The Meridian Explorer takes the digital audio from your computer's USB port, puts the code through some very fancy electronics, and spits out an analog signal to to your headphones or stereo. Yes, your computer's sound card already has a built-in digital-to-audio converter that does this, but the Explorer is made by one of the most sophisticated manufacturers in the world. So in theory, it'll make your music sound so good you'll maybe almost forget the price tag.

What Is It?

Meridian Explorer USB DAC Review: Make Your Digital Music Sing

A $300 digital-to-analog converter that pulls audio from your computer via its USB port. Meridian claims the DAC's guts are made from the same high quality components as it's $$$$$$$ reference grade gear.

Who's it For?

A music nerd with a prodigious collection of lossless audio files. Or someone who already bought expensive headphones and wants to squeeze the most goodness out of them no matter the cost.

Design

The Explorer is a portable stick a little larger than a Bic lighter with a silver finish that exactly matches the color of a MacBook Pro. It's got a Mini USB input at one end, and two outputs on the other. Unlike other comparable products, there are no knobs or dials on the Explorer.

Using It

Meridian Explorer USB DAC Review: Make Your Digital Music Sing

Most people will probably use this as a desktop accessory for their headphones. The DAC is capable of processing up to 196kHz/24-bit audio files. That's a way higher resolution than CD-quality (44.1kHz/16-bit) files, to say nothing of the compressed 192 kbps MP3 files most people have on their computers.

In other words, this little guy's bandwidth is going to far exceed the potential of most of the files you've got. But even so, the Explorer makes everything from your huge lossless files to your Spotify streams sound richer and cleaner. The difference is is almost instantaneously noticeable.

The DAC's headphone output is powered by a 130mW amplifier. In this case, you control the volume with your computer's volume controls. The Explorer's other output is a combination analog line-out/digital output that's not powered because you're going to use an external amp for power instead.

The DAC is plug-and-play with Apple computers, but you'll need to install drivers on Windows machines.

The Best Part

Besides noticeably improving the sound of even compressed audio, the simple, portable design is beautiful and satisfying in a way that sometimes high-fidelity audio products aren't.

Tragic Flaw

It's going to be near impossible to convince people to spend this kind of money for this product no matter how good it is.

This Is Weird...

We're used to DAC/headphone amp combos that have their own level control knobs on board. Traditionally, audio geeks love nobs and switches and dials, but but we honestly didn't miss it at all.

Test Notes

  • Tested for a few weeks with my MacBook Pro with everything from 320 kbps compressed audio files to 176kHz/24bit lossless audio. We tested its impact on a few different sets of headphones and also tested the DAC with Joey Roth's super awesome Ceramic speaker system.
  • It's important to remember that the DAC is just one piece of the sound reproduction puzzle. If you start with crap audio, the improvement isn't as stark as it is with lossless files. Similarly, the DAC made a huge improvement when I used it with Roth's speakers and $1000 Sennheiser headphones. With a middle-of-the-road $200 cans the effect was often hard to perceive.

Should You Buy It?

This product is obviously targeted at people who've got space in their budgets for extravagance. If that's you, I highly recommend you buy this. The portable design and sound quality are both excellent. The rest of us can buy much cheaper products that aren't as pretty but will do the job just fine.

Meridian Explorer

• Price: $300
• Resolution: 192kHz/24-bit
• Power/Input: USB <500mAh
• Headphone output: 3.5mm, variable level
• Headphone amplifier: 130mW into 16Ω
• Line output: 3.5mm, fixed level at 2V RMS
• Digital output: Mini-TOSLINK
• Weight: 1.7 ounces
Gizrank: 3.5