Review: Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS

Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS pumps up the volume, dance, dance (July 24th, 2014)

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Product Manufacturer: Cambridge Audio

Price: $199 retail

The Good

  • Sturdy construction
  • Driverless on OS X
  • Simple operation
  • Stunning sound quality

The Bad

  • Micro USB plug for charging
  • Short USB cable length
  • Not for mobile

Every computer with a microphone or headphone port has one -- a digital to analog converter (DAC). There are nearly as many chipsets and DAC models as there are models of laptop, and as many opinions on the efficacy of various implementations. Cambridge Audio has a USB one to supplement its line -- the DacMagic XS. Does the little device do as it promises, and actually boost the listening quality of digitally encoded music?

The DacMagic XS is an aluminum-clad box, about the same size as a box of wooden matches. Cambridge Audio supports a variety of sample rates, from 44.1kHz through 192kHz in USB 2.0 mode -- more on that in a little bit. Output voltage is 2V RMS, with 0.5 Ohms of output impedance. Minimum headphone impedance is 12 Ohms. Max power is 150mW, with a frequency response of 20Hz through 20kHz. Windows users need to install a device driver to properly utilize USB 2.0 mode -- OS X users after OS X 10.6 have no need for a driver, nor is there one available.

Controls on the device are super-simple. One button for volume up, one for down. Press both simultaneously, and the DacMagic switches to USB 2.0 mode, allowing for the higher sample rates that the device supports. That's all. A single LED changes color to show the user the sample rate of the signal, as well as blinking annoyingly when the 53-step volume limit is reached.

We tested the DacMagic XS on a dizzying array of audio equipment, with a variety of musical styles and compositions including classical, modern rock, classic rock, adult contemporary, rap, heavy metal, and dubstep. All tracks were ripped from an original CD, at four different bit rates: 128kbit MP3 using iTunes 10.6.3, average 256kbit AAC VBR with Max 0.9.1, 256kbit AAC with iTunes 10.6.3, and Apple lossless with iTunes 10.6.3. Following this reviewer's personal assessment of the device, we used our five-person testing panel, as we did with previous audio device reviews, and comparatively listened to nearly seven hours of music.

When we started the review process for the DacMagic XS, I was skeptical. I've written this review at least three times, and listened to way more music with it than is strictly necessary for a product review, grasping at anything to find at issue with the product. The ESS Sabre ES9023 24-bit DAC inside the DacMagic XS blows me away. Bass is clear, without resorting to distortion to "prove a point" in some of the more thumpy tracks. Vocals are clear and resplendent, and not washed out by the rest of the music. Volume control is linear, without steep drops common to computer volume control.

The acoustical difference between the DAC in the test 2012 Retina MacBook Pro was pretty significant to not only me, but the testing panel as well. Even with the quorum agreeing with my assessment, I wondered if I was succumbing to some form of observer bias.

Through some software trickery, and a A/B switch, I risked some sound degradation, and implemented a way to toggle the audio source for our headphones we're using for testing back and forth mechanically between the on-board signal and the DacMagic's signal. Other than the DacMagic-channeled music playing back a fraction of a second behind the onboard chip, the difference between the two was clear. I won't go as far as to say that Apple's chipset is garbage, but there is indeed a giant difference between the two.

Not everybody needs an external DAC. In fact, if you're generally happy with Apple's earbuds, even the newer EarPods, you probably don't need an external DAC. I hazard a guess that the market for a product such as the DacMagic XS is pretty small. However, we have heard several significantly-higher-end products that promise that they'd enhance the listener's enjoyment of digitally encoded music. We know that they do, but the price is generally exorbitant.

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS is an inexpensive product, that for 20 percent of the typical price, delivers 80 percent or more of the functionality of the more expensive options. We feel that it does it well, and stylishly, with little technical friction between the listener and the music. It won't jack up low-bitrate music more than the bits themselves allow, but anything above our 128kbit music samples were greatly enhanced by the dongle, demanding that we recommended it to audiophiles of all stripes.

by Mike Wuerthele


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