“A combined CD and DVD player, AM/FM receiver and sound system in a single convenient unit.” So says the introduction to this remarkable little AV system. Remember the aptly named “Boombox”, which was to be seen perching on the shoulders of urban youth? These moulded plastic monstrosities were often played at levels which caused grief to nearby unwilling listeners, as well as causing permanent hearing damage to the carrier.
Well, the ubiquitous iPod has replaced these doom machines, which annoy neighbours only to the extent that they only emit chirping sounds to those around them. In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I do NOT own an iPod! I don’t need to be surrounded by music every moment of my waking life (restaurateurs note: I came to eat, not to listen to music), and when I do listen to music, I prefer to give it my full attention.
And so, to the Meridian F80, an all-in-one unit with a handle cleverly tucked into the top, as far removed from the Boombox as is a Ferrari from a Civic Si coupe (which our esteemed editor drives in a colour that could pass for Ferrari red). And what is that well-known rearing horse doing on the front of this unit? Apparently, the Italian race car company has had some input into the aesthetic design, cladding and construction. Specifically, Ferrari’s expertise in the use of composite materials developed for their racing cars has been utilized in the F80. Even if there isn’t much input beyond chassis and aesthetics, it is very cool for Meridian to be able to display the famous equine logo.
The DSP requires some explanation. There are quite a number of adjustments to allow fine-tuning of the F80. A Location setting allows you to choose among Table, Shelf, Floor, Corner, or Free frequency contours. Having tried the unit in all these, I can report that there is a slight, but useful change in mostly bass frequency response. But there are other adjustments: Width may seem somewhat redundant by now, and much in the way of imaging is not expected from such a small box unless you are sitting very close. Better to think of it as enhanced mono, though sitting close provides some sense of separation of channels.
The frequency response is adjustable in yet more ways: Bass can be controlled, and there is a Tilt control (a feature seen on all QUAD preamps for many years), which subtly reduces bass while increasing treble, or vice versa, to smoothly adjust frequency balance around a central midrange point without distorting it. This, in particular, is a very useful audiophile feature.
The AM/FM section has an internal aerial for AM, and two antenna options for FM, a removable telescoping type that screws onto the 75-ohm coax fitting, which itself can also be used with an outdoor antenna, which is what editor and FM guru Andrew Marshall did. It also directly connects to cable FM this way.
My impression of the tuner’s FM was that its sound was well balanced and extended at the top, superior to that found in most all-in-one units, though AM (the editor, not the radio band) was very taken with that in the Sangean compact radio/CD player reviewed elsewhere on this site. Unfortunately, I live in the shadow of Toronto’s CN Tower, and though I assume it is a sensitive tuner, I can’t really tell because of the very strong FM signals coming from it covering much of the FM band. The F80 also incorporates DAB reception, but only of the type of signal broadcast in Britain, not that on satellite, which demands a monthly fee, anyway.
All this said, in my opinion, the F80 is by far the best all-in-one home entertainment unit that I have ever experienced, and is so loaded with useful features that it must have taken all of Meridian’s substantial engineering skills to get it right. It functions capably in all its applications, and there is nothing remotely like it on the market, as far as I know. There’s certainly nothing out there that even approaches its unique styling and Ferrari flare, especially in red or yellow.
So what are the caveats? It is very expensive, but if this is what you want, there is no substitute, and you must simply pay the price. Having had two (!) systems of audio components stolen from my cottage, I needed something portable, so when the F80 came along, I leaped at it (and AM caught it for me, after much international intrigue in obtaining it). It’s a lot cheaper than replacing components with the subsequent increased insurance costs. (just don’t forget to bring it home some weekend; AM).
The other reservation also deals with cost. For this money you could buy a modest, but very satisfactory component system superior in many ways to the F80, but if you don’t have much space or need the portability, versatility, and quality, there simply is no other satisfactory option. On numerous occasions I’ve walked into my rather large living room while the F80 was playing, and instinctively looked at my big QUAD electrostatics, only to quickly realize that it was the Meridian that was producing the sound, not my main system. It sounds that good!
Many journalists bored by Bose have been been bowled over by the F80 system at recent CEDIAs and CESs. A Wave radio with 2-note bass it is not! My reaction was a little more subdued, but I was still much impressed. Its FM reception capability was not, however, a particularly strong point, with a total of 20 stations received. This is probably due, however, to its quite aggressive auto tuning, which continued to scan even in step mode, so weaker stations were bypassed. The upside to this, however, is that all stations received are in clean, quiet stereo. For local and suburban situations, it should be just fine.
The video section was more impressive, even without HDMI connections. I saw an excellent DVD picture on the screen out of the S connector, with very low chroma noise on the Video Essentials tests, with excellent blacks, and a visible blacker-than-black, something many separate DVD players fail to do. As a result, greyscale performance was excellent. Resolution was still that of an S -Video connection but you wouldn’t likely be watching this player’s picture on a really big screen.
Ergonomically, video control was less easy to manage than audio, requiring both front panel and remote control operations, this only after a careful reading of the manual’s excellent (if simplistic) step-by-step operational instructions. But, to be fair, most of the more layered functions need be set only once.
Sonically, the F80 (like any one-box stereo solution) depends heavily on nearby surfaces for its stereo and quasi-surround qualities. In open space it will have a much more diffuse, if pleasant and quite large, sound. Hence the many spatial adjustments. Once you understand how the reflected sound characteristics of the F80 depend on adjacent boundaries, you will more easily be able to maintain its acoustic performance in varying environments.
However, if your approach is to simply set it and forget it in one space, say a room corner, once you have it set right, it will consistently amaze anyone who wonders where that big sound comes from. And that may even apply to yourself as you enter the room, just as it does to Hy from time to time.
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