Meridian Audio’s Explorer

Desktop audio and portable audio have been two of the fastest growing segments in the audio world for the past few years.

For every twentysomething who’s bought a turntable recently, 100 have bought a pair of headphones.  While outboard USB DACs have been gaining popularity, there really haven’t been any that handle 24-bit/192-kHz files with gusto—and with more and more online vendors offering these higher-resolution files, a quality outboard USB DAC is a must.

Bob Stuart, the man behind Meridian, was demonstrating the Explorer at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January to a limited audience, and it was obvious that this is a pet project of his. Of course, the sound is fantastic, but the big surprise is the price: This portable Meridian 24/192 DAC (and headphone amplifier) is just $299.

“Now you can have the Meridian experience everywhere you go,” says Stuart with a wily grin, “from your Range Rover equipped with Meridian sound, to your home with one of our systems, to wherever your laptop takes you.”

Beauty on the Inside and the Outside

Made at the Meridian factory in Cambridge, England, the Explorer is a marvel of miniaturization and a shining example of design elegance, from its clean circuit-board layout to its machined-aluminum outer shell.  By not following the USB-stick form factor, Meridian eliminates problems that could result from repeatedly plugging and unplugging said item from your laptop and the resulting damage—a clever move.

“We are trying to avoid the twisting of the USB socket in the computer that headphones plugged into a USB stick risks,” adds Stuart.  “Also, having a USB cable, short or long, gives flexibility on the desk.  A longer USB cable allows the audio to happen nearer the point of use.”

Three pale-white LED lights alert you to the Explorer’s sampling rate:  One indicates standard 16/44.1 files, one indicates 24/88 or 24/96 files and the third lights up when taking advantage of the highest resolution 24/176 or 24/192 files.

Jumping in Headfirst

Heading straight for the files I couldn’t play with any of my other portable DACs, I go first for Neil Young’s Harvest in 24/192, which quickly tells me almost everything I need to know about this jewel.  The piano intro from “A Man Needs a Maid” floats gently between my ears through the Audeze LCD3 phones.  This $2,000 pair of headphones truly reveals just what the Explorer can do.  Equally breathtaking results are achieved with Grado SR500, Sennheiser HD 650 and HiFiMan HE-400 phones, proving that the Explorer is equally competent as a headphone amplifier.

The 24/96 version of “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” (from Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall 1971) lays bare the fine tonal gradation the Explorer is capable of.  It paints an accurate picture of this famous hall’s sonic signature as much during the track as at the end, when the applause comes up—the depth is incredible.  This no longer feels like budget digital; the Explorer is a serious contender.

Start Your Digital Journey Here

Those looking for a great portable DAC and headphone amplifier in a sleek, stylish case will love the Explorer’s performance, but using it as the digital hub in a home-playback environment is equally impressive.  Combining the Explorer with a laptop or desktop and feeding its 2V fixed line-level output to your amplifier is an audibly rich experience.  But don’t plug your headphones (or a power amplifier) into this output, as there is no volume control!

Though I still treasure my vinyl, there’s just no way you can achieve anywhere near this level of sound quality with a budget turntable or with discs purchased from your local audiojumble—forget it.  Get your hands on an Explorer, load up some high-res files and mothball the budget turntable.  This is miles ahead in every way.

Even those loving high-resolution digital audio on a major system now need not be without a fix for great sound—you can take the Explorer anywhere.  Thanks to being self-powered by your computer’s USB port, you never need to worry about losing (or having the wrong) wall wart to power it.  The only thing that could make the Explorer more intriguing is if M fitted one with a laser.  Who knows, maybe we’ll see the Explorer in the next Bond movie—it’s certainly that cool.

Plugging the Explorer into a more traditional system (via the line-level output) consisting of the Burmester 011 preamplifier, 911 power amplifier and a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1s, the Meridian DAC still holds its own.
Switching the program from rock to some classical, jazz and primarily acoustic titles underscores the level of sophistication available here for 300 bucks.  The Explorer is un-digital to the extent you’d expect from a serious four-figure DAC.  Whether listening to Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” (from the Maiden Voyage album) or Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, the sound now possesses a sophistication that bridges the resolution gap at such a high level that you can forget about the equipment.  The attack of stringed instruments, as well as decay and sustain, are all highly convincing through the Explorer.

Excellent, Regardless of Sampling Rate

Don’t think that you need high-res files to enjoy the Explorer:  CD resolution files (16/44.1) are equally marvelous.  Bass is tight and snappy, while the upper registers come through with an unmistakable cleanliness and lack of grain.  No doubt, the lack of a small, switching power supply (that accompanies many budget, sub-$1,000 DACs) helps here.

Revisiting the Beatles mono remasters, with “Good Day Sunshine” from Revolver, is a treat.  The big, weighty vocal textures, which are lovelier in mono, have so much texture and depth through the Explorer that you’ll mistake them for stereo, provided you have a highly resolving system.  A number of my audiophile friends were fooled into thinking I was using a much more expensive DAC than the Explorer.

The Crash Test Dummies’ “Just Chillin’,” from the band’s Give Yourself a Hand disc, is a torture test for budget players, thanks to the song’s layered vocal tracks and myriad synthesizer and sound effects.  A mediocre DAC flattens this to the point of sounding like XM radio, but yet again the Explorer recreates a wonderful, three-dimensional soundstage, with overblown guitars feeling larger than life and lead vocalist Ellen Reid’s voice sounding equally haunting.

Pushing the Envelope

Most of you will buy the Explorer, plug it in to your computer and enjoy it.  The enthusiast fringe can do two things to extract more performance from the Explorer:  Get the Pure Music software and get a higher-quality USB cable.

I can’t suggest highly enough that Macintosh users that don’t already have it should download the free 15-day demo of Pure Music (the full version is $129) and investigate the multiple playback options available.  Remember, this is geek extra credit.  Playing tracks directly from the memory of your computer bumps the believability index even higher, peeling one more layer of grain from the overall presentation.  And while the debate over whether or not upgrading to a higher-quality USB cable truly improves digital playback, we’ll stick our collective necks out and vote for this inexpensive upgrade.  The $99 Wireworld Starlight USB cable added as much palpability to the midrange presentation of the Explorer as did switching from iTunes to Pure Music.

Revisiting the Neil Young tracks from the beginning of the review, quickly swapping the cable in and out of the system, proved convincing to everyone taking the time to listen—from experienced audiophiles (perhaps the most skeptical audience of all) to uninitiated music lovers.  One thing they all agreed on was the amazing experience that the Explorer provides.  Meridian Audio couldn’t have picked a more appropriate name for this amazing little device:  Regardless of where you are in your digital audio journey, the Meridian Explorer will serve you well.

Progress in the world of computer audio is advancing briskly, but for the moment, Meridian is at the top of the heap.  The Explorer offers the most versatility, reveals more music than its competitors and possesses the most stunning industrial design—a more-than worthy recipient of one of our Exceptional Value Award for 2013.  It’s an exciting time to be a music lover.

The Meridian Audio Explorer

MSRP: $299

Ferrari P200 Phones by Logic 3

Mike (HiFiGuy) is back with the latest from Logic 3 and their line of Ferrari branded headphones.

The P200 you see here is part of the “Scuderia Ferrari Collection” and is said to be inspired by the the headphones worn by the Ferrari pit crew.  A quick peek at last years Formula 1 racing series confirms that these look remarkably similar to the ones the guys in the crew wear.

Here is a link to Mike’s initial inspection of these phones. Watch for a full review shortly.

The Sennheiser 424

Remember these?

Maybe you bought a pair of Sennheiser 424s because they were a cool color, or because you liked the light, open, airy feel that they brought to the table, but either way there’s no denying that these phones’ brought about a change from the heavy cans we listened to up until then.

This pair looks pretty sad, but the headpiece is in good shape. Fortunately spare yellow cushions are still available through the factory, and the transducers are floating around as well.  So, we’re going to rebuild these dumpster dogs and maybe even get the guys at ALO Audio to build us an updated pair of cables.  Stay tuned!

Sonus faber’s Livio Cucuzza

Livio Cucuzza is no stranger to the world of high end audio.

You probably know him for his recent work with Sonus faber: the recent Amati Futura, Guarneri Evolution, the spectacular Aida and the new entry level Venere line.  His influence even extends to the soon to be released Wadia Intuition 01.

But you might not be aware of his work prior to Sonus faber. Working with other Italian companies led me to his commentary when working at Emme speakers.  Further research reveals Cucuzza as the design visionary behind many other companies as well – not all are done in house as you might suspect!

Read the rest of the article and the full interview here at Mono & Stereo...

Photo and text courtesy of Mono & Stereo.

Coffman Labs G1-A Preamplifier

With the renaissance that vacuum tubes have been undergoing for the last decade or so, it’s more challenging than ever to create a tube preamp that stands out from the pack.

So when engineer, musician, physicist and Portland local Damon Coffman told me he designed a new preamp that’s “amazing,” I was a bit skeptical.  But when I saw Coffman’s creation, the G-1A, upon a recent trip to local gear shop Echo Audio, it was like catnip.  The unique casework caught my eye instantly, where fledgling manufacturers usually fall short—think steampunk meets art deco, fused with some mid-century modern.  The shop’s wry owner, Kurt Doslu, who is usually the one curbing my enthusiasm, showed me the nifty little preamp.

“Kurt, what’s this?” I asked. “Oh, it’s this new preamp that we’re going to be distributing,” he replied. “It’s pretty good, want to take it home and give it a listen?”  And so the adventure began.

The G-1A has an MSRP of $5,495 and, at present, is only available through Echo Audio in Portland.  There will be a total production run of just 500 units and the first 25 have already been pre-sold—impressive for a new product.

A two-box design, with an outboard, tube-rectified power supply, the G-1A is a full-function preamplifier.  It has a phonostage, with moving-coil (via step up transformer) and moving-magnet inputs and a headphone amplifier built in, which is a lot of capability for that price point.  The G-1A features a single-ended design throughout, with premium RCA connectors for the four high-level inputs and two phono inputs, along with two fixed high-level outputs and a tape out, which makes life easier for this tape enthusiast.

Circuit Basics

The G-1A uses six vacuum tubes in the main circuit: two 12AX7s, two 12AU7s and two 5687s, with a 5AR4 in the rectifier position.  The preamp  ships with standard-issue, current-day production tubes, leaving things wide open for tube rolling—but the G-1A was so enjoyable as delivered, I’ll leave tube rolling for a future blog post.

Coffman says that much of the impetus for the design of the G-1A came from revisiting classic tube designs from the 1920s, when “the original concepts in tube audio” were born.  As a result, his preamplifier is a masterpiece of simplicity, even down to the number of screws holding its case together.  Inside, we see a mix of new and classic parts.  Coffman sourced a number of oil and paper capacitors (“NOS KGB items”) and an input selector switch from the aerospace industry.  He also went so far as to hand-select and measure every single component for sound quality and durability.  Yet, even with this bespoke approach, Coffman’s training in the medical-instrumentation field drove him to streamline the manufacturing approach to assure consistency from unit to unit.

A concert violinist with a master’s degree in physics, Coffman made his mark in the medical electronics industry by producing digital stethoscopes.  A hi-fi guy since his early teens, he admits that building this preamplifier was, in many ways, even tougher than building his stethoscopes.  And most importantly, Coffman is a music guy through and through; his wife, daughter and parents are also musicians. So he is constantly asking himself if the sound is natural.  With the G-1A, a result of two years and countless prototypes, Coffman has finally answered that burning question in the affirmative.

Stunning Musicality

Wanda Jackson’s 2011 release The Party Ain’t Over is a dense recording and, as the first album on my long listening list, established that the G-1A has a timbral clarity that is unmistakable.  The upright bass at the beginning of “Rum and Coca Cola” has a loose, resonant, almost unturned quality such that you can actually hear the bass rattle—and the G-1A brings all this detail front and center, capturing every bit of texture available.

Zooming through some audiophile standards proves equally rewarding.  Listening to the Doors and the Grateful Dead in 24/96 was a spectacular experience with this preamp.  The soundstage that the G-1A presents is enveloping, dishing up the magic you usually have to spend five figures to achieve.  This preamplifier produces a stereo image that extends well beyond speaker boundaries on all axis—of course, the better the source material, the better the result.

The true triumph of the G-1A is its effortless reproduction of acoustic instruments.  Acoustic playback is a must considering Coffman’s background.  The tonal accuracy of piano, violin and drums must be experienced to be believed.   The gentle tap of Phil Collins’ drumstick on the snare frame in the title track of Brand X’s album Unorthodox Behaviour was scarily real. That extra dollop of texture the G-1A provides seems to come from nowhere and yet still makes itself known.

The sparse drumming and percussion in this record, with its almost Zappa-like triangle taps and bells at the far corners of the soundstage, show off the immediacy that the G-1A delivers.  No matter how complex the musical passage, there’s always enough headroom to accommodate another instrument in the mix.  This level of dynamic competence at both ends of the scale is rarely found without spending a lot more money.

Not Terribly Tubey

While you won’t mistake the G-1A for a solid-state preamplifier, much like my Audio Research REF5 SE, the Coffman preamp is highly accurate, with that extra bit of airiness suggesting vacuum tubes under the hood (or, in this case, poking out of the top of the hood)—and nothing more.  Where a few of my favorite tube preamplifiers of old injected their share of warmth and often coloration, the G-1A plays it clean all the way.  It is worth noting, however, that this one really needs a good hour to warm up.  At initial power-up, it does sound a bit thinner than some of the other tube preamplifiers we’ve experienced.  But to complement the highly resolving nature of the G-1A, it is equally well represented in the lowest octave.

Because the G-1A offers such a great balance, I did not spend any time tolling tubes in search of a different “tuning.”  I’m sure it would be fun to swap the phonostage tubes, because the 12AX7 allows so many different variations on the theme, but we’ll leave that for another day.  Plus, the tall, spun-aluminum towers that ensconce each of the tubes do not make for easy tube swaps, and perhaps it’s for the best.

At this point, we could call the G-1A a “best buy” without the phonostage and headphone amplifier.  As both of these segments practically warrant full reviews on their own, I will go into greater depth on our Analogaholic and Macro sites.

Full Function Phono and Phones

The G-1A includes inputs for MM and MC cartridges.  While everything in the preamp is so carefully thought out, this vinyl junkie would love to see that as a function addressable from the front panel.  Coffman does thoughtfully include a loading switch for the MM input, giving 47K, 70K and 90K ohms, allowing most of my favorite cartridges to shine.  The Shure and some of the Ortofon MM range have a much more open sound when loaded to 70k than at 47k, so this is a nice touch.

The phonostage is excellent, easily on par with anything I’ve heard in the $2,500 range, including the outstanding Manley Chinook, and the G-1A is head and shoulders above the EAR 834P, which is fairly colored in comparison.  Most impressive is the sheer dynamic drive that the G-1A provides, with the same tonality as the linestage.

Soundstage width and depth are enormous, making the freshly rebuilt Quad 57s in my second listening sound like a pair of stacked Quads.  Spinning the recent MoFi remaster of Dead Can Dance’s Into The Labyrinth, the level of detail revealed was no less than stunning.  With a diverse combination of acoustic and electronic elements, featuring male and female vocals, this record gives a quick and accurate read on a component’s spatial abilities.

Sampling a wide range of cartridges, including the Denon DL-103R (and the Zu Audio variation), Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Ortofon SPU and Clearaudio da Vinci all proved excellent matches with the G-1A.  Unfortunately, the Lyra family of cartridges was not as exciting.  The Atlas, Titan i and Kleos all offered the same result: slightly slow and rolled off, which is likely the result of an obvious impedance mismatch.  There are still a few more on the audition list, so stay tuned for a follow-up on the Analogaholic site.

As this was the first sample from the production line, the headphone stage was not complete at this time, so for now we are concentrating on linestage and phono performance.  A full review of the G-1A’s headphone stage will occur on our website very soon as a follow-up review.

The lack of a remote control proved not to be an issue, especially when moving the G-1A into room two, where the listening chair is directly in front of the main rack, so volume adjustment is easily handled.  Coffman assured me that the output stage of this preamplifier would drive “anything” and, after mixing it up with about eight different power amplifiers and driving 20-foot interconnects, I concur.  Driving a few of my test power amplifiers with one-meter and seven-meter lengths of ALO Audio’s newest premium interconnects reveals no change in sound quality or high-frequency rolloff.

So What Makes This Thing Awesome?

The Coffman G-1A has a unique and striking look and it’s built by a man with a plan.  Some might be surprised by the $5,495 price, but consider this: In the best old-school tradition, the G-1A includes an onboard phonostage (MM and MC) and an onboard headphone amplifier—remember when you could buy a full-function preamplifier with all of this under the hood?

With vinyl still growing in popularity and headphones a full-fledged sub-genre of audio, a preamplifier incorporating these two elements is exciting.  Considering that you won’t have to purchase an outboard phonostage, headphone amplifier or a pair of power cords, the G-1A is fantastic if you value sound quality above everything else. The design is so pure it even lacks a remote control.

Judged strictly as a linestage for $5,495, the Coffman G-1A is at the top of its class.  The fact that it includes an excellent phonostage and headphone amplifier makes it the bargain of the year.  All of the tubes are easily found and those predisposed to tube rolling can tune and tweak until Election Day.   Coffman has plans to expand the lineup, possibly making the phonostage and linestage separate boxes. When I asked him if there might be a companion power amplifier in the works, he smiled that evasive smile that usually means “yes, but I don’t want to talk about it now.”

So with that in mind, we award the Coffman Labs G-1A one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012 and look forward to the company’s future offerings.  Coffman is certainly off to a brilliant start.  I have purchased the review sample, so that it can become an anchor component in room two, and so that we can do a long-term report when a year has passed.

The Coffman Labs G-1A Preamplifier

MSRP: $5,495


Analog Source               AVID Volvere SP turntable/SME V, various cartridges

Digital Source                dCS Paganini stack, Sooloos Control 15, Aurender C10

Power Amplifier             Conrad Johnson MV-50C1

Speakers                       Quad 57

Cable                            ALO Audio, Cardas

Power                           Audience AR-6TS