When I think of British digital electronics, the first name that comes to mind is Meridian. Designers of complete digital systems from transports to fully active DSP- controlled loudspeakers, it makes products that are exquisite, refined, and priced accordingly. Dreams of a true budget-level item from this firm would seem as unlikely as high tea without finger sandwiches. But this was before I was pulled aside in the Meridian room at CEs to check out a fresh-off-the-production- line, portable streaming DAC, the $299 Explorer.
Packaged in a chic, ovular, four-inch-long extruded-aluminum case, the Explorer is an asynchronous, USB-powered, Class 2, high-resolution DAC/streamer. Equipped with a PCM5102 DAC it’s capable of streaming files up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution. A series of tiny lEDs along the outside of the case indicate incoming resolution. Also provided are a fixed/variable analog miniplug output with an OS-driven, analog gain control for headphone use, and an optical digital output. Inside this nifty capsule there’s little room to spare considering the space required for the headphone amp, a six-layer PC board, XMOs “l1” processor, plus caps and resistors in key circuitry derived from Meridian’s full-scale 800 series. A short USB/mini-cable completes the package.
Setup was glitch-free as I suspected it would be with a product aimed at a youthful on-the-go market. I attached the USB2 mini B socket of the Explorer to my MacBook Pro (Pure Music software/Memory Play setting, and 8 gigs of RAM) and then ran a stereo miniplug-to-stereo-RCA cable (I use an AudioQuest) into the analog inputs of the recently reviewed Hegel H300 (Issue 233). After checking the Mac’s MIDI and sound settings I booted up Pure Music/iTunes.
High-end sonics? Heck, yeah. Tonally, the Explorer supplies smooth touches of analog-like warmth and fluidity. Just as impressive was the lack of soundstage constriction. This is a problem that dogs the portable DAC segment. During Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps Overture with Michael stern and the Kansas City symphony [Reference Recordings], the Explorer conveyed the wide expanse of the orchestra with a rewarding sense of depth and air between instruments, and an impressive ambient bloom that opened up the ceiling of the venue rather than holding it down. The music was spacious, detailed, and transparent, inviting comparisons to the more expensive DACs I’ve been listening to of late.
The Explorer also brings expressive midbass to the streamer segment, with sturdy timbres and purer, cleaner dynamic punch. On higher-res material, such as the 24-bit WAV file of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances from Reference Recordings’ 24-bit/176kHz HRx Collection, it shined even more brightly. Strings soared more effortlessly; the acoustics of the venue were more immersive.
Sonic subtractions? Sure, but no major complaints. The Explorer’s spectral balance is moderately light. Thus, low bass could be weightier and more precise. On Holly Cole’s “I Can see Clearly” the Explorer can’t quite achieve the pace, muscle, and drive behind Cole’s vocals the way more upscale DACs like the mbl CD31 or dCS Puccini can. Even so, perspective please! This is high-res “to-go” for less than the price of a decent power cord.
Of the streamers I’ve heard recently, the Explorer is neither the smallest (that distinction goes to the AudioQuest Dragonfly) nor the least expensive (HRT’s microStreamer gets that honor). In fact of the three it’s the priciest by a slight margin. Sonically all are impressive—mini-miracles if you will—yet the Meridian is a little more intrepid dynamically with a dimensional complexity that makes it stand apart. The Explorer marks a shrewd opportunity to spread the gospel of high-quality portable sound to a much broader (read: younger) audience. Meridian couldn’t have chosen a better emissary than this little USB DAC. Highly recommended.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Asynchronous USB DAC
Input: USB Mini Type B
Input resolutions supported: Up to 24-bit/192kHz (44.1/48/88/96/176/192kHz)
Outputs: 3.5mm stereo mini-jack variable level headphone output (130mW into 16 ohms); 3.5mm fixed-level (2V) analog output; mini-TosLink digital optical, 96kHz maximum
Dimensions: 4" x 1.25" x 0.7"
Weight: 1.76 oz.
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