Cambridge Audio is a British company well known in audio circles for providing high-quality products at reasonable prices. While I was at CES 2009, I had a chance to peruse their products and their diminutive DacMagic caught my eye. This upsampling DAC is value priced at $450 and packs a lot of functionality in its roughly eight-and-one-half-inch wide by two-inch high by seven-and-one-half-inch deep chassis. (It also comes with a base, so that it can be positioned vertically.) The DacMagic has two sets of Toslink and SPDIF inputs and one set of Toslink and SPDIF pass through outputs, a USB input and both single-ended and balanced analog audio outputs. The front panel has three buttons - power, phase and filter selection - along with status LEDs that depict phase, filter and sampling rates. Needless to say, the front and rear panel real estate on the DacMagic is used well.
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The DacMagic is no slouch on the performance side of things. Functionality is great to have, but it becomes worthless when performance is poor. The DacMagic features Adaptive Time Filtering (ATF) asynchronous upsampling which converts 16-24-bit audio with sampling rates between 32kHz and 96kHZ to a 24-bit word length at 96kHz. The ATF process is accomplished with a 32-bit Texas Instruments DSP. The DACs are dual Wolfson WM8740s running in dual differential mode. These are the same DACs that Cambridge Audio has used with great success in their CD players. The DacMagic can also invert phase, as well as implement any one of three phase filters: linear phase, minimum phase and steep phase. I did my listening in the linear phase mode and found the sound quality to be coherent from top to bottom. Soundstages were reasonably sized, with the individual instruments and vocals easily discernible from each other in place and texture. The DacMagic couldn't match the performance of my reference Classé CDP-202 but, at one-thirteenth the price, I don't expect it to do so. The differences were never the addition of objectionable artifacts by the DacMagic, but came about because the Classé was able to resolve that extra little bit of texture or place the image with a bit more precision. The omissions were the kinds of things you would not miss if you had not already experienced them. One could live quite happily with the DacMagic and never know they were missing that last bit of performance.
Read about the high points and the low points of the DacMagic on Page 2.
• The DacMagic's sound quality is a significant step up from most big box store CD/DVD players and computer sound cards.
• This unit can handle a variety of sources with its multiple inputs with USB, Toslink and SPDIF capabilities.
• The DacMagic's topology provides a true balanced audio signal.
• The USB connection has inherent limitations, in that its word length and sampling rate are limited by the USB 1.0 stock chipsets. It is also prone to excessive jitter.
• It would be nice to have a remote to change between inputs and filters. I understand the limitations at the price, but perhaps an optional backlit remote would make sense for the future.
Competition and Comparison
Be sure to compare the Cambridge Audio DacMagic against other DACs by reading our reviews for Cary Audio's Xciter and Wadia's 151 PowerDAC. There are more DAC reviews in our Source Component section. For more information about the company, check out our Cambridge Audio brand page.
Cambridge Audio's DacMagic may be tiny, but it packs a wallop. This unit provides a great deal of functionality with its multiple inputs and input formats. Sound quality is solid. Being an audiophile, I will discuss the unit's sonic performance a bit more. When handling audio from a CD transport, the DacMagic did quite well with uniform performance, despite using several different source components. Overall, the performance did not equal that of the four-times-as-expensive Logitech Transporter, but it did deliver much more than price difference would suggest. The filters allow the user to tailor the sound somewhat to personal tastes, although I preferred the linear phase mode. USB was another story. I was quite intrigued by the unit's USB performance, which varied greatly with one of my laptops, particularly when the laptop was plugged into its power supply. My new laptop, when running off of battery power, provided much more uniform sound quality through the DacMagic. I believe that much of what I experienced is a result of the USB transmission format, rather than the DAC itself. Nonetheless, I would not use the USB output of my computer as a critical listening source. I understand that there are some units coming onto the market now that are said to incorporate custom chipsets that can circumvent much of the USB limitations. It will be interesting to see how these work out. That said, for non-critical listening, the DacMagic consistently outperformed the sound cards of every computer I tried, including one friend's computer that had an allegedly upgraded sound card.
Cambridge Audio's DacMagic is a little powerhouse. It is versatile, sounds good and can help you eliminate some of that clutter on your audio rack.