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Positive Feedback ISSUE 53
as reviewed by Dan Dzuban
It's funny how outboard DACs have gone in and out of fashion over the last two decades. I can remember lusting over some Audio Alchemy gear in the early Nineties, but instead I purchased a string of CD players when the first DAC craze faded. I fondly remember reviewing a Bel Canto DAC in the early 2000's as DACs seemed to regain favor, but then I continued to purchase CD players because they seemed to be more practical with less hassle. I have now come full circle, and with the advent of music servers, I now think that a good DAC is the way to go to get the most bang for your source component buck. Cambridge Audio's DACMagic is a relatively bargain-priced component that has developed some strong buzz over the last few years. It is one thing to be a good value for the money, but to be a good True Factoring choice for a source component, it must also be neutrally balanced, and high enough performance to stand with higher priced components. Of course, it would be great if its strengths also coincided with my tastes in music and music reproduction…
CD players all sound the same
That's what conventional Stereo Review wisdom told us, and that is what the majority of "audio enthusiasts" tell us. These "audio enthusiasts" are folks who haven't quite caught the full audiophile bug, but appreciate some aspects of higher performance nonetheless. "Bits is bits." In the first half of my audiophile pursuits, I tended to fall into this camp--partially because at that time I had more years of Stereo Review subscriptions under my belt than I did Stereophile to tell me that was the case, and partially because the lower rung equipment made it harder to hear such differences.
Over time, I started to hear more and more differences, I started to develop preferences for certain players, and eventually I was willing to step up and pay for such preferences. In one of the bigger "aha" moments of my audiophile pursuit, I even surprised myself with the size difference between players. A few years back, a friend of mine felt pretty strongly that "bits is bits," so I arranged an audition where I had my ~$2000 Opera Consonance 2.2 Linear CD player and a ~$3500 Krell SACD Standard player (playing CDs) in my system at the same time, with the same cables. Neither player did anything wrong, and both players did so many things right—yet did them very differently: soundstaging, clarity, agility, dynamics, and bass slam varied with each player. Both players had great soundstaging, but their perspective and sonic images were very different. The Opera stood out for its amazing clarity and agility. And the Krell's dynamics and bass slam grabbed our attention. My friend was dumbfounded, and so was I—kind of like seeing a movie over and over, knowing the scary parts were coming, yet you still jump at the scary parts. I knew there would be differences, and even had a hunch at what they would be, but I wasn't prepared for the differences to be so…different.
This brings us to the present, where I am still enjoying the clarity and agility of the Opera CD player. When I say clarity and agility, it is a clarity and agility that is rarely matched by any player at any price. The player incorporates a design without any brick wall filter of any kind. If you have ever heard a single driver speaker, or one without a crossover, you know that there is a purity that is otherwise obscured when a crossover is added. In most cases, the crossover of course brings so many other sonic benefits that its lack of clarity is outweighed by effortless, smoothness, dynamics, bass, etc. That's exactly what I heard with the Opera. Stephen Monte, of Quest for Sound, used to import the Opera and called the sound "raw." He was right—the clarity starkly laid the music out before you. But that wasn't always a good thing. Like a speaker without a crossover, the Opera wasn't the last word in smoothness, dynamics, or bass. The implications are that while in a first tier system, the Opera's clarity would allow it to stand with CD players at multiples of its price, its shortcomings in bass and dynamics would be deal breakers for those who value bass and dynamics. Worse, all that clarity can be ruthless on bad recordings or bad digital, and that ruthlessness will become unbearable if the system is already on the revealing side.
The Opera is a serious bargain for the right system, but it may not be a good match for ultra-revealing systems. And it also may not be a good match for a more entry-level system because such systems are typically not capable of conveying the full extent of Opera's clarity. All you are left with at that point is a light bass balance and average dynamics. In other words, it might be a giant killer for its $2000 price, but it is not really a solid True Factoring choice because you would have to be willing and able to commit to a full regimen of system matching. So with this long-winded background, here's where the Cambridge Audio DACMagic comes into play. The DACMagic is an all-around solid sonic performer that should match well sonically with almost any system, and should feel right at home in all but the highest of high performance systems. In fact, the DACMagic is the prototypical digital source component in a True Factoring-based system.
What immediately stands out about the DACMagic is its incredibly lush and deep soundstage, which puts a smile on my face. While the Opera produced stark, detailed images, often at the expense of soundstage size, the DACMagic's imaging is more integrated into the soundstage whole. While I appreciate the spotlight that the Opera shines on performers, the DACMagic reproduces the entire performance—room acoustic, instrument, and performers alike. The Opera makes certain performances with especially good recordings sound spooky-real, the DACMagic made a greater number of performances with a wider range of recording quality sound more realistic.
I somehow missed out on some of the more pop-oriented acts of the 1980s, including artists such as Madonna and Michael Jackson. I eventually bought some of their greatest hits albums, more out of nostalgia than preference. But I have really come to appreciate their music and recognize their respective talents. And as an audiophile, I can say that some serious production talent went into their albums. Madonna's "Take a Bow," (GHV2 – Greatest Hits Volume 2, Warner Bros. ASIN: B00005Q66T) has perhaps the finest combination of voluminous, detailed soundstaging balanced with presence and palpability. Usually recordings have one or the other—either a spotlighted performer, or a distant soundstage to simulate depth and scale. But the DACMagic navigated this balance perfectly, and portrayed Madonna's performance so convincingly, that all I was left with was the wave of sadness that comes from the finality of a relationship that is coming to an end. Similarly, Michael Jackson's "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," (The Essential Michael Jackson Sony ASIN: B0009XNUK0) had a similar balance of sweeping soundstage, with a warm, palpability to Jackson's voice. Admittedly, I wasn't much of a fan while he was alive, but this performance was so real… so alive. I now sincerely feel a void in my heart regarding his passing, and feel a bit guilty for not fully appreciating him while he was around. I now also get why he is regarded as a musical genius.
Nothing stood out to me in terms of artifacts, anomalies, or colorations. Treble, bass, dynamics—all the usual audiophile traits were there, and nothing stood out as lacking or deficient. In terms of tonal balance, I found it to be neutral. Neutral not in the sense that it made everything bland or lifeless, but neutral in the sense that warm recordings sounded warm, and harsh recordings sounded harsh. But unlike the Opera, even the harsh ones were listenable. In fact, after its soundstaging, the DACMagic's ability to make nearly all recordings listenable was its next greatest strength. Some components make recordings listenable by tipping down the balance, adding some warmth, or rolling some energy off the highs. Instead, the DACMagic always seemed to extract whatever goodness was contained in a recording. Or at least it seemed that way. Some recordings that were unlistenable on the Opera actually contained some decent soundstaging detail and outright depth, making them enjoyable to listen to. Now don't get me wrong: The Cult's, "She Sells Sanctuary," (Love Beggars UK ASIN: B000007VCM) may be one of the best rock songs ever written, but it is still an example of an outright horrible recording. But at least through the DACMagic, I could bear to listen to the song, and was reminded of my feelings for it.
I would even go as far as to say that the DACMagic made entire genres of music engaging. I love synth music, but rarely listened to it in an "audiophile context." I had assumed that synthesizer = edgy, flat, mechanical, clinical sound because it kind of was when played on the Opera and every other CD source I had used. But who knew there was so much depth and presence in Gary Numan's recordings? Wow—layer after layer of soundstage detail. Dare I say that the Moog in "Are 'Friends' Electric?," (Premier Hits, Beggars UK ASIN: B0000018AF) sounded warmly resonant and almost….analog?
OK, so what about the bad things? It has to have some weaknesses, right? If it has any, there weren't any that really bothered me—only a few minor quibbles. The one that stood out most was ironically related to its soundstaging depth. Although the DACMagic generally made most recordings listenable, it actually accentuated differences in soundstage perspective—it actually amplified such differences. I now realize that every digital source I had ever heard before the DACMagic actually homogenized the soundstage depth in one way or another. The better DACs perhaps uniformly increased the soundstage size or perspective on all recordings, but the DACMagic was ruthlessly revealing of the three dimensions inherent in all recordings. For example, some of my audiophile "standards" such as Song's You Know by Heart: Jimmy Buffett's Greatest Hits (MCA ASIN: B000002O2B) or Sade's Diamond Life (Sony ASIN: B000051XX7) never stood out as having a perspective different from anything else I listened to. But played through the DACMagic, performers were placed much more distant from my listening seat than what I was used to hearing—and it had nothing to do with volume levels. In contrast, other recordings such as The Verve's "History," from This Is Music: The Singles 92-98 (Virgin Records ASIN: B00061WXZS) were much more enveloping than I had ever heard—bringing the performance slightly in front of the plane of my speakers. Is this a fault? I don't think so, but it was a bit disconcerting at first until I realized that the DACMagic was simply more capable of resolving differences in perspective than any other digital source I had previously heard.
The issue is that the DACMagic has multiple filter slopes to choose from via its front panel selector. This should be a good thing, but for me it was a source of frustration. Try as I might, I could not hear a difference. I listened for tone. I listened for phase. I listened for soundstaging. Every time I thought I found a "tell," an anomaly, or a trace of sonic signature, I hadn't. As a marketer at heart, I am often a cynic when it comes to product features and benefits. I am trying really hard not to think that the filter selection is a marketing gimmick. So, I would have liked to have heard a meaningful difference—especially in light of my comparison with the Opera CD player. It has a different filter implementation and it is glaringly obvious. I guess it would be way too much to ask to be able to switch the brick wall filter out of the circuit, as is done with the Opera (someone needs to do this—a filterless CD player has a sound that needs to be heard to be believed). Regardless, there is a "social contract" that if you have selectable settings, you should be able to tell the differences in your selections. I could not, and that somehow bothered me.
So where does the DACMagic stand in terms of its competition—against other choices in the market? Without direct comparison, it is hard to know what the DACMagic isn't doing that others might be doing, or might be doing better. All I know is that I am getting stunning sound with the only legitimate fault simply being the possibility that it just might not be as good as other DACs in certain parameters. But we are talking other DACs that are likely multiples of the cost of the DACMagic—check that—magnitudes of the cost of the DACMagic. And you know what I think about statements like without direct comparison—this is exactly where you want to be when buying a component. After spending time with the DACMagic, I am convinced that the point of diminishing returns has kicked in for this component with a vengeance. With its neutral balance and consistently high performance across all parameters, this is the exact kind of digital source that you want in your system—one that you don't have to "system match" to appreciate; one that simply gets out of the way without coloring or inhibiting the performance of the rest of the system; yet one good enough to build the rest of your system upon. As a digital source, this is a True Balancer's dream; highly recommended. Dan Dzuban