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.
When compared with the Yamaha CD-S700, the DacMagic was a lot less "shrill" and had a greater sense of depth both in the midrange and bass. This means it also sounded less immediately exciting, but was also much more natural for it. Stereo focus was excellent, with instruments locked into place and dynamics as big as they needed to be. We found this DAC to be suitable for all types of music — from acoustic to rock to symphonies, it sounded great. If you have an aging CD or DVD player, this is the quickest and easiest way to upgrade it.
Our only issue with the DacMagic is that while it will support files of a higher quality than CD (96kHz sample rate in theory), there is no conceivable way to get them into the device. Here, you're looking at free digital downloads from the likes of Nine Inch Nails or DVD-Audio and SACD. However, the DacMagic will only accept up to 48kHz connections via USB, and copy protection limits the output of HD disk formats to HDMI only — which this device doesn't have. All this extra resolution is therefore lost. While the unit upsamples to 24bit 192kHz by default, it would be great if didn't touch the signal at all.
We tried the DacMagic with a PS3 as well, and while music sounded a lot better, we still prefer the scale and serious oomph that a full 5.1 (or 7.1) system can give to movies or games.
We're unconvinced that the DacMagic is the ultimate solution for the PC listener, however. While the Lehmann Audio is three times the price, we still think it's a better option than the DACMagic. The fact that the Cambridge is limited to 48kHz means that extra resolution from the Nine Inch Nails album, for example, is lost, and this was borne out in our listening tests. When switching between an onboard Sigmatel STAC 9228 (Intel HD audio-compliant device which supports up to 192kHz) and the DAC, we found that while stereo focus was better on the Cambridge, the frequency range showed better extension with the onboard sound.
While it may not be the ultimate word in PC fidelity, it still sounds very good, and will suit those wanting a well-rounded solution that will cover, say, a CD player, DVD player and a PC.