Meridian Explorer 2 portable DAC / headphone amp – a review

Once again, many thanks to Todd at TTVJ Audio for setting up the loaner program.

Designing a portable device is study in trade-offs of size, weight, price, and performance. Given the performance of the USB-powered DAC’s on the market that are about the size of a pack of gum, the Meridian Explorer 2 has a rather high bar to reach, since it’s already bigger in three of those four dimensions. Nonetheless, I feel that Meridian definitely made the right choices with the Explorer 2. Read on if you want the gory details.

Description

The Explorer 2 keeps the anodized aluminum casing from its predecessor, but dispenses with the optical output at one end, instead offering up a line-level output via minijack in addition to the headphone amp output. As a point of reference, it’s roughly 3-4 times the size of AudioQuest’s DragonFly portable DAC, yet they seem to weigh about the same in the hand (which is to say very light). The headphone output impedance is specified as 0.47 ohms and the amp is shut off if the Explorer2 detects that the line-out is connected. A clear plastic plug is supplied to patch up the unused minijack. On the other end is a USB mini-B input. A rubber ‘foot’ at the bottom of the case is mostly mere decoration – the only (small) gripe I can find in the design. The top side includes three LEDs that glow based on the source material being played. A USB cable and microfiber cleaning cloth / carrying pouch is included with the DAC.

According to the company literature, all source material is upsampled 4x to either 176.4 kHz or 192 kHz. Meridian’s custom apodizing digital filter remains in place. All D/A conversion seems to be executed on an FPGA.

Use

I tested the Explorer 2 with Windows 7 and Linux using ALSA. Under Linux, the DAC worked out of the box. Drivers must be installed in Windows for the Explorer 2 to utilize class 2 USB audio and the latest version can be found on the Meridian website in the Support section. The number and color of the LED’s that turn on are based mainly on sampling frequency as well as whether the file was encoded using MQA. Unfortunately, I did not have any MQA files on hand to test this function, though I did successfully play uncompressed PCM files with varying resolutions.

Sound

I listened to the Explorer 2 using the built-in headphone amp as well as through the line-level output by hooking it up to a separate headphone amp and my loudspeaker setup. Three headphones were used throughout – the Alessandro MS-1’s, a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M50’s, and the Etymotic ER-4S. The presentation from the headphone output was clean and relaxed, though still quite resolving. A good example is the second movement from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (Chesky, CD 2). Earl Wild’s fluid melodic lines are accompanied by flute and clarinet, one handing off to the other at two points during the opening passages . On less resolving DAC’s, it can be hard to detect those transitions. Not so with the Explorer 2. It nailed the differing tonalities of the two woodwinds and even allowed me to clearly hear the vibrato in the flute. Simply stellar performance.

The even tonal balance might cause some to feel it a bit light in the bass. However, I found that it convincingly reached down into the lower octaves and provided tight, detailed bass. On “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train (HDtracks, 192 kHz / 24-bit AIFF), Paul Chambers’ bass sounded incredibly real – the notes had just the right mixture of tone from the strings and the wood body. Midrange had just the right amount of bloom to keep Kenny Drew’s piano from sounding cold, yet still could express his varied touch across the keyboard during his solo. Coltrane’s sax, Fuller’s trombone, and Kelly’s trumpet all had a satisfying brassiness and air around them that gave an impression they were playing in a three dimensional space.

Switching between AudioQuest’s DragonFly v1.2 and the Meridian proved to be illuminating as well. Joao Gilberto’s voice on the opening refrains of “A Girl from Ipanema” (HDtracks, 96 kHz / 24-bit AIFF), can be damnably hard to get just right. The Explorer 2 handled the track with aplomb. Gilberto’s vocals had real presence and dimension. The DragonFly had a slightly warmer overall tone which was welcome on the Etys, but sounded a bit overdone on the Audio-Technicas, giving rise to a subtle ‘chestiness’ to Gilberto’s voice. The Explorer 2 also treated Leslie Feist’s performance in “1234” from The Reminder with a delicateness that belied its modest price tag. Backing vocals and instruments were all delineated in their own space. The DragonFly tended to flatten the soundstage by comparison.

Excited by what I heard so far, I wanted to see if the line-level output offered the same sonic goodness. The Explorer 2 didn’t disappoint. It handily beat out an Oppo BDP-103 when hooked up to my CI Audio VHP-1 headphone amp via Blue Jeans Cables’ MSA-1 mini-RCA cables. The Oppo tended to sound more forward, probably a bit too fatiguing for a long listening session. I felt I could listen to the Meridian for hours. The comparison between my Ayre C-5xeMP disc spinner and the Meridian was really no comparison. The Ayre bested the Explorer2 with more tuneful and dynamic bass as well as a more convincingly real presentation. However, they shared a simple rightness to the sound that is difficult to capture in words. Both are at the top of the heap in their respective categories, in my book.

Conclusions

The portable DAC market is a crowded field. Consequently, there’s never been a better time to be into hi-fi. As luck would have it, Meridian has created a truly outstanding entrant into this arena. Yes, it’s just a smidge less portable than other offerings, but it more than makes up for those shortcomings in its world-class sonics. If you’re looking for a portable DAC with true high-end performance that’s equally capable driving headphones as well as anchoring a speaker-based setup, the Meridian Explorer 2 deserves to be at the top of your short list.

Associated Equipment

Headphones – Alessandro MS-1, Audio-Technica ATH-M50, Etymotic ER-4S

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signatures

Amplification – Ayre AX-5 Twenty, CI Audio VHP-1 / VAC-1

Sources – AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2, Ayre C-5xeMP, Oppo BDP-103

Cables – Blue Jeans MSA-1 mini-RCA, Analysis Plus Pro Oval Studio, Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In, Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8

Power – Bryston BIT-15

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