Benchmark - DAC-1 PRE - Preamplifier / DAC / Headphone Amp

General Information

The Absolute Sound magazine rated the Benchmark DAC1Pre as the "Best Disc Player" in the Winter 08 / Spring 09 issue. "Although not strictly speaking a CD player, Benchmark's DAC1Pre combines digital to analogue conversion from either a computer (USB) input, or digital input from a disc transport, with a volume control and a line-level analog input... The unit is dead quiet, and offers ultra-low perceived (and measured) distortion." The DAC1 PRE is the culmination of years of high-precision analog and digital audio circuit design. Benchmark has achieved unprecedented sonic purity in their audio systems through an intelligent engineering philosophy -- establish a pristine analog delivery path and eliminate digital distortion artifacts. The DAC1 PRE continues this tradition of excellence. Balanced Outputs Included With six stereo inputs and four stereo analog outputs, the DAC1 PRE anchors expansive media systems and provides a pristine audio path from source to amplifier. The six stereo inputs include an analog input, a USB computer input, an optical input, and three coaxial digital inputs. The output section includes stereo XLR balanced, RCA unbalanced, and two headphone jacks driven by Benchmark's HPA2 0-ohm headphone amplifier. The superior performance of the award-winning DAC1 has made it the 'Benchmark' of D-to-A converters. The DAC1 PRE gracefully merges the DAC1 conversion system with elegant analog circuitry, Benchmark's HPA2 0-ohm headphone amplifier, and essential features and functions.

Latest reviews

Pros: Built like a tank, more I/O than you can shake a stick at, highly resolving, brightens dark cans.
Cons: Developed sticky pot quickly, power LED is far too bright.
I'm surprised there isn't a review yet for the DAC1 since it was a popular purchase choice just a couple of years ago. This is a great little 24/192 unit that provides an excellent step up from nearly all CD players that I've heard and certainly from integrated decoders in sound cards and the like - this is in another league.
Impressions are obviously very personal and subjective so you should know up front that my review system is: Squeezebox (FLAC) -> DAC1 -> HD650s (w/APS V3 recable) where the DAC1's integrated headphone amplifier is being used to drive the headphones (more on that later).
Audio Quality
The DAC1 is studio grade equipment so I was expecting good things and I certainly haven't been disappointed. Synergy with the HD650 is excellent and is strongly hinted at with many of the product photos on the website showing a pair of them draped over the DAC1. Specifically, the DAC1 is quite an analytical unit and goes some way towards lifting the 650 'veil', as much as I hate to use the term. The more I listen to this combination, the more I become convinced that there really is no such thing in a decent system - here the slightly aggressive character of the DAC1 coupled with the fullness of the Sennheiser house sound is a lovely combination, like being in the sweet spot between two opposing forces.
Detail retrieval is another strong point of this unit and guitars in particular sound tight with fantastic timbre and resonance. I find this contributes to a very small amount of graininess in the sound, particularly with male voices but it really is minor and I was barely aware until I started listening critically for this review. Transient response is fast and punchy which sits well in my system but could sound somewhat lean when paired with headphones like the K701.
The built in headphone amplifiers are a real treat. I used to have a Graham Slee Solo that ran off the DAC1 outputs and these amps put it to shame - the Solo sounded murky, bloated and lacking in speed by comparison. As I write this, I'm in the process of building a balanced amplifier but I expect the differences to be fairly minor between that and the DAC1. For reference, it drives the 650s to high volume without needing to go past halfway on the volume dial.
I haven't mentioned soundstage at all since I find that DAC units and amplifiers have a negligible effect on this (past a certain point, at least). Suffice to say that this DAC does not under-perform in this area in my system and I'm sure it would scale equally well with headphones that naturally have a wide soundstage.
Quality / Design
Putting audio aside for a second, we must remember that the aesthetic and design side of any product is also an important purchasing factor and it's here that I have a couple of complaints with the DAC1. First of all the power LED is an ultrabright blue model that, while inconspicuous in the day, is a real pain at night; I can't sleep with it turned on. To make matters worse, the DAC1 has no power switch so my only recourse is to pull the plug or, as I later discovered, place the red side of a pair of red/blue 3D glasses over the LED to filter out the blue spectrum! In fairness, the DAC1 is a studio unit so sleeping in the same room probably wasn't a factor in the design specs.
Second, this may be an isolated issue with my unit but I found the volume pot became crackly just outside of the warranty period. It only gets moved within a small range which may contribute to the problem but for studio equipment I expect better so I've docked one quality star for this.
The casing is extremely well made with no flex in any of the panels and a solid front. There's no play in any of the jacks or dials. I wouldn't be surprised if it could survive a fair drop...not that I ever plan to subject it to such an indecency.
I bought my unit in 2007 from for around £900GBP - I'm not sure how this price compares to the US rate for you folks on the other side of the Atlantic but I feel it's a little above the sweet spot. There's no denying that this is one of the best sources I've heard so if you could pick one up for around £750 or less then you'd be getting a steal.
Also, remember it has two capable amplifers built in which helps the value proposition somewhat.
The DAC1 is the best upgrade my system has had. I firmly believe in 'source first' and I challenge anyone to listen to the DAC1 compared to a lacklustre CDP or a computer sound card and say otherwise. Paired with a dark sounding set of headphones it'll add that little bit of sparkle in the upper mids and highs that brings it all together.
Thank you for the review Bizzel. I own a DAC1 PRE as well and I discovered my model does have an power switch that is cleverly concealed in the form of the multifunction Source selector switch. What I originally thought was an unusually loose rotary selector switch also turns out to be, when pressed, a standby power on/off switch. Clever design, but definitely not obvious.

I own several other pieces of equipment that can also serve as a preamp, but the Benchmark DAC-1 PRE has earned its placed as the core of my system because of its versatility. I especially like the automatic shutoff feature of the analog outputs when plugging headphones into the left headphone jack. With headphones plugged to the left jack, my main speakers are instantly muted - very practical for late night IEM listening. Inserting headphones into the right jack allows you to listen to both headphones and any amp connected to the analog outputs. I appreciate little details like this in the Benchmark.
THE DAC1 HDR has an analog stereo input, which means that it could be connected to a phono preamp and use the HPA2 as standalone headphone amplifier right? I have the DAC1 (without analog stereo input). The HPA2 is such a great headphone amp! I would like to use the HPA2 to listen to some vinyl .


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