These days, when I listen to music, I’m more often than not listening to it digitally either on my computer or iPod. I've gone through almost all forms of music so far in my lifetime: vinyl, 8-Track, Cassette, CD, MP3, and Streaming. Personally I'm still holding out for the chip directly implanted to my brain, Lobo style, but until then most of my consumption is on MP3 for now. As I'm writing this I'm listening to music off my hard drive. So what does all this reminiscing about various forms of music have to do with my review this week? Did you know that not all computer audio hardware is created with good audio in mind? Some are just made with the cheapest materials that allow for just the bare minimum in sound. Which brings me to the topic at hand, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS.
The DacMagic XS is a portable digital to analogue converter headphone amplifier. According the Cambridge Audio it "is an instant upgrade to any computer’s sound output." That it "delivers the bass, clarity, and power you've been missing from your digital audio,and allows you to hear your favourite music and movies with every drop of detail, exactly as the artist intended." Powerful claims indeed, but do they deliver?
When the DacMagic XS arrived I hooked it up to my computer at work. The set up was simple; plug it into a USB port, let the computer recognize it, go into the computer's control panel and set the audio to output through the DacMagic XS, then plug in the headphones. The sound difference was pretty amazing. The audio was powerful and the bass was a bit heavier. The thing I noticed the most was it gave a sense of space. Not like a 5.1 surround sound sense of space, but a room like quality. I listened to a couple of music videos on YouTube and some of the videos I was cutting for our shows with it. Impressed, I was very curious to see what it would do with my home computers.
Here is where the good impressions ended. On my workhorse desktop, a HP Pavilion running Windows Vista (yes Vista, stop snickering), the DacMagic XS was not recognized. Looking through Cambridge Audio's support pages I learned that the problem could be I was running an older Audio Windows driver. The support pages advised that I needed the latest Cambridge Audio USB Audio 2.0 Windows driver. So I installed it, restarted my computer and it still wouldn't work.
Next I tried it on my gaming laptop, an Alienware M14X running Windows 7. Initially I had the same problem; the DacMagic XS wasn't recognized, but this time the Cambridge Audio USB Audio 2.0 Windows driver I installed fixed it. Then I listened to some music. The audio was different, but this time not for the better. It sounded pinched and the fullness was gone. Thinking it might have been my headphones (Audio-Technica's ATH-WS70 Solid Bass Headphones) I switched them out with my gaming headphones (Plantronics' The Rig). The audio still sounded compressed.
So what is the final verdict? Well it depends. If you have an everyday computer, not designed with audio in mind, a newer OS, and the current drivers then the DacMagic XS is for you. As I said, on my work computer it was a huge improvement, bringing a fullness of sound I didn't have before. But if you already have a computer that is built to have really good audio, then this would be something to pass on.
For more information see the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS web site.