Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 Digital-to-Analog Converter Review

Upgrading Audio Performance with an Outboard DAC

The front side of the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 digital-to-analog converter
Adding the DacMagic 100 to a system is likely to improve the sound of many older disc players and even some newer ones. Courtesy of Amazon

In the world of digital audio, the end game is the external digital-to-analog converter, or DAC. These small, non-descript microchips are built into a disc player or computer and are the keys to accurately converting the billions of 0s and 1s of a digital audio signal (e.g. from a CD or DVD) into natural sounding analog signals that are faithful to the original sound.

The DAC is the core of digital audio. Rapid improvements in technology and the rise in popularity of mobile/computer audio has driven up demand for outboard DACs. These components are designed to upgrade the audio performance of disc players, computers, game consoles, and other digital audio sources.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic

The DacMagic 100 is an upsampling outboard DAC offered by Cambridge Audio, a UK manufacturer. Since 1968, Cambridge Audio has offered mid- to high-end AV components, accessories, and mini systems. The DacMagic 100 is a small component, measuring about 1/3 the size of a mid-sized receiver or DVD player. It can be placed vertically or horizontally using the supplied rubber foot. When connected, the DacMagic 100 performs the digital-to-analog conversion process, which is usually done by a disc player, game console, music server, or PC.

The DacMagic 100 has inputs for three digital audio sources – one input for optical (Toslink) and two for coaxial S/PDIF, and a single USB input for connection to the USB audio output of a PC or MAC computer. Analog outputs include unbalanced-line (RCA) and balanced-line (XLR) connections. A digital pass-thru (with Toslink and S/PDIF) is provided to connect to a digital audio recorder.

A (Very) Short Lesson in Digital Audio

DacMagic 100 'upsamples' a digital audio signal from 16-bit/44.1 kHz to 24-bit/192 kHz. Although a full discussion of digital audio is beyond this article, suffice to say that increasing the bit rate from 16- to 24-bits increases the size of each digital sample, and upsampling the incoming digital signal from 44.1 kHz (44,100 samples per second) to 192 kHz (192,000 samples per second), increases the quantity of digital pulses sampled per second. The results are greater dynamic range and extended high frequency response of the analog signal output.

Another important feature is 32-bit signal processing to reduce signal 'jitter.' Jitter is a digital audio phenomenon related to the timing of the digital pulses, sometimes described as 'shaky pulses.' An accurate digital clock, such as the 32-bit processor, helps reduce signal jitter and improves high frequency detail and signal resolution. Other notable features of the DacMagic 100 include an incoming sampling rate indicator (32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96 kHz sampling rates) and three digital filters (L) that can be adjusted according to listening preferences. A front panel phase invert switch is provided for digital recording purposes.

Enough With the Science Lessons – Does DacMagic Really Work?

If you're hoping to take your high-end CD player to new performance heights, save your money or invest in another system upgrade. The DacMagic 100 has excellent sound quality, but it probably won't outperform higher-end disc players featuring built-in DACs optimized for audio performance (unless they are very outdated). On the other hand, many low- to mid-priced CD and DVD players cut corners, particularly on the audio side – this is where Cambridge Audio's DAC showed some of its magic.

The DacMagic 100 doesn't do much for our high-end Yamaha CD player, which has always sounded great – no surprise here. Both DACs exhibit excellent resolution, detail, and depth. However, differences are more revealing when playing a CD on a (recently-purchased) Blu-ray player and an (older) DVD-Audio/SACD player. The differences in sound quality are subtle but nevertheless a reminder that audio quality is sometimes considered secondary, as an afterthought. The DacMagic 100 sounds slightly more open and detailed when compared to the mediocre DACs in both the other players. Although the differences are noticeable, they are also less significant when compared to the improvements of computer audio.

Can DacMagic Elevate the Computer to a Legitimate Audio Source?

The real magic in DacMagic 100 happens when listening to computer audio sources. The DACs built into most computers are not known for audio quality unless the soundcards have been upgraded as such. When connected to the USB output of a PC or MAC computer, the DacMagic 100 acts as a digital-to-analog converter – essentially like an external sound card with high-quality DACs on board.

The comparisons are stark. The sound of the DacMagic 100 thoroughly eclipses the DACs built into our Mac laptop, quickly elevating the computer to a legitimate audio source. With all the music stored on the computer, it's like instantly acquiring a new high-quality audio source for playback on the system. Much of the stored music is from iTunes in the AIFF format, which is CD standard 44.1 kHz, 16-bit audio. It's high quality audio to begin with, but listening through the DacMagic 100 is like lifting a cloak covering the speakers.

Clarity and detail improves markedly, with much greater openness and transparency. Connecting the computer is simple. Connect the USB output of a computer to the USB input on the DacMagic 100 , then connect the DacMagic 100 analog output to an analog input on a receiver. Note: the DacMagic 100 doesn't come with any cables, so you'll have to purchase them separately. Beyond computers, the DacMagic 100 offers sonic improvements for other audio devices including: music servers, whole house audio systems, internet radio players, satellite radio programs, video game players, and even the digital audio output of a flat panel television. Any digital audio device with optical or coaxial outputs can be connected to the DacMagic 100 and will likely experience improved sound quality.

The Bottom Line

It seems remarkable that a tiny microchip can be such a critical part of the audio chain, but the digital-to-analog converter drives audio quality. Your results may vary, but adding the DacMagic 100 to a system is likely to improve the sound of many older disc players and even some newer ones, especially those lacking enhanced audio features. The DacMagic 100 brings computer audio to life, elevating the PC to a genuine audio source. Computers have become the preferred music storage device, and the DacMagic 100 turns a computer into an audio source worthy of its own shelf in an entertainment center.

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