Budget DacMagic Is No Illusion
by John Gatski
Standalone DACs are a-plenty in today’s audiophile/computer audio world — with lower-cost, good-sounding DACs that rival or surpass multi-thousand dollar DACs of just a few year ago. For many, a good DAC is an ideal way to upgrade the stereo audio playback of CD, DVD and even first-generation universal players with digital outputs. Low-cost BD players also benefit, as well as computer audio. An example of a fine sounding, but economical, D/A is the Cambridge Audio DacMagic. Although it came out a few years ago, I never got a chance to review it. So here is my take.
Priced at $499, the made-in-China DacMagic is a nicely featured DAC that upsamples incoming frequencies (32 kHz to 96 kHz) to 192 kHz, which is said to offer detailed, jitter-free and smooth audio playback. The half-rack-sized DacMagic sports three filter modes, and contains a plethora of input options, including AES/EBU XLR and three sets of SPDIF optical/unbalanced RCA jacks. It also contains a USB input for computer use, but it does not accept sample rates higher than 48 kHz.
The DacMagic outputs stereo audio via balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA. Unfortunately, the unit does not have a headphone amp. There also is a SPDIF digital pass-through output to feed the raw signal to another source, bypassing the upsampling circuit.
The front panel includes a selector button for the inputs and a button to select the digital filters and phase. The three user-selectable filters — Linear Phase, Minimum Phase and Steep — are claimed to offer subtle differences in sonic presentation.
The DacMagic utilizes one DAC per channel, the**Wolfson 24-bit WMB8740 chip. The always-on upsampling circuit is termed ATF (adaptive time filtering) which incorporates a 32-bit Texas instrument DSP chip that performs its upsampling functions, including creating**“new data in the temporal domain, dramatically reducing digital jitter...” The DacMagic also is equipped with the same digital filtering system used in Cambridge’s high-end CD players.
If you are shopping for new gear and it has been ten years or more since the last digital player or DAC purchase, a DacMagic purchase can save you a bunch of coin and reap exponential sonic rewards.
The unit’s compact dimensions, 2 inches tall by 8 inches wide by 7.5 inches deep, make it a nice fit where space is limited (that small bit of space between your rack top and the CD player perhaps). The silver gray finish complements most components.
I tried the DacMagic with a plethora of different sources — an Esoteric DV-50 universal player, Oppo BDP83 universal player, a vintage 1992 Denon CD player, a 2004 Pioneer PD-578 universal player**and even a new Sony BD player — to ascertain any differences between the internal DACs and the Cambridge.
To see how it stacked up against more expensive DAC competitors, I compared its sound to the Benchmark DAC1 Pre and Lavry DA10, which are twice the price and then some. Other DACs included the Mytek 24/96 DAC and an old Parasound UltraAnalog DAC-2000 (circa 1998) and an Audio-Alchemy DAC from 1995.
I also connected the DacMagic to a Macbook Pro laptop using the USB port and Apple’s optical digital output jack to observe any sonic benefit over the Apple’s internal DAC. For speaker listening, the DACs were connected to my Coda preamp, which fed a Pass X350.5 amplifier. The Pass drove a pair of Legacy Focus 20/20 speakers. Interconnects included Alpha-Core solid-silver cables and solid-silver speaker cables.
For headphone listening (to hear deeper into the DAC comparisons), I connected a Benchmark Class-A HP-1 headphone amp to the Coda pre’s line out. The Lavry, Mytek and Benchmark DACs’ output were matched to the DacMagic's output level.
The filter configurations had to be considered into the equation, but their effect was less audible with CDs than with DVD-As or other high-bit rate sources such as high-res computer .WAV files. I did a lot of listening with the Minimum Phase filter; it gave my ears the most accurate sonic snapshot of the upsampling DAC. Its transient delivery was smooth with nice bass and good separation.
With the setup out of the way, I first played Lawrence Juber’s Guitar Noir DVD-A. Since the Oppo BDP-83 digitally outputs full-res audio from DVD-As, I connected it to the DacMagic. The first cut, Guitar Noir, has very detailed finger style guitar and nice, fully-dimensioned percussion that befits a 24-bit high-resolution recording. The DacMagic did a nice job rendering the warmth of the finger picking, plus imparting a desirable smoothness on the percussion. The stereo image was nice and wide, but the front-to-back resolution was not quite as deep as Oppo’s internal converter or the Benchmark’s, but still pretty darn good.
The Benchmark was a bit more forward in its realism and the percussion transients slightly more weighted and tighter, but the DacMagic’s slight warmth did not leave me wanting — when listening to it singularly.
Converters have changed a lot since the days of 16 to 20-bit designs. If you are shopping for new gear and it has been ten years or more since the last digital player or DAC purchase, a DacMagic purchase can save you a bunch of coin and reap exponential sonic rewards.
I listened to Beck - Sea Change — a 24-bit/88.2 DVD-A that has a magnificent blend of acoustic guitar, electric beat box rhythms and percussion. The recording's top end is very detailed via the Benchmark, Oppo and Lavry, but the Cambridge DacMagic did an admirable job, considering it is under $500.
Most converters these days have some sort of upsampling circuit. I believe the upsampling can effectively improve CDs that have a certain flat rolled-off character, such as old classical recordings and jazz. Unlike other upsampling DACs I have used, however, the DacMagic does not add too much treble energy to recordings that are already forward in the high midrange to low treble. That is a good thing. I listened to the first iteration of Janis Joplin - Pearl CD from the 1980s. I always thought it was bit harsh on the top end, but the DacMagic relayed a smooth impression of the recording.
I had the DacMagic in for review at the same time the well-regarded Bryston BDA-1 had its review tenure with me. The DacMagic has a similar sonic signature to the Bryston when the BDA-1 is operated in the upsampling mode — a smooth, slightly warm character with good detail and a subtle presence sheen. The Bryston had more detail from front to back, and you can manually turn off the upsampling, but you would expect more from it, considering it costs four times as much.
Although I mostly listened to the Minimum Phase filter, I took a long listen to each of the filters to ascertain any major differences — for better or worse. According to Cambridge, the Linear Phase filter is the most time coherent of the three filters and the Steep filter has a steeper high frequency roll-off. The Minimum Phase filter, though, seemed to present a nice middle ground with tight bass, a revealing soundstage and ample transient energy.
I have used several DACs and players with adjustable filters (my Esoteric DV-50, for example). At best, they can provide an extra bit of ambiance, depending on the quality of the recording. I have heard some filters impart an extra harshness, but none of the DacMagic filters resulted in any major negative to the sound. Just a nice extra feature that gives you a little more fine sonic tuning — depending on the source music.
For the money, the Cambridge DacMagic is perfect for those who need an entry audiophile DAC to use with various audio players and the computer. It is a product that breathe new life into an old CD, DVD or first- or second-generation universal player.
The filters’ subtle audible differences were more audible when I listened through the Benchmark Class-A headphone amp than through the speakers; there were some perceptible differences, depending on the type of music, but they were not major.
I liked the sound of recorded acoustic guitar via the DacMagic. My own 24/96 stereo-mic’d recordings of a fingerstyle Martin vintage reissue 00-18V revealed the picking detail, with a warm smooth midrange. The soundstage was quite good — considering the price — with a wide spread of the guitar picking across the speaker line. I could clearly hear the picked string’s subtle reverb decay on the recording.
The DacMagic was amazing in its improvement over old CD players, such as the Denon DCD-1012 and even my Fostex professional CD recorder/player that was $3,000 in 1998. CDs sounded so much more refined, separated and smooth, compared to the original converters.
And the DacMagic blew away the old standalone converters I hand on hand. The Audio Alchemy and the DAC-2000 sonically revealed much more audible harshness on older pop CDs compared to the DacMagic. Converters have changed a lot since the days of 16 to 20-bit designs. If you are shopping for new gear and it has been ten years or more since the last digital player or DAC purchase, a DacMagic purchase can save you a bunch of coin and reap exponential sonic rewards.
I had one of the new class of low-cost BD players in for testing at the same time as the DacMagic. In playing CDs and DVD-V 24bit 96 kHz audio discs, the DacMagic was smoother and fuller sounding than the low-cost BD’s internal DAC. With this DAC and a cheap BD player, you can have a high-end sounding rig.
Playing PCM recordings, high-res DVD-Vs and 24-bit data .wav files from my Macbook Pro via the USB and optical digital ports, the DacMagic handled all the high-res recordings with the same sonic deftness as the other sources. I found the DacMagic an ideal budget DAC for the computer audiophile and quality conscious home studio musician. Its sound was way better than the laptop D/A, which lacks the transient precision and is noisy in comparison to the Cambridge.
However, the DacMagic’s lack of 24-bit USB means you can’t play your high-res recordings through it from a computer without a sound card or other PC digital audio output. Apple users are lucky in that all of its computers have a combo optical digital/analog audio port capable of full 24-bit,96 kHz digital audio output.
I had no complaints with the DacMagic, especially for its price. It would be nice to have a headphone jack, gain control and 24/96 kHz capability from the USB input, but I know — for an audiophile DAC — it is built to a low price point.
For the money, the Cambridge DacMagic is perfect for those who need an entry audiophile DAC to use with various audio players and the computer. It is a DAC that breathes new life into an old CD, DVD or first- or second-generation universal player. The DacMagic also can deliver better quality stereo audio from this new generation of low-cost Blu-ray players that are selling for under $300. Unquestionably, a Stellar Sound Award winner!
For more info, click Cambridge Audio DacMagic