Whenever I try to explain what a digital audio converter (DAC) does and why it’s a cool thing to have, I almost always get that “deer in headlights” look. Then – if they’re still listening – I tell them the cost of this cool DAC. That’s when the look changes to “are you nuts?” Sheesh, sometimes you just can’t win. No matter, because I got to review the new – and cool – Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC/Headphone Amp.
The DacMagic XS is exactly what the name implies: It’s an extra small version of CA’s line of full-sized DACs. DACs are designed to improve digital audio beyond the capabilities of a standard computer or CD player. All digital audio has to be converted to analog – which is what our ears hear. We can’t hear digital; soundwaves are analog. A good DAC will capture and convert as much as possible from the digital signal resulting in more accurate audio. That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is more complicated than that.
DACs – like anything else – can be really good or really … well, you get the picture. Unfortunately, most DACs on computer sound cards are in that latter catagory. Computer companies usually go with the cheapest components they can get away with. Since audio is so subjective, most people have no idea what they are missing by listening to their music through computer speakers. Sadly, many don’t even care, which is why it’s hard to explain why someone may (or may not) need or want one.
Here is a quick way to decide if you may even want a DAC or not: Do you use your laptop’s speakers, a Bluetooth speaker or a decent pair of stereo speakers? Do you have a good pair of headphones? By good, I mean at least $100. Is music important to you or is it just a soundtrack for your day? These are important things to consider when looking at DACs. Here’s my advice, pure and simple: If you’re happy with those free buds that came with your smart phone or a typical bluetooth speaker, save your money. On the other hand, it you’ve invested in a good pair of headphones, or use a nice set of speakers (wireless or not), then a DAC can certainly help.
That brings us to the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC/Headphone Amp. ironically, the name is bigger than the DAC itself. The DacMagic XS is both a digital audio converter and a headphone amp. While it looks nice, the cool factor is its portability. This thing is tiny. Plus, it’s powered by USB only. Connect one end to a laptop or computer and the other to headphones and that’s it. Dead simple.
While you can connect the DacMagic XS to a portable or powered speaker, I’m not convinced any improvement will be that dramatic. Headphones though are something else. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: You may not notice any OMG! moment after connecting a DAC to headphones. However, give it a few days and then unplug the DAC. The downgrade in audio will not be pleasant. It’s like wine. Once you’re introduced to the good stuff, it’s hard to go back to the gallon jug with the screw-top.
So what can you expect with the DacMagic XS? First, there will be a wider range in volume. That’s what the amp does. You will be able to turn up the volume without distortion creeping in. Also, you will be able to turn the volume down, yet still hear detail.
The DAC part lets you hear more musical information that can easily be lost relying on cheap computer sound cards. Plus there will be more clarity in the music. You may notice subtleties missed before. This can be really fun with songs you may be intimately familiar with. I especially notice the improvements in the Beatles 2009 remasters. An example would be Paul McCartney’s bass playing. It was virtually lost or buried on older recordings. The DacMagic XS lets you hear just how good McCartney’s bass playing was. It is breathtaking.
Note that in testing the DacMagic XS, I used various quality headphones and earphones. I don’t do buds.
Although the DacMagic XS is small, it’s a solid piece of engineering. The all aluminum body is brushed black with a chiseled edge that joins with the front and back plates. The unit is almost seamless with extremely tight tolerances. There is a single, tiny LED bulb that changes color depending on what sampling rate any particular song is: – blue is 44.1/48kHz, green is 88.2/96kHz and purple is 176.4/192kHz – and flashes red when the volume limit is reached.
The top of the DacMagic XS has only two oversized plus and minus volume buttons. That’s it. It turns on the moment it’s connected. While the buttons are convenient, the DacMagic XS overrides the native volume button on my iMac. I don’t like that, because I instinctively reach for Mac volume and not the DacMagic XS. It’s a learning curve that hasn’t sunk in yet.
Another thing that bothers me is the short USB cord. It’s 7” long including the USB connectors. That’s almost perfect for a laptop, but the DacMagic XS dangles in air when connected to my iMac, requiring me to use an old Apple USB extension that I had in a drawer. While I’m sure it was designed primarily for laptops, not everyone (like me) uses one. An extra, longer cord would have been nice. Also included is a silk-like drawstring bag to help keep the DacMagic XS dust free when stored.
There are no funky settings to mess with on a mac, but you do have to choose the DacMagic XS in the sound preferences output setting. It won’t be recognized immediately, but my iMac remembers the setting when I re-connect it. Windows users should have similar ease of use.
One example of how the DacMagic XS improves audio is the grating, but fascinating song “Fear” by John Cale from the album of the same name. Pounding piano overlaid on slightly out-of-tune bass and weirded-out guitar evokes a paranoia that this song is all about. The DacMagic XS lets the urgency in Cale’s vocals punch through as he yells, “Say, Fear is a man’s best friend!” above the instrumental mayhem playing out around him.
As the classic Santana album, “Abraxas,” opens with “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” you can hear studio noises clearly in the background, such as paper shuffling and squeaky chairs. It lets you feel like you are sitting in on a session. The DacMagic XS brings out hidden detail that was not noticeable before. Discovering things in favorite songs is always fun.
Even classical pieces fare better with the DacMagic XS. “By the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314” (you may not know the title, but you’ve heard it) by the National Philharmonic Orchestra is a glorious piece of music that makes you want to dance. There is subtle flute work among the strings that can easily disappear. The DacMagic XS lets it come through revealing yet another layer to this already multi-layered piece.
Note: Once again, remember to use a good set of headphones in order to fully experience the DacMagic XS. That is what it’s made for.
The DacMagic XS lets you feel your music more. I know – that’s a nebulous statement that can’t be quantified. By feel, I mean that favorite songs become more intimate, involving and more focused with the DacMagic XS. The same songs may sound OK when relying on my iMac alone, but why settle for OK, when you can have really, really good?
For more info visit http://www.cambridgeaudio.com/products/dacmagic-xs-usb-dac-headphone-amp