Computer audio is far from perfect, despite its reliance on the ‘perfect' and indisputable ones and zeroes used to represent the music. The first stage to getting better quality sound from your PC and Mac is by taking the digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) outside the box.

Cambridge Audio's new upsampling DacMagic audio converter does just that, and a lot more, in the pursuit of great sound. It has one USB input for direct connection to your computer, plus two more switchable inputs, each with a coaxial and optical (Toslink) digital connector. These inputs can be used to improve the sound of a CD player, DVD player, set-top TV box or games console. The DacMagic's stereo output is simply connected to your existing stereo hi-fi system by a pair of phono cables.

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic is a small unit, only about 21cm wide, and is designed to be sited flat like a normal hi-fi component; or on its side, like a tower PC, with the help of a separate rubber platform foot. On its front panel are two control buttons: one to switch between three inputs, plus an interesting option to select between three digital filters.

These filters each give a subtly different final sound, and you can choose whichever suits your ear and taste in music. The second filter (‘Min Ø'), for example, is a minimum phase type which often brings out a more natural feel, especially to fast transient sounds. This kind of choice in filters is normally only the preserve of vastly expensive high-end audio converters.

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Another audiophile technique has been employed in the digital processing core of the DacMagic, namely upsampling. Like the upconversion of standard definition video to eye-opening HD, this techniques repackages a typical 16-bit/44.1kHz music feed as you'd find from a CD or music MP3, into 24-bit/192kHz format.

This upsampling approach was once limited to professional converters costing upwards of £4000 each, and while it's now possible to do a basic conversion with cheap chips, Cambridge Audio has called upon the expertise of Swiss DSP specialist Anagram Technologies, to do the job in a way that can potentially upgrade the sound of all your music sources.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic rear panel

Rear panel, from left to right: RCA analogue output, XLR output, digital output (RCA & Toslink), Digital 2 input, Digital 1, USB input, 12V AC input

Its proprietary interpolation algorithm runs on a Texas Instruments 32-bit processor, helping to fill out the discontinuities in a jagged, stepped 16-bit digital waveform, bringing it closer to the sound of high-resolution 24-bit sound. The actual D-A conversion is courtesy of a pair of renowned Wolfson stereo DAC chips.

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In action, the DacMagic fulfilled its promise by delivering an effortless, open sound, free of unwanted digital edginess. With the help of upsampling, the stereo soundstage was rendered wide and deep, giving more insight into the recording space, whether a stadium, concert hall or modern studio.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic in black

Voices of singers sit more naturally in space, and instruments are well separated from each other, allowing you to hear more from the music. There is more body and richness behind the sound - in stark contrast to the thin, hollow sound of much PC audio. Treble was smooth and sweet over an authoritative and profound bass foundation.

Importantly, this outstanding quality of reproduction was as true of the USB input as the more respected S/PDIF coax and optical inputs.

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Cambridge Audio DacMagic: Specs

  • Two-channel digital-to-analogue convertor
  • Adaptive Time Filtering interpolating upsampler
  • 32-bit Texas Instruments Digital Signal Processor (DSP)
  • three switchable digital interpolation filters (Linear Phase, Minimum Phase, Steep)
  • 2 x Wolfson WM8740 24/192 stereo DAC chips
  • 1 x USB digital audio input
  • 2 x S/PDIF inputs (each with 1 x coaxial RCA and 1 x Toslink optical)
  • stereo unbalanced output RCA
  • stereo balanced output XLR
  • 2 x digital outputs (RCA and Toslink)
  • input sample frequency LED indicators: 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz
  • external 12V AC mains adaptor
  • aluminium case available in silver or black finish
  • 215x52x190mm
  • Two-channel digital-to-analogue convertor
  • Adaptive Time Filtering interpolating upsampler
  • 32-bit Texas Instruments Digital Signal Processor (DSP)
  • three switchable digital interpolation filters (Linear Phase, Minimum Phase, Steep)
  • 2 x Wolfson WM8740 24/192 stereo DAC chips
  • 1 x USB digital audio input
  • 2 x S/PDIF inputs (each with 1 x coaxial RCA and 1 x Toslink optical)
  • stereo unbalanced output RCA
  • stereo balanced output XLR
  • 2 x digital outputs (RCA and Toslink)
  • input sample frequency LED indicators: 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz
  • external 12V AC mains adaptor
  • aluminium case available in silver or black finish
  • 215x52x190mm

OUR VERDICT

Cambridge Audio has introduced an affordable high-end-quality DAC for use with computers and home entertainment devices alike. The DacMagic seems to revel in bringing out the best in digital stereo sound, whether MP3 or lossless music on a computer, or digital sound from TV and DVD. As remarkable as the performance is the DacMagic’s price. Less than £200 buys you an superb investment for studio quality audio reproduction

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