In many respects, this review of the Meridian Explorer 2 is more a review of the concept of MQA than a review of the device itself. And in a way, the review and the discussion of both DAC and format should be played in the manner MQA will be rolled out – completely free from translations from Modern Geek.
As the name suggests, the Explorer 2 builds upon the strengths of the original Explorer, Meridian’s first small USB-powered DAC, designed for headphone use on the move (hence the name). Aside from a little ‘2’ in the name, it looks and feels identical to its predecessor, although in the intervening three years since the Explorer’s first ventures into audio’s ‘beyond’ it’s grown a useful little clear plastic plug in the line-out socket (to prevent people accidentally confusing it with the headphone socket), and its launch price is more aggressive (it’s £199 instead of the £249 launch price of the original). A short USB-miniUSB cable, a travel pouch, and an instruction sheet are also supplied in the Blu-ray case sized presentation box. The only other point of change is Meridian changed the glue on its ‘factory sealed’ stickers, making the label bonded to the presentation case.
The big change to the Explorer 2 is it is now MQA compatible, the first MQA-chummy DAC released into the wild in fact. Short for Master Quality Authenticated, MQA is a music format designed by Meridan’s Bob Stuart and his long-time collaborator Peter Craven of Algol Applications to achieve a number of important goals for the music lover and the music business alike. The three words behind the acronym go some way to explain ‘what’ MQA does, but not ‘how’.
Rather than a conventional lossy or lossless compression system, which acts on slimming down a PCM file, MQA effectively starts with a clean sheet and reimagines sampling and quantisation. It works by recognising that Linear PCM’s egalitarian method of sampling is intrinsically inefficient and if you exploit that inefficiency by ‘folding’ high-frequency components of music back into the baseband, you get high quality files with manageable file sizes. This is a little like describing someone with a double doctorate in rocket engineering and plasma physics as ‘that fireworks guy’.
MQA creates a suite of ‘back office’ technologies that allows one of two grades of authentication: ‘MQA’ (for archival material) and ‘MQA Studio’ for material direct from artist to listener. It also factors backwards compatibility, in that a MQA encoded file can be played on existing decoders as a PCM-based file, just without the benefits of MQA.
The reason why this is important is fairly obvious. CD is in decline, and what will replace it in the wider public domain isn’t necessarily an improvement. Audiophiles will happily spend an hour downloading a 24/192 album (or an evening doing the same in DSD) to get that ultimate listening experience, but most people won’t do that now. We live in the ‘granny flat’ of an otherwise instant access world: you can listen to a hitherto unknown piece of music, find all the details about that music in a few seconds through Shazam, and have the whole album lined up as a stream from Spotify or Deezer, or downloaded to your iTunes or Google Play Music folder – all before the track comes to an end. That’s the current expectation of how fast music needs to reach the end user, and if ‘quality’ takes longer, then quality simply doesn’t get a look in and ‘convenience’ wins out. MQA is a way of end users potentially having their cake, and eating it; you can get file sizes small enough to be streamed or downloaded fast, but you also get at least CD quality, and often far better. And the Meridian Explorer 2 lives up to the name because it is the first to plant its flag in MQA territory.
The Explorer 2 is an extremely capable headphone amp and DAC in its own right even without MQA. It’s been some time since I heard the original Explorer, but I’d say this is a fairly significant improvement over the original, especially in terms of driving less than efficient headphones well. It goes loud easily with little break-up, too. OK, so it’s no Mojo and it won’t put desktop devices to shame, but for £199 it’s one of the best in its price, and outperforms the (admittedly cheaper) AudioQuest DragonFly.
But it’s as a vehicle for MQA that it is most interesting. Checking out MQA isn’t that easy at the moment, although 2L and the Onkyo Music site (run by 7digital) are the exceptions; but MQA-encoded music on such sites is still relatively thin on the ground. That will probably change, change fast, and change soon: my guess is by the middle of the year, MQA will be available from considerably more download and streaming services. When that happens, a listener is strongly recommended to use one of the better classes of music software for the computer you use – I used Audirvana Plus on the Mac, and Foobar 2000 is suggested for PC users. As the Explorer before it, the on-board analogue volume is controlled from the master volume on the host computer, rather than a dial on the Explorer 2.
Naturally, this limits the selection of music fairly significantly, but the selection I received was a good enough selection to assess the quality in absolute terms (I’d prefer more dark metal and grime, but classical, jazz, and folk is a good second). Ravel’s ‘String Quartet in F major’, from the Guarneri String Quartet [Surroundedby Entertainment] is a perfect example of ‘standard’ MQA, a rich and harmonic flowing of musical themes, while the Kim André Arnesen’s Magnificat, played in the Nidaros Cathedral [2L, MQA Studio] is temporally exact and exciting. Meanwhile, Amy Duncan’s ‘My Silver Net’ [Undercurrents, Filly Records, MQA Studio through the aforementioned Onkyo Music store] is an interesting comparison between MQA and 24bit/44.1kHz FLAC on the same file.
OK, so let’s be honest about all this. If you have a collection of well-manicured, high-performance, high-resolution PCM and DSD files, you are probably going to hear little or no difference bringing MQA to the party. I’d still argue that there is something uniquely ‘right’ in the time domain of MQA files that doesn’t ring as true with PCM and DSD, and in that respect MQA is more like an analogue master tape in performance. But, if you are already well-dunked in the whole hi-res thing, MQA is probably not a high priority right now, and its salient point is the ‘Authentication’ part, guaranteeing the provenance of the music: this is no bad thing, though, as tales of up-rezzed CD files, and mediocre Playstation-ripped DSD tracks abound. At least MQA means you know where the file came from, even if tracks like ‘Dark Dance’ from the Tomonao Hara Quartet’s Color As It Is [Gaumy Jam Records] isn’t the kind of stuff I’d might want to authenticate!
However, if you are coming to this audiophile thing after years of MP3 and iTunes, MQA is little short of magic. It sounds like the real thing, and might just make your MP3 files sound as if they are being played underwater! The temporal precision that seems to run through MQA is all the more significant in comparison to lossy files, because this seems to be the first thing stripped away. You know on some atavistic level that you are listening to something closer to the real deal.
I want this to succeed, and it needs more widespread support. Hopefully, that’s coming. After the initial flurry of activity surrounding MQA at the tail end of 2014, things went a little quiet. In part, this came down to one of the biggest proponents of the concept in the music biz – Tidal – went through its well-publicised ‘Gang of 16’ ownership, some serious staff reshuffles (including three CEOs in a year), and the intense scrutiny and criticism that ensued.
But now, the infrastructure is lined up and ready to fly; CES 2016 saw record labels and music provider services, and a broad spectrum of hardware manufacturers, hitch their brands to the MQA wagon. The next 12-18 months will either ensure MQA’s success, or begin to cast it into the pit of forgotten acronyms.
Only time will tell for MQA, but regardless the Meridian Explorer 2 comes highly recommended as a great value DAC even without MQA. However, when MQA files start to become more freely available, you’ll start to crave that little light!
- Input: Asynchronous Class 2 USB mini type B (power and data)
- Outputs: 3.5mm mini jack line out, 2V fixed, 3.5mm mini jack headphone out, impedance 0.47Ω
- Indicators: Three white LEDs to show sample rate (1×, 2×, 4×), show connected state and audio stream rate, plus green LED for MQA, and blue LED for MQA Studio
- Power: nominal 5V at < 500mA
- Processor: Dual tile 1000MIPS XMOS DSP with 16 cores
- Drivers: provided for Windows, not required for Mac OS or Linux
- Dimensions (W×H×D): 102 × 32 × 18mm
- Weight: 50g
- Price: £199
Manufactured by: Meridian Audio Ltd
Tel: +44(0)1480 445678