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Aerocraft67 posted a topic in DAC - Digital to Analog ConversionI’ve been on an obsessive mission to upgrade my computer audio system and desktop listening station to respectable performance level. I’ve been interested in hi-fi for a long time, but never really graduated beyond the entry-level gear, although I tried to buy the best (think Vandersteen 1B, PSB Alpha B1) and my “main” rig serves primarily as day-to-day home theater (those B1s are literally relegated to a bookshelf in a media console). With advances in computer audio, I saw an opportunity to get my audiophile on at the desktop, as well as revamp the computerization of my music. My initial purchase was the Sennheiser HD-650 headphones. This dictated my budget for a DAC and amp, in keeping with the conventional wisdom that headphones (or speakers) should garner the lion’s share of the hi-fi budget. Several DAC/amp options have emerged for $300 and less over the last half year, and the next level is a substantial leap upwards of at least 50%, and losing the integrated headamp and portability in the step (e.g., Schiit Bifrost, Halide DAC HD, Resonessence Concero, or Asus Xonar Essence One). So I focused my attention on the Dragonfly, iDAC, Modi, and now the Explorer. I bought the Dragonfly before the Explorer’s release, then purchased the Explorer in somewhat of an impulse purchase, and quickly conducted some casual comparative listening before the return window runs out on the Dragonfly. Starting with the Dragonfly Dragonfly is available on Amazon, replete with expedited shipping, easy returns, use of gift cards, etc. Although a good DAC remains an enthusiasts’ purchase, these simple-to-install, portable products with reasonably wide appeal and price under $500 should have minimal distribution hurdles and constraints, resembling the mass market more than a network of exclusive audiophile boutiques. Availability: not an issue with Dragonfly. The Dragonfly’s 3.5 mm output swaps easily between different downstream kit (headphones, external amps, powered speakers), even easier than dual RCA jacks. I didn’t require the Dragonfly’s supremely small thumb drive form factor, and would have preferred that the design budget be freed up to a larger size and allocated to other performance attributes while remaining aptly portable, as with the other DACs I considered. But the form factor is as functional as it is impressive. I bought the companion Dragontail USB cable to ease strain on the main unit’s USB stick and simply add back some substantive bulk to the diminutive device with a matching cable. As others have reported, there’s a gap between the cladding on each device, and the connection is crooked. Although it works fine and it’s a minor issue, what little I’m asking from the simple yet premium passive component from a major name in cables is a conspicuous disappointment. Research My initial impression of the sonic performance, before I actually listened to anything, was formed largely by AudioStream, to which I owe credit for very helpful research. Dragonfly placed on the light and lean end of the sonic spectrum, in contrast to the fat and rich presentation of iFi’s iDAC. With a similar position on the spectrum, Modi conceded to Dragonfly in Audiostream’s assessment. Late to the party, Explorer was the Goldilocks of the group, neither too fat nor too lean. Lacking the Goldilocks choice initially and forced to choose one end of the sonic spectrum over the other, fat and rich sounded more appealing than light and lean. But iFi availability was sketchy. One dealer that deigned to offer it online in the United States listed availability as January 20 up until February, and I also heard of shipping delays from otherwise satisfied customers even in its home country. And iDAC cost another $50 plus shipping than Dragonfly. And the RCA jacks would make for a slightly more cumbersome switch among systems. The Modi/Magni stack, while cheapest and small enough to port around the house, are even more suited for semi-permanent desktop placement, dedicated to a headphone rig. It was tough (and somewhat unpatriotic) to pass on Schiit’s exemplary home-grown manufacturing and distribution, but I haven’t ruled out adding one of their popular headphone amps. Purchase So I bought the Dragonfly. Behaving more like a young lad than a middle-aged audiophile, I proceeded to crush my new toy immediately out of the box with hard rocking favorites, recently re-ripped from CD (hopefully for the final time) to ALAC with XLD. Additionally, I played a smaller but more diverse collection of HD tracks up to 192 kHz sample rate, served up by a Synology 212j NAS via iTunes and BitPerfect on a MacBook running Snow Leopard. Stock cables. Dragonfly delivered the goods, but I was struck by its analytical sound. Much of this I attribute to being new to serious computer audio and headphone listening, if not entry-level hi fi more generally. It was a fascinating new perspective on my music, but one that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. The center of gravity of my music collection is 90s indie rock, with a tilt toward the hard stuff. This is not particularly amenable to the audiophile treatment, not to mention a rather analytical one. On poorer recordings of favorite material, I pined for an old-fashioned treble control to turn down. Nevertheless, Dragonfly delivered impressive resolution. I could pick apart individual elements of otherwise congested noise pop, for example. Aggressive attack livens up the sound. The resolution and attack serve up bass very nicely; nothing muddy about it. But even after listening for a few days and adapting to the sound and allowing for some burn in, I find that these strengths come at the expense of the corresponding excesses—a rather clinical sound. Dare I say, digital. Even with superior, more “grown up” recordings, albeit less so. One knock on the Dragonfly is that it stresses when pushed. Even within the context of my challenging listening habits, I observed this initially and over time. On most recordings, the sound completely falls apart beyond 75% volume, and often before. I reach this harshness limitation before a discomfort of otherwise clean sound pressure alone on nearly every recording; only the best of them overcome this. Over time, I tend to keep backing the volume down, winding up marginally above 50% at most, even though the loudness itself seems reasonable at, say, 67%, even 80% for short bursts of cranking up a favorite passage. Even after embracing the detailed presentation, it can be fatiguing to listen loud enough to hear the nuances. An external amp could help here, and I’d probably add one (most likely the Magni) were I to stick with the Dragonfly. Maybe even a tube amp, even though I’m not a big advocate of seeking tone control with amplification coloration. Otherwise, longer-term listening is pleasant enough at 50% or below. Enter the Explorer Its simultaneous launch and evaluation on Audiostream and Computer Audiophile immediately placed Meridian's Explorer as the new king of entry-level portable DACs. Well, more sonically neutral than Dragonfly and iDAC according to AS, and demonstrably superior to Dragonfly on CA. Having conducted such and exhausting initial search, I bought the Explorer almost impulsively, from Audio Salon in Santa Monica, per CA’s recommendation. Audio Salon delivered attentive service and quick shipping; I concur with the recommendation. Beyond the obvious feature set comparison, one thing I confirmed immediately with Explorer is that you can feed the separate headphone jack and line out simultaneously. Not that you’d want to listen to them both at the same time, but swapping between, say, headphones and desktop speaker monitors doesn’t get much easier, since you can keep them both connected and running with no switching. If I read the scant info on the iDAC right, it has both headphone and line out RCA jacks, but can only output one at a time correctly. Swapping with Dragonfly is literally a snap, but there’s just the one port. Evaluating the Explorer sound vis-à-vis Dragonfly has generally been an exercise in confirming expectation bias. Sorry, no rigorous blind ABX for the objectivists, but also no offending absolutist subjectivist claims intended. Explorer gets more right with less wrong than Dragonfly. Explorer does not exhibit Dragonfly’s excesses, but nor does it succumb to corresponding shortcomings. It sounds more natural and euphonic than analytical. Explorer delivers the whole rather than the sum of the parts, which Dragonfly picks apart (albeit to fascinating effect). Not hyper-detailed, but also not congested. Explorer excels at timbre and decay, but not at the expense of being unnatural or colored. Attack is not overbearing, but nor is it too slow. Soundstage and imaging are better with Explorer, too. Explorer sounds more laid back; I’m not sure whether that’s a notable signature or just a contrast with the fast, forward pace and attack of the Dragonfly. The Dragonfly attack is apparent on drum thwack. It’s punchy, but after a bit of time at satisfying volume, you feel like you’ve been punched. The Explorer delivers more satisfying decay on drums and strings, resulting in a more obviously natural sound. Part of that comes from well-presented timbre, which is sonically where Explorer outshines Dragonfly most gratifyingly. By my calculations and listening experience, Dragonfly delivers marginally more power into my HD-650 (300 Ω) than Explorer. Although both DACs sound good at modest loudness levels, Explorer holds up at higher volume longer. With Dragonfly, I’m usually reaching to turn it down. With Explorer, I’m reaching to turn it up. The Explorer sound quality breaks down at about the same point I reach my volume limit or just after. I can usually reach my short-term volume limit, but sometimes not. Again, an external amp would help here (I may look for one that goes to eleven). But that would require use of the non-headphone line out; I’m excited about the prospect of toggling back and forth between my headphones and desktop speakers—which is my next computer audio upgrade adventure (Emotiva Airactiv 5 or Adam F5?). Results So I will be sending the Dragonfly back with its tail and keeping the Explorer. Which is not to say that Dragonfly is a loser, or that Explorer is the final word on DAC/headamp combinations. Dragongfly excels with portability, punchy delivery, and fine detail. I don’t doubt that I might like iDAC even better sonically, but the more natural and balanced reputation of the Explorer seems more “correct,” but not at the expense of euphony. And there’s the port configuration and availability advantages that favor Explorer. I suppose Explorer gets you in at the entry level for neutral and natural, whereas previously, you had to choose among trade-offs at the humble $300 level. Explorer and Dragonfly may perform as good as previous generation DACs that cost much more, but even today, $300 doesn’t remove all room for improvement on sonic realism by any means. But Explorer is not lacking for much in a $300 DAC, not to mention one that’s portable with a headamp. And there’s always incremental improvements like an external amp or iFi’s iUSBPower plus two-headed cable. The latter gets you to the $500 class with a modular, incremental, optional upgrade rather than an up-front hit to the budget. I also fully acknowledge all manner of expectation bias, and I don’t pretend to scientifically pick apart different DACs. I just spend time listening to each DAC and forming impressions, fully aware of bias introduced by reading reviews and commentary—embracing it, even. I concede some trust in the most credible reviewers and reputable manufacturers that I’m getting the most for my budget. Beyond that, it comes down to basic features like outputs and even availability via a robust distribution channel (I haven’t even mentioned 192 kHz capability until now). While alternatives remain viable for different priorities, I’m delighted with the Explorer.