Dirty Music? Clean It Up with the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS

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I visited the Cambridge Audio suite during CES 2014. I put on headphones. I listened. The sound stinked. I put a Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC / Headphone Amp between the headphones and laptop. The sound was amazing — you might even say magical! The recording was fine. It was the laptop amp and the DacMagic that made all the difference.

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It turns out the audio amp on a laptop is an amazingly cheap component of most computers. It is fine for notifications and the like, but when it comes to listening to music the amps fall short. They make even decent recordings sound crappy. A DAC, digital-to-analog converter that converts digital data into an analog signal, makes a huge difference when using a computer as the audio source. The Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC / Headphone Amp does the job quickly and easily. At under $200, it is an amazing way to get better music at home and on the go. That’s especially true thanks to its small design and ease-of-use.

DacMagic XS USB DAC Headphone Amp | Cambridge Audio

Here’s what Cambridge Audio has to say about their small creation:

Listening to music on your computer is brilliant – instant, easy access to all your digital files and a world of streaming services, internet radio and video sites. The cheap headphone output of a typical laptop or computer is simply not good enough to get the best from your headphones. The DacMagic XS USB DAC / Headphone Amp is an instant upgrade to any computer’s sound output. It connects quickly and easily to any USB port and allows you to hear your favourite music and movies with every drop of detail, exactly as the artist intended.

The DacMagic XS USB DAC / Headphone Amp

  • Plugs into PC/Mac via a single USB connection for both power and audio
  • Dramatically improves audio quality on all digital audio, including MP3s, high res audio files (e.g. FLAC or WAV), streaming services, films and games
  • Headphone amplifier built-in for deeper bass and times more power than a standard laptop headphone output
  • Portable Headphone Amp is easy to use and small enough to be carried anywhere and everywhere
  • Connect your laptop to your hifi system for better sound at home too
  • Built to last with sturdy aluminium casing

Let’s take a look at it on camera.

The small, pocketable DacMagic XS is easy to carry in the included bag and even easier to use. Simply plug the included microUSB to USB cord into a free USB port, and then plug your headphones into the 3.5mm port on the other side. The music will now flow through the DacMagic XS and into your headphones. (My MacBook Pro is a bit wonky in this regard, and I ended up needing to download a small piece of software from the company website and select it from the Audio Out choices. This was a onetime thing and, since then, the computer switches to the DacMagic XS whenever I plug it in.)

On the DacMagic XS you will find just two buttons. These are used to adjust the volume when audio is being sent through the device. It could not be simpler.

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With the DacMagic XS you get:

  • More clarity: You can’t hear digital audio signals. They have to be converted into analogue signals by a Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC) before you can play them. This is a critical process and one that we, here at Cambridge Audio, are specialists at. The DacMagic XS is smaller than a matchbox, yet it uses technology from our high-end DACs. But it is not just for audiophiles – anything from MP3s to high resolution lossless files, streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, Skype, games and films will all benefit. If you’ve paid for a higher quality subscription service, the DacMagic XS allows you to hear what you’re paying for.
  • More power: The built-in headphone amp increases the punch of your headphones, delivering 10 times more power than most laptop soundcards can manage. Even in the noisiest environments you will hear more of your music and won’t have to worry about the buzz of background noise. The DacMagic XS also features a volume control, easily adjusted at the tap of a finger. What’s more, a convenient LED shows current sample rate, so you always know if you’re getting the right level of detail.
  • More versatility: At home, the DacMagic XS can also bring the same attention to detail to your existing hi-fi set-up. Use it as the link between your laptop and home hi-fi amp for serious digital audio quality, without the space implications of a larger DAC. And finally the sleek, sturdy black aluminium case minimises interference and ensures the DacMagic XS is built to last.

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I’ve used different pairs of headphones with the DacMagic XS USB DAC / Headphone Amp and they all sounded better than I remember. That was true regardless of the musical genre I was listening to, and it was especially true when listening to Trixie Whitley! (Okay, it wasn’t especially true with Whitley’s music, but she is an unrecognized gem, and I love to plug her whenever the opportunity presents itself!) The DacMagic XS USB DAC / Headphone Amp was even able to drive the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pros I recently got. That’s saying a lot since these 250 Ohm headphones require a ton of power!

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Here’s the thing: at just under $190, the DacMagic XS isn’t inexpensive. If you don’t mind crappy music, then it won’t be worth the money. If, on the other hand, you love music, use your computer as your audio source, and have invested in a good pair of headphones, it is pretty much a no-brainer since it makes a world of difference. I’m listening to the DT 990 Pros through it while writing this post, and I am increasingly impressed by how something so small can make such a huge difference. And since the company offers a 30 Day in-home trial there’s no reason not to check them out!

Learn more and order yours here. You can also order it for $189.99 here in our Amazon Affiliate Store.

MSRP: $199.99

What I Like: Makes a world of difference when listening to music sourced from a computer; Simple to set up and use; Small and easy to bring along when on the road

What Needs Improvement: Costs almost $200; Takes up one USB port

Source: Manufacturer supplied review sample

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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.