Meridian factory aWhether they’re making cars, computers or coloured candy, the great bulk of factories have a few things in common; they’re noisy, they’re busy and they’re big. Which is what makes Meridian’s factory so interesting.

This is the quietest factory I’ve ever been in. Okay, maybe you won’t hear a pin drop but you will hear a pencil hitting the floor. Nor is it big. I can walk around it in just a couple of minutes. And it certainly isn’t busy. People here do not rush to keep up with an unthinking assembly line; they can interrupt what they’re doing to talk to me, and leave one job to demonstrate what happens with another. There are only 20 employees in the factory and according to Meridian’s CEO and major shareholder, John Buchanan, they’re all multiskilled.

We enter the factory mid-way along its length and I’m asked not take pictures of staff members, so I point my camera to the left because over that half of the factory I cannot see a single soul. Buchanan likes it this way. “We have twice as many work stations as staff members,” he says. If one workstation can’t provide enough work for someone that person simply moves to another and gets on with something else.

With an output of just 2000 to 2500 speakers a year Meridian is an unashamedly boutique operation. Economies of scale don’t apply here, well not in the normal sense of manufacturing anyway. A great deal in this factory is done by hand and with a few exceptions what automation there is, is kind of quaint; I spy one computer running a machine that checks printed circuit boards that’s operating on Windows XP.

This adds up to final products that are expensive. But there’s much to be said for hands-on manufacturing. Quality control for one thing. It’s not a computer that rejects a printed circuit board, it’s a person reading the screen, tracing the problem and talking to another person about fixing it before another one comes along with the same trouble. There’s a guy working in a partial anechoic camber checking the performance of every speaker that goes out of the place by matching its readouts against the objectives laid down by the engineers. This means every speaker has exactly the same timbre. They don’t have to match pairs of speakers here, all of them sound exactly the same.

Meridian circuits boards aSuch high levels of involvement by humans goes against the ideal presented at practically every other factory, whose trust in electronics, robots, and production lines is often complete. Meridian proves that people can get it right too, and more than that, do something about it when it’s not right. If you need convincing you only have to listen to the products they’re making. I’m reminded of the guy I met who ran a car factory and told me that cars coming out of fully automated plants always have higher warranty costs than those coming out of factories where humans work in amongst the machines.

Listening is how we start the journey through Meridian, about two hours north of London in a town called Huntingdon where, incidentally, Oliver Cromwell was born. Meridian’s reception area has three separate listening zones all featuring different equipment. One is for a home theatre and the other two are stereo. These keep people occupied while they’re waiting. The serious listening is done elsewhere and I’m getting to that.

All Meridian speakers are active, and always have been. Indeed a pair of Meridian’s ground breakers, the original M1 speakers of 1977 (just plug in your turntable or tape deck), is in the museum. Maybe museum is too grand a word for this spot, in fact it’s just a lost corner of a hallway with some signage and a collection of components gathered on bookshelves. The company’s founders, Bob Stuart and Allen Boothroyd, show little evidence of being much into history and never retained an M1 for posterity, and this pair of them came only recently from an elderly owner who was moving into a room at a retirement cottage that wasn’t big enough for M1s. He rang Meridian asking for advice on how to sell them and Des Ford, the product resources manager, did a deal with him; one pair of used M1s for a pair of brand new Meridian bookshelf speakers and a streamer. Both parties went away smiling.

On one shelf is a Lecson Hi Fi System, Boothroyd and Stuart’s original collaboration which led to them going into business together. Hi Fi veterans may not remember the name but they will remember the product for the coloured slide controls that put it on the cover of hi fi magazines around the world.

The folk at Meridian (there are 87 of them) seem most proud of its electronics and they’ve always been pace-setting. In fact after purchasing agreements some of Meridian’s electronic inventions now bear the name of Dolby. Meridian is the home of an engineering department of 26 people, all of who are true believers in digital signal processing, or DSP.

DSP has a speckled history in audio. It started off mostly as a gimmick, mimicking the acoustics of a stadium or a jazz club or whatever at the press of a button, and this is why there are audio buffs who still pooh-pooh it. But where it proved itself was in car audio, correcting for the fact that a driver sits far closer to the right speakers than the left. The home audio industry followed with DSP devices like Audyssey, tailoring sound to a room. Meridian has thought well beyond this to address many other problems common to audio, and now has reached extremely sophisticated levels.

For example, I’m played a track by London Grammar called Hey Now. It has an immensely powerful bass line throughout, and yet the vocals remain sharp and defined, completely unsullied by all that’s going on at the bottom end. I raise this with Hugo Fitzjohn, the education manager, who tells me this is all DSP.

Larger speaker drivers, he explains, take longer to reproduce their notes than far smaller tweeters, meaning the gap between a high note leaving the cabinet and the corresponding low getting out can be as much as 28 milliseconds. Depending on its power, the type of music being played and what’s going on elsewhere in the audible range, Meridian’s DSP thus releases the big bass note immediately and holds the high for anything up to 28 milliseconds so they both reach your ear at the same time.

“Is a gap of 28 milliseconds enough to be audible?” I ask, and then realise it’s a dumb question – I’ve just heard the effect of it myself. Fitzjohn goes on to explain that to achieve the same effect without DSP the tweeter would need to be mounted almost eight metres behind the woofer.

Meridian anechoic aSo it’s not surprising that so much of the factory floor, and so much time during my tour, is devoted to the assembly and checking of circuit boards. This is where Meridian’s most sophisticated production technology can be found and there are some ingenious ideas at work here, but it’s hard for an audiophile to get as emotional about such stuff as these folk obviously are. Not when cabinets, drivers and two anechoic chambers, one partial and one full, lie ahead. I resist the urge to hurry them along as they gaze with adoration at impossibly complex electronic assemblies and the clever little devices that ensure everything on them is going to plan.

We get to the good stuff eventually. Meridian does not make its own drivers, it buys in what is figures will do the job best. It also buys in the cabinets but not from China – they’re made further to the north up near the Scottish border where aluminium sheeting is spliced between layers of timber to kill resonance.

It’s in this part of the factory where you reach out to touch stuff, where you pick things up to test their weight and wonder why the internal tubes for the bass reflex chambers are so long (‘trial and error’ seems to be the answer). It’s where you discover that the M6 speakers, which look a little like what Kim Jong Un likes firing into the Sea of Japan, achieve all that bass with downward firing woofers, and that the six side-firing bass drivers in the DSP8000s share a common enclosure. What impresses me most, however, is the size and number of the capacitors being fitted, even in the most compact in-wall models.

I suspect my interest in such stuff is all a bit old-fashioned for the electronics guys. They move me on to the full anechoic chamber which is actually the smallest I’ve ever been in, but it works a treat at measuring that initial blast of sound while it’s free of reverberation, and despite its compact dimensions it has still managed to be breathtakingly expensive to build.

Meridian cinema aWe finish up in what has to be one of the nicest private cinemas I’ve ever experienced. It’s kitted out with seats that were left over from cars stripped down for a couple of James Bond movies and they prove inordinately comfortable. Suitably softened up, I’m played a scene from A Star Is Born which looks and sounds so good it makes me think I should maybe buy this movie on 4K HDR Blu-ray even though I have earlier dismissed it as an unapologetic chick flick.

No wonder; the front right, left and centre channels are all delivered by DSP8200SEs hiding brightly (they’re pink – I guess no one would buy them) behind the enormous acoustically transparent screen. But the rear and side channels, providing mountains of hugely voluptuous sound, blow me away. They’re in-walls and I’ve never heard in-walls that provide such volumes of distortion-free sound. I’m also a bit surprised to see no speakers in the ceiling. I guess Atmos is coming. Even so I ask if I can come back for my summer holidays.

Sound quality is what Meridian is, and has always been about, which makes its name on some LG soundbars a little mystifying. LG has never had a big name in audio and Meridian has now partnered with it to lift this. I can’t see the advantage for Meridian in the deal apart from maybe receiving pots of money from Korea, so I ask Buchanan about it.

“It’s about elevating the brand,” he says, and goes on to explain that now people shopping in the big electrical superstores will become aware of the Meridian brand and its premium place in audio. And I come around to his point; I guess if I asked 100 people in the street what Meridian does 99 of them would have no idea.

But it’s a delicate balancing act. Meridian has to ensure that LG products carrying its name have to be a cut above average which means liaison with LG from blueprint stage and interaction throughout the product’s development. Buchanan is adamant that his company will not sign off on a project unless it meets Meridian’s requirements. “We want to make the experience better for the consumer,” he said.

Given this I was surprised on a later listening to find the LG/Meridian WK7 smart speaker, which is high-res capable, is fitted with standard SBC Bluetooth, making the music streamed through Bluetooth decidedly uninvolving. Instead of asking LG about this I went to Meridian with the following email:

“I have had a detailed listen to a couple of LG products bearing Meridian’s name and I would particularly appreciate Meridian’s view on the WK7 smart speaker. This has all the goods to deliver great sound, and yet the Bluetooth connectivity is only SBC. I’m surprised that a product with your name on it does not have HD Bluetooth. Were you aware of this when the product was signed off?”

I received this from Meridian’s director of marketing, Katy Bradshaw: “Our brief with the WK7 was to optimise its audio performance based on the spec LG had outlined. The WK7’s core function is voice control via the Google Assistant with better audio, therefore it is not positioned as a premium Bluetooth speaker.”

Given it decodes FLAC up to 96 kiloHertz and has a 96 kHz/24-bit high-res audio DAC, well, you could have fooled me.

Meridian exteriorBuchanan has been surprised by the challenges of the partnership. LG moves a lot quicker on things than he expected. He said that so far there have been no deal breakers.

Joe Luzarraga, the senior DSP loudspeaker engineer, walks me through a number of LG products that have been developed jointly, including a clutch of Bluetooth speakers of various sizes, a smart speaker and three soundbars, all of which are available locally. One product, a large one-box active speaker music system, was developed solely for the domestic Korean market and has proved popular there.

After a day at Meridian I’m still coming to terms with just how compact this operation is. I try to think of other small European operations that design and manufacture in Europe and I can come up with just a handful. I ask Buchanan if he’d like his company to be another Dynaudio, a small manufacturer certainly, but way bigger than Meridian. It would mean great change and substantial growth, both in real estate and staff numbers.

“Oh yes,” he says.

 

September 2019.

 

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