Sitting in the dark of Meridian Audio’s personal theater, eyes closed, drinking in Ella Fitzgerald backed by Satchmo’s glib, saucy blowing on “They Can’t Take that Away From Me”, I thought about all the music I’d listen to on Meridian’s $80,000 speakers if I had the luxury of an entire day to sit on this Eames couch in this blackened room with acoustically dampened walls. The workaday grind would be far away, pressures of life even further. I would move only for the bathroom, and then only under dire circumstances.
Stevie Ray Vaughn first, then Beethoven. Zeppelin. Duke Ellington. The Band. Paul Simon with the Muscle Shoals Stompers. (“Loves Me Like a Rock”! — shiver.) I would host a huge series of personal concerts with an audience of one. Because that’s what it felt like, listening to Ella and Louis croon at each other: the emotion of a first row-live performance at a smoky, dark Harlem jazz club, but with clarity only recording studio mixers get to hear.
I realized that this is (hopefully) the reason 1 percenters blow $80 fucking grand on a set of speakers or why audiophiles sell their soul. It’s for the performance.
The difficult job here isn’t reviewing the Special Edition DSP8000s ($80,000), which commemorate the British brand’s first digital speaker, released 25 years ago. It’s simply hard to describe their effect. Meridian is having the same problem. “The marketing struggle we face is that words we use to describe what the speakers do have been used before…but now they’re really happening”, said Ken Forsythe, Director of Product Management at Meridian and a guy who clearly spends more time with engineers than marketers. He’s speaking in earnest.
These are speakers that have been upgraded from the brand’s flagship DSP line released 11 years ago. Like all of Meridian’s loudspeakers, they’re shaped “like the human body”, or, more realistically, in a rounded, tall pyramid shape, big on the bottom and small at the top. The result is sound emanated, with psychoacoustical precision, exactly as it is from the human body. This, Forsythe says, is the most important design aspect. “You could put every other piece of technology and design we use for these speakers in a square block and not get any of the result”, he said.
“The marketing struggle we face is that words we use to describe what the speakers do have been used before by other brands…but now they’re really happening.”
Not that those other design and tech bits aren’t important. The cabinets are an all-in-one container for an entire speaker system; the enclosure is made with “soundless” materials to avoid any and all resonance other than from the speakers themselves; the tweeter has a beryllium dome to the same effect. “Enhanced Bass Alignment” adjusts the timing of the different frequencies, solving a common problem wherein the bass, which takes longer for the speaker to produce, gets to the listener after the mid and high ranges. To have the same effect spatially, the subwoofer would have to be placed significantly far behind the rest of the speaker system — say, 20 feet or so.
My time with the DSP8000s was notably absent of self lauding and notably full of demonstration. I had gone in entirely skeptical, muttering to myself about the wastefulness of capitalism and the money-flushing tendencies of the rich. Then Forsythe spoke plainly but with passion about design and process and things straight out of an acoustical engineering seminar. And then he dimmed the lights and started with the Ella and Satchmo. And the speakers sold themselves.
Hearing the details and nuances of a song are one thing, but the aural sensation of hearing different “sounds” as slaved over in the recording studio is entirely remarkable. For example, I could hear the crisp crack of Metallica’s bass drum hits — not in the chest, but in the ears — and the stringy, plodding bass line in Nirvana’s “Lithium” separated entirely from thick drum thuds. It was like looking down at a stream from a bridge and seeing every detail on the bottom with crystal clarity after looking for years and seeing only muddy water.
The ultimate listener experience. Great. But $80,000? How can an audio experience ever be worthy of such an astronomical price tag? The only justification, to even the most hi-fi obsessed flagellant, must go beyond pretty much perfect sound. To quote car aficionados that make me roll my eyes, the product must have a soul.
Which here, in non-hyperbolic terms, means a ridiculous amount of care in design and construction. Forsythe had explained, for example, that Meridian’s sound engineers spent four years building the original DSP8000s 11 years ago and something like 2.5 years upgrading them to the Special Edition; to test the new set, they began by listening to a simple voice track, a vintage male newsreader narrating the BBC news, on repeat. Over and over and over again. Then an a cappella piano. Then violin and piano. Then rock, then pop. Et cetera. Et cetera. Man hours are a not insignificant part of this product’s price, and that’s a reasonable thing inside an unreasonable dollar bracket.
If you need the $80,000 for something else — a new Audi A8, say, or a 36-foot sailboat built in 1983, or an entire block of Detroit real estate — know that Meridian is trying hard to bring perfection to a more accessible price point (though Forsythe did point out that $80,000 isn’t necessarily considered cost prohibitive in the hi-fi big scheme). He pointed to the other models in the new DSP line, the 7200 ($46,000) and the 5200 ($20,000), and the M6, or “The Rocket”, which retails for $9,000 and carries over the enhanced bass alignment and other design nuances. “The question we ask ourselves is”, he said, speaking of getting potential buyers over the investment hump, “‘How do we get more people to our party? What does it take?'”
Sitting in the dark room with Ella and Louis a few feet away, I had some idea of the answer.