Meridian Explorer USB DAC

Device Type: 24/192-capable USB Digital to Analog Converter/Headphone Amplifier/USB to S/PDIF Converter (24/96)
Input: mini USB (Audio Class 2.0)
Output: (2) 3.5mm jack 1 fixed (2v RMS)/optical output, 1 variable (130mW into 16Ω)
Dimensions : 102 x 32 x 18mm (4.0 x 1.25 x 0.7in)
Weight: 50g (1.76oz)
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
Price: $299.00
Website: www.meridian-audio.com

Meridian Enters the Fray
The USB bus-powered Meridian Explorer is a small, portable 24/192-capable asynchronous USB DAC, headphone amp, and it can also function as a 24/96 USB to S/PDIF converter. There's a mini USB input on one side of its oval tubular extruded aluminum body and two 3.5mm outputs on the other. One of those outputs is fixed and is meant to connect to your hi-fi while also doubling as a 24/96 mini Toslink output. The other 3.5mm output is variable and meant for driving headphones. Based on listening impressions, I'd say the Meridian Explorer is damn well capable of driving you to musical distraction. And it does so for $299.00. Welcome to the beautiful and competitive world of computer audio.

The mini USB input of the Explorer is asynchronous and comes courtesy of an XMOS L-1 USB receiver. The DAC is the TI PCM5102. Seeing as the Explorer is USB Audio Class 2.0 compliant and can handle 24/192 data, Mac users are ready to roll while Windows users need to download and install the associated drivers from Meridian. Other than that Windows-imposed step, it's plug and play. The diminutive and thus portable Explorer borrows technology from its bigger and mature brothers in the Meridian 800 series including "‘Audio Grade’ capacitors for analog supply decoupling, discrete audio clocks, and ‘Audio Grade’ capacitors & resistors in DAC output filter".

The Explorer boasts a 64-step analog volume control for the variable headphone out that is controlled by your computer's system volume. There are three white LEDs on the Explorer's top which indicate the sample rate of the music being played: one light lit equals 44.1 or 48, two lights lit equals 88.2 or 96, and all three means you're listening to 176.4 or 192 data. The Explorer comes with a black micro-suede-feeling travel pouch with two compartments that'll fit the Explorer in one and a pair of ear buds in the other. Nice.

I mainly listened to the Explorer connected to my MacBook Pro with the included USB mini to USB Type A cable and on the other end connected to my Leben CS-300XS integrated amp with an Audioquest Victoria 3.5mm to RCA pair cable. My MacBook was running Pure Music being served its music from a Synology DS212 NAS.

Explorer of Music
The Meridian Explorer is a very balanced sounding DAC. It comes damn close to having very little sonic character of its own, which means you end up focusing on your music and what the musicians are doing as opposed to being constantly reminded of what the DAC is doing. This kind of even-handed presentation is usually reserved for more costly components in my experience and makes the Explorer a very reasonably priced over-achiever.

I could pick apart the Explorer's presentation and report that its bass response is well controlled and tuneful, while its mid-range is rich and bla, bla, bla. But that would be misleading because the Explorer invites you listen to your music as a whole, not some amalgamation of disparate parts. It is neither too dark and fat or too thin and fast. It strikes me as coming close to sounding just right. I could live with a bit more tone color and timbral richness but what we're given is pretty rich and resolute without being in the least bit hard sounding or etched.

The Audioquest Dragonfly by comparison sounds a tad lightweight and overly articulate. I actually enjoy this presentation when paired with my ADAM A3Xs so it's not necessarily a knock but in my room-filling system playing through the DeVore The Nines, the Explorer's richer and more even-handed presentation was clearly more appealing. As compared to the iFi iDAC with the iUSBPower, the Explorer offered up nearly as much body while adding more apparent resolution without ever getting too bright or detailed. Again the iFi iDAC is a very appealing-sounding DAC in its own right and I can see some people preferring its bigger, fatter sound but in my system the Explorer struck me as hitting a better balance that ultimately conveyed a more convincing sense of musical neutrality.

I would not say the Explorer gives you that uncanny hearing into the recording view rather the amount of detail provided is more akin to what I hear from analog sources. Yea, I went there. This presentation goes hand in hand with an overall softness to the soundstage, a natural ease to the way sounds unfold in the room. One aspect of a lot of digital presentations is overly emphasized detail and a focus on attack that provides (forces?) a micro view into your music that eventually gets irritating as you lose a sense of the bigger musical picture. The Explorer retains a focus on the macro view, the bigger musical picture, which translates into boogie-power and booty-shaking goodness.

You can take everything I've said so far and apply it to the headphone output as well. Clean, clear, and oh-so-nicely-balanced. I listened through my Audio Technica ATH-W1000 headphones longer than I normally do because it was simply so much fun. Something like Burial's sensual Kindred EP was suitably stunning with all of the crackle, nooks, and seedy crannies exposed while holding onto that slow-burning beat with both hands. Nice.

I also took the Toslink output for a spin even though I can't imagine there are a lot of people looking for a USB to Toslink converter. Perhaps I'm wrong about that. The conversion process also involves downsampling all sample rates above 96kHz (192 > 96, and 176.4 > 88.2), "for maximum compatibility with other optical interfaces". I ran a Toslink cable to the Mytek Stereo 192-DSD DAC and played a few tracks and as a USB to S/PDIF converter the Explorer imparted that same even-handed presentation. Nice.

A Clear Choice
The Meridian Explorer is an exciting product. It appears to have benefitted from Meridian's more pricey endeavors in terms of sound quality while being wrapped up in a small, attractive, and pocketable package that strikes me as being very aggressively priced. With the Meridian badge affixed, it could easily have come in at twice its asking price and still be viewed as a bargain. But even with that price aside, I found the Explorer served music exceedingly well and very nicely balanced. This presentation means a focus on the music, which is exactly where we want to be.



Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the Meridian Explorer review: iFi iDAC, AudioQuest Dragonfly

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COMMENTS
johndarko's picture

Great coverage Michael.  Always dig a guy who talks about music as well as the gear itself.  That Burial EP is knockout.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Cheers

Tari's picture

*1502

Michael Lavorgna's picture

It's the PCM5102

labjr's picture

I'm wondering how long before we see a portable DAC that supports DSD?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...very soon.

Tari's picture

Was following along with forum posts instead of looking into the official manufacturer's info for verification.

js's picture

Great review, thanks.

"The Audioquest Dragonfly by comparison sounds a tad lightweight"

Do you think the Explorer supasses the Halide DAC HD as well and is now the best of these three rather comparable products?

Cheers, js

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Unfortunately I no longer have the Halide DAC here and it has been too long since it left for me to make a useful comparison.

kenmac's picture

I will soon have an answer to this question.

The hard part is actually finding a quality 3.5mm to RCA cable in stock in NYC for less than the price of the Meridian...

labjr's picture

The Meridian has gotten a couple of great reviews that I know of. I think it raises the bar for portable USB powered DACs. And adds 4x sample rates too.

We'll have to see what HRT, Halide and others can come up with. They're now gonna need to provide Windows drivers to play in this league.

CThru's picture

Michael, can you please tell me if I'm correct that of the small, inexpensive DACs you've reviewed, only the Dragonfly is capable of analog volume control of the line-out jack? Thank you.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

The Audioengine D1 includes a volume control.

The Explorer and iFi iDAC offer volume control for the headphone output not the line out, and the Halide DAC HD, Musical Fidelity V-DAC II, Bladelius USB DAC, Resonessence Labs CONCERO, Schiit Modi and Bifrost do not offer a volume control.

CThru's picture

Thanks for the detailed reply, Michael. I realize now that I should have explained why I was asking. Sorry.

I want to make an inexpensive improvement to the sound coming from my computer and going to my integrated amp and speakers. The amp doesn't have a remote, so I like using my iPhone and iPad to control iTunes, including the volume, but I understand that digital control of the volume through iTunes degrades the sound quality. I was happy to see the Dragonfly would allow me to do that in analog, and my research suggests it's the only one in that price range. You mention the Audioengine D1, but my understanding was that it has only a physical volume knob that controls only the headphone output. Please correct me if I'm wrong, because I like the price of the D1 and your description of its performance. If those two points are correct, it seems the Dragonfly is one of a very small number of options (one other being to buy an app like Audirvana along with a less expensive DAC like the D1, for about the same price.)

Thanks again.

deckeda's picture

You'd probably also want to confirm which volume -- iTunes' or the computer's -- gets adjusted by the DAC because I think iOS' Remote app only controls iTunes' volume.

Either that or forgoe using the iPhone/iPad to remotely control volume. The next potential complication occurs when you adopt a 3rd party player to subsume or take iTunes' place.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

First to clarify, the Audioengine D1's volume knob controls both the line level output as well as the headphone out but this does not address your remote volume needs.

With the Dragonfly, if you use Pure Music and set it to "Allow Hardware Device Control", you can use the Apple Remote app's volume control on your iPhone or iPad to control the Dragonfly's volume. I do not believe this is the case with Audirvana or BitPerfect.

CThru's picture

This helps to narrow down my options. Thank you both.

Frank's picture

I like the silver cigar case form factor!

Aerocraft67's picture

Thanks for your continued attention to the sub-$500 DAC segment. Sort of. Just when I'd made a tough choice of the Dragonfly's light & lean over the iFi iDAC's fat & rich (conceding the Modi to the Dragonfly on that end of the sonic spectrum), out pops the Goldilocks Explorer DAC. On paper, just what I'm looking for. Turns out I'm still within the return window with the Dragonfly, so just ordered one, so I'll soon hear for myself.

With well-regarded sub-$500 DACs piling up (actually, more like $250-$300—headphone amps included), seems they're now the rule rather than the exception. 

Paul's picture

Michael, how well does the DAC section perform against some of the more expensive DACs that you've tested, e.g. the Mytek?

Also, does it pass your Reggae test for musical timing that you mentioned elsewhere?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I don't mean to be difficult but I do not think a comparison between the Explorer and the Mytek is relevant. One of the main features of the Mytek is its ability to play native DSD which the Explorer does not offer. The Mytek also includes an analog and digital volume control, multiple inputs (digital and analog), user-selectable filters, internal power supply, etc...All of which you pay for so the buyer for the Mytek is not the same as the Explorer buyer.

Also, does it [the Explorer] pass your Reggae test for musical timing that you mentioned elsewhere?

Yes, it does.

Paul's picture

DSD and pre-amp functions aren't relevant to me as all I'm looking for is the ability to handle higher sample rates (24/96 and ideally 24/192), high quality headphone out, and strong DAC performance.

Given that, how would you rate the Meridian against some of the more expensive units that you've tested, up to say $2-3k?

To put my question in context I use a Linn LP12 and good CD player, and have been disappointed in other DACs, so I'm trying to guage how far I need to go for a 'good enough' DAC/headamp while still getting good value.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Since we are talking about personal preference, knowing which DACs you have heard and have not cared for would be of interest and possibly help me make a more informed recommendation.

But to answer your question, the Wadia 121 comes to mind as it has all of functionality you are looking for and while I do not have the Wadia here, and therefore have not compared it directly to the Meridian, my memory and re-reading my review of the Wadia tell me that it provided a more engaging experience.

It's also my experience that if someone has a budget of $2-3k and they end up buying a DAC for $299, they may spend a lot of time wondering how much better things could be if they spend closer to their budget. So while I can certainly see someone buying and enjoying the Meridian, as it does not do anything wrong to my ears and does a lot of things right, the idea that more money can buy even better, and it can, may very well limit ones enjoyment. In other words "good enough" rarely is.

tubefan9's picture

 

I am enjoying the meridian more than any other dac I've heard. (I haven't listened to any $500+ DACS)

The word "tuneful" is spot on for this bass. It's rounded and very pleasing to listen to..

As for the highs... The Meridian never takes risks and therefore always sounds good. In contrast, my Arcam RDAC will reach to some highs that make me go "wow" but other times sound gritty, forward, and annoying to listen to. 

 

I picked this up right after it came out and had the pleasesure of speaking first hand with a representitive from meridian. The store was closing, and I was still unsure.. he said: take it home and try it out, if you don't like it, return it. I replied, " there's a return policy here??" and the sales rep said " ugghhh sure, bring  it back if your not satisfied.." 

 

=)

Rebis's picture

Michael,

Thanks for all your great work, but I am feeling review-intruptus after this Meridian review. I am wanting to decide between this and the Hailde DAC HD.

Could you please do as you did with the request to compare it to another DAC, and go back and refer to your notes from when you did have the Halide HD and ruminate a bit for the benefit of all mankind? It would be much appreciated.

I have a Meridian 100 series system that I bought in the late 70's, so feel the pull to be loyal to the team, but also want to get the most bang for the buck. The Meridian is cheaper, but does not come with cables like the Halide Dac, so without being able to listen it is a toss up.

mav52's picture

Finding a place that carries this little wonder in the US has been tough.

Rebis's picture

It's a bit challenging but if you try on their website for international dealers, it worked for me.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...from Meridian's website - Explorer Order

mav52's picture

Thing is I'm in the states,.  I will give their website a shot. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...you can get them at ttvjaudio.com here.

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