• Cambridge Audio DacMagic Review

    The Cambridge Audio DacMagic is not fancy by any means. It's a blue-collar DAC amongst white-collar competitors. The DacMagic doesn't command a stratospheric price and it gets the job done nicely. Strengths of the DacMagic are its versatility and price to performance ratio. The DAC offers three digital inputs and one digital output. These options almost guarantee it will work with any computer. The DAC's performance is boosted by its Adaptive Time Filtering (ATF™) asynchronous upsampling. No matter what sample rate the DAC is presented it upsamples to 24/192 and outputs good quality sound. At less than $400 this DAC isn't going to find diamonds in a lump of coal but it is a great value that will take lemons and make lemonade.
     

     




    Versatility

    The Cambridge Audio DacMagic is built to very good quality standards. It's a solid DAC compared to many other DACs that have come and gone from Computer Audiophile. As most readers have likely seen this DAC usually rests vertically in the included rubber stand. This makes for a great fit next to a computer monitor or a set of desktop speakers. The DAC can also rest horizontally and fit nicely with your existing components. The buttons on the front of the DAC are easy to use and switch inputs or phase with the slightest touch. The front panel also has an incoming sample rate indicator that illuminates sample rates from 32 to 96 kHz. This is not to be mistaken with a bit perfect indicator like an HDCD light. The sample rate indicator is also nice for people new to computer based audio. It's an easy way to visually identify if the correct sample rate is leaving your computer. This may sound elementary to some learned computer audiophiles, but there are days when all of us have to look at the end of a TosLink cable just to verify it's connected.

    The DacMagic has all the inputs and outputs the everyday audiophile will need. Two optical, two coaxial, and one USB input are enough for most applications. The DAC offers one coaxial and one optical digital output, and standard single ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) analog outputs. The coaxial output came in very handy for me during the review. It allowed me to test for bit perfect output from my computer in a roundabout fashion. Using the MediaMonkey waveOut plug-in (v2.0.2a) I selected the DacMagic as my USB output device. I connected the coaxial digital output from the DacMagic to my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC. Then I played HDCD encoded 16/44.1 tracks to verify the bit perfect signal reached the Alpha DAC and illuminated the HDCD indicator via the DacMagic's digital passthrough. If nothing else, this test verified the audio signal reached the DacMagic unaltered by Windows XP or anything else.

    The DacMagic USB input does not support native high resolution files at 24/96. In addition the Windows XP music server I used during this review did not have a coaxial output to send 24/96 files to the DAC. To test 24/96 albums with the DacMagic I connected the Bel Canto USB Link which converted USB to coaxial at full 24/96 resolution. Even though the DacMagic upsamples every input signal to 24/192 there was still a great advantage to using some 24/96 material. I have several DVD-Audio discs that I've ripped to 24/96 AIFF files. My John Hiatt Bring The Family 24/96 version is much better than any of the 16/44.1 versions available. Thus, sending the 24/96 AIFF version to the DacMagic, without downsampling to 16/44.1 via USB before upsampling to 24/192, was sonically very advantageous. The fact that 24/96 is a multiple of 24/192 certainly couldn't hurt either. It's often best to upsample in the same family as the original source material i.e. 24/88.2 to 24/176.4, and 24/96 to 24/192. The reason I used the verbiage, "... certainly couldn't hurt..." when discussing the DacMagic upsampling from 24/96 to 24/192 is that the Adaptive Time Filtering (ATF™) asynchronous upsampling is not your father's upsampler. The sonic impact of upsamping always depends on the manufacturer's implementation within the DAC. The Cambridge Audio DacMagic has a very solid upsampling implementation that is on par with many of the much more expensive DACs I've listened to recently.

     


    Price / Performance

    With the 2008 holiday shopping season nearing an end and the global financial situation looking dismal, it's fabulous to see high performance low price audio components. The DacMagic is certainly one of these components. It has Dual Wolfson WM8740 24bit DACs, a Texas Instruments TMS 320VC5501 DSP upsampling digital filter and a 2-Pole Dual Differential Bessel Double Virtual Earth Balanced analog filter. As the front panel of the DAC suggests it supports input sample rates from 32 to 96k and upsamples everything to 24/192. All of this comes together to produce some very nice sound from a reasonably priced package. The DacMagic did not sound offensive throughout the range of high and low frequencies. The DAC was pleasant to listen to and was not fatiguing at all. There is nothing worse than a component that turns an enjoyable listening experience into a headache causing nightmare. Fortunately the DacMagic was enjoyable from start to finish. Listening to Rock and Acoustic music this DAC sounds great and has no trouble sending out analog exactly what came in as digital. John Mellencamp's new album Life, Death, Love, and Freedom in the 24/96 CODE version sounded very nice from track one through fourteen. I enjoyed listening to the complete album through the DacMagic. Classical Music with a wide dynamic range was a little different story. The DacMagic doesn't extend up or down as far as I prefer and the sound was congested at times. Listening to quite a few tracks from High Definition Tape Transfers (HDTT) it was clear this is surely not an Alpha DAC, but at $4,600 cheaper nobody should expect Alpha DAC performance from the DacMagic. All three digital interfaces sounded virtually indistinguishable from each other. This is good news for audiophiles with only one type of digital output on their computer. There is no need to wonder if purchasing a new computer with an optical or coaxial output, instead of the USB output, would improve the sound. In my opinion this DAC alleviates a little "Audiophilia Nervosa." Select an interface, start listening, and stop worrying. All the interfaces are good.

    Note: The majority of listening was done using a Windows XP music server, MediaMonkey, uncompressed AIFF files, and the waveOut plug-in.




    Conclusion

    The Cambridge Audio DacMagic is a very nice component to mate a computer with a traditional audio system. In addition this DAC would make an excellent higher-end desktop audio system even better. Placing the DacMagic vertically next to a monitor allows easy access to switch inputs if needed and offers a close-up view of the sample rate indicators. The DacMagic's very good sound quality is what we've all come to expect from Cambridge Audio. In typical Cambridge fashion the price of this DAC is very reasonable as well. The DacMagic's high quality upsampling implementation is a big reason why this DAC competes with major high-end audio players. The DacMagic may be viewed as a utility man on a star-studded roster of DACs, but there is no doubt this DAC offers major league performance at a minor league price.

     

     




    DacMagic Upsampling Information PDF Link
    DacMagic Manual PDF Link
    Manufacturer: Cambridge Audio
    U.S. Distributor: Audio Plus Services
    Price: $399


    Associated Equipment: Windows XP music server, Mac Pro, Lynx AES16/e card, Kimber USB cable, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, PS Audio DLIII, Devilsound DAC, Benchmark DAC1 PRE, Kimber Select cable, Avalon Acoustics speakers, Focal Electra Be series speakers, McIntosh tube amplification, Virtual Dynamics power cables, Richard Gray's Power Company cables, Bel Canto USB Link.

     

     



    DacMagic
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    DacMagic
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    DacMagic
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    DacMagic
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    Digital Filter Algorithm Graphs


    Linear Phase

    DacMagic
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    Minimum Phase

    DacMagic
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    Steep Phase

    DacMagic
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    Comments 64 Comments
    1. blessingx's Avatar
      blessingx -
      Thanks for the review. Aside from price/performance and extension issues, can you tell us a bit more about the signature and overall sound quality?<br />
    1. Andy Mack's Avatar
      Andy Mack -
      I've been looking at this DAC, and actually phoned the store - stock seems difficult to get hold of just at the mo, otherwise I'd probably be an owner already.<br />
      <br />
      I'd be interested in a comparison with the devilsound, and I see you've listed it in 'associated equipment'. After Christmas I'll probably be buying one or the other (or the Apogee Duet...)- if it was your money where would it go? My only real consideration is getting the best sound at around this price. If anyone else has any other suggestions or can weigh in on the comparison that would be great too.
    1. bluedy1's Avatar
      bluedy1 -
      Chris, thanks for the review. <br />
      My dacmagic should arrive on Friday and I am curious to see if it sounds better, than the ECHO audiofire 2 that I am currently using. The audiofire is 150€, it is proaudio, similar to the M-Audio mentionned in the forums here. And it does music.<br />
      Here in Europe retailers say that the dacmagic is the bargain of the century, that it should have been priced over 1000€... it is that good according to them. What I read from your review is slightly different. It is a nice competent machine but not a giant killer. How does it fare against the Benchmark for instance? You say a lot about technical features and very little about the music it does. It is because you are spoiled by the Berkeley that makes listening to lesser dac boring?
    1. elrod-tom's Avatar
      elrod-tom -
      Thanks for the review Chris. I'll be very curious what folks have to say about this DAC vs the Musical Fidelity V-DAC. I'm going to buy one or the other very shortly, and I'm wondering what the consensus is re) the $100 price difference.
    1. michelesurdi's Avatar
      michelesurdi -
      the dac magic is recognized by macbook but volume can only be barely controlled from itunes.this not a true mac compatible device,it seems to me.any hope for a mac compatible version?<br />
      michele from italy
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Michele - I still have the DacMagic here, can you be more specific about your concern? I think it works well on mac and pc.
    1. michelesurdi's Avatar
      michelesurdi -
      hello there,and a happy new year to you<br />
      here's the rub.I'm using the little bastard on the latest model macbook(4.1).dacmagic comes through as advertised,but using itunes 8.01 volume control is fractional even with the master(control bar) volume muted. using a teensy trends audio lite dac I keep itunes volume at max (no digital paring)and use the master volume as needed,which allows me to feed my amps direct.dac magic sounds wonderful from balanced to my nagra vpa amps,but it's way loud,even with itunes vol at minimum,as I said.by the way,my rig is all nagra throughout on tannoys,which means the dacmagic competes with the nagra cdc,which ain't chopped liver.seems to me the cambridge does not recognise mac osx 10.5.6.<br />
      I really appreciate your taking the trouble to answer me.<br />
      michele<br />
      <br />
      oops I goofed and anwered the mail.my bad
    1. michelesurdi's Avatar
      michelesurdi -
      after two days testing I can confirm the initial result:dacmagic is not fully mac osx usb capable.output volume <br />
      is extreme and can only be controlled,fractionally,by the application(e.g. itunes,aol radio) volume control,while main mac os volume and left right balance are completely bypassed. in my experience then cambridge dac matic is not suitable as a plug and play usb dac for mac users,and mine goes back to the dealer.smart marketing move though:who cares about mac users when the cambridge dac is magic for the xbox?<br />
      michele
    1. hubsand's Avatar
      hubsand -
      Thanks for the review, Chris, which largely chimes with my experience of the DacMagic. I really don't think the hype to the effect that it should cost $1000 is justified: it's a perfectly pleasant bit of kit, and unusually well specified for inputs and outputs, but sonically way behind (what is still) my favourite modestly priced bit of kit, the KingRex UD-01, which I auditioned back to back with the Cambridge.<br />
      <br />
      Last week I also bought the brand new version 2 Devilsound DAC which makes an interesting comparison to both! For the poster above: considering its limitations, I think it's hugely impressive. In out-and-out SQ terms, it's not as sweet or musical (or 'right') as the KingRex, but I suspect it's pretty close to the Cambridge (which I heard in a very different system from mine). Given that it essentially has 'no' power supply, that's quite an achievement.
    1. Andy Mack's Avatar
      Andy Mack -
      I've just bought a DacMagic! Thats a shame. I run the Kingrex T20u and the KingRex Pre so I like the way their stuff sounds, (and would recommend to anyone, incidentally) just wasn't sure about their little DAC- in fact it uses the same chip as the built-in DAC on the T20u.<br />
      Maybe the better implementation really makes a difference? Plus, I contacted the distributor and they suggested its pretty much essential to use the upgraded power supply to get the best from it, (although, they would of course!) which bumps up the price quite a bit. <br />
      <br />
      Having compared the built in DAC on the T20u with the dacmagic, so far... I can't really tell too much difference! Will continue to use it for a couple of weeks to see if burn in makes it better, but if not the improvement is too subtle to warrant the cost. It probably just speaks of the quality of the T20u. I might see if the Kingrex guys will let me try the UD-01... <br />
      <br />
      Maybe there will be something amazing unveiled at CES, a killer DAC for £200. Get looking Chris!
    1. Andy Mack's Avatar
      Andy Mack -
      I've just had the same experience- volume control is not possible with the little white remote. However, it does respond fully to the volume control via an ipod touch. I assumed they would be doing the same thing in the same way, but I guess not. <br />
      <br />
      So there is a solution if you like the sound! Granted if you don't already have an ipod the solution costs as much as the dac is in the first place...
    1. hubsand's Avatar
      hubsand -
      'Cos their UK site now advertises a new upgraded power supply shipping as standard. D'oh!<br />
      http://www.kingrex.co.uk/dac.html
    1. markeyd's Avatar
      markeyd -
      I read the first 8 pages of this thread:<br />
      <br />
      http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f7/musical-fidelity-v-dac-owners-391721/<br />
      <br />
      and many seem to prefer the v-dac in their side to side comparisons. If you have purchased one or the other I would like to hear what you think. If you are considering something else in this price range please advise . . . <br />
      <br />
      Some complained about the "PRAT" which is a new term for me, but a couple seem to indicate it gets a little better after breaking in. Still, they prefer the v-dac. Then again they might be maniacs I can't help thinking of Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School when he insists on buying new books because "maniacs" might have highlighted the used books. Anyway . . .
    1. Elprior's Avatar
      Elprior -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      <br />
      very good article.<br />
      I was especially attracted by the use of the Bel Canto USB Link.<br />
      I have just bought one, waiting for it to land at home .<br />
      <br />
      Just wondering, what MM plug-in are you using with the USB Link ?<br />
      Do you confirm bit-perfectness up to 24bits/96khz ?<br />
      I can't wait to play with this component.<br />
      <br />
      Thx,<br />
      Elp.
    1. mwheelerk's Avatar
      mwheelerk -
      I am extremely new here and not at all familiar with the issues some of the posters posed. However, I can say in my application the DacMagic has worked wonderfully. I have an iMac with a Time Capsule, Apple TV and iPod Touch. The Apple TV toslink connection is to the an input of the DacMagic and then connected to my NAD receiver. Used strictly for Music the HDMI video connection of the Apple TV is connected to an HMDI input on my NAD. I use the iPod Touch as the remote when I don't care to have the TV on. I am not understanding the volume control issues raised as both the Apple TV white remote and the iPod Touch remote will control volume on the system. I do have my iTunes library synched to the Apple TV and I don't know if that would make a difference if I were streaming.
    1. mrtoes's Avatar
      mrtoes -
      <br />
      Thanks for the review! I was wondering, given you have reviewed the Stello DA100 Signature recently, if you could give your impression of how the DACMagic matches up to it? The DACMagic sounds like a great buy but I'd consider spending a bit more on the Stello if it's a significant step up.<br />
      <br />
      Cheers,<br />
      <br />
      Matthew.<br />
    1. markeyd's Avatar
      markeyd -
      Are the majority of people who buy DAC's on this site doing so because the external DACs are better than the ones in their receivers, or is it because their amps do not have DACs built in? I know some like the ability to use the USB on their PC/MAC also.
    1. Mr.C's Avatar
      Mr.C -
      The majority of external dacs will be better than receiver dacs simply because the designers only had to concentrate on one thing instead of the many receiver functions. Also, a lot of people are using integrated amps, older receivers, or pre-power amp combos without dacs in them. As far as I know, putting a dac into an integrated amp is just starting to happen with most high end manufacturers ala simaudio and bryston. That been said, I picked up a used Denon 5800 and am quite impressed with the value and quality of the amps and dacs in it given how inexpensive they are now. So while the dacs in some receivers are sub par, some are also pretty good.
    1. kbuech's Avatar
      kbuech -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Glad to be in the forum. Nice review.<br />
      <br />
      Now that it is available, will you be reviewing the new usb, toslink, and Coax enabled Beresford TC-7520 DAC? I'd love to read your impression of it vs. the DAC Magic.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks for a great forum!<br />
      <br />
      Kurt Buechler
    1. simonk's Avatar
      simonk -
      Hi ,<br />
      I am a newbie to this site / forum but would appreciate some advice on DAC magic. I am looking to upgrdae my CD player and was told by my local hifi shop that an alternative was to use my existing DENON 1930 DVD player together with a DAC magic, and this will improve sound from CD's substantially... is this the way to go ..??. or should I just spend the money on a dedicated CD player....??? thanks in advance for advice ..simon