Ask a dozen audiophiles or custom installers what they know about Meridian, and I reckon the top three answers will be “digital,” “high-end,” and “expensive.” And there’s no question that Meridian is all of these things, focusing its efforts on producing the purest digital audio signals from source to speaker with a cost-be-damned mentality.
But by residing almost exclusively in the rarefied air of the high-end, the company realized its products were being limited–not used or specified on many projects and not presented to many customers. The solution is the introduction of the company’s new 200 series.
The Meridian 218 Zone Controller, front and back
To say the 200 series represents a kinder, gentler, more approachable Meridian wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Instead of processors and speakers designed to work in audiophile, end-to-end Meridian systems and costing as much as a Jaguar, the 200 series starts at an affordable $1,000. However, don’t think “lower cost” means sacrificing on performance, as these components are Meridian designed and built through-and-through, with the 218 featuring Meridian’s renowned audio upsampling and digital-to-analog conversion with apodising filter and proprietary jitter reduction.
Another big departure is that these components are designed to work in any system with any brand of electronics. This includes both systems using Meridian’s fully powered DSP loudspeakers and systems without a single Meridian component. There are currently four products in the 200 series, and the company sent the 218 Zone Controller and 258 Multi-Channel Amplifier for me to audition.
It’s apparent how versatile the 218 is when you realize Meridian has located it in three different places on its website. Is the 218 a streamer, a DAC, or a digital preamp? The answer is yes. The 218 is designed to act as the controller for a single room or zone, allowing a variety of devices to be connected, or streamed, and then output either directly to Meridian speakers or to traditional amplified audio systems.
Besides serving a single room, multiple 218s can form the foundation of a multi-zone audio system, and as such it pairs perfectly with the 258 Multi- Channel Amplifier. The 258 is a greater-than-95-percent-efficient, cool-running Class D amplifier featuring eight discrete channels of amplification that deliver 70 watts into 8 ohms, or 100 watts into 4 ohms. With eight discreet RCA analog inputs, the amp can drive four stereo listening zones, or could serve as a multichannel home theater amplifier. If I had one nit about the amp, it’d be that the lack of a “global input” makes it a tad less connection friendly for driving large, multi-speaker zones, but it’s a minor quibble.
Both units are very rack-mount friendly; in fact, the 258 has a non-removable rack-mount faceplate that might make installation slightly challenging if not using a rack. Meridian offers a handy laser-cut faceplate that can hold two 218s in a 1U space. The 218 is also small and cool running–enough that it could be tucked behind a wall-mounted flat panel TV. Both devices are designed for “out of sight, out of mind” operation with virtually zero front-panel controls on either (the 258 has a soft power button). The 218 features six LEDs to indicate the source being played and whether an MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) file is being decoded.
The Meridian 258 Multi-Channel Amplifier
Connection-wise, the 218 offers analog audio, coaxial, and optical digital inputs, as well as a Meridian SpeakerLink input for connecting Meridian sources. The analog output can be set to fixed or variable, where the digital level is fixed, and both outputs are active simultaneously. While the 218 handles high-res audio files up to 192kHz/24-bit, only the analog output is treated to the full suite of Meridian audio processing as well as the MQA decoding. Interestingly, while the coaxial output supports 192kHz, it is limited to 96kHz by default, and the higher resolution must be enabled in an advanced configuration page.
Connecting the 218 to your network with an Ethernet cable is where things get really interesting. First, you have access to the 218’s configuration menu. Here, Meridian speaker owners can take advantage of things like Enhanced Bass Alignment and tweaking DSP settings, and non-Meridian systems can tweak bass, treble, axis, phase, and balance. Besides IR control, the 218 can be controlled via an iPad app, and drivers are undergoing certification for systems like Control4.
You can also re-label and configure each of the 218’s 12 sources. Yes. Twelve. While the 218 has just four physical inputs (analog, optical, coaxial, SpeakerLink) multiple inputs can be assigned to each source, setting different sensitivities to the analog input, whether the trigger is on or off, and adjusting lipsync timing. This could be handy in connecting multiple devices to a TV like a Blu-ray, Apple TV, cable box, and then just sending a single optical cable to the 218, allowing you to tweak each source.
Another terrific nod to custom installation is selecting how the 218 reacts on startup. Say there is a power failure, and after the unit recovers power, what should it do? Instead of remaining off or going to the wrong input tucked in a rack somewhere, you can define its behavior on startup. Brilliant.
One of the 218’s best tricks is its ability to serve as a streaming endpoint for Sooloos or Roon systems. This not only enables accessing a user’s entire stored music library via a terrific interface, but also supports streaming content from services like Tidal. I added Roon and linked my Tidal account and listened to dozens of MQA albums from Tidal’s growing library. The sound was as detailed, open, and breathy as I’ve come to expect from MQA files–I dare say I’ve never heard Elvis Costello’s “King of America” sound so fresh and alive, with incredible richness and depth. This little box really and truly sings.
As I only had a single 218 on hand, I connected the 258 amplifier to three zones of a Russound house-wide audio system to drive all of its channels. I appreciated the generously spaced Phoenix connectors that accommodate up to 12-gauge speaker wiring. The amp played plenty loud and clean, easily driving my pool speakers to backyard-filling levels. I also noticed that the 258 derived more bass from my bathroom speakers even at lower volumes, and the 10-inch woofers in my Origin Acoustics dining room speakers also audibly benefitted from the 285’s dynamics. In over three months of use, the amp never called any attention to itself, nor did it rise above mildly warmish temps.
It’s no exaggeration to say this level of performance would have set you back more than five-figures not long ago, and the 218 and 258 combo from Meridian shows just how far affordable, high-performance audio has come. Meridian was looking for a way to get in front of more clients and be employed on more installs, and these products provide very compelling reasons to do so.
Compact size, brilliant sound, and Sooloos/Roon/MQA support make the 218 a terrific bit of kit, whether in one zone or as part of a house audio system
Lack of Global Input on amp could be a minor inconvenience
218 Zone Controller
► Compact, single zone, high-res audio controller
► Supports high-resolution audio sources up to 192kHz/24-bit
► Meridian High Resolution (MHR) DSP up-sampling and apodising filter
► Master Quality Audio (MQA) decoder
► Serves as an audio endpoint for Sooloos or Roon audio
258 Multi-Channel Amplifier
► 8-channel Class D amplifier >95% efficiency
► Delivers >100 watts/channel (4 ohm) or >70 watts/channel (8 ohm)
► Separate power reservoir capacitors offers advantage of multi-mono construction
► 20Hz – 40kHz +0/- 0.5dB into 4 ohm