The Entry Level #40 Page 2

While the AudioQuest DragonFly has a black zinc-alloy case with subtly rounded edges and a smooth, almost rubbery texture, the Audioengine D3 has a case of injection-molded aluminum with very clean, flat edges. Small as both models are, the AQ easily feels more solid, more pleasant to touch. By contrast, the Audioengine feels somewhat tinny and hollow. The AQ is almost impervious to fingerprints; the Audioengine wears them with apparent pride. Through regular listening sessions, I noticed that the D3's case was consistently warm to the touch—never alarmingly so, but warm enough to warrant mention.

Unlike the DragonFly, which offers no clear or easy way beneath its surface, the D3's case is held together with four tiny hex screws. If you open that case (I did not), you should find an Asahi Kasei Microdevices AK4396 D/A converter (perhaps most famously employed by the late, lamented Logitech Transporter network music player), a Texas Instruments LM49726 op-amp chip, and a Texas Instruments TAS1020B USB controller chip operated in asynchronous mode. The D3, which is capable of handling bit depths of up to 24 and sampling rates of up to 96kHz, upsamples incoming data, has a specified maximum output voltage of 2V RMS, and is claimed by Audioengine to successfully drive headphones with impedances as low as 10 ohms. As with the DragonFly, the D3's volume is controlled by the host computer's operating system. When I plugged the D3 into one of my laptop's USB ports, the computer took almost a full minute to recognize and identify it as "USB Composite Device Audioengine D3."

Audioengine states that the D3 requires 40 to 50 hours of break-in before it reaches peak performance. Right out of the box, it delivered a big, bold, pleasantly forward sound, with remarkably brilliant high frequencies and fast transient attacks. Early in my listening I thought the D3 was, in fact, too sharp on top, its images too explicitly drawn, its definition of leading edges too intense. It's important to note that I drew these conclusions while listening through the Skullcandy Aviator over-the-ear headphones, which themselves tend to emphasize the highs. Just as any speaker must be considered within the context of its partnering amplification, any headphone amp must be considered within the context of the headphones it's driving. Nevertheless, the Audioengine's brightness mellowed out over time, though not at the expense of that intoxicating speed and vibrant high-frequency color. And while it never exhibited the DragonFly's exceptional rhythmic control or matched the AQ's tight-fisted grip on musical notes, the D3 threw a large soundstage with excellent image focus and, most impressively, had a way with snare drums and cymbals that was magnificent to behold.

Despite the hundreds of times I've enjoyed the breakneck, nearly reckless performance of "Epistrophy (Incomplete)" from At Carnegie Hall, by the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane (908kbps ALAC rip from CD), I've never been so tantalized by the drum and cymbal work as when I played it through the Audioengine D3. I was so taken by the speed, clarity, delicacy, and grace of each masterful stroke against that brilliant ride cymbal that, after a few consecutive listens, I had to pause to research the drummer, of whom I'd previously known nothing. Now, thanks in large part to the Audioengine D3, I've totally fallen in love with the fiery, high-stepping swing of Rossiere "Shadow" Wilson (1919–1959).

Speaking of informed appreciation of something beautiful . . .

Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC–headphone amplifier
A few years back, Cambridge Audio strengthened its position as a leader in the world of digital-to-analog converters with its successful DacMagic, a relatively small (8.6" H by 2" W by 7.6" D), affordable ($449), versatile model that could be placed vertically or horizontally, upsampled all incoming data to 24-bit/192kHz, and offered three digital inputs and three analog filters. Reviewing the original DacMagic in March 2009, Sam Tellig praised its well-defined bass, extended highs, natural midrange, and wide soundstage. "In a word," he wrote, "it sounded glorious."

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Now, with the DacMagic XS ($199), Cambridge Audio has entered the fast-growing market of portable USB DAC–headphone amplifiers. While the AudioQuest DragonFly and Audioengine D3 have the approximate shape and size of a USB thumb drive, the DacMagic XS measures 2.1" L by 1.2" W by 0.4" D and more or less resembles a large domino—or, perhaps more precisely, a very small hi-fi component. Its attractive, black-finished case of brushed aluminum has cleanly beveled top and bottom edges and smoothly rounded sides.

Rather than plugging directly into a computer's USB port, the DacMagic XS connects to its host via a 6"-long micro-USB extension cable. "By plugging in via a cable," Cambridge Audio's website explains, "the DacMagic XS avoids adding a bulky and easily-bashed lump to the side of your laptop, unlike some inferior USB DACs." (Wow. Wonder who they're talking about?) Many users will appreciate this intelligent feature, but I found the extension cable somewhat inelegant; plugging the very small connector into the DacMagic XS's equally tiny USB jack was almost always awkward and never quite as simple as it should have been.

Overall, I guess I prefer adding a bulky, easily bashed lump to the side of my laptop. To be fair, AudioQuest currently provides the DragonTail ($16.95), an attractive and apparently well-designed extension cable; and, while Audioengine has considered providing an extension-cable option, the company says it has received no such demand from its customers.

At the end opposite its micro-USB jack, the DacMagic XS, like the AQ and Audioengine devices, has a ¼" jack intended to accept the lead from a set of headphones or to connect, via an aftermarket cable, to a component hi-fi system. (Have I mentioned that the USB DAC–headphone amplifier is an absolutely brilliant component category?)

The DacMagic XS uses a high-quality, asynchronous-mode ESS Sabre ES9023 DAC—the same chip found in Peachtree Audio's popular decco65 D/A integrated amplifier. Connected to a USB port in is default USB Class 1 mode, the DacMagic XS will handle 16- or 24-bit files with sampling rates up to 96kHz; switched into a USB 2.0 port, it handles sampling rates up to 192kHz. The claimed output voltage is 2V RMS, the minimum recommended headphone impedance 12 ohms. Finally, unlike the AQ DragonFly or Audioengine D3, both of which use the host computer's volume control, the DacMagic XS provides its own onboard, 53-step volume control via two round pushbuttons labeled "+" and "–." After only a few seconds, my laptop recognized the DacMagic XS as "USB Composite Device CA DacMagicXS 1.0" and automatically set the operating-system volume control to maximum, thus allowing me to use the DacMagic XS's own volume control for fine-tuning.

The sound? In a word, glorious. Whereas the AudioQuest DragonFly traded some speed for a more relaxed, full-bodied sound, and the Audioengine D3 sacrificed some grip and control for transient clarity and overall presence, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS fell somewhere in between, offering greater top-end clarity and extension than the AQ, but with a richer, more relaxed overall sound than the Audioengine. In addition, the DacMagic XS was more revealing of recording artifacts and low-level detail than either the DragonFly or the D3—a characteristic whose advantages varied with the quality of the recording.

With "Nebula Ball Rests in a Fantasy Claw," from the Fucking Champs' thrilling but heavily compressed V (1070kbps ALAC rip from CD), the Cambridge was less forgiving than the Audioengine and far less forgiving than the AQ, shining light on the recording edits that screw up the rhythm near the song's midpoint. But in "Epistrophy (Incomplete)," from Monk and Coltrane's At Carnegie Hall, the Cambridge did a wonderful job of both preserving the recording's live, timeless quality and illuminating the single-note runs from bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik that underlie and elevate Coltrane's soaring tenor sax.

I wish Robert McGinley Myers could have heard it. The effect was magic—and it was real.

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