If you listen to music on a laptop with headphones, the DacMagic XS USB DAC/Headphone Amp offers a massive upgrade in audio quality from a device that's smaller than a box of matches. It's not cheap at $189, but one of these would make a great gift for any music lovers stationed far from their home stereo setup.
The DacMagic XS plugs into a USB port on your computer and highjacks the audio signal, bypassing the manufacturer's own digital-to-analog signal conversion. No computer maker's going to invest a lot in the DAC electronics because margins are tight and the overwhelming majority of buyers either don't care or can't tell the difference.
What's a DAC? Digital-to-analog converters are heart of any CD player, translating the 1's and 0's into an audio signal that can drive your speakers or headphones. Computers, smartphones and tablets all have to make the same conversion before you hear the music encoded in their MP3s or other audio files.
Cambridge Audio has a well-earned reputation as a manufacturer of some of the finest CD players in the world, especially in the under $1000 category. (If you want to know why some people pay $13,000 for a CD player, the super high-end models come with a lot of upgrades to the power supply and the mechanical elements that spin the disk.) Even at $500 or $800 for a CD player, Cambridge Audio has always represented great value for your money.
As you might have noticed, there are significantly fewer customers for high-end CD players lately and Cambridge Audio is trying to expand its product line to adapt in a changing marketplace. They've delivered great DAC converters for a reasonable price before and that skill really comes into play with the DacMagic XS.
You can buy a for $189 online (and get a 30-day home audition if you buy one via the Cambridge Audio online store). That's not a price that's so low that you'd buy one on impulse or one that's easy to pay if you've already invested in nice headphones, but it's one that will seem like a real bargain if you listen to music from your computer every day.
The DacMagic XS has a mini USB input on one side and a 3.5mm audio jack on the other. There's a Plus button to raise the volume and a Minus button to lower the volume. Once you've plugged in the DacMagic and set your computer to use it for audio output, you've got to control your volume with the buttons on the device.
(If you're a real hi-fi person who wandered into reading this review, know that the device has two settings. 1.0 accepts a 24-bit/96kHz audio stream and the 2.0 setting can handle a 24-bit/96kHz stream. Very few listeners will ever fool with this kind of high-resolution audio files, but this device does a fantastic job for a device that costs less than $200. Mac users can use the 2.0 setting out of the box. PC users will have to download a piece of software to enable the high-res capabilities).
I tried out the DacMagic XS with my desktop iMac and an Orb Audio Mini-T system and also with a MacBook Air and a variety of headphones and earbuds (including B&W P5's, Apple's standard earbuds and some off-brand cheap ones that were lying around). In almost every case, sending the audio signal through the DacMagic yielded a startling audio upgrade (even on the stock Apple earbuds). It was only with the cheapest knockoff earbuds that the improvement wasn't overwhelmingly apparent. Of course, if you're in the habit of using $2 earbuds, you probably would never have any interest in an almost-$200 piece of audio gear anyway.
My test track was the Spotify streaming version of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks,"a song that features one of the greatest drum tracks of the '70s. The drums were recorded in a massive stairwell in a UK mansion and they're pretty much the gold standard of huge drum sound. The DacMagic immediately closed the deal for me, bringing the track to life and making an Internet stream sound far better than I thought possible.
In the box, you also get a carrying bag and a micro USB cable.
This thing is so good that it's created a problem for me. When I work away from my desk, I've long been in the habit of working from and listening to music on my iPad because using a tablet was easier than setting up a laptop. Now that I've been using the DacMagic XS, the great-for-a-mobile-device sound on the iPad sounds a lot worse than it used to. If you spend a lot of time working with a laptop and headphones, it's an investment that will offer a big upgrade to your daily life for a while soon seem like a pretty reasonable amount of cash up front.
If you really want something like this to use with a desktop computer and speakers, you might want to investigate the DacMagic 100 instead. Even though it costs more at $300, it offers a dedicated power supply (which should yield an even better result) and a few more input options.
But if you're using a laptop, it's hard to imagine a better combination of performance and portability that the DacMagic XS. If you care about how your music sounds, I can't imagine a better upgrade for your computer audio setup.