Step inside the home of LG’s new audio partner in crime, Meridian Audio

meridian dsp8000se

TVs get all the glamour, with plenty of discussion focused on the visual spectrum — your 4Ks, 8Ks, HDRs and so on — but it’s around a more visceral sense, sound, that some of today’s most brutal electronics battle lines are being drawn. The home entertainment giants have all made their audio mark in recent years: Vizio is tearing up the soundbar segment, Samsung built an impressive new California lab to completely revamp its audio line, and Sony – well, Sony has always had its hands planted firmly on the sonic wheel.

Meridian turned up the volume to 11, literally rattling the ceiling tiles above us with earthshaking bass.

LG, too, has worked at building a solid reputation in the audio realm over the years, with products like its LG Flow lineup of network speakers and as well as its SJ9 Dolby Atmos soundbar. But the company obviously has grander ambitions in the segment, announcing hi-fi features for its latest soundbars, wireless speakers, and its first-ever smart speaker, thanks in no small part to a newly forged partnership with a storied name in British sound, Meridian Audio.

So, “Who is Meridian?” you’re no doubt asking yourself. LG saw that coming, actually. The company set out to make a lasting impression on that front by flying in journalists from around the globe to foggy London Town for a firsthand look at its new aural bedfellow in the flesh.

An impressive test

Shortly after arriving in London, we boarded a bus headed toward Meridian Audio’s third-generation factory and design center. About an hour and a half’s drive from the city, set amid the English countryside’s rolling green hills and ancient stone edifices, Meridian headquarters resides within a modern-looking building in a small industrial park.

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Meridian DSP 8000 Special Edition Ryan Waniata/Digital Trends

As we shuffled off the bus and entered the main hall, we were introduced to some of the most impressive-looking active (i.e., self-powered) speakers you’ll find on the market. Not long afterward, we were treated to one of audio’s most effective and elemental sound demonstrations: The coin test.

Setting a 50 p (that’s British for 50 cent) coin on its side atop Meridian’s flagship speaker, the DSP 8000 Special Edition, our hosts turned up the volume to 11, literally rattling the ceiling tiles above us with the six outward-facing bass drivers’ worth of earthshaking bass. Yet, amid the monstrous frequency undulations below and crystalline treble above, the coin never made the slightest inkling of movement, revealing virtually zero cabinet vibration. It was a successful demonstration of Meridian’s talents for rich, powerful, and utterly controlled sonic mastery.

A British institution

While the demonstration was quite dazzling, it’s the foundational elements that make up Meridian’s overall design philosophy that left the most lasting impression from the tour.

One of those elements is a constant quest for innovation, especially when it comes to active speakers, starting with the first-ever active loudspeaker and Meridian’s first creation from way back in 1977, the M1. Deeply sought after in recent years for their simple designs and matchmaking of amplifiers and drivers in an all-in-one package, active speakers are one of Meridian’s core “pillars” and have been its bread and butter since the beginning, setting the brand well ahead of the curve.

While the demonstration was dazzling, it’s Meridian’s design philosophy that left the most lasting impression.

Following that first design, Meridian has made its mark with several other innovations, including multiple evolutions in active speaker design, the first high-end CD player in 1983 (based on the original Philips CD-100 design), and even the world’s first consumer 3D audio system — complete with height speakers — set inside Range Rovers in 2012. Meridian’s MLP compression technology was the official compression tech for DVD audio and was later sold to Dolby to spawn Dolby True HD. The brand has even created its own bracing material, dubbed “Meridium,” for its speaker cabinets comprising multiple layers of wood with aluminum.

That leads to another impressive element at the backbone of Meridian’s core: A penchant for near-total control over its end product. The brand assembles its speakers and amplifiers in-house by hand (no assembly line here), and unlike most brands of its ilk, even assembles its own circuit boards.

Meridan-Audio-amplifier-open
Ryan Waniata/Digital Trends

Meridian engineers will tell you that all of this stems from Meridian’s underlying approach to all things audio, a simple philosophy based around sound (and human psychoacoustics) first, and technology second. Meridian calls this the “System Approach,” and it can be seen in everything from the company’s hardware designs, such as speakers meant to emulate the human head (right down to drivers placed at the same distance apart as the average pair of human ears), to its research lab, which places the listening room first and its technical analysis room (complete with anechoic chamber) second. As one of the engineers imparted with almost fanatical passion, no instrument can measure sound like the human ear.

The partnership

Needless to say, we walked away impressed with Meridian and its sound-first approach to tech. But when it comes to the subject at hand, LG’s new audio lineup, the real question is, just how much of Meridian’s blood flows through those veins?

The answer, for now anyway, seems to be just a bit. Somewhat oddly, this new partnership seems to have been struck while LG had already drawn up the basic plans for most of its 2018 audio designs. That said, Meridian’s work as a consultant on the new line has affected the design – and the sound – in some key ways.

This audio reviewer is most excited about LG’s beefy tube of sound, the WK7 ThinQ smart speaker.

The first — and, we’d argue, the most important — word of advice Meridian gave LG was, essentially, step up your DAC-chipset game. A DAC (short for digital-to-analog converter) can be the lifeblood of any wireless speaker, soundbar, or other digital audio device, as it’s the crucial conduit that transforms digital audio (1s and 0s) into electrical sound, which is then transferred by speakers into the soundwaves we hear. That conduit can have a massive impact on sound quality, and while we weren’t told exactly which chipsets LG is using, the company followed Meridian’s advice and upgraded.

Meridian also made some wise suggestions when it came to the internal design of LG’s latest speakers, including better baffling inside its new SK10Y soundbar, as well as moving the tweeters to the outside of the center column to help eliminate phase complications that can cancel out parts of the frequency spectrum. In fact, Meridian recommended adding more absorption material to all of LG’s speakers, as well as other fixes, such as placing a cap on the backside of their tweeters for less sound bleed, crafting a new shape for the driver cone containers, and other improvements to strengthen and thicken the speakers’ cabinets.

LG SK10Y soundbar

LG’s new speakers don’t just add Meridian technology, either. Most of LG’s new soundbars, have tacked on a host of new tech, from Hi-Res certification at up to 24bit/192kHz resolution streaming and hi-res upscaling, to Dolby Audio Processing for features like dialogue enhancement and ramped-up bass at lower volumes so you never lose the thunder.

The new PK-series and ThinQ smart speaker have also added impressive specs, including aptX and aptX HD for high-fidelity Bluetooth streaming for the former, and hi-res audio at up to 24bit/96kHz resolution pushed by new aluminum dome tweeters for the latter.

In short, with help from its new partner in Meridian and a standby assist from Dolby, LG has doubled down on sound performance for its entire 2018 lineup. But will it be enough to wow the crowds?

The results

After flying across the Atlantic, you’d think we’d have ample time to listen to the latest from LG, but unfortunately we were only given a small sampling session – just a taste of the products before the full shipment lands. It seems LG was simply hoping to whet our appetites before the new products arrive in our respective offices for review.

Still, we had enough time with the gear to walk away relatively impressed, especially with the new wireless speakers.

In particular, this audio reviewer is excited about LG’s beefy tube of sound, the WK7 ThinQ smart speaker, which is currently listed on LG’s website at a price of $199. While the design isn’t much to look at, the sound in our short audition was quite impressive, especially in the midrange vocals, where sound was clear, full, and extremely detailed. The speaker seems poised to run up against Apple’s pricey HomePod ($350), but apparently at a much lower price. LG said multiple times it hoped to distinguish its entry into the smart speaker game with high-quality sound – the same pledge made by Apple.

PK-series speakers
PK-series speakers Ryan Waniata/Digital Trends

Of course, while the speaker’s Google Assistant backbone should give it plenty of brains, a lot of the ThinQ’s success will depend upon ease of use, and which streaming services it supports.

The PK-series speakers also impressed, especially the top-dog PK-7, even though we find the multicolored LEDs set behind the drivers more of a distracting gimmick than a welcome feature. Sound performance for both the PK-7 and its smaller PK-5 sibling is full, clear, and relatively powerful, and battery life of a claimed 22-hours and 18 hours, respectively, definitely sweetens the deal for those looking to extend the party. We didn’t get to hear the PK-3, but we do like the smaller speaker’s IPX-7 waterproof rating, its minimalist design, and its portability.

We’ll need much more time with the SK10Y for any informed judgment, but our first impression is that the midrange exhibits a brighter sound than we normally go for. Though it’s massively wide at 65 inches, the bar is extremely thin, which may ultimately limit its ability somewhat to put out full and powerful midrange response. What we did appreciate was extremely accurate Atmos sound from the height speakers set at the top of the bar, as well as firm and flowing bass, even at lower volumes. We’ll have to put in some more time with the bar to see if it can take on Samsung’s HW-K950, which currently reigns supreme in the Atmos soundbar realm.

We’ll know much more about LG’s new lineup soon, as the pieces should be rolling out for review in the next few weeks. For now, we’re excited about LG’s new line, as well as its new sound-first approach, backed by a partner that takes that philosophy to extremes. That’s especially true since, as far as we can tell, this first step into sound design together seems to be just the beginning.

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