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Many years ago, at the height of the CD player boom, a new device called a DAC found its way to hi-fi store shelves, promising to improve the sound from the new shiny discs. A DAC or Digital-Analog Converter did exactly what it sounds like: it converted a CD's ones and zeroes to soundwaves.
But this was back in the days of mostly analog receivers. When digital receivers started hitting the market, the focus shifted from playing music to movies. Most people found that the DACs onboard their new digital hubs were good enough and external DACs became dormant.
Dormant, that is, until British hi-fi manufacturer Cambridge Audio revived the product category with its excellent DacMagic in 2009, and suddenly manufacturers such as Rega and Arcam started offering standalone units as well. Digital music was thriving and people wanted to get the best possible sound out of their digital libraries. Onboard DACs, particularly on budget receivers, can be cheap and designed to sound good with movies but can be shrill with music. An outboard DAC is designed to make music sound great.
While DVD Audio and SACD came and went, sites like HDTracks and even some artists themselves make high-resolution music affordable and easy to access. Why not use a device like the DacMagic Plus to wring that last piece of detail out of Kimbra's voice on "Somebody That I Used to Know"?
Three years down the road, and Cambridge Audio has followed up with the release of the DacMagic Plus. But now that the unit is now more expensive than many receivers, does it do enough to justify your investment?Design and features
The box is compact at 2 inches high, with a 7.6-inch-wide fascia and a depth of 8.6 inches. It's folded metal and comes with a thick aluminum faceplate. It's not fussy about positioning, as it can be mounted vertically with the included rubber stand. It comes in a choice of black or silver, but the activity lights are blue.
There are four main controls on the face: Power, Source, Volume and a Filter/Phase button for experimenting with different sound signatures. Of these I found the first, Lin(ear), to give the most engaging sound. Unfortunately there is no remote for the unit, and strangely it's not a feature its competitors favor either. The device features four inputs, two USB (one for external disks and one for the optional Bluetooth receiver) and two digital (each features both coaxial and optical). Outputs include stereo RCA and balanced XLR.
If you are a fan of hi-res music you'll be pleased to know the DacMagic will read files at up to 24-bit/192KHz sample rate. It then upsamples all material to 24/384 care of an Anagram Technologies ATF2 chip, and in the last gory detail the DacMagic features twin Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs, the same as featured in the original DacMagic.
Plugging in a CD player or Blu-ray is straightforward: plug in a digital cable and plug the RCA into your amp, or just connect your headphones. Setting up the PC input is a little trickier, as while it will work with generic Windows drivers and a USB cable, enjoying full 192KHz quality involves extra third-party drivers and a lot more noodling around (see the DacMagic Plus driver download instructions PDF).
When connecting the DacMagic to an amplifier you can disable the volume control by holding it down when turning the unit on; this will ensure that you get the highest possible signal quality to your device.
I use the original DacMagic at home and was interested to see how it compared with the new model. I tested the device with several sources including a PS3, a Logitech Squeezebox Touch, and a few PCs. Unsurprisingly, there is a family resemblance between the new DacMagic Plus and the older model, with both giving a polished performance with digital files. But of course, it does depend on the quality of the file -- don't expect 128Kbps MP3s to sound any good.
Listening to the aforementioned "Somebody That I Used To Know" in 24-bit, the vibraphone riff sounds more centered and less harsh than from my receiver's onboard DAC, the bass line extends, and Gotye's vocals fill the space between the speakers.
I found that the headphone output was usable but hardly revelatory. A good amp can make music sound effortless and more grounded -- the Cambridge Audio doesn't do that. It provided no extra benefit over the headphone jack on my Marantz SR5005 receiver.
If there's a difference between the two DACs it's that there is a tiny bit more bass extension on the new model, but its hardly worth an upgrade for owners of the older model. Some people may struggle to hear the difference between the output of the DacMagic Plus and that of a device like the Logitech -- which has a usable DAC for such an inexpensive device -- and indeed the changes can be quite subtle.
Even with the addition of the headphone output at $600, the DacMagic Plus is quite expensive and in my opinion doesn't quite do enough to justify the upgrade. If you're interested in PC-based music you may find that a new sound card such as the Sound Blaster Titanium HD ($130 online) is a more economical way to improve sound quality. Throw in a dedicated Schiit headphone amp and you're getting away for under $400.
However, if you have a stereo amp and want to enter the world of digital music armed with just a PC while also upgrading a cheap or aging disk player, then the DacMagic Plus could be worth investigating. Alternatively, you can save some money and go for the cheaper $369 DacMagic 100 or, if you just want to use headphones, there's also the Arcam rPAC headphone amp and USB DAC.