To explain why the Model 561 is so unusual, I have to first note that Meridian also produces a line of powered speakers with onboard digital signal processing (DSP) and digital-to-analog converters (DACs). Designed to receive digital signals from Meridian preamp/processors like the Model 561, they do all the processing and amplification internally. Consequently, the Meridian 561 supplies analog outputs for only the standard 5.1 channels (left, center, and right front, left and right surround, and subwoofer), while all these plus two back surround outputs are supplied in digital form via two coaxial digital jacks.
So if you intend to add one or two back surround speakers to your system, you'll have to use either Meridian digital speakers; some combination of conventional speakers, an outboard DAC, and an amplifier; or a DAC and non-Meridian powered speakers. I used conventional back surrounds, feeding the 561's "rear" digital output to another A/V preamp running in stereo mode and then to a stereo power amp - but that's more awkward than simply buying a pair of Meridian's speakers.
The Model 561 also omits any discrete 5.1-channel analog inputs. So you can't connect a DVD-Audio or multichannel SACD player, since their output is available only in six-channel analog form. And it lacks any component-video connections, so a progressive-scan DVD player or HDTV tuner would have to be hooked up directly to your TV.
Otherwise, the Meridian 561 actually operates in fairly conventional fashion. I used the setup program for Windows 95 (and higher) that Meridian provides on its Web site and through its dealers. All of the PC-based configuration options are available using the remote control, too, but the software made it much easier to configure and customize the options. The remote gives you terse, one-line readouts on the front-panel display and onscreen for guidance, while the computer program has actual menus and submenus.
The amount of customization the Meridian permits is impressive. You can delete unused sources so that when you key the front-panel Source button it cycles only through the components you actually have connected. (The remote control allows direct access to each input. Nice.) The same is true of surround- and listening-mode presets. Since you have to step through these sequentially from either the front panel or the remote, being able to delete unused choices is a plus.
Another plus is being able to set the subwoofer-output crossover to any frequency between 30 and 120 Hz - and you can specify a different crossover for each of three classes of listening modes: Music, Logic, and 5.1-Movie. There are a few oddities, though. For instance, you can rename any input, but only with a five-character title. The front-panel display is 12 characters wide, so why not at least give us that much to work with?
The real story on the Meridian 561, however, is its surround processing. First, it eschews ambience synthesis just about entirely. Though some of the modes manipulate the channel assignment and "steering" of signals in sophisticated ways, as far as I could tell there's no artificial reverberation, reflection, or similar processing - simply some judicious delays and selective equalization.
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