The Benchmark Media DAC1 doesnt have the size, weight and pizzazz of a typical high-end component, but then again, the DAC1 is not a typical high-end component, even though its now being marketed as one. Its maker, located in Syracuse, NY, is a pro-audio company, the bulk of its products sold to studios and mastering labs.
The DAC1s price might also raise a few eyebrows: $975 USD factory-direct, with a 30-day money-back guarantee. I can name more than a few interconnects and speaker cables that go for more than that -- quite a bit more. Despite the low price, the DAC1 is hardly some compromised, budget piece of gear. When Benchmark Media sent me the product, they sent it with the knowledge that I had used and reviewed some of the finest digital products in the world -- and they certainly werent scared of that. In fact, they seemed to welcome the challenge and wanted me to compare the DAC1 to the best. After a short while I understood why -- the DAC1 has useful features and delivers the kind of performance that makes it right at home in even the finest high-end audio systems. In fact, the DAC1 is so good that you might hear it and wonder if you need to spend more than $975 for a DAC.
The DAC1 measures 9 1/2"W x 1 5/8"H x 9 3/8"D and weighs just 4 pounds. Despite its small size, the DAC1 is feature-rich. The front panel has a switch to select the appropriate digital input (labeled Coaxial, XLR and Optical), a volume control, status indicators and -- get this -- dual headphone jacks. Remember, the DAC1 isnt just meant for the home; its meant for the studio, too, where listening through headphones is commonplace.
Seeing the headphone jacks, I admit to first thinking, "I wonder if they included these as an afterthought?" After all, even DACs that sell for multiples of the DAC1s price dont often have a single headphone output, let alone two. But according to the DAC1's literature, Benchmark Media didn't just throw the headphone jacks in. The jacks are driven by Benchmark Media's HPA-2 headphone amplifier, which can achieve "less than 0.0003% distortion under load" (the company sells the HPA-2 module for $150 separately.) I found the inclusion of the headphone feature interesting and useful, although I admit that I did not dwell on it too much. I was more interested in how the DAC1 performed as a digital-to-analog converter in a system that comprised a transport, amplifier, speakers, and preamplifier, like most of us have at home.
To me, the most interesting feature on the DAC1's front panel is the volume knob. It opens up the option for a preamplifier-less system, which is how I used the DAC1 for part of the review period (along with Paradigm Reference Active/40 speakers). The knob controls output to the headphones as well as the line-level outputs on the back of the DAC1. Take note, though: theres also a switch on the back marked Output Level that can disable the volume knobs control over the line-level output. The Variable position allows the volume knob to control output of the headphone and line-level jacks, while Calibrated defeats control of the line-level output.
The back panel is feature-rich, too. To one side is the power-cord socket, as well as three digital input connectors that correspond to the selector switch on the front: BNC (Coaxial), XLR (XLR) and TosLink (Optical). On the other side are one set each of single-ended and balanced outputs (the DAC1 is not differentially balanced, however), as well as the Output Level switch that I described above. Underneath the switch are left- and right-channel trim pots that can be turned with a tiny screwdriver to fine-tune the output level of each channel to better match the DAC1's output to your preamplifier when you have the Output Level switch set in the Calibrated position.
At the heart of the DAC1 are Analog Devices AD1853 DACs operating at a sampling rate of 110kHz. I talked to Allen H. Burdick, president of Benchmark Media, about the internal operation of the DAC1 and the decision to settle on the 110kHz sampling rate. According to Burdick, all incoming signals are brought to that sampling rate by using an Analog Devices AD1896 sample-rate converter. He says that operating at that rate offers a "20dB filter-performance improvement" with the AD1853 DAC chip over a higher sampling rate such as 192kHz. The tradeoff, he says, is reduced analog bandwidth -- down to 55kHz versus 96kHz. However, he feels that very little musical information resides that high anyway, and the improved filter performance achieved offsets that 41kHz loss in bandwidth. The DAC1 can accept digital input of signals up to 24 bits and 192kHz sampling rate.
In literature, Benchmark Media also draws attention to what they call UltraLock -- circuitry for eliminating jitter in the digital signal. They claim that their UltraLock can outperform two-stage phase-locked loops (PLLs), which are used in various other DACs and digital products. Frankly, without a whack of test equipment, engineering expertise and a whole lot of time on your hands, claims like these are difficult to prove; but proving is something the folks at Benchmark Media like to do. The DAC1 owners manual is as exhaustive as Ive seen -- 39 pages long, a 2.6-meg PDF download. Theres a portion of it, in fact, where they show a chart of a DAC1 dealing with a 1000' run of digital cable. The purpose is to show the DAC1s immunity to jitter to prove the claim about UltraLock. The manual is jam-packed with similar information, which makes it redundant to talk about more technical details here. If interested, I encourage you to read it all for yourself -- its likely all you could ever want to know about the DAC1.
But as a reviewer for a high-end-audio publication that is targeted squarely at the consumer market, I think that commenting on the manual usefulness is in order. Although I praise the owners manual for its thoroughness, I think that it may well be too exhaustive for a layman user. "Too exhaustive! How can you have too much information?" you ask. Well, compared to the literature you see accompanying most products, the DAC1s owners manual reads more like a technical paper -- and a long one at that (I suspect its that way because of Benchmark Medias primary business: professional audio). For a techie its perfect, but for an average consumer its far from friendly. For example, it took me quite some time before I found out that the DAC1 comes with a five-year warranty. And theres no "Quick Start" section for the average person who just wants to connect the DAC1 in his system and go. I think the company should produce a lite version that focuses more on usage than technical details.
I used the DAC1 in two distinct systems with different configurations, and with three sets of speakers. All of the combinations worked very well, but there was one I was particularly attached to for its performance and simplicity: Theta Data Basic transport to the DAC1 via an i2Digital X-60 digital interconnect, and then straight from the DAC1 into Paradigm Reference Active/40 speakers with only a Nordost Valkyrja interconnect between (the Active/40s have built-in power amplifiers). A preamplifier-less system!
Other times the DAC1 was used with the same transport, but the speakers were the Paradigm Reference Signature S2s and the integrated amplifier between was the Zanden Model 600. Cabling again was Nordost Valkyrja. At the very end of the review period, PSBs Platinum M2 replaced the S2s and the speaker cables were switched from Valkyrja to Nirvana S-L.
In a perfect reviewing world the components that make the least mistakes would be the subjects of the shortest reviews. "Mistakes," to me, mean colorations and distortions. When a component makes few mistakes it can be said to have very little "sound" of its own -- precisely how the DAC1 performs. What more needs to be said about something thats basically transparent? Not much, really. But the world isnt perfect for reviewers, or for components that perform so well. People, ironically, still want to know how a "soundless" component sounds.
The DAC1 plugged straight into Paradigm Reference Active/40 speakers produced the cleanest and clearest presentation Ive heard -- ever. The sound was so transparent, in fact, that some listeners might object to it as being "too clean." Because the sound was so immediate it was obvious that a system like this could be used as a tool for analyzing recordings -- its that precise. And when you look at the prices of the components involved -- the Active/40s sold for just $2000 per pair before being discontinued a couple of years ago (one of Paradigms most underrated and underappreciated products), and the DAC1 under a kilobuck today -- you can get an idea of what a great value this system is, too. There are systems Ive heard retailing for several times the price of this one that dont have nearly the same levels of precision and resolution.
I remember listening to Johnnys Cashs American III: Solitary Man [American 69691]. I picked it because it was one of the albums played during the "super-speaker shootout" in Munich this year -- something we reported on in our High End 2004 show report. Two German magazines assembled seven of what they considered reference-class speakers, ranging in price from just over $10,000 to over $100,000 per pair. They played them one after the other in one of the exceptionally large display rooms. They played "One" from Solitary Man, but it was on vinyl using a megabuck turntable.
What impressed me most about playing "One" on my system was that it actually sounded better to me than any of the systems did in Germany. It was cleaner, clearer, and much more detailed, and every bit as neutral as the best of the bunch there. Now, this isnt to say that my system is flat-out better than the systems there, or that the digital-versus-analog debate has now been decided by me traveling to two continents and listening to unrelated systems in two different rooms. But it does say that a great system is defined by more than just the dollar amount that you throw at it, and that everything from the technology to the equipment to the room factors in to what the resulting sound is.
In my system, Cashs voice was carved from the mix with startling detail, and nuances in the recording venue were exceptionally easy to hear. The bass region was clean, tight, and visceral, proving the DAC1 has drive down low. Every recording I played through the Active/40-based system shared the same attributes: startling clarity from top to bottom of the frequency spectrum, high resolution that revealed great detail and always provided a tremendous sense of space, and cleanliness without any of the hash or edginess that are often associated with lower-cost digital.
As I've said, the biggest objection to the DAC1's performance might be that it offers such transparent sound that it is akin to doing microscopic surgery on a recording. Some listeners like things prettied-up, even if doing so strays from accuracy. But thats not what the DAC1 is about. Its a small, unobtrusive, industrial-looking piece of gear that delivers the sonic goods in a clean, clear and accurate manner, and without flash or a high price.
But not everyone is going to hook the DAC1 up to a pair of active speakers -- more than likely theyll use it in a more traditional setup. So, the DAC1 spent equal time running into the Zanden Model 600 integrated amp, which was initially driving Paradigms outstanding Signature S2 monitors.
Connie Kaldors "If You Could Read My Mind" (Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot [Borealis Records BCDNBM500]) sounded downright glorious with this system. The Model 600 integrated amp has a bit of tubey warmth that can really make voices glow, and the S2s are so seductive, sweet and pure that its easy to forget that youre supposed to be reviewing audio equipment when you start listening. The ultra-clean, strikingly neutral DAC1 blended perfectly with these components. Admittedly, there was a subtle loss of transparency compared to the Active/40-based system, but when the music started playing, my criticisms were nil. This combo is one of the very best "small-speaker" systems Ive ever heard.
Tonal accuracy, resolution, and frequency extension: the DAC1 has all that. It doesnt just perform well for the price; the DAC1 performs well, period. I looked for things to criticize, and frankly, I didnt find much. I played my ol soundstaging-and-imaging standby, Ani DiFrancos Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe 13]. "Everest" has DiFrancos voice far left and just back of the speaker plane. In an accurate, properly set up system, the voice is pinpoint precise, hyper-accurately placed with just the right amount of depth and with absolutely no smearing to the left or right. My system, with the DAC1 inserted, got an A+ for accuracy.
When I used the DAC1 to decode the soundtrack to the movie The Mission [Virgin Records 86001] -- another standby test for soundstaging, imaging, and overall resolution -- and played it through the PSB Platinum M2 speakers, my room was awash with an enormous soundfield, with each voice and instrument in the complex mix skillfully carved out. The soundstaging and imaging are superb, and the overall resolution that the DAC1 is capable of is outstanding.
The face-off between the DAC1 and Stellos DA220 proved interesting -- mostly because of the results, which werent necessarily what I was expecting them to be.
In one corner, from Korea, the sculpted, silver $1195 Stello DA220, weighing in at about 16 pounds and with a beautiful brushed-finish chassis and lightly textured faceplate. In the other, from the US, the $975 DAC1 weighing in at about four pounds and dressed in basic black and with a 1/4"-thick aluminum faceplate. Level matching was done via the DAC1s onboard volume knob.
I found the sonic differences between these two DACs to be exceedingly slight -- to the point of not existing at all. Whenever I thought I could hear a substantial difference, I toggled back and forth between the two DACs, and too many times I found myself unsure if I could actually hear any differences, or I'd contradict my findings when I switched to another piece of music. As I listened, I came to understand that any buying decision that involves these two DACs wont be based on sound quality. Rather features, aesthetics, and perhaps price will rule the day.
The Stello DA220 costs $225 more than the DAC1, but it comes with a beautifully finished chassis and faceplate. Whereas the DAC1 is industrial-looking and designed for pro use, the DA220 looks like a typical piece of audio equipment destined for the home. The DA220 also has a digital output section, as well as variable upsampling options. The number of digital inputs is roughly the same, although the DA220 does have two coaxial inputs to the DAC1s one. On the other hand, the DAC1 counters with a compact design, an onboard volume control that may negate the need for a preamp for some users, and dual headphone jacks.
In a perfect world, the most faultless-sounding components would generate the shortest reviews and one DAC would have all of the features of the DAC1 and DA220. But the real world is as imperfect as the reviewing world. Both the DAC1 and DA220 overachieve, and what each might lack is hard to quibble with given all that both offer.
Although the DAC1 didnt outperform the DA220 sonically, thats nothing to hold against it -- the DA220 holds its own against the best in the world. In terms of sound quality, that puts the DAC1 in the same high-performance class. Where the DAC1 and DA220 lose some ground is to the very, very best -- which also happen to be very, very expensive -- but they do so by only a tiny bit. For example, in sonic terms, Zandens Model 5000 Mk IV still edges both the DAC1 and DA220 with an uncanny purity in the mids and highs. Then again, no DAC that I've heard matches the 5000 Mk IV in this regard. Also, the Model 5000 Mk IV looks as much like a piece of art as an audio component. Finally, the 5000 Mk IV is $9800 and doesnt have a volume control or headphones jacks. Get the picture? How much does $8825 mean to you?
Appearance-wise theres nothing about the Benchmark Media DAC1 that would indicate its worth more than its $975 asking price. When you start looking at the features, though, its value rating starts to rise. The dual headphone jacks, the volume control, the multiple digital inputs, and also the single-ended and balanced outputs add up to a DAC thats quite feature-rich as well as unique. Its sonic performance -- marked by its high resolution, extreme accuracy and great frequency extension -- puts it over the top. The DAC1 joins a select group of components that Ive reviewed this year that are what I consider "benchmarks" (pardon the choice of words) in terms of performance at their prices. It just so happens that the other components it joins -- the Stello DA200 and Paradigm Signature S2 -- happen to cost comparatively little compared to what some of the competition costs. Thats not to say that the DAC1 or these components are the best, and always will be. But it is to say that these are the products the more expensive components have to beat, and if they dont beat them then you really have to wonder if its worth spending your money on them.
In the end, some will want the DAC1 to look a little flashier -- thats probably one of the ways Benchmark Media helps keep the price so low -- but when it comes to sound, I cant recommend that audiophiles spend more money on a DAC until they audition the Benchmark Media DAC1 in their own systems. Its that good.
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