As Good As Gold Page 3

B&K's selection of user-accessible features is highly intelligent. For example, the remote handset has dedicated volume keys for Center, Rear, and Sub levels so that you don't have to plow through onscreen menus. Your adjustments apply globally, remaining in effect as you switch sources or listening modes, but they reset to 0 if you cycle the preamp through standby.

But the greatest flexibility comes from B&K's system-preset scheme. Forty system presets can be memorized, each individually storing the user's choice of input source (including radio band and station, if the source is the tuner), listening mode (mono, stereo, surround, or THX) and record-out source, number of speakers active, and individualized settings of all the EQ options and center, surround (Rear), and subwoofer channel levels.

It's not difficult to see how powerful this seemingly simple system could be. You could have three presets just for Dolby Digital surround listening: one for movies set up with THX Surround EX decoding and full dynamic range, one for late-night listening with dynamic-range limiting and loudness compensation on, and one for music recordings with modified center and surround levels. You could even have presets for your favorite radio stations, with each one including EQ and surround-mode/speakers settings appropriate to its genre of music and the way you like to listen to it. (Each preset can carry a user-selected 13-character name, which should be enough to describe even a large number of presets adequately to tell them apart.)

The Reference 30 carries two selectable component-video inputs, each assignable to any input. These are said to be full-band, HDTV-capable, but I wasn't able to confirm this because my HDTV monitor uses RGB connections. You can also send stereo audio and composite or S-video to a second room or system, with independent control of volume and source selection. There are inputs for an infrared-repeater system for control from the remote room and a simple but effective system to avoid zone confusion of remote commands. An excellent Windows setup/control program is available from B&K's Web site or its dealers, though you might need an adapter to connect your PC to the Reference 30's network-style RJ-45 serial port.

B&K's Reference 30 is tough to beat for a straightforward, high-performance home theater dedicated to movies on DVD, digital TV broadcasts, and multichannel and stereo music on DVDs, CDs, and SACDs. Its two-channel playback is indisputably up to the task of critical stereo reproduction. I've lived extensively with the Reference 30's powered cousin, the AV307 receiver, so I can say with confidence that the basic design is simple, usable, and an excellent performer.

Meridian Model 561 $5,000 Meridian Audio, 3800 Camp Creek Pky., Bldg. 2400, Suite 122, Atlanta, GA 30331 - 404-344-7111

If the slogan "Think different" hadn't already been taken by Apple Computer, it might have served Meridian well. Co-founded by a radical industrial designer and a forward-thinking audio engineer, the British company was the first to offer a high-end CD player, modifying a first-generation Philips/Magnavox player to achieve something even better than "perfect sound, forever." Its Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) scheme, which encodes digital audio data more efficiently, is an integral part of the new DVD-Audio format.

Meridian's British-designed, British-made Model 561 preamp/processor ($5,000) even looks different thanks to its much narrower than usual chassis and its arrestingly simple styling. Even the rear panel diverges dramatically from the norm, with a set of input/output connections that's distinctly different from what you find on most conventional A/V equipment.