What is the Meridian Explorer 2?
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
How was the Explorer tested?
Sound Quality with standard files
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.
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 MQA
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.
- 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 Review
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 Use
Value for Money
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