Product: Meridian Explorer USB DAC
Rating: Strong Recommend*
As an audio engineer, I have always tried to extract the fullest resolution from my digital recordings. Early on, I began investigating separate digital-to-analog converters and their ability to resolve all the space and detail in my stereo recordings. Getting the best in digital playback was once costly and out of the reach of most people, but now the technology has begun to trickle down with products like the Meridian Explorer, allowing digital music playback with quality once only heard in studios.
In-the-box: Elegantly packaged, the Meridian Explorer is made of aluminium with a finish that perfectly matched my unibody MacBook Pro. Its ovular body has a flat bottom and is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. The included mini USB to USB cable allowed for easy connection to my computer and had me up and running in no time. The real magic is happening under the hood.
Technical Design: As a replacement for your computer's built-in sound card, the Meridian Explorer aims to improve the computer's sound quality - whether listening on headphones or on your stereo. Using USB to transfer your digital audio, the Explorer has Precision clocks that control the sample rates for your digital audio. After your audio has been cleanly converted, a carefully designed analog output paths ensures full resolution on both headphone and dedicated line outputs (see below).
Volume is controlled in the computer via Audio MIDI setup (in OS X). The volume in Audio MIDI setup controls the analog setting in the Explorer - allowing greater resolution at all listening levels. The high quality DAC can handle CD quality and beyond. In fact, 24 bits and up to 192 Khz sample rates are available for those wanting to investigate high-resolution downloads. Three lights on the body indicate sample rate - one for 44.1Khz and 48Khz, two lights for 88.2 or 96Khz, and 3 lights illuminate for 176.4 and 192Khz.
Outputs: A closer look at the Explorer's outputs reveals a dedicated line out for connecting to your stereo as well as a discrete headphone output. The line output also doubles as an optical stereo output. These three outputs were cleverly engineered to give the best performance while providing the proper signal strength.
Listening: I slipped on my Sennheiser HD-600 headphones and plugged directly into the Explorer's headphone jack. After choosing some King's of Convenience, I press play and the stereo image blasts off all around me. The size of the stereo recording was impressively large and detailed - every ounce of reverb decayed into a black back drop. Acoustic guitars rang out with a depth and dimension that resembled the real thing. Vocal parts had an organic quality that made for very intimate listening.
Moving on to some Radiohead recordings proved to be very revealing. I could hear the effects on the vocal parts so easily now. Instrumentation that was previously masked now came through with clarity and an obvious sense of placement in the stereo field (between the left and right earphones).
The Explorer handled a 24 bit 192 Khz Cat Stevens file just fine and sounded gorgeous with a deeply engaging sound. Even some Stevie Wonder files at 24/96 played with no problems. Important to note that the Explorer sounded tight, defined and spacious at all the sample rates I tested.
To further investigate this USB powered DAC I enlisted the help of my friend Jin and his stereo system. By using the dedicated line output, I was able to directly connect the Explorer's output to my friend's Marantz amp/receiver. Within a minute I had chosen some orchestral selections to take a test drive on his Wharfedale speakers. The sound was glorious. Really, the sense of dimensionality was amazing for this little DAC. I couldn't believe that what I heard on the headphones translated on the stereo line output too! I was swimming in the performance hall, hearing all the distinctions of left and right and front to back. The music sounded clear and detailed with a natural quality that made listening engaging and addicting. Whatever I played, the quality of the recording became obvious.
Having examined a handful of portable DACs in this price range has made me keenly aware of any differences that exist. Hands down this one takes the cake and delivers a quality that even non-audiophiles can truly hear and appreciate. The size of the stereo image is so large and easily interpreted that your ears will bend back with pleasure. If you seek depth and dimension with details to boot, then climb aboard the Explorer for your computer audio adventure.
Pros: Clean, detailed, easy to use, Amazing dimensional stereo image, organic, true to life
Cons: none at this price
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by the manufacturer for testing and review purposes.
(Images: Vahan Baladouni)