The goal of this study was to evaluate a new method of combining multi-channel 1H MRSI data by direct use of a matching imaging scan as a reference, rather than computing sensitivity maps. Seven healthy volunteers were measured on a 7-T MR scanner using a head coil with a 32-channel array coil for receive-only and a volume coil for receive/transmit. The accuracy of prediction of the phase of the 1H MRSI data with a fast imaging pre-scan was investigated with the volume coil. The array coil 1H MRSI data were combined using matching imaging data as coil combination weights. The signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), spectral quality, metabolic map quality and Cramér–Rao lower bounds were then compared with the data obtained by two standard methods, i.e. using sensitivity maps and the first free induction decay (FID) data point. Additional noise decorrelation was performed to further optimize the SNR gain. The new combination method improved significantly the SNR (+29%), overall spectral quality and visual appearance of metabolic maps, and lowered the Cramér–Rao lower bounds (−34%), compared with the combination method based on the first FID data point. The results were similar to those obtained by the combination method using sensitivity maps, but the new method increased the SNR slightly (+1.7%), decreased the algorithm complexity, required no reference coil and pre-phased all spectra correctly prior to spectral processing. Noise decorrelation further increased the SNR by 13%. The proposed method is a fast, robust and simple way to improve the coil combination in 1H MRSI of the human brain at 7 T, and could be extended to other 1H MRSI techniques. © 2013 The Authors. NMR in Biomedicine published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.