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A $299 high-end USB digital converter from England

Meridian Audio, known for its ultra-high-end components dips its toe into the affordable market with the Explorer USB digital-to-analog converter.

The Meridian Explorer

Regular readers of this blog know we're living in the golden age of desktop audio. The speakers just keep getting better and better, and digital converters from the likes of Schiit Audio, AudioQuest, Hifiman, FiiO, and HRT have all made computers sound better than ever.

Now along comes the Meridian Explorer, a sleek, extruded aluminum converter with line- and headphone-level 3.5mm output jacks and a USB input. The line-level output internally bypasses the headphone amp and volume control. Meridian is best known for its ultra-high-end digital converters that sell for thousands of dollars -- the Explorer is their first affordable DAC, and it's just $299. Meridian claims the Explorer uses audiophile-grade electrolytic capacitors to decouple the analog audio stages from the digital section to improve sound quality. A significant percentage of the device's six-layer circuit board's real estate is dedicated to analog, not digital circuitry. Three white LEDs indicate the sample rate of the music being played: one lights up for 44.1kHz or 48kHz, two for 88.2kHz or 96kHz, and three mean 176.4kHz or 192Khz data. The DAC was designed and made in Britain.

A look inside the Explorer? Meridian

The compact 4x1.25x 0.7 inch converter's line-level output can be hooked up to an amplifier or powered speakers, like my Emotiva Airmotiv 4s. Since the Explorer runs on your computer's USB bus power it doesn't have a wall wart or battery power supply. The Explorer comes with a USB cable and travel bag.

I listened to the Explorer with a few headphones, including my Sennheiser HD 580 and Hifiman HE-400 full size headphones, and Jerry Harvey JH13 Freqphase in-ear headphones. I first compared the Explorer with my $249 AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC/headphone amplifier, and felt the DragonFly's bass punch and power were superior, but the Explorer's soundstage was more spacious and three-dimensional with the JH13s. Listening to well-recorded acoustic music, like Doug MacLeod's "There's A Time" CD, the Explorer's sound was a little clearer and more natural than what I heard from the DragonFly.

The Explorer's connectivity, front (top) and back (bottom) Meridian

Moving on to the low-impedance (35-ohm) Hifiman HE-400 headphones, both DACs sounded wonderful, but the Explorer's gains were more apparent with the HE-400 than they were over the JH13. Listening to Amy Winehouse's "Live at the BBC" recordings over the high-impedance (300-ohm) Sennheiser HD 580, the results were similar to those of the Hifimans. The Explorer's sound was more transparent and refined in the midrange and treble than the DragonFly. Neither amp could play the two full-size headphones really loud, and that might be a concern for headbangers (both played loud enough for me). An AC-powered headphone amplifier like my $249 Schiit Asgard will play much louder, but it doesn't have a built-in DAC.

There were no volume limitations for the Explorer with my Airmotiv 4 self-powered speakers, I used the DAC's line-level out and handled the volume with the speakers' controls. The Explorer's more nuanced midrange was again the star attraction, sounding more transparent than the DragonFly. I'm not claiming big differences between the two DACs, but both offer very significant improvements in sound quality over the headphone output jack on my Mac Mini computer.

For my last comparison, I returned to the $399 Micromega MyDAC AC-powered desktop DAC, which I preferred over the Explorer and DragonFly. The sound was warmer, with no loss of detail and clarity. Ah, but since the Explorer and DragonFly are USB powered, you can use them on the go with laptops; the MyDAC needs AC power.