Meridian Director DAC Review

August 5, 2013

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Since introducing the world’s first audiophile CD player in 1984, Meridian has been on a relentless mission of improving the sound of digital playback. It has been vastly successful, and continues on what has been a non-stop roll of introducing groundbreaking technologies and products for thirty years. In the past twelve months alone, they have offered up hardware and software updates to their 861v8 surround processor, 808.5 CD player and 818v2 digital preamplifier, including improved linear power supplies to reduce noise and distortion, new digital oscillator boards to improve timing and further reduce jitter to now vanishing low levels, and new DSP algorithms and digital reconstruction filters to enhance sound localization, imaging, and clarity. In addition, they have introduced hardware and software updates to their DSP7200 digital active loudspeakers to significantly improve low frequency transient response and bass alignment, as well as high frequency performance, with superb sonic results. They have even found time to introduce new digital active in-wall/on-wall loudspeakers to update their Meridian Digital Theater systems. Most recently, in a surprise move, they introduced the game-changing Explorer portable USB DAC and headphone amplifier, which I reviewed here, at the astonishingly low price of $299. The affordable Explorer brings Meridian quality digital reproduction to a whole new generation of prospective audiophiles who listen to their music on portable devices with headphones. Not content to rest on these recent laurels, Meridian has just released the Director, a new DAC with USB, coaxial S/PDIF, and TOSLINK digital inputs, which is the subject of this review.

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For lack of a better descriptor, the Director is a grown-up Explorer in size and complexity. Retaining the same flat cylindrical shape of the Explorer, the Director occupies the identical unobtrusive extruded aluminum form factor (80mm wide x 139mm long x 34mm high) as the Media Source 200 compact audio endpoint for the Meridian Digital Media System (formerly known as Sooloos). Though cylindrical, rubber feet prevent the Director from wobbling. While it weighs in at a mere 9 ounces, there is a reassuring heft to it. In addition, it has a luxurious look and feel that befits a bespoke product designed and hand-crafted at its Huntington, Cambridgeshire, U.K. facilities. Did I mention it retails for $699. That is not a misprint.

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The Director, which operates solely as a DAC, eschews the headphone amplifier, and uses the increased circuit board real estate for more refined circuitry. Carried over from the Explorer are the XMOS ‘L2′ asynchronous USB interface and digital signal processor, and audiophile grade parts, including metal film resistors and WIMA and Nichicon capacitors. The Director now utilizes the Crystal Semiconductor CM4353 DAC chip in lieu of the Texas Instruments PM1502 found in the Explorer. However, it bypasses the chip’s built-in upsampling functionality and digital reconstruction filter in favor of Meridian’s own proprietary resolution enhancement and apodising filter technology which, among other things, removes digital artifacts in the recordings themselves. All 44.1/48kHz inputs are upsampled to 88.2/96kHz to allow the anti-aliasing filter to operate above the range of human hearing. High resolution digital files retain their original bit depth and sampling frequency up to 192/24. Given Bob Stuart’s long-standing technical objections to DSD, it is not surprising that that decoding capability has been omitted. In lieu of the Explorer’s 3.5mm line output jack, the Director sports a pair of high quality gold-plated RCAs, the same ones used in Meridian’s 800 reference series components, which output an industry standard 2V RMS. Also derived from the 800 reference series are dual precision reference crystal oscillators, one to handle 44.1/88.2/176.4kHz and another for 48/96/192kHz sampling frequencies, as well as dedicated linear voltage regulators.

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Power is supplied by the source when the USB input is used. For coaxial S/PDIF and TOSLINK operation, there is a separate small power supply (with a host of international AC plug adapters) which plugs in the same USB2 Type B port. The coaxial S/PDIF and TOSLINK inputs are handled by a hybrid 3.5mm mono/mini-TOSLINK jack. Appropriate adapters are conveniently included so standard coaxial and optical cables can be used. USB operation is plug and play with OSX. Windows compatibility requires a driver, which can be downloaded from Meridian’s site. It is the same driver that is used for the Explorer. The other end of the Director contains a push button to choose either USB or digital input, along with five LEDs to indicate input and sampling frequency. All in all, an elegant design both inside and out.

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I am an unrepentant devotee of the music of J.S. Bach across all genres, though I have a special affinity for his solo works for violin, violincello and keyboards, preferring the later played on piano rather than organ or harpsichord. Among my favorites are Bach’s Two-Part Inventions (contrapuntal pieces). Originally written as student exercises in each of the eight major and seven minor keys, this music is simply sublime, and achingly beautiful. I have all of Andras Schiff’s interpretations of Bach’s major keyboard works on the Decca label, and the Two-Part Inventions are no exception. Unlike many piano recordings which have as a perspective your head under the lid, this recording preserves the ambiance of the recording venue. This gives the piano a three dimensional body and weight, particularly in the lower registers. The piano is recessed well behind the speakers, a requirement for convincing reproduction. It is also realistically wide for a listener sitting in the first few rows of a small recital hall. The tone and timbre of the piano, which are devilishly hard to reproduce, are beautifully portrayed. This contemplative music is filled with complex harmonic detail, but also is exceptionally smooth in texture, emphasizing the flowing cantabile style. The Director does a remarkable job with continuity of sound; no frequency band is favored, with the treble being particularly extended, light and airy, without a hint of emphasis or harshness, thus eliminating any possibility of clanginess, a fault often present in inexpensive DACs (and some expensive ones as well), the lack of which encourages lengthy listening sessions. After you replay the Two-Part Inventions more times than you ever expected, you will want to move directly to the Three-Part Inventions, usually coupled on the same disc.

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As I have mentioned before, I think string tone is the acid test for a DAC. Being unable to reproduce strings without steeliness, particularly in the upper registers, is characteristic of inexpensive DACs, and the downfall of many of their more expensive brethren. And what better to assess string tone than a recording of a string trio, in this case The Grumiaux Trio playing Mozart’s Divertimento in E flat major for Violin, Viola and Cello, K. 563 on Philips. This six movement piece, Mozart’s only work for string trio, both begins and ends with a lively Allegro movement, in which the instruments are treated as equals. Mozart certainly wasn’t going to short-change himself as he played viola in the work’s premiere. The first movement starts slowly but quickly picks up the pace with each instrument calling and answering the others, establishing their place within the whole. The soundstage, which is wide but slightly shallow given the close miking perspective, is arrayed with the violin on the left, viola in the center, and the cello on the right. However, it is not hard panned so we do not have the violin and cello tied to the left and right speakers, as is sometimes the case in early recordings; rather the instruments are presented distinctly, but coherently, across the soundfield. The upper notes played by the violin are extended, but never bright; the viola, having a somewhat larger body (there is no standard size), goes lower and is more resonant, and the cello, with its significantly larger physical volume, has a tone which spreads out and supports its companions. Bowing is relaxed, graceful and smooth. The overall timbre is naturally warm, bordering on mellow, but not without the rich harmonic detail necessary to avoid homogenizing the sound. This is not a case of the DAC imparting color of its own, but of it reproducing the natural sound of the instruments. I know this because it is the same tone conveyed by my reference dCS Debussy, which is quite neutral. Without question, string tone with the Meridian Director is remarkable.

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Shifting genres to assess female vocals, rather than rely on the obvious choices of Diana Krall, Patricia Barber and the like, I cued up Rosanne Cash’s 1990 introspective album Interiors. With sparse support from drums, bass, and acoustic and electric guitar, the focus is on Cash’s haunting voice. On the Surface dismisses any thought that the Meridian Director cannot accurately reproduce bass, as it opens with a sustained, deep, multi-note acoustic bass accompanying a light and airy acoustic guitar with detailed, but not sharp, transients as the strings are picked. Cash’s voice is augmented by a touch of delay to create a larger acoustic space, but it neither diminishes the effortless projection nor alters the full-bodied tone; rather it enriches it. She is joined on the final verse by her ex-husband Rodney Crowell channeling Roy Orbison, and the harmonic complexities of their intertwining voices are something to marvel. Land Of Nightmares shifts the arrangement to bass, drums, piano and Mark O’Conner’s plaintive fiddle to accompany Cash’s more intimate singing style. No sibilance is detectable. I Want a Cure gives the Director a chance to show its mettle in sorting out a somewhat denser arrangement and Cash’s doubled vocals, which it handles adroitly.

Comparison

A comparison of the Explorer and the Director reveals subtle differences, primarily in tone, with the Explorer being slightly cooler. Acoustic instruments and vocals have a natural warmth with the Director, without being colored. The Director also seems to be more fleshed out, with greater body and weight. This difference is completely understandable as they use, among other things, different DAC chips and digital reconstruction filters. Both are highly resolving and have a wealth of detail, though, and are eminently musical. The Explorer is obviously the go-to DAC for its portability and built-in headphone amplifier. While the Explorer does have a fixed line output, the Director would be the better choice in a listening room system, which is not surprising given that the Director has a circuit board at least four times as large, a parts budget more than twice that of the Explorer, and Meridian’s proprietary digital reconstruction filter.

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Finally, I wanted to compare the S/PDIF performance of the Director to the built-in DAC in my Meridian G08 CD player. The DAC in the G08, which was first introduced in 2003, uses a Meridian proprietary linear phase filter, which predates the minimum phase or apodising filter first introduced in the Meridian 808.2 CD player in 2009, and is now standard issue for all current Meridian products. Naturally, the latest iteration of Meridian’s apodising filter is present in the Director. I put on Blake and Rice, a wonderful Bluegrass/Americana collaboration by Norman Blake and Tony Rice, two of my favorite guitarists. Norman Blake plays a variety of vintage Martins, and Tony Rice plays Clarence White’s legendary 1935 Martin D28. Each guitar has its own characteristic tone and timbre, and each musician has his own distinctive playing style. This, together with pinpoint imaging offered by both DACs, allows you to know who’s playing rhythm and lead on individual songs, and appreciate their differing virtuosity. The presentation of the G08 and the Director are subtly different, with the G08 having a slightly brighter (though by no means bright) tone than the Director. This leads to a somewhat thinner (but by no means thin) sound. I would also say that, while excellent, the DAC in the G08 does have a slight granularity to it whereas the Director is exceptionally smooth and coherent, undoubtedly the result of the newer apodising filter. Which one you prefer would likely depend on the other components in your system. If your speakers lean toward being slightly recessed, then the DAC in the G08 is apt to be your choice, whereas a more neutral or forward sounding speaker (or electronics) would benefit from the Director. I think the Director would make an exceptional upgrade to any existing CD player quite apart from its USB playback capabilities.

A word about DSD. I know some readers will reject the Meridian Director out of hand because it does not decode DSD. That would be a mistake. In today’s feature driven market, everybody and his brother are releasing DACs with DSD capability. The problem is that everybody and his brother are not releasing music for download in the DSD format. There are only a handful of sources for DSD files, and those handful of sources are offering only a smattering of albums, virtually all of which are from obscure artists. Simply put, DSD downloads are in their infancy and may never take off. They are certainly never going to take off at the current asking price of $50 a pop. Given that the vast majority of your music collection is sourced from Redbook CDs, and, increasingly, high resolution PCM downloads, don’t pass over an otherwise stellar DAC like the Director just so you can play a few token DSD downloads. The rest of your music collection will thank you.

Conclusion

The Meridian Director constitutes yet another feather in Bob Stuart’s now rather festooned cap. Of the dozen or so DACs I have reviewed over the past two years, only the Bricasti M1, the Meitner MA-1 and the dCS Debussy outclass the Meridian Director, each is at least an order of magnitude more expensive, and the performance is pretty darn close. Meridian could have deployed the Director in a G-series bead-blasted aluminum and glass case, garnered a significantly higher price, and still been competitive; instead, it is reaching out to a new market of up and coming audiophiles whose primary source of music is computer based. As a bonus, you can concurrently bring your aging CD player up to state of the art digital technology and experience your shiny silver discs at the same high level while they are waiting to be ripped to your music server, or for when you are just feeling nostalgic. Offering Meridian quality at such an affordable level leaves me wondering why anyone would invest in any of the similarly or higher priced alternatives from the scores of manufacturers whose names were unknown just a year or two ago, not to mention the me-too products cluttering the shelves from better know brands. Brilliantly conceived and faultlessly executed, the Meridian Director is the DAC to beat in this market segment – and several notches above. Highly recommended.

- Frank Berryman

Contact

Meridian America, Inc.
110 Greene Street
Suite 407
New York NY 10012
Telephone: (646) 666-0140
Fax: (646) 666-0152
www.meridian-audio.com

Associated Equipment

Analog Source: VPI Scout; Dynavector 20X2; Musical Surroundings Phonomena II
Digital Sources: Meridian G08; Mac Mini; dCS Debussy; Audirvana Plus
Preamplifier: Meridian G02
Power Amplifier: Meridian 557
Loudspeakers: Magnepan 1.7; Sony SS-NA2ES
Analog Cables: Kimber Select KS1016 and KS1116
Digital Cables: Kimber Select KS2020 and KS2416 USB
Speaker Cables: Kimber Select KS6063 and KS9033
Power Cables: Kimber PK10G and PK14G
Headphones: Etymotic ER-4S
Accessories: Audience aR2p power conditioner