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.
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
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.