Time warp: Meridian’s MCD, the first audiophile CD player

In 1982, an anonymous copywriter coined the infamous marketing claim, “Perfect sound forever” for the worldwide launch of the compact disc. While the shiny new technology from Sony and Philips promised the world, the CD fell pretty wide of the mark in terms of ‘perfect’ sound that lasted ‘forever’. It seems incredible now to think that CDs were thought to endure scratches, skipping and warping, and many audiophiles certainly weren’t impressed with the sound reproduction of the first CD players, which they perceived as lacklustre and clinical.

When measured against average vinyl and tape systems, the first compact disc players did a lot to iron out problems such as ‘wow’ and ‘flutter’ (otherwise known as background noise and uneven spectral balance). However, compared to audiophile-grade high-end analog systems, CDs just didn’t live up to the hype.

In 1984, Meridian, a small UK company specialising in ‘perfectionist’ high-end audio, decided to address the shortcomings of CD technology. The belief was that the technological edge that CD was supposed to bring was dulled by the use of only ‘adequate’ audio components after the laser picked up the digital signal. So while the Japanese and European mass market CD players used cutting edge laser, lens and disc tracking elements, it was when the digital signals were extracted from the disc, converted to analog and routed to the speakers that the sound lost its honesty.

Meridian didn’t have the resources to build a CD player from scratch, as there were only a couple of huge electronics companies that could, so it did the next best thing. It found the market’s best sounding CD player, which at the time was the Philips 101, ripped out its guts from the CD mechanism itself, and started afresh.

Meridian’s bold ‘MCD’ was built on the bones of a Philips 101 CD mechanism, only it now included an upgraded power supply, a revamped CD servo (that speeded up its focus reaction time and improved its ability to track warped discs), a new and better shielded audio circuitry board, a more precise three-pole analog filter and higher quality output coupling capacitors.

While the MCD was a gamble for Meridian, it paid off. The MCD met with critical acclaim and helped turn the tide against high-end analog players. In 1985, reviewer and audiophile J. Gordon Holt wrote of the MCD: “For the first time, the sound of the best CDs is truly liquid and transparent, with an effortlessness that I have not previously heard except from the better analog sources”.

While convincing on the audio front, the MCD did have its downsides. It used a basic, top-loading design and had no remote control or programming functions. Also, as it was underpinned by the Philips 101 disc mechanism it was inherently slow in operation. While a premium audio device, and priced accordingly, the MCD required you to wait six seconds from the moment you pressed ‘play’ until the first note appeared. Also, there was a four second delay when skipping tracks, and often you would need to wait for the CD mechanism to catch up to the selected track. The bare bones LED readout was also frustrating, with no numeric display and only a single LED for each of the 15 tracks – and if you played a CD with more than 15 tracks, the LED display would get confused.

The MCD launched with a hefty price of $US689 (in 1985). While it was a marked improvement over mass-market CD players, and did help to restore audiophile faith in CD technology, the MCD wasn’t quite up to reviving the “perfect sound forever” claim. Since then, Meridian has continued its quest to perfect the CD, and considering the advances in quality and reduction in costs, the CD has never sounded better.

However, even by today’s standards, the MCD is appreciated in AV enthusiast circles for its unique and impressive CD sound quality, and earned its place in audiophile history.