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Review: Benchmark DAC1 vs RME HDSP 9632 vs RME PAD vs EMU 1212M

post #1 of 69
Thread Starter 
The Point
So for the better part of nine months, I've been blabbing on about how great PC's can be as an audio source, leading my fellow head-fiers on a wild trip modding soundcard after soundcard, finally to end up with the highly acclaimed Benchmark DAC1 at the end of a computer transport. Now it’s time to see where the chips truly lie. As a result of modding card for others, I have been able to evaluate the three cards listed (both pre- and post-mods) in the past few days against the benchmark.

The System:
Benchmark DAC-1 (used with Quail power cord to Monster PC1000)
RME HDSP 9632 (stock, and modded with blackgate N coupling caps, and FK power caps)
RME Digi96/8 PAD (stock, and modded with blackgate FK caps to bypass analog ouput stage)
E-MU 1212M (stock, and modded with blackgate std power caps, N coupling caps, and LT1364 output opamps)
PC powered by PC Power & Cooling Turbo-Cool 510 (quiet fan modded)
eBay Glass Toslink cable (from soundcards to Benchmark)
DIY Canare Starquad IC's (from soundcards/Benchmark to amp)
Gilmore V1 with laddered attenuator
Sony CD3000 with Headphile bubinga R10 woodies and starquad cable
Beyerdynamic DT531

The Music (all losslessly encoded to hard drives from original CD's via EAC):
AC/DC - Back In Black
Alexander Markov - Paganini's 24 caprices & violin concerto op.1
Blaze - Silicon Messiah
Cincinnati Pops Orchesta - Great Movie Scores
Dream Theater - Awake
Hallucinogen - The Lone Deranger
Diana Krall - The Look of Love
Megadeth - Hidden Treasures
Savatage - The Wake of Magellan
Zero Hour - The Tower of Avarice

The Results
Simply put, no matter which card I used as the transport, the DAC1 is at the head of this class and by a good margin. It has the ability to react much more quickly to the changes in the signal, making for a much tighter, faster, more detailed, more dynamic listening experience than any of the soundcards in any form can muster. Because of this, the music takes on a more lively and engaging character. The midrange has a lovely character about it that is partially responsible for this effect; it is fun and exciting without being overly warm or nasal. Also the bass is considerably more powerful, especially with the right material, but the bass is no louder than the others, it's just that each note carries more weight. Some would say the treble is bright, I don't think that it is bright as much as it is lively, and more realistic than the somewhat dead treble of the others (however I do think the CD3000 is too bright for this source).

Closest to this performance is that of the modded RME HDSP, which though it lacks the detail and dynamics of the DAC1, it generally has very nice timbre and overall sound balance, not to mention the best dynamics of any of the cards tested. It sounds as if the music is a bit subdued compared to the DAC1, as if the performances are a bit more robotic and lacking heart.

Next, the modded EMU and stock HDSP are fairly close, the latter having a more pleasing tonal quality, the former with a bit more speed and detail. Neither have quite the 3-D soundstage of the modded HDSP, and they both lose some of it's richness, making you seem just another level detached from the actual musical performance.

The stock EMU gives away some more richness and speed from the modded EMU, to the point where it sounds a bit dry and dull in comparison. Don't get me wrong, it is still a great source, especially for the money, very detailed with a nice wide soundstage. I think this card is the best entry-point to computer audiophilia, and others have well-documented how it compares mightily with sub $1000 CDP's.

The modded PAD kicks down a rung further on the ladder, with less detail, speed, dynamics, and bass power. Compared directly to the DAC1, it sounds quite dull, even boring to me now, as if someone had put thick drapes between me and the musical performance. Again, if I could not do such a comparison, it sounds pretty nice, fairly rich, but a bit slow, definitely lacking compared to the higher rated soundcards. Considering the low cost of the EMU, this is really not worth it, unless you need the driver features, or already have one and need better sound than...

the stock PAD, the one that started it all for me. As great as I thought this card once sounded, directly compared with the DAC1, it sounds quite pathetic, with the drape-effect of the modded PAD heightened somewhat, and the treble distortion of the poor analog output section getting on my nerves. It definitely can sound good if you've no experience with good sources, but after a while you can see it's true colors.

If I had to rate them based on how well they allow you to experience the music you play on them, I'd say:

Benchmark DAC-1 10/10 (my benchmark hehe )
modded HDSP 9632 7.5/10
modded EMU 1212M 7/10
stock HDSP 9632 6.75/10
stock EMU 1212M 6.00/10
modded RME PAD 4.75/10
stock RME PAD 3.75/10

I know these ratings might seem a bit harsh, and the sound differences themselves might not always sound huge, but to me, the differences I how I experience the music can be huge between these sources, hence my ratings.
post #2 of 69
Thanks for taking the time to do the review, Peter. I think it'll be very helpful for a lot of people... the thing I wonder about though, is if people will be as harsh when comparing their sources to the DAC1 as you have been with the soundcards... It may mislead people into thinking that Brand X CDP is better than Brand Y soundcard when it truth it is not, or they are equal.
post #3 of 69
awsome review, just what I was waiting for. How about Benchmark vs Ack dAck! vs Bel Canto Dac2 next
post #4 of 69
so how are the digital output performances of the cards in comparison to each other? how would the benchmark DAC1 perform when fed with digital signals from the cheapest source? or in other words, does the added cost of having to buy a transport to use the DAC1 make it less appealing?

nice review though, thanks for doing it. that isn't as bad as you were making it out to be... it is a nice lengthy review that explains what is needed and does the job well. as for the ratings... we'll have to see about that. raif should be bringing the DAC1 over sometime, or so I hope.

Jasper994 - is there a point to quoting the whole review?
post #5 of 69
Quote:
Originally Posted by jerry1130
awsome review, just what I was waiting for. How about Benchmark vs Ack dAck! vs Bel Canto Dac2 next
I'm sure he can arrange that if people would send him the other two DAC's for him to test out.
post #6 of 69
Quote:
Originally Posted by ayt999
Jasper994 - is there a point to quoting the whole review?
nope... ...all fixed!
post #7 of 69
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jasper994
nope... ...all fixed!
heh.

this looks like enough of a review to populate the featured reviews? there're only two reviews in the computer source forum... they could use some company.
post #8 of 69
Thanks for the review. It looks like I will be going to the DAC side shortly, instead of going for new soundcards.
post #9 of 69
Quote:
Originally Posted by ayt999
heh.

this looks like enough of a review to populate the featured reviews? there're only two reviews in the computer source forum... they could use some company.

As it should, Peter did a really good job.
post #10 of 69
I find your scale a bit ridiculous. Where would Sound Blaster Live! fit in? HAHA! 0.1

I'm glad you like the DAC1. You should really test various sources out to see if you can hear the differences. I think HDSP is unwise choice for the price and one would be better spending on an external DAC.

I find Benchmark DAC1 rather uninvolving and kind of boring though. This was the 24/96 version. I wonder if they made any big changes to the 24/192 version.

I'm going to try non-oversampling DAC next. I'm anti upsampling and loved the shigaraki when I heard a demo of it.
post #11 of 69
I personally have become a sucker for the non-OS philosophy...if on a budget. Other philosophies, properly implemented better it at times with a similar outcome as the non-OS, but that are currently out of my impulse buying range. I'll currently be pairing the RME PAD with two Toslink cables and an external non-OS DAC and also comparing the Nixon TubeDAC. Next step is to compare this to the Lynx L22 at basically the same price as the card+DAC combination.

I am curious to see how well Benchmark's claims are regarding jitter and being immune to the source used. For example, if you take the stock RME PAD vs. the HDSP vs. the cheapest card you can find vs. DVD-ROM all going digital to the Benchmark.

I personally would like to slave the source to the DAC clock, and if I had the money, would probably go with a cheap RME, and LessLoss DAC 2004:

http://www.lessloss.com/

Can I borrow $2k from someone?

IronDreamer - With cost of any digital card + cable + Benchmark, even at used prices, there's once crucial comparison missing, and I hope you have an impulse buying mood in the next few weeks. This being the comparison to the Lynx L22/Two running analog out compared to the Benchmark with any source, whether it be the Lynx or the worse SPDIF output you can find... At $630 or so for the L22 new, it would frightenly enough be a 'budget' alternative to source + Benchmark DAC-1.
post #12 of 69
cjr888, that lessloss site has, as far as i can tell, not a single real (ie not a render) photo of the actual dac!
post #13 of 69
Heh. Noticed that as well outside of Sven Boenicke's implementation which looks nothing like the actual product as he built it himself based on their schematic. He's actually the one who directed me to the DAC http://www.boenicke-audio.ch

Pictures of his unit are here:
http://www.lessloss.com/LessLossDAC2...nBoenicke2.jpg
http://www.lessloss.com/LessLossDAC2...nBoenicke1.jpg

Outside of that, I couldn't find anything other than the renderings myself. I've been in email communication with them, so I'll drop them a line and see if they have real photos to provide.
post #14 of 69
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jasper994
the thing I wonder about though, is if people will be as harsh when comparing their sources to the DAC1 as you have been with the soundcards... It may mislead people into thinking that Brand X CDP is better than Brand Y soundcard when it truth it is not, or they are equal.
Well, I was only that harsh, because, from what I can tell from all these comparisons, the Benchmark is THAT GOOD. I don't think the CDP that most people (not you, Alex ) would have to compare with their soundcards would fare as well. As an example, I'd listen to the first minute or so of a song on a soundcard, switch to the Benchmark, and I would end up listening to almost the entire song, just because it got me so into the music. This happened quite a few times during the course of my listening. The "audiophile" differences that one hears comparing these sources seem like a collection of smaller differences, but the change in overall musicality is huge. I think that compared to the Benchmark, really pathetic sources pollute the music so much that they would have to get negative ratings on the scale as I have put it here.

Quote:
Originally Posted by jerry1130
awsome review, just what I was waiting for. How about Benchmark vs Ack dAck! vs Bel Canto Dac2 next
I wish! Got $2K to send me?

Quote:
Originally Posted by ayt999
so how are the digital output performances of the cards in comparison to each other? how would the benchmark DAC1 perform when fed with digital signals from the cheapest source? or in other words, does the added cost of having to buy a transport to use the DAC1 make it less appealing?
I couldn't detect any real difference between the digital outputs of the cards. A couple of times I thought I heard something, but it turned out to be placebo. I will find out soon how good the DAC1 does with a cheap source, the Chaintech. I think a cheap computer source with optical should still be great, since the DAC kills any of the jitter, optical kills the dirty ground, and ripping via EAC makes it essentially a perfect transport. Now as for CDP's as transports, that is up in the air, since who knows which CDP's output good enough to rival EAC secure mode. To me the cost of the transport doesn't make the DAC1 less appealing, because at most I'd have to spend $99 perhaps for an EMU 0404, or hopefully only $24 for a Chaintech AV710.

Quote:
Originally Posted by cjr888
IronDreamer - With cost of any digital card + cable + Benchmark, even at used prices, there's once crucial comparison missing, and I hope you have an impulse buying mood in the next few weeks. This being the comparison to the Lynx L22/Two running analog out compared to the Benchmark with any source, whether it be the Lynx or the worse SPDIF output you can find... At $630 or so for the L22 new, it would frightenly enough be a 'budget' alternative to source + Benchmark DAC-1.
Well unless someone wants to send me a check for $630 or a Lynx card, that will not be happening, since I blew my source budget to get the DAC-1. I've read that the Lynx are very clinical sounding, quite opposed to what I feel is the very musical sounding DAC1, but of course I have not heard the Lynx, so who knows for sure?
post #15 of 69
you know what I'd like?

how about some RMAA results for ALL of these cards/DACs... there seems to be plenty of subjective benchmarks here, with people claiming to have golden ears but no RMAA results to go along with them.

Thanks!
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