Meridian Explorer 2 DAC Review
Want to experience MQA without breaking the bank? Time to go Exploring
What is the Meridian Explorer 2?The Meridian Explorer 2 is a compact USB bus powered digital to analogue convertor (DAC). Unless you are awakening from a particularly impressive coma or have been working as a missionary in an especially internet free corner of the Earth, this is not a spec that will be remotely radical. Compact DACs of this nature have been a growth industry and the sector is currently boosted by the not unreasonable belief that, following the precedent set by Apple, the headphone socket is not long for this world meaning that models have been arriving – or been refreshed – in the hope of being well placed to cash in.
The Explorer 2 is a little bit different though. Firstly, like the Chord Mojo, it comes from a company that is better known for its contribution to the high end of the market. Meridian is another company with an impressive pedigree in the field of digital equipment and their DACs and CD players form a devastating partnership with the company’s other specialist area, active speakers, to form distinctive and extremely capable systems. The Explorer 2 comes from the same designers, is built in the same factory and benefits from the same ethos even at this very affordable price point.
The second is that the Explorer 2 is one of the small number of devices currently available that natively supports MQA. This would have been an interesting facet of the spec – something for a sort of ‘Top Trumps’ competition with your mates – but for the recent announcement of the Tidal Masters. Attach a rival product and Tidal will unpack the MQA signal. Attach an Explorer 2 and the Meridian will perform the process – and perform a second ‘unwrap’ of the data in question. Is this enough to give the Explorer 2 an edge over the competition?
SpecificationsThe Meridian is a momentarily exciting device to write about because unlike vast swathes of the competition, it isn’t yet another device to make use of the ESS Sabre DAC. Instead, the Explorer 2 is built around a 16 core XMOS DSP which combines decoding and filtering into a single unit – not unlike the FPGA arrangement of the Chord Mojo. This means that like the Chord, the Meridian is more about the software on the unit than the decoding hardware itself. As noted though, Meridian knows a thing or two about the business of digital to analogue decoding so the omens are pretty good.
This DSP enables the Explorer 2 to decode PCM at sampling rates up to 24/192kHz. To do this, the Explorer 2 makes use of a Windows driver to hit this higher sampling rate (Mac and Linux users can give themselves a quick pat on the back at their USB implementation not requiring one). This driver is on the Meridian website and covers all iterations of Windows back to XP for people with no understanding of malware. The Explorer 2 does without DSD support but this is par for the course with rivals under £200 as best as I can work out.
The other area where the DSP gives the Explorer 2 a technical advantage is in the filtering used. The company has spent many years concerning itself with our perception of digital sound and with particular focus on the way we perceive high frequencies. Some of the sense of fatigue that some users experience can be identified as being the result of pre-ringing which occurs from unwanted information making it through the filter. I will put my hand up and acknowledge that pre-ringing is something I find very undesirable and equipment that effectively deals with it generally sees me in a happier place than equipment that doesn’t. It is equally important to stress that Meridian does not have a monopoly on such filtering arrangements however.
The connections on the Explorer 2 are simple enough. Power and signal enters via a USB-B connection and exits via a pair of 3.5mm connections. One of these is a headphone connection that will adjust the volume via the controls on your laptop. The other is a fixed connection that can be used as an output to an amplifier or the like. Like the Audioquest Dragonfly, the Meridian has no volume of its own. This means that it will be dependent on the volume functions of the connected computer or the software you happen to be using. In practise, just like the Audioquest, this doesn’t prove hugely disadvantageous in use. The Explorer 2 also works perfectly happily via an OTG cable into an Android phone.
DesignFull size Meridian equipment might reasonably be described as a little on the monolithic side. While there are some compact items in the company’s range, the units that the company is famous for are big, imposing pieces of electronics and equally sizeable speakers. Given that the Explorer 2 is built in the UK and costs a fairly reasonable amount of money, you might assume that something has had to give in the process but the news is almost entirely good. This is not a piece of kit that feels like it has been hewn from a block of solid unobtanium but it nonetheless manages to convey something of the solidity and no nonsense ethos of the big units.
The Explorer 2 takes the form of a flattened metal cylinder that is slightly off oval when viewed from the end. The lower edge is flattened to ensure it sits on a table properly. It’s understated, elegant and easy to live with. It isn’t perfect though. The sheer compactness of the Audioquest Dragonfly models still gives them the edge in portability and their lack of requirement of needing a connecting cable is also very handy. Meridian have decided to fit the Explorer with a mini USB-B cable rather than the more common micro version, you get a cable with the device but it’s one extra cable to add to the inventory.
The other slightly confusing area is the sample rate indicator. The Explorer 2 is like most rivals in that it uses a light system to display incoming sample rates but it isn’t entirely straightforward. Where the Dragonfly units (and the Chord Mojo) use a different colour for each sample rate, the Explorer 2 has three lights that will light as the sample rate increases. One of these lights will also change colour but only to determine the presence of MQA. The result just isn’t as clear and ‘at a glance’ informative as some rivals.
On a wider level though, the Meridian is well built and well specified for the asking price. The fitment of MQA is obviously fairly unusual (at least at the time of writing) but 24/192 support and OTG functionality is obviously extremely useful and this being encased in a handsome and well finished casework is also helpful.
This is not a piece of kit that feels like it has been hewn from a block of solid unobtanium but it nonetheless manages to convey something of the solidity and no-nonsense ethos of the big units
How was the Explorer tested?The Meridian has been tested with a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad running jRiver on Windows 7 and a Motorola Moto G running Marshmallow acting as sources. It has then been tested with Noble Dulce Bass, RHA CL1 Ceramic and Aedle ODS 1 Earphones as well as the Bowers & Wilkins P9. An Audioquest DragonFly Red, Oppo HA-2SE and Chord Mojo have been used for comparison purposes. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF and a selection of MQA test files. Tidal (and Tidal masters) have been used with Spotify and Netflix.
Sound Quality with standard filesAlthough Meridian is completely correct to make a big play of the MQA support on the Explorer, the truth of the matter in February 2017 is that you are going to spend more time listening to non-MQA material than the limited selection of MQA content. As such, the Meridian needs to be judged on its real world capabilities first and foremost before we start looking at its USP. The good news is that setting the Explorer up is a cinch although my anti-virus briefly quarantined the driver which is a little unusual.
With the driver extracted from the clutches of the virus software and installed, the Explorer 2 gets down to business. What is immediately apparent is that some of the attributes that I have experienced with very serious Meridian systems indeed are replicated here in miniature. The presentation is fundamentally neutral – it isn’t the Meridian way to heavily alter the incoming signal – but compared to a number of rivals that are still accessible for testing, the Explorer 2 is tonally darker and slightly less ‘poppy’ in terms of its presentation.
Taken as a first impression, it would be possible to get the impression that the Meridian is less exciting than something like the similarly priced Dragonfly Red but this isn’t strictly accurate. Instead, the Meridian has a power and force to the way it makes music that is especially useful when there is any form of rhythm to be dealt with. It is possible that Meridian’s specific filtering process has a hand in this because, with equipment I’ve tested with similar treatment against pre ringing, the longer you listen the more you become aware that everything in the upper registers is there but there’s no over emphasis to any of it.
The 24/88.2kHz FLAC of Dead Can Dance’s Toward the Within is presented with a spaciousness and tonal realism that is really very impressive for a sensibly priced piece of equipment but what really sets the Explorer 2 apart is that sense of force and energy it brings to the music. Subjectivity is going to play a role here but this is the sort of presentation I enjoy and this is one of the most affordable ways I know of enjoying it. For many people, the slightly more vivid presentation of some rivals will be more suitable and of course this will further depend on partnering equipment.
There are some minor quibbles in this otherwise very positive showing. The Explorer 2 had a software update last year that boosted the available volume but it still comes off as a little less powerful than some rivals. With earphones, this should not be an issue but full size headphone users might find themselves running out of power. The other potential issue surrounds the construct of ‘fun.’ As noted, the Explorer 2 doesn’t add to the music and coupled with that slightly dark tonality, you can find it sounding less immediately engaging than some of the competition although for me at least, the trade-off is a very easy device to listen to long term.
Performance with MQAAs a result of testing the Pioneer XDP-100R and the Explorer 2, I have accrued a quantity of MQA files. These are all excellent sounding pieces of music… but ones that I have little or no real frame of reference to. Playing them via jRiver (which is a faff but doable thanks to someone cleverer than me doing the heavy lifting and working out how it works fairly well) they unquestionably sound excellent but they still sound really good when output as normal PCM into an (admittedly more expensive) Chord Mojo. At the moment, due in part to unfamiliarity, I can say that MQA downloads on the Explorer 2 sound very good indeed but I’ve no real point of reference.
Tidal is a more interesting situation though – not least because the playing field is partially levelled by non MQA compatible hardware receiving a high res signal. The Explorer 2 though can ‘unwrap’ the MQA file itself and furthermore, it can apparently perform a second unwrap of the material in question. The good news for the Meridian is that whatever it’s doing to the Masters on the site, it does have a definite advantage – even over pricier rivals. Listening to ZZ Top’s Deguello, the way that the Explorer handles I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide manages to be both more spacious and more natural at the same time. Vocals and guitars have more weight and a believable sense of placement that gives a much more impressive sense of the band themselves.
Across the selection of Masters, the Explorer 2 manages to sound better than rivals being given the unpacked high res material. There is some debate over exactly what the ‘second unpack’ is doing and there is undoubtedly a degree of expectation bias too but the Explorer 2 punches well above its weight. Interestingly, there are occasions where the differences between the Explorer and ‘normal’ DACs are sufficiently significant that it is hard to argue that something beyond the use of extra resolution is going on. The way that the Explorer 2 handles Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky is an order of magnitude better than the ‘normal’ high res version and it’s not easy to accept that this is a simple issue of unpacking the signal a little further.
Across the selection of Masters, the Explorer 2 manages to sound better than rivals being given the unpacked high res material
- Capable of exceptional performance with MQA and standard files
- Good value
- Easy to use
- Can lack headroom
- Not always the most exciting presentation
- Not much MQA content as yet
Meridian Explorer 2 DAC ReviewThe Meridian Explorer 2 offers some unique functionality at its asking price but before we delve into that, it is first necessary to ask whether it offers enough to be worth using outside of the currently narrow world of MQA. Having spent some time with it, I have to say that for me at least, the answer is ‘yes.’ The Meridian brings a presentation and character that is distinctive but very enjoyable and I have found it a very easy device to listen to for long periods. It is possible to argue that the Audioquest Dragonfly Red sounds a little livelier at times and is easier to use on the move but when I simply wanted to listen to music outside of evaluation I tended toward the Meridian. Compared to more expensive rivals like the Oppo HA-2SE and Chord Mojo, it has to give some ground but for the asking price this is a more than capable DAC.
If you are a premium subscriber to Tidal and this forms the bulk of your listening, the argument is different again. Put simply, the Explorer 2 is the best means of listening to the available Tidal Masters below £500 and when you combine this with the strong performance with normal files, you have a very enticing proposition. The final placement of MQA in the market is still to be decided but if it can be made to perform like this on affordable hardware, I’m coming around to the idea it is worth bringing into the mainstream. As both a real world product and technical showcase, the Explorer 2 works very well and comes highly recommended.
Ease of Use9
Value for Money9
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