I went to Richer sounds (who guarantee best price and will cover whichever price is on any other outlet), camped myself at the back for over an hour and tested the following:
- my own laptop sound
- DacMagic XS
- Dragonfly black
- “my” Traktor 2 soundcard
(all within £79 – £110 price range)
I tested playing the music with Embrace interface (Mac only) with
- Bahia Blanca 1956 Di Sarli,
- La abandone y no sabia 1944 Tanturi/Campos,
- Vieja Recova 1950 Pugliese/Vidal
- Lo vi en tus ojos 1944 OTV/Carol
I also tested El Flete 1936 D’Arienzo and Primavera 1929 Canaro but not as exhaustively
Overall, the main loser was the inbuilt soundcard on my MacBook Pro computer. I wonder how I spent so long DJing with it. Glad I decided to upgrade a couple of years ago.
As for the winner, it really depends on what you like. I ended up by buying the DacMagic XS.
Cambridge Audio Dac Magic XS – it only has one channel and it has a volume control in the actual DAC. The size is miniscule and it is extremely portable, with a very robust feel to it, like it can handle a few bumps. There is no need for software update on a Mac so very easy to rock and roll. The sound was very round, silky and involving. Especially with Bahia Blanca or Vieja Recova, it made me think like I was in the centre of the orchestra. Every sound range was very balanced and it felt like I could listen to endless music with it. No wonder it was Whathifi’s best pick of this range for a few years in a row. (£79.99 @ Richer Sounds)
Audiophile Dragonfly Black – it has only one channel but no volume control in it. It is even smaller than the DacMagic in the shape of a USB stick with a 3.5mm connector on the other side. It felt a bit fragile hanging of the computer unlike the other two who had cables to connect the laptop to the DAC (but I suppose you can always get a connecting cable). No need for software on a Mac, it just accepted it as it was. And boy it rocked – what a sound! Louder than the DAC Magic, it had an edgier sound, more heavymetalish and muscled complexion. I was really impressed at the beginning but as the music went by I started getting a bit tired. It gave the OTV sound a bit more spirit but made the Pugliese and Di Sarli sound a tad overwhelming. It was considered whathifi’s best DAC of 2016 on this range but I don’t think they tried it with World music (not really expecting them to test with tango). (£89 @ Richer Sounds)
Traktor 2 soundcard – it has two channels, volume control and a mechanism to channel all the sound to one or other channel. It is the only one that will allow pre-listening from the USB, the other two need the pre-listening from the computer 3.5mm socket. It is also very small and portable but bigger than the other two (impossible to make it smaller, really). I have heard some people who had the previous version of Traktor 2 to complain about the tightness of the connecting ports but the previous version had 6.35mm sockets whereas mine has 3.5mm and I never had problems. I have been using this for a while but I remember the set up wasn’t completely straightforward. It involved downloading a driver and installing it. I am no IT wizard but I am not inept either and I remember giving me a fair amount of grief, especially to set it to use both channels without doing something stupid. And yes, for that it works a treat with Traktor but not so well/easy with other system (and I don’t particularly like Traktor). I use Embrace anyway so I do the pre-listening from my laptop’s 3.5mm socket. It gave the music a real bass boost, which worked a treat for the 1940’s tracks and also to a couple of early Canaro’s and D’Arienzo’s I played it with. It sounded a bit more electric than the other two as if the music was charged with extra energy. (£69 online)
The winner by a very small fraction was actually the DacMagic. The sound was rounder, silkier and more involving. The Dragonfly was also really really good, but it had an edgier side to it that I thought was a bit too much for the sort of stuff that we play in milongas. Finally, the Traktor soundcard did very well, especially in boosting the bass. The inbuilt sound card of the laptop is something to forget. If you don’t have a sound processor please get one.
I ended up by buying the DacMagic XS. I needed a backup and after testing these three sound processors I thought that having two Traktors was probably not as good as having a choice. I have been having really good feedback on the quality of my music since I bought the Traktor and I really like it. I did this test with my Sony headphones but it is a different ball game in a large hall with people shouting over the music. I suppose I will still be doing a bit o re-discovery with the Dac Magic but I am quite happy with my choice. But the message for the day is that if you want to buy something for your sound, your music, it is best to try it yourself. For as many good reviews that there are around the web, it is how you want your sound that matters. On top of that, if you do it in a nice shop like Richer Sounds with the advice of really knowledgeable people, it makes it a very entertaining afternoon.
Finally, I was a bit miffed that the same Traktor this year costs £20 less than last year. But so it does the DacMagic (£110 last year) and the DragonFly (£105). Which tells you that it is cheaper now to be a slightly better DJ than it was last year. How about that? Now there is only the small matter of spending thousands of pounds to get that library right! 😉