List price $1,275.00
Few people in the audio world haven’t heard of the Benchmark DAC1. Benchmark had already been a well known name on the professional side of the audio industry and their products have crept into the consumer market. The DAC1 took the consumer market by storm by creating great DAC at a decent price. Benchmark found a need for critical audio playback from computer based systems. This was based on both internal needs as well as a newfound want for computer based playback. The simplest form to use is arguably via the USB port found on most, if not all, computers today. They developed a DAC that should equal the performance of the existing DAC1 with the addition of a USB input. Can a USB based DAC really compete with existing and maturing technologies? The Benchmark DAC1 USB may answer this question. For brevity, I will refer to the DAC1 USB as merely the DAC1 in the rest of this article.
The DAC1 measures 1U high which equates to 1.75”. It is 9.5” wide and about the same depth when all wired up. It is only 8.5” deep on its own. The chassis is rather sturdy and has a solid no-frills faceplate which seems to say “I’m here to be listened to, not looked at”… This contrasts with the bright blue LEDs which scream LOOK AT ME and like to flash every so often to remind you it has no connection if it has no digital signal coming in. Given it’s professional alter-ego, the DAC1 is also rack mountable at ½ U wide. It also fits OK on a 29” wide shelf next to a standard CD player.
The input choices are optical, coaxial, balanced, and of course USB. The coaxial input impressed me given the BNC connector that’s usually found in both telecom and professional audio environments. Having a coaxial cable come loose can be quite irritating and, in the case of telecom, result in a truck roll. The DAC1 comes with a BNC to RCA adapter for those who just have a digital coax cable. There are balanced and RCA outputs on the rear.
The stereo outputs can be set to either fixed or variably controlled by the front panel volume knob. The left and right output levels can be calibrated when in calibrated (read fixed) mode via rear panel trimmers. I trust that many could find this quite useful. The DAC1 has another rather versatile feature in which it comes with user adjustable attenuators via internal jumpers allowing the gain to be set just right. Benchmark recommends setting these such that the volume knob is at 12 o’clock when listening at a comfortable level. Your definition of comfortable may vary. This model includes new high current output driver capable of handling 300ohm loads, long cable runs, or highly capacitive loads without distorting the signal. Considerable attention has been paid to the headphone amp section. One of the two ¼” headphone outputs mutes the output to the amplifier when being used for convenience. The power supply is designed to be immune to the varied state of electricity one finds in professional environments and is supposed to operate cleanly with very low jitter into extreme variances in voltage. Comments like that are usually brushed off as marketing-speak yet I did find the DAC1 to sound consistent regardless of whether it was plugged straight into the wall or the power filter. This is the first unit I have had that did not vary in this case.
When I reviewed the Pacific Valve modified DAC-AM, I surmised that the better sound quality of the Rega Apollo and embedded Bryston DAC could be effects of jitter, or lack thereof. The DAC1 is known for it’s anti-jitter UltraLock™ technology and the engineers were sure to include that in the DAC1 USB as well.
The DAC1 has an automatic standby and no power switch as it was designed to be left on all the time. One main benefit of this, other than convenience, is that it maintains a nice warm operating temperature. I personally found that feature critical as the unit sounds much better when it is warm.
The inputs are selected via a front panel toggle switch which cycles through the different inputs in the same order. Bright blue LEDs indicate the input which begs the question; when will this blue LED craze end? One must remember what the inputs 1-4 are connected to but that only took about a week for the family to get used to. Experiencing several storms and power outages outlined another useful feature. The user can set which input is selected by default on power up. Just be ready to open it up and set a jumper.
When a signal is not present or, perhaps, not correct the BRIGHT blue LEDs that indicate the input selected flash in different ways to indicate the error. This came in handy when I tried to use a DVD player as a transport to test the different rates and forgot to set the output to PCM. In my review of the Pacific Valve modified DAC-AM I had made the same mistake resulting in a high pitched squelch and the family running screaming from the room. In the case of the DAC1, it politely blinked at me indicating its’ disgust in my mistake with no horrid noises. I tried every rate I could which sometimes involved upsampling. The DAC1 played every rate I threw at it; 44.1 KHz, 88.2 KHz, 48 KHz, 96 KHz, and 192 KHz. At first the upsampling sounded better in that it was smoother and more laid back but after further listening it seemed that keeping the same rate as the recording resulted in the most accurate reproduction and the widest soundstage.
The Benchmark DAC1 USB was used in three different systems. The results were rather different creating a bit of a love-hate relationship with the love side getting the edge.
System 1 (William Schuchard)
• Bryston B100 SST integrated amplifier
• Nakamichi MB2-S as transport
• Panasonic DVD S97 as transport
• Pacific Valve modified DAC-AM
• Belden 1694A digital cable with RCA and BNC ends from BlueJeansCable.
• DIY speakers designed using the ICD section of the WooferTesterPro
• BlueJeansCable LC1 interconnects and a temporary stint with Monster M1000 interconnects.
• BlueJeansCable Belden 5000 series 12 gauge speaker cable and a temporary swap for Canare 4S-11 speaker cable
• Volex 17604 power cords
• Furman PST8-Digital surge suppressor and filter
• Hospital grade PS audio outlet
• Some room treatments (note a room transformation mid-review)
System 2 (William Schuchard)
• PC running windows XP and iTunes as transport
• Off the shelf generic USB cable
• Forte Model 5 amplifier using an old Sun server power cord
• Maggie MC1 speakers
• Older Cambridge Soundworks subwoofer
• Simple 14 gauge speaker wire
• Panamax power strip with filtering
• Volex 17604 power cords
• Hospital grade PS audio outlet
• Some room treatments
COMPUTER USB SETUP
System 2 had a new wrinkle to the setup. It required using the computer as a transport via its USB port which involved the task of setting up iTunes and burning my music to disk. Our computer held only my wife’s music for her iPod but given the arrival of the DAC1, I now had a reason to add some of my own to the mix. I exclusively used Apple’s lossless compression and could fit only about 1/3 of my collection which meant judicious music choices.
Those who fear setting up the USB section of the DAC1 should not fret. Setting up the computer to use the USB DAC1 was even easier than running Apple’s iTunes. I plugged the USB cable into the computer with the DAC1 plugged in and it automatically set everything up perfectly. Nice! It simply just worked. When the time came to switch out the DAC1 it switched back automatically too.
I felt odd admitting to mixing an older Cambridge Soundworks subwoofer with the Maggies but they meshed better than any other sub I have tried with them. I broke out my WooferTesterPro and used the embedded spectrum analyzer with a Behringer ECM8000 microphone to ensure that the subwoofer was still set correctly. I was ready.
Overkill for adjusting a subwoofer
SOUND IN SYSTEM 1
The very first image that popped into my head when I first heard the DAC1 was the Rega Apollo I last heard months ago. I was reminded if that clean, open, transparent, slightly lean sound. After just a few songs it was clear that the DAC1 was in a class above my reference DAC from Pacific Valve in terms of accuracy and transparency. Take note that speaker placement became less critical via the DAC1 giving a greater listening area a taste of the sweet spot. Also note that I am holding this DAC to a slightly higher standard given that the price has crossed that invisible $1,000 line by nearly $300.
One of the first CDs I seriously listened to was a Copland collection. I was impressed with how real Appalachian Spring, recorded back in 1967, sounded. It had that “you are there” feeling in spades. The assortment of noises from people shifting in their seats, turning pages, and the like was just as annoying as it is at a live performance. The DAC1 captured it beautifully. The soundstage depth, a consistent aspect of the DAC1 sound, was incredibly deep.
Al Dimeola, John Mcglaughlin, and Paco Deluca “Friday Night in San Francisco Live” is a recording that I have not been able to get enough of since I first heard it six months ago. This mix of downright explosive acoustic guitar music captured live is a fantastic way to test the attack on notes and overall dynamics. I played it for quite a few folks using both the Benchmark DAC1 USB and my own reference DAC modified by Pacific Valve. The sense of space and decay from the instruments was absolutely first rate with the DAC1 but the overall presentation came off rather flat. The dynamics and attack were sadly missing. Most people choose my lowly budget DAC over the DAC1 when listening to this recording. I found myself turning the volume further and further up in an effort to capture the dynamics only to start to flicker the distortion LEDs. The rest of the DAC1 package is so fantastic that I felt compelled to get past this and started building myself a set of rather efficient line source arrays. Unfortunately the DAC1 had to be sent back to its mother ship before I could finish them. The most efficient speaker I used with this DAC was only 86db at 1watt/meter and I only have 100wpc to work with in either setup. For the first time I found myself wanting more given how clearly the separate guitar passages were delineated.
Dire Straits “Private Investigations” from "Love Over Gold" is another favorite of mine and is another good test of dynamics and soundstage. The DAC1 was not so great in the area of dynamics again but the soundstage and sense of space was incredible. This is typically a slightly bright recording and can reveal an overly bright product. The DAC1, although a bit lean, was neither bright nor rolled off. The cymbals sounded downright amazing. In comparison with my reference DAC, it was in a whole class above playing with the likes of the Rega Apollo and the optional Bryston DAC for the B100. My reference DAC sounded congested and forced with a slightly elevated midbass in comparison. I would never have noticed had I not had them side by side. I would choose the DAC1 over my down DAC using this recording even though it was a little on the lifeless side and a bit lean. For reference, the DAC1 is the leanest sounding DAC or player I have ever had in my system so special consideration needs to be taken if you are looking for one. This was only an issue in system 1 where we had two very neutral, precise, and tight sounding units which, together, form something I found myself calling “neutrality personified”. After speaking with their engineers this issue was improved somewhat after adjusting the gain using the attenuators but the only way this would fly is if I had some big overly mellow speakers like the Tannoy Churchill in house. The Bryston amplifier and the Benchmark DAC1 did not play well together.
My wife happened to be walking by when I was checking out Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” and was stopped in her tracks and stated; “Oh, he’s hitting the edge of the drum with the drumstick”. She then continued to state; “This is the clearest I have ever heard your system so why don’t I like it?”. My response; “Synergy my dear”. Luckily I was right. It sounded so good with the USB in system 2 that I considering opening my checkbook. She wanted hardwood floors. I wanted a DAC1. So… after the hardwood floors were installed I got to check out the DAC1 one more time in that room. Even without any rugs installed the highs were still great and the stiffened subfloor seemed to strengthen the dynamic impact of the bass to the point where I found it acceptable. Too bad we spent the money on the floor.
Diana Krall sounded absolutely amazing using the DAC1 handling beating my reference DAC. I found that her recordings as well as those from Jack Johnson, Nora Jones, and the like all sounded absolutely first rate via the DAC1. I could make things up to complain about but it was better than my reference DAC in every way here. I imagined the DAC1 swinging my reference DAC around by its power cord screaming “Who’s your Daddy!”. If you primarily listen to this type of music the DAC1 should be given strong consideration.
A great test of the midrange, in my humble opinion, is an older minimally mic’d recording with limited frequency extension at the ends. John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” sounded concise and rather real to the point where I did not care that it was lean and controlled nor whether it had hard-hitting dynamics or not. It got the midrange just right with my only complaint being soft attack on the notes.
SOUND IN SYSTEM 2
Guardedly optimistic expectations were set for system 2 given the experience with system 1. The amplifier in system 2 is quite sweet as apposed to the neutral Bryston but it lacks dynamics when pushed. Would quasi-ribbon tweeter on the Maggies reveal anything the DIY speakers did not? System 2 was allowed to warm up for over an hour before any listening took place. Your humble reviewer kept the option of cheating off the table by sneaking out for a bicycle ride. Upon return I was so anxious that I mistakenly had iTunes set to random and “Burning Down the House” by the Talking Heads came bursting through the low din of my children playing in the other room. In system 1 there was no impulsive dancing going on as sometimes experienced. In the case of system 2, I suddenly found my young children in the room doing some funky yet comical dances and had to play the song for them several times before getting serious. Things are looking up. A great reviewer's resource; children! - publisher
Pouring through the same music and my notes from system 1, the sweet sounding Forte Model 5 amplifier meshed nicely with the variable outputs of the DAC1. This system was more tightly damped than usual but it could handle it gaining a sense of verve that was unattainable with the DAC1 in system 1. I was sure to listen to all the same music and noted that any reservations were not really issues in system 2. I even pulled the DIY speakers into system 2 to make sure it wasn’t the speakers. The funk was back and the speakers were fine. We have synergy.
The ease of computer-based transport giving nearly instant access to the loaded CD collection as well as internet radio was just icing on the cake after finding a nice fit for the DAC1 sonically.
I tried the headphone amplifier out but I admit that I rarely use headphones. I thought it was great, but given my lack of headphone experience, I let a few others try it out. The results were unanimously positive. I even had one user thinking about buying one to use with his computer at work. Sounds like overkill but would work great if you can afford it and aren’t afraid of it finding a 8.5” square dust outline where your DAC1 used to be one morning.
James L. Darby
I listened to the Benchmark for about 25 hours of the 200 hours I was burning it in for William before I sent it to him. I know...I'm such a thoughtful publisher. As an aside, Stereomojo tries very diligently to have everything we review evaluated by at least two different reviewers in at least two different rooms and systems. In this case, it was even in two a different states.
I listened to in two different systems with three different preamps and three different sets of speakers - large and small. I came away very impressed. My standard playback is thrugh my Halcro preamp that has a built it VERY good DAC. On CDs, the USB DAC faired very well. The noise floor of the Halcro was lower and quiet. I was using a $600 Kimber digital cable between the DAC and a highly modded Pioneer DV46 universal player. The Benchmark had a more solid bass presentation than the standard analog output of the Pioneer.
When I placed the Benchmark on my Stillpoints XXL component stand, things improved quite a bit in the area of transparency and soundstage size. I used the DAC plugged into the wall and into my Furutech line conditioner. The Furutech lowered the noise floor a bit, too. After that, with the DAC on the rack (hehe), I substituted my Cardas power cable for the standard one that came with the Bmark. After the Furutech and the Stillpoints superb grunge and resonance isolation, I didn't hear much difference if any, but I kept the Cardas in place.
I played the Stereomojo Stereo Evaluation Disk through a few times while interspersing various favorite CDs. The Halcro (on the Stillpoints, plugged into the Furutech and using another Cardas power cable), I'd still stay with the Halcro. I have compared the Halcro DAC to much more expensive units and I can say I think the Halcro is about as good as anything out there. The same player, same digital cable and Halcro direct analog inputs (no digital processesing) from the Benchmark rendered a sound very close to the Halcro's, so that is an impressive performance.
I also have a modded Zhaolou DAC (2.0) that was the rage last yea. The Benchmark was clearly superior. It costs about $800 more though, so it should.
I also ran some DVD-Audio disks through it. The Eagles Hotel California has a 24/192 section which is what I played back. The Benchmark really strutted it's stuff on the old 70's classic.
Queen's "A Night at the Opera" rockedand "Bohemian Rhapsody" never sounded better. Except on vinyl, of course.
I also have an M-Audio Audiophile 24/96 DAC I use for output from my Apple G5 Imac. The Benchmark, when substituted, was clearly better. As always, try it out for yourself.
Benchmark stepped up and added USB support to the often coveted DAC1 as demand for USB DACs ramps up. Combining the grain free, neutral, transparent, open, and detailed sound of the original DAC1 with USB may very well be a recipe for success. The Benchmark engineers should literally stand up and take a bow for their success in terms of imaging and soundstage. Careful consideration, however, must be made considering the tightly controlled bottom end and seemingly light attack on transients. In the right system, this DAC is a real winner for those looking for a USB DAC.
There are lots of DACs coming out of various countries that cost less. If you are a DIYer and like to solder, go for it. But the Benchmark makes a solid product with a solid company and technology behind it. Sometimes it's worth it to pay a little more for some peace of mind.