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Benchmark Media DAC1 Review : Part 2

It's time to hear what Doug Schroeder has to say about the $975, 2-Channel 24-bit 192kHz DAC

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Benchmark DAC 1

Sounding Ultralock

Just what is this “UltraLock” feature, the DAC1’s claim to fame?

I conducted an informal online interview with John Siau, Director of Engineering at Benchmark Media, who happens to use the first hand-built prototype of the DAC1 in his home system. He summarized:

“UltraLock is a clock isolation system. The incoming digital audio contains an embedded data clock that often contains high levels of jitter. UltraLock creates an impenetrable wall of separation between the high-jitter embedded data clock and a pristine fixed–frequency D/A conversion clock…Jitter from the transport cannot reach the D/A converter.”

This means that even the flimsiest of cdp’s which can handle 44.1kHz 16-bit CD’s can work as a transport for the DAC1. John shared that, in their casual listening system, Benchmark actually uses a “$29 “piece of junk” cdp as a transport for the DAC1!

This brings up the unavoidable question: Would the Benchmark DAC1 be so viable as to allow an audiophile to ditch their high-end cdp, install a “$29 piece of junk” into the rig as a transport, and pocket the difference, the whole time retaining sound-to-die-for? Ah, if only it were that simple. Intrigued by the ability to de-jitter any transport’s signal, I took my humble NAD C520, which has been relegated to my third system, and replaced the Rega Saturn from the reference system which was acting as transport to the DAC1. A most disturbing revelation ensued.

I would really like to think that I made a light-year jump in sound quality when I pursued the Rega Saturn. In fact, I know I did. Compared to other stand-alone cdp’s, the Saturn runs rings around most of those in its price class. However, the addition of the DAC1 to the NAD C520 made it sound horribly close in performance. I say “horribly” since it’s truly a horrible moment when one hears, coming from a cdp one tenth the price, a remarkably similar sound! It makes one question the sanity of spending so much on a cdp!

Then I stepped back and reassessed. The sound was similar (I am not saying identical) when either the Saturn or the C520 was used as transport. The Benchmark made these two very different sounding players to have a very similar sound, that being crisp and punchy. The commonality, of course, was the processing of the Benchmark. This is not as devastating a conclusion to the Saturn as it first seems. There are some configurations of speakers, cables and amps where I simply find the Saturn to sound more pleasant stand-alone than as a transport to the DAC1. To secure a halfway decent cdp as transport along with a DAC1 would cost about $1,500, a not insignificant $900 less than the Saturn.

So, yes, the Benchmark does level the playing field quite a bit for cheaper cdp’s acting as a transport. In an entry-level endeavor, maybe with components totaling under $4-5k, it may be worth giving some consideration to the hack transport/DAC1 combination. (Trust me, I don’t want to be the one encouraging people to run out and get the grungiest cdp they can find in an attempt to find excellent sound!) But as the system encroaches on something more significant, it may be wise not to shortchange the transport. A dedicated transport is not necessary to enjoy the DAC1, since it will treat all incoming data similarly in its anti-jitter operations. (In fact, just as I’m finishing up this review, I see on Benchmark’s website that they have just introduced the DAC1- USB version, with a plug and play compatibility with a computer!)

A quality cdp is valuable for the reason I just stated, that under certain conditions, I preferred the more demur sound of the Saturn to the DAC1’s presentation. Neither was poor and neither was definitive. The Saturn sounded a bit fuller, a tad softer on the treble. The DAC1 was lithe and quick, a very fine unit for use with planar speakers! I found it especially agreeable in use with the Eminent Technology LFT-8A’s with the Channel Islands D-200 monoblock amplifiers. The LFT-8A’s are considered to be more rolled-off on the top-end, so they can benefit from the precision and detail retrieval of the DAC1. In fact, any speaker that sounds dark or overly dull would wake up nicely with the Benchmark. I appreciated the fact that while reviewing numerous components of varying degrees of warmth or detail, I could opt for either the Saturn or the DAC1 in presenting the signal.

Rear panel view of the Benchmark DAC 1

Extending A DAC

This brings up one of the strongest advantages of the DAC1’s design, namely that it can operate as a DAC and preamp. It allows the user to bypass a preamp altogether, a very attractive option for an audiophile on a budget. This is not a unique idea as there are other DACs with similar features, such as the Monarchy Audio M24. I was able to compare them to appreciate their unique sounds.

I put on Robert Cray’s Strong Persuader, track #3 “Right Next Door”, as my first comparison using the Rega Saturn as transport to the DAC1 and on to the Monarchy Audio SM70 monoblocks feeding the Von Schweikert VR4 SR MkII speakers.

Interchanging the DAC1 and the Monarchy M24, I noticed the following: The precision in presentation went to the DAC1. It simply retrieved more sheer detail than the M24. In fact, I’ve not heard any dac in a player or outboard that has coughed up as much miniscule movements in the music as the DAC1. However, the sound was more “detached” and fell into very cleanly defined parcels of the sound of instruments and less of a blending or flow of instruments. The M24 was just the opposite, in that it had less of detail capability but more blending of the instrumentation. Furthermore, the DAC1 was more distant-sounding as though I was back several rows, while the M24 had more of a presence of being up tighter to the performers.

This brings up an intriguing question? Which is more important for satisfaction in playback of CD’s – detail or warmth? Both of these players had their strong points; the DAC1 placing precisely all instruments in their own acoustic space, while the M24 brought them all together with much less of a segregated sound. I suspect that younger ears itching for the N’th degree of detail would prefer the DAC1 while older ears in favor of relaxed presentation would care for the M24.

Eric Clapton’s “Blue Eyes Blue” on his Chronicles disc confirmed my initial impressions. However, this time I heard the distinction between the two units in an easily recognizable way.

The M24 presented an emphasis on the midrange and mid-bass, with the lowest and highest frequencies recessed gently. On Clapton’s vocals, his voice held me in rapture, the bass and treble never drawing attention. The DAC1 moved the bass and treble forward to match the midrange. There was no emphasis on the vocals; instead the entire spectrum was evenly matched in intensity and “temperature”. The M24 gathered the voice and instruments together more tightly in the center image, while the DAC1 distributed them more widely.

Here’s the reason why these two DACs are so different – the M24 is a tube DAC while the DAC1 is solid-state. Therein lies the potential to choose if the DAC1 is right for you. These two components followed the familiar pattern of the generalization regarding solid-state versus tube sound, with the Benchmark leaning toward analytical and the M24 having a more romantic presentation. In general, if you prefer the solid-state experience, you will likely prefer the DAC1. Just watch that you don’t put it with highly analytical or edgy speakers and you should be fine.

But what if you want the detail retrieval of the DAC1 and have bright speakers? Is there anything that can be done? I would suggest exploring the Eastern Electric BBA “Buffer Booster Amp”, a marvelous, tube voltage regulating preamp that has a capacity to take the solid-state edge off of other components while adding even more detail. Was this the case with the DAC1? I answer yes most emphatically! I gush over the BBA unabashedly since it is the only component I have ever found to universally make all other source and amplification components, solid-state or tube, sound far better than without it, regardless of the configuration of the system or components used. If you simply cannot get enough of the little things in music, slide a BBA in the chain just after the Benchmark DAC1 and you’ll be euphoric!

The Right Match

So, was the difference between these two DACs distortion? Monarchy’s M24 is a tube DAC with solid-state DAC capabilities, and thus would inherently incur more potential for distortion than the eternally spec’ed out DAC1. But whether much of what was heard from the M24 is nothing more than added noise or not, it doesn’t answer the question of which is more enjoyable, a matter of personal preference.

The use of the Monarchy SM70 monoblocks in a comparison between the single-ended and balanced outs of the DAC1 was providential. I had been content but not overjoyed at the slightly cool leaning sound of the Benchmark. Thinking that the cool presentation would be virtually indistinguishable with balanced IC’s, I was not expecting a serious shift in tonality.

However, the SM70’s in balanced monoblock configuration dropped 6dB’s and become extravagantly mellow and chocolate-like sounding! The pairing of the DAC1 and SM70’s was delicious! In all honesty, these two solid-state designed pieces had as much mellowness as any tube amplification scheme I’ve used in recent memory! It reminded me again of the shock and surprise when I changed over from the Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000, a tube cdp, to the Rega Apollo (prior to the Saturn) and discovered that the solid-state unit had far more analogue-like sound than I could have imagined. As the Benchmark and Monarchy amps did their thing, I no longer could find any sense of the DAC1 being too analytical or piecemeal with the data. It was fluid and floral at the same time – a lovely bouquet of sound which indicated to me that, functioning as a preamp, the DAC1 has the ability to let the listener judge the qualities of the amplification associated with it.

I preferred the M24 in use with the Von Schweikert speakers; however I preferred the DAC1 in use with the just arrived and broken in Wilson Benesch Curve speakers. These are 2.5 way (7” mid/bass and bass drivers) aluminum and woven fiber cabinet dynamic speakers with a truly reserved demeanor. A silk dome tweeter helps to keep them from being terse, so they benefited hugely from the precision and less weighty sound of the DAC1.

Equipment pairing was critical to establishing the Benchmark as a, well… benchmark. I found that no other DAC I had could compare in terms of sheer linear-sounding presentation. No other DAC could tease out more high-end performance from reticent speakers. Both the Eminent Technology LFT-8A’s and the Wilson Benesch Curves are very laid back in the high-end, almost to the point of being frustratingly mellow. The DAC1 brought them back from the brink of boring treble to make them engaging in the high-end.

My conclusions regarding the DAC1 are as follows: 1. It does what it claims; even a “low life” CDP’ can sound great with it! You can take a $100 (at least in my experience with the NAD player) cdp, hook it up to the DAC1 and get horribly good performance! 2. It’s more than a DAC, it’s a pretty doggone good preamp too! 3. It presents hyper-nuanced, super clean sound, the kind of sound floor that you could eat food off of (whenever food could begin to fall on a sound floor!). 4. It’s for laid back systems, not already revealing systems which are on the edge of harshness, unless you want the ultimate in edge, and tenderness to the treble be damned.

I have presented two ways in which the tendency of the DAC1 for cool precision can be tamed, either with a warmer amp or with the addition of tubes in the chain. It was my experience that cabling alone (In addition to the Magnan cables, I used MIT and Tara Labs, both in for review) was not sufficient to ramp up the warmth enough. If you are concerned over listening fatigue, you will want to match the DAC1 to your system with the warmth factor in mind.

The Benchmark is a clean, lean digitizing machine. It does set the standard at its price point for pure, unadulterated digital signals coming to your nearest amp(s). If you’re after the most measurably perfect CD sound and endless detail, put it on your own test bench – your audio rack.

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