Hands On: Meridian Explorer USB DAC
Affordable digital-to-analog converter gives computer-based music a big boost
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.
For something a bit subtler, I played Natalie Merchant’s “Kind and Generous,” which begins with a gorgeous operatic swoon before she does some “nah-nah-ing” and singing. While I’m not a huge fan of female vocalists, I love testing tracks from 10,000 Maniacs and solo Merchant because I think her voice combines grace and grit, and despite being an MP3 her vocals on this track really blossomed with that added “weight” and fullness of the Explorer.
As a Phish fanatic, I have a bunch of their “Live Phish” releases in 256 kbps MP3, FLAC and 24-bit formats, and I played several tracks through Media Monkey in my home system on Paradigm Studio 20 speakers, and straight into my ears from my Windows laptop using some generic earbuds. Here again, the clarity even of the 256 MP3s was gorgeous through the earbuds, and Mike Gordon’s bass came through with more prominence than I’m used to hearing. Tracks such as their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and “NICU” were really forceful with the driving funk bass lines, while I heard the same thicker, impactful hi-hat of Jon Fishman’s drumming during my listening to tracks such as “Lizards” and “You Enjoy Myself” that made them truly enjoyable. On my home system, moving to those lossless FLAC and high-res 24-bit versions of some of their live releases, again the soundstage impressed as my theater became a virtual 2-channel concert venue.
Evoking similar impact, some tracks I used for evaluating Bryston’s BDP-1 I listened to again with the Explorer—like high-res versions of Rolling Stones tracks such as “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Monkey Man”—and found that while they weren’t quite as dramatic as played through the Bryston setup, they definitely sounded more substantive than they were in my previous PC playback chain. All of the grunting and muttering in the background of the “Sympathy” intro came through loud and clear amid the drumbeats.
Back in the heyday of CD players, spending $299 for a new one probably seemed like a reasonable expense to those who were looking for that promise of digital clarity and detail as they moved from analog formats. As our music collections have migrated from CD to computers, that quest continues today and music lovers will be happy to know they can still get a big improvement from their listening experience by investing a relatively small sum into an innovative product like the Explorer.
At a Glance
Dimensions 4.0 x 1.25 x 0.7 inches
Weight 1.76 ounces
OS requirements: Macintosh OS X 10.6.4 (Snow Leopard) or later; Windows XP SP3, Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8
Firmware upgradeable via USB
LED status indicators for 44.1, 88.2/96 and 176.4/192 kHz
Asynchronous USB audio class component 2.0
Enhances all file types, low-res to high-res
Generous improvement to bass definition
Compact form factor and pleasing aesthetics
Setup in Windows is borderline arduous
Black enclosure option would be nice for Windows users
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