Here's Affordable Digital Audio: Meridian Explorer

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It's now obvious that digital audio is the future of music reproduction. Luckily, there are new and reasonably exciting ways to enjoy these higher-quality audio formats without having to take out a second mortgage.

The key to enjoying this new technology is getting ahold of what is known as an external DAC (digital-to-analog converter). These devices plug into an USB port to replace the super-cheap integrated circuit inside your computer. A DAC connects your computer to a hi-fi/powered desktop speakers/home theater systems allowing digital music files to be heard in full fidelity.

To date, we've told you about two inexpensive products from Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat's company, the terrific second-generation Audioquest DragonFly with a new, low price and the nifty Audioengine D3 DAC in the aluminum thumb-drive-sized case.

At the top end of our list is the Meridian Explorer. It's at the top end of our short list because it costs $299 and is the most technologically advanced product in our group. On the other hand, the Explorer is also the most inexpensive product in the Meridian Audio's line of super-high-end audio gear.

In real life, the Explorer is more compact than it looks in the photo. It's beautiful to look at and even more important for an audio device - it's also lovely to listen to or through.

The Explorer is different from the other DACs in this survey in a number of important ways. The Explorer can handle high quality digital audio files as large as 24/192. The other DACs we told you about top out at 24/96. Higher-resolution files have the potential of sounding better on higher quality listening equipment. Remember: A higher resolution indicates a larger file and the more space they take-up on your hard drive. But, they do sound better.

Because it's capable of processing super high-resolution music files you need to download and install a special driver for Microsoft ( MSFT) Windows PCs. Apple ( AAPL) computers can handle digital music files larger than 24/96 without needing to install extra software.

The Explorer is also one of the only low-priced, high-end DACs which is software upgradeable. That means you can download special files on your computer so that you can instantly upgrade the DAC as well as add new features. It comes with its own USB patch cord to connect your computer to the micro-USB port on the DAC.

After living with the device for a few months I can happily report that the Meridian's Explorer sounds fantastic. And, because it can handle higher resolution music files it has the ability to outshine all the others in our survey.

You can plug a set of headphones directly into the Explorer's mini output jack and have a complete, super-sounding, high-end, digital playback system. Or, get a high-quality connecting cord and hook your computer/Explorer combo into your stereo/home theater system and let everyone reap the benefits.

Bottom line? The Meridian Explorer DAC is highly recommended.

Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

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