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.
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
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.
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