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Cambridge Audio MXN10 and DacMagic 200M Review

by December 19, 2023
Cambridge Audio MXN10 network streamer and DacMagic 200M digital-to-analog converter

Cambridge Audio MXN10 network streamer and DacMagic 200M digital-to-analog converter

  • Product Name: MXN10 network streamer and DacMagic 200M digital-to-analog converter
  • Manufacturer: Cambridge Audio
  • Performance Rating: StarStarStarStar
  • Value Rating: StarStarStarStarhalf-star
  • Review Date: December 19, 2023 00:00
  • MSRP: $ 500 - MXN10 network streamer, $550 - DacMagic 200M digital-to-analog converter
  • Buy Now
Cambridge Audio AXN10 & MXN10 Network Streamers Overview

Cambridge Audio MXN10 Compact Network Player

  • Frequency Response: 20Hz – 70kHz +0/-1dB
  • Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi 5 dual band 2.4/5gHz
  • Compatibility: UPnP, USB media, Chromecast, Spotify Connect, Tidal, Qobuz, Roon Ready, Airplay 2
  • Audio Formats: ALAC, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, DSD (x512), WMA, MP3, AAC, HE AAC, AAC+, OGG Vorbis
  • Dimensions (H X W X D): 2.1 x 8.6 x 7.6 inches
  • Weight: 2.7 lbs

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M Digital-to-Analog Converter

  • Frequency Response: 10Hz - 50kHz (±1dB)
  • Output Impedance: <50 Ohms (unbal), <100 Ohm (bal)
  • Max. Output Level (Unbalanced): 2.1V rms (fixed or variable – user selectable)
  • Max. Output Level (Balanced): 4.2V rms (fixed or variable – user selectable)
  • Headphone Output Power: >300mW @ 32ohm, >65mW @ 150ohm
  • Recommend Headphone Impedance: 10 Ohm to 600 Ohm
  • Dimensions (H X W X D): 2.0 x 8.6 x 7.6 inches
  • Weight: 2.6 lbs

Pros

  • Desktop friendly
  • Easy to use
  • XLR outputs (DacMagic)
  • Class-leading sound (MXN10)

Cons

  • Occasional app issues w/Qobuz
  • Headphone amp could be better

 

Cambridge Audio Introduction

If you’re looking for a well-built DAC with a fairly neutral tonal balance, good clarity and detail, and a punchy, muscular drive, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M ($549) is a solid option. It may be outperformed in certain areas by other sub-$1,000 DACs, but for many potential buyers, a jack-of-all-trades is the sensible choice. And for its asking price of $499, the MXN10 is the best-sounding music streamer I’ve yet come across. Continue reading my review to understand why I feel this way.

I’ve long been a fan of Cambridge Audio products, which are famous for delivering high performance-per-dollar. My first audiophile-quality stereo system included Cambridge’s Azur 641 integrated amplifier and matching CD player, paired with Monitor Audio bookshelf speakers. That system provided a level of musical pleasure that I had never before experienced. But when asked to review the company’s MXN10 network streamer ($499) and DacMagic 200M digital-to-analog converter ($549), I was initially reluctant. In anticipation of an eventual move to Seattle, I’ve been ruthlessly thinning out my belongings. I sold my old Acura TL, and nearly all of my audio gear, which was simply too big to work in my girlfriend’s Seattle digs. How could I review this promising streamer and DAC without a reference system? Matt Reilly, Cambridge’s North American head of sales, changed my mind when he explained that the MXN10/DacMagic combo make a great stack for desk-fi and personal listening. If I had access to some good headphones and perhaps a pair of powered speakers, I’d have everything necessary to evaluate the streamer and DAC as many potential customers would use them — in a compact office or bedroom system.

CA Stack Hero 2

Before diving into my impressions of the MXN10 and DacMagic 200M, let’s get some background information out of the way. Both of the components that I had in for review were the new Black Edition versions, which feature matte-black anodized aluminum front plates with gloss-black branding. This black-on-black attire looks fantastic to my eye — I’d describe it as “Batman chic,” but it makes it somewhat difficult to read the small grey text that labels the various LEDs adorning the DacMagic’s front panel. At night, I like to listen to music under dim lights, and there were times when I had to shine my iPhone flashlight onto the DAC’s face to double check which input was active, and what sample rate the DAC was receiving. A remote control would not have gone amiss, but I really would have liked a way to see where the volume control was set. I described the features and functionality of both the MXN10 and DacMagic 200M in a recent article about the Black Edition launch, but I will repeat the salient points here.

Cambridge MXN10 Black front

The MXN10 is a fairly simple network streamer: ethernet or Wi-Fi in; analog or digital audio out. On its clean-looking front panel, which measures about 8.5 inches wide and 2 inches tall, you’ll find a power button, a small light indicating Wi-Fi connection status, and four preset buttons. 

Cambridge MXN10 Black rear

Around back, there’s the ethernet port, a set of RCA analog outputs, one coaxial digital output on RCA, and one optical digital output via Toslink. In addition to accommodating Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, Google Chromecast, and Apple AirPlay 2, the MXN10 uses Cambridge Audio’s home-brewed StreamMagic Gen 4 module and control app to serve up Qobuz, internet radio, and much more. The MXN10 is also Roon Ready. Inside, a high-performance DAC chip (the ESS Sabre ES9033Q, to be precise) helps dish out high-res audio. You can upgrade the audio output of the MXN10 — or any digital source — by connecting it to the DacMagic 200M via an optical or coaxial digital cable. 

Cambridge DacMagic200M Black front

The DacMagic 200M also has a USB input supporting 24-bit high-res PCM files with sample rates up to 768kHz. While it’s unlikely that you have audio files with such absurdly high sampling rates, the ability to play them may come in handy for those who use software, such as HQPlayer or Roon, to perform upsampling.

Cambridge DacMagic200M Black rear

The DacMagic 200M also supports DSD up to DSD512, and is the first Cambridge Audio DAC to support MQA. Bluetooth with aptX is on board for convenience. (I tested neither the MQA decoding nor the bluetooth connectivity during my review. Bluetooth is more useful for portable audio than for listening at home, and MQA seems less relevant than in the past, since Tidal has adopted high-res FLAC.) All digital sources are routed though the DacMagic’s dual ESS ES9028Q2M chips on its way to the unit’s analog outputs. In addition to the standard RCA outputs, the fully-balanced DacMagic 200M sports XLR outputs, making it a perfect match for professional studio monitors, which may lack RCA inputs. Balanced outputs are also useful to folks who need to use long runs of interconnect cables to reach another piece of gear, such as a preamp or integrated amp, on the other side of the room. Balanced XLR outputs are not often seen on DACs at this price, so kudos to Cambridge Audio for including them on the 200M. Also handy for desktop use is the DacMagic’s built-in headphone amplifier.

Associated Test Gear Used with Cambridge Audio Stack

I’m currently using a pair of Focal’s excellent Clear Mg headphones (on loan from the manufacturer), along with the Focal Celestee closed-back headphones and my trusty Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10 in-ear-monitors. I’ve been intermittently borrowing a pair of Emotiva Pro airmotiv 4 powered studio monitors to use on a music production project, and they’re remarkably good considering they only cost $400 when new about a decade ago. (It’s a shame that Emotiva abandoned the whole product category a few years back.)

Bluesound Node vs Cambridge Audio MXN10

When evaluating a piece of audio gear, I like to have at least one similarly-priced competitor available for direct comparisons, if at all possible. Such comparisons provide valuable context, without which I can only do so much to give readers an understanding of what’s on offer. This time, the logistical gods smiled upon us. The chief competition for Cambridge Audio’s MXN10 has to be the Bluesound Node, and I was able to get my hands on one to use for the review period. The DacMagic 200M has no direct competitor that can match its feature-list, but there are certainly some excellent DACs priced within spitting distance of the DacMagic’s $549 ask. Limiting my search to DACs with volume control and headphone amplification built in, I narrowed it down to two: the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital ($499), which was loaned to me by the good folks at Audio Advice, and the Chord Mojo 2 ($650), which was loaned to me by Chord’s distributor, The Sound Organisation. I chose these two for specific reasons. The tiny Pro-Ject made the list because it’s so similar to the DacMagic. It, too, uses a pair of ESS Sabre DAC chips (the ES9038Q2M in this case), and was designed by John Westlake, whose curriculum vitae includes creating products for Cambridge Audio (and Peachtree, and Audiolab). The Mojo 2, on the other hand, was selected because it’s fundamentally so different from the others. It uses no off-the-shelf DAC chips, but instead relies on an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) processor loaded with custom code from Chord’s designer of all things digital, Rob Watts. Finally, I used iFi Audio’s $300 Zen Can Signature analog headphone amplifier for parts of the review. In retrospect, my quest for comparisons resulted in so many possible permutations that this review proved more complicated than it should have been, but that was only partially my fault. Reviewing two products at once is inherently more challenging, unless you consider the stack as a single inseparable unit. While some will buy both the MXN10 and DacMagic 200M as a package, and call it a day, I felt obliged to consider the two as individual products, simply because reviewing them as such seemed like it would be more useful to Audioholics readers.

Cambridge Audio MXN10: In Use

Cambridge Stack rear

The StreamMagic app is simple and cleanly laid out...

After unpacking the components and making the necessary physical connections, I installed Cambridge Audio’s StreamMagic app onto my woefully outdated iPhone 7 Plus and used Apple’s settings app to connect the MXN10 streamer onto my wireless network by adding it as an AirPlay device. It connected, but the StreamMagic app didn’t find the MXN10 until I exited the app and relaunched it. Then I was taken to the installation wizard where I updated the device’s firmware, completed setup, and linked my Qobuz account. For my listening, I mainly used Qobuz to play music via the StreamMagic app. But I also used the app to play files from a USB thumb drive attached to the USB A socket on the MXN10’s rear panel. Spotify Connect played music through the MXN10 with no issues. I don’t currently have a Tidal or Roon account, so I was unable to test those features. The StreamMagic app is simple and cleanly laid out, though it lacks the sophistication of some other control apps, including the new version of BluOS. It was pretty smooth and responsive to operate, even on my old phone. But every so often when listening to Qobuz, the music would pause without my instructing it to do so. This only seemed to happen in the moments after the phone had “Auto Locked” (after not being touched for a while). I emailed the folks at Cambridge Audio, who gently suggested that my antique iPhone might be the problem. To be fair, it’s on its last legs, and it does get tripped up pretty frequently. After some cajoling (and several counts of attempted bribery), I convinced my nephew Ben to let me borrow his iPhone 14 Pro, to see if using a less archaic smartphone solved problem. Alas, it did not. In fact, when I was using Ben’s phone, Qobuz spontaneously resumed playing a track that I had paused several minutes earlier, scaring the crap out of me in the process. These types of minor software bugs can be solved via a firmware update, but in the meantime, I discovered a quick fix. I went into the phone’s “Display and Brightness” settings, and turned off the Auto Lock feature by selecting “Never” from list of options. After doing so, the surprise pausing and unpausing ceased altogether. Once during the weeks that the MXN10 was in-house, the StreamMagic app lost contact with the device. Relaunching the app didn’t help, so I tried unplugging the MXN10’s power cable, waiting a few seconds, and plugging it back in. This did the trick, and I was back to playing music.

Cambridge Audio MXN10 Sound Impressions

nickel creekThe sound quality of the MXN10 impressed me right from the get-go. Nickel Creek’s 2002 album This Side (24bit/96kHz FLAC, Qobuz) is a midrange Disneyland of well-recorded acoustic instruments and vocals. Using the iFi headphone amp, the sound was clear and agreeable, with a mostly neutral tonality but a slightly under-nourished low end. Vocals sounded true-to-life, and both the fiddle and mandolin had a good amount of presence. On the track “Green and Grey,” lead singer Chris Thile varies the distance between his mouth and the microphone, and these changes were easy to hear. The bass presentation was a bit soft, but I might not have noticed if I weren’t so familiar with the album. That said, the strummed upright bass sounded neither as crisp nor as dynamic as I know it can sound with a more expensive digital front end. The highs sounded slightly forward, giving an impression of plenty of detail, but were never offensive. On “Seven Wonders,” the sibilance was a bit much when all three band members sang together on phrases like “seven wonders crowed the man, knowing six are gone.” Again, the bass was slightly recessed, but the overall balance was still pleasing. Listening to the same album on the Bluesound Node, the first thing I noticed was that the top end was dialed down a notch, and the MXN10’s overall sense of clarity was replaced by a warmer, fuzzier sound that was noticeably lower in resolution. The sibilance was less crisp, so that “s” sounded more like “sh,” but it didn’t stand out as much in prickly moments. The softer presentation left some midrange detail buried in the mix, but some listeners would appreciate the fuller bottom end, which gave the Node a fun and weighty balance. These impressions were consistent across a range of listening material. The Cambridge sounded like a small Harbeth monitor, with good clarity and an easy-going character, but obvious limits in low-end output. It offered higher resolution than the Node, but dynamics were a little restricted, as on a smaller speaker. The Node, on the other hand, was like a larger and weightier tower speaker with a warmer but veiled presentation. Perhaps more fun to dance to, but unable to deliver as much musical beauty and truth.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M Sound Impressions

Although the DacMagic 200M includes a headphone jack, I wanted to ascertain its sound purely as a DAC before getting into the performance of its headphone amp. Because I didn’t yet have the powered monitors handy, I connected the iFi headphone amplifier to the DacMagic’s RCA outputs and continued listening via the Focal headphones. The DacMagic 200M has three different digital filter functions: Fast, Slow, and Short Delay. Cambridge Audio describes the filters as follows:

The Fast (Linear Phase) filter offers low ripple in both the pass and stop bands, and what is known as constant group delay. Constant group delay means that audio signals of all frequencies are always delayed by the same amount when passing through the filter. All audio is therefore fully time-coherent at the output.The trade-off with this type of filter is that its impulse response will exhibit some pre-ringing. In other words, when excited with a theoretical impulse, the output has both a small amount of pre- and post-spike amplitude ringing (albeit well damped).

The Slow filter has a linear phase and is a compromise between some very high frequency roll off and the minimized level of pre/post impulse ringing. Stop band attenuation is less than other filter types, but there's no phase shift and the impulse response is the cleanest.

The Short Delay (minimum phase) filter is another highly regarded audio filter that offers even lower ripple in the pass and stop bands. Unlike the Linear Phase filter, group delay is not constant; however, phase shift is low and the particular benefit with this filter is that the impulse response exhibits no pre-ringing.

— Cambridge Audio

I went back and forth between the Fast and Slow filters, ultimately choosing the Fast filter for most of my listening. The Short Delay filter made music sound relatively thinned out, as if someone had added skim milk to the musical coffee instead of half-and-half. I’m a huge fan of the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz, and I very much enjoyed listening to her fourth studio album, 2016’s Undercurrent (24bit/96kHz FLAC download), via the DacMagic. On the track “Green Lights,” the overall sound was punchy, tight, and clear. The bass was satisfyingly muscular, though the transients on the plucked guitar strings sounded slightly aggressive, making them more prominent than I am used to. But the other side of that somewhat vigorous coin was that the sound had exciting dynamics and momentum. 

undercurrent 2   expert dying

For example, there was a palpable “oomph” behind the driving kick drum and electric bass on the track “Knees Deep” from The Beths’ 2022 album Expert in a Dying Field (24bit/96kHz FLAC, Qobuz). Vocal clarity was impressive throughout the album. Though the snare drum and the attack of the crash cymbals lacked the last bit of snap and sparkle, the smooth midrange on “When You Know You Know” made the electric guitar tone and vocal harmonies sound full-bodied and dimensional.

For the last decade, my favorite band has been the British folk-rock trio The Staves, composed of sisters Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Staveley-Taylor. On their 2014 album If I Was (16bit/44.1kHz AIFF ripped from CD), I heard a dryness to the high frequencies that made vocalized consonants and the strummed acoustic guitar on the track “Steady” sound a bit edgier and grittier than I would prefer. It was not objectionable, nor fatiguing, but it also wasn’t the kind of sweet and natural treble that makes you say, “just one more song” when you should already be in bed. I’m a sucker for really locked-in vocal harmony, so I was entranced the first time I heard the a cappella intro to “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” by säje, an amazing and relatively new vocal ensemble. The group was nominated for a Grammy for the first song they ever wrote and arranged together, “Desert Song,” in 2020. Musical wunderkind Jacob Collier joins säje on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (24bit/48kHz FLAC, Qobuz). Via the DacMagic, Collier’s countertenor had a lovely and smooth tone, but there was a slight gauzy sheen over everything, as if the music were on the other side of a frosted window. When I swapped out the DacMagic for the Mojo 2, that sheen fell away, as if the window had been hit with some antifreeze and a fresh squeegee. When Collier drops down from falsetto into a baritone register, the DacMagic made his voice sound slightly muffled. On the Mojo, his baritone still had a chesty reverberance, but it was as clear as a bell, as if a wool scarf had been unraveled from around his face.

staves   sgt pepper

Giles Martin’s remix of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band sounds like it was recorded yesterday. On “She’s Leaving Home” (24bit/96kHz FLAC, Qobuz), the harp and violins were reproduced with better detail and more natural tone on the Mojo 2 than on the DacMagic. When listening on the Cambridge, I did not feel that anything was missing or amiss, but the side-by-side comparison with the Mojo 2 was illuminating. On “Good Morning Good Morning,” I did notice that the saxophones sounded a bit coarse, with too much bite in their reedy attack when played back through the DacMagic. On the Mojo, the saxes sounded more natural, despite an overall sense of increased detail retrieval via the Chord DAC. After reveling in the final chord of “A Day in the Life,” I put on Imogen Heap’s incredible 2005 record Speak for Yourself (24bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz). The first track, “Headlock,” is one of the great album openers of the 21st century. The Cambridge DAC delivered the requisite impact when the synth kick and snare drums come in at 1:07. The sound had power behind it, like an oddly satisfying punch to the gut. Through the Mojo 2, the sound was just as impactful, but the high-frequency electronic fuzz sounded less harsh. The Mojo also excelled at layer separation, easily making musical sense of a purposefully busy, almost chaotic arrangement. On the Cambridge, the separate musical elements were pressed into a single layer and occasionally threatened to blur together, rather than overlap and interweave.

I normally listen to whole albums from start to finish, but sometimes when I listen to radio pop, I’m tempted to jump around from one artist to another, as if I were switching FM stations in the car. And one evening, it was just such a listening session that gave me the most enjoyment that I got during my time with the DacMagic 200M. “Supalonely” by BENEE (24bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz) sounded sublime. Vocal clarity was superb. Both the taught-sounding drums and the slightly buzzy synthesizer were eminently enjoyable, and I wrote “What more could you want?” in big letters across my notepad. Within just a few songs, I started to wonder if contemporary pop might be this DAC’s genre of choice. BENEE’s cover of the 2011 hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye has a 1980s Lo-fi sound that creates a sense of being underwater. This made me think of another pop song, “Trampoline” by SHAED, from the 2018 album Melt (16bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz). That song’s whistled melody just before the 2-minute mark was presented with a realistic breathiness, and the finger-snaps that create the backbeat had an immediacy to them that provided a delightful contrast to the song’s dreamy, ethereal vibe. Continuing with the underwater motif, I cued up “everything i wanted” by Billie Eilish (24bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz), which sounded as delicate and mesmerizing as ever. After listening to the catchy-as-hell song “Stay” by The Kid LAROI (24bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz), I listened to a different song by the same name. “Stay” by the Russian-German DJ Zedd features Alessia Cara on vocals. It’s a great vocal performance, but a pretty awful-sounding vocal recording. The DacMagic did nothing to tame the crushed, frizzy sibilance, nor to hide the fact that the lead vocal’s dynamics have been squashed to oblivion. It was easy to hear these flaws via the Cambridge Audio DAC, but I was still able to enjoy Alessia’s unique tone and vocal phrasing, along with the many virtues of Zedd’s deft production. Nothing about this listening session made me want to switch out the DacMagic 200M for a different DAC. I was happy to simply enjoy the music, and kept having to remind myself to take notes. But the review must go on, so I also listened to all of the above with the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital in the signal chain in place of the Cambridge.

Cambridge Pro-Ject Chord DACs

The sound of the Pro-Ject DAC was not as different from that of the DacMagic as was the sound of the Chord Mojo 2. The Pro-Ject has something like eight digital filters to choose from, but I stuck with the recommended Optimal Transient filter, which sounded crisp and clear but stopped just short of being overtly analytical. On “Supalonely,” the overall presentation was similar to what I had heard from the Cambridge, but slightly distant in comparison, as if I had stepped back from the sound. The Pro-Ject delivered bass and drums that were a hair less punchy, and the sound was a bit smoother overall. The Cambridge was more in-your-face, which better served this bouncy pop song. “Trampoline” is a more laid-back song, and here the Pro-Ject’s more liquid and relaxed-sounding highs fared better, delivering a treble that was perhaps a bit less etched than the DacMagic’s, without sounding less detailed. On “Stay” by The Kid LAROI, there was less bass weight on the Pro-Ject than on the Cambridge. On a song like this, more is better when it comes to bass. Again, there was the impression of a somewhat smoother overall presentation. On Zedd’s “Stay,” Alessia Cara’s consonants sounded just as nasty as before, but other high-frequency sounds, such as sampled percussion instruments and Zedd’s signature ticking clock, sounded cleaner. The artificial reverb applied to these sounds trailed off more fully and with more delicacy on the Pro-Ject, while the Cambridge caused the sounds to decay more quickly. On the other hand, there was less perceived energy at the frequency extremes via the Pro-Ject, and as a result, these pop tunes were more engaging via the DacMagic 200M. I should stress that these differences were relatively small, if only because we will come upon some more drastic dissimilitudes in the next section of the review.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M: Built-in Headphone Amp

CA Stack input

Up until this point, I had listened to the DacMagic 200M and its competitors as pure DACs, using the iFi Zen Can Signature headphone amp to adjust volume and drive my headphones. But the DacMagic has a built-in headphone amp, and if the MXN10/DacMagic stack is being recommended for desktop use, there’s a good chance that buyers will use it at least some of the time. I won’t bury the lede here; the DacMagic 200M is a much better DAC than it is a headphone amp. If you’re a serious headphone listener, you might already have one or more analog headphone amps, in which case it’s a moot point. And if you use headphones only occasionally, the DacMagic’s headphone output will get the job done. (It’s a capable performer with speakers, as we’ll see later.) But if you don’t have an analog headphone amp, and you were considering the MXN10/DacMagic stack as a solution for a headphone-centric system, I’d think twice. Perhaps it’s a testament to how good the MXN10 sounds on its own, but I greatly preferred the sound of the MXN10’s internal DAC paired with the iFi Zen Can Signature amp, over the sound of the DacMagic 200M’s superior DAC feeding its less-capable built-in headphone amp. I could easily live with the MXN10/iFi pairing, thanks to the Zen Can’s effortless, free-flowing power delivery and expansive sound. The DacMagic 200M’s headphone output is a useful convenience feature, but it doesn’t live up to the unit’s performance in other areas. Let’s get into some examples and comparisons.

storm frontI’ve loved Billy Joel’s 1989 album Storm Front since I was a kid, so I pulled it up on Qobuz (24bit/96kHz FLAC). A solo piano, such as in the opening bars of “And So It Goes,” is a good test of upper midrange timbre. Via the DacMagic, nothing stood out as sounding intrinsically wrong, but there was something missing in terms of saturation and tonal color. The Pro-Ject’s built-in headphone amp sounded similarly washed out, again without committing any obvious sonic sin. These sins of omission continued on “The Downeaster Alexa,” which Joel wrote as a folk tribute to the deep-sea fisherman who lived and worked near his home on Long Island. Although it’s in 4/4 time, the song has an unusual rhythmic pulse, which is established by powerful thwacks from the kick drum on the downbeat of each measure, followed by a snare drum strike on beat 3 (snares are typically played on beats 2 and 4). This simple drum pattern helps the song evoke the feeling of a seagoing trawler crashing on the ocean waves. I’ve never been deep-sea fishing in my life, yet this highly specific song about the struggles of professional fisherman in the northeastern United States can give me goosebumps, thanks to the passion in Joel’s vocal performance and the unique oceanic rise and fall that transport the listener to another world. But that only works if the song sounds as it should. On The Pro-Ject, the kick drum was not delivered with sufficient heft behind it, so the song just flowed along without that all-important pulse. Some of this improved when switching to the Cambridge. There was a more satisfying sense of bass weight and crisper-sounding hi-hats. Perhaps Cambridge has tuned the headphone amp with something of a U-shaped frequency response, with bass and treble getting a bit of a boost compared to the flatter-sounding Pro-Ject. Here, Itzhak Perlman’s violin had a more rosiny bite, and the electric guitar solo took a small step in front of the rest of the mix, making its presence known better than it did via the Pro-Ject. Still, the song lacked the excitement that it should deliver.  

After fairly disappointing results from the built-in headphone amps in the Cambridge and Pro-Ject DACs, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Lilliputian Chord Mojo 2. But while those other DACs are designed to fit into all kinds of audio systems, the Mojo (a portmanteau of “Mobile Joy”) was intended first and foremost as a portable DAC/amp for headphone users. So there was hope yet. But before I get into the Mojo’s performance I feel it necessary to express that this tiny, well-built device has the least intuitive user interface of any consumer electronics product I have ever come across. It’s not just confusing — it’s downright bewildering. It’s operated by pressing four illuminated, color-changing balls, which perform different functions depending on the pattern of colors presented. Even with the user guide at the ready, I never felt entirely confident while operating the Mojo 2. I’m sure that continued use would eventually make this less daunting, but the Pro-Ject’s LCD display is vastly more user-friendly. The LEDs on the Black Edition DacMagic 200M aren’t quite as easy to read because of the small print and black-on-black styling, but using the DAC is otherwise simple enough that I never needed the manual. Using the Mojo 2 feels like a nightmare in which I am expected to perform on stage, but the piano has been misplaced and, instead, I am asked to play Beethoven on a Christmas tree. (All joking aside, it did occur to me that the product is literally not accessible to my friend Ralphie, whose color-blindness would make it impossible for him to operate.) OK, so why am I devoting nearly a paragraph to trash-talking the user interface of the Chord Mojo 2? Because I wanted to get it out of the way before saying that this thing sounds absolutely glorious with headphones. The realism, the layer separation, and the boldness of the sound put the Mojo 2 in a totally different league. The sound has detail, impact, and excitement, and all of this springs forth from a dead quiet background. Even when using my in-ear monitors, there was zero noise. Adding the iFi amp to the Mojo’s output made a sound that was bigger in scale, but also a bit less vivid and slightly slower off the starting line than when the Mojo was going solo. I can certainly imagine that some listeners would prefer the Mojo on its own, which is remarkable when you consider that the iFi is an excellent performer at its $300 price, and its only job is to drive headphones.

Going back to Billy Joel, “And So It Goes” was presented with much more clarity via the Mojo 2 than from the DacMagic or the Pro-Ject, as if a layer of dust that I hadn’t noticed as such had been polished away, leaving the surface shining. The sound was more detailed, but also more saturated in the midrange, with more three-dimensional vocals and better-textured bass. “The Downeaster Alexa” was also on a completely different level. The aforementioned kick drum thwacks and snare drum strikes were much more rousing, returning the song’s sense of seafaring rhythm. The delicate ghost notes on the snare drum and the rounder tone of the tom-toms also made a greater contribution to the musical whole, and the electric guitar solo leapt out with attitude. Billy’s soaring vocals produced the dopamine-fueled horripilation that I’ve come to expect when this song sounds as it should: utterly f*cking epic. I wanted to see if this performance gap carried over to other genres of music, and can now confirm that it did. Like many band geeks, I have a healthy appreciation for the English composer Gustav Holst. My favorite piece, Second Suite in F for Military Band, is not popular enough among regular folk to justify the existence of many great-sounding recordings, but that’s not the case for his seminal work, The Planets. My favorite is the 1971 recording of the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta, which is available in 24bit/176.4kHz on Qobuz. During “Jupiter,” the Mojo 2 impressed once again when, at 2:35, the timpani part gets softer and softer until the drums are merely whispering, while still conveying the player’s delicate sense of touch. At around the 3-minute mark, there is a big, swelling melody that the strings and wind instruments play in unison. Through the Mojo, I could practically feel the orchestra breathing as one. The Mojo allowed me to get caught up in these moments, both big and small, because everything was just sounding right. The glockenspiel at 6:42 sounded incredibly realistic, both in terms of the transient strike of mallet-on-metal, and in terms of the delicate decay of the sound reverberating in space. Via the DacMagic 200M’s built-in headphone amp, “Jupiter” sounded flattened into a single layer, making it harder to focus on individual instruments or melodic lines. There was less micro-dynamic nuance, and a paler palette of tonal colors to work with. Via the DacMagic, the trumpets and trombones were presented with a bit more spit and buzz, and with less air surrounding them. Interestingly, the flutes and piccolos sounded a bit farther away. There was also something less easeful about the sound, as if less power was available. The Focal Clear Mg is a fairly efficient headphone, but the Cambridge amp sounded as if it had to try harder, whereas everything came easier to the Mojo.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M: What About Speakers?

I set up a nearfield listening system by placing the Emotiva Pro airmotiv 4 speakers on NHT DeskStands at the front edge of a heavy wooden desk, with their tweeters 40 inches apart. The Emotivas’ AMT tweeters were about 3 inches lower to the floor than my ears, but this discrepancy was negated by the slight backward tilt afforded by the stands. Because the speakers have both RCA and XLR inputs (both of which are always active), I was able to attach both the DacMagic 200M and the Chord Mojo 2, and switch between them easily. I level-matched the two DACs, fiddled with toe-in for a short while, and was good to go.

Rufus Wainwright’s 2004 album Want Two (16bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz) includes a fabulous live performance of the song “Art Teacher.” The DacMagic threw a wide soundstage with both Rufus’s vocals and the French horn locked in the center. The sound was open and beautiful. The Mojo 2 presented the song with a quieter background, and with the French horn set farther back in a notably deeper soundstage. The companion album to Want Two is 2003’s Want One (16bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz), which opens with the delightfully extravagant song “Oh What a World.” Via the DacMagic, this track’s bass drum had good definition and weight, but the Mojo presented a deeper drum tone and a more textured attack of the mallet. Rufus’s voice was cleaner via the Mojo, but also thinner, as if a younger version of Rufus were at the microphone. Starting at 2:43, the exuberant orchestrations include melodic themes from Maurice Ravel’s most famous composition, Boléro. This section of the song gets pretty cacophonous, and the high frequencies tend to sound a bit harsh on most systems. The DacMagic did nothing to ameliorate this, but the Mojo 2 produced a somewhat toned-down, better separated rendition that was more comfortable to the ears, perhaps at the expense of some of the song’s rambunctious spirit.

want 3     ext apple

I must have been in a mid-2000s mood, because I turned to Fiona Apple’s 2005 album Extraordinary Machine (16bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz). Fiona’a close-miked vocal on the song “Extraordinary Machine” sounded a bit parched through the Cambridge DAC, and more natural through the Mojo, which also reproduced more air around the brass instruments. The woodwinds were more rounded and resonant via the Mojo, but their transients were no less precise. That said, the DacMagic lost none of the song’s playful demeanor, and it reproduced the marimba with realistic tone. The clarinets and bells always make me think of “When I’m 64.” This kind of eccentric orchestral arrangement is precisely what the song’s producer, Jon Brion, is known for. (He also produced Rufus Wainwright’s 1998 self-titled debut album.) One of my favorite Jon Brion songs is “Trouble,” from his phenomenal 2001 album Meaningless. But I’ve been listening to the ‘90s band Toad the Wet Sprocket lately, so I cued up the 2004 album Mutual Admiration Society (16bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz) by the band of the same name, comprising Toad’s frontman, Glenn Phillips, and all three members of Nickel Creek. The album includes a cover of “Trouble” with Phillips singing lead. His voice sounded clear and nicely fleshed out via the DacMagic, and the overall tonal balance felt just right. The Mojo 2 brought me closer to the singer, and I felt more intimately connected to the performance. Sara Watkins’s fiddle sounded as if I were standing one foot away in the recording studio. The DacMagic’s presentation was more laid back in comparison — something many listeners might prefer. While the Mojo 2 greedily demands your attention, the DacMagic’s version of this song invites you to sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself.

On the last night that I had the speakers set up, I decided to see if contemporary pop would sound as magical via the Cambridge in this system as it had via headphones. Ariana Grande’s 2018 hit “thank u, next” (24bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz) has a surprisingly complex chord progression for radio pop, making it a personal favorite. The DacMagic delivered a solid and satisfying synth bass foundation, and the width of the soundstage stretched far beyond the outside edges of the speakers’ cabinets. Ariana’s silky vocals were absolutely planted right in the center. The song probably has very little dynamic range — it was so loud that my previous volume settings on both DACs needed adjustment — but that didn’t make it any less fun. Via the Mojo 2, the texture in the lows was more carefully reproduced, and there was more high-frequency snap on the sampled percussion sounds. The sound was cleaner overall, and it hit harder, but it wasn’t necessarily more enjoyable. The Mojo 2 made the song sound more precise, but also somewhat cerebral, while the DacMagic 200M made it feel more like a party.

I’ve gotten the impression that Chief Audioholic Gene DellaSala is not a Swiftie, but he’s missing out. I’m definitely a Taylor Swift fan, and proud of it. (I was somewhat hurt, however, when my girlfriend said that the day she attended Taylor’s Era’s Tour concert was, by far, the best day of her life. I was out of town.) I think that Taylor really came into her own with the 2014 album 1989. The newly re-recorded “Taylor’s Version” of the album was just released. On the song “Wildest Dreams” (24bit/48kHz FLAC, Qobuz), the heartbeat-like pulsation in the intro was substantially deeper and more authoritative via the Mojo 2, which simultaneously had a more delicate touch with Taylor’s consonant sounds on lines like “but this is gettin’ good now.” Although her voice sounded slightly more natural on the Mojo, the song was easier on the ears via the DacMagic. The Cambridge DAC didn’t grab onto every molecule of information as the Mojo did, but I preferred its slightly chilled out sound on much of the album.

1989   starboy

I ended my listening on a high note, with the 2016 album Starboy (24bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz), by The Weeknd. “I Feel It Coming” is an absolute bop — one of those songs that you’re always in the mood for when it comes on the radio. It’s extremely loud, but this time I didn’t turn it down, choosing instead to test the limits of the Emotiva speakers’ shockingly mighty 4.5-inch woofers. Despite being so dynamically compressed, the song didn’t sound flat or one-dimensional via the DacMagic. In fact, it sounded damn good. I may or may not have done a silly little dance in my listening chair. Switching over to the Mojo 2 resulted in what I had come to expect. The claps on beats 2 and 4 were crisper, the soundstage was taller and deeper, and the sound was more technically impressive. It made the DacMagic sound a bit subdued by comparison, like a vinyl record compared to a high-res digital file. Which version was preferable? I think it would split opinion.

Cambridge Audio MXN10 and DacMagic 200M Review Conclusion

The Cambridge Audio MXN10 network streamer and DacMagic 200M digital-to-analog converter make a handsome pair, and competently go about their business of making music. I can imagine this stack of components adorning the desktops of many happy music-lovers. If you want to make one purchase and never look back, I doubt you’d ever be distracted or dissatisfied by what the Cambridge duo has to offer, with the one caveat that serious headphone enthusiasts would want to add a dedicated headphone amp. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of audiophile who carefully considers every angle before making an audio purchase, it makes sense to evaluate the two components separately, within the context of their competitors.

CA Stack hero

Cambridge Audio MXN10 vs Competition

the Cambridge Audio MXN10 network streamer is the best-sounding music streamer I’ve heard at its $499 price.

The MXN10 costs $100 less than the go-to Bluesound Node, and easily out-classes it in terms of sound quality. Assuming its minor software issues get ironed out, I consider it a slam dunk. Does that mean that nobody should buy a Node? Of course not. Affordable gear is often selected for its feature set alone, and the Node has some killer features, including an HDMI eARC connection, a subwoofer output with adjustable bass management, software tone controls, and a headphone jack. Folks who need these will likely pay the extra $100 while sacrificing some sonic fidelity, and still be happy campers. It’s a similar story with the DacMagic 200M. If you can pay $100 more than the DacMagic’s asking price, the Chord Mojo 2 will reward you with better overall sound quality (and substantially better headphone performance). But the Mojo 2 only has a 3.5mm output; it lacks the DacMagic’s RCA outputs, XLR outputs, MQA support, and Bluetooth connectivity. And while the DacMagic is user-friendly and easy as pie to operate, the Mojo requires a doctorate in thermonuclear engineering. There’s a strong case to be made for either DAC, depending on your needs and priorities. (The Mojo 2 also has an internal battery for mobile use, and very effective DSP-based EQ and Crossfeed functions, adding further value for headphone users.) I think the DacMagic is a better buy than the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital; it only costs $50 more, and I almost always preferred its sound. But I should note that the Pro-Ject DAC that I tested was the original version from 2017. Parts shortages brought about by the Covid 19 pandemic forced Pro-Ject to redesign the Pre Box S2 Digital, which is now available in a new-and-improved version called the Pre Box S2 Digital Edition 23. You can read about the improvements on Pro-Ject’s website.

As I said at the start, the Cambridge Audio MXN10 network streamer is the best-sounding music streamer I’ve heard at its $499 price. It easily earns my strongest recommendation. The DacMagic 200M digital-to-analog converter offers good sound quality, high build quality, and easy usability for a wide variety of systems. While it couldn’t quite match the more expensive Chord Mojo 2 in terms of raw sonic performance, the DacMagic is still a solid option that will have wide appeal. I very much enjoyed my time with this duo from Cambridge Audio, and am glad to see that, nearly two decades after I bought my first proper HiFi system, the company hasn’t lost its touch.

The Score Card

The scoring below is based on each piece of equipment doing the duty it is designed for. The numbers are weighed heavily with respect to the individual cost of each unit, thus giving a rating roughly equal to:

Performance × Price Factor/Value = Rating

Audioholics.com note: The ratings indicated below are based on subjective listening and objective testing of the product in question. The rating scale is based on performance/value ratio. If you notice better performing products in future reviews that have lower numbers in certain areas, be aware that the value factor is most likely the culprit. Other Audioholics reviewers may rate products solely based on performance, and each reviewer has his/her own system for ratings.

Audioholics Rating Scale

  • StarStarStarStarStar — Excellent
  • StarStarStarStar — Very Good
  • StarStarStar — Good
  • StarStar — Fair
  • Star — Poor
MetricRating
Build QualityStarStarStarStarStar
Ergonomics & UsabilityStarStarStarStar
FeaturesStarStarStarStarStar
PerformanceStarStarStarStar
ValueStarStarStarStarhalf-star
About the author:
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Jacob is a music-lover and audiophile who enjoys convincing his friends to buy audio gear that they can't afford. He's also a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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