For most of us, the days of huge libraries of CDs is far behind us. Nowadays we keep our music libraries on our computers but while this is convenient with most PCs there's a limitation: Playback quality.
The problem is that your computer converts the digital audio data into an analog signal using a digital to analog converter (DAC). Unfortunately not all DAC's are created equal; low end (i.e. cheap) DACs can suffer from "jitter", introduce distortion, only support low sample rates and or low sampling resolution, and or add noise to the output, all of which degrade sound quality.
If you'd prefer your computer audio playback to be of the highest quality then you're going to want to add an external DAC to your setup and I've just tested one, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS that is not only reasonably priced but is also very portable.
When I say reasonably priced, external DACs can be very pricey with most high-quality DACs in the range from $500 to "oh-my-good-God". The DacMagic XS is only $189. As for portable, the DacMagic XS is a slim 1.2" by 0.4" by 2.1'' and weighs just over 3.5 ounces.
Compatible with USB 1 and USB 2, the DacMagic XS can deliver up to studio quality 24-bit, 192kHz sample rate audio. The output is via a 3.5mm jack and the tiny LED next to it shows the currently selected sample rate; blue for 44.1kHz (CD quality), green for 96kHz, and purple for 192kHz. The DacMagic XS takes over volume control and buttons on the device allow you to control the sound level. While it was obviously designed for use with headphones the DacMagic XS can also be used as the input to a stereo system.
OS X has a compatible driver built-in while Windows users will have to install Cambridge Audio's dedicated Windows USB Class 2 USB driver.
So, what does music played through the DacMagic XS sound like? Fantastic! Stupendous!
I tested a variety of music played on an iMac using Phiaton Bridge MS 500 on-ear headphones (these are outstanding) and the difference compared with the analog output from the iMac is amazing. The bass was fuller, the trebles clearer, and the mid tones more balanced. The overall feeling was of greater presence and the lack of background noise was obvious.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS is a gadget to lust after. Your ears will be grateful.