If you've dropped a small fortune on a nice pair of over-the-ear headphones but are just connecting them to your laptop's built-in headphone jack, you're probably not hearing everything you paid for. For a better sonic experience, a dedicated DAC — or digital to analogue converter — is the route you want to go. And Cambridge Audio has managed to squeeze its new DacMagic XS into a package as small as a matchbox — so it's incredibly portable.
Technically an external DAC is replicating the functionality of what your laptop already has built-in, but think of it as swapping out the crappy earbuds that came with your smartphone. With a 24-bit digital to analogue converter, the DacMagic XS can handle up to 24-bit, 192kHz high quality sound files, while its amp puts out 150mW of power. So not only will the music coming through your headphones sound better, it will be louder too, but without the distortion.
At $US189 the DacMagic XS falls somewhere between the $US39 Hifiman Express HM-101 and the $US300 Meridian Explorer. But it also strikes a reasonable balance in terms of functionality, while coming in as the smallest USB DAC on the market. And for audiophiles who are always on the go with their laptop, that could easily be its killer feature. [Cambridge Audio]