If hi-fidelity means no more to you than a Nick Hornby paperback, then you would be forgiven for thinking bargain bin, city-centre Meccas stocked to the rafters with gimmicky micro systems and mini-disc players are the be all and end all of audio technology. Far from it: real hi-fi dealerships are more like exclusive gentlemen's clubs, the majority of which are gathered into the British Audio Dealers Association (0171-226 4044 http://www.bada.co.uk for your nearest dealer). Bada promises expert, impartial advice, financial safeguards on deposits and a free extended two-year guarantee on all hi- fi and home cinema separates. It also pledges to stock only goods of quality, performance and value, which, if you have a patriotic bent you will pleased to know, features British equipment more prominently than Japanese.
If you want the highest priced hi-fi, then there is no better place to start than Grahams Hi-Fi (0171-226 5500 http://www. grahams.co.uk). Ranked by High Fidelity magazine among the world's top five hi-fi shops in 1990, Grahams is a designer labyrinth inside a nondescript warehouse near Islington's scruffy New North Road. You can expect to spend anything from pounds 800 for a basic CD/amplifier/speakers system to pounds 150,000 for a state-of-the- art audio-visual entertainment package.
Daniel Haikin of Grahams reckons that pounds 1,000 will buy you a good system, and pounds 5,000 an extremely good one. But if you want the most technologically advanced hi-fi on the market you will have to shell out the price of a lock-up garage in Knightsbridge for a system that is not only ugly, but does not even include a CD player, a cassette deck or a record player.
To call Meridian's (01480 52144 http:// www.meridian-audio.com) Digital Theatre a stereo would be an injustice. Meridian is highly unusual in its approach. Instead of sending fragile analogue signals down two-inch- thick power lines to its speakers, its bulky PC-styled mother unit sends pure digital signals through discreet cables to "intelligent" speakers, which have four internal amplifiers and six drives apiece .
Like the original stereo system developed for cinema in the Twenties, the Meridian system also has a central speaker unit that focuses on vocals, and an additional two sit behind the listener. They lend an astonishingly lifelike ambience to an already phenomenal sound.
Although it is possible to run record players, CD players etc through the processor, the ultimate software to run on the Meridian is an audio Digital Versatile Disc (DVD). This looks like a CD but has twice as accurate audio quality and holds 25 times more information. The major drawback is that there are currently only four DVD audio-discs available.
To appreciate the capabilities of Meridian's DVD player to the full, though, you need to throw in another pounds 7,000 for a liquid crystal projector and a drop-down screen. Instantly your room is a small-screen cinema, only better. If the music sounds uncannily lifelike on its own, when combined with visuals it is phenomenal.
Pavarotti's ubiquitous take on "Nessun Dorma" was like a front-row seat but without the saliva; the climax was so intimidating that I physically shrank down in the sofa. The demonstration's climax was the balletic, kung-fu-slaying, alien opera scene from The Fifth Element.
At this point the rear speakers kick in with the special effects in the same way as real cinema speakers - one of the processor's myriad functions is proper Dolby Digital rather than the more common but cruder Dolby Pro- Logic.
If money is no object, then you can top off your system with a Crestron touchscreen, a mini-computer remote with a touch-sensitive screen that allows macro programming so that you can do a series of commands across a variety of different remotes from the touch of one button.
And the downside? Other than being a bit highly strung (it does not like troublesome CDs) and a little too accurate in its representation of sound, the worst thing about listening to this system is that you cannot retune your ears. I had assumed my standard thirtysomething pounds 600 system to be the aural equivalent of Paul Smith menswear, discreetly sophisticated and cool without being overly flash. Now my stereo seems more like a Mr Byrite knockdown than a designer classic. The Bill
The whole set-up:
Meridian 861 Surround Pro pounds 8,000 (processor); Meridian DSP6000 Digital Loudspeakers pounds 9,400 (main front speakers); Meridian DSP5000c Centre Black pounds 1,750 (central speaker); Meridian DSP5000 Black pounds 3,295 (rear speakers); Meridian 58 6.2 DVD Player pounds 2,295; Sony VPS-W400 LCD Projector pounds 5,500; Electric Drop-Down Screen pounds 1,250
Total cost: pounds 31,490
If you haven't got a spare 31 thou' knocking around, hold your head up high for:
l Under pounds 1,000: with an Arcam Alpha 7 CD player, Arcam Alpha 7R amplifier, B&W 302 speakers and QED QNECT1 cable
l Under pounds 5,000: with a NAIM CD 3.5, NAIM NAC 102 pre-amplifier, NAIM NAP 180 power amplifier and Shahinian Compass speakers.
Don't know your woofers from your tweeters? Get to grips with: l Dolby: noise reduction system to cut down on background hiss l Woofer: Part of the speaker where the bass sounds emanate l Tweeter: Part of the speaker where the treble sounds emanate l DVD: Looks like a CD but is 25 times more powerful. l Toroidal transformer: If someone uses terminology like this, make your excuses a nd leave.