When Cambridge Audio’s first ever DACMagic was launched in 1995, it surprised the world. John Westlake – of Pink Triangle DaCapo and Audiolab M-DAC fame – designed it and put the brand on the map for seriously good, affordable digital converters. In 2009, the company launched the new DacMagic which (at the time) boldly included a USB input for the small number of computer audiophiles. It only went up to 48kHz, 16-bit resolution, so there was always going to be an input – and it arrived in 2013, launched at Las Vegas CES. The DacMagic Plus runs up to a stellar 24-bit, 384kHz resolution (although this is the up sampled data rate, not the input data rate, mind you). It was one of the last products to be signed off by the company’s highly respected chief engineer Matt Bramble, so I took it as read that it would be good – and so it proved.
Upsampling was pioneered by dCS two decades ago, and has now trickled down to affordable products such as this. To my ears, it does some good for CD, taking the invasive analogue reconstruction/anti-aliasing filter way out of the audio band. Here it can be less stringent and a brick-wall roll off is not needed. This in turn let Bramble use a linear phase Bessel topology with much better time domain performance. This product isn’t just an upsampling DAC, it is also a digital preamplifier and headphone amp with both RCA and XLR outputs. It sports the popular Wolfson WM8740 run in Dual Differential mode, and takes USB data at up to 24/96 in standard or profile 1 mode as supplied, but you can change it to profile 2 which accepts 24/192 and nearly all sample rates between that and 44.1kHz (only 176.4kHz is omitted on USB but not S/PDIF). Standard TOSLINK and coaxial digital inputs are provided, and there’s also a rear panel USB A socket for the company’s optional £70 BT100 Apt-X Bluetooth receiver.
When it came out, the DacMagic Plus was certainly the best sounding £350 DAC on sale, and remains there or thereabouts even now. It is clean, open, three dimensional and decently musical, with none of the nasties you would associate with some other budget DACs. For example, it doesn’t sound overtly ‘transistory’ in its tonality; there’s none of the brittleness and monochrome tonality of some rivals. Bass isn’t the strongest around – the pricier Audiolab M-DAC is considerably gutsier – but it is enjoyably fluid and musical. The midband is decently detailed and has a smoothness and subtlety that’s again unexpected at the price. Treble is quite sweet for a DAC of its position in life, with a lovely, easy sound and smooth yet spacious glint to the treble. Indeed, it sounds quite similar to the Arcam rDAC, which also uses the same Wolfson digital converter chip. Rhythmically the Cambridge Audio is enjoyably propulsive, with decent dynamic shading too – but when you hear the (then contemporary, and £200 more expensive) Rega DAC you realise that there’s less contrast between the loudest and quietest parts of the music.
Overall then, this crisp, attractively packaged, compact (52x215x191mm, 1.2kg) digital converter cum preamplifier makes a great companion to a laptop computer, and a fine budget digital hub for an affordable hi-fi system. It now retails for £249 from Richer Sounds, and secondhand examples can be found on eBay from £100. Interestingly, Fidelity Audio produces an upgrade power supply for £269 which smoothes out the sound, reduces noise and improves dynamics considerably – so there’s scope for further improvement if you so wish.