Publisher’s Note – this review is a direct result of our reader’s input. We have received a great number of requests for us to review this Benchmark Dac Pre. Our readers said they had read other reviews, but wanted our opinion before they “pulled the trigger”. So we obtained one and gave it to two of our reviewers for their honest opinions. We do listen to our readers!
How important is your digital front end? Really? Some say speakers make the biggest difference in sound quality; others say amplification is most important. I truly don’t have a definitive answer to this question, but I can say with certainty that my first “good” cd player is what introduced me to the sickness we call high-end audio.
I remember it like yesterday, even though it happened back in 1990, nearly 20 years ago. I had just gotten a decent, but relatively inexpensive mid-fi receiver and quickly realized that the first generation cd player a friend had sold me several years before was now the weak link in the system. I figured this time I would do it right. I consulted with some local audio dealers and collected all the “white papers” that were frequently handed out in those days. After much deliberation, I settled on Adcom’s first cd player. I recall dropping $550 on it, an astronomical sum for a graduate student at that time.
Wow! For the first time, I heard real detail and instrumental timbre. I could hear into complex orchestral recordings. Imaging and soundstaging were now burned into my brain and vocabulary. In short, I was irreversibly hooked, and it’s been a dangerous and slippery slope from there.
So yes, in my experience, source components are extremely important. It’s this introduction that brings me to our review subject: Benchmark Media’s DAC 1 Pre. Benchmark started out as a purely pro-audio company, but has over the past few years become something of an audiophile darling. This all started when Benchmark began producing its well-known DAC 1 digital to analog converter. While designed for the pro audio and recording industry, it didn’t take audiophile types long to figure out that this was a great product for reproduction of digital audio in the home. The rest, as they say, is history.
More recently, Benchmark has seemingly turned its attention to its audiophile clientele by introducing the DAC 1 Pre, a component that combines the vaunted DAC 1 converter with a line-stage preamplifier section, yielding a component that can serve admirably as the heart of a modern, digitally based high-end audio system.
Now to the nitty-gritty details of the device. A look at the front panel shows a neat and simple layout featuring, left to right, a source selector knob and indicator, two headphone jacks (tied into Benchmark’s premium HPA-2 headphone amplifier, incidentally), and finally, the volume control knob. My sample had the silver faceplate (really an anodized satin aluminum finish) with the black knobs. I really wasn’t thrilled with this color combination as it appears on Benchmark’s website, but it is quite striking in person. The knobs are knurled and have a precise feel to them. I especially like the selector knob, as it has a very silky feel, with barely audible clicks as it switches from source to source (the LEDs also illuminate as different sources are selected).
The similarly uncluttered back panel sports a total of five digital inputs: three unbalanced coax RCAs, one optical, and one usb. Also supplied is one pair of RCA analog inputs, as well as a pair each of RCA and balanced outputs. All of the RCA connectors are of premium quality and are panel-mounted using Teflon insulators. To the far left is a toggle switch allowing choice of calibrated, mute, or variable output. While the box comes with a quality power cord, it is detachable if you want to upgrade. Overall, the device is compact, boasting a half-width, slimline faceplate. While Benchmark’s styling isn’t really in line with some of the typically overbuilt (and often overpriced) audiophile components, I found it to be highly functional and elegant in its simplicity. I, for one, am a fan of the understated, rugged pro audio look in my rack: form following function. On the technical side, the DAC 1 Pre is capable of converting 24-bit, 192 kHz digital signals using its coax and optical inputs while the usb input is limited to 24/96 conversion. The DAC 1 Pre does not utilize a remote control, if this matters to you.
While I didn’t delve into what’s under the hood in great detail, I was assured by Benchmark’s Rory Rall that high quality components are used throughout, including National LM 4562 operational amplifiers for all analog gain and output circuitry. The DAC chip employed is the Analog Devices AD1853.
Worth mentioning here are two engineering aspects of the DAC 1 Pre of which Benchmark should be justifiably proud: near fanatical attention to jitter reduction and native drivers for usb. The manual for the DAC 1 Pre gives a highly detailed explanation of where jitter comes from and how Benchmark’s “UltraLock” technology combats it. Generally speaking, jitter is any audible distortion resulting from jumbling or mistiming of the original digital bit stream as it passes from the transport to the DAC. That Benchmark’s technology essentially eliminates it is apparent from looking at data (provided in the manual) showing that jitter introduced at the input is all but eliminated in the final signal. Lack of jitter is also audible, as I experienced almost two years ago when I bought my first Benchmark product, the DAC 1 USB.
THE BENCHMARK SOUND
Upon first listening to it, I was amazed at the clarity and lack of fuzz through the midrange, which seemed almost reticent compared to the cd player I was using at the time. The manual explained this by saying that what one might mistake for an overly laid-back midrange is really lack of the audible artifacts of jitter. Upon further listening, I found that all of the detail and texture that should be present were still there, but not seemingly thrust out front in an overly exaggerated way.
Also well-explained in the manual is Benchmark’s “AdvancedUSB Audio” technology that makes use of native drivers to interface the DAC 1 Pre to your computer, thus eliminating the need for third party interfaces to obtain a perfect 24 bit, 96 kHz bit stream straight from your hard drive. This was also a key factor in my decision to purchase my DAC 1 USB to function as the heart and soul of the computer-based music server I rely on daily for much of my critical (and therapeutic) listening. I can say that the interface works perfectly, as I have never had any problems installing a Benchmark product in my Mac Mini- based system.
Upon first being asked to review the DAC 1 Pre, my initial thought was why someone would want such a device. Couldn’t one save a few hundred bucks and just buy a DAC 1 USB if he or she were looking for the Benchmark sound? I mean, it has three different digital inputs, headphone jacks, and even a level control, so one could bypass a preamp altogether and drive an amplifier with it. Well, the real potential value of the DAC 1 Pre became apparent when I first hooked it up in my downstairs “family entertainment” system. Yep, this system includes audio, video, and all the accoutrements that go with them. I suddenly started thinking about the possibilities. Everything today is digitally based, and most components have a digital output just waiting to be tapped for state-of-the-art digital conversion. A quick perusal showed, on my simple shelves alone, a Logitech Squeezebox 3, an inexpensive DVD player, and a Sony Playstation 2, all of which provide either an optical or coaxial digital out. What about the things on my wish list, such as a cable box with digital outputs and an Apple TV? Suddenly the utility of having all of those digital inputs along with a preamplifier section was making a lot of sense. Here we have a preamp for the 21st century; I just needed to get my mind out of the previous century!
Lots of folks have written about the sonic attributes of the Benchmark DAC 1 and DAC1 Pre before me. Is there anything new I can bring to the party? Well, I’m not sure, but I can tell you about my personal experience with the DAC 1 Pre in my own systems. As I mentioned above, I started by breaking it in as part of my “family entertainment” system. Initially, I fed the digital output of my Squeezebox into one of the coaxial inputs and noted a huge improvement in the sound, specifically a large increase in lateral soundstage, more air around individual instruments, and greater timbral accuracy. More telling, when I fed the digital out from my el-cheapo Yamaha DVD player into the DAC 1 Pre, I felt that I was getting nearly world-class sound! I stand convinced that Benchmark is more or less correct when they claim that their converters can make even the most pedestrian transports into real audiophile accessories; this is the kind of news that gets cheapskates like me really excited. After about a week in one or the other of these two configurations, it was time to take the DAC 1 Pre to the “serious” upstairs system.
My upstairs system resides in a dedicated listening room that also happens to be my attic. From a digital standpoint, I am totally interfaced to my Mac Mini computer via USB, and that’s how I made the connection to the DAC 1 Pre to complete my nifty homemade music server. I use Apple’s iTunes for all playback. My normal preamp is a Klyne Audio Arts SK-6 with phono stage, which in turn feeds signal to a Threshold SA 3.9e amplifier. My speakers are Shahinian Compasses. I’m also a vinyl junkie, so I use a Michell Gyrodec turntable with Fidelity Research FR 64s tonearm equipped with a Zu Audio modded Denon DL 103 cartridge for record playback. I set the DAC 1 Pre up to handle all of the normal preamplifier duties in my system, leaving the Klyne in only to utilize its phono stage (via the tape out into the Benchmark’s analog inputs), which the DAC 1 Pre lacks.
It’s hard to pin down a real sonic signature for the DAC 1 Pre. I’d have to say that the best description is “transparent,” which is what ultimately a preamplifier should be. It easily conveys differences in recordings from upstream, and it never casts its own sonic shadow on downstream components. I can definitely understand why the DAC section is a favorite among engineers who need to “see into” a mix, but I would wager that the DAC 1 Pre would also make a superb reviewer’s tool for allowing downstream components to be accurately assessed.
For example, I have always felt that my Threshold amp and Shahinian speakers lend just the right amount of warmth to the music without being overly analytical, and the Benchmark didn’t compromise this in any way. There’s nothing overly exciting or “hifi-ish” about the DAC 1 Pre’s sonic signature, which ultimately means that it wears well over the long haul; what you get is unadulterated music, and through an open window, at that. If you like a little more lifeor texture added by your equipment, then the Benchmark is probably not for you.
With regard to imaging and soundstaging, the DAC 1 Pre hangs with the best of them; if it’s in the source recording and the rest of your system is up to it, you will hear it. My first experience with the DAC 1 USB two years ago drove this concept home, as one of the first things I immediately noticed was a huge increase in soundstage width on well recorded material, just as I did when I changed in the DAC 1 Pre for the Squeezebox’s internal DAC more recently.
The obvious comparison to be made in my system would be between the DAC 1 Pre and my Klyne SK-6, both serving as preamplifiers. I easily accomplished this by setting the Benchmark’s output to “calibrated” and sending its analog signal directly to one of the line level inputs on the Klyne. Therefore, the DAC 1 Pre was doing DAC duty regardless of which preamp I was listening to, so the only variable was which line stage I chose to use. I rotated the preamps in and out of the system by just changing the outputs to the power amplifier. Bear in mind that my Klyne is an earlier model from the 1990’s that I feel tends a bit toward the warm side of neutral without sacrificing too much detail (which is fine with me).
The good news (for me, at least) is that both the Klyne and the Benchmark are superb preamplifiers. To properly assess them, I made an iTunes playlist containing some excellent digital material, which included several cuts from Linn Audio’s 24/96 digital Studio Master download, along with some material that I had previously digitized from LP. I listened to all of the cuts using one preamp, then changed it out for the other preamp and listened to the same cuts in reverse order. Keep in mind that the observations that follow represent minute differences, and I never preferred one preamp over the other all the way through the playlist.
Here are a few of the differences I noticed, straight from my listening notes. I found the DAC1 Pre to lend a bit more body or presence to both male and female voices, with slightly more air or space around the singer, thus better separating him/her from whatever else might be going on. I also found the Benchmark to excel slightly in terms of conveying detail, especially on complex orchestral passages. These advantages together lent a tiny bit more information about the recording venue as well. To the Klyne’s credit, I found it to be slightly warmer and more romantic, thus adding a bit more emotion to the music and conveying the feeling of a real performance. In short, I could easily live with either of these preamplifiers over the long haul.
The clarity of the DAC1 Pre’s line stage also brought out the best in my phono setup. Utilizing the Klyne’s phono stage into the DAC1 Pre’s analog inputs, my LPs sounded clearer and more detailed than ever. Oddly enough, I think it is this aspect of the DAC1 Pre that I may miss the most when it leaves my system (recall I still have my DAC1 USB to handle digital to analog conversion duties). As a related aside, about the only time I ever used the headphone jack was when I did noise reduction on my digital dubs of LPs. This is not necessarily an enjoyable use of a pair of headphones, but it really lets you hear into the mix better than a pair of speakers. At one point I was copying Rickie Lee Jones’ “Pop Pop” over to CD so I could listen to it in the car. During the noise reduction step, I happened to be listening critically to the last cut, “Comin’ Back To Me,” when I found myself suddenly moved almost to tears. The immediacy of the recording, along with the intimacy offered by the headphones, really got to me. It was as if Rickie Lee were in the room singing to me, and me alone. Some of the credit for this “hello” moment must surely go to the excellent headphone amplifier in the Benchmark.
What about downsides? Firstly, as I mentioned before, the DAC1 Pre does not utilize a remote. Also, like any other component, system matching and personal preference will play important roles. I like to scan the audio chat sites to see what people who actually own the equipment I review think of it. One thing that is obvious about Benchmark’s DACs (the DAC 1 Pre included) is that people seem to have a love/hate relationship with them. On one side of the coin, there are lots of folks (like myself) who really like the Benchmark “sound.” The opposing view, which is vehemently held by some, is that the gear sounds too “analytical,” “clinical,” “dry,” “cold,” or “etched,” just to quote a few descriptors I have found on-line. Do keep in mind that Benchmark equipment is designed for professional studio work, where detail, resolution, and a ruler-flat frequency output are of paramount concern. There is no euphonic warmth built into their components. My personal preference is for a DAC to give me exactly what is on the recording, and then use downstream components to “tune” the analog signal to one’s personal taste. I like some warmth in my system, so I chose an amplifier/speaker combination that provides it. If your system already leans away from the warm side, the Benchmark DAC1 Pre might not be your best choice.
So, ultimately, what does the Benchmark DAC1 Pre give you, and is it worth the price of admission? I’d sum my answer up by saying that if you have a single analog component (such as a turntable with external phono stage) and the need for multiple digital inputs, you really can’t lose by trying out the DAC1 Pre. Not only do you get a super transparent line level preamp, you also get state-of-the-art digital to analog conversion along with a killer headphone amp. Had the DAC1 Pre been available at the time I bought my DAC1 USB, I would have definitely spent the extra $300 for all of the advantages in flexibility offered by this noteworthy piece of gear. My only real dilemma would be deciding which of my systems to put it in: would it be more appreciated in the attic system for its scalpel-like resolving power, or would I prefer it in the downstairs system improving the performance of all of the digital devices residing there? I guess that in a perfect world I would probably have to buy two….
James L. Darby
John did a wonderful job of describing the DAC Pre – he nailed it. I participated in Bill Schuchard’s original review of the Benchmark USB DAC 1 we did a while back, so I have also spent some time with the “Benchmark sound”. I also spent about 100 hours with this DAC Pre before I sent it to John for his take on it. I also isolated the preamp section much the same way John did. We have to bear in mind that buyers are only paying three hundred dollars for the preamp in the Benchmark DAC Pre. Three hundred bucks over the price of the original DAC 1 USB. On that basis, I don’t think you’re going to find a preamp for that amount of money that can touch it. So one could easily call the DAC Pre a bargain of a combo – if you like the Benchmark sound.
In my system and to my ears, I concur with Bill Schuchard’s opinion that the sound of the Benchmark as a whole is rather lean. Other terms, as John rightly pointed out that others have used, are “analytical,” “clinical,” “dry,” “cold,” or “etched.” I would not call it cold or etched, but analytical, dry and cool apply. Now, this is exactly what you would want if you were in a studio environment and you were a recording engineer or producer. Bryston amplifiers have also been called the same things and they are staples in many studios. The Alesis and ATC monitor speakers I have reviewed are similar. So there is nothing inherently wrong with that sound – but it is a sound. I think it has more to do with the upsampling in the Benchmark than anything else, but I could be wrong.
I currently have a Xindak DAC that has both tube and solid state outputs and a couple of upsampling options as well. Everyone who has listened to the Xindak agrees that they prefer the tube output over the solid state and also the upsampling at 24/96 much better than the 24/192 – even using the tube output. They came to those conclusions not knowing what component they were listening to or what changes were being made – just that there were changes. The solid state was described as lean, dry and lifeless compared to the tube. The 192k upsampling sounds bleached and even more lifeless and we can add the word “etched” as well. Bottom line, the solid state section of the Xindak sounds more like the Benchmark sound.
Here’s another thing; we recently reviewed the Peachtree Decco. It costs $800 or half that of the Benchmark. But for the Decco’s $800 you not only get a DAC and preamp, you get a tubed preamp along with an integrated power amp of 50 watts per channel. And a remote!
Having just returned from CES and T.H.E. SHOW in Vegas, I can say that if there was one area of electronics that is exploding, it is the DAC/Pre boxes that are being made to go with computer audio sources. To their credit, Benchmark was certainly on the leading edge of that wave.
Another new contender is the just released DAC from Musical Hall. In our CES Show report, we described it thusly: “The DAC is a balanced tube model that gives you the choice of tube or solid state output. Usually, the balanced outs on such models only output the solid state circuits, but this one does balanced out via the tube section as well. It does up sample to as high as 24/192, but it has a feature that we've been wanting forever - it allows you to override the upsampler and play back at regular redbook 16/44.1 so you can actually hear the original vs. upsampled. It sport FOUR digital inputs - coax (spdif), optical, XLR and USB. It also has a headphone out on the front. The price? A ridiculously low $595! This appears to be one of the best bargains at the show.” This does not include a preamp section or remote, so a direct comparison to the Benchmark reviewed here is not apples to apples, but it does indicate that there is some competition out there.
I agree with John when he states, “To the Klyne’s credit, I found it to be slightly warmer and more romantic, thus adding a bit more emotion to the music and conveying the feeling of a real performance”. Solid state does not have to be lifeless and emotionless, but it’s not that easy to get those qualities in strictly the solid state universe. After all, John’s Klyne is solid state just like the Benchmark, but it has more realism.
Need a great line-level preamplifier that happens to include a very good digital to analog converter and headphone amp? And all for just under $1600? The Benchmark DAC1 Pre could well our opinion represents an excellent bargain. As always, however, the potential buyer should be aware of careful system matching and personal preference. While the DAC1 Pre works very well in my systems, which lean toward the warm side, it might prove a bit overbearing if mated with a system that already tends toward the chillier, more analytical side.
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