Cutting-edge digital, in the heart of old England.
The city of Huntingdon, home of high-end audio company Meridian, is about a quintessential British town as you could picture. It looks like a movie set. Meridian is perhaps best known for its trapezoidal digital speakers and associated preamps. The company has more recently gotten into portable DACs, music servers, car audio, and more.
On a recent trip to England, I got a chance to tour the facility. I took lots of pictures for you.
On my UK adventure I also checked out storied speaker company B&W's factory, and the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
With a primary focus on electronics, it's not surprising that a huge part of Meridian's facility in Huntingdon holds the industrial boxes that build circuit boards. They're called P&Ps (pick-and-place) machines, or "SMT (surface mount technology) component placement systems."
Using feeder rolls of what look like candy buttons, robot arms rapidly jab capacitors, resistors, integrated circuits, and other components onto a circuit board. Depending on what Meridian is making that day/week, different-size boards and different components are fed into the machine.
To be honest, the first impression seeing these SMT machines is not one that screams high-end audio. I've toured many manufacturing facilities, making all sorts of electronics (low and high end), and they all use pretty much the same machines.
What surprised and impressed me was what happens after the initial production. Every board goes through a multistage quality control check. That in itself is impressive. Most companies would just spot check a few boards out of a hundred (or thousand, or tens of thousands), not every board.
This QC is extensive as well. As you'll see in the images, there's an optical check (to make sure the right parts were used, that they're orientated correctly, etc.), then there's a continuity check (to make sure they're seated correctly), then, after a 24- to 72-hour soak (as in, the boards are run like they would in a product), they're performance tested as well. This is really extensive, and therefore expensive, but potentially does wonders for initial and long term reliability. With products as expensive as most Meridian gear is, you'd certainly hope/expect it will last a long time.
Here's a video of the flying-probe electrical tester, one of the stages of QC, in action. You wouldn't want to put your hand in there:
Some of the boards still require placement of components by hand. Even today, there are some things that trained workers can do better than machines.
After a few hours we ended up in Meridian's beautiful and acoustically excellent listening room. Meridian's speakers are a little different than most speakers you're probably used to reading about and/or hearing. Instead of an external amp (or receiver), Meridian speakers are internally amplified. This allows for lower-powered amplifiers (as they power the divers directly), but also significant possibilities in terms of digital processing. Meridian can tweak the sound almost any way it wants, since the amps and processing are internal to the speakers.
They demoed for me one of the latest processing advancements, called EBA, which stands for Enhanced Bass Alignment. The idea is one that many speaker designers struggle with: the bass sounds produced by a woofer arrive slightly delayed to your ears compared to the sounds created by the midrange and tweeter. This is different compared with what happens in real life, where all the frequencies created by a musical instrument (OK, most musical instruments), leave the instrument at the same time and arrive at your ear at roughly the same time.
When you separate out the high and low frequencies into multiple drivers, these sounds can have a slight time difference. Other speaker companies attempt to deal with this in different ways. KEF, for example, buries the tweeter in the deep center of the woofer to help compensate for this. B&W separate and set the tweeter slightly back compared with the midrange and woofer.
With EBA, Meridian can set up a delay in the tweeter and midrange to line up the sound with the woofer's so it all arrives at your ear at the same time. I got a chance to list to this with a few tracks, and it is pretty cool. There's a slight tightening of the sound, a little more precision. Instruments sound a little more realistic, and have a little more defined location in the sound stage. Is it a huge difference? No, but it's definitely noticeable and easily identifiable as better.
Here's a video of Meridian co-founder Bob Stuart explaining how EBA works.
Perhaps most interesting, current owners of the 7-series of speakers can upgrade to have the EBA hardware and software, making these older speakers perform exactly like new models.
Not all of Meridian's gear is for the well-heeled. Check out Steve Guttenberg's review of the $299 Explorer portable USB DAC.
Lastly, my thanks to Tim Ireland and Lisa Sullivan for showing me around.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like HDMI cables, LED LCD vs. plasma, active vs. passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.