Written by Jude Mansilla
The name "Meridian" commands the utmost respect with many longtime hi-fi enthusiasts, myself included. It's a storied name, the maker of components that have been on the shelves (and in the dreams) of many an audiophile (again, myself included). If you're not a longtime audio nut, then perhaps you aren't familiar with a few of the many achievements that have made this UK company--founded in 1977 by Bob Stuart and Allen Boothroyd--one of the most celebrated audio brands:
- 1983: The first audiophile CD player (the Meridian MCD)
- 1985: World's first CD transport and DAC (Meridian 200/203)
- 1989: World's first digital active loudspeaker (Meridian D600)
- 1991: World's first DSP active loudspeaker (Meridian DSP6000)
- 1994: World's first digital surround processor (Meridian 565)
- 1997: Meridian launches MLP Lossless decoding, which was subsequently mandated for DVD-Audio, and later BluRay discs.
- 2005: Meridian introduces the "apodising filter" to the industry with the Meridian 808.2. ("Apodising filter" is Meridian's name for their method of minimum-phase digital filtering.)
Say "digital audio," and a few companies come to my mind immediately--Meridian is usually the first. You can imagine, then, why I was so excited when I found out earlier this year that Meridian was entering our space with the Meridian Explorer, their pocket-sized USB DAC and headphone amp. Their affordable little Explorer has become one of my favorite USB DAC/amps for on-the-go use. However, as well received as the Explorer has been, it might have seemed to some that perhaps Meridian was just dipping their feet in our water with it, as Meridian isn't exactly known for making components that most would consider affordable.
As it turns out, though, Meridian already had more planned, and today they're launching something that is more in line with what the Meridian aficionados among us would probably have expected from Meridian entering the world of Head-Fi--something more high-end, something very Meridian, something called the Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier. The Meridian Prime is certainly more than just a headphone amplifier--it's a Meridian DAC with a Meridian headphone amp, housed in an elegant, compact desktop chassis.
Just one look, one touch, and it's clear Meridian has sweated the details with the Prime. The chassis is metal, with a dual-skinned design of interlocking extrusions, which helps combat interference. To help give the Prime its sleek look, Allen Boothroyd came up with a hidden magnetic release system so that there are essentially no screws visible on the sleek chassis (at least not without flipping it upside down, or looking at the rear panel). The volume knob is coupled to the potentiometer via a flexible coupling, to reduce mechanically induced noise.
The Prime's DAC is 24-bit / 192kHz capable, including 88.2 and 176.4, with its dual oscillators (based on those found in Meridian's flagship Reference Series components). The Prime's USB input (its only digital input) is async, and upsamples 44.1/48kHz sources to 88.2/96kHz prior to the DAC. The Prime also uses Meridian's Apodising filter, which, among other things, is designed to eliminate digital pre-ringing, for more natural sound. Their Apodising filter was first introduced in what was then their flagship 808.2, and is thought by many to be one of the key reasons for the many plaudits hurled in the direction of Meridian's flagship players.
The Prime also has two sets of analog inputs, in the form of one 3.5mm stereo mini plug and one pair of RCA inputs. Rear panel outputs include one pair of RCA preamp outputs, and this pre-out can be disabled with one touch for dedicated headphone listening.
The headphone outputs on the front panel consist of two 1/4" stereo outputs and one 3.5mm (mini plug) jack. Each of the 1/4" stereo jacks is rated for maximum output of 3V RMS off load, THD below 0.002%, power output 250mW up to 42Ω, with output impedance <100mΩ (or less than 0.1Ω). The 3.5mm jack is rated for maximum output of 3V RMS off load, THD below 0.002%, with output impedance of 2.2Ω. The 3.5mm jack is intended for use with in-ears and other sensitive headphones.
Yes, the specifications are impressive, and I'm happy to report that the Meridian Prime's sound is every bit as excellent as its specs. I've used the Prime as a DAC to feed an Apex Audio Teton, as well as a Ray Samuels Audio Apache, and, as a DAC, the Prime is pure Meridian, which is to say it is, for my preferences, a wonderful combination of superb resolution that isn't at all compromised by the ease and smoothness that I've come to expect from Meridian since falling in love with the venerable Meridian 508.24 many years ago. Feed well-recorded high-resolution recordings to the Prime, and it only gets better. How thrilled am I that there's a Meridian DAC that sounds like a Meridian player in a compact chassis on my desk? Don't get me started--I love it!
I'm also happy to report that when used as an all-in-one (a DAC/amp combo), the Prime's headphone amp passes the Prime DAC's wonderful sound very transparently, and is able to drive just about anything I'd reasonably want to drive with it. I've so far used the Bowers & Wilkins P7, Sennheiser HD 800, MrSpeakers Alpha Dog, Abyss AB-1266, HiFiMAN HE-6, and Audeze LCD-X with it, and it was able to drive them all. I wouldn't recommend it as the primary amp for those whose primary headphones are the HE-6 or the Abyss, but either can be driven by the Prime in a pinch. To my ears, though, of those over-ear headphones I've tried with it so far, the Prime paired most synergistically with the Alpha Dog and the LCD-X. In terms of noise floor, the Prime is completely silent with every over-ear headphone I've tried with it so far. I'll be using more headphones with it over time.
With its low output impedance headphone outs and low noise floor, the Prime begged to be tried with some of my most sensitive in-ear monitors, and the Prime did very well with the Westone ES5 and JH Audio JH13 Pro I tried it with. I'd suggest trying both headphone outputs with your multi-armature IEMs, as the output impedance of the 1/4” jacks is a bit lower. The Prime's noise floor with these very sensitive IEMs is very low, though not quite as low as the absolutely dead silent Benchmark DAC2 HGC. That said, relative to the Benchmark, I prefer the sound of the Meridian Prime—-it's more smooth, more natural, and yet I don't feel like I'm giving up any of the detail in switching from the Benchmark to the Meridian.
The Meridian Prime's headphone amp also has something they call "Analogue Spatial Processing (ASP)," which Meridian claims can provide "outside the head" listening. ASP is essentially a variable analog crossfeed circuit. I'm actually a big fan of well-implemented crossfeed, and I wish more DAC/amps included it. The Prime's ASP is very effective (though it certainly isn't "out of the head" for me), with two levels of crossfeed, and seems to me to impart little to no effect on tonal balance. As I switch through the various ASP modes while playing (off, 1 and 2), the image shifts, but, again, the tonal balance remains true.
I've been obsessing again over Miles Davis' Kind of Blue with the latest 24-bit/192kHz stereo remaster of it, and the Meridian Prime really takes full advantage of this latest remaster's resolution and imaging. I even find myself engaging Meridian ASP setting 1 from time to time to bring more coherence to the image--for example, ASP helps to reunite Wynton Kelly's piano with the rest of the band on "Freddie Freeloader," so that he's not so lonely way out left. Exploring the new Kind of Blue remaster through the Prime has been a fun way to re-discover an album that feels new again to me.
The Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier is priced at $2000.00, and comes stock with a wall power supply--this is the only configuration I've heard so far, and have absolutely no problem recommending it at the price. Meridian will also soon be releasing a substantial power supply upgrade option that will come in a matching chassis, and will be priced at $1250.00. This upgraded power supply is called the Meridian Prime Power Supply, and I haven't heard it yet (but will soon).
Anyway, let's add another Meridian milestone to those few I mentioned above:
- 2013: Meridian launches the Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier, and delivers true Meridian sound in an all-in-one, compact desktop headphone rig.
TTVJ Audio (a Head-Fi sponsor) will be offering the Meridian Prime right away, so contact Todd (at TTVJ Audio) to order. (And let us know what you think when you do.) Click here to go directly to the Meridian Prime on TTVJ Audio's site.