Meridian Audio Director USB DAC Review
High end, high style, and high class Meridian Audio has delivered another winning product without the matching high price tag. Meridian surprised many audiophiles earlier this year with its $299 Explorer portable DAC / headphone amplifier. Today Meridian released its $699 Director digital to analog converter. The Director is a larger unit but still much smaller than most high end components. I hesitate to say it isn't portable because audiophiles, myself included, have been known to take all kinds of components out of the house in order to reproduce good sound on the road, in the air, or at the coffee shop. Combined with the right ancillary components the Director would be a fine portable DAC although Meridian has positioned it as the home or office-based big brother to the portable Explorer. The Director is a more robust offering than the Explorer. It features physical components that simply don't fit in the Explorer's smaller housing or the Explorer's lower price point. The Director is much more like a traditional DAC than the Explorer due to its fixed output level or lack of internal volume control, full size USB B port, full size RCA analog outputs, both mini TOSLink and coaxial digital inputs, and included but optional external power adapter. Despite these differences many computer audiophiles may have a hard time choosing between the Explorer and the Director for their home or portable audio needs. No matter what a product review says or which internal components are used in a DAC nothing compares to trying the products personally.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
Meridian Audio Director Inside and Out
The Meridian Audio Director is housed in an appealing smooth metal tube-like chassis with shiny plastic end caps. The feel of the device is similar to the Explorer but the Director is a bit more substantial. The front end cap features five lights that indicate both the input and the rough sample rate. The large center button on the front enables the user to select USB or S/PDIF as the input. The Director automatically senses which S/PDIF input is in use, either electrical coaxial or optical TOSLink, when the S/PDIF input is selected. The rough sample rate indicators illuminate based on the sample rate of the incoming music, not the upsampled output. The Redbook Compact Disc standard of 44.1 kHz and the lesser used 48 kHz are frequently referred to as 1x. Elementary math skills and a little logic enable most readers to conclude that sample rates of 88.2 and 96 equate to 2x and 176.4 and 192 equate to 4x. The Director's sample rate indicators are labeled 1x, 2x, and 4x. Thus I consider them rough indicators. The user is assured that music reaching the Director is at least equal to or close to the sample rate of the music being played. This seems like a great feature but in reality it's more form than function. If one's operating system is resampling 44.1 kHz audio to 48 kHz the Director will illuminate the 1x indicator. This indicator will give a false sense of security to unlearned users but it certainly looks nice and feels good to see the lights move from 1x to 2x to 4x based on one's music selection. If the user is playing 1x, 2x, and 4x sample rate material then the indicators will at least let him know the same rate is changing or remaining unchanged. A steady sample rate on the DAC while playing multiple sample rates is a good indication of a misconfigured audio application.
The rear of the Director is where its expanded size over the Explorer is put to good use. The Director features a full size USB B input, full size RCA analog outputs, and a dual coax/TOSLink input. I much prefer the full size USB ports for the sole reason that more "full size" USB cables exist. Whether purchasing a new USB cable or searching one's house for an existing cable full size USB B terminations are easier to find and more universal. The Director's USB port also doubles as its power port. This USB port can receive power from either a computer's USB port or the provided USB power adapter. When using the Director as a USB DAC the device obviously receives power from the computer via the USB connection. However, when the Director is connected to a device like a Sonos or AppleTV via electrical or optical S/PDIF it will require use of the included power adapter. This adapter connects to the USB port of the Director making it impossible to power the device externally and use the USB input simultaneously. Not a showstopper but a possible concern for those interested in a better external PSU. The power adapter ships from Meridian with switchable country specific power outlet connectors. These connectors click into the power adapter and the adapter plus into the wall consuming a fair mount of space on a standard outlet or power strip. Fortunately Meridian included another option on this power adapter. The adapter has an IEC C7 female port enabling use of a different power cable. A power cable with an IEC C7 termination isn't something most people have laying around the house. It's the cable with a figure eight type termination on one end. Unfortunately Meridian doesn't include one of these cables with the Director. When powering the Director with the supplied adapter I used an AudioQuest NRG 1.5 power cable with IEC C7 termination. A comparison of DAC performance between computer power and external adapter power is somewhat pointless because people will likely use USB for audio or USB for external power. I can't imagine many people using USB for power from the computer and S/PDIF for audio output. Next to the full size USB B port are full size analog RCA outputs. Similar to full size USB, full size RCA cables are much more popular and available in all lengths, styles, and price points. The S/PDIF input on the Director is unique among DACs I've used to date. This port features both electrical coaxial and optical mini TOSLink S/PDIF capabilities. This is similar to the Apple MacBook Pro ports but Apple features mini TOSLink and analog output rather than coaxial digital in/output. This is a very smart move by Meridian. Optical S/PDIF can carry a 24 bit / 192 kHz signal but it's far from optimal. The coaxial connection is much preferred for 4x sample rates over the optical connection. Included with the Director are two adapters enabling people to use "regular" S/PDIF cables. The TOSLink to mini TOSLink adapter is fairly standard and is the same one used for Apple AirPort Express, Mac Mini, and MacBook Pro S/PDIF connections. The included coaxial adapter is one I haven't used or seen used in recent memory. It's simply an RCA termination converted to a mini 3.5mm termination. Inclusion of a coaxial input on the Director is great and so is inclusion of the coaxial adapter with every unit.
- USB connector – also supplies power
- 4-layer board allows multiple isolated power and ground planes for lower noise and improved overall performance
- XMOS ‘L2’ processor provides USB handling and Digital Signal Processing (DSP)
- 800 Reference Series style oscillators and dedicated linear regulator
- Sample rate indicator LEDs
- Input selector switch (red) and source indicator LEDs
- Linear power supply for analogue components
- Crystal Semiconductors CS4353 DAC under the gold ‘Audio Grade’ capacitors
- ‘Audio Grade’ capacitors & resistors in DAC output filter as used in 800 Series
- 3.5mm coax/optical S/PDIF digital input
- Fixed-level line output: 2v RMS on the same gold-plated connectors as used in the 800 Series
The final nice touch of external design is the rubber feet on the bottom of the Director. The feet keep the oblong shaped unit stable, but equally as important they keep the finely finished metal from being scratched or scratching the surface of the Director's resting place. The rubber feet preclude the feeling one gets when placing a brand new iPhone on any surface other than a silk pillow. A new iPhone is so shiny and nicely finished I hate setting one down for the first few weeks of use! The Director evokes similar thoughts but the rubber feet keep the anxiety ridden feelings at bay.
Internally the Meridian Director is similar to the Explorer. The Director is built on a four layer board whereas the Explorer is packed into a six layer board. Meridian placed the XMOS L2, vs. the Explorer's L1, processor in the Director for USB audio and Digital Signal Processing (DSP). Processing digital audio has been a strength of Meridian since day one. The Director features what the company calls its Proprietary Resolution Enhancement technologies, mainly an Apodising filter and upsampling algorithms. The USB and coaxial S/PDIF inputs both handle 24 bit audio at sample rates up through 192 kHz. According to Meridian, "Standard (44.1/48kHz) digital signals are upsampled to 88.2/96kHz sampling and Meridian’s unique Apodising upsampling filter can actually fix faults in the original recording." Several of the Director's internal components are of the same ilk as Meridian's flagship 800 Series products. For example the two oscillators, easily seen protruding vertically from the main board like silver towers, a dedicated linear regulator, capacitors, and resistors in the DAC output filter, and the 2v RMS gold plated RCA connectors are all the same or similar to the 800 Series components. The Director uses a linear power supply for its analog components and the Crystal Semiconductors / Cirrus Logic CS4353 DAC. The portable Explorer uses the TI PCM5102 DAC but shares many design elements such as audio grade capacitors, linear regulators, and linear power supplies. Many of these elements stem from what the company calls Meridian DNA.
One Director Many Sources
In my system I used the Director with a 15" MacBook Pro retina, CAPS Server running Windows 8, and the Aurender W20 music server operating on Linux. I connected the Director via MIT RCA cables to my Spectral Audio 30SS Series 2 preamp, Spectral Audio DMA260 amplifier, and TAD CR1 loudspeakers. Granted the Director likely wouldn't be DAC choice in this caliber of audio system but this system has the transparency to reveal the best and worst of nearly any connected component. Connected to my MacBook Pro retina running OS X 10.8.4 and to the Aurender W20 the Director required no software installation. It's truly plug and play. On the Windows server the Director required installation of the same Thesycon software as the Explorer. I wish Windows supported Class 2.0 USB audio without drivers but the Thesycon software has proven to be very good in light of this Windows shortcoming. When listening to the $699 Director I was a bit more critical of the DAC than I was with the $299 Explorer. Much the same as when I listen to the over $50,000 dCS Vivaldi DAC, Upsampler, and Clock. Judging all DACs with the same set of expectations would be a disservice for all. Compared to the dCS Vivaldi the Meridian Explorer is less than stellar. However, that conclusion helps nobody and would be written only by someone seeking attention. The Director's $699 price tag isn't cheap but it's far less than the sales tax on my MIT cables. I went into this review with higher expectations than I did with the Explorer and for the most part my expectations were met. My favorite music all sounded great through the Director. I've been on quite a Pearl Jam binge lately having just seen them play Wrigley Field in Chicago. All the PJ bootleg concert releases were a blast to listen with the Director connected to any of the three aforementioned sources. Many of my review favorites also sounded terrific. Cecile McLorin Salvant's WomanChild (24 bit / 96 kHz) (HDtracks) album and Jack Johnson's Brushfire Fairytales (48 kHz Remaster) both sucked me right into the music. My sole disappointment with the Director's sound was heard while playing Nat King Cole's The Very Thought of You. Nat's voice had a bit of a haze over it, was less full than I'm used to, and the album lacked some of the spatial cues with which I'm familiar. Listening to this album it's easy to determine it was recorded at Capitol Studios simply because of the spatial cues and the overall sound. Capitol isn't called The House That Nat Built for nothing. Through the Director a bit of this classic Capitol sound was gone. Certainly not a showstopper but a little something to note when spending several hundred dollars for a DAC.
Meridian Audio continues to impress with its latest DAC the Director. A more robust offering than the Explorer portable headphone amp / DAC the Director is made for full size systems. Powered via its USB port the Director is fully portable as long as users have a compatible headphone amp. However, it's more likely the Director will be placed in a home or office audio system given its size compared to the Explorer. Both USB and RCA ports handle standard cable terminations enabling users to select from wide variety of of cabling options. The exterior fit and finish of the Director's aluminum housing is aesthetically pleasing and feels nice in one's hand. The sound quality reproduced through the Director is very good and is evidence of Meridian's expertise in Digital Signal Processing. The Apodising and upsampling filters produce classic Meridian sound quality that will surely please not only the Meridian faithful but those seeking to increase their enjoyment of our wonderful hobby.
- Product - Meridian Audio Director
- Price - $699
- Product Page - Link
- Where To Buy - The Audio Salon (CA Sponsor)
- Source: 15" MacBook Pro w/ Retina Display, Aurender W20 Music Server, C.A.P.S. v3 Carbon Server with Red Wine Audio Black Lightening Battery Power Supply
- DAC: Auralic Vega, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2
- Preamp: Spectral Audio DMC-30SS Series 2
- Amplifier: Spectral Audio DMA-260
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Aurender App
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 5, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Playback Software: J River Media Center v19
- Cables: MIT Matrix HD 60 Bi-Wire Loudspeaker Cable, MIT Oracle Matrix 50 Analog Interconnects (RCA), ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables, AudioQuest NRG 1.5 Power Cable, Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable, AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Micro Connectors Augmented Cat6A Ethernet Cable, Apple AirPort Extreme, PFSense Router / Firewall, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service
- USB connector – also supplies power