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DAC Shoot out: Benchmark DAC1, Bel Canto DAC2, & Grace m902

post #1 of 60
Thread Starter 
Well, Iron_Dreamer, Jasper994, and I had a little mini-meet today.

This time under more ideal power conditions.

Transports:

RME digi96/8 PAD
Chaintech AV710


DAC's:

Benchmark DAC1
Bel Canto DAC2
Grace m902 (internal DAC)


Amps:

Benchmark DAC1
Grace m902


Digital IC's:

MCM Glass Optical Cables 1M (x2)
eBay Glass Optical Cables 1M, 2m, & 3M


Power Cables:

Quail Hospital Grade Cords (egads, they're everywhere!)
PS Audio xStream Plus 2M (x2)


Power Conditioning/Regeneration:

PS Audio P300 (on a dedicated line)


Headphones:

Sony MDR-R10
AKG K1000
Sennheiser HD650 w/ Zu Cable
Grado MS2 (old style)
Where quite a few other headphones present, but we didn't have time to get to them.




SHORT VERDICT:

The overall winner so far is the Benchmark DAC1.


Second Place: Bel Canto DAC2

Third Place: Grace m902


THE LONG STORY:

Using a headphone switchbox (Ray Samuels style), the main test was between these setups:

1. Bel Canto DAC2 -> Grace m902
2. Benchmark DAC1
3. Grace m902

Please note that we went with the headphone switchbox solution because we ran into a problem/limitation with using the same amp (namely the Grace m902) to switch between the Bel Canto DAC2 and Benchmark DAC1's analog outputs. The Grace m902 has unbalanced and balanced inputs that appeared to be isolated from each other with a relay. Unfortunately, when having both unbalanced and balanced analog signals fed into the m902 at the same time, there was a noticeable shift in volume level in the left channel when switching to unbalanced from balanced. This either means that the Balanced and Unbalanced are not totally isolated from each other, or there is some defect or problem with my m902.
So, trying to compare purely one DAC to another DAC with the same Amp was not possible with our setup at the time.


Comments on the Benchmark DAC1.

High frequency = more detail, tighter focus.

Low Frequency = tighter bass, quicker. Less smearing. Less is more when it comes to bass. I think that the allegations that the DAC1 has less bass is both right and wrong, depending how you look at it. It's less bass in the fact that you are hearing less of distorted smeared low frequency. You are hearing in fact, more accurate bass. A specific example is in the way that timpani drum strikes are tighter when listening to orchestra music. Having heard the real thing, the Benchmark is closer to it.

Now here's the interesting part. Overall, the tonal qualities (color of the sound) are nearly identical between the Benchmark DAC1 and the Bel Canto DAC2 + Grace m902 combination.
Yes, that's right. I did not find the harmonics (impressions of it being warm, cool, bright, or dark, etc.) to be significantly different between the two.

It would seem that the placebo plagued memory is alot stronger than most people would care to admit.


Comments on the Bel Canto DAC2.

Very slight here, but it feels as if treble transient sounds trail (smearing) a little bit longer than the Benchmark.
Soundstage is where the Bel Canto and Benchmark very slighty. The Bel Canto "feels" like the soundstage is a bit more upfront and wider.
As far as Bass, there seems to be a bit more "texture" in the bass. But whether it is distortion or actual information is unknown, since I was not there for the actual recording sessions, nor do I have access to the studio master at the recording studio.


Comments on the Grace m902.

The m902's DAC section is simply not up to par with the Benchmark or Bel Canto. The treble is not as detailed and resolved as quickly. The soundstage is smaller, the bass is not as tight as the Benchmark either.

While the DAC in the m902 is a significant improvement over the 901, it's still a step back from the Benchmark and Bel Canto.

I'll admit, the m902 is a control freak's dream, though. The volume control is simply amazing.

But much like the 901, the m902 is a Headphone amp first, DAC second. But at least both were improved.


The next step is to mod the Bel Canto DAC2 and see how it fares against the Benchmark. That is unless Iron_Dreamer beats me to modding his Benchmark first.

-Ed
post #2 of 60
Thread Starter 

That box under the DAC1 is a digital audio switcher. Used it to switch between the digital outputs of two computers.




Iron_Dreamer, Jasper944, and my friend "Shogmaster" (he won't register here, he still think's I'm crazy to have spent so much on headphones)


We ended up watching some HD movies and cranking the volume on my speakers until the neighbors complained. Luckily they were not home.

-Ed
post #3 of 60
Interesting, Ed. I'm surprised that the 902 didn't hold up better considering it's much newer technology than the Bel Canto (in particular). Sadly, I think the reputation of "too many features for one box to do well" is beginning to set in for the 902.

Off topic, but did you ever replace those R10 pads? It seems that you were going to, but I don't remember from there.

Peter, you need a haircut, dude! Nah, just kidding. Good to "see" you again.
post #4 of 60
Thanks for the review! Now to start saving up for one of these beauties.....
edit: did you find optical cable length to change the sound any?
post #5 of 60
Don't forget to only have 2 items plugged into the P300 not three. The two which were on the same duplex were handicapping each other vs the lone one on the third. So which one was plugged in where?
post #6 of 60
nice chair
Oh yeah, and great review too.
post #7 of 60
nice review. i'll probably get a DAC1 myself
post #8 of 60
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Wmcmanus
Interesting, Ed. I'm surprised that the 902 didn't hold up better considering it's much newer technology than the Bel Canto (in particular). Sadly, I think the reputation of "too many features for one box to do well" is beginning to set in for the 902.

Off topic, but did you ever replace those R10 pads? It seems that you were going to, but I don't remember from there.

Peter, you need a haircut, dude! Nah, just kidding. Good to "see" you again.

I had considered buying a newer pair of R10's. I haven't replaced the ear pads yet because, I may upgrade the cable. And to do so, means ripping the ear pads off. I did finally get a perfect pair of ear pads after RMA'ing the defective one. Kohn was very helpful on that.

As for the "too many features" it is really nice to be able to able to use the same headphone amp for nearly everything near my desk. I can use the USB input for one computer, SPDIF (coaxial) from another computer, it's a connection wh*re.

-Ed
post #9 of 60
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by skitlets
Thanks for the review! Now to start saving up for one of these beauties.....
edit: did you find optical cable length to change the sound any?
Nope. But if you go too long, some DAC's have trouble getting a signal lock and can have a lot of drop outs, popping, etc. It's not pretty. But if you go too long, you'll know. It's kind of all or nothing. You'll be hard pressed to find optical toslink cables longer than 3 meters.

Otherwise, it's so difficult to hear any difference.

-Ed
post #10 of 60
Quote:
Originally Posted by Edwood
I had considered buying a newer pair of R10's. I haven't replaced the ear pads yet because, I may upgrade the cable.
This is the boat I'm in because after the hurricane there were rats all over this Island, rummaging through the debris. One of them got into my house and took a nibble on the R10 cable as well as the rubber cover over the headphone plug. It still works fine, but ought to be recabled as a matter of principle. I'm hoping Larry will be able do this without having to replace the pads.

Quote:
As for the "too many features" it is really nice to be able to able to use the same headphone amp for nearly everything near my desk. I can use the USB input for one computer, SPDIF (coaxial) from another computer, it's a connection wh*re. -Ed
Nice to have a wh*re of any kind nearby, so I can't argue with that.
post #11 of 60

Wish I were there.........

Quote:
Originally Posted by Edwood

Comments on the Benchmark DAC1.

High frequency = more detail, tighter focus.

Low Frequency = tighter bass, quicker. Less smearing. Less is more when it comes to bass. I think that the allegations that the DAC1 has less bass is both right and wrong, depending how you look at it. It's less bass in the fact that you are hearing less of distorted smeared low frequency. You are hearing in fact, more accurate bass.

Yes, that's right. I did not find the harmonics (impressions of it being warm, cool, bright, or dark, etc.) to be significantly different between the two.

It would seem that the placebo plagued memory is alot stronger than most people would care to admit.


Comments on the Bel Canto DAC2.

Very slight here, but it feels as if treble transient sounds trail (smearing) a little bit longer than the Benchmark.

-Ed
Thanks for the review Ed, Iron_D and Jasper.

The point about the treble trail is very similar to my experience. A very helpful track to pick this up is the Track 3 from Return of the KingSoundtrack. For those without the soundtrack, the scene from the movie involves Gandalf riding up the various levels until he reaches the top. The music rises to a crescendo as he just goes up the steps and the front of the Hall of Gondor comes into view. DAC2 somehow couldn't push the level any higher whereas the DAC1 did that effortlessly.

The smear or 'slight' delay in speed is what I believe makes the DAC1 quicker and brings out more details in the upper treble region.

BTW did you guys use the DAC1's amp or output the signal to another amp as well.


EDIT: Very nice Television set, I must say. Quick question, plasma or LCD? adn what brand of course.
I might try to hunt it down here.
post #12 of 60
Nice job, guys.
Shoot-out oriented minimeet is a really good idea.
I would be glad to take part in some of them someday.
post #13 of 60
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by kunwar
BTW did you guys use the DAC1's amp or output the signal to another amp as well.
We used the headphone switch box, so we used the DAC1's amp. We had problems with the balanced vs. unbalanced outputs with the Grace m902. I'm going to have to contact Grace Design about that one.


Quote:
EDIT: Very nice Television set, I must say. Quick question, plasma or LCD? adn what brand of course.
I might try to hunt it down here.
DLP.

Samsung.

-Ed
post #14 of 60
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Wmcmanus
This is the boat I'm in because after the hurricane there were rats all over this Island, rummaging through the debris. One of them got into my house and took a nibble on the R10 cable as well as the rubber cover over the headphone plug. It still works fine, but ought to be recabled as a matter of principle. I'm hoping Larry will be able do this without having to replace the pads.


Nice to have a wh*re of any kind nearby, so I can't argue with that.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look possible to do without removing the ear pads. And as you know, the only way to remove them is riiiiiiiiiip.

If you have Larry do it, ask him to use the cloth like Multifilament Nylon tech flex. That is if he can't salvage the silk.

When I eventually reterminate mine, I will probably do so with a balanced connection.

-Ed
post #15 of 60
I pretty much agree with everything Ed has posted, and must emphasize how subtle the differences are. The DAC's by and large sound the same, and the differences are not wow, night and day, blown away, etc. type differences. They are, oh I think this instrument sounds a tad tighter, etc. typ differences. The DAC1 and DAC2 both sound great. The DAC1 has the advantage of offering far more connectivity and useability options for a lower (at least retail) price.
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