Cambridge DacMagic Review

For this review I’m using mostly the Onkyo ND-S1 Ipod Dock, with WAV and ALAC files on an Ipod Classic. The amplifier out is mainly from the balanced Beta22 and balanced TPA6120, and to the HD800. For testing USB Dac functions, I’m using the MacPro computer, playing lossless files from Itunes.

The Onkyo ND-S1 and DacMagic makes a pretty sweet looking and sweet sounding source set up.

 

If I can generalize, DACs are grouped into two main categories: monitoring and audiophile. Being an audiophile and not a recording engineer, my experience has been more on audiophile DACs. I did have some experience with the $1,500 DA11 Lavry, which is quite amazing and so far nothing has exceeded the DA11 when it comes to stereo imaging capability.

Audiophile DACs are somewhat designed differently so that it’ll be more appropriate for music listening. A great audiophile DAC will still offer a precise imaging capability, but they are often smoother sounding and more music friendly than a monitoring DAC. Of course no one will forbid the use of a monitoring DAC in a Hi-fi system, as it ultimately depends on the listener.

Between the audiophile DACs some have an strong coloration in the music, though they are often very pleasant (i.e a lot of midrange and low end body), and the others tend to be in the more neutral category. Which audiophile DAC is better? That’ll be akin to a solid state vs vacuum tube amplifier argument, and the answer depends on your music and the rest of your gear.

The DacMagic’s sound falls into the neutral-sounding audiophile DAC group. If you are one of those people who prefer neutral sounding DACs, then the DacMagic is for you. Keep in mind that these neutral sounding audiophile DACs, at least the newer ones, are never dry sounding. They are very musically pleasing, although they still stay mostly neutral with no heavy colorations. The DacMagic has a very good ability to combine very high resolution and a smooth musicality. I’m hearing very transparent treble, midrange, and bottom end, yet never a hint of harsh or dry sounding.

At the moment I hooked on the DacMagic, even from a brand new in box condition, I immediately knew that the sound is special. Especially more for $400. I wonder why the impression on the DacMagic has been fairly lukewarm, because it is such a great sounding DAC.

When I listened to the DacMagic, I know that it has a special treble. Though the Dr. DAC2 DX is very good, I find the DacMagic to be even better than that, so good that I think it’s worth more than the $400. The treble is very smooth and refined, way more than any other DACs in the sub $400 range that we’ve reviewed. It is very highly detailed, and the detail doesn’t come out rough and harsh, but very refined. The bass is equally as impressive, and at the linear phase setting, I find the bass on the DacMagic to be very transparent and resolving.

There are three digital filter settings that alter the sound slightly:
– Linear Phase
– Minimum Phase
– Steep

The digital filter selector next to the source selector: Linear phase, Minimum phase, and Steep.

 

On the linear phase setting setting, you get presented with a fairly balanced tonal spectrum that extends well in the highs and lows, and very wide in soundstage. The bass or the mids are not boosted, but they come with amazing clarity and smoothness. The midrange is very smooth and yet very clear. If I find the Dr. DAC2 DX to have a slight forward presentation, the DacMagic takes two steps back so you don’t get everything so upfront, and by doing that, you’re able to get a better view of the music that’s playing.

The depth on the soundstage is deeper than the Dr. DAC2 DX, and at the same time the separation and the air between the instruments are better as well. The Matrix Mini-i also has a very good depth in its soundstage, but it’s more narrow than what I hear through the DacMagic. I also don’t hear as much air and separation in the Matrix Mini-i.

The DacMagic.

 

On the minimum phase setting, I find that the sound becomes slightly more forward, more engaging, and more lively, compared to the first filter’s more laid back presentation. The depth in the music decreases a little bit, and likewise the the air between the instruments, but it’s definitely welcome to have a different presentation that you can choose from.

On the steep setting, the DacMagic becomes even more forward and engaging. Although this gives the most exciting presentation, I find that the separation and the soundstage suffers even more than the minimum phase setting. Personally for me, the second setting is the most that I’ll go, as the third filter is way too Gradoey for me. But the fact that Cambridge is including all of these filter settings show that they acknowledge the different music genres and preferences that people listen to.

Comparing briefly to the CEC TL51XZ CD Player, which comes with dual Burr-Brown PCM1796 D/A chips, I do find that the DacMagic still maintains its lead on detail retrieval. Other than that, the CEC TL51XZ is clearly in a superior league as it present a much better ambience on the music, with instruments, vocals, timbre, body, and everything else that makes for an experience closer to a good turntable set up. But when I feel too lazy about changing CDs, I have find that the Ipod set up with the Onkyo ND-S1 and the DacMagic is good enough to act as a source to the balanced Beta22 and HD800 set up.

I’m really super satisfied with the DacMagic, so much that I’m considering of modding it with better PSU unit and even opening the internals to see if anything can be improved.


System used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800
Amplifiers: Balanced Beta22, Balanced TPA6120 amp.
DAC: Cambridge Audio DacMagic, Dr. DAC DX2, Matrix Mini-i
Transport: Ipod Classic with the Onkyo ND-S1 dock, MacPro


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  • Jose

    I find this is the best review so far of the DacMagic, just for the fact that you focused on each of the phase settings. With my setup (EF5 with HE5, and MacbookPro) I find the Minimum phase setting is the most enjoyable in most cases, but the Linear phase is better for well recorded music-still comes out harsh with the HE5 sometimes-the Steep is just unbearable to me. What I cannot get my ears around of is the Invert phase setting, I just don't get how they affect the sound, not even with the K701. Maybe you can shed some light there, since my listening skills cast shadow upon it.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Jose,
      Gosh I guess I didn't say anything about the Invert phase setting. Why would anyone want to invert the phase on the music? According to the manual, if you suspect that a recording has an inverted phase, then you can use that switch to correct it. Well, I really have never come across a recording with a wrong phase, so I can't say much about that. When I did try the phase invert on a perfectly fine recording, and on the HD800, the sound becomes messed up. Imaging is diffused and very wrong. The music also becomes diffused and muddy. So, no I don't think you want to use that setting.

      Cheers.

  • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

    We're talking about modding the DacMagic over at the Lounge:

    http://www.headfonia.com/bbpress/topic.php?id=9

  • .Sup

    Very good review. I've been having the Dm+ND-S1 combo for a while now and I must say both devices are performing like several hundred more expensive devices. Further I believe DM can compete with DACs that cost up to 1k. Here's an old photo of my setup: http://assets.head-fi.org/7/70/708d072f_3.jpg

    regards, Peter

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Very nice looking set up, Peter!

      Yes the DacMagic is really good for the price. I was quite tempted to send the DacMagic in to effectiveaudiomod.com for extracting an
      even better performance out of it.

  • Mikehell

    Hi mike,
    Great review..I’m a fan of your writing..
    Between pico dac and dac magic which one is better when you mostly listen to female vocals and other mainstream music..?? My setup is Lisa III + HD650 and I use laptop as source..

    Thank,

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      With your set up, I’ll go with the DacMagic. I think the Pico will be too dark with the Lisa III and HD650.

  • Karina

    Hello everyone!, I´m Karina from Argentina.
    I wanted to ask you Mike and everyone else which DAC sound best to you, I followed the reviews and the ones that I can buy here in my country are: ESI Dr. DAC nano (US$ 140), ESI Dr. DAC Prime (US$ 650), Cambridge Audio DacMagic (US$ 650). Others I can get are the EMU 0404 USB (US$ 430), Apogee One (US$ 330) and Duet (US$ 670), and M-Audio stuff. It´s going to be connected to a iMac preferably via USB, or should I use the optical out? the DAC output will be conected to a Krell KAV300iL amplifier that is paired with Sounus Faber Concertino Domus Speakers. The amp has balanced and unbalanced line in connections.
    Thanks in advance.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Karina! I'm not sure about the Krell and Sonus Speakers combination. If you can tell me the kind of sound you're looking for, then I can help you to narrow down the search better.

      The Dr. DAC Nano shouldn't be considered for your set up, it's too entry level.
      The Dr. DAC Prime has more of a monitoring character. Very detailed and excellent technicalities, but not very optimized for music listening.
      The DacMagic is very good for music listening, and it's quite neutral all around with smooth sound.
      I haven't tried the EMU and the Apogee stuffs, but for now the HRT Music Streamer II+ is a very strong recommendation. They also make the MS Pro version with balanced analog out.

      Here is the link to the reviews: http://www.headfonia.com/hrt-music-streamer-ii-24http://www.headfonia.com/cambridge-dacmagic-reviehttp://www.headfonia.com/esi-audiotrak-dr-dac-pri

  • Karina

    Hello Mike, thanks for your answer, I like detailed sound but not at a expense that it turns to be un-listenable over long periods of listening.

    Here is a link of a review of the Krell: http://www.avrev.com/home-theater-power-amplifier… And here a little info about the Sonus Faber: http://www.ultimateavmag.com/content/sonus-faber-
    I think the best will be feeding the Krell with a balanced connection because it has a balanced design.

    To bad that HRT products aren't available here, because they look great.

    The DacMagic isn't detailed as the Dr. Dac Prime right? is there too much difference?

    Thanks for your help.

    Greetings,

    Karina

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Karina, without getting long and winded, I believe you'll be best off with the DacMagic, as it also offers balanced audio signal. If you want to deal with the hassle of importing, you can look into the HRT Music Streamer Pro, which should be better than the DacMagic, and comes with balanced analog outputs.

  • Karina

    Hello Mike, I’ll try to contact him, is he a distributor for HRT? if so then the best will be to ask him about the price and where to buy it, and then separately find an importer.

    Thanks for your help. :)
    Karina

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Karina, I believe you can purchase the MS2+ directly from Scot @ EliteAV. :)

  • Karina

    Mike, thanks for your comments, I really appreciate it. I think I'll first look if the HRT can be imported at an rasonable price, if so I think it's the best bet. I read in your review of the Music Streamer II+ that it even sounds better than the DacMagic, so if I can't afford the Pro version I should go with it instead of the DacMagic.

    Thanks again,

    Karina

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Karina, the MS2+ should be good enough. But if you want to have balanced connection, I believe the MS Pro is just ~$100 difference from the MS2+. You can ask Scot at Elite AV for the pricing: http://www.eliteavdist.com/contact.cfm

  • Karina

    Hello Mike, I would like to thank you for your help and advice. ;)

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Anytime ;)

  • http://www.uwsp.edu/athletics/mbb/roster.htm Team Roster

    You you could edit the webpage name title Cambridge DacMagic Review | Headfonia to more catching for your webpage you create. I enjoyed the the writing yet.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Wow, thanks for the constructive comments. Not everyday we get one of those. Thanks, I’ll try to change it when I get to the office.

  • eric

    Compared to the compass dac, is the dacmagic much better and worth the money? I’m considering getting a dacmagic as an upgrade to my audio gd compass. I got a burson ha 160 at home already with 701s and 580s..

    • Anonymous

      If you’re talking about the Audio-gd, then yes, the Dacmagic is better.

      • eric

        Would you say it is worth the 400 or so dollars worth of upgrade over the audio gd compass though?

        • Anonymous

          Isnt the difference between them more like $100? I do think it’s worth the difference.

          • eric

            Sorry about that, it was a bit of a misunderstanding. I have the compass now and am using the dac from that to output to my amp. Hence, the question was more so framed as ” was it necessary to drop 400 more on the dacmagic..” I hope that makes sense. Anyways thanks for the reply and your feedback.

            • Anonymous

              I think it depends. If you feel that the compass is good, then no need to upgrade. What do you feel is missing from the compass sound? The two has different characteristics. Compass is dark, slow and thick. Dacmagic is more neutral and with a smooth treble. Depending on your preference, one can be better than the other.

              • eric

                I’m not really sure..I think most of all is that i’m missing a bit of a high sound from my setup. From the ha-160 it brought on a bucket of warmth through mid and lows but I just can’t really feel of hear much from the highs. I currently have two headphones.. the 701 and the 580s with the 600 grill mod. I think or was hoping the dac can bring on some of that.

                Thanks.

                • Anonymous

                  If you’re looking for highs, then going from the Compass (The Compass is quite dark) to the Dacmagic should give you the highs.

            • Anonymous

              Come to think of it, I think $400 is a bit steep. I would just continue using the Compass.

              • a_tumiwa

                btw, i dont understand why Audio-GD remove the compass from their website, i mean they even remove it from the Discontinued Products list

                • eric

                  I suppose it was replace by the audio-gd fun.. that could be the reason for what they did.

                • Anonymous

                  Interesting info. Thanks!

  • Heath Davis

    Good Review. I own a DM and yours is the first review I’ve seen that accurately describes the effects the different filters have on the sound. I use steep, as I like an upfront sound andI’m not too worried about soundstaging (I own Naim gear!) I even saw one review claiming the soundstage was improved by using the steep filter! I might try minimum, but linear is too boring for me!

    The DM replaced an 18 year old Micromega DUO BS2, with a time shared Philips SAA7321 DAC, and whilst the DM is more revealing, the Mircomega sounds a little more exciting. It’s amazing the performance Micromega got all those years ago with a DAC not considered Philips’ best. Something to do with a good power supply with about 21 regulators I guess! Would have loved to have heard their later DAC7 units.

    Cheers

    Heath

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for sharing about the Micromega, Heath!

  • Davis

    How would the DacMagic compare with something like the Beresford Caiman and Yulong D100 ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/rodrigopitamd Rodrigo Pita

    Hi Mike,

    “I’m really super satisfied with the DacMagic, so much that I’m considering of modding it with better PSU unit”

    Here in Brazil where I live, we use 110v, but my DacMagic is 220v so I’m using a Power transformer. Do you think this is bad, or it can worsen the sound quality of the DAC?

    Thank You,
         Rodrigo

    • Anonymous

      Hi Rodrigo,
      Glad you’re satisfied with the Dacmagic. I truly think it’s one of the
      better DACs around, just not getting the same hype as some of the other
      brands.
      The use of step/up down transformer is debatable. Some people say it
      makes a difference, some don’t.

      I’ll try hook up some of the DACs I’m reviewing through one and tell you
      if I hear anything.

      • http://www.facebook.com/rodrigopitamd Rodrigo Pita

        Thank You very much Mike!
        And today I’m receiving a JH5 PRO Demo, Denon D5000 and a Koss Porta PRO. =)

        • Anonymous

          I am very interested in hearing about your impression of the jh5 demo.

    • Anonymous

      I’m testing the Bryston BDA-1 DAC with and without a transformer stabilizer box (which also gives me 220V and 110V output options).

      With this DAC, the degradation in the sound is quite noticeable. It doesn’t change the tonality of the DAC so the DAC mostly still sounds the same, but the sound is more compressed, separation and air between instruments suffer a great deal. Imaging suffers, soundstage is more constricted, decay is abruptly cut off. In short: Yuck!

      Now I don’t know if the effect is going to be as pronounced in the DacMagic as the BDA-1 is obviously a far higher end DAC.

      Sorry for the slow response though. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/rodrigopitamd Rodrigo Pita

        Thank You Mike. I think you are one of the few people in the world that really do your best to help people on this hobby =)
        After reading what you said, and knowing I don`t like to use a transformer stabilizer box, I asked my friend if he wanted to buy my DacMagic, and he said yes. So I will be looking  for something new really soon. First, I`ll save some money, but I don`t wanna spend a lot of cash now.
        Here in Brazil, we had a little metting and I was able to test the Benchmark DAC1, and I loved. Its a liiiiiiitle cold, BUT I really liked this AMP+DAC, worked great with my Denon D5000 and my JH13. You can see some pictures on my Flickr :  http://www.flickr.com/photos/50502451@N06/So, my plain is to buy the DAC1 next year, yeah I know its a long way, but I have some priorities . For now, I wanna get something like the Audinst HUD-MX1, Yulong U100 or some Amp+DAC  box similar to them, OR a
        HRT Music Streamer II + Matrix M-Stage.

        Rodrigo Pita

        • Anonymous

          Hey thank you, Rodrigo.

          The Benchmark DAC1 should be nice. But personally I tend to feel that
          monitoring DACs are nice on short listens (ie meet conditions) since
          they are clear sounding and very precise, but after spending more time
          with them I tend to feel them to be not as friendly to the ears.

          At the moment if you are just looking for a simple solution get the
          Audinst HUD-MX1. It’s cheap and it’s good. Even after I moved on to
          bigger and better DACs, the Audinst continue to be a very musical and
          simple solution and I still enjoy listening to it.

          Otherwise for a more “serious” solution the Schiit Asgard and HRT Music
          Streamer II (that’s roughly $400) should be good.

  • P. J.

    Rodrigo hi,
    when did you buy your DM? If its an older piece with the old PSU model you can request a new one on Cambridge Audio’s website as the old PSU were prone to disintegrate.regards, Peter

    • Anonymous

      Nice info PJ, I didnt know that.

      • P. J.

        Yes, here’s the link: http://www.cambridgeaudio.com/content.php?COID=197
        I requested one even though I don’t need it just in case I would sell the DM in the future and I can’t supply the unit with a broken PSU. The trick is the form where you request your PSU doesn’t ask you what voltage you need or what plug, you only input serial that is on the back of DM and you get a PSU based on where the unit was bought. So for example if Rodrigo’s DM was bought in Europe he would again get a 230V PSU. He will have to contact the Cambridge audio directly and not through the form published on their website.

        • Anonymous

          Also keep in mind the PSU is an AC-AC adapter, so you can’t just fit any regular adapter which more often is an AC-DC adapter. 

        • http://www.facebook.com/rodrigopitamd Rodrigo Pita

          I just sent an e-mail to them! Thenk You very much P.J. I’ll update here with their answer!

  • http://nerstu.se A83

    I have a pair of studio monitors with balanced xlr inputs. I feel like taking advantage of those and are looking for a DAC with balanced xlr outs.

    What are my options? What do you recommend?

    I listen mostly to house music and are producing on a hobby level.

    Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      Well I’m not sure if you gonna feel any advantage moving to the XLR connectors, but the DAC section of the Dacmagic should give you better resolution.

  • Pablo

    Hi Mike, I’m Pablo from Argentina, I wanted to ask you if the Dac Magic could improve the sound from my Oppo DV 981 or the Marantz BD5004. The other question would be, is worth it to buy the Dac Magic for an upgrade or would be better sell the two players and buy some player in a higher level.

    Thanks for your time, your opinion will be helpfull, your reviews are excellent

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Pablo,
      I’ve never heard the Oppo, but from my experience the DacMagic DAC should be better than the DAC on universal DVD players. Getting a separate DAC is the way to go, in my opinion.

  • John

    Is it still worth getting?

    Also, i heard the analog output is very hot and may push some amps into distorting. Is that true?

  • Jeff

    you should test the Dacmagic 100 I tried it with the Graham Slee SRG 2 and the HD-650 and it sounded so good
    sounded ok with the Fostex900 and the HD-800 too.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thanks Jeff, it was good I had a listen..