Before I tell you why you need this DAC or any other, let me tell you what it actually is.
Think of a Digital to Analog Converter as an external upgrade for the circuitry of your audio device's innards. Every modern audio device, from your MP3 player to your gaming PC, has a little chip in it that takes the digital sound information and changes it into something you can hear; this chip is also a DAC. But the difference is that the external DAC, the upgrade, will be geared specifically for quality conversion, whereas the built-in one from your mass market device is likely just barely doing the job.
Spending even the smallest bit on a DAC will make appreciable changes in the sound quality of any of these devices, as sound quality is only as good as its source.
In short, get a DAC, plug it in, and enjoy much improved sound and music. Hear your headphones/speakers like never before.
That's exactly what the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC does.
Product: Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC
MSRP: $199.99 ($189 on Amazon)
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC is a tiny little thing, just barely bigger than a Zippo lighter, and far lighter. Its top edge of its brushed aluminum body features a mini USB port and its bottom edge has only a single 1/8" audio jack. On the front face you'll find volume buttons and the Cambridge Audio logo -- and that's it. Simple and clean.
That USB port connects the DacMagic to any PC or Mac (via the included mini cable), which lets you completely bypass the internal DAC, giving you access to high-quality sound.
I first tried it out on my office computer, a Macbook Pro Retina (the device is 100 percent plug-and-play on any Mac). I didn't expect it to much for what I was listening to at the time -- streamed music on YouTube -- but it did. I immediately picked up improved definition, a tighter low end, and a smoother top, making songs I've heard dozens of times on my office sound setup sound better than I've ever heard.
Intrigued, I quickly jumped to trying out the DacMagic with higher quality source material. Most of my newer playlists are stored in Apple's format at 320kbps, so it was no problem putting the DAC through its paces. R&B tunes had a very satisfying kick/bass guitar range through my main listening headphones, the AKG K545. I'm not really an EDM guy, but listening to Japanese artist M-Flo's new album, Edm-Flo, had me grinning wildly for most of the time I sat through the 20-track album.
My other favorite phones, the AKG K702, took all that sweet, clean high end the DacMagic put out and made my ears happy, like they were born to be together. For high quality audio file rips (DacMagic supports up to 192kHz sample rates in its optional USB 2.0 mode), I was quite pleased with its performance as I heard a new depth to songs I've heard many times before. But for older MP3s I could hear every tiny little compression artifact and cymbal crunch. Too much power can be bad sometimes.
This tiny little box was equally impressive in gaming. It only took a few seconds to appreciate the improved balance and detail while poking through my Steam library with the DacMagic connected, and gaming headphones on. It made my SteelSeries phones sound better, no question. I'm already unbelievably bad at CloudBuilt, but I was even worse this time as I was too busy appreciating the sound work and the outstanding musical score to get anywhere.
I did side-by-side comparisons using several sets of phones on the same games, switching between the DacMagic and the internal sound of my gaming rig, Razer's Blade 14. Again, no contest: through the DacMagic, games sounded shiny, impressive, and considerably more immersive. In Cloudbuilt, I picked up on atmospheric effects that I never noticed before, like voice echos and musical reverb trails. Even simple games like DuckTales Remastered and Joe Danger had me clearly hearing the benefits of an upgraded DAC. It got to the point where switching back was a bit of a bummer. I'll never look at my rig's headphone port the same again, sadly. It's too bad I have to send this thing back.
If you are looking to improve sound quality for gaming, music, movies, or anything else that comes out of your computer, the DacMagic is a really easy and convenient way to do that. It's so small, light, and portable (and comes in a nice drawstring bag) that you won't ever sweat taking it with you.
A DAC like this might be a tough sell to gamers with its $189 street price, especially when it's hard to convey what exactly it would do for their gaming experience. But I think gamers are becoming smarter and more selective about audio, and the headphone/audio business is growing rapidly as a direct result of gamer demand for quality listening experiences. We now have access to very high-quality headsets, and we should want to plug these into only the best source. That's where a DAC upgrade makes sense to me.
Just short of $200 is a tall order for this matchbox of a thing, but hearing is believing. This little thing made a big difference for me, and if you're running motherboard stock audio, it probably will for you too. If you're the type that wants your games to sound their best, check out the DacMagic. It might be exactly what you're looking for.