That shelf at Meridian Audio’s HQs displaying their hifi innovation awards must be a substantial one - they’ve come up with so many firsts since their formation back in 1977 that it’s worth mentioning just some of the ground-breaking ones: the first active (self-powered) speakers, the MCD audiophile-grade CD player, the world’s first digital surround sound processor…the list goes on and on. A quick glance at their website shows that they’ve continued pushing the creative envelopes, keeping up with the very latest trends in the A/V tech market. That includes DACs. The company has a solid history of good Digital To Analog Conversion tech, and even if you’re not after an enormous heavy-hitter, they still make pocket-friendly options, like the subject of this review - The Explorer2.
The cherry-picking moment of the unboxing experience is of course unwrapping the unit itself and having a closer look and feel. Pictures can often deceive regarding real size and proportions, so holding the Explorer2 in your hand proves that it’s small but not tiny - sort of like an oversized cigarette lighter (and with a similar oval/tubular shape).
The top of the matt aluminum body features the engraved words Meridian Explorer2 (in a darker metallic color) and three LED lights, which help indicate the quality of audio being player. Only one lights up for audio playback resolutions of 44.1 or 48kHz, two for 88.2 or 96kHz and all three for 176.4 or 192kHz.
Being one of the first portable USB DACs to support MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) files - a lossless file protocol ensuring mastering-grade audio but with a smaller footprint - the LED lights can also change color depending on whether a MQA file is being streamed through the DAC. They glow white when playing PCM (WAV, AIFF or lossy) files, green for MQA files and blue for MQA Studio file playback. The combination of color-coding and individual light-ups makes for an easy, at-a-glance way to judge audio quality.
Inputs and outputs can be found on the sides - a micro USB (B) port on one side for computer connection and two 1/8" (3.5mm) outputs on the other. Two outputs? That’s because both are stereo outs and analog only (no digital outs here).
The first is a headphone out, featuring a powerful analog headphone amp (0.13 watts) with sixty-four increments of volume adjustment (via your computer). The second mini-jack out is a Line Out - reserved for connections with A/V receivers/stereo amps/powered speakers and so on). The Explorer2 uses auto-sensing circuitry which deactivates the headphone preamp when the line-level output is in use, reducing potential crosstalk noise.
We like Meridian’s attention to the little details, like the insertion of a little plastic ‘plug’ in the line output just to prevent any confusion. Connecting a pair of cans into a high-powered line-level output may easily blow the headphones’ drivers. So keep that ‘plug’ in - at least until you need to use the DAC with amplification.
It’s a real shame that the Explorer2 isn’t designed for use with smartphones or tablets - a feature we would have liked to see. If you’re into smartphone audio, you may want to look elsewhere, like the tiny FiiO K1.
Having connected the DAC to a computer (via a regular USB port), the unit is ready to ‘take over’ all audio playback duties from your existing sound card. That said, it still needs your help in selecting/adjusting a few minor settings in your System Preferences (Mac) or Control Panel (Windows).
When used with a Mac (or Linux OS) the Explorer2 is recognised automatically. It just needs to be selected as the default audio output device from your System Preferences / Sound Settings (pic).
Unlike other DACs, the Explorer2’s headphone amp volume is controlled just like you tweak your volume normally. We like the fact that no specific audio app/drivers are needed for Mac. This also means that to dive into deeper settings (stuff like audio bitrate for instance), you should dig out your Mac’s Audio MIDI Setup, though the Explorer2 will of course automatically detect any playback audio resolution (up to 24-bit 192kHz) and light up accordingly (as explained above).
For gaming or music creation, users like tweaking additional audio settings such as I/O (input/output) buffer latency, and in the case of true plug ‘n’ play devices (as the Explorer2), where no specific audio drivers are needed, all this can be done directly from the internal audio settings of the program/player.
If you are feeling slightly puzzled by the term audio latency, this is the slight (annoying) delay that might occur between hitting a button or a key and hearing the sound...but much later. Measured in milliseconds or samples, this is usually either a slider/fader or a scroll-down menu. The lower the value, the faster (or closer to real time) the response. If you’re not using the Explorer2 for music production, you can ignore this, but as it pulls double duty, it’s worth bearing in mind.
Before connecting the Explorer2 to a Windows machine, however, it is necessary to download and install the latest (USB 2.0 class compliant up to 480MB/S) audio driver from Meridian’s support page. Meridian include step-by-step instructions with their driver downloads and it is not a bad idea to follow those even if you have done this sort of thing before. Once done, audio adjustments work just like normal - of course after selecting the Explorer2 as a default playback device from your PC’s Control Panel.
If you are new to the world of external DACs you are likely asking yourself the question ‘Will I hear any difference in audio quality?’ The short answer is: yes.
If your ears are used to the audio delivered out of the minijack of your Macbook, Windows laptop or even a smartphone, you’re in for a big wow. It might not be not as big as buying a pair of speakers costing four figures, but you will immediately notice it - your speakers/cans will suddenly sound better.
There’s an idea in audio that USB DACs are reserved only for audiophiles with hi-res audio libraries. So it’s a bit of a revelation listening to your regular lossy music files (formats such as AAC and MP3) and noticing how much wider and more spacious they sound through the Explorer2. That enlarged soundstage is the first striking difference.
The second (and we’re not straining our ears yet - these are just casual first impressions) is the extra clarity and detail noticeable in the mids and high frequency content. These audio frequency registers are crucial for any music genre as they ‘carry’ the human voices within a mix and more importantly the main transients (the strong hits at the start of sounds) of percussive elements and instruments in general.
The top frequencies are often described as ‘air’ by audio professionals, and in the case of this converter, which features the Texas Instruments PCM5102 chipset, the top end content is worth describing as such. It’s open and sweet, with minimal harshness.
All of the subjective characteristics explained above are of course a lot more pronounced with high resolution audio (192kHz files for instance) and whether you are streaming from Tidal or using bit-perfect high fidelity players like Foobar or Audirvana, the Explorer2 simply shines.
We were mightily impressed with the headphone amp - with any of the headphones used in the test: Audio-Technica ATH-M50, Sennheiser HD-25 II and a custom pair of Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors. We also cranked some audio through the Explorer2’s line-level output - going into a pair of Genelec 8030B reference-grade active studio monitors as well a pair of monstrous Mackie HD1531 three-way active PA speakers. Again - bags of top end clarity, mellow but tight mids and round, organic-sounding bass… All in all, very capable audiophile performance that will do justice to any high-fidelity material.
The contents are smartly wrapped and (aside from the DAC) you will find a printed manual booklet, containing simple but thorough instructions and spec figures. Also, as advised on the supplied warranty card, it would make a lot of sense to register your Explorer2 with Meridian, as this would grant you an extended five year warranty.
Aside from the short USB cable, there is also a velvet carry pouch - nothing really luxurious, but still perfectly designed to keep the DAC and the cable away from harm (e.g. the dreaded laptop bag mess). That’s it - after all, not much else is needed to get you (and your computer) acquainted with the Explorer2.
The Explorer2 comes in a fairly thin box - a bit like a box of chocolates, but in this case featuring a large picture of the DAC in question. The overall impression is one of a stylish, minimal and very twenty first century approach to presentation. It had an almost Japanese aesthetic to it, with the Explorer2 nestled in a black compartment, with the accessories underneath.
There’s nothing overly special about the packaging - it’s clean, competent, and gets the job done.
The Explorer2’s big party trick (at the time of its release at least) was the first-ever support of MQA files. There are quite a few more similarly priced DACs that promise to support MQA files and this makes things somewhat harder for Meridian - the USB DAC market is already a hugely competitive one.
Still, being a proper audio company with some serious history, Meridian include some of their seriously top end tech here. DAC. The Explorer2 features their trademark Resolution Enhancement ‘apodizing’ upsampling filters as well as custom designed low-jitter crystal oscillators - the latter completely removing jitter problems associated with USB audio.
A lot of attention to detail has been poured into this little guy and it is obvious that this isn’t some generic and cheaply produced unit (Meridian design and manufacture their stuff in the U.K.). This makes the Explorer2 a very competitively priced DAC that for sure deserves to be on your list if looking for a USB DAC around the $150-200 price bracket. Now if only Meridian decided to tweak the firmware and make the Explorer2 compatible with smartphones, that would be a thing of beauty.
- Excellent sound.
- Straightforward setup.
- Solid design.
- MQA support isn’t that big a deal these days.
- No smartphone/tablet functionality.
You should check out Schiit’s DACs - being a brand arguably as renowned as Meridian Audio they make some proper cutting edge spec gear. We particularly like their Fulla 2, which for around $100 is a stupendously good DAC.
It only manages 24/96kHz resolutions but features a large hardware volume knob, which many people really prefer. What really sets the Fulla2 apart is flexibility - it can act as a standalone preamp or just as DAC if you like, and it will work pretty much with anything, including smartphones. It has some proper DAC chips in its belly too - the mighty AKM AK4490. How do they manage all that for $99? Schiit’s answer is simply: “By making tons of them, selling direct, and not being greedy”. Read our full review here.
AudioQuest’s Dragonfly Red is one of Explorer2’s main competitors. We really dig the sound, and although AudioQuest are working on MQA file support, this is still not a live feature.
At the time of writing it is a tiny bit pricier ($198) than Meridian’s DAC although again only managing 96kHz (half of the Explorer2’s resolution). It can take a variety of adapters, allowing the DragonFly to be used with smartphones. We reviewed both of the above two alternatives in our recent roundup of the best DACs of this year, which you might want to check out for further options.
Finally we should mention the Explorer2’s bigger bro - The Director, featuring a ‘next level’ of serious audiophile audio quality (but for more cash - $379).
Based on audio performance alone, the Director DAC smokes most of its similarly priced competition out of the water. Apart from a truly stunning audio performance it accepts digital streams (Coaxial and Optical) as well. You’d go for this if you wanted something a little more heavy duty than the Explorer2, but wanted to stick to the same brand.
|Meridian Audio Explorer2||$199||Yes||Texas Instruments PCM5102||No||24-bit/192kHz|
|Schiit Fulla 2||$99||Yes||AKM AK4490||No||24-bit/192kHz|
|AudioQuest Dragonfly Red||$199||Yes||ESS 9010||No||24-bit/96kHz|
|Meridian Audio Director||$379||No||Unknown||No||24-bit/192kHz|