While the DacMagic Plus never failed to deliver good sound, the input source was the most critical factor in its performance. Its USB 1.1 input was by far the least exciting and most dynamically constricted source, with a soft veil over the leading transients. Even the Matrix 96/24 USB converter delivered better dynamics and speed. With the USB 2.0 input, sonics were substantially better, with more dynamic energy, inner detail, and life. The best sound I got from the DacMagic Plus was when it was connected via S/PDIF to the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 4 USB-to-S/PDIF converter. The second best sound, which was extremely close to the Off-Ramp, came from the King Rex UD 384 DAC/converter also via S/PDIF. The good news here is a prospective owner can start using the DacMagic Plus via USB 2.0 and later, as USB interfaces improve, add an external convertor to further improve their system’s sound.
The DacMagic Plus’ headphone amp worked well with all the headphones I used. As with many DAC/Pre units, when you plug in a headphone the DacMagic Plus mutes the balanced and unbalanced line outputs. While I would prefer the option of selecting whether the outputs were off or on while a headphone was plugged in, that isn’t an option.
Although I’ve heard headphone amplifiers with better defined imaging specificity, the overall presentation was as dynamic and low noise as what I’ve heard from some far more expensive DAC/Pre’s, such as the April Music Eximus DP-1 ($3200). The self-noise or background noise level through the DacMagic Plus was very low—so low that inner details seemed easier to “hear into” than through the Eximus DP-1. My favorite headphone with the DacMagic Plus was the new HiFiMan HE-300. Together the two components produced a big enveloping soundstage that allowed instruments to dynamically bloom in a way that reminded me of what I hear from a live microphone feed.
Near the end of the review period I changed the set-up so the DacMagic Plus’ single-ended analog outputs went into the analog inputs on a April Music Eximus DP-1 Dac/Pre. Both the Eximus DP-1 and the DacMagic Plus were fed digital signals from an Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 4—the DacMagic got a S/PDIF signal while the Eximus received AES/EBU. With this configuration I could do direct A/B comparisons between the two DACs. The first speakers I listened through were the AudioEngine 5+ speakers. The two DACs sounded virtually identical through AudioEngine speakers—even the depth recreation was indistinguishable.
Next I hooked up a pair of ADAM Artist A5 powered speakers. Through the ADAMs I thought the April Music DP-1 enjoyed a narrow but consistent edge in terms of better depth and image edge definition. Finally, I hooked up a pair of Aerial Acoustics 5B speakers powered by a pair of April Music Eximus S-1 monoblock amplifiers. This rig confirmed what I was hearing through the ADAM speakers—the Eximus DP-1 had ever so slightly better depth recreation and image specificity. But the dynamics, harmonic balance, and low-level detail rendered by both DACs were equally impressive.
My most recent live recording of the Boulder Philharmonic included the world premiere of a composition by Ruby Fulton entitled “Deadlock.” It is a concerto for beat box and orchestra. Shodekeh, the beat box soloist, used a small amp on stage in addition to an array over the concert hall’s proscenium and a freestanding subwoofer. When I played back my 192/24 files of the recording through the DacMagic Plus I was immediately struck by how accurately the bass transients and dynamics were reproduced. During the Beat box passages I could hear how the bass traveled through the hall and how it bloomed as it expanded. The DacMagic Plus also did a superb job of unraveling the complex orchestration and dense musical textures, which included a xylophone and a marimba, both pounding out complicated interconnected rhythmic patterns.
On commercial pop recordings such as Alexis Harte’s “Please Come Out” from his superb album Spoons of Honey [CD BABY.COM/INDYS], the DacMagic Plus did a fine job of retaining all the subtle low-level background effects and textures. Imaging was precise without being pinched or etched. The cut begins with both record surface noise scratches as well as crickets chirping in the background. Through the Dac Magic Plus it’s easy to hear where and when these background sounds are very subtly feathered in and out of the mix.
If you are contemplating putting together a high-quality desktop audio system you will be hard pressed to find any DAC/Preamp that includes a more useful feature set or better sound for anything near the DacMagic’s $649 MSRP (or street price of about $599). Yes, it’s a great value. Yes, it delivers excellent sonics. And yes, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus has certainly earned my recommendation as the new benchmark for DAC performance with a price under $600.