Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M DAC Review
David Price listens in to the latest in a long line of affordable digital-to-analogue converters…
US$499 | S$705
After making a name for itself selling quirky but capable amplifiers in the nineteen seventies, Cambridge Audio has had several other incarnations over the years. Being a child of the eighties – spiritually if not literally – I remember it as the creator of the innovative, high-end CD1 CD player. This seemed as cool as Don Johnson’s Ferrari Daytona Spyder in Miami Vice back in the day. In the nineties, the brand reappeared with excellent but affordable CD spinners and DACs, such as the CD4SE and DACMAGIC 1.
When I first encountered the latter, I was a rookie hi-fi hack cutting my teeth at Hi-Fi World magazine circa 1993. One day, a motorcycle courier arrived at our London office bearing a review sample, so I decided to have a quick listen before going home from work. It was already getting late in the day, so I elected to spin just one track before powering down the review system. That didn’t go as planned, as I spent half the evening listening to it. Fascinated by what was inside, I whipped off the case and had a look. Not knowing the price, I guessed at around US$500. The following day, I arrived to see the press release, which put it about one-quarter of that.
Yes, that original DACMAGIC really was that good, in its early nineties way. From then on, the company has continued the theme of doing audacious little DACs and now has an entry-level one – the cheaper DacMagic 100, plus this so-called “top of the range” 200 version. While the nineties original had the novel feature of HDCD decoding, there are shadows of this with MQA functionality as standard. Things have come a long way in the intervening three or so decades, so this also gets a built-in headphone amp and integrated Bluetooth.
Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic range was always kitted out with the latest whiz-bang technology, and the 200 is no different. Twin ESS ES9028Q2M Sabre DACs, which handle up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM and DSD512 natively, are fitted. You also get the usual switchable digital filters – Fast, Slow and Short Delay in this case – and decent connectivity; two coaxial digital inputs, plus two optical and one USB type-B, as well as the aforementioned wireless aptX Bluetooth. The back panel also sports unbalanced RCA line outs and balanced XLRs.
For me, one big attraction of the DacMagic 200 is its small form factor. Cambridge Audio has rightly twigged that not all of us want a full-sized hi-fi separate with a case full of air; instead, your money buys you a half-width 215x52x191mm box finished in something akin to Apple’s ‘Space Grey’ called, ahem, ‘Lunar Grey’. This dinky DAC weighs just 1.2kg, plus of course, the weight of its offboard ‘wall wart’ type power supply which is designed to be secreted away somewhere that you can’t see.
The fascia design is functional but a wee bit cluttered. I like its array of front panel LEDs, which tell you exactly what’s going on – specifically input, filter selected, sampling frequency (or DSD speed) and MQA status. I’ve reviewed so many DACs over the years that communicate precious little about what they’re up to, either due to an attempt to save money or to look cool and minimalist. The array of sampling frequency LEDs is especially helpful when you’re running the USB input because it’s sometimes not clear what type of file you’re playing out from your computer. To the right of the fascia is a 6.3mm headphone jack, which works with the central volume control to give headphone amplifier functionality.
With its smooth anodised aluminium fascia and pressed steel case, the DacMagic 200 looks and feels neat enough – although it doesn’t have the visual glamour of some rivals. At this end of the market, though, DACs are there to do a job and the Cambridge Audio does so in a satisfyingly fuss-free manner. There’s a no-nonsense feel to it which is rather reassuring in today’s world of over-styled hi-fi products, even down to the basic but functional ‘egg carton’ packing box it comes in. Being picky, the lacklustre feel of the volume control lets the side down a little – but you’ve got to forgive it, given the price. It’s easy to use too, with the only hidden feature being the toggle between fixed and variable output – for which you have to consult the manual, perish the thought!
The two most distinctive facts of the new DacMagic 200’s sound are its tonal smoothness and expansive soundstage. There’s no sense of screechiness to its treble and upper midband, so it won’t have you running for cover behind the sofa at high volumes. And when you do pump up the volume, you’ll be impressed by how well it unpacks fairly complex mixes and gives each element a good deal of space, while placing them with impressive accuracy.
For example, Madonna’s Borderline – hardly the pinnacle of audiophile recordings, admittedly – came over in a satisfyingly clear and even way, with that famous slightly icy and edgy vocal refusing to grate, even when she was belting out the chorus. The Cambridge Audio’s rendition sounded less nasal than most budget DACs I’ve heard of late – instead having an unexpected degree of clarity and ease. This was helped by the spacious presentation; the recording sounded surprisingly wide and enveloping for a piece of throwaway processed eighties pop.
Rhythmically the DacMagic 200 does a good enough job. It can’t compete with the next tier up of DACs costing close to twice its price – such as Audiolab’s M-DAC+ – but still makes a decent effort at getting into the groove. The synth bassline of the Madonna song sounded a little loose, but it was tuneful enough to make the music good fun to listen to. Rock music was enjoyable too, and it made a fine fist of The Who’s Baba O’Riley, for example. Cheap digital can quickly turn this magnum opus into something of a flat, self-indulgent dirge, but not so here. The Cambridge Audio retained the timing of that famous Lowry organ’s backing loop well and caught most of the firecracker dynamics of Keith Moon’s drum work.
It also made a good fist of conveying those crashing guitar chords, and the drama of Roger Daltrey’s vocals – yet still it lacked that last one-tenth of impact, and softened the presentation slightly. No other price rival that I’ve heard does better here, so this is me nitpicking; all things considered, the DacMagic 200’s combination of abilities makes it great value for money. This track is a veritable audio assault course, and it came out relatively unscathed, never descending into harshness or losing the musical plot.
One reason for this, I think, is down to its dependable detail resolving ability. It’s not the sort of thing that machine-guns tiny elements of the mix out at you, rather you have to listen in to the recorded acoustic to really hear what’s going on. Yet you’ll be rewarded by a surprising amount of low-level information that sets it apart from many of its competitors. For example, Lazy Calm by the Cocteau Twins conjured up a spacious but nuanced sound – one with a surprisingly large amount of things going on if you really paid attention. For a budget DAC, it resolved the timbre of the synthesiser unexpectedly well, without appearing to give an overly forensic sound.
That really sums this DAC up; it’s a highly accomplished all-rounder. Indeed, I played a wide range of music across all its inputs during my audition period. It didn’t prefer any one genre or source to another; it was even-handed and appeared interested in everything. As the jazzy strains of Herbie Hancock’s I Have a Dream streamed from my phone showed, even the Bluetooth input wasn’t unpleasant to hear. Rather than sounding edgy and processed, its smoothness let me relax into the music and tap my feet. With hi-res programme material from my MacBook Pro via the USB input, I focused straight in on the emotion of Band on the Run by Wings. It’s not a famously great recording, but the DacMagic 200 served up oodles of detail that’s not apparent on the CD version, making for a highly enjoyable rendition.
Cambridge Audio’s new DacMagic 200 is a textbook example of how to do an affordable modern digital-to-analogue converter. Sonically it’s refined and expansive, with plenty of detail and an enjoyably musical nature. Technically it’s highly accomplished with fine functionality and decent connectivity. Overall then, it’s been carefully designed for the widest possible appeal at its price point. If you’re looking for a cheap way into a serious-sounding digital-based system, then it’s an essential audition. Its ancestors would be proud.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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