I managed to get a hold of a Cambridge DacMagic upsampling DAC with a balanced out to compare with the Mini-i.
The DacMagic is a pure DAC box with no headphone amplifier that sells for about $400. It comes with two sets of S/PDIF inputs (toslink and coaxial), a USB digital input, and digital out via S/PDIF with Dolby Digital or DTS signal pass-through. Just like the Mini-i, the DacMagic has both unbalanced and balanced analog out.
The Cambridge DacMagic has a permanent upsampling feature in which it takes any digital signal in the range of 16-24 bits, and 32-96kHz sample rates, and upsample it to 24/192 through an Adaptive Time Filtering upsampling process through the use of a 32bit Texas Instruments DSP processsor. The D/A chip in use is the popular Wolfson WM8740 in dual configuration, one for each stereo channel. I have seen a lot of implementation of the WM8740 chips, and I have to say that the DacMagic is one of the better sounding ones. Cambridge Audio must be doing something right, because the sound coming out of the DacMagic is very refined, highly detailed, and yet smooth and non fatiquing.
It also has three different digital filter modes, linear, minimum, and steep. The digital filter modes changes the music presentation of the DacMagic depending on the setting. Linear gives the most open and airy sound that I find to be very suitable for classical. The minimum phase setting has more presence and is more engaging than the linear setting, though losing a little of the open and airy sound. Finally, the steep setting is even a more extreme version of the minimum setting, but I did find that it’s not as refined as the linear and the minimum phase settings. I find the minimum phase setting to give a good balance between the linear and the steep phase, and it’s the setting that I enjoy and I use the most during this comparison.
I received the DacMagic a few weeks after I have the Matrix in my possession. When I first listened to the DacMagic, I was totally blown away by the level of refinement, detail, and the wide soundstage of the DacMagic. Clearly, the DacMagic wins in technicalities to the Mini-i. In a way, the advantages of the DacMagic are very similar to the Dr. DAC2 DX: better detail, wider soundstage, but I find the DacMagic to be even better in doing what the Dr. DAC2 DX does best. For $400, I don’t think I’ve heard a better treble. It’s very detailed and very smooth, yet the smoothness doesn’t take away the crispness out of the music.
But sometimes you have enough dose of the technicalities, and you want a more musical sound, and that’s where the Mini-i stands out. After a long listening session with the DacMagic, I went back to hook up the Mini-i to the Beta22 & HD800 set up. And suddenly, I’m hearing a more engaging and exciting sound that I didn’t hear on the DacMagic. The Mini-i is definitely strong with analog sound and musicality. Over and over again, listening to different sources, the musicality of the Mini-i stuck on my head. It’s kind of similar to the Pico DAC, except that it offers a lot more features than the simplistic Pico.
On the Mini-i, bottom end body is more pronounced, and vocals have more presence and are more intimate. One thing that I keep on hearing on the Mini-i is how it’s able to really put a distinct distance between the forward vocals to the instruments in the background. The depth on the soundstage is the best between the three, though it’s not as wide as the other two.
The choice is like a comparison between a Grado HP1000 to a Sennheiser HD800. The Senn clearly have better technicalities, but people still love the HP1000 because it has a very analog sound, a punchy midbass, and easily will win as the more musical sounding of the two. So, the choice between the two DACs will depend on the system that you use and your musical preferences. The Beta22 and HD800 set up is a fairly neutral set up, and the Mini-i was able to adds a little punch and flavoring to make the music more engaging. If you already have a highly musical set up, with a good tube amp and say a Grado HF2, then I would recommend you to go with the DacMagic as it will give you better resolution and detail that the Mini-i doesn’t.
Just for fun, I hooked the CEC TL51XZ which is a $1,600 CD Player with dual PCM1796 D/A chips. I thought some of you might want to know how the DACs compare to a good CD player. On first listen, the CEC clearly belongs to a superior league than either the DacMagic or the Mini-i. The CEC’s presentation is analog sounding, similar to the Mini-i, but it does a much better job in giving an actual feel of the music. Ambiance, imaging, tonality, is much much superior on the CEC. It also seems to fully fill up the big soundstage of the HD800 with musical information, making the experience very real and more speaker-like, whereas the DAC boxes only fill up a part of that big soundstage. So, yes, the Mini-i and the DacMagic are great DACs, but it’s not really up there yet.
Back to the Mini-i, I really haven’t talked about the headphone amplifier much. The built in headphone amplifier actually does a decent job if you don’t own any other amplifier to power your cans. It has plenty of gain, where -27dB is very loud on the HD800, and likewise -13dB for the power hungry Hifiman HE5LE. Despite the high gain, I can’t notice any hiss or noise using the Superlux HD381 IEMs even at maximum volume (0dB). Pretty impressive indeed, but at the end of the day, it’s really nothing to brag about, because I do find that a good separate amplifier like the Audiotrak ImAmp to do a better job of amplifying the HD800 and the HE5LE (I really should review the ImAmp after this). The amplifier would be terrific to power IEMs because you get the short signal path from the DAC unit, but I won’t rely on it to power big full size cans on a daily basis. Still, for $340 with all the functionality included, you can’t really ask for a better value.
For $340, the Matrix Mini-i will be a great, affordable upgrade to your current system. It even challenges a lot of more expensive DACs in terms of musicality. As a bonus, it even comes with a built-in headphone amplifier so you can sell of that mid-fi amp you’ve been listening to and start saving up for something bigger. *grin* And finally, the Mini-i opens up the door to having a fully balanced desktop headphone system. Superb, indeed.
This review was made possible by the support of coolfungadget.
System used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 with APureSound cable
Amplifiers: TPA6120 Amplifier, AMB Labs Beta22 Balanced Amplifier
Source: Matrix Mini-i, Cambridge Audio DacMagic, Audiotrak Dr. DAC2 DX
Transport: MacPro, Ipod Classic & Onkyo ND-S1 Dock.