Review: Meridian Explorer - the DAC device to get high-quality sound from your computer
The USB-powered digital-to-analog converter from technology pioneers Meridian offers a no-compromise solution to bad-quality laptop sound
Most of us listen to music via computers these days, whether by using headphones at work or by sticking your laptop's headphone socket through some speakers at home. Unfortunately, nobody – ever – chose a computer based on how good the built-in headphone socket sounds, so manufacturers generally don't bother using anything better than cheap parts that will do the job and no more. However, not all DACs (digital analogue convertor, the components and circuitry that turns the digital file into analogue signal) are equal. In fact, some are rubbish.
Recently, increasing numbers of people have been waking up to this fact and seeking something better, much as they did during the early stages of iPod fever, when even casual users quickly sought to upgrade the ubiquitous and rubbish-sounding little white buds it shipped with – a desire exemplified by the success of Beats, Skull Candy and Bose headphones. Daily commute dealt with, it's often easier for those who spend much of the day near a computer to listen via that rather than their phone – the added capacity allowing you to store more music at a higher quality and also use iPlayer, Spotify and other streaming services via a bigger user interface than that of your battery-drained phone. In another recent development, the quality of the source material has improved too – low quality 128kps MP3s and cruddy YouTube sound are becoming a thing of the past while Spotify premium streams at a healthy 320kps, the quality at which many self-confessed audiophiles begin struggling to discern any difference from the full fat CD rips.
Put simply, the situation re: your listening pleasure can be understood as an equilibrium between these three factors: the hardware (headphones/speakers) you listen on, the fidelity of the source material and your DAC. If one of these three is rubbish, there's little point in either of the other two being good. A poorly-encoded 128kps MP3 will still sound rubbish on great headphones – in fact you'll be able to discern with crystal clarity exactly how appalling it is. The fact that headphones and speakers are getting better and cheaper, paired with the increased use of higher bitrate files, is driving this new demand for better DACs, as the low quality ones are now lying exposed as the weak link in the chain, reducing any benefits of improving the other two. It's still early days but, much like the massive adoption of TV soundbars to replace the tiny speakers on your TV that make a mockery of Hans Zimmer's work, at the very least people are becoming aware that DACs are a thing that can sound bad – and something that can be improved.
Several products now allow that audio conversion to be outsourced from your cheapo laptop to a breakout box sitting between the computer and the headphones. The Meridian Explorer is more interesting than most because it comes from a company whose technology is the holy grail of audio kit. Digital audio pioneers who paved the way for everyone else, the Explorer is a more affordable way to access the technology contained in the insane £20,000+ speakers Meridian are known for. Like NASA manufacturing a breadmaker, the Explorer is captures the essence of decades of world-class research and development in a test tube (which, appropriately enough, is what the Explorer resembles).
Easily installed, the Explorer takes power and data via USB from your computer at one end, and has two separate 3.5mm headphone and speaker outputs on the other. It doesn't really need to get any more complicated than that. So, does it make a difference? Before we get onto that, I should point out here that I don't really have a lot of time for OTT high-end audiophile culture. Most of the music I've fallen in love with has been heard on gear nothing short of average. I have a lot of time for the view that if the music is good, it'll work anywhere. That said, I am that guy who will tweak the settings in your car stereo, or move your speakers to optimise the stereo image from the listening position. The huge amount of time I spend listening to music for work purposes, at home and in between means that any improvement made to that experience is going to deliver a lot of value.
For me, the improvements to the listening experience the Explorer offers are less about hearing things you hadn't previously, more about hearing them differently. High frequency elements of sounds such as cymbals and strings are more apparent, but without any of the harshness that can result in fatigue after long periods of listening. You can hear reverb tails on drums that weren't audible on my office computer's standard issue soundcard. On speakers, the increased impact and clarity of bass is even more apparent. I didn't think it was possible to enjoy the production of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories any more that I already did, or further rate John Densmore's contribution to the sound The Doors, or listen to The War on Drugs album any more this year. As unspecific and unhelpful as it is to use such a term, things just sound better – equal to or better than the great-sounding Apogee Duet which I use for home recording. All my listening was done from either CD-quality 16-bit WAV files, or 320kps Spotify streams, but the Explorer supports files up to 24-bit bit-depth and 192KHz sample rate, the increasing availability of which from Warp.net, Studio Masters and Linn Records means these could soon play a part in your life if you want them to.
At around £250, whether it's expensive ultimately depends on what you're upgrading from, what you're doing with it and how much you value the listening experience. Certainly, if you don't already have half-decent speakers or headphones of similar quality, there's little the Explorer can do for you. (Although if this is the case, and you love music, something like a pair of Beyer Dynamic DT250 headphones may the best £130 you will ever spend – trust me.) If you already have the hardware, you could combine the Explorer with something like a £200 Chromebook (running Linux) or a Windows laptop and have an unrivalled digital streaming system for under £500 – and one you can take to work with you. Similarly, you could use it with an old laptop to give it a new lease of life.
If you do most of your music listening on the move, you're probably using your phone or an MP3 player for this – devices the Explorer won't work with, and ones where the audio quality (of some phone models at least) is also improving. The audio from the Samsung S4 I currently have is in a different league from the pitiful wibble that emanated from my old HTC Desire. However, if you're frequently near a computer, if music plays a big part in your life, and if you think enriching the listening experience by spending a sum less than you spent on that tent you use twice a year is worthwhile, then the Explorer is the no-compromise solution you're after.