Cambridge Audio DACMagic

Cambridge Audio DACmagicOne of the last ever digital-to-analogue convertors of the first era of DACs, the DACMagic spent a good part of the nineteen nineties being one of the few such products on sale. Had it been launched five years earlier than its 1995 debut, it would probably have set the world on fire, but by the mid-nineties, the ship had already saled for the DAC market and it ploughed a lonely furrow. By the time it was discontinued around the millennium it was seen as anachronistic and irrelevant.

Standalone DACs really hit the British audiophile’s collective consciousness in 1987 with the Musical Fidelity Digilog, and soon the Arcam Delta Black Box followed in 1988. The Audio Alchemy Digital Decoding Engine was also a popular favourite at the end of that decade, but by the mid nineties when the Cambridge Audio arrived, people were more interested in replacing their first generation CD players outright, rather than adding an extra box to them, and the DACMagic was just a little out of time.

The original DACMagic was designed in 1994 by John Westlake, who had previously worked for Pink Triangle and engineered the superb Da Capo. Initially selling for £149 (in the UK via Richer Sounds), it didn’t look up to much until you took the lid off. Inside you could see a very well designed circuit with a smattering of audiophile components, and sophisticated power provision – three separate transformers feeding nineteen independent power supplies. Its balanced circuitry terminated in two XLR outputs (alongside unbalanced RCAs), considering that you had to pay £1,000 or more for a CD spinner with balanced outputs, this was remarkable at the price.

Digital-to-analogue conversion was done by a pair of Philips TDA 1305 18-bit hybrid chips, and this platform also went to DACMagic 2 that followed a couple of years later. It also offered HDCD compatibility via the superb sounding Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 digital filter. The DacMagic 2i sported significant improvements that were claimed to reduce distortion by fifty percent, and gained gold-plated printed circuit boards and connectors, and better quality low-noise transformers. The DACMagic 2 Mk.ll that followed soon after acquired better Analogue Devices AD712JN op-amps in the analogue output stage. More subtle tweaks were done to the DACMagic 3, which was discontinued in 2000, now selling for £199.95.

Sonically, the DACMagic was superb for what it was – its problem was that people would compare it with DACs at three, four or five times the price and the criticise its slightly dry and forensic sound. In truth, by the standards you’d expect for a £149 design, it was staggeringly good. It has a bold, confident and well articulated sound that captures the dynamics of the music well, alongside the rhythms which it powers along with aplomb. The downside is the slightly light bass – again compared to more expensive designs – and also a lack of sweetness. The DACMagic has a direct and detailed sound, but isn’t voiced to seduce the listener. Successive incarnations made for an increasingly detailed performer with stronger low frequencies, but it never got sweeter or more euphonic.

Quintessential budget esoterica, this is an important, affectionally remembered product in the great budget scheme of things. Nowadays though, with just 16-bit, 48kHz functionality and no USB input, it’s an antique and won’t be for everyone. It was replaced in 2009 by the DACMagic Plus, which addressed all these criticisms. The original remains a cheap way (expect to pay £50 or less) to upgrade an ageing CD player, and also gives true HDCD functionality which will appeal to a select bunch of silver disc collectors.

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