Perhaps “review” is an overly grand way of describing my impressions of the DACMagic 100 after just about a day’s use, but no tests of the device had appeared at the time of writing, so I hope my comments will be useful to some.
As I described in a previous post, an unusual aspect of this DAC is that it can accept digital inputs with a 24-bit depth and sampling rate of up to 192KHz via its USB 2.0 port. Most other such products accept such “fast” inputs only using their coaxial or TOSlink connectors. (The DACMagic 100 has one USB port, two coax inputs, and one TOSlink optical input, with front-panel switching from one to the other.)
It was this 192KHz-over-USB ability that led to my purchase decision, because I figured that if I were going to get a better DAC than the one I was already using with my computer (the existing DAC happens to have been the cheap-and-cheerful Behringer UCA222), I might as well be able to experiment with downloaded 96KHz and 192KHz files. And, the Dell Mini 9 I normally keep by my hi-fi doesn’t have an optical digital output, though my MacBook does.
So what about that 192KHz playback? Well, it works: No software modifications are necessary on a Macintosh, but on a Windows system you need to install a upgraded audio driver. (Cambridge Audio supplies one of its own, which I tried successfully on a Windows mini-notebook, but it’s possible ASIO4All and others are also compatible; the necessity for a driver is explained in Cambridge’s Audiophile’s Guide to Bit-Perfect Audio.)
I downloaded 192KHz test files for free from www.2l.no (thanks!), bypassing the high cost of purchasing commercial ones. All played without incident, with (on Ole Bull’s Concerto Fantastico, for example) lots of bass energy and a dynamic range that occasionally caught me off guard!
Somewhat hidden in the DACMagic 100′s documentation is the fact that when you first turn the device on, you must perform a one-time switch out of the default USB 1.1 mode by depressing the power and mode switches simultaneously. If you don’t do this, you’re not going to get 192KHz.
Of course, you also have to set your computer’s audio control panel for 192KHz as well. Once this is done, a 192KHz stream will be sent to the DAC even when low bit-rate files are being played; for example, my DACMagic 100 has been happily chuntering away for hours now playing Spotify tracks. No warning is given when the music that’s being played wasn’t actually high-res.
I mention the above because it’s a minor inconvenience with USB audio. Theoretically, if you’re going to play a 44KHz or 96KHz file through the DACMagic 100, you want it to be sent out to the DAC at its native sampling rate — that means it will be upsampled by the DAC, which can do a better job, not the PC.
The problem of a computer’s USB digital output not always having the same sampling rate as the source file being played is a software issue, not a problem with the DACMagic 100 hardware. (If you have a Mac, you can purchase $5 software called BitPerfect, which is claimed to address the issue, for iTunes users at least.)
Is high-res better?
So how does 192KHz audio sound? Nice — but is it “better” than typical 44KHz digital sound?
To even begin to answer that question, I’d have to have access to identical recordings in both 44KHz and 192KHz format, preferably also in Super Audio CD. And alas, 192KHz downloads are prohibitively expensive.
For example, Linn Records wants $14.50 for just the 23-minute first movement of Julia Fischer playing the Brahms Violin Concerto; that’s part of a recording you can get complete on an SACD for between $15 and $20, with another major work besides. I already own the SACD, which also has a CD layer and hence would have made good comparison material, so I wasn’t going to lay out that kind of money to repurchase a recording I already own.
For economy’s sake, then, I had to lower my sights. I settled for a $3.98 download of the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, recorded by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic, and offered by HDTracks at 24-bit, 88KHz. This recording dates from the mid-seventies and was never very smooth-sounding, but it’s an incomparable performance, and one I know well — I own it on cassette, CD, remastered CD, and SACD, and I guess I should try the LP some day!
I didn’t bother to dig out the cassette (!), but listened to all the other versions, both one after the other and at the same time. (The DAC output, CD output, and SACD output were synchronized and level-matched as closely as I could achieve, so that I could switch from one to the other whenever I wanted.)
Unfortunately, the 24-bit, 88KHz version as first rendered by the DACMagic 100 was a little disappointing. It didn’t sound “bad,” but it didn’t quite have the imaging and finesse I associate with high fidelity. The comparison came down firmly in favor of my SACD player (admittedly, a unit with a four-digit pricetag).
While Cambridge Audio claims to have solved the deficiencies of USB audio with products like the DACMagic 100, I decided to disconnect the USB connector from my MacBook. I then reconnected the DAC using an optical cable run from the laptop’s TOSlink output.
The result? OK, it’s just one man’s opinion, but via TOSlink (or coax) the DACMagic 100 seemed to stay in control of the sound in a way that it can’t quite manage via USB. Sound was now well up to par with the SACD — though Cambridge’s DAC provided more bass, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse — and I just wanted to keep listening to music rather than fiddling.
It’s clear, then, that the DACMagic 100 can provide good sound. On the other hand, A/B-ing the DAC’s 24-bit, 88KHz output against the standard CD version of the Beethoven didn’t show up much, if any, difference.
Maybe if I had started with a better-engineered comparison recording, I’d have been able to hear clearer differences between 16-bit, 44.1KHz audio and “high res.” Or, maybe not.
One thing that does seem clear to me, though, is that 16/44 played via TOSlink is still better than 24/88 played via USB. That may or may not be what other reviewers will find, and it probably isn’t what Cambridge Audio wants to hear, but there you have it.
Here’s one of my conclusions: If you purchase a DAC with a USB input, you’ll find it convenient for tasks such as streaming Internet radio from a cheap netbook (and for that, a maximum 48KHz sampling rate, like my cheap Behringer, would be more than sufficient). But if you want true high fidelity from a laptop (or other hard disk-based music server), make sure it has an optical digital output.
Being able to use TOSlink as your connection method, and not worrying about USB, will give you a wider range of DACs to choose from. (Most cost at least as much as the DACMagic 100, however, so I’m not going to complain about getting USB “for free.”)
As for the issue of CD-quality sound and higher-res digital formats, and whether one can actually hear the difference, my Beethoven test certainly didn’t allow drawing any conclusions. I remain convinced that Super Audio CD (and DVD Audio) bring one importantly closer to the sound of a studio master, but I can’t prove it to you — you’ll have to try it for yourself.
And the fact is, if you have any interest at all in high-res audio, Super Audio CD is more cost-effective than any form of computer-based setup. Though SACD is regularly written off as a failure by those who would like to see silver discs disappear, players such as the well-regarded Oppo BDP-83 cost $500 or less, and you can purchase second-hand SACD players on eBay for as little as $40. Plenty of discs are available online too, and they cost a lot less to buy than other ways of accumulating high-res tracks.