The digital to analog converter/headphone amplifier of the American company Benchmark is a device I heard about long ago, but first saw and heard only this year, during the Munich High End 2008 show (reportage from the show HERE). I knew the product from the pages of the American magazine “Stereophile”. This is one of the few specialist magazines I know that can be treated seriously in terms of reliability as well as in terms of the coherent vision of the audio world. One can have different opinions about one or another author (in contrast to Polish press, American, Japanese and a part of the British is not “anonymous” but strongly directed to the individual journalists, having their own enclaves in the magazines), but in general I notice a certain “truth” coming out of the texts, and this is what I am searching for in specialist press. The editor in chief, John Atkinson, is one of the personalities that does not surf a wave, flowing involuntarily from one test to another, but tries to bring something new into the dispute, he is always learning and he is not ashamed of that. One of his doings, or better said – one of his loves, besides editing the magazine is making recordings. He has an own opinion on how this should look like, and he has a worked out recording system. And it was him, who drew my attention to the DAC1, because he used it fro monitoring the sound during recordings. This is maybe not much, because the professional world differs from the audiophile one, and some things so obvious for us are not used there. One of those things, that would be handy also for us, is the denial of paying lots of money for products, which manufacture does not cost much. This is healthy, maybe a bit too common sensual (because this excludes many devices from the start), but in general this approach carries much optimism. The DAC1 fits ideally in such a vision of the world. Costing a bit over 4000zl it is located in the middle of the price range of similar studio oriented products of this type. The situation with Atkinson was a bit unusual, as he is a very pragmatic man, relying to some extent also on measurements, but he is rooted in the audiophile world. And somebody like that uses a DAC with an integrated headphone amplifier in his recording system, where any of the power cables did cost more than the DAC. Something must be in this thing.
And this is a very inconspicuous looking device. This is a small, black box with the height of five CD boxes, not much broader and deeper than that. Only looking closer, we notice something that is lacking in many audiophile products, especially at this price range. I mean it is solid. The front is made from a thick slab of aluminum, perfectly milled under the connectors and knobs. Also the volume knob is beautiful – it has a knurled surface, brought directly from the military. The device is also very versatile. It is a combination of a DAC and a headphone amplifier. We can hook up four digital sources, including an USB one – something added to the original DAC1. An evolution of this device is the DAC1 PRE (4850zl), where we also have an analog input, making it a 3 in 1: DAC, headphone amplifier and a preamplifier. There is also a less elaborate version – lacking the USB input (3294zl). This is really versatile. We have already met a combination of a preamplifier with a headphone amplifier in the form of Lyra made by Casea (test HERE), but not such a combination. And the inputs are only a part of the description. We have also outputs at our disposal – a balanced XLR and an unbalanced RCA, both with a fixed level and a possibility of regulating them with small potentiometers on the back plate. In the test we used the fixed ones, as they turned out to be more open and resolving.
DAC1 USB is a very versatile device. One can understand it as a headphone amplifier with a digital to analog converter, then we are interested mostly how it behaves when we attach it to a digital output of a CD or CVD drive or a PC computer (music server) and on the other hand a pair of headphones. On the other hand, the DAC1 USB is a DAC with a headphone amplifier. In this configuration we also enter with a digital signal, but the primary output will be the analog, line level output on the back, and the headphone amp will be only an addition.
First I listened to the Benchmark treating it as an integral whole – I mean with the headphones plugged in. At first I was surprised with the refinement and maturity of the sound. It happened, that together with the converter I also received a package with Japanese re-masters (DSD) of Wes Montgomery’s CDs from CD Japan (see the banner below the article) – the series with the discs made from a material named SHM-CD). I could not hold off and listened to nine of those discs immediately. They are not very long, so this was not problematic. The differences between my reference system and the Benchmark were obvious, I will tell about them in a moment, but regardless of them, one thing was clear: I was dealing with a very thorough and reliable device. And the reference point was placed quite high. The source was the Lektor Prime Ancient Audio, and the DAC output was connected to the integrated amplifier CS-300 Leben that I mostly use as a headphone amplifier. The main headphones I used were the AKG K701 and the Ultrasone PROLine2500, I also used the Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro, mostly due to their high impedance (600 Ω). The Lektor was used as the main transport, interchangeably with my old universal player Pioneer DV-575 that I used as a source of the 24/96 signal. I also tried the USB port that I hooked up to my PC with the Creative Soundblaster X-Fi Elite-Pro sound card.
Like I said, despite the big difference in price and perceivable differences in favor of the reference system, the Benchmark momentarily confirmed its position as an orientation point. Its sound is incredibly attentive and credible. This is an unusual situation, when a device that maybe is no top product, or the best I heard, keeps all the assets, including the mentioned credibility that is characteristic to the most expensive combinations – like mine (dynamic) or the Stax system with the Omega II headphones (electrostats – review HERE). But to keep the proportions right I’ll start with the comparison first and keep the paeans for later :-). In comparison to my system the DAC has a smaller, more concentrated in the middle of the stage, sound. The guitar of Wes Mongomery from the disc Just Walking (Verve/UMG Recordings, UCCY-9355, CD) was closer to the listener (please remember, that we deal here with and artifact stage, different than when listening through loudspeakers) and had more damped reverb. In general the Benchmark sounds with a darker sound than my system, or the Leben with the player Electrocompaniet EMC 1UP – a player darker than the Prime. It is also more toned down than the tested some time ago headphone amplifiers Casea Lyra and Edgar SH-1. It is mostly about the upper part of the midrange. But when I listened without comparisons, just listening to a disc from the beginning to the end, to the debut disc of Dead Can Dance from the new Mobile Fidelity re-master (Dead Can Dance, 4AD/Warner Music Japan, WPCB-10070, SACD/CD), it turned out, that the sound has the balance set a bit lower, its gravity point is around 600-800Hz, but it is very attractive as a whole. With the mentioned disc I immediately knew, that it sounds with an exceptional sound. This is a recording from 1984, of low quality, with a strong upper midrange, that wasn’t even helped by the Mobile’s re-master. The DAC showed everything, not damping anything, and yet everything could be listened to with pleasure (if we like this kind of music – I do). And this is due to the fantastic, regardless of the price, resolution of the American DAC, coming not from detail but from a deep tone, keeping the ‘bounds’ between the individual sounds. This allows for long listening to music, even very long, especially with headphones like the mentioned AKG K701 or Sennheiser HD 650. With the Ultrasone the sound gains on speed, it gets more dynamic, fleshy in the lower registers and more forcible treble, but I lost this incredible quietness, fullness that enchanted me so much. One thing for another, as usual, but in this case the SOMETHING I got with the AKG was for me bigger than the SOMETHING got from changing to Ultrasone.
Anyway, the sound of the DAC1 USB is incredibly profound. The Lektor with the Leben sounds brighter, probably more right (at least I think so), there is more information in the sound, the sound stage is deeper, but the presentation from the Benchmark was absolutely satisfying. The more that it is available for not so much money – finally. Like I mentioned, one has to get used to some aspects of the sound, like the darker timbre and slight bringing closer of the sound to the listener and to the middle of the stage. But maybe it will not require getting used to – I talk about that in the context of the reference system and the STAX system. If we just plug in the DAC at our home, without comparing it upwards, then everything downwards will turn out to be significantly worse (I am talking about a DAC + headphone amplifier at similar price range). A similar timbre we will get from the DAC DC-1 Upgrade from Audionemesis with the mentioned headphone amplifier Lyra or the Leben. But you will have to add the price of an interconnect at about 2000zl and an additional power cable. And this adds up to a significant sum. And the size… The DAC1 USB is small and shapely. And it requires only one power cable (I used Oyaide L/i 50 EXs), only it has to be a good one.
When we listen to the Benchmark for longer, we will come to the conclusion, that there is something more in it. There is no special listening experience needed, because this is a sound that ‘catches’ the man, there is something in it, that makes us listen to the music, and listen, and listen – and this is just what the whole game called audiophilism is about, isn’t it? At least it should… Even the mentioned Dead Can Dance can easily be read beyond the sounds, it can be listened to as to a source of music, and not – in terms of quality – as a source of quite bad sounds.
ust like I wrote, the dense midrange plays first role in the DAC’s sound. And this is a solid state device, made using ICs… But after the converters from Audionemesis, also solid state devices, this is no longer surprising. This is why the voice of Morrison, from the disc Morrison Hotel (Elektra/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-12720, CD) was a bit on top, in front of the band, and was at the same time full, rich in information about singing technique, in emotions. The treble is rather toned down, although multi-dimensional and rich in harmonics. The bass goes down low, but it has a rather damped character. Taking this all into consideration, it must be said, that this is an incredibly universal device. From the side of the music as well as the system around it. It turned out, that the Benchmark is much less sensitive to the change of the transport than for example Audionemesis. No, it is not that the change from the Lektor with the Philips SD-Pro2M to the Pioneer with a DVD drive is not audible – no. After the change the colors faded and rhythm got worse. But this was not dominating and can be lived with easily. Especially as the recordings 24/96 sound much better than the CD. I listened to quite a few DVD-A discs I owned, like Love the Beatles (Apple/EMI, 380789, CD+DVD-A; review HERE) or Somethin’ Else Cannonball Adderley (Blue Note/Classic Records, HDAD 2009) and I can say without a trace of doubt that this is the future of audio. Unfortunately, the format in itself, the DVD-A, is dead and buried. So why am I writing about that here? Because the future of audio is streaming and servers (this is why Blu-Ray seems to me the biggest blunder of Sony in their history, with which the other ones in its history, like Betamax, Mini-Disc and other forgotten ones will seem insignificant). And servers will need good DACs, because those mounted in them are not of high quality (except for LINN - those are world champions). This is like with the CD – only ten years after announcing the standard something begun to be done with it. Now, smarter by experience, we can immediately assume, that the DAC, as a type of device, will be on top for some time. And the DAC1 USB handles the 24/96 signal splendidly, through S/PDIF, AES/EBU and the USB inputs. That last thing was quite surprising with its quality, because always, and from now almost always, they sounded bad to me, because after receiving the signal it immediately gets upsampled, changing the word length at the same time, mostly downwards. Benchmark put significant effort in programming the USB receiver, so that it does not change anything, and just converts the signal from the computer (server) to a signal recognizable by the DAC. This is the first converter I can recommend for that usage with clean conscience. Unfortunately, one has to think about a good USB cable – if somebody thought that in this case it is different than with other cables, then he is mistaken. And that double. A USB link is very jitter-creating link, so in this case the cable plays a very important role.
Taking all this into account, I can recommend the DAC1 to everybody, who can afford it. If we don’t care about headphones, then a better solution will be the DC-1 Upgrade from Audionemesis, which is more open and has a better drawing. And it is significantly cheaper. But if this should be a compact system of a DAC with a headphone amplifier, then I do not know a system of better value. The only thing I would wish in some future incarnation of the DAC is the ability to play SACD and DVD-A 24/192 signals (or LPCM 24/192). This ability is offered by a HDMI v1.2. The link itself is not very good in terms of transmitting digital signals, but looking at what Benchmark achieved with USB I am quite certain, that they will be able to deal with that. Except this – flawless.
As we can learn from the company materials the DAC1 is the effect of ten years of work. This is a small black box with a thick, nicely milled plate in the front. To the right there is a knurled volume knob and next to it we have two headphone sockets. Furthermore we have a small, but easy to use dip switch that allows choosing the digital input: AES/EBU (XLR), S/PDIF (TOSLINK and BNC – the adapter to RCA is supplied) and USB. On the back we have an IEC power socket, the mentioned digital inputs and two pairs of outputs – XLR (balanced) and RCA (unbalanced). Between those we see a dip switch for selecting variable or fixed level output. It turned out, that the device can be configured to suit best to our needs. So we can:
The insides reveals a well designed circuit placed on one PCB, mostly assembled in SMD technology. Looking from the back, on the right side we have a big AC filter and behind it a small toroidal transformer with the middle covered with resin and many secondary windings. It looks like the digital and analog sections have separate power supplies. In general the power supplies, filtered and stabilized, stand for half of the elements found inside.
Looking from the signal side, from the input sockets it goes to the digital receiver AKM AK4114 and then to an Analog Devices chip AD1896 – asynchronous upsampler D-D 24/192. Then it goes to the D/A converter Analog Devices AD1853. This is a multi-bit device with a delta-sigma modulator 24/192 with very good dynamics (120dB = 20 bits) and an anti-jitter circuit. The problem of jitter was the main concern while designing this section. Benchmark used an additional DSP and a splendid clock in a setting called Jitter-Immune UltraLock Clock System. It is supposed to handle even the most jittered signal. In front of it there is another IC – TAS1020, a USB interface. The company spent some time to extract a useful signal from this cripple interface, among others by changing its firmware. But those were not the only changes – also the internal sampling frequency rate converter was switched off, allowing passing on the signal just as supplied to the unit. It is worth to notice, that the USB input is fully 24 bits (up to 96kHz) and compatible with Windows Vista/XP/2000 and Mac OS X. The whole was named AdvancedUSB Audio Technology.
After the converter the signal is fully balanced and based on simple NE5532 chips. Near the volume regulation – a miniature potentiometer Alpha – there are more of those chips and five legged, big ICs BUF634 from Burr-Brown. This is really a splendid circuit – a buffer with large output current. This part received a separate stabilizing stage. The modules of the headphone amplifier are called HPA2 and should be characterized by negligible output impedance (the company states values below 0.11Ohm) and very low distortion – 0.0003% is stated at full output power while using both outputs at the same time. The enclosure is made from aluminum. Three finishes are available: black, silver and black with rack mount wings. The XLR and BNC sockets are gold plated, and the RCA and headphone (“big jack” ź”) ones not. Good job!
CDs FROM JAPAN
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