Remember when your mobile phone was actually only a telephone? Can you still vaguely recollect life before texting, GPS location, and the never ending army of apps dictating your day to day events? Looking back it seems like a quaint memory that a person would carry around an iPod devoted exclusively to music through their bustling daily routines. However, the Digital Audio Player staged a comeback in the age of high-resolution audio, and Echobox Audio (based in Santa Barbara, California) is attempting to bring a new and fresh take to the paradigm. Echobox has proudly introduced a hip-flask styled portable DAP called the Explorer that is gently pressing against the ever-evolving market trends, which have prized combining devices over performance and functionality. With the Explorer, Echobox serves to remind a generation that values style and substance that exclusively dedicated mobile audio is still relevant in 2018, and worthy of finding a bit of extra space in your pockets and handbags. The Explorer isn’t in a rush to outpace competitors with a continuous rollout of new features and updates, but rather fashions itself as a steadfast carefully crafted and meticulously assembled device that has all needed features included for you to use for years to come. It is singularly focused on one mission: enhancing your listening experience (although looking good in the process isn’t far behind). Thankfully this direct and noble mission was not born in some corporate marketing focus group atop a 60-story ivory tower, but stems from the earnest passions of Director of Operations Sam McKinney and of the Echobox engineering team. Echobox’s founders are admitted audiophiles themselves, happy to approach music portability as steadfast allies of all things hi-fi.
The Echobox press videos start making their case for the Explorer with an admission of fact all of us audiophiles know to be true just by looking around us: for the majority of people on-the-go, audio quality is in a depressing spot these days and simply must be rescued. Although any new announcement of a handheld device isn’t exactly going to stop the presses these days, Echobox is committed to positioning their new Explorer device as the lifeline that could reset the mobile paradigm for a entire generation of new music lovers. Priced at $599 certainly the Explorer is not a given for every household, but is within reach if consumers agree on making quality a priority and deem the product worthy. So what exactly is the Explorer and what does it do?
The Echobox Explorer is a portable high-fidelity audio player geared for modern times with Wireless Connectivity, Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n), Bluetooth (4.0), DLNA, and set to run on open Android Marshmellow 6.0 software. By making the calculated choice to run the Explorer player software on Android’s platform, Echobox has created a true streaming device. Echobox is banking that its patrons are likely sick of Apple’s rigidity and micro-management of end use and deliberately makes it a point to offer users choices whenever possible. For starters, users can decide whether they will option to use a stock Android interface or an easy to use proprietary Interface designed by Echobox, creating a good first impression in terms of freedom of choice..
The attractively styled body of the Explorer is focused around a 3.5’’ LED touch screen surrounded by a block of milled solid hardwood. The hardwood comes in your welcomed choice of Mahogany, Maple, Ebony, and Zebra wood with a handsome laser etched Echobox logo. The hardwood is accented top and bottom with machined aluminum accents. It looks like a hipster’s hip-flask. and its dedicated volume knob cap is an outstandingly executed tactile feature that gives the feel of using a nice headphone amp by being able to micro adjust your playback levels to optimum levels. Thank goodness you won’t have to blow out your eardrums any longer by fat fingering a slide on a touchscreen! The volume knob is flanked by a 1/8’’ analogue headphone jack and also by an optical output. Outside the many offerings for user customisation, perhaps the biggest indication that Echobox is equipped for the times is a close alignment and support for Tidal streaming service. Currently Echobox has teamed up with Tidal to offer a three-month free subscription with purchase of the Explorer. Echobox is banking that this perk will send users willingly into a new long term relationship with a music service instead of the all too familiar shotgun wedding arrangement with iTunes that many potential buyers of the Explorer might still be trying to escape. The Echobox Explorer is designed to be fully compatible with most digital file formats, including WAV, AIFF, and FLAC. It comes with 64GB of internal memory, and has a MicroSD slot that allows you to upgrade to a total capacity of 192GB fully loaded. If you are into racking up points by decking out and showing off your work desktop you can add a very attractive docking station for an additional $50 that will match your choice of Explorer hardwood. It’s retro-futurist cool, without the need for horn-rimmed glasses!
The Explorer hardware recipe looks something like this: start with a powerful Texas Instruments 300Mw/channel amplifier capable of adequately driving a wide variety of in-ear and headphone models. No headphone amplifier needed, this audio flask has the power to get the job done, just bring your own ¼’’ adapter if needed. Next add a high powered Rockchip RK3128 Quad Core processor running at 1.3GHz and sporting 1GB of RAM. Garnish with a 4000mAH lithium rechargeable battery that can power the device easily for over a day of steady use without any issue. Sounds pretty good right? But before you place an order let us spend a minute talking about the main ingredient, the Explorer’s integrated DAC. Close to fifty percent of the circuit board inside the Explore is burnished with dedicated audio circuitry supporting the Texas Instruments Burr Brown PCM 1794 stereo DAC chip, a ‘highest performing’ chip delivering up to 24-bit, 192kHz resolution. DSD is supported, but are converted to PCM for playback. MQA support is not on the radar, however. Given the relatively pragmatic take on audio from the brand, and its intended audience of music lovers rather than out-and-out audiophiles, the need for MQA is perhaps a more complex issue than first imagined, as the formatt is attempting to encroach on a more mainstream audio market, but I suspect the market for good looking, great sounding DAPs will find their own niche, MQA or not.
In my auditions, I found the Explorer to deliver on Echobox’s bold sonic goals to produce an organic sounding playback reminiscent of a vinyl experience. In general I did find a laid back natural sound that was complemented by an openness of presentation that was wonderfully unexpected in a hand held device. Take Kurt Vile’s 2011 Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze[Matador] for example. Over a breezy set of tracks Mr. Vile sets up the melodic finale ‘Gold Tones’ that never fails to deliver you someplace special by way of hypnotic monotone vocals over an evolving interplay between traditional acoustic and slide guitars. The Explorer wrapped each of these crucial elements with a little sonic membrane of space and set a depth to the recording that would be hard not to describe as eye opening. The Explorer’s ability to construct the illusion of depth was tremendous and did offer a high fidelity listening experience that was solidly convincing. I did find myself missing some of the precise midrange detail offered by a good stationary piece of equipment like the underrated iFi-Audio Micro iDac-2, but the thrill of being able to enjoy a comparable and arguably better level of quality on the go left me with a positive impression of the Explorer’s value.
The Explorer suggests we might be misunderstanding the purpose of the Digital Audio Player. Many modern examples go for something like an ‘Ultra iPod’ approach, and while this might be a good plan, those outside of the headphonista circles may see this as being ‘Not An iPod’ rather than an intrinsically better iPhone. The styling of the Explorer changes all that. A wooden audio hip-flask is attractive for the terminally hip. Those who would never buy an iPod because it’s old news, or most DAPs because they’re iPod clones, will buy an Explorer. Better still, for $599 and a decent pair of headphones, the Echobox Explorer means you are going to be doing just fine no matter where you find your day taking you!
Type: Solid-state digital audio player with built-in storage and DAC
Storage: Internal 64GB for music data storage/data storage, plus option for additional micro SD card storage
DAC Resolution/Supported Digital Formats: FLAC/wav/AIFF/mp3, etc. Sampling rate for D/A conversion up to 192kHz/24-bit
Analogue Outputs: one 1/8’’ headphone jack
Frequency Response: Not specified
Distortion (THD + Noise): Not specified
User Interface: 3.5-inch display (on main unit), preconfigured with Echobox supplied application software
Manufacturer: Echobox Audio
Tel: (+1) 206- 228-0595
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