Cambridge Audio DAC Magic XS

Device Type: Portable USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier
Input: micro USB (includes USB Type A to micro USB cable)
Output: 1x 3.5mm analog jack
Dimensions (W x H x D): 1.25" x 0.4375" x 2.125"
Weight: 3.5 oz
Availability: Online and through Authorized Dealers
Price: $189.00

Another Micro DAC
I don't know about you, but I think choice is good. The micro DAC market has seen a rabbit-like infestation of products including the AudioQuest Dragonfly, Meridian Explorer, HRT MicroStreamer, Audioengine D3, Arcam rPAC, LH Labs Geek family, iFi's nano line, and more. Two things that the Cambridge DAC Magic XS offers that not all the others do is the ability to play back up to 24/192 files and on-device push button analog volume controls.

The diminutive DAC Magic XS has a sturdy black brushed-aluminum body and two circular buttons mounted up top to adjust volume up (+) or down (-) in 53 steps. The DAC hiding inside is the ESS Sabre ES9023 and the micro USB input is run in asynchronous mode. Cambridge includes a 6" cable with the DAC Magic XS that houses a USB Type A connector on one end, to plug into your computer, and micro USB on the other to attach to the DAC. Cambridge explains part of the reason for this cable is to relieve the USB connector on your computer from the pressure applied when adjusting volume on the DAC. They also point out that stuff sticking out of your computer's USB port can get knocked around potentially causing damage to your computer. While I am reluctant to say so since I know by so doing I will guarantee its outcome, I have yet to run into this problem with a USB thumb drive or the Dragonfly DAC. Jinx!

There's also a tiny colored LED on the output end of the DAC Magic XS that changes color according to the incoming sample rate (blue for 44.1/48kHz, green for 88.2/96kHz, and purple for 176.4/192kHz). The DAC Magic can be run in USB 1.0 or USB 2.0 mode (it comes set as USB 1.0). The idea being even Windows users can plug and play if they're willing to forego sample rates above 96kHz. Of course you can download the Cambridge Windows drivers which will deliver USB 2.0 functionality along with 176.4 and 196kHz playback. To change between USB modes, just hold down both volume buttons for a few seconds. Output Voltage is rated by Cambridge at 2V RMS, output impedance is stated as 0.5 Ohms, with a minimum headphone impedance of 12 Ohms. I mainly used the DAC Magic XS with my desktop speakers, the ADAM A3X, and in my main system connected to my Pass INT-30A using a length of AudioQuest Victoria cable. I also took my headphones, the Audio Technica ATH-W1000, for a ride.

There's Magic In This DAC
Like my friend and former colleague Stephen Mejias, I'm a fan of the micro DAC/Headphone amp category (you can read Stephen's review of the Cambridge DAC Magic XS in the April 2014 issue of Stereophile). While I am not a big headphone listener, I certainly get their popularity, and being able to use the same tiny DAC with my hi-fi is a win win. There is no doubt that the Cambridge DAC Magic XS offers improved sound over my MacBook Pro and iMac's analog output. Music is at once better defined with more variation to tone colors and texture, bass is bigger and fuller, and overall everything sounds more natural, more organic. These improvements apply to my headphones and desktop speakers which is one very logical place I see the DAC Magic XS residing when not being used on the road. In my desktop setup, I had easy access to the DAC Magic's volume controls and it was also an arm's reach to switch from headphone listening to speaker listening.

Through my Pass INT-30A and DeVore The Nines, the DAC Magic XS' sonic characteristics became even more evident. I would say its sound falls on the bright, resolute, and snappy side of things with a nice, tight bass response. Compared to the Audioquest Dragonfly V1.2 (see review), the Cambridge DAC sounds more spotlit with greater separation between sonic elements. The Dragonfly sounds comparatively darker and richer with more apparent body to the sound. I'd even go so far as to say the Dragonfly sounds a bit more organic where the DAC Magic XS sounds sprightly, clean, with more focus on micro detail and edge. I did not find this sound to be fatiguing, but I would also call it less relaxed. I've also heard airier presentations, the DAC Magic XS can sound a tad flat compared to others DACs like the Dragonfly.

Driving my Audio Technica ATH-W1000s, which fall on the bright side of the sonic coin themselves, the Cambridge combo delivered an exciting and energetic sound with loads of resolution to get lost in. Well recorded music, especially well recorded higher resolution music, sounded particularly lovely whereas this combo's balance seemed to highlight poorer sounding recording's poorer sound. Lean and edgy records sounded lean and edgy, more so than when I paired the ATH-W1000's with the Dragonfly which is more forgiving. I also took the more expensive Meridian Explorer (see review) for a brief comparative test drive since it also delivers up to 24/192 playback whereas the Dragonfly maxes out at 96kHz and found that the Meridian offered the resolution of the Cambridge DAC coupled with the body of the Dragonfly. This reinforced my initial feeling that the Meridian is a nicely balanced DAC. I will also note that the Cambridge DAC runs warm to the touch making it less than pant pocket friendly on warmer summer days.

What the Cambridge DAC Magic XS does not deliver that some of the aforementioned DACs do is DXD and DSD playback. My feeling is if you already own a lot of DSD titles, no one owns a lot of DXD titles, you'll most likely want to enjoy them on the road without having to convert them to PCM first. While I have not covered any of the DSD-capable portable DACs, I'll be reviewing the LH Labs Geek Out (currently available direct for $199) in the near future so stay tuned.

The Magic's In The Details
If you're looking for a highly resolving micro-detail champ of a portable PCM DAC/headphone amp, the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic XS may have your magic number. With the ability to play back up to 24/192 files, on-device analog volume controls, and a nice brushed black aluminum body, the DAC Magic XS is ready to serve up your music on the go while being equally comfortable delivering the goods at home.

Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic XS review: AudioQuest Dragonfly, Meridian Explorer

tubefan9's picture

Looking forward to reviews of the geek out & pulse

johnnya's picture

Hi Michael,
Re your ATH W1000's. Do you use the stock cable, or an 'upgrade'?


Michael Lavorgna's picture
JIMIXY's picture

Also looking forward to your Geek Out review with native PCM & DSD

labjr's picture

This review is about DAC magic not Geek!

earwaxxer's picture

I have also found that the iFi iDSD does 24/192 very well. You should review that one as well. About the same cost as the DAC Magic XS, with both line and headphone out, battery power, DSD done native etc.

Larry Ho's picture

We just sent Geek Out review unit for Michael few days ago... ;-)

gallardo's picture

I'v listening to the GeekOut 1000 last week, and can't wait to say that this little DAC is a giant killer. The difference with the DragonFly is big enough to say there's a completely new experience, there's a wide and deep soundstage, nuances and details that did no have presence before, articulate power bass and silky high, that make me happy to listen to my music. I didn't listen to the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic XS, but all I can say is please share the review as son as you can to have another point of view.