Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus Up-sampling Digital to Analogue Converter Review

Cambridge Audio updates one of their most popular products

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Highly Recommended
Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus Up-sampling Digital to Analogue Converter Review
SRP: £350.00

Introduction

The DacMagic digital to analogue converter was something of a runaway success for Cambridge Audio when they released it a couple of years ago. They clearly thought there was a niche for a well made and effective DAC that was also competitively priced, and the market obviously agreed with them. With the proliferation of digital music sources, a good DAC has become more important than ever and Cambridge Audio were not prepared to rest on their laurels. Instead they have taken a product designed to address how we listen to music these days and then improved upon it. The upgraded version of the DacMagic is designed to deliver more features, Bluetooth connectivity and, they claim, significantly enhanced audio performance. This new device, called the DacMagic Plus, includes a headphone socket, a volume control, a USB port for use with the BT100 wireless audio receiver and upgraded audio components. So let's take it for a spin and see if it's a worthy upgrade to its esteemed predecessor.

Design

The DacMagic Plus comes in either a black or silver finish, with a thick brushed metal facia, and the whole chassis has a solid, well built feel to it. As with the original DacMagic, the dimensions are small with the chassis measuring 215mm wide by 52mm high and 191mm deep. At first glance, the DacMagic Plus doesn't look much different from its predecessor, until you notice the large volume control in the middle. This, of course, is one of the main differences but otherwise the basic layout of the front facia is fairly similar. On the far left there is an On/Off button and next to that is a Source button. This Source button is a new addition that allows you to select between USB, External (Ext.), Digital 1 and Digital 2 inputs. To the right of the source button are a column of LEDs which light up to identify which source you have selected.

In the middle is the aforementioned volume control which is used to adjust the volume when headphones are connected and is independent of the balanced and unbalanced audio outputs. However, if the DacMagic Plus is placed in digital preamp mode, then the volume control also adjusts the output of the balanced and unbalanced audio outputs. It's worth noting that the DacMagic Plus actually ships in its default setting which has the digital preamp mode enabled. To disable this mode, switch the DacMagic Plus off and then push and hold the volume control in, whilst switching the DacMagic Plus on. The DacMagic Plus confirms the setting by flashing the source LEDs downwards for digital preamp mode and upwards for Fixed Line Level mode. If you rotate the volume control counter clockwise beyond the minimum point, this turns on the mute, which is indicated by the source LED flashing constantly.

To the right of the volume control there is the Filter/Phase Select button, which is used to select the three different filter modes: Linear Phase, Minimum Phase or Steep. To the left of the Filter/Phase Select button, there is a column of three LEDs corresponding to the three filter modes, the relevant LED will light up depending on the mode selected. To the right of the Filter/Phase Select button there is a row of LEDs that indicate the presence of an incoming digital stream and the sampling frequency of that stream. The different digital sampling frequencies are 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 and 192kHz but if the incoming sample frequency is 32kHz, the DacMagic Plus will still accept it but no LED will light up. Finally, on the far right, there is a 1/4" jack plug for connecting a pair of headphones.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus

At the rear of the DacMagic Plus, there are an impressive number of connections, which provide this device with a wonderful degree of flexibility. At the far left there are a pair of stereo unbalanced audio outputs that use RCA style connectors. To their left is a pair of stereo balanced audio outputs that use XLR connectors and are the preferred method of connection, assuming your amplifier accepts XLR connectors. Next up you have the Digital Outputs, there is one S/P DIF co-axial output and one TOSLINK optical output and both these outputs are active concurrently and can be used to run equipment at the same time. These digital outputs pass-through the unprocessed digital audio from the selected digital input without any upsampling or other modification being done to the LPCM input signal. To the left of the digital outputs, there are two sets of digital inputs, both of which have S/P DIF and TOSLINK style inputs, although only one type of each input should be connected at any one time, if the co-axial and the optical inputs are connected at the same time, neither will work. It should be stressed that the DacMagic Plus only accepts Stereo PCM or Dolby Digital 2.0, it won't accept a Dolby Digital 5.1 or a DTS signal, so if you want to connect a DVD player, ensure it is set to two-channel PCM or Dolby Digital 2.0.

After the digital inputs, there is a USB type B socket for playback of audio from a personal computer running either Windows or OS X operating systems, and some builds of Linux. Above the USB socket there is a Ground/Lift switch and when set to Ground the DacMagic Plus is connected to the earth connection of the PC directly. When set to Lift, the ground connection is made via a network designed to break any hum loops that may be caused by the source equipment. The Ground setting is the default and is best left unchanged, unless audible hum is experienced. Next to the USB type B socket, there is a USB type A connector for use with an external device (Ext. Device) such as the BT100 Bluetooth adaptor. Finally, there is a socket for the DC 12V 1.5A power adaptor which is one of the reasons the DacMagic Plus can be kept so small.

Setup

Setup is very simple, you just connect your digital sources to the DacMagic Plus and then connect the DacMagic Plus to your amp, either via the balanced or unbalanced stereo audio outputs. As mentioned in the previous section you can connect up to two digital devices to the DacMagic Plus, using either S/P DIF or TOSLINK and you can also connect a PC via the USB socket. The DacMagic Plus is compatible with both USB 2.0 (Hi-Speed) and USB 1.1 (Full-Speed) and it will also work with USB 3.0 ports but, in this case, the PC will treat the DacMagic Plus as a USB 2.0 or 1.1 device. The DacMagic Plus also supports two USB Audio protocols, 1.0 which works over USB 1.1 ports and supports 24-bit/96kHz and 2.0 which works over USB 2.0 ports and supports 24-bit/192kHz. The default configuration is USB 1.1 and USB Audio 1.0, which will work with nearly all common operating systems without the need for drivers.

However whilst USB Audio 1.0 is the default, the DacMagic Plus can be configured to run in either USB Audio mode 1.0 or 2.0. To change the USB Audio protocol you just hold down the Filter/Phase button whilst powering up the DacMagic Plus. One of the digital input source LEDs will illuminate to indicate the current USB Audio setting: Digital 1 indicates USB Audio 1.0 and Digital 2 indicates USB Audio 2.0. The USB Audio protocol is chosen by simply turning the volume control; once set, simply press the volume control and the DacMagic Plus will restart in the chosen mode. If you are using a PC with a Windows operating system, you will need to download the Cambridge Audio USB Audio 2.0 Driver which can be found on their website. However, no extra driver is needed if you are using a Mac and the DacMagic Plus will work with the OS-X 10.5 or above USB Audio 1.0 or 2.0 drivers. The DacMagic Plus should work with the native Audio 1.0 drivers for most builds of Linux but new builds that support USB Audio 2.0 might require additional drivers.

Cambridge Audio provide the optional BT100 Bluetooth Adaptor, which is a small device that can be connected directly to the DacMagic Plus via the Ext. Device USB socket at the rear or via an extension cable if necessary. Once connected to the DacMagic Plus, the BT100 allows it to receive Bluetooth Audio (known as Bluetooth Advanced Audio Distribution Profile or A2DP). The BT100 supports A2DP using either the original SBC encoded form or the later higher quality apt-X encoded form. Whilst SBC should be supported by most devices, the newer apt-X codec might not be so widely supported but the BT100 itself declares that it can accept either codec.

As with the DacMagic Plus, setting up the BT100 is very easy. First you need to select Ext. as the source on the DacMagic Plus and then insert the BT100 into the Ext. Device USB port. Wait a moment for the BT100 to be detected and then double click the button on the BT100 to enter pairing mode, it will indicate this state by flashing rapidly. Put your Bluetooth compliant audio source into pairing mode and then pair with the BT100, it will appear as 'Cambridge Audio BT100'. Once an authorised audio link has been established, it can be used again in the future as long as the source is within 10m of the BT100. Once successfully paired, the BT100's LED goes off briefly before flashing three times quickly. The LED then goes off and only lights up when you are playing audio via Bluetooth, the LED lights up constantly when streaming SBC and flashes every two seconds when streaming apt-X.

The DacMagic Plus can be positioned in two different ways, either horizontally or vertically. To position it horizontally there are four small individual feet supplied that can be attached to the bottom of the chassis. To position the DacMagic Plus vertically there is a large rubber 'foot' provided which you just slide the chassis into sideways.

Listening

The latest incarnation of the DacMagic uses upgraded audio components, including dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs and an Analogue Device ADSP21261 DSP. The result of this is a DAC that can accept any sampling frequency from 32 to 192kHz and any resolution from 16 to 24-bit and then upscales the digital signal to 24-bit 384kHz. To use the DacMagic Plus, you just turn it on, select the source and the filter type and you are good to go.

The DacMagic Plus offers three different filter functions: Linear Phase, Minimum Phase and Steep. All three are highly sophisticated audiophile topologies, optimised specifically for audio playback. Cambridge Audio encourage the user to experiment with these filters to determine which best suits their ears and equipment. The effects of these different filters can be subtle so it ultimately rests with the user to decide which they prefer. We found that in general the Line Phase seemed cleaner and more precise but possibly a little clinical. Conversely the Minimum Phase was slightly less precise and a bit looser, resulting in a warmer sound and Steep was more detailed but a little less precise with complex musical arrangements. If you so wished you could use different filters with different sources or even different genres but as a rule we mostly used the Linear Phase filter, which offered precise timing and a responsive bass.

Thanks to the upgraded components in the DacMagic Plus, the resulting sound was not only better than its illustrious predecessor, it was also the equal of some higher end DACs. When it came to the actual listening tests the DacMagic Plus performed admirably with a neutral tone and detailed reproduction, regardless of which filter you chose. The dynamic range was excellent, with a clean delivery at both extremes and a well-composed midrange. Carl Orff's 'Carmina Burana' was as spine tingling as ever and the instruments and choral arrangements were delivered with a precise clarity.

The DacMagic Plus was also capable of delivering an impressive stereo soundstage, with clarity and precise localisation. The beginning of 'Limehouse Blues' from 'Jazz at The Pawnshop' is a great test of clarity and envelopment, offering plenty of low level detailing and localised sounds. However, where the DacMagic Plus really excelled was with more complex musical arrangements, allowing individual instruments or voices to be identified without being lost amongst each other. Female vocals are always a good test and the DacMagic Plus handled Rickie Lee Jones 'Hi-Lili Hi-Lo' without sounding strident or brittle. It also delivered Adele's '21' very well, especially the complex overlapping vocals at the end of 'One and Only'. However it took male vocals in its stride just as well, delivering Dave Gilmour's velvety tones on the equally complex Pink Floyd track 'Time' with clarity and ease. The result was a very pleasing audio experience that delivered a very convincing performance that was hard to fault.

One of the new features on the DacMagic Plus is the addition of a headphone socket and when used with a decent pair the results were impressive. The nature of headphones makes critical listening much easier and the impressive sound qualities of the DacMagic Plus were even more in evidence. All the qualities of clarity and precise delivery were still present and correct but now the soundstage seemed even more expansive as the music filled your head. Certainly anyone who has multiple digital sources and likes to listen to music through headphones will find the DacMagic Plus a useful addition to their system.

As a result of this improved performance the DacMagic Plus eclipsed its predecessor in terms of delivery, as well as connectivity. The digital and USB connectors sound the best and whilst audio streamed via Bluetooth didn't sound quite as good, it was still impressive as well as convenient. The additional cost of the DacMagic Plus means that it isn't the out-and-out bargain that it was previously and at £350 it will be vying with some impressive competition. However the DacMagic Plus, just like its predecessor, still punches above its weight and is certainly worth considering by anyone looking for a versatile and effective DAC.

Verdict

9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Pros

  • Extensive connections
  • Flexible setup
  • Impressive array of features
  • Superb sound
  • Excellent build quality
  • User selectable filters
  • Headphone socket
  • Volume control
  • Optional Bluetooth adaptor

Cons

  • No remote control
  • More expensive than its predecessor

Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus Up-sampling Digital to Analogue Converter Review

Cambridge Audio's follow-up to their original DacMagic is an impressive little device that offers a wealth of options to anyone looking to upgrade the sound quality of their current system. Obviously, the DacMagic Plus is aimed primarily at audio delivered from a computer or streamed via Bluetooth but it still offers an excellent way to improve on either the DACs in your CD player or possibly in your amplifier. It is certainly more than capable of breathing new life into your older digital sources, as well as the myriad of more recent digital delivery systems, but it also holds its own against some quite high-end components. If you prefer listening to music through a pair of cans, then the DacMagic Plus could be just the ticket, thanks to the inclusion of a headphone socket and the addition of a volume control means you can also use the DacMagic Plus as a pre-amp.

The build quality of the DacMagic Plus is excellent, with solid construction, compact design and an informative front facia. The addition of four small feet for horizontal positioning or a large rubber foot for vertical installation to save space are also useful and practical features. The connections at the rear are relatively comprehensive with two digital inputs that both offer a choice of S/P DIF or TOSLINK, a USB type B socket and a USB type A socket for connecting the BT100 Bluetooth adaptor. This optional extra is very useful and allows users to stream music from Bluetooth compatible devices that use either the standard SBC codec or the more recent apt-X. Obviously there are also analogue stereo outputs, one set using unbalanced RCA plugs and the other using balanced XLR connectors. The DacMagic Plus is compatible with USB ports 2.0 and 1.1, as well as USB Audio protocols 1.1 and 2.0. In addition there's a digital output, again offering a choice of S/P DIF and TOSLINK, for passing the digital signal through without upsampling or other processing.

The latest incarnation of the DacMagic uses upgraded audio components, including dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs and an Analogue Device ADSP21261 DSP. The result of this is a DAC that can accept any sampling frequency from 32 to 192kHz and any resolution from 16 to 24-bit and then upscales the digital signal to 24-bit 384kHz for conversion to analogue. There are also three filters on offer - Linear Phase, Minimum Phase and Steep - but the effects of these different filters can be subtle so it ultimately rests with the user to decide which they prefer. We found that, in general, the Line Phase seemed cleaner and more precise but possibly a little clinical. Conversely, the Minimum Phase was slightly less precise and a bit looser, resulting in a warmer sound and Steep was more detailed but a little less precise with complex musical arrangements. If you so wished you could use different filters with different sources, or even different genres, but as a rule we mostly used the Linear Phase filter, which offered precise timing and a responsive bass.

Thanks to the upgraded components in the DacMagic Plus, the resulting sound was not only better than its illustrious predecessor, it was also better than some higher end DACs. When it came to the actual listening tests the DacMagic Plus performed admirably with a neutral tone and detailed reproduction, regardless of which filter you chose. The dynamic range was excellent, with a clean delivery at both extremes and a well-composed midrange. The DacMagic Plus was also capable of delivering an impressive stereo soundstage, with clarity and precise localisation. However, where the DacMagic Plus really excelled was with more complex musical arrangements, allowing individual instruments or voices to be identified without being lost amongst each other. The result was a very pleasing audio experience that delivered a very convincing performance that was hard to fault. This audio quality also extended to headphone listening and when using the DacMagic Plus with headphones the results were as impressive as they were through speakers.

That's not to say the DacMagic Plus was perfect, of course, but any issues we had were minor and didn't detract from the enjoyment of hearing all your digital sources with new life breathed into them. Given the inclusion of a volume control the lack of a remote is a strange omission, especially at a retail price of around £350. This is more expensive than the previous version, especially when you add the £70 cost of the BT100 and puts the DacMagic Plus in direct competition with some very capable DACs from manufacturers such as Arcam. Luckily for Cambridge Audio, the performance of the DacMagic Plus is so good that it can hold its own in some very illustrious company and still offer remarkable value. As a consequence of this excellent performance, as well as the great flexibility, superb build quality, extensive connections, impressive features and value for money, the Dacmagic Plus is a worthy successor to its much loved predecessor.

Highly Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
9

Ease of Use

.
9

Features

.
9

Audio Performance

.
9

Value for Money

.
9

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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