The attractively styled body of the Explorer is focused around a 3.5’’ LED touch screen surrounded by a block of milled solid hardwood. The hardwood comes in your welcomed choice of Mahogany, Maple, Ebony, and Zebra wood with a handsome laser etched Echobox logo. The hardwood is accented top and bottom with machined aluminum accents. It looks like a hipster’s hip-flask. and its dedicated volume knob cap is an outstandingly executed tactile feature that gives the feel of using a nice headphone amp by being able to micro adjust your playback levels to optimum levels. Thank goodness you won’t have to blow out your eardrums any longer by fat fingering a slide on a touchscreen! The volume knob is flanked by a 1/8’’ analogue headphone jack and also by an optical output. Outside the many offerings for user customisation, perhaps the biggest indication that Echobox is equipped for the times is a close alignment and support for Tidal streaming service. Currently Echobox has teamed up with Tidal to offer a three-month free subscription with purchase of the Explorer. Echobox is banking that this perk will send users willingly into a new long term relationship with a music service instead of the all too familiar shotgun wedding arrangement with iTunes that many potential buyers of the Explorer might still be trying to escape. The Echobox Explorer is designed to be fully compatible with most digital file formats, including WAV, AIFF, and FLAC. It comes with 64GB of internal memory, and has a MicroSD slot that allows you to upgrade to a total capacity of 192GB fully loaded. If you are into racking up points by decking out and showing off your work desktop you can add a very attractive docking station for an additional $50 that will match your choice of Explorer hardwood. It’s retro-futurist cool, without the need for horn-rimmed glasses!
The Explorer hardware recipe looks something like this: start with a powerful Texas Instruments 300Mw/channel amplifier capable of adequately driving a wide variety of in-ear and headphone models. No headphone amplifier needed, this audio flask has the power to get the job done, just bring your own ¼’’ adapter if needed. Next add a high powered Rockchip RK3128 Quad Core processor running at 1.3GHz and sporting 1GB of RAM. Garnish with a 4000mAH lithium rechargeable battery that can power the device easily for over a day of steady use without any issue. Sounds pretty good right? But before you place an order let us spend a minute talking about the main ingredient, the Explorer’s integrated DAC. Close to fifty percent of the circuit board inside the Explore is burnished with dedicated audio circuitry supporting the Texas Instruments Burr Brown PCM 1794 stereo DAC chip, a ‘highest performing’ chip delivering up to 24-bit, 192kHz resolution. DSD is supported, but are converted to PCM for playback. MQA support is not on the radar, however. Given the relatively pragmatic take on audio from the brand, and its intended audience of music lovers rather than out-and-out audiophiles, the need for MQA is perhaps a more complex issue than first imagined, as the formatt is attempting to encroach on a more mainstream audio market, but I suspect the market for good looking, great sounding DAPs will find their own niche, MQA or not.
In my auditions, I found the Explorer to deliver on Echobox’s bold sonic goals to produce an organic sounding playback reminiscent of a vinyl experience. In general I did find a laid back natural sound that was complemented by an openness of presentation that was wonderfully unexpected in a hand held device. Take Kurt Vile’s 2011 Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze[Matador] for example. Over a breezy set of tracks Mr. Vile sets up the melodic finale ‘Gold Tones’ that never fails to deliver you someplace special by way of hypnotic monotone vocals over an evolving interplay between traditional acoustic and slide guitars. The Explorer wrapped each of these crucial elements with a little sonic membrane of space and set a depth to the recording that would be hard not to describe as eye opening. The Explorer’s ability to construct the illusion of depth was tremendous and did offer a high fidelity listening experience that was solidly convincing. I did find myself missing some of the precise midrange detail offered by a good stationary piece of equipment like the underrated iFi-Audio Micro iDac-2, but the thrill of being able to enjoy a comparable and arguably better level of quality on the go left me with a positive impression of the Explorer’s value.