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Meridian Audio Explorer review

Kat Orphanides
7 Jul 2013
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
249
inc VAT

Expensive and feature-packed, this portable USB DAC sounds nothing short of brilliant

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If you're fed up with the mediocre sound quality and unstable drivers that commonly afflict motherboard-based audio systems then you need a good USB audio device, such as the Meridian Explorer.

Cambridgeshire-based Meridian, still managed by its founders, has a proven track record in digital audio. It created the first digital surround-sound processor as well as key parts of the Dolby TrueHD audio standard that’s intended for use on DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Meridian Audio Explorer

The UK-manufactured Meridian Explorer is one of the smallest dedicated USB audio devices we've reviewed and it’s also one of the most expensive. It measures just 15x110x30mm, and is a compact aluminium tube you can easily hold in one hand. It's slim enough to fit into even the tiniest laptop bag and comes with a soft protective sleeve. At one end is a mini USB port that connects the Explorer to your computer. At the other end are two 3.5mm audio outputs: a headphone port and a combined line and optical (mini-TOSlink) S/PDIF output. Audio is sent to both outputs simultaneously.

Unlike many USB audio devices, which use the drivers built into your operating system, you must download drivers from Meridian’s website to use the Explorer. A setup leaflet provides instructions. It doesn't give you a precise location for the driver, but it's easy enough to locate on Meridian's site. Mac and Linux users can simply plug it in and use it.

The Explorer uses an asynchronous USB connection, which means it uses a built-in clock to control the rate at which data is transferred instead of your PC's clock. This minimises the risk of glitches and other sound artefacts appearing in the audio. It contains a Texas Instruments Burr-Brown PCM5102 DAC as well as a variety of components derived from Meridian's 800 series customisable amp.

Meridian Audio Explorer

Should you use the Explorer’s S/PDIF output, bear in mind that S/PDIF supports a maximum sample rate of 96KHz, whereas the Explorer supports a 192KHz sample rate. Few people have such high resolution audio files, but if you do they'll be down sampled before being sent to the S/PDIF output. It’s also worth noting that it only supports stereo audio, so you won't be able to use it as a throughput for digital surround sound.

Meridian Audio Explorer

When used via its analogue outputs, the Explorer has a maximum 24-bit bit-depth and 192KHz sample rate. Three lights on the device denote the current sample rate. It sounds great if you use high resolution audio files, but audio above the 96KHz Blu-ray standard is still incredibly rare. Windows users will have to remember to configure the audio device's properties accordingly, as it defaults to DVD-quality 24-but/48KHz sound.

SOUND QUALITY

We tested the Explorer against our reference Kef X300A speaker set, which uses a Texas Instruments Burr Brown PCM1754 DAC. We also did comparative listening tests against Arcam's rPAC USB audio device, which uses similar hardware to the Explorer.

When listening to CD-quality audio, there's little to distinguish between the Arcam rPAC and the Meridian Explorer, but both devices sounded better than the Kef X300A speaker system, providing more precise and less boxed-in sound. This is particularly true of treble detail such as strings and cymbals.

The Meridian Explorer provides a brilliant sense of positional audio. A lively, precise bass makes the most of everything from squelchy synths to melodic picked bass or the vibrato of classical string sections. Both the line and headphone outputs have the kind of rich, balanced sound that we desire from computer audio.

Needless to say, sound quality still depends on the quality of your speakers or headphones. Our music sounded very good though our Best Buy winning SoundMagic e10 dynamic earphones, the sound card's output quality is good enough to make the most of premium equipment such as Shure's insanely expensive SE530 earphones or high-end speakers.

CONCLUSION

The Meridian Explorer is an unquestionably brilliant audio processor. It's got one of our favourite DAC chips and has more features than many of its rivals, but it's very expensive. The Arcam rPAC, which also uses the PCM5102, sounded virtually indistinguishable in our side-by-side tests and costs much less. However, it's a bit chunkier than the Explorer, lacks an S/PDIF output and has a lower maximum sample resolution. If you need those exra features and don't mind paying for them, the Meridian Explorer is easily one of the best external audio devices you can buy.

Details

Price£249
Rating*****

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