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Cambridge Audio's DacMagic XS USB Digital-to-Analog Headphone Converter Review

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Do you like using headphones which cost over $200? Are the lowest quality audio files in your music collection FLAC rips of CD's? Does the headphone jack built into your laptop make you cranky?

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If you answered yes to any of the above questions, Cambridge Audio might have a device to help feed you higher quality audio while you're on the go.

The DacMagic XS is a small USB powered DAC which is smaller than a book of matches (hit the photo slideshow for a size comparison). The design is very simple. Plug in a USB cable, plug in your headphones, and control the volume with plus and minus buttons. That's it. The DacMagic is built for one, and only one, purpose. It sends out a higher quality audio signal.

The audio highs are crisper. The bass is fuller without getting muddy, and best of all, the signal to noise ratio is noticeably better than what gets built into laptops and tablets (direct comparison in the slideshow). For those that want numbers, it's about a -12dB improvement over the low cost audio chipsets we're often served. Those headphone jacks are fine for web video chat, firing up some MP3's, or playing a youtube video, but they wont scratch the audiophile itch.

It's a handy gadget to keep on hand. Entirely USB powered, very small, lightweight. It's easy to throw into a bag while traveling, and it doesn't add much bulk.

If there's a nitpicky criticism to point out, this type of product might be a bit too narrowly focused for some consumers. There's no input, so folks wanting higher quality output and input, you'll have to look elsewhere. USB audio interfaces have gotten smaller lately with some great solutions from Shure and CEntrance, allowing users to plug in professional grade microphones. Both of those solutions however will absolutely dwarf the DacMagic.

It's also a bit curious that full Windows compatibility requires an additional driver. Just plugging it will grant you a higher quality stream, but if you want the full 24bit/192KHz send you'll need to install more software. I was happy to see though that basic compatibility functioned on Windows tablets like the Surface 2 and the Nokia Lumia 2520. Unfortunately iOS users will require an additional powered USB hub for the XS to show up on iPhones and iPads. Google has yet to deliver any support for USB audio peripherals, so the situation for Android is even more bleak.

At a street price of around $190, it's a product which fits into a very particular conversation. If you listen to music on the earbuds which came with your MP3 player, or most of your music collection is lower bitrate MP3, this likely isn't a product for you. You'd really want to address the entire music ecosystem you're creating. We tend to over-buy in one area, which means we likely aren't getting our money's worth. Buying really expensive headphones, for example, means we might not get the full experience if they're plugged into poor amps or streaming degraded audio files.

That's where Cambridge Audio is adding to the conversation, with a small, discrete, high quality audio unit. If that's your jam, the DacMagic XS deserves to be on your radar. Hit the Slideshow for more photos of the DacMagic, or see our hands on review in the related video!

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