World Exclusive--Meridian Audio Explorer headphone amp/USB DAC (Hi-Fi+)

In the grand scheme of all things digital in our world, Meridian Audio has long been at the forefront. Back when CD first appeared, it was the first brand to realise its high-end potential. It created the algorithms behind lossless packing that helped define DVD and Blu-ray audio. When the migration to hard disk began, it was there with Sooloos (now simply called, Meridan Digital Media Systems). But the portable audio world escaped Meridian Audio… until now.

Called the Explorer, the new USB powered device is as simple as it is elegant. Meridian has managed to use the extruded metal casework seen in its top-end 800 series devices, making clean rounded lines and a surprisingly weighty feel; unfashionable as this comparison might be, it’s about the size and shape of a Bic disposable lighter, but with the weight and feel of a Ronson. The curved black plastic end pieces have the mini USB connector at one end and two mini-jack sized sockets at the other; the left-most is a combined Toslink S/PDIF and line level output, while the rightmost is a headphone mini-jack. The optical digital output might seem odd, given the prime use of the Explorer is to convert digital to analogue, but the DAC acts both as master clock to reclock the digital output, and downconverts any 192kHz datastreams to 96kHz to keep the signal within Toslink limits.

Internally, the slim PCB is every bit the audiophile product.  Asynchronous USB input is handled by the popular XMOS L1 chip, the Class 2 USB input itself being all-but-completely galvanically isolated from the rest of the circuit via a six-layer PCB, the audio-grade resistors, capacitors and even the discrete clocks are all of the standard used by Meridian’s 800 series, and it uses a PCM 5102 DAC, capable of running at 24bit, 192kHz precision. Although known as a ‘digital’ brand, Meridian’s strengths here are in the “… to analogue” part, with a linear regulator chip and many of the sections of the output stage being made up of discrete components. And this makes itself very present in the sound quality.

Because it’s a native Class Two USB device, PC users will need to download the appropriate USB driver software, but instructions are supplied in the natty presentation case the Explorer comes in (there’s also a short USB lead and a little velvet carry bag). The Class Two software is preinstalled on Macs, so you are good to go almost immediately. Although it leaves the line and digital pass untouched, the computer’s on-board volume control drives the output of the headphones.

The DAC has three little white LEDs along its top to denote what sort of file size the listener is using: one light, 44.1/48kHz, two lights 88/96kHz, three 176.4/192kHz. When it comes to LEDs, ‘white’ is the new ‘blue’!

In listening, this is every inch (well, both of them) a Meridian product in the sound quality stakes. It’s easy sometimes to dismiss USB audio products from companies like Meridian as being ‘just for portable use’. While this is an excellent portable device running off headphones, it’s also a fine DAC in its own right. For the record, I used Focal Spirit Ones and Sony MDR-7506 headphones to excellent effect in the former case and plugged it into a Naim SuperNait and ProAc Studio 140s, using a long Vertere D-Fi mini-jack to two phono lead for the latter.'

Principally, the DAC has a very satisfying presentation, with a rich and detailed midband, extending up to a clean and unfatiguing treble and down to a controlled and rich bass. This applied equally to both headphone and system, but especially to the headphone input. A perfect example of this was when listening to The Belcea String Quartet playing Dutilleux’ Ansi Le Nuit (EMI Classics). This modern quartet piece places a delicate balance on the listener, between understanding the composition and not having it sound like the soundtrack of a 1970s Eastern European cartoon about tractors. The Explorer brought the music to life, and kept the Stasi at bay. A perhaps more sane example is Superstition by Stevie Wonder on Talking Book. Wonder’s sensational drum introduction to this classic track is a bell-weather to performance; if it sounds like a standard four-beat rhythm – or like mad chaos on the hi-hat – something’s wrong, and it’s usually wrong. This time… perfect. The complexity of the rhythm is all there, but it’s not laid out like a science project. It’s still very, very funky.

All content, design, and layout are Copyright © 1999 - 2011 NextScreen. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction in whole or part in any form or medium without specific written permission is prohibited.