Meridian Audio has entered the OEM car-audio market with a range of systems offered in Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles. I spent three days sampling a 2014 Range Rover equipped with Meridian’s top-of-the-line, 29-speaker, 1700W Signature Reference system. The Signature Reference employs technologies with which Meridian has long experience, such as active digital loudspeakers, digital signal processing, digital-to-analog conversion, and surround-sound. Moreover, these technologies are all built on a foundation of psychoacoustic insight developed by Meridian co-founder J. Robert Stuart.
You can think of the Range Rover’s Meridian Signature Reference system as a Meridian Digital Active Loudspeaker with 29 individual speakers distributed throughout a vehicle. The crossovers are implemented in DSP, and the frequency response of each driver has been equalized for flat response in its particular location (“Meridian Cabin Correction”). The DSP also implements delays so that the sounds of each driver arrive at the listener’s ears simultaneously. Digital signals from a variety of sources (FM, satellite radio, CD, iPod) are converted to a common format and then processed with something Meridian calls “Digital Dither Shaping.”
DSP is a great boon in taming the acoustic environment of an automobile. Although a vehicle cabin is not an ideal acoustic space, the system designer has two great advantages over the designer of a freestanding audio system: the positions of the drivers, boundaries, and listener are known with great precision. Armed with this information, the DSP programmer can tailor the signal to overcome the acoustic challenges of an automotive cabin.
The Signature Reference features other unique Meridian technologies, including Trifield, which has long been available in Meridian’s home products. Derived from the original Ambisonics research, Trifield creates a center channel from a two-channel (or multichannel) source for reproduction by a center loudspeaker. Trifield widens the sweet spot and creates a more solid soundstage and central image.
About ten years ago when I had a full Meridian surround system in my listening room for review I was visited by a manufacturer (of power conditioners) who was a vocal opponent of anything other than two channels reproduced by two loudspeakers. Unbeknownst to the manufacturer, I engaged Trifield processing before he arrived and we spent about an hour listening through the front three speakers. We listened with and without his power conditioner, and he praised the system’s sound. Then, in the middle of a track, without saying a word, I turned Trifield off so that the reproduction was “pure” two-channel stereo. He turned to me with a disappointed look and said, “What happened?” I revealed the ruse and then let him compare stereo and Trifield for himself.
Back to the Range Rover. The center channel created by Trifield is reproduced by a 4” midrange and 1” titanium-dome tweeter mounted in the top of the dashboard. You can easily compare stereo and Trifield with the push of a button on the Range Rover’s touchscreen display. Meridian has taken the Trifield concept to another level with Trifield 3D, which creates dedicated height channels that are reproduced by speakers in the roof. Again, it’s possible to select any of these processing modes (in addition to Dolby Pro-Logic IIx and DTS Neo: 6) from the touchscreen display.
The Signature Reference is part of the “Autobiography” package that adds $36,000 to the Range Rover’s price (the test car had a sticker of $136,095). The package includes other features too numerous to mention. Range Rover offers three levels of Meridian audio systems. Even the base Meridian audio system offers 13 speakers and 380W of power. I must add that the vehicle was a joy to drive. The mind-boggling list of features and amenities (seat massagers, anyone?), the ultra-luxurious leather-and-wood cabin, and supercharged five-liter engine making 510 horsepower and 461 foot-pounds of torque combined to make the Range Rover a fantastic driving experience.
So, how does the Meridian Signature Reference System sound? In a word, glorious. I listened to my reference material both sitting in my driveway and at 65mph on the open road and can say that no other OEM audio system I’ve heard has approached this one. In fact, the quality of sound I heard in the Range Rover invited comparison not with other automotive audio, but with high-end home-audio systems.
For starters, the Meridian has a dead-neutral tonal balance from bottom to top. When listening at louder levels in my driveway, dialing down the subwoofer produced a more natural balance on music with very low bass content. The bass was powerful and extended without a hint of unnatural emphasis, and the treble was exceptionally smooth. The bottom end was remarkable for its articulation, pitch definition, lack of coloration, and dynamic agility. On a long drive I listened to the entire CD Speak Low by The Great Jazz Trio (Hank Jones, John Patitucci, and Jack DeJohnette) on the 88s label. The Meridian conveyed every nuance of Patitucci’s virtuoso acoustic bass performance; the attacks and decays of each note were individually articulated with no sense of smearing, even on the very fast, intricate passages. Moreover, the sound of the acoustic bass was remarkable for its richness of tone color and complete lack of thickness or bloat. The suddenness of attacks and the lack of overhang were also apparent on DeJohnette’s kick drum. I was quite surprised to hear the sense of air and bloom around the kick drum as it “lit up” the acoustic of the recording studio in this naturally miked recording. This was just one more factor that made the bottom end sound like that of a high-end sealed-enclosure home loudspeaker in a good room.
The treble was infused with a remarkable delicacy and resolution. Very fine treble details were clearly audible yet the presentation was never bright or forward. Even many otherwise excellent car-audio systems have a top end that’s a little bright and ragged sounding, adding a metallic patina to timbres. The Meridian was ultra-smooth and refined without sacrificing clarity or resolution. The tambourine in the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances on Reference Recordings was notable for its startling immediacy, coupled with a wealth of information about how the sound was created. The Meridian system did justice to Jack DeJohnette’s delicate and subtle cymbal work on the aforementioned Speak Low. The Range Rover’s ultra-quiet cabin greatly contributed to my ability to hear fine detail, even at highway speeds.
This smoothness extended down into the midrange. Strings were gorgeous; liquid and silky, with a natural degree of sheen. Female vocals had tremendous clarity with no trace of excessive sibilance. Many high-end loudspeakers don’t exhibit this kind of transparency.
Dynamics were startling in their impact, in part because the system was so quick and clean. The lack of overhang in the bottom end contributed greatly to the system’s ability to convey music’s rhythmic drive and flow.
The Meridian system didn’t just excel in its tonal and dynamic qualities; the soundstaging was spectacular for an automotive system. In stereo mode the sound was fixed to the two doors at chest height. But engaging Trifield lifted the image out of the doors and created a panorama above the dashboard. The system also did a great job of presenting instruments as separate images occupying distinct positions in space rather than congealing them into a continuum. The Trifield 3D mode, new to the Range Rover, created a greater sense of expansiveness, but with slightly reduced image specificity.
I greatly enjoyed listening to music through the Meridian Signature Reference system. Beyond my description of specific sonic characteristics, the Meridian system was unfailingly musical and engaging. I’ve heard many high-end home systems—including some that cost as much as the Autobiography package of which the Meridian is part—that don’t offer this level of musicality. The Meridian Signature Reference System in the Range Rover is an unqualified triumph—and something you should hear for yourself.