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Manufacturer: Boothroyd-Stuart - UK
Approx. price: US$-Euro 1800
Test sample: loaned from distributor
Reviewer: Dejan Veselinovic
I still remember the early 70-ties - the Italian magazine "Suono" appeared and in one of its early issues, it featured a Lecson amplifier, packaged in an unusual cylindrical form. Well, that unit was designed by one Robert (Bob) Stuart, a man I had then first heard of. By chance, not long afterwards, I heard that amp, and my comment was that here we had a man who was going places, and not slowly either. Fortunately, I was right. Today, I run into Mr Stuart's texts in "Audio" and keep running into gear he and his partner, Mr Boothroyd, design and sell under the Meridian logo, even if they still add the Boothroyd-Stuart on the front panel.Ever since their early days, these two gentlemen had a philosophy which was quite different to even their home market, let alone the world at large - no nonsense electronics, but no shortcuts either, no fads and passing fashions, compact yet not minuscule packaging and an outward appearance which would serve function yet have a restrained, gentlemanly design.
So it was then, so it is today, and their 24-bit player 506 amply illustrates these points.
At 321x88x332 mm (3.46x12.64x13.07 inches, WxHxD), at first glance, the player looks like a midi system component. At second glance, you notice the black glass top, the sturdy case and the weight, which at 6.4 kg (14 lbs) is not stunning, but is considerable bearing in mind the reduced size. Look at the front and you'll see just 8 vertical, thin command buttons (bars?); look at the back, and you'll see a pair of RCA Cinch connectors for audio, another for S/PDIF digital output and its neighbor, for optical EIAJ digital output, ending with two DIN-type communication connectors (for links to other Meridian products). Above, an all-in-one power on/off switch, IEC power connector and place for a spare fuse. As simple as possible, but sacrificing nothing.
If still in doubt, worry not - look at the remote control and you'll be quite sure you are dealing with something else, not your run-off-the-mill product. The remote is a DAMN pretty piece of plastic, highly reminiscent of a computer or a video mixer console. It looks complicated, but in fact, while too complicated for a single product, it is exceptionally ergonomic and simple for all the products you can manage with it. It does take all of 10-15 minutes to work it out, but thereafter, you're home and dry, it always seems to offer buttons just where you want them.The display uses a green LED matrix. While discreet yet legible, matrix displays of this type are not my cup of coffee - I prefer classic displays, preferably in blue, but I won't quibble over the color.
The mechanism reminds me of Sony's units, which incorporate the laser pickup with the tray. However, it is in fact a Philips CDM 12.5 mechanism, which goes some way in explaining why you simply cannot fool this one, it’ll read anything called a CD. Anyway, it's silent, it's fast and it's highly responsive upon activation.
Meridian says that both THD and noise are below -93dBFS, that they use a three-beam laser and dual differential 24-bit Delta Sigma conversion. The output is quoted at 2V fixed (good show! Change the volume on your pre/integrated, leave the poor CD player alone!). The output stage is said to operate in true class A.
Just for the hell of it, I tried really listening to it upon first switching the power on, after which I replayed the same tracks say an hour later - if there was a difference, I didn't hear it. What I heard could just as well be my imagination and anticipation of a difference after the circuits reach their normal operating temperature. Even so, this is most unusual, but also most welcome. Perhaps the electronic "power off" simply mutes the output and turns off the display, which would leave the electronics switched on all the time.
was greeted by a sound such as I have never heard before. I have
heard most of the great names at one time or another, products from
companies such as Theta Digital, Wadia, Krell, Levinson, but
admittedly in different systems in all cases but that of Theta Miles,
which was with me for some time. Peter, Paul and Mary ("Peter,
Paul and Mary", WB 1449-2), with their classic repertoire of
folk songs, Mary's voice accompanied by classic guitars and the boys'
backing vocals, literally seemed just a few meters away, as if they
were sitting just behind my speakers.
I could hear every guitar string, every fine nuance, yet it was not detached as in most other higher quality "analytical" players, those were not individual sounds massed together, this was music, real, almost tangible music.
When Pavarotti says "Miserere", and Zucchero joins in, they might as well be singing at me from just out of my window, because I can hear the fans in the background, and I cannot squeeze in that many guests in my room. Ry Cooder's wandering guitars in "Southern Comfort" soundtrack ("Music by Ry Cooder", WB, SS-128RYC-1/2) never ever sounded that good, that ambient, anytime, anywhere.
Moving on to harder stuff, Billy Idol defects and turns musical - I never thought of him as a seriously musical performer, but more like a typical younger generation rock star. Now I know I was wrong. Sorry, Billy.
Vangelis also changes, and it's all for the better. He uses a lot of electronic music and instruments and is comfortable with synthesizers, but however much I like his music, I was at times critical of the electronic content. Now I know I shouldn't have been, it wasn't him, it wasn't the recording, it was the players I used.
Shaking some doors and walls with Enigma, I discovered new layers in their fairly complex music I never knew, or just guessed were there. Here's a little test you can run at home if you have their disc "1990 a.D." - in the second number, about 1:30 into it, the background singing, which is in Latin until then, suddenly produces a clearly heard verse in pure Serbian "Svice, svice, tek sto nije" (It's dawning, it's dawning, just a little longer). If you can hear Michael Cretu sing that clearly, you have good CD player; with the 506, I had no trouble at all picking out the words.
Vivaldi - well, Vivaldi had no trouble conveying his feelings in the "Four Seasons", at least not to me. Nor did Beethoven, or Bach, or Mozart. Bert Jansch had a good time too, not to mention Steeleye Span.
The 506 is, I think, best described as natural. It makes no false promises, it has no false pretensions, it doesn't try to do anything special, it does its best to be as smooth as possible, yet without skipping, leaving out or smoothing any rough edges which may exist in a recording. It doesn't polish anything, it has no make-up, nor does it try to do what a producer should have done.Instead, it tries, and goes a very, VERY long way towards rendering the music as neutrally as possible. It avoids many a pitfall of most other players and will not be out of place in company of much more expensive products. Unfortunately for many other players, it will dwarf them - no bad feelings, it's nothing personal, it's just business (but what's more personal than business?).
If you try to dissect the sound it delivers, you will notice that on drums, for example, you can obtain a pretty good idea of how tight are the man's membranes. On bass guitar, you will have a good idea whether his strings are as strung up as they should be (pun intended).But, I vouch you won't find many players out there which will be able to portray voices, both male and female, as well as this one - no harshness, no sibilance, no nasality, just the singer and the voice. For full effect, play some Russian army choir music, like "Kalinka" - play it and hear for yourself. Or put on some Connie Dover and be whisked off to the seductive wilderness of Ireland. If you prefer thick, black coffee and minarets, put on Sting and "Desert Rose". Or whatever, because no matter what you put on, you'll be surprised and entertained by music, not electronics which have a color of their own (though of course there's always some electronics involved).
For a reviewer, units like this one, which fortunately don't come along too often, are a veritable nightmare; I mean, a reviewer is supposed to criticize, to be picky, to split hairs, and the worst thing that can happen to him is to be left without material to criticize. That's how it is with the 506. Oh, I suppose I could now rage and rave for more "clarity", for better "detail", perhaps for a more "up-front", or "up-and-at-'em" sound, or some such blithering commercial nonsense. If I did that, I'd be less than honest.
It did occur to me that perhaps the 506, followed by Harman/Kardon HK 680, via the van den Hul 352 cables on to the heavily modified AR94 speakers just happened to be a very fortuitous system. So I tried it with a Yamaha AX592, via Jamo OFC cables, with JBL Ti600 speakers at the end, and in a different room - sorry sceptics, no go, it worked just as well in that system too. Not as well as in my primary system, but then again, the Yamaha isn't anywhere near the HK 680, the Jamo cables while fair are way behind the vdH 352, and the JBL speakers are different to the ARs. But all this is well known and thus expected, yet the overall sound of that system greatly improved with the 506.
In many ways, the AR94s and the 506 are in the same mold - they don't try to impress, they don't try to shine, they try to be natural. With HK 680's ease of drive and reasonable power (2x85/130W into 8/4 Ohms), I really didn't expect any problems. And I got what I wanted, natural sound, no spices, no additives, no smoothing, no glossing, just as natural as is possible for the price. Perhaps that's old fashioned these days, but I still fall for it, every time.If you've wondered what was the point of 24-bit sampling, do yourself a favor and allow the 506 to demonstrate. Put on some audiophile recording, sit back and just listen. You'll come out of the spell a new man. And a spell you can actually afford, for a change.
Looking at its only failing I could find, I'd say that the requirement to have a screwdriver ready and have to undo four screws just to insert or change the remote control battery is rather silly. I know Meridian can do better than that, and I would urge them to remedy this nonsense as soon as possible. Then again, using this method does away with notoriously flimsy covers which tend to come undone, and realistically, you won’t be changing the battery that often (unless you practice a remote control concerto for four hands every day).
The price - well, it's not small, but then, it isn't in the stratosphere yet. The price as such is meaningless until it is set against what you receive for your hard earned pieces of silver - the price/performance ratio. In that department, I must say Meridian's 506 redefines the equation - it's the one to beat, if you can. It's clear but not sharp, it's smooth but not slow, it's solidly built but not wastefully so (no typical US 3...xx mm aluminum plates here, which cost an arm and a leg), it's media tolerant, it's quiet and it's communicative.
As for media tolerance, I reckon if you put a chocolate in, it would inform you of the chocolate manufacturer's name, and possibly model number too (note by Werner: first Geoff, now you, what do you guys have with chocolate these days???). It refused to be confused, period.I went out of my way with this one. I borrowed a Theta Miles, which costs a lot more and comes from a company well respected for its truly solid products. I connected them both to the HK 680 using van den Hul 102 cables terminated with Neutrik plugs and did some A/B listening. Well, I have some good and some bad news. First, the bad news - sorry Theta, you do have a DIFFERENT product, but I wouldn't rush to call it better - just different, and you cost a lot more. The good news is that you don't have to pay so much for that quality of sound any more. The great news is that if you already own a 506, you made a great deal.
Next, I borrowed a Marantz CD17-KI. That one also costs more, though the difference is smaller than with Theta Miles. But that one also couldn't do what the 506 does - the Marantz is to my mind simply not as natural, or neutral, as the 506. It lacks the ease, some finesse and a lot of drive the 506 does have. The Marantz is, shall we say, somewhat lazy in comparison with the 506. For more money, I'd expect a higher, not lower, octane value.So, the 506 is 24-bit, smooth, lively, detailed yet always natural - for the price, it's a steal. If natural is what you seek, look no further; go, no, run out to buy it.
My thanks to Vox Trade of Belgrade for the loan of the unit.
© 2000 Copyright Dejan Veselinovic - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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