When one considers that tens of millions of consumers have been stuck at home for almost a year, most headphone manufacturers can’t keep product in stock, and 99% of the population uses a wireless mobile device as their primary digital source – it’s probably a good time to explain to consumers why a DAC might elevate their listening experience in a very significant way. Some brands get it. Cambridge Audio clearly understands that consumers might pay for a one-box solution that they can connect to their phone, Sony PS5, headphones, laptop, Roku streamer, and their home stereo. If that applies to you — The next generation Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M is a product you need to seriously consider.
DACs need to become a thing in 2021. And not just because 300 million people across the globe have jumped onboard the streaming train. The reality is that 95% of the people who stream music through Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, or Deezer have no idea what a DAC does and probably couldn’t tell you the name of 3 companies that make them. That’s a colossal marketing failure on all levels by the high-end audio industry.
Spotify HiFi is launching at some point in 2021 and their enormous global customer base is going to finally have access to lossless streaming; which is not the same as high-res streaming.
Does high-res audio offer a discernable sonic advantage over MP3s, and 16-bit/44.1kHz CD quality?
It does. But 95% of the music available is still not high-res.
High-resolution audio refers to music files that have a higher sampling frequency and/or bit depth than CD, which is specified at 16-bit/44.1kHz.
Tidal and Qobuz offer high-res streaming on their platforms – but you won’t be able to really appreciate the differences between those files and CD quality sound without a DAC.
In some cases, you may not think that high-res versions of some music offer a huge uptick in sound quality. That’s ok.
A DAC converts the digital signal from your laptop, streamer, or smartphone (using a wired or wireless connection) into an analog signal. In most cases, a well-designed DAC will make MP3s and the lossy files you stream from Spotify sound significantly better.
Now that I’ve confused and persuaded almost all of you not to buy a DAC, let’s take a look at the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M which is much more than just a DAC.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M is part of a new wave of digital products that wear many hats. Some of those hats fit a little better than others but there is no question that the DacMagic 200M is one of the best options in the DAC/pre-amp/headphone amplifier category.
If you’re only looking for a standalone DAC, the DacMagic 200M still makes a lot of sense because of its wide range of digital inputs, antenna for streaming Bluetooth aptX, support for MQA, PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz, and DSD512. You must use the USB-type B input if you want to stream PCM and DSD at anything above 24-bit/192kHz.
The coaxial digital inputs (2) can decode 24-bit/192kHz, and the Toslink (2) can handle 24-bit/96KHz – a nice feature for your video game console, Roku box, or older CD player.
Less than 5% of all of the digital music available is high-res and there is almost nothing at 32-bit/768kHz. I wouldn’t hold my breath for Spotify to offer 24-bit/96kHz, but this DAC should be future-proof for a few years.
The right side of the front panel is dedicated to displaying the sampling rate of the audio signal being fed into it. There are a lot of LEDs; each labelled with a different sampling rate – ‘44.1kHz’, ‘48kHz’, ‘96kHz’ and ‘192kHz’ — the appropriate LED illuminates when the unit detects the signal. Likewise, LEDs for MQA or DSD illuminate when those types of files or streams are detected.
The front panel displays a lot of information. Perhaps too much in a font that is quite small.
Not to pick on Cambridge Audio, but why is this becoming a trend? I’ve reviewed 3 other products in the past 12 months that had settings printed on the metalwork that were almost impossible to read.
I know we’re getting older but that’s not a good design choice in my opinion.
The rear panel of the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M is very well laid-out and I had enough room to connect 3 digital devices, the power cord, and a relatively thick pair of interconnect cables with room to spare. Cambridge has included both single-ended and balanced outputs on the rear panel and it’s clear that they have designed the DacMagic 200M to compete with similar products from Chord, Schiit Audio, Denafrips, and iFi Audio.
Reading instructions from start to finish is really important. So is remembering to wear your glasses.
The DacMagic 200M can also operate as a pre-amplifier and send the analog signal from its outputs to a power amplifier or a pair of active loudspeakers. Cambridge delivered the unit just as I was about to return the Acoustic Energy AE1 active loudspeakers, but I did manage to squeeze in a few days with his combination.
The unit has been designed with both fixed and variable output settings; the volume control knob serves multiple functions including selecting either one of these operational modes when you depress it and the “filter” button at the same time.
Just make sure you are in “Standby” mode when you make this change.
Otherwise, you will find yourself stuck in variable output mode and turning the volume knob in an endless circle (there is nothing to stop its movement which I think is a design flaw) until you get frustrated and turn the volume all the way down on the DacMagic 200M and go to bed.
I did this more than once.
When I finally figured out how to make the change (and the proper sequence of LEDs illuminated), all was good with the unit. And my sanity.
The Headphone Amplifier
The improved headphone amplifier section of the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M proved to be a welcome surprise. The concept isn’t new; Mytek, iFi, Schiit Audio and Chord have been offering this feature for years on its products and it makes a lot of sense.
If you’re building a desktop audio system and want to minimize the number of components to save space – you want a unit like the DacMagic 200M.
The headphone amplifier is a Class AB design with a lot more power than the previous design; it worked perfectly fine with the Meze Audio 99 Classics, Audeze LCD-1, and HiFiMan Deva that I use on a regular basis.
But this one goes to eleven…
I found the sound of the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M to be rather consistent across all of the digital inputs; I’m still not a fan of Bluetooth aptX and while the sound quality was better than I’ve heard from some other DACs that offer this feature – I’m not a convert to wireless.
The USB and Coaxial inputs both sounded very similar; I would give the USB a slight edge in the detail department, but the overall tonal balance was the same.
Listening to Donald Byrd’s “Cristo Redentor” let me know that the DacMagic 200M has a really smooth sounding top end; Byrd’s trumpet can illuminate really bright sounding equipment and I heard nothing of that. If anything, it struck a perfect balance between detailed and airy.
Even when I switched over to the more neutral sounding Acoustic Energy AE1 loudspeakers, the DacMagic 200M never really strayed into dangerous territory with Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, or the Boards of Canada.
The DacMagic 200M is not a neutral sounding DAC; the midrange is on the warmer side, and bass notes are fleshed out.
It may not offer the detail of the Chord or Schiit DAC/headphone amps, but I rather liked how the DacMagic 200M straddled the line between warm and very engaging from the mids down, and just enough detail on top.
I did find it slightly leaner sounding with the Wattson Audio Emerson Digital streamer (compared to the Bluesound Node 2i and my MacBook Pro) and it wasn’t my favorite combination.
Vocals are delivered with both sufficient texture and clarity. Lucius, Lana Del Rey, Natalie Merchant, and Amy Winehouse drew me in with each track; the different nuances in all of their voices were clearly defined and each singer was carved out in space with tight outlines.
Scale and imaging are excellent; I was particularly impressed with how the DacMagic 200M delivered soundstage depth/width with headphones. If you use headphones that are not very difficult loads; Grado, Audeze LCD-1, HiFiMan Sundara & Deva — you’re going to like how spacious everything sounds, and the dynamic punch with every type of music.
One thing for certain – music is never boring through the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M.
It also never loses its composure with more complicated tracks; if you listen to a lot of classical music or orchestral works – this a DAC that unravels everything but doesn’t leave it on the floor for you to reconstruct. Strings have just enough texture and brass have some bite.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M delivers a lot of features and performance for the money. Its support for almost every high-res digital format including MQA, DSD, and 32-bit/768kHz PCM is pretty rare at its price level. This is not a DAC you will have to upgrade anytime soon if you listen primarily to streaming services like Spotify or Qobuz, or have a lot of CDs you want to enjoy with better sound quality.
It is also a DAC that does better in a system that needs an added layer of midrange warmth and a punchy bottom end. Stick it into a system that is already a tad dark sounding, and it will get boring rather quickly.
Build quality is excellent and it has enough digital inputs for a small army of sources. I’m still not a fan of the small font (getting older Jaclyn) and I do wish that it had a more precise volume control knob.
It’s a very solid offering in a crowded space with some very capable competition.
If your budget maxes out at $500 for a DAC/pre-amp/headphone amplifier solution – this needs to be near the top of the audition list.
For more information: cambridgeaudio.com
Where to buy: $499 at Crutchfield