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Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC (DIGITAL/AUDIO CONVERTER)
Sept 17, 2014
By Greg Gazin - Apple Gazin' - G4 Canada
You’ve just upgraded your headphones. You sit down at your computer, plug them in grab your favorite tune or launch your favorite game and start to play. You now expect the sound would be much better particularly with high quality audio content. However, you find the difference is marginal and you’re somewhat disappointed. You may not realize it, but it may not have anything to do with the headphones or the audio files but more to do with the on the laptop hardware itself.
The reality is that not all headphone jacks are created equal. It's not actually the jack per se, but rather the onboard audio sound processor that's built-in to your computer. And while some systems do reproduce respectable audio quality, for whatever reason, often to keep costs down others are built with cheap audio chips that the manufacturers deem as good enough.
Now all is not lost. You don’t have to toss your computer just yet. And the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC (digital to audio converter) just might be the answer. It’s appropriately named because it magically takes your audio to a new level.
It's a little external device that's not much bigger than a box of matches. (Truth be told I haven't seen a box of matches lately). So rather than plugging your headphones or earbuds into the headphone jack, you plug them into the DacMagic XS and DacMagic XS plugs into your computer's USB port bypassing your computer’s internal sound processing circuitry.
This way, instead of your computer taking the digital sound file and converting it to analog then out through the headphone port, the conversion process is done by the DAC in high-quality 24-bit. The result is a noise-free, jitter-free and distortion-free reproduction, regardless if it's a 24-bit 192kHz studio master recording or an MP3 podcast.
It's actually a cool funky little device and it’s looks the part. It’s all nicely compressed into a tiny stylish brushed aluminum enclosure that measures a mere 1.2" x 0.4" x 2.1", weighs only 3.5oz and it’s self-powered via the USB port.
Studio Quality Audio
There are two large volume control buttons on the front. At one end is a micro USB port that plugs into your computer with its short supplied cable. At the other end are a headphone jack and a tiny dual-purpose tri-colour LED. The LED can indicate your sampling rate, which can range from CD-quality 16-bit/44.1kHz to a whopping studio quality 24-bit/192kHz. It can also signify your Mode – either USB 1.0 mode: 24-bit/96kHZ or USB 2.0 mode: 24-Bit/192kHz which you can toggle by simultaneously hold both the “+” and ”-“ volume buttons down for three seconds.
Plus, as a nice little value-add the DacMagic XS has a tiny built-in 150mW headphone amp.
It’s easy to get it up and running. If you’re using a Mac, simply plug it in, then select either the USB 1.0 or 2.0 Cambridge Device as your output device in your Sound Preferences. For Windows users, you’ll need to replace the standard Windows driver with the Cambridge Driver to run higher res USB 2.0.
So how much better does it make your sound? The answer depends on your sound is to begin with. In trying it with different computers, headphones and audio files, I found varying degrees of relative sound improvements although sometimes it was hard to tell.
The most significant came from a cheap notebook. I found a difference, albeit much less, for example, using a MID 2012 Retina MacBook Pro, which truly proves that onboard sound, varies amongst computers.
I have to admit I could not really discern a huge difference in audio quality with the higher settings; particularly the 24-bit, 192 kHz studio-quality mode, but then again I likely didn’t have the ideal environment to really test it.
Like Vinyl but Less Noise
While it might sound funny, pardon the pun given the digital nature of the DacMagic XS, I felt at times, I was actually listening to the warmth and fullness of vinyl, especially with music I grew up with and engrained in my mind, albeit with less noise.
In fact, I found a significant reduction in background noise right across the board. I'm sure it has something to do with the DAC itself, but also in part to the fact that its processing circuitry is shielded from all the other internal potentially noise generating components of the computer.
While DacMagic XS can give your sound the added wow factor, it’s not perfect. I noticed that it tends to get quite warm over time (I’m told that it’s normal). And while it does have on-board volume controls, your computer’s controls become disabled as you are bypassing the system’s original design. It’s also a darned shame that one couldn’t use DacMagic XS to enhance the sound from an iPhone, iPod or other MP3 music player.
I probably should point out that the use of the DacMagic XS is not just for headphones or earbuds, it’s also great for external speakers as well.
Overall, if you are a serious gamer or a discriminating audiophile and you want to experience the best possible sound from your computer, the $200 price tag shouldn’t deter you from giving the DacMagic XS a try.
Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC retails for $189.00 U.S. and is available in Canada through Cambridge Audio authorized specialty retailers.
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