These days there’s a strong chance that the heart of your music listening beats from a computer system—whether it’s your own downloaded or ripped content stored on iTunes, Windows Media Player and the like, or streamed through one of the many web-based services out there (or, most likely, both). You might even be wondering if it’s time to remove that relic of a CD player out of your music playback system.
My CD player seems kinda lonely in the stereo system these days, and if digital-to-analog converters continue to deliver high performance at increasingly low prices … well, the dust will collect even more. At least, that’s what implementing the new Explorer DAC from Meridian into my system has me believing.
This little wonder is a $299 USB DAC that serves as the go-between while connected from my PC to my preamp/processor at home. But that’s not the only way the Explorer will enhance your computer-based listening. I’ve also used it with my home PC plugged directly into a set of active computer speakers, and with my work laptop connected to some headphones.
I’ve noted before that the future of music listening could be a component product like Bryston’s BDP-1, but for now that’s a specialized product that costs more than $2,000 and still needs to be connected to a separate DAC. In other words, you’re more likely to spring for the Explorer (or perhaps the $249 AudioQuest DragonFly) if you’re looking for an immediate boost to your music in the simplest manner.
And that’s exactly what the Explorer provides. Whether it’s headphone listening, active computer monitors or a full-throttle hi-fi system, the impact is immediate and immersive. But we’ll get to that. The downside, at least for Windows users, is that you do have to put in a smidge of work before cashing in on the musical payoff.
First things first, the nitty-gritty on what’s inside this feathery 1.76-ounce device. Despite its size and weight, the core of the unit is a six-layer circuit board, which the company says puts a disproportionate focus on the analog circuitry rather than the digital. It’s a fully asynchronous USB 2.0 device, and Meridian notes its “dual high-quality oscillators” trickle down from technology within its 800 Reference Series components (which, if you know Meridian, are lofty, state-of-the-art digital theater machines that don’t come anywhere near the $299 price of the Explorer) and support sample rates up to 192kHz.
For powering the device, go through the USB port on one side. On the other side, you can output to headphones in one of the two 3.5mm ports, while in the other you can connect to your stereo system via 2-channel analog or mini Toslink optical cables (I used my 3.5mm adapter and generic analog cables, which provide the full 192kHz bandwidth as opposed to the mini Toslink, which downsamples to 96kHz).
Of course, I must also mention how sleek the Explorer looks, with its cylindrical design, trio of white LED status lights (to represent the sample rate of the audio file being played) and an aluminum enclosure that’s silvery gray and happens to blend in quite well sitting next to an Apple MacBook. That’s likely not an accident by the design team—about the only downside to the Explorer for this Windows user is that the instructions show it to be virtually plug-and-play with Apple products, while the road to using it on PCs involves instructions three times the length and the process of downloading and installing drivers. Both computer platforms require you to select the Meridian DAC as your sound output, thereby effectively initiating the DAC’s real job of taking over for your (presumably lower-quality) internal soundcard.
Slight installation hassle aside, when you have it fully cooking in a Windows system the results, as I mentioned earlier, are impressive. I threw all sorts of digital files at it in various music management programs—everything from 128 kbps AACs and Apple Lossless formats in iTunes, to 256 kbps MP3s in Windows Media Player, to lossless FLAC and high-resolution 24-bit files in Media Monkey. My initial reaction was that overall the music’s dynamics seemed to benefit nicely, as in the majority of tunes bass was delivered with more definition and thwack, and hi-hat drumming felt fuller and snappier.
I’ve listened to audio through my PC for years, going from simply connecting via the RCA adapter and analog cables to my stereo system, to adding a nifty little $40 HiFiMAN HM-101 USB DAC, to adding the Explorer and I can safely say that the Meridian device delivers more than an incremental step up in terms of presenting full-sounding music. I set the controls on my laptop and home PC to output at the highest sample rate, and I dug how all three Explorer status indicators glowed while playing 24-bit/192 kHz files.
Related: DACS, the Missing Link in Today’s Music Systems
While randomly picking some iTunes files, the first one I hit was “Manteca” from trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and the big band sound came at me like a sledgehammer. It’s a beautiful recording to begin with, but the soundstage through a pair of PSB Alpha PS1 powered speakers was immense—the Latin jazz track sounded far wider and deep than the speaker placement, really jumping out of the speakers with vibrancy and detail that made me forget it was ripped as an MP3 file.
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.