Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M Review

It’s a kind of Magic

by Ed Selley
SRP: £449.00

Introduction - what is the DacMagic 200M?

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M is a standalone multi input DAC, preamp and headphone amplifier. In 2021, this is a fairly commonly encountered specification and there are a number of products to choose from at or around this price point that offer it. Without the efforts of the 200M’s ancestors though, this might not have been the case. The DacMagic name has a great deal of provenance in this field. It first appeared when the world of digital audio looked very different to how it does now.

The original DacMagic was an answer to the perceived issue of noise and interference affecting the performance of single box CD players. Together with the matching DiscMagic CD transport, it offered a notional solution to the issue. Later models even included a notional solution to the increasingly well understood problem of jitter, with an innovative, optical based ‘clock locking’ circuit. As the technical advantage swung back to single chassis players, the DacMagic name was dropped, only to reappear in 2007 on a device that was effectively the back end of a 740C CD player with the then rather radical addition of a USB input.

Since then, the DacMagic has existed in one form or another in the Cambridge Audio range. Recent attention has been more focused on adding digital inputs to the amplifiers themselves though so the 200M is the first new DacMagic in a rather long time. Is this still a fine way of boosting your digital capabilities or have the changes that the DacMagic name started moved to the point where you don’t need a standalone DAC any more?

As with anything I review from Cambridge Audio, there now follows the short but important disclaimer that between 2003 and 2008 I was gainfully employed by them full time. As 2008 was an increasingly long time ago and I have had no input in the design of the 200M, it is seen as appropriate by the Editorial team for me to write this review.

Specification and Design 

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
The indicators give a great deal of information as to what the 200M is doing at any given time

The 200M is very close in terms of basic specification to the outgoing DacMagic Plus which launched all the way back in 2012 and was reviewed with characteristic thoroughness by our own Steve Withers. In essence, the DacMagic offers four digital inputs; two which can be either coaxial or optical (connections are supplied for both but only can be used at once), one USB-B connection and one Bluetooth input. Output is via RCA or XLR out which can be used in either a fixed or variable output configuration. There is then additionally a headphone socket.

While the premise of the 200M is the same, the execution is different. First up, where the original DacMagic Plus could be used over Bluetooth via optional plug in module, the 200M is fitted with Bluetooth as standard on a smaller and more convenient aerial arrangement. As the BT100 cost £70 in its own right, the price of the new model, when adjusted for inflation, is lower than the original one was back in 2012. The only oddity is that AAC Bluetooth is not supported which is a bit of a blow for iOS users and the aptX HD code is also absent.

Then, of course, there is the format handling. This is 2021 where you can actually secure the odd thing in 24/192kHz you might want to listen to, so naturally, we’ve moved onto chasing some much bigger numbers. The 200M supports 24/768 and DSD512 via the USB input which should be enough for all but the most truly determined vapourware chasers. Something that isn’t vapourware that the 200M supports is MQA - a first for Cambridge Audio. If you are a committed Tidal user, this could be potentially rather handy. The 200M will act as a full renderer for MQA so no initial unpack needs to be performed by software.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
Connectivity is good for the asking price 

The hardware that allows for this jump in decoding is a mix of new tech with established design practise. Like much of the rest of the Cambridge Audio range, the 200M is built around ESS decoding. In this case, the chipset used is the ES9028Q2M - a fairly impressive piece of silicone in its own right. In a design tradition from Cambridge Audio, the 200M uses two of them in a dual mono configuration. This allows for both a reduction in crosstalk and for the redundant channel in each DAC to run the differential of the decoded channel to sum for errors. Three user selectable filters are available to (very, very slightly) tweak the output.

This output is variable via a front panel rotary control. This can be switched out of the circuit by pressing the volume and filter buttons together for five seconds. If you select line out mode and insert a pair of headphones, the volume will automatically re-engage so as to prevent unwelcome surprises. This volume works entirely in the digital domain and it both pleasingly linear and has sufficient fine adjustment to make it simple to set the listening level you actually want. The limitation, bizarrely, is exactly the same one that Steve brought up with the DacMagic Plus in 2012 though. Volume adjustment is only via the front panel. There is no remote control adjustment which means that if you have ambitions to use the 200M as a preamp, you’re really going have to keep it at arm’s length.

In rather better news, the rest of the DacMagic’s implementation feels pretty good. It is well made and, while I can understand criticisms made elsewhere that the front panel is a little fussy on account of the multiple sample rate indicators, it is rather harder to argue that you cannot see exactly what the 200M is up to at any given moment, with the notable exception of what volume you have it set to. Build quality is perfectly acceptable for the price too. Cambridge Audio has decided on the same ‘Lunar Grey’ finish that a few other products that they make now come in. It won’t look completely out of place in either a black or silver system; although it also won’t look as uniform as a completely black or silver product will. I do like the move to white LEDs though which are clear and easy to discern in a variety of different light conditions.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
Sample rate handling is pretty comprehensive 

 

The 200M will act as a full renderer for MQA so no initial unpack needs to be performed by software

How was the DacMagic 200M tested?

The DacMagic 200M has been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Corvus ands tested mainly taking a USB feed from a Roon Nucleus, although an LG 55B7 OLED TV has been used to test optical. Bluetooth has been checked via an Oppo Find X2 Neo Android smartphone. The bulk of testing has taken place into a Cambridge Audio Edge A integrated amp via an XLR connection. The Edge A has been connected to the Focal Kanta No1 and Kudos Cardea C1 speakers. Some additional testing has taken place via RCA into a Chord Electronics CPM2800MkII integrated amp running into Kudos Titan 505 speakers. The headphone out has been tested into the Focal Clear MG. Test material has included FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Qobuz, Tidal (with MQA decoding being undertaken via the 200M) and some on demand TV services.

More: Audio Formats

Performance

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
I think this counts as 'classically handsome'

Key to what made the DacMagic and DacMagic Plus so highly regarded when they hit the market was not so much that they used particularly cutting edge hardware, although they were far from shabby in this regard, but more that they implemented what they had exceptionally well. Beyond chasing the numbers, strong audio performance has always been about the circuit, the supporting components and the attention to detail putting it all together. The good news is that true 200M still delivers on this basic premise.

Kicking off with the 16/44.1 FLAC of Jaguar Jonze’s Antihero, the 200M is more than ‘a box with some ESS Sabres in it.’ It ensures that Deena Lynch’s fabulous, emotive vocal turn has that human element well and truly centred in what it does. In Murder, the high point of the EP, she’s a tangible presence, slap bang in the middle of a soundstage that creates a convincing space for music to work in. Although things have improved in the last year or so, there are still instances with ESS based product where it feels slightly hard and unforgiving. That’s not the case here. I’d hesitate to describe the 200M as ‘sweet’ but neither does it ever feel hard edged.

Interestingly, the 200M is similar but not identical to the decoding that resides in the Edge A. It shares the same big and dynamic themes but it is fractionally sweeter than the integrated amp’s own digital board, even when running into the same amplification. It does this without losing anything of the clout and drive that the Edge is rather good at. The bass extension of the 200M is an area where it shows a clean pair of heels to the exceptionally talented budget DACs like the iFi Zen DAC and Topping E30. Not only does it go a little lower, there is more detail and clarity to that low level information too.

There is a small fly in the ointment though and in bringing it up, I will probably find myself off the Cambridge Audio Christmas card list. I still have a DacMagic Plus in the inventory and, running via USB with 44.1kHz material, there are moments when I prefer the older DAC. Listening to Robert Plant’s Monkey, the Plus is just a little more energetic and punchy. It can’t match the 200M for tonal quality and detail retrieval but there’s something about the immediacy that the newer model can’t quite deliver. There are two caveats to this however. The first is that the moment sample rates increase - to 88.2kHz and beyond in particular - the 200M is quite a bit better and the second is that I suspect that this is something most easily repeated on a driverless front end as the driver for the Plus dates back a long way. Nevertheless, there have been moments that suggest that progress is not completely linear.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
Build quality is usefully solid too 

Where progress is more measurable though, the 200M impresses. Its handling of DSD is extremely good and not simply in a sonic sense. Create a playlist that requires the 200M to switch in and out of DSD repeatedly and it does so without unwanted noises or delays and on the relatively limited amount of native DSD test material that I keep to hand, it has sounded consistently impressive. The MQA performance also appears to be very well implemented. Again, the 200M switches in and out of MQA without unwanted pauses or noises and shows the sample rate that Roon suggests it should (as ever, Tidal won’t show this information in its own app). Not for the first time, I find that MQA asks at least as many questions as it answers. Peter Gabriel’s Us is something that I have as the original CD rip, and 24/96 download. Then I have access to both the Qobuz (24/96 FLAC) and Tidal (24/96 MQA) versions. I can’t ignore that the Tidal version sounds different to all the other ones. It’s not something specific to the 200M either. Still, if this is your choice, the 200M does it well.

It’s also a very good headphone amplifier. Running with the Focal Clear MG - a device that is a full £1,000 more than the 200M - the Cambridge Audio doesn’t let the side down. It has sufficient gain to set a decent listening level and while both background noise increases past a certain point, it should be perfectly sufficient to take any sub £500 headphone to any listening level I can imagine you’d choose by preference. The Bluetooth performance is also very respectable. AptX from the Oppo phone is passably close to the 44.1kHz stream via USB and usefully stable unless you decide to wander upstairs while streaming.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
A happy partnership despite the £1,000 difference in asking price 

 

I’d hesitate to describe the 200M as ‘sweet’ but neither does it ever feel hard edged

Conclusion

Pros

  • Sounds consistently good across a wide selection of material
  • Well made and easy to use
  • Potentially useful MQA support

Cons

  • No remote
  • Fairly restricted Bluetooth
  • Not always as fun as it is accurate

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M Review

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M - for both good and less good reasons - feels very much like a continuation of one of the most longstanding names in affordable DACs. I’m writing this conclusion while it is playing Agnes Obel’s Aventine into the Edge A and Kudos C1. It’s by far the cheapest part of the system and it doesn’t feel remotely out of place. It sounds fluid, realistic and engaging delivering on a long-standing Cambridge Audio premise of the technology being the means to an end rather than the story in itself. It now handles every format you’d realistically want to throw at it with the same effortless and thoroughly enjoyable musicality.

The catch is that, as an almost straight update of the DacMagic Plus, it repeats some of the same issues that Steve was picking up in 2012. With no remote, the preamp functionality of the 200M feels a bit superfluous. I’m sure it would work a charm with a pair of Acoustic Energy AE1 Actives but I’m far too lazy to live with such a system. Even as a headphone amp, there would be times when a remote would be handy too. If I’m being picky (and I am, it’s my job) the Bluetooth implementation feels a little old fashioned as well.

What this does for the desirability of the 200M is something I’m going to partly have to leave to you, the reader and your usage pattern, to make an individual decision on. If you view the 200M as a line level DAC with some secondary volume based features, there’s not much I can think of at the price that I would choose in its place because it is still a masterful piece of digital audio and if you need such a thing, I would unhesitatingly point you in the direction of the 200M. The DacMagic name is entering its third decade with the 200M and it still has much to offer and for this reason, the 200M earns our enthusiastic Recommendation.

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
8

Connectivity

.
.
8

Ease of Use

.
.
8

Features

.
9

Audio Performance

.
9

Value for Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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