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Hi-Fi For The Long-Haul (Part 3) - Cambridge Audio

1/28/2014 11:29:33 AM
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Cambridge Audio already has a couple of very capable DACs on its books in the shape of the DacMagic 100 and DacMagic Plus – but these are both reasonably hefty desktop units that require mains power. The ultra-portable DacMagic XS that completes the range is a dinky USB model.

And, although the DacMagic XS is one of the cheapest devices in its class, there’s little to suggest this: the packaging is slick and the product itself has a nice finish. It’s a little chunkier and wider than the DragonFly and the Audio-engine, but build quality is impressive – it feels just as substantial and looks the business too.

DacMagic XS

DacMagic XS

Connections are simple: there’s a micro-USB input on one end for connecting to your computer (a supplied connector cable completes the chain) and a standard 3.5mm socket for your headphones on the other.

A single, hardworking LED shows the sample rate of the incoming audio signal – blue for 44.1/48kHz, green for 88.2/96kHz and purple for 176.4/192kHz – as well as the amp’s volume limits.

Really easy to use

Where the AudioQuest and Audio-engine DACs take their volume cues from your computer, the XS has its own in the shape of circular ‘+’ and ‘-’ buttons on top of the device. If you press them both at once and hold for a few seconds, they also switch the DAC operation from USB 1.0 to 2.0. The advantage here is that the DacMagic XS will now accept a native high-resolution 24-bit/192kHz stream. In USB 1.0 mode it is limited to 24-bit/96kHz (PC users will have to download additional drivers from Cambridge’s website to enable this).

There’s a hidden benefit to the USB 2.0 mode, and that is better sound quality generally. Even with a standard 16-bit/44.1kHz rip of Lady Gaga’s Do What you Want, we preferred listening in USB 2.0 mode. The track sounds more focused, stable and confident and there’s plenty of well-organized detail for the listener to take note of.

The Cambridge gives the track good weight and momentum too, with agile, precise and subtle lows spurring the tune along. The DacMagic’s refined tonal balance is hugely comforting, and helps take the edge off brittle- or bright-sounding recordings. If you’re used to using your laptop or desktop computer’s headphone output for listening to music, the DacMagic is likely to be a big step up.

DacMagic XS

DacMagic XS

The DacMagic’s refined tonal balance is hugely comforting, and helps take the edge of bright-sounding recordings. It’s a big step up from a computer’s headphone output.

Smooth, full-bodied sound

Make the switch to a higher-resolution track and the your enjoyment goes up with the jump in bits. Kate Bush’s 50 Words For Snow (24-bit/96kHz) sounds subtle and intricate. The XS delivers plenty of insight and has a silky smooth, delicate way with vocals – there’s plenty of warmth here and a nice, full-bodied balance. The story is similarly positive with a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G Minor.

We do think AudioQuest DragonFly sounds clearer, though, and also has the edge in terms of outright resolution and dynamic subtlety.

DacMagic XS

DacMagic XS

The Cambridge Audio has no trouble dispatching the Fiio and Audio-engine DACs. Its main problem is the fierce competition provided by the AudioQuest DragonFly and its all-new price tag. That DAC is only $49.3 more and is definitely worth spending the extra on for the notable jump in sound quality.

Specifications

  • Converter: ESS9023 24-bit digital to analog converter
  • Output voltage: 2V RMS
  • Power: 150mW
  • SNR: 103 dBr, un-weighted
  • Crosstalk: 66dB
  • Dimensions: 30 x 54 x 10 mm
  • Weight: 3.5 oz (100g)

 

 
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