Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
Cambridge Audio, founded in Cambridge, England, has been making hi-fi audio equipment for half a century now—a mere drop in the bucket compared to, say, Cambridge University, founded in 1209, but a long time in the world of hi-fi.
Early on, Cambridge Audio changed hands several times, but has been under the same ownership for the last 25 years. It was just over 25 years ago that Cambridge introduced its first model of the DacMagic. The latest version, and now Cambridge’s top model of DAC, is the new DacMagic 200M ($499, all prices USD).
At 8.6″W x 2.0″H x 7.6″D and 2.6 pounds, the DacMagic 200M is about half the width and depth and a third the weight of the average full-size audio component. Into its compact case Cambridge Audio has packed a lot of technology, including two of ESS Technology’s ES9028Q2M DAC chips.
Through its two optical inputs the DacMagic 200M can accept signals of resolutions up to and including 24-bit/96kHz PCM and DSD64 (using DSD over PCM, aka DoP); its coaxial inputs increase the accepted PCM resolution to 24/192, while the DSD limit remains unchanged. There are two sets of paired optical and coaxial inputs, with only one type of each pair usable at any given time. The USB-B input will accept up to 32/768 PCM, native DSD64 to DSD512, and DoP from DSD64 to DSD256.
There are three digital filters: Fast, Slow, and Short Delay. I looked up the data sheet for the ES9028Q2M DAC chip at ESS Technology’s website, and it seems likely that Fast corresponds with linear phase, fast rolloff; Slow with linear phase, slow rolloff; and Short Delay with minimum phase, fast rolloff. The DacMagic 200M also has an aptX-capable Bluetooth receiver.
The DacMagic 200M has both single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) line-level outputs, which can be set to fixed or variable output—the latter to allow it to act as a preamplifier for an all-digital system. A large knob is used for volume control, muting, and to set the output and standby modes. There’s also a 1/4″ headphone output—when a pair of headphones is plugged into this jack, the line outs are muted and the volume is automatically variable, regardless of the output setting.
The DacMagic 200M can fully unfold MQA files from local storage or via streaming. An LED on the front panel glows blue when an MQA-encoded datastream is being decoded, or green if it’s an artist/label-approved MQA master. There are also LEDs to indicate the input source (USB, D1, D2, Bluetooth), digital filter (Fast, Slow, Short Delay), and the incoming sample rate, for PCM (MQA, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8, 384, 705.6, or 768kHz) or DSD (64x, 128x, 256x, or 512x). To save energy, the DacMagic 200M automatically goes into standby mode after ten minutes of not receiving a signal; this feature can be turned off.
The DacMagic 200M came sustainably packaged (no Styrofoam) in a black cloth bag inside a sturdy cardboard box, with a wall-wart power supply and an antenna for its Bluetooth receiver—the latter screws into a small terminal on the rear panel. My early-production unit came with a quick-start guide but no manual, which is available online. I installed the DacMagic in my desktop system in place of my Schiit Audio Modi Multibit DAC. I like to first listen to DACs through headphones, which tend to be more revealing than loudspeakers—no crossover is involved, and headphones don’t interact with the room, removing two potential sources of colorations. It’s also, of course, important to listen through speakers—just because headphones tend to be more revealing doesn’t mean they always are. Each type of transducer can reveal different aspects of the sound, and in the case of the DacMagic, whether I was listening through cans or speakers ended up influencing which of the 200M’s filters I preferred overall. At first, with headphones, I preferred Slow, which sounded a bit brighter and more open than Fast; and Short Delay sounded thin and unsatisfying, like watered-down diet soda. Keep in mind that I’m not typically a linear-phase-filter kind of guy.
My main system currently comprises an early-1980s, Norway-made Tandberg TIA 3012 integrated amplifier restored by Soundsmith, connected to a pair of Boston Acoustics A70 Series II speakers. Also connected to the Tandberg is my Swiss-made Thorens TD 316 belt-drive turntable with Shure V15 Type V moving-magnet cartridge, purchased new in the late 1980s and serviced in 2020. The Tandberg outputs 100Wpc into the 8-ohm Bostons, which are large, sealed, two-way minimonitors each with an 8″ plastic woofer, a 1″ soft-dome tweeter, and a specified sensitivity of 90dB/W/m. Their sound fills my listening room, they have good bass, and they image surprisingly well. All of these components are contemporaries of each other and go quite well together, to my ears.
I began my listening with Kinki Studio’s Vision THR-1 headphone amp and HiFiMan HE1000 V2 headphones.
My first impression of the Cambridge DacMagic 200M, through its Slow filter and headphones, was of a sound that was very clear but lacked some weight—strange, because the Kinki Studio amp itself sounds a bit dark. For example, in listening to “Take Five,” from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Sony Music Entertainment/Tidal), I noted that Paul Desmond’s alto sax was all breath and no spit, and Joe Morello’s drums lacked some weight. I spent a week listening through headphones, mostly to Tidal, to get a sense of the DacMagic 200M’s sound, but not listening intently or noting my impressions. Nice DAC, I thought; very clear—I bet a lot of people will like it. I then moved to my main stereo system to get serious with my listening, to hear if that would confirm those first impressions.
Switching to speakers but staying with the DacMagic 200M’s Slow filter, I played CDs through my Sony DVP-NS55P DVD player, beginning with Paul Simon’s Graceland (CD, Warner Bros. W2-25447). It sounded a bit hard and edgy, the soundstage collapsing just a little. I switched to the Fast filter and the edgy hardness mostly disappeared—not surprising, as it sounded a little rolled off in the treble compared to the Slow filter. What surprised me was that the soundstage filled in and extended a bit beyond the speakers’ outer side panels. Through the Short Delay filter, regardless of source component, the soundstage collapsed to what sounded to me like somewhat bleached vertical columns of sound. It lacked impact. At least those columns weren’t etched. Unless noted otherwise, I did the rest of my listening using the Fast filter.
Graceland is not only a great and well-recorded album; it resuscitated Paul Simon’s career. Through the 200M, the unaccompanied singers of Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the beginning of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” stretched from speaker to speaker, as they should. When Simon’s voice enters, he normally sounds well in the foreground. With the DacMagic 200M, he was practically overlaid atop Ladysmith. For me, this DAC’s biggest flaw was that while its soundstages were high and wide, they had very little depth. In “The Boy in the Bubble,” Baghiti Khumalo’s fretless bass was appropriately slinky, but its texture was a touch coarse. The same proved true with “Graceland,” but the sound still had that propulsive riding-the-rails feel.
Next up was “Trip Like I Do,” from the Crystal Method’s Vegas (CD, Outpost OPRD-30003). I enjoy this whole album, but this track’s intro is of most interest to me as an audio reviewer. There’s so much texture and drive, and it’s sounded different with every DAC I’ve played it through. With the Cambridge DacMagic 200M, some of the edges on the analog synths sounded as if slightly rounded-off with fine-grit sandpaper, with good but not great bass extension. The arpeggio sounded a little thinner than I’m used to, but still good. With some DACs, such as the Denafrips Ares II (in for review; see Comparisons, below), that arpeggio moves more, from the sides toward the middle of the soundstage. Through the DacMagic 200M it had enough drive that the pulses were audible through my Schiit Asgard 3 head amp, which was a little surprising (the Schiit’s biggest weakness is lack of drive—it’s the Maynard G. Krebs of headphone amps). The DacMagic 200M did drive and dynamics well.
The amount of detail retrieved by the DacMagic 200M was good but not great—a theme was developing. As I listened to Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth, the characteristic sonic signature of recording engineer George Massenburg’s equipment was missing. Massenburg, who also produced and mixed this album, is not only a well-regarded recording engineer; he’s also an electrical engineer who basically wrote the book, or at least the AES paper, on fully parametric equalization. This album, like the gear he designs and sells through his company, George Massenburg Labs, has a sound signature best described as very clean and clear, with a texture underlying everything that sounds to me like audible quantum foam. My Tandberg TIA 3012 also has some of this character, as does my TPA 3008a preamp (awaiting restoration). That texture wasn’t quite fully audible through the DacMagic 200M. I played both the CD (Curb/MCA MCAD-10475) and Tidal (16/44.1 FLAC) versions, with similar results. The Tidal sounded softer, but I don’t know if this is because Tidal altered the file, or because of S/PDIF vs. USB and the differences between the two input types. As far as I can tell, the CD and Tidal versions originate from the same source: the CD master.
When I listened only to Tidal and MQA files, the sound improved somewhat. I tend to prefer minimum-phase, slow-rolloff filters. The MQA filter is a lot like a minimum-phase, slow-rolloff reconstruction filter, so that may be part of why I liked it better than the two other filters. This was true even with MQA files with a 44.1kHz sample rate—there are quite a few of them, and not every MQA file sounds much better than CD quality.
A great example of the DacMagic 200M’s sound with MQA and files of very high resolution is Yes’s Yessongs (24/192 MQA, Atlantic/Tidal). This is one of my all-time favorite records—but not for its sound quality, which isn’t very good. I own two copies of the original three-LP set—I wore out the first in my teens—as well as its first reissue on two CDs. But Yes’s performances of these songs on this live album are so much better than their original studio versions that I listen only to Yessongs. Probably my favorite song on this album is “Yours Is No Disgrace,” which makes the studio version sound as if played by an animatronic Yes. Thankfully, this hi-rez remastering doesn’t seem to have been dynamically compressed to a noticeable degree.
“Yours Is No Disgrace” features incendiary guitar playing by Steve Howe, and a lot of “sure, why not?” flanging of the sound of Alan White’s drums (flanging is a sort of whooshing audio effect). The biggest difference between the LP version (Atlantic SD 3-100) and the CD (Atlantic SD 100-2) is the level of detail. At about 7:45, near the beginning of the guitar solo, there’s a sound in the left channel. On vinyl, it sounds like groove distortion; on CD, it sounds as if the problem is in the master tape itself, which here sounds overdriven. Listening to the MQA 24/192 version through the DacMagic 200M, it sounded more as if the note Howe was playing caused the snare drum’s snares to resonate sympathetically. The flanging on the drums then makes this sound like a flock of birds taking flight and whooshing away to the left. Also, during this solo Howe plays runs that at first sound more like slides up the neck than individually played notes. In a film of a different performance, it’s clear that he’s playing individual notes very quickly. On the CD I can kind of hear this, but the 24/192 MQA version through the DacMagic 200M was the closest the sound has come to matching the film’s visuals.
The DacMagic 200M also has a Bluetooth input with aptX. I tried this with my Samsung Galaxy S4 Activ smartphone (still tickin’ after eight years), and it worked well. This tells me that compatibility shouldn’t be a problem—my Samsung is ancient in phone years, with no software updates since 2014. Compared to the same files played via USB by my computer using iTunes, it didn’t sound that great—as if the music were trapped in a cardboard box—but no audiophile expects Bluetooth to sound as good as a wired connection, and they shouldn’t. A newer Bluetooth device might do a better job, but it still won’t sound as good as a wired connection. But Bluetooth is a great convenience feature, and it was simple and easy to use with the DacMagic 200M. It even paired easily.
In addition to my reference DAC, the Schiit Modi Multibit, I had on hand a Clarus Coda portable DAC and a Denafrips Ares II R-2R ladder DAC. The Coda is also MQA-capable (renderer only), and uses a single ESS Technology DAC chip that’s newer than the two in the DacMagic 200M. I compared the Coda and Cambridge DACs’ headphone amps, mostly using Beyerdynamic’s Amiron Home dynamic headphones, with a little bit of listening with my HiFiMan HE 1000 V2s sprinkled in. For the other two DACs, it was a mix of listening through speakers and cans.
When I listened to “Take Five,” from Dave Brubeck’ s Time Out, with the DacMagic 200M’s Fast and Slow filters, there were differences. Through the Schiit Modi Multibit there was a good balance of breath and spit on Desmond’s alto-sax solo, and Morello’s drums were appropriately weighty. The sound was quite similar with the DacMagic 200M’s Fast filter, if a bit darker overall. With Slow, the sax was almost all breath and the drums lost some weight. But the sound was brighter, and a little more clear. With the Denafrips Ares II in NOS mode (no reconstruction filter), Desmond’s sax sounded more natural and effortless than with either of the other two DACs, as did Morello’s drums, though the highs were also more rolled off than through either of the other DACs. The Denafrips Ares II ($773.37) costs a lot more than the Cambridge ($499) or Schiit ($249), and, like the Schiit, has neither a headphone amp nor MQA.
I returned to Paul Simon’s Graceland because it’s a really enjoyable album that’s well known and sonically revealing. With “Homeless,” a haunting track of sadness and hope, the DacMagic 200M’s soundstage had a nice left-to-right spread and good height, but lacked the depth of the Modi Multibit or Ares II. The DacMagic’s soundstages were generally two-dimensional, and here as well. With the Modi Multibit and, more so, the Ares II, the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were arrayed in a semicircle centered on Simon’s foregrounded singing. The DacMagic 200M also revealed less texture than the Multibit, with a slight rounding of the sounds’ edges. The Denafrips took the texture up another notch from the Schiit, as if the hairs of the sound stood goose-bumped on end rather than lying flat.
To compare the headphone amps of the Clarus Coda and Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M, I first listened to “Astradyne,” from Ultravox’s Vienna [Deluxe Edition: 40th Anniversary] (16/44.1 FLAC, Chrysalis/Tidal). This surprisingly good remastering isn’t much louder than the original—yay, dynamic range—and this track is all about the texture: a little bright and full of sharp edges. Through the Beyerdynamic Amiron Home headphones, which are highly sensitive and have a fairly high impedance, the two DACs presented very different sounds. The DacMagic was punchy, with a low-end bump and good texture. The Coda was smoother and the texture was better.
I next put on a remastering of the Black Crowes’ excellent Shake Your Money Maker (24/96 MQA, American/Tidal). The Clarus Coda still sounded a lot smoother, to the point of being a little soft. The DacMagic 200M again was punchier, with stronger bass. Cambridge Audio has clearly voiced their headphone amp to have bumpin’ bass, and whether or not you’ll like it will depend on your headphones and your taste. When I tried the DacMagic with the HiFiMan HE1000 V2s, the sound went from thick’n’rich to thin’n’ragged, and the lowest octave or so of bass simply disappeared. Like the Clarus Coda’s, the DacMagic 200M’s headphone amp isn’t well suited to insensitive, low-impedance headphones. That said, the Coda did a better job of it, mainly by not playing loud at all.
Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic 200M packs into its compact case a lot of bang for 499 bucks: an MQA decoder, single-ended and balanced outputs with variable or fixed output, Bluetooth aptX, a headphone amp, and dual DAC chips with a choice of three reconstruction filters. It’s a jack of all trades—other DACs in its price range might do one or two things better, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something anywhere near its price that does everything as well as does the DacMagic 200M.
. . . Mark Phillips
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Sources: Sony DVP-NS55P DVD player (as CD transport), Dell Alienware desktop and Toshiba notebook computers (via USB), Thorens TD 316 turntable with Shure V15 Type V cartridge
- Speakers: Boston Acoustics A70 Series II, Emotiva Airmotiv 4s
- DACs: Clarus Coda, Denafrips Ares II, Schiit Audio Modi Multibit
- Integrated amplifier: Tandberg TIA 3012 (restored by Soundsmith)
- Headphones: Beyerdynamic Amiron Home, HiFiMan HE-500 and HE1000 V2
- Headphone amplifiers: Schiit Audio Asgard 3, Kinki Studio Vision THR-1
Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $499 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor; three years with registration.
Cambridge Audio USA
1913 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647
Phone: (877) 357-8204