REVIEWED: Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS headphone amp for laptops

Our eyes and ears are opened to just how bad music from a laptop is; welcome to warm hi-fi sound from this match-box sized gadget

Buy the Cambridge Audio DAC XS
Price at time of review: £99.95

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For a travel gadget to really impress us it must solve a core problem. Providing better sound quality from a laptop probably isn’t going to be on most travellers’ hit-list, but it’s worth making an exception for the matchbox-sized Cambridge Audio DAC XS.

Ear-opening

The Cambridge Audio DAC XS is all about upgrading the terrible sound your laptop delivers. Hadn’t noticed? You soon will if you use this ear-opening gadget. DAC stands for Digital to Analogue Converter, but the Cambridge Audio DAC XS is the smallest yet. Weighing just 23g, this 53x29x9mm gadget plugs into a USB slot of a laptop – either PC or Mac flavour. It’s best left attached to either a pair of headphones or a laptop.

Easy set-up

Set-up is a cinch; plug the detachable 10cm microUSB-USB cable into the headphones slot of a laptop (we tested it with an Apple MacBook Air) and then dive into System Preferences/Sound on a Mac to change the Output to USB. A PC will need an additional driver, but it works straight out of the box for Macs. With headphones plugged into the Cambridge Audio DAC XS, volume is controlled by two buttons on the brushed metallic device itself.

Mind-blowing sound

The Cambridge Audio DAC XS has two modes; USB 1.0 and 2.0,with the former permitting a 24-bit/96kHz music stream and the latter reaching lossless, high resolution-standard 24-bit/192kHz sound quality. We actually found the latter easiest to set-up and were blown away by the added clarity, but especially the full-bodied yet restrained bass. There’s an overall warmness to all music that’s simply irresistible. It works its magic with Skype, too, but it’s music lovers that really should search out a demo of the Cambridge Audio DAC XS.

Great for long trips

Who ever thought that upgrading the internal audio circuit of a laptop was something to think about on long trips? And yet the Cambridge Audio DAC XS is more proof that there’s always a new genre of travel gadget lobbying for a place in hand luggage, but few innovations are as impressive as this.

Is this the most arresting gadget for music-loving travellers since the iPod? Perhaps – we’re just sad it doesn’t work for tablets and smartphones, too.