First came vinyl, then came CD, and then (very briefly) came DVD-Audio and SACD, but now a new, high quality music platform is upon us: the digital download. While MP3s have been with us for over ten years, they've never been viewed as a "hi-fi" solution. Instead, newer formats like Apple Lossless and FLAC have become the standard for CD-quality and better music. But what to play them on?
Devices like the Cambridge Audio DacMagic have been around since the 80s. The idea is you plug a digital source into it — such as a CD or DVD player — and upgrade the performance of the part that transforms the zeroes and ones into sound: the digital-to-analogue converter (DAC). The big difference with this device, and others like the Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear, is that it has a USB input so you can now play back your burgeoning number of digital files on a high-end stereo.
Design and Features
This is no dinky sound card — this is a serious piece of equipment. The casing is extruded metal — in a choice of silver or gun metal — and is exceedingly solid. The number of controls on the front is quite comprehensive, but it doesn't look cluttered. You get a three-way selector switch, a filter/phase button (Lin/Min/Steep), a Phase indicator and a sample rate panel.
The Cambridge comes with a choice of three inputs: two digital (with a choice of optical and coaxial) and one USB. The big kicker for audiophiles is the inclusion of balanced XLR outputs, which means you can get the best quality signal out of the device and into a system that supports it. The box also comes with a digital pass-through as well, which means you can bypass the DacMagic if you like. The only downside is that the box doesn't come with a remote control, so you have to get up and change the input manually.
As far as the eponymous "DAC", you get not one but two Wolfson WM8740 DACs in "dual differential mode", which is the same configuration used in the new Azur 650C CD player. We personally think Cambridge Audio is cutting itself off at the knee a bit here, because for only a little bit more (AU$899) you could get a CD player thrown in as well. Of course you lose the external DAC capability, but if you only want a CD player then the 650C may suit your needs better.
But how does it sound? We're not going into the technical differences between the three filter settings now — 'cos even Cambridge Audio admits it's nerdy — but you can read more about it here. But we will say that the first and third are the most "exciting" sounding while the Min setting is a little more laid-back and bassy.