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Amp/DACs item created by Suntory_Times, May 10, 2010
Pros - Neutrality, Clarity, Resolution, Build like a rock, Handsome
Cons - Expensive, It doesn't make eggs
Anything I say in this review is what I think of the DAC and according to my taste as a audiophile, you should always be aware there's a degree of YMMV in any review. Also, I did most of this review using speakers but I will comment on how it sounds with the Beyer DT880 600 ohm edition.
I've experienced and purchased many pieces of equipment in my short audiophile career (less than a year) but I've never been so impressed by one that I felt like I need share my opinion with other people. I bought this DAC used from a user right here on Head-Fi for $900 USD who also bought it used. I'll try to use relatable and non technical terminology that you may not even know. So I'll let you know
What's In the Box:
The exactly same things the original owner received. The DAC, a power cable, a manual, and a coax to optical converter. If you don't care about any of this, just jump straight to the sound section. Before I begin, I'll need
A Little More Preamble:
I ripped out my printer USB cable, changed out the power setting (took me maybe 1 minute to figure out and another to perform the operation... awesome...), and plugged it in. I'm not going to go over all kinds of fancy features the DAC has that you probably won't read anyways and skip straight to the
The highs are extended as far as there is. It's ever-so-slightly bright. It is however, not sharp, not sibiliant, and not cringeworthy. It may have been when it was new or may be on certain setups but I found non of it. Other than that, there's not much to say (which is a great thing to be able to say about a DAC). On It Could Happen to You by Diana Krall, the cymbals sparkle and sizzle like I've never heard before, but If a track is piercing, the DAC will be as well.
The mids are lean, mean, and clean, which are the exact qualities I'm looking in my music. There is no coloration. If a song is warm, it'll show it. It's very clinical. If that's not your thing, go for the Rega DAC, it'll make everything sound like it's right in front of you. The resolution is very good. You don't miss a note in rhythm guitars during a solo in a song.
The lows, not much to say (again a good thing). It's nothing to brag about but it's quietly and eloquently excellent. It's still clean, not boomy, and just "there" enough that you never miss it on most songs. To all people who buy this DAC with the intention of listening to hip-hop with it (Get it?): Don't.
Stereo Imaging is excellent and mostly what makes this DAC so clinical. It is precise. In a typically rock song, you have your left/right guitars and a vocalist in a middle and with a natural presentation, the guitars emanate across the sound stage like how a real guitar would sound, but with the DAC-1, the guitar is trapped in the speaker. This isn't a problems on speaker because of the natural cross feed created by the fact that people have 2 ears (shocking!) but on headphones, it sounds extremely artificial. For me that's a great thing, for what I assume would be most people, not so much.
The presentation is fairly forward which isn't good if you have headphones love feeling like you're sitting in a music hall, you're outta luck. If you like Grados, it's not quite like the sound stage of Grados but it's a little better than the music hall. For me speakers, I love a music hall sound. So here is how I solved the problem (and I think you'll find this quiet quiet ingenious): I sat a little further away.
So what does the Benchmark DAC-1 USB Black with Mounting Rack (long title eh?) sound like in one word? Neat. It's neat. Everything is where it should be and how it should be as the recording dictates. It's nothing more. It's nothing less. Great sound signature for someone like me who loves their sound that way.
This is Head-Fi afterall, so it bequeaths me to comment on the
The Headphone Amp:
As far as sound signature goes, the HPA2 sounds exactly like the DAC.
It powered my Beyer DT880 600 ohm edition perfectly. But when you put a analytical headphone like the DT880 with the Benchmark DAC-1, it sounds grindingly clinical. Most would say it's not good synergy - I love it.
Overall, it sounds like a great SS amp (think $300 - 500 range SS headphone amp)
It's not that I'm lazy, there just isn't much to say here. That's it.
So is the Benchmark DAC-1 USB worth it's price tag? No. Its not that it under performs it's price tag. It sounds better than the DacMagic ($500), DacMagic Plus ($850), Rega DAC ($1100) and even sounds better than the Bryston BDA-1 ($1995) DAC to me. I just don't think any DAC is worth $1300. If I had stick a price tag on the DAC section alone - $800 (my personally limit for any DAC). If I had to price the HPA2, $300. If you can find one used, get it.
Like the review says below, it feels like a cast iron pan. It's fairly hefty, everything plate fits perfectly. It's quite handsome as well. It's got a simple look to it that I just admire so much.
It's awesome. The sound is recording, not performance. The headphone amp is great. The build quality is great. It's not cheap and as you've read above, it won't do your eggs sunny side up but other than that - Its awesome.
Pros - build quality, sound quality, many inputs, many outputs, fantastic company support, great looking
Cons - some might find it... plain?
If you have waded across the web all the way to this review, I'll assume you've already read some of the big forum threads on this site, and I'm sure you've already read all of the reviews on other websites and publications about this piece of gear, so you already come into this with some background knowledge about this device and devices like (or unlike) it.
I have the Benchmark DAC1 USB: the second model slightly upgraded from the original design of the now classic Benchmark DAC1. Before this, I had (and still have) a Nuforce Icon HD. I use both of these as both DAC and headphone amplifier for my Denon AH-D5000, and preamp for my KRK studio monitors.
I'll try to be brief and avoid much colorful, interpretive flights of language that you see all the time in audiophile reviews.
Sound quality: noticeably better than the Nuforce Icon HD. Volume balance between channels is perfect at all levels. Noise floor is noticeably quieter. Bass is a little quicker and more "real." Things seem just a little more clear in the mids and highs are nicer and less fatiguing/stressful at higher volumes. The Icon HD sounds fantastic to everyone who listens to it, and this I would say is a tier above that. Difference is not life and death unless you are exceptionally picky, but there is a difference and it is very good. There is no coloration to this sound - it is just accurate, clear and strong. Use an EQ with this if you want coloration, or look elsewhere for technically same/worse performing devices that come colored off the shelf.
Features, inputs, outputs: I can use this with pretty much any device that puts out a digital audio signal, and I can plug into this pretty much anything that accepts an analog signal. I can toggle between inputs with a really cool little switch, and one of the two headphone outputs is capable of muting all rear outputs when it is occupied. A switch on the back can change the XLR and RCA outputs from volume controlled (with the very nice volume knob) to flat, constant line level. Attenuators (-0,-10,-20,-30) for the rear outputs can be adjusted as well. There is no power button, it just turns on and off very effectively depending on whether or not you're using it. This sounds strange and untrustworthy, but no - it works great in practice. There is no display, but it doesn't need one. "It just works." Feed it a signal and give it something to output to, and that's genuinely all you need to worry about, marvelously simple design.
Build quality: this thing is heavy, sturdy, good looking, and sensible. It is large enough to be impressive but not so large that it is inconvenient. It does not feel like it will break, ever. Gets warm to the touch after use. Friends agree that it looks "awesome."
This is an exceptionally clear, high-performing and versatile device in a well-made package. If you want a good DAC/amp to control your powered speakers, and/or a good DAC/amp to power your headphones, this is the device of devices. It is simple, it works - and it works really, really well.
From the charts I've seen, you really don't get gear much better than this. You can get devices that color things differently or look physically different, but this is pure neutral pro audio right here and it is as good as any piece of audio gear needs to be. Everything competing against this or existing at a higher bracket than this is, in my opinion: either about prestige or niche coloration. You can get a device that rolls off the highs or uses unique sounding parts to make an exotic but nice sound that is somewhere east or west of "accurate" if you want - or you can get 100% pure sound right here with the Benchmark DAC1. Once you get to this level, things are strictly about personal preference, because price/performance becomes meaningless when performance plateaus and money isn't an object anyway.
Pros - Delivers what it promises:bal out,various inputs,24b/96k USB.Long printed manual on how it works,low noise,resolving/transparent sound.Solid ext build
Cons - Not for you, if you like warm-ish/mids oriented sound. Still need a good amp if you have something like Beyer T1.Manual bit brochure like(marketing)
Well, read the pros/cons, but if you want a straight line FR response and low distortion, that's what benchmark DAC promises and delivers along with an array of I/O.
If you want a DAC+HP amp combo, DAC1 USB may not necessarily be what you're looking for.
Do note that you may feel that non-rolled off highs are making it harsh and unpleasant on some systems. You may also interpret that as benchmark DAC being highs-centric and mids being somewhat recessed.
You may also end up with a combination of straight FR for all the following: DAC, AMP, HEADPHONES which your ears might not like. Or DAC-1's HP amp and your headphones.
What's in the box:
There's the dac, the manual, the power cable and a coax->optical adapter...Oddly, no usb cable. Although both the DAC1 people state their belief in a to spec non-magical USB cable, and, well, everyone has one...
The manual gets a special mention. Interesting read... Although some of it has distinctly marketing feel that (IMHO) should be left to brochures (more on that below).
The DAC1 case is rock solid and very heavy. Looks/feels like cast iron? Under the cover it's all tiny surface mount components (non-user-servicable-land). This seems to go well in hand with the design philosophy for DAC1 (transparent sound/min noise). The DAC1 board looks like a pc motherboard
I think people often mistake treble amount for detail and resolution. Well, DAC1 is trebbly (if I'm reading the graph correctly, 0-20khz @ -0.5DB . To me - Very treble-centric. Incidentally, since treble is so prominent (not rolled off) - I can't even turn it up enough before my ears start hurting from the treble to hear the mids. Consequently, because of the masking effect, it sounds to me like there are recessed mids/not enough mids detail.
Lots of I/O, Switchable 220/100v psu, a few jumpers and switches:
You can set level as variable or calibrated or off for line out/xlr, turn analog stage off on connecting hp and +10db gain for HP out.
The manual talks of nearly 0 jitter, but neglects to quote a figure...http://www.stereophile.com/digitalprocessors/108bench/index6.html does show the DAC1 jitter measurements in PS. Interestingly, they're not any lower than the stated AQVOX ones. AQVOX( 110ps over all Toslink - peak to peak 40ps over all TOSLINK - RMS, 3ps rms internal).
No power switch... It's actually a feature (monitors inputs for signal/suspends). Except, when I suspend the PC, the usb lights are on...and stayed on until the morning. I contacted Benchmark and they were nice enough to point out that if I flick the input switch it will go to standby.
No LCD screen either. There's a table similar to the bios post error table to troubleshoot things (5 quick flashes = X, 25 quick flashes =Y). I guess, arguably - no LCD - probably less noise, since the LCD backlight will have to share power with digital/analog stages? SR leds would be nice.
USB does 96k/24b without drivers. Having had poor experience with Musiland's buggy custom drivers, this probably is a good idea. However, 96k/24b is not uncommon or particularly impressive nowadays. Still, the 'sweetspot argument' and ASRC to 110khz make this a moot point
Now um, there's one more thing to note about the manual and marketing. They both quote DAC CHIP features... E.g. the jitter immunity thing and de-emphasis filter. Neither really seem to be unique to DAC1. Have a look at the datasheets below. Most DAC chips to de-emphasis. Now for the jitter immunity part: The Yulong D100 DAC section (well, the USB path) is nearly the same as DAC1 (pretty sure someone said it's the same as the m902 or Stello (can't remember,but can't be bothered googling at the moment - spent too long cooking). In any case, according to the DAC1 manual, it seems like most of the anti-jitter benefits on the DAC1 come from the USB->I2S->AD1896(mostly here actualy) ASRCto110k->AD1853.
So it looks like D100 will do well there too, since it goes USB->IS via TSA1020B->AD1896 ASRC to 110k->AD1955 (pretty similar to DAC1 there, except the newer AD1955, that seems to have marginally better THD+N, and SNR and a whole heap of circuits relating to things we don't need (DSD, etc))
I'm a bit confused about the 24b/192k stickers on both DAC1 and D100. I really thought that internally it'll all be ASCRed to 110k regardless of the input SR and input type. Even if your input is 192k via, say coax. The D100 review/benchmark do mention that is the case/110k max is for both the stability (AD1896, not AD1955 as the first page says as per http://www.benchmarkmedia.com/discuss/feedback/newsletter/2010/07/1/asynchronous-upsampling-110-khz ?) and DAC section performance sweet-spot being 96khz. I certainly believe them about the sweet spot being 96k
Presuming it's (fft 1k 0db for 48,96,192k sr) they (benchmark media) look to be correct.
Pros - Fantastic balanced sound, well built, simple design, balanced output, small size and very cheap for what you get.
Cons - No power switch on front of unit, heapdhone amp.
This is a great unit for the price, see pros to the side. The only cons are the headphone amp whilst good will leave you wanting to upgrade this section later down the line (which this unit allows you to use the dac and send the signal to an external amp in any case), and the lack of power switch on the front will annoy some.