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Meridian Director DAC

Meridian Director DAC

Meridian Audio is a complex brand. The firm is at once a high-end audio company, a luxury label, and a champion of new audio technology, so it has feet in many camps. Recently, though, Meridian Audio took what many see as a major sea change in extending the brand to new markets, starting with the Explorer, which is a small, clever USB-powered headphone amp. The Director is the next stage in the portable digital Meridian plan – this time, a small and clever USB-powered DAC.

The thing about making a high-end brand with the accent on luxury is you can’t let the side down. Making top-notch speakers, CD players, and streaming  devices will not save you if your starter products fail to live up to your established performance ideals. And it’s here where Meridian shows its mettle. This is every inch the luxury product, and that extends to the box it comes in. It’s easy to overlook this unbelievably important aspect of product design, and too many audio products at this level arrive in a Jiffy bag or in a bubble-wrap sleeve in a plain white box.

In Meridian’s case, a long matt black box with a similarly matt black sleeve with the Meridian name and logo in embossed silver lettering. And on the inside, it’s all black and red (auspicious colours for many parts of the world, conjuring up images of wealth and sophistication in others… and the inside of a tart’s boudoir for the cynics). The Director itself sits in its own grey foam bed inside this box, with a small container filled with USB power supply and USB cables next to this. The instructions for the Director hug the base of the box. If I appear to be banging on about trivia too much, it’s because this kind of thing should be a wake-up call to other audio brands; if you are making the Mercedes S-Class of audio, don’t present it in a box that most people wouldn’t use to store cat litter. Yes, it’s a surface thing and doesn’t add anything to the playing performance and yes, there will always be those who dismiss such things as being unnecessary expenses for the consumer, but we live in different times now, and good packaging makes a difference.


, Meridian Director DAC

Of course, the packaging is as nothing if what’s in the box doesn’t live up to expectations. The Director looks the part too. An elegant curved brushed black body makes it look like a case for very high-end glasses, rather than a bluff piece of audio equipment. The business end of things has a USB B input, a pair of gold-plated phono terminals and a combination mini-jack/optical S/PDIF input. As the Director takes its power from USB, if you plan to use the S/PDIF connection, you need to delve into the box and pull out the international USB power supply. This cannot be used as a booster power supply for the Director if using USB, but is necessary if there is no other source of power. The other end of the DAC is neat gloss-black plastic with a single central button for input selection, flanked by LEDs for source (‘SPDIF’ and ‘USB’) and sampling rate. This last needs some explaining; ‘1x’ relates to 44.1kHz or 48kHz, ‘2x’ denotes 88.2kHz and 96kHz and ‘4x’ means 176.4kHz or 192kHz. Meridian as a company is not big on the whole DSD thing. The one criticism I have of this range of display is that it defaults to upsampling 44.1kHz music to 48kHz, and there’s no way of telling from the front panel whether this has been overridden. This can be a problem with Apple as it tends to upsample by default (it’s a trivial fix, though; go to Audio MIDI Setup and change the output setting accordingly, or use software such as BitPerfect or Pure Music that will change sample rate automatically).

Beneath the elegant exterior, the Director is all business, Meridian style. It uses a XMOS L2 processor, both for USB control and to run the DSP that allows it to use the company’s Apodising filter as standard. It also automatically upsamples 44.1kHz files to 88.2kHz (and 48kHz to 96kHz). Despite the tiny form factor, the Director has a linear power supply for the analogue stages, which feature tiny, high-grade audio caps and oscillators as seen on Meridian’s 800 series products. The DAC is a Crystal CS4353.

People’s impressions of the Director seem split over its output, some citing a sound that lacks a bit of pep and pace. There’s a possible reason for this; although the chipset is designed for portable use, the analogue stage (and the linear supply feeding it) appear to require a consistent 5V USB power feed, and the difference can be quite marked when cared for appropriately. With some computers, this will not be an issue, but others may need some support. I fed the Director through an AQVOX regulated USB power supply and compared it to the output from my 2010-era MacBook Air workhorse and a more recent (but cheaper) Acer PC laptop. While the Acer/Meridian combination worked beautifully irrespective of the AQVOX the MacBook/Meridian combination definitely needed some help. The ‘before’ was nice, but relatively uninvolving, but the ‘after’ was pure Meridian: effortless, musically involving, sophisticated, detailed, and elegant.


, Meridian Director DAC

The drive to re-release every piece of music ever made on CD box set has served up some gems, but none so highly polished as the Roxy Music set. This was ideal fodder for the Director, yielding permafrost cool, refined music-making from the musicians, an outstanding re-mastering job at the digit stage, and the analogue conversion as slick as Bryan Ferry’s hair. As you might expect, it was best at coping with the beautifully recorded (if syrupy) Avalon end of the collection rather than the more odd eponymous first album, but the Director brought out the best in this outstanding box set.

There’s more than just refinement here, but it’s the refinement that sets it apart from its peers. A lot of DACs do detail and although the Director is a powerful detail hound, but it’s misleading to dismiss the Director as ‘just another detailed DAC’ and miss the main benefit of the Meridian. It sounds like a Meridian player, and that’s down to the refinement of the sound. That comes across when playing something like Brendel playing Beethoven Piano Sonatas; most good DACs can play the sound of the notes and the decay and the ambience, a few can make it impassioned and human, but the Director is rare in in that it gives the music the sort of gravitas it has (or should have) when performed live. This could be mistaken for a ‘mannered’ sound, especially as it’s hard to describe this musical factor without using words like ‘refined’ and ‘sophisticated’. Where the Director scores over its rivals is in its ability to sidestep the problem of making music sound too smooth or even warm, while instead giving music the kind of high-end sophistication (see? There’s that word again) that you don’t often get this side of £2,000. Much of that should be laid at the door of the apodising filter, because it has the same common elegance of sound that applies to Ayre and Meridian devices, albeit somewhat in microcosm. Of course, this requires good amplification and loudspeakers to help realise what the Director does for your music; otherwise it just sounds like yet another detailed DAC.

That all being said, I can see why people might prefer another kind of DAC in their system under some circumstances. The traditional ‘flat earth’ sounding system might find this does more with the spatial than the temporal; it makes a fine and expansive soundstage, but doesn’t have the emphasis on rhythm so enjoyed by the beat-orientated. There isn’t a judgment call to be had here, just different strokes for different folks.

OK, so this isn’t an Ayre, a dCS or Naim DAC. But it isn’t meant to be. What it is, though, is close (sometimes very close) to the sound of those fine products. The Director is meant to be a product that brings Meridian’s classic refinement and maturity to a USB audio world that could do with some of that additional maturity, and it achieves that objective with consummate ease. Ignore the price and focus on the performance, and it’s clear this is a true high-end product in every other respect. As a Directorial debut, Meridian should get an Oscar!


Technical Specifications

Inputs: 1 x USB2 B socket for computer playback (24-bit, ≤192kHz) 1 x 3.5mm socket offering S/PDIF coax (3.5mm mono connector, (24-bit, ≤192kHz) or S/PDIF Optical (3.5mm Mini-TOSLINK, 24-bit ≤96kHz)

Outputs: 1 x analogue stereo pair (gold- plated phono), 2v RMS fixed

Controls and indicators: 3 x Sample rate LEDs: 44.1/48, 88.2/96, 176.4/192 kHz sampling. 2 x Input selection LEDs. Input selected with input pushbutton: S/PDIF, USB. Optical/coax digital selected automatically.

Implementation: Asynchronous USB audio class compliant 2.0 HS 480Mb/s bandwidth.

Controls and indicators: 3 x Sample rate LEDs: 44.1/48, 88.2/96, 176.4/192 kHz sampling 2 x Input selection LEDs. Input selected with input pushbutton: S/PDIF, USB. Optical/coax digital selected automatically.

Firmware upgrade via USB.

Computer requirements: Macintosh OS X 10.6.4 (Snow Leopard) or later, Windows XP SP3, Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8. Windows drivers provided, no drivers required for Macintosh OS X or Linux.

Construction: Extruded Aluminium shell with moulded plastic endcaps and rubber foot.

Power: 5v <500mA DC via USB interface

Dimensions (WxDxH): 8×13.9×3.4cm

Weight: 0.25kg

Price: £449

Manufactured by: Meridian Audio Ltd

URL: www.meridian-audio.com

Tel: +44(0)1480 445678

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