylene
Dimensions (hwd): 903 × 178 × 220mm, widening to 300/360mm at base
Weight: 35kg each