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GadgeTell Review: Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS

Sections: Accessories, Audio, Headphones, Reviews, Speakers

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I’m always interested in the latest speakers and audio technology that comes about. Nothing expensive, though, but just in the typical consumer price bracket. What can I say, except that I have a budget for the equipment to create the soundtrack for my life.

While attending CES 2014, I had the chance to stop by the Cambridge Audio suite in the Venetian and check out their latest and greatest. The biggest curiosity was also the smallest device in the entire room. As the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS was being explained to me, my eyes must have gone gooey with awe. Make my music sound better instantly? Yes, please!

Although I had already been familiar with digital-to-analog converters (DACs), this was the first I had heard (and seen) of one so affordable. So put it to the test I did.

Design & Operation

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS has all the right looks in a perfect size. Two volume buttons, one audio port, one USB port, and an LED are wrapped up with a brushed aluminum casing. It’s as sturdy and tough as it is visually appealing. What more could one ask for?

Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS laptop

Complements Samsung laptops

With the DacMagic XS comes a little cloth bag and a short USB cable for power and data. The decision to use a cable, instead of having the DAC plug in like a flash drive, is a smart one. Not only does the design look better, but the cable itself can be swapped for longer or shorter (such as the convenient Nomad ChargeKey) USB cable, depending on what you like.

My Windows 8 laptop quickly recognized and automatically installed the essentials to get the DacMagic XS up and running. Following the instructions to upgrade the device so that it operates on USB 2.0 didn’t take long. Although none of my music has quality higher than 44kHz, it’s just a habit of mine to perform all firmware updates.

When pressed simultaneously, the pair of volume buttons act to power on, switch to USB 2.0, and turn off. Individually they’re, well, volume buttons. Even though my laptop acknowledges the activated DacMagic XS, I have to manually switch the default audio device each time. Plug in a set of headphones or speakers and then it’s all good to go.

Performance

The DacMagic XS provides an easily-discernable volume boost, of about 5 to 7 decibels. But when it comes to determining the improvement to music audio, that’s where it can be easy, tricky, or somewhere in the middle (which is where I am). Musicians should be able to pick up on the differences quickly, but one doesn’t necessarily need to be a musician in order to hear it.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS

Points for looks!

There are ways to practice on how to listen to the different aspects of music. Having someone with a good ear for sound to point out specifics is probably the most effective way to learn.

One can liken such listening to wine drinking; it takes patience, pointers, and practice to be able to notice the subtle differences and then describe it.

The DacMagic XS (and most any DAC for that matter) improves sound by delivering the most of what your music already has. It balances levels and brings out some of the lesser, quieter details that tend to be lost within a piece. Instruments have more breathing room, and the imaging is clearer and more focused.

When I listen to some of my traditional Celtic music with the DacMagic XS, the percussive hits of the hammered dulcimer are as sharp as pinpricks. The way the decay of the musical notes drop off sounds more natural too. The drop is more like a logarithmic curve instead of a straight line (took me awhile to wrap my head around this), which is why there is less of a halo effect hovering above the music. The DacMagic XS lets more of the variance and complexities of the stringed instruments shine through.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS matchbox

Can almost fit in a matchbox

The soundstage is opened up more, allowing the music to sound less boxed-in. This is easy enough for me to hear while listening to “Awaken” by Dethklok. It took some pointers from my brother (musician) to identify how the DAC brings out more from the guitars.

With it, the lead guitar has a more defined sound when the strings bend and wail. This detail, though subtle to me, is very obvious to my brother. The difference with and without the DacMagic XS is comparable to fresh guitar strings versus old worn ones.

While listening to the Guns ‘N Roses song “Patience”, I can hear the hit and scratch of Slash’s guitar strings right before it twangs. I didn’t need any help on this one, as I noticed this aspect rather immediately. The DacMagic XS lets the natural, texture qualities of the instruments be heard. Axl’s vocals sound fuller too. Without the DAC, these little details end up being lost.

If you’re not a musician (or at least have learned to listen like they do), It helps to really know a song in order to hear the improvements. At first, that is. The more I listen with the DacMagic XS, the more adept I find myself picking up on things I never noticed before, or being able to identify and express elements that sound new, fresh, or different.

Verdict

Overall the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS helps to improve the clarity of music. From the subtle intakes and exhales of a singer’s breath to crisper- and truer-sounding cymbals, you can hear many more of the small details that are normally obscured. The cumulation of all these subtle and not-so-subtle bits greatly add to the overall music performance.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS box

Box contents

While the DAC brings out the best of music, it doesn’t affect each aspect of a song. Louder and more prominent instruments are generally left intact, although with added richness and more room to breathe.

It’s the quieter parts that get the noticeable boost. Although the DacMagic XS can provide better results with high-fidelity music, it still works great with the typical 44kHz (CD, FLAC, WAV, etc) recordings that most of us own.

Using the DacMagic XS with music is like coloring a Marvel comic book page with colored pencils; the edges are sharp and the details well-defined. Take away the DAC, and it’s as if those colored pencils are replaced with jumbo crayons. Sure, all the colors are there and generally in the right spots, but not without a bunch of fuzzing outside of the lines.

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS is half the cost of most other compact DACs available right now. This makes owning it a very easy and (relatively) inexpensive way to improve listening experiences with headphones and speakers. While some may think the DacMagic XS caters to the audiophile crowd, I believe that enthusiasts and casual listeners can enjoy it too. Having some of the differences pointed out makes a world of difference, and once you go DAC you’ll never go back.

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