The original DacMagic by Cambridge Audio was among the first outboard DACs on the market back in the late 1980s along with the Digilog and the Delta Black Box. It was a groundbreaking piece of gear for audiophiles who made the shift to digital early on. The DacMagic’s initial release coincided with a growing market for premium CD players, and the unit has certainly held its own over time. Surely, it was a compact system that paved the way for audio tech we all use today in computers and smartphones. And in 2011, the London-based premium audio brand rolled out a revamp of the classic unit.
The updated Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus has been available for a few years now. While it may be slightly older for those who are always on the lookout for new tech, good hardware gear doesn’t always necessarily require countless upgrades. The DacMagic Plus’ long run is certainly a testament of how it holds up. In fact, for $350, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better DAC by a boutique brand with such a wide range of features to suit any listener.
First Look: DacMagic Plus
Compared to the original, the DacMagic Plus supports a sampling rate of 24-bit/192kHZ with twin 24-bit DACs chips per channel by Wolfson at its core. It features AFT2 24-bit/384kHz upsampling (fixed) for all inputs. And perhaps the most convenient feature is built-in digital preamp for headphones allowing you to plug in your cans quickly. It’s actually quite surprising that a product in this price range would give consumers a lot of flexibility with close to no cost-cutting.
Namely, it boasts balanced XLR outs, RCA, as well as optical and coaxial outs (and inputs) on the back. The USB input also supports 24bit/192kHz, which is surely rare for DACs with USB connectivity. On top of that, aptX codec Bluetooth is added, but Cambridge Audio’s BT100 receiver doesn’t come with the product. Nevertheless, it’s great to have it as an extra option if you’re a fan of wireless listening.
Here are some additional features of the DacMagic Plus:
- Enhanced Jitter reduction (ATF2 chip)
- 3 filter modes (linear phase, minimum phase, steep filter)
- Supported input frequencies: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz (select inputs only), 192kHz
- Brushed aluminum enclosure
- Rubber stand (vertical placement) or rubber feet (horizontal)
- +12V DC 2A PSU included
To those who are unfamiliar with digital sound and DACs, it’s best to explain that music was listened to via an electrical analog signal fifty years ago. This signal is generated by a stylus and cartridge which moves along the grooves of vinyl records. The analog signal is then sent to a preamp and speakers. With a digital signal, the process varies significantly. Namely, digital-to-audio converters receive sound recorded in a digital signal usually via an analog-to-digital (ADC) converter. DACs convert the binary code into an analog signal which gets sent to speakers or headphones.
In fact, most of your digital devices contain DACs. However, smartphones, computers, and similar devices only include basic converters. This is one of the many reasons to invest in an outboard unit. While many are satisfied by playing or streaming music from their computers, serious listeners and audiophiles will generally get some hardware to boost their experience. In this case, the DacMagic Plus would come in as an affordable and flexible device.
It’s a simple digital source that turns into a crucial part of your sound system if you pair it with a computer, TV, stereo, Blu-ray player, CD player, headphones, or other devices. If you’re completely inexperienced in the world of digital audio, the DacMagic Plus’ modest price range could provide a perfect entry point to an overall enhanced and immersive sound experience.
DacMagic Plus Design
Regarding design and chassis, the DacMagic Plus is highly ergonomic due to its metal enclosure. It’s surely a tough build, and its minimal aesthetics are certainly inspired by high-end devices.
Plus, the product comes with rubber feet and a sturdy rubber stand if you wish to place it horizontally or upright. And its layout is quite simple. The front panel has a large volume knob, a source switch for the ins, and a button for the filter/phase. The volume knob is actually digital and doubles as a function control if pushed. Moreover, several blue LEDs will indicate the selected options on the front panel, and the front includes a headphone jack.
One thing that undoubtedly confuses everyone regarding this device is the Cambridge Audio logo at the top, which looks like a massive (and entertaining) volume control, but it does not control anything on the unit.
What’s more, the DacMagic Plus comes in silver or dark gray aluminum, which reminded us of Apple’s Macbook colors. And the jacks on the back are meticulously laid out, with clear labels that eliminate any confusion. Moreover, the sockets are high-quality.
Out of the box, the DacMagic Plus truly outdoes itself in regards to its price and does not feel cheap at all. It’s nicely sized without being too bulky and heavy. But ultimately, how does it sound?
Sound and Performance
In most cases, using a DAC will give you a balanced hi-fi boost, better imaging, and clearer audio, especially if you’re using lossless formats. Of course, as with any DAC or similar interface, the quality will vastly depend on your other hardware. And since the DacMagic Plus is also a headphone amp, it will respond differently with various models.
We dove right in and tested it via USB and coaxial inputs with 24bit/192kHz high res files of John Williams’ The Last Jedi soundtrack, which sounded fat and massive. The imaging of the orchestral score was top-notch, yet some highs stood out. The minimum phase filter, which was the most recommended by other reviews and users did wonders here. It filtered out some highs while boosting the mids a bit.
After that, we moved on to Neil Young’s Harvest, which sounded lush and realistic. Bear in mind that anything under 96Khz requires you to install the device’s PC driver. We didn’t notice any timing errors due to the jitter reduction. The digital inputs were quite neat too — Betty Davis’ 1973 debut album was a great way to test how this DAC performed with female vocals and a punchy rhythm section. Overall, the DacMagic Plus surprised us with detail and weight while handling busy mixes and multiple instruments. Also, the stereo soundstage was incredibly impressive for the price, and we were pleased with the dynamic range, albeit it was a bit harsh, which is expected from digital systems.
And for the headphone amp, we went with a lower 44.1kHz rate to see how the unit holds up. This time we used the War On Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding to check how the headphone output copes in dense and atmospheric mixes. All in all, the results were well-rounded with a great, syrupy low end. Additionally, it seems that the pre drives the headphones without being overly aggressive, and the filters can give out improved sound if you wish to eliminate any harshness.
Some users could have an issue with the digital volume knob since it’s DSP driven and is designed to control gain without causing bit-reduction. Namely, there’s no end to the rotation, which could confuse some users. Nevertheless, while some have complained about the actual volume and power that this DAC puts out, we didn’t notice an issue.
The Bottom Line
Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus digital-to-analog converter is an inexpensive piece of outboard gear if you consider all its features. It supports multiple devices and a wide range of connections, meaning that it will be the hardware that suits nearly all of your audio equipment. The company hasn’t released a new model in a couple of years, which certainly attests to the reliability and quality of the DAC.
It performed incredibly well in our tests, and what impressed us the most is the depth and character that it contributed to the music. In some cases, it wasn’t 100% transparent and crystal clear, but the results it contributed were sonically pleasing and did not harm our listening experience. On top of that, the headphone pre is a great addition to the model, and it truly provides a 3D experience while listening. While we did not experience some setbacks that many have talked about, it’s important to note that this DAC can be a bit picky considering other gear.
For example, sensitive high-end headphones could feel a little underpowered by this device. Nevertheless, we’re sure that the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus will meet and even exceed your expectations at such a low price point and a variety of features. So check one out today for a superb audio experience!