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