Digital media is a wonderful thing, but it has limitations, including sound. Enter the $299 Merdian Explorer USB DAC.
The main purpose of a DAC (digital to analog converter) is to convert the input of any digital source (such as your Mac) to an analog signal that can be fed into an amplifier or active loudspeakers. A DAC device also works with headphones and designated computer speakers. The result is an efficient external amp and elimination of any computer noise.
About the size of a USB stick, the Meridian Explorer replaces -- or, rather, overrides -- your computer’s sound card. It sports a headphone amplifier with on-board analogue volume control. All this to say: it makes the audio output on your Mac sound better in every instance.
How? Audiophile music-grade electrolytic capacitors decouple the analogue audio stages, enhancing the sound quality. A big proportion of the 6-layer circuit board in the Meridian Explorer is given over to analogue, not digital, circuitry.
Most DACs simply alter the digital signal going into them, so the quieter you listen, the lower the quality. However, the Explorer uses an analogue volume control, driven from the operating system, so you always get the advantage of the full digital resolution. The Explorer has extended digital bandwidth, playing audio up to 192kHz sampling.
The DAC is an asynchronous USB design. This means that the Explorer, instead of the internal clock DAC of your computer, controls the timing of the data transfer. The result is fewer digital timing errors (jitter), leading to a better sound.
The Explorer comes with a short USB cable instead of plugging straight into the computer like a dongle as some devices do. The downside is that it takes up a little extra desktop real estate. The advantage is that there's no danger of damaging your Mac if you accidentally walk off with your headphones on and attached to the Explorer.
You can plug the Meridian DAC anywhere in your system -- for example, into a USB hub. It doesn't have to be connected directly to your Mac. It's a Class 2 audio device and is powered entirely from the interface, so there's, thankfully, no additional power supply required.
As well as a headphone port, the DAC includes analog and S/PDIF digital optical outputs. This means you can connect Explorer to your home audio system and enjoy the best replay quality from your Mac (any Apple computer running Mac OS X 10.6.4 or higher). It provides a fixed-level output so you can use your system’s volume control.
The Explorer also boosts the audio from a set of active computer speakers, but it's with a dedicated audio system that it really shines.
Compared with using the headphone output on a MacBook Pro, for instance, the Explorer provides a wonderful boost to the sound quality -- if you're using a decent set of headphone. I used the SteelSeries Flux heads..
The Explorer comes packaged in a classy, slender black box. Inside there's a user guide, a short mini USB-to-USB cable, and a soft carrying pouch. It has an elegant, slim aluminum design and is small enough to stash in a pocket or bag.
The analogue option allows you to take a line level out to a stereo amplifier, while you can use the digital optical output (limited to 96kHz) for additional signal processing or for recording with minimal jitter. Using the Meridian Explorer is easy. Mac users can just plug and play. There are no volume buttons or dials on the device itself. You'll use the computer's volume controls when using the Explorer.
When the device is connected, look into your Mac's audio settings (in the Systems Preferences app) and select the Meridian Explorer DAC as the audio output. Then you're ready to crank up your tunes or fire up a movie.
The folks at Meridian suggest three steps to take full advantage of the DAC and your Mac's audio.
- Use your internal audio for system sounds. Your computer makes various beeps and other sounds during operation. These are mixed in to the main audio signal, reducing its quality. In your Sound preferences, either turn system sounds off or route them to a different output, such as your internal computer loudspeakers.
- Use your computer’s “Exclusive Mode," which bypasses the operating system’s audio processing, and connects your media player direct to the Explorer. Look for it in your player’s Preferences (you may have to adjust system audio preferences too).
- Use a player that provides the highest quality On the Mac that involves BitPerfect, a small app that runs alongside iTunes and provides capabilities to improve its playback of audio files. You can get it from the Mac App Store for $9.99.
I've test driven (or test listened, rather) the Explorer on both a a 27-inch iMac and a MacBook connected to a Sony home stereo system and the headphones and speakers previously mentioned while playing a variety of music (rock, country and classical) and movies. Though the DAC isn't cheap at 300 bucks, it's a must-have for audiophiles who own laptops, a great accessory for computer users who connect their systems to home stereos, and a wonderful audio-enhancing tool for improving the quality of computer speakers.