Pros: gets the timbre right, gets very close to dedicated component DAC quality, scales well with external USB power quality
Cons: not really suitable as headphone amp
I am mainly using the Meridian Explorer on the road, from laptop.
Setup is painless on Mac and Linux.
Note that on Linux, it is worth checking the gain settings in alsamixer (only once is enough):
- run 'alsamixer' from a terminal command line,
- list audio sources with F6,
- select Meridian Explorer, and
- set the clock selectors, depending on your system.
On my Lenovo X230 and X1 Carbon I use -3 dB on both clock selectors (skipping the red range).
It makes a considerable improvement over the headphone outputs when I am on the road (which is its main use case).
When used as a DAC, and compared to my CD player (with built-in R2R NOS DAC) and my Nuforce home cinema processor DAC, the Explorer comes very, very close, and the difference is probably in the analog output stage: a little less macro- and micro dynamic range, somewhat less very deep bass, and less deep sound stage with speakers. With headphones (007 Mk1) the sound stage is very close to the component DAC's.
I compared the Explorer with a bunch of portable DAC's (Fiio, HRT, Herus, etc), and I appreciated its more realistic timbre. There are DAC's that make somewhat better first impression, but the Explorer is more neutral and just sounds more right on the long run with acoustic instruments.
It scales very well with a better USB power supply. I tried a 10 Ah battery (EasyAcc) with a USB Y-cable on which I have cut the +5V line of the signal connector. Sounds cleaner and more dynamic (using with the 2A output). I considered the iFi iUSB or the AQVOX USB power supply, but at the moment I don't feel the need. The external battery is much more practical and already provides much of the improvements. My source material is 16/44.1 FLAC or Spotify hi-res streaming, i.e. already a compromise.
I assumed that with the external power supply I can use it with an iPad via camera connection kit, but after correctly recognizing the Explorer, it complains the DAC draws too much power, which is obviously a fake message, as there is no physical connection on the +5V line. So no luck running the Explorer from iPad. Edit: looks like it works from a powered USB hub.
I tried multiple headphones with it: the flight-king Bose QC15 (with its own amplification), Sennheiser HD598, Grado SR80, Fostex TH600 and TH900. It could drive all of these without too big compromises, but it is not designed to drive full size headphones. The best use is as a DAC, driving an external amp from the fixed output.
For the price this is a very well voiced and balanced product.