Benchmark DAC3 HGC

General Information

The DAC3 is Benchmark's newest 2-channel D/A converter featuring the Sabre ESS Technologies ES9028PRO converter chip. The DAC3 features the HPA2™ - Benchmark's signature high-current, 0-Ohm headphone power amplifier. The HPA2™ will deliver the full rated performance of the DAC3 to the headphones. The DAC3 has two 1/4" headphone jacks on the front panel.
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Latest reviews

T Bone

500+ Head-Fier
Pros: Amazing detail and great specs
Cons: Usability issues. Keep a screwdriver handy and don't lose the manual!
I’ll cut right to the chase:
The BenchMark DAC 3 HGC is a sonic marvel and an engineer’s wet dream.
 
Overview & Comparison
The Benchmark DAC3 is based on the ESS Technologies ES9028PRO chipset and is the younger brother to Benchmark’s well regarded ES9018 based DAC2.  ES9018 based DAC’s have been common for about 10 years now.  The ES9028PRO is still relatively new (as of Q4 2016) with just a few commercially available implementations.  (Notable implementations include the Exasound E32 DAC at  ~$3,500USD, the Resonessence Veritas at ~$2,900USD and the Gustard X20 Pro at ~$900USD)
I was eager to audition the DAC3 to see what kind of magic Benchmark could wring from ESS Technology’s latest chip. 
 
Quoting directly from Benchmark:
The DAC3 builds upon Benchmark’s highly successful DAC2 product family. The DAC3 maintains the familiar DAC2 form factor, but adds the higher performance available from the new ES9028PRO D/A converter. The DAC3 offers the following improvements over the DAC2:
• Active 2nd Harmonic Compensation
• Active 3rd Harmonic Compensation
• Lower THD
• Lower passband ripple
• Improved frequency response
• Increased Dynamic Range
• Faster PLL lock times
• Faster switching between inputs

 
In short – it's everything you like about the DAC2 only mo’ better.
 
The Benchmark DAC3 is available in two different configurations:
  1. DAC3 L – This model offers analog only output, without headphone amplification and retails for $1,895
  2. DAC3 HGC – An extra $300 ($2,195) gets you the same DAC plus an integrated HPA2 headphone amplifier. 
 
This review focuses on the DAC3 HGC model with the integrated HPA2 headphone amplifier.
 
My goal was to evaluate the DAC3 HGC serving in two roles – both as a standalone DAC and as an integrated all-in-on DAC/AMP combo.
 
The older Benchmark DAC2 and the new DAC3 are practically indistinguishable visually.   They use the same chassis/casework, but with different labels.  They have the same controls, features and operation.  The HPA2 amplifier section is the same design that debuted in the DAC1 circa 2009.   The underlying ES9028PRO chipset is the big difference in the new DAC3 – everything else is pretty much the same.  …even the USB drivers are the same.  (Though it is a bit odd to have a DAC3 on your desk and drivers & dialog boxes that say a DAC2 is connected.)
 
The front of the DAC3 HGC offers dual ¼” single-ended headphone outputs.
Initially, the absence of a balanced output dismayed me.  I have a balanced Moon Silver Dragon cable for my Audeze LCD-3’s that I’m rather found of.  John Siau, Benchmark's VP & Director of Engineering, makes a compelling argument why you won’t find balanced headphone connectors on their products.  You can read it here.  After reading his article I better understood the approach he used in Benchmark’s HPA2 amplifier design. 
 
Sound
I’m not one for burning in new components for 100 hours – I like to tear open boxes in a fit of instant gratification.   I unboxed the DAC, tossed the manual and remote into the corner and connected my laptop to the USB input.  (Note that ALL of my testing was done via the USB input, I did not use the other digital inputs or the analog inputs.)  After configuring the correct USB mode (more on that later) and swapping to the OEM single-ended cable on my LCD-3’s I jumped into my evaluation playlist. 
 
I don’t go for the typical audiophile fare of classical, chamber music or slow jazz.  I’m more into guitars and drums. 
With that in mind, I started my evaluation with the Black Keys’ El Camino album and their track “Sister”.
The big bass drum kick that anchors this track has left me disappointed on other systems and pairings.  The DAC3 HGC nailed it and kicked with the authority that I've often found lacking.
 
Immediately impressed with the “grunt” of the HPA2 amp section, I moved on to my all-time favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers song – their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”.  I love Flea’s bass guitar in this track. The benchmark had me toe tapping to the “chicka-wow-wow” rhythm. 
 
I have a special affinity for acoustic tracks, live recordings and concert performances.  I want my head-fi gear to transport me to the show and make me feel like I’m the crowd.  I like to hear the ambiance of the venue and the crowd noise in live recordings.  John Mayer’s performance of “Vulters” live in Los Angeles is a great example of what I want in a live track.  
The DAC3 HGC gave me the wide soundstage you would expect from a concert recording.  The vocals were tight and centered and the crowd noise wide. 
 
I have some Florence + The Machine tracks that sounded dull and lifeless on other equipment, but popped on the DAC3 with new clarity and energy.  You know you’re onto something special when a piece of gear can breathe new life into flat tracks. 
 
Switching from the all-in-one role, I next evaluated the DAC3 as a standalone DAC; bypassing the HPA2 amplifier section.   I put the Benchmark in home theater mode and connected it to my HeadAmp GSX-mk2 amplifier.  This also gave me an opportunity to compare the Benchmark’s DAC against another DAC head-to-head (albeit with some cable swapping). 
 
I queued up one of Dr. Chesky’s evaluation discs and got to listening.  Perhaps the most interesting test (to me at least) was Rebeca Pidgeon’s cover of “Spanish Harlem”.  Each shake of the shaker was indeed different.  The DAC3 did an excellent job of resolving minute details in the material.  Compared back-to-back against the DAC section of the ES9018 based Oppo HA-1, the Benchmark nailed it.   It wasn’t one of those subtle differences that makes you go “hmmm” – it was a “wow” moment. 
 
I had a similar experience with the “Brushes & Brass” track on Chesky’s Audiophile test disc.  There’s some subtle vocalization in that track that had me looking over my shoulder to see who was talking or wondering if I left a TV on in another room.  It was very disconcerting the first time I heard it.  Played through the Oppo HA-1’s DAC the sound was more or less two-dimensional.  Played through the DAC3, I got a completely different sense of space and depth.  I really felt like someone was in the room with me. 
 
Another favorite test track of mine is John Hammond’s “Get Behind the Mule” from his Rough & Tough album.  It’s a simple track consisting of vocals, guitar and foot stomping.   The DAC3 was startling in its clarity and realism.  With such a simple sound you can really focus on the details of Hammond’s guitar work.  The DAC3 did not disappoint!
 
DSD Support
I have some great tracks in my collection that are in DSD format.  So Benchmark’s support for DSD was “must have” feature for me.  It’s one of the reasons that I had to rule out the similarly priced and well regarded Schiit Yggdrasil which does not support DSD in any flavor. 
 
The Benchmark DAC3 supports the most common DSD format - DSD64 (2.8224 MHz) - which is sufficient to meet my needs. 
It is interesting to note that other DAC’s based on the same ES9028PRO chip support higher rate DSD formats. 
The Gustard X20 supports “Double-Rate” DSD128 (5.6448 Mhz) and the Exasound e32 supports “Quad-Rate” DSD256 (11.2 Mhz).  
While these higher rates are interesting, the only tracks I have in these higher resolutions are demo and evaluation recordings.  I don't have any commercial music in these higher rates.
 
Out-of-the-box, the DAC3 uses USB 1.1 and is "driverless", but limited to just 24/96kHz playback.  (Does anybody still use USB 1.1?)   You cannot play DSD material in this mode.  You need to install the USB 2.0 driver to enable playback of 24/192kHz PCM and DSD streams (in DoP 1.1 format).  
 
Here's where I started to struggle with the DAC3.  I had to break out the manual to find out that you have to press two button simultaneously and wait for some lights to blink to enable USB 2.0 mode.  The first time I tried to do this, I managed to screw it up because my hand covered the indicator lights.  Once I had the unit in the right mode I could play high bit rate PCM music.  Getting DSD to work right required some tinkering in my media player, JRiver Media Center 22.
 
Usablility
I’d like to explain why I chose to characterize the DAC3 as an “engineer’s wet dream”.  
 
A full 16 pages of the 71 page manual are dedicated to performance charts & graphs that only an engineer would love that scientifically prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that you’ve purchased an engineering masterpiece.   The bulk of the remaining 55 pages school you on unnecessarily complex tasks like changing the gain settings.
 
A word of advice for DAC3 buyers – DO NOT LOSE YOUR MANUAL!  You are going to need it – often.
 
As good as the DAC3 HGC sounds, I have a have a couple of gripes that (IMO) detract from its usability as an all-in-one DAC/AMP combo
This is a key point to remember.  My gripes about the DAC3 HGC are not about its sound quality.  It's about trying to live with it as an all-in-one AMP/DAC combo.  
 
Gripe #1 – Jumpers
Do you like taking things apart?  Do you like tiny screws?  If so, you’re in luck with the DAC3! 
The top casework is fastened to the chassis with eight screws and you’ll have frequent reasons to remove as four different features of the DAC3 HGC are controlled by jumpers on the circuit board. 
  1. Headphone gain – 2x jumpers
  2. XLR Gain – 4x jumpers
  3. Headphone switch – 2x jumpers
  4. Digital Pass Through – 1 jumper
 
I’ll be blunt, at a price point north of $2k I don’t expect to have to break out a screwdriver and fat-finger 9-different jumpers. 
 
If you have multiple headphones or widely varied sources unplugging the unit, unscrewing the case to fiddle with jumpers is a complete pain in the *ss. 
 
Gripe #2 – Overloaded Buttons
The DAC3 has 5 buttons on the front panel; many of which serve dual purposes.
  1. Want to toggle between USB 1.1 and USB 2.0 modes?
    Press & hold both input buttons simultaneously for 3x seconds
  2. Want to activate the HT mode?  Don’t push the button nearest to the HT indicator lamp. 
    Nope, hold the MUTE button for 3x seconds.  Intuitive huh? 
  3. External 12V trigger can be defeated by holding the power button 3 seconds.
 
Gripe #3 – Overloaded Lamps
I freely admit that I am old-school geek.  I love blinkly lamps and indicator lights.  I’d be perfectly happy if my car’s dashboard looked like a jet cockpit.  If you want to verify the sample rate of the input signal to the DAC3 you’re going to need to do a little basic math on the fly.  Sample rate is indicated by multiplying the value of the DSD indicator and word-length indicator values.  Huh?
  1. 192kHz playback is indicated when the DSD 4x lamp and the 48 lamp are both illuminated because 48 x 4 = 192.
  2. 176.4kHz playback is indicated when the DSD 4x lamp and the 44 lamp are both illuminated because 44 x 4 = 176
  3. 96kHz is 2 x 48 and 88.2kHz playback is 2 x 44 – you get the idea
 
Can someone explain to me why I am I looking at the lamp labeled DSD when my source material is PCM?  That’s like clicking the old “start” button in Windows to shut down your PC.  It’s counterintuitive.  One would think the DSD lamps would be extinguished during PCM playback, but instead they serve a dual purpose.
 
Used in a studio setting, these switches might be set once and forgotten about.  Used as an all-in-one device in a home stereo setting, these inconveniences quickly grow tiresome.
 
The DAC3 could really use a digital display like the Oppo HA-1 which retails for nearly half the DAC3’s price.  Heck – even the $900 Gustard X20 has a good digital display.  One would hope that a “3rd generation” product like the DAC3 would have evolved in usability with each generation.
 
Another usability quirk with the Benchmark is the 2x buttons that scroll through the inputs.  It seems like every other button has multiple jobs, yet we have one task, input selection, that requires two buttons.  One to go “up” the list, the other to go “down” the list.  Many devices either have a rotary switch, or uses a single button that cycles through all of the available inputs.   When the “up” or “down” button hits the end of its range, it doesn’t cycle back around to the first or last input.  …not a true gripe, just an observation of a unique quirk. 
 
Give me an DAC/AMP combo with the Benchmark’s sonic quality and the Oppo HA-1’s features and flexibility and it's “shut up and take my money” time. 
 
Summary
After living with the DAC3 HGC for a few weeks I can say that I prefer the DAC3 serving in the role of “stand alone” DAC.  I think it’s a fantastic sounding D/A convertor.  On well recorded material it does an outstanding job with detail and resolution.  It brought new life to CD quality 16/44.1 material - even on tracks that weren’t particularly well mastered. 
 
However, as an all-in-one AMP/DAC combo I think the DAC3 HGC falls short.   I’m not interested in grabbing a screwdriver and the owners manual to change something as common as gain. 
 
I found the integrated HPA2 amplifier in the HGC model to be very good, but not stellar.  it’s not that the HPA2 amp section does anything bad, it’s just that my external amplifier did everything better.  (For ~ $3k one would expect nothing less!)   Put another way – if you have $2,200 to spend on a DAC you probably already own a “reference class” amplifier capable of outperforming the $300 HPA2 option found in the DAC3 HGC
 
I think the DAC3 is a worthy and capable standalone D/A convertor.  I would pass on the HGC model with its integrated amp.
 
Footnote
I want to take a moment to personally thank Benchmark’s Sales Manager Rory for all of his help.  He quickly answered all of my questions before and AFTER the sale providing detailed answers to all of my questions whether by phone or by email.  He also made sure that the unit I received had the latest & greatest firmware.  Thanks again for the great customer service!
Christer
Christer
Having lived with the DAC2 HGC for some years now I would also like to hear what improvements the new  converter chip used brings to the equation.
 But seeing that it does not even support DSD 128 much less the new DSD standard DSD 256 used more and more by some classical music labels, nor DXD I am a bit disappointed that they have  not done more especially considering that the competition is not exactly resting on  its laurels.
And yes the  old headphone amp is good yes,but hardly SOTA .
swspiers
swspiers
That was one of the most balanced (ha ha)) reviews I read in a wile. I have to admit, I kind of like messing with the jumpers on my ancient DAC1: it reinforces the feeling of using professional gear. However, your observation about both the jumpers and the headphone amp did an excellent job of tempering my desire to upgrade. I really have to think about my next move, and I thought your review brought up some excellent points to take into consideration. Regarding the headphone amp, benchmark is always seemed obsessed with any sort of distortion. From that perspective, they still look SOTA, but I get what you're saying. Nice job!
Nevalti
Nevalti
Thanks for your comments about the HT play-through. I effectively lost two digital inputs because the motorised volume control suddenly went 'mad' making one input unusable and later - a second input went 'mad' too. 'Press and hold 'mute' - who would have thought it could cause such problems? All is now well - thanks. For what it is worth, Benchmark say that they don't expect anyone to hear any improvement of the DAC3 over the DAC2.

Comments

griff2

100+ Head-Fier
Personally having to move jumpers on my DAC 1 didn't bother me - having had to move jumpers a few years ago to get the correct clock speed for my computer (of the time) CPU, this was familiar and a doddle. I couldn't decide between 0db or -10db out for my Ruper Neve RNHP 'till I got got clipping distortion at 0db, then it was decided, -10db it was.

I'm going to get the DAC 3L (don't need the internal headphone amp of the H as the Rupert Neve is a better amp) as a Christmas present to myself and move the DAC 1 upstairs to my bedroom headphone system. Since I'm acquainted with the jumper configuration of the DAC 1 for my system, I'll configure the DAC 3 as I did the DAC 1 and it will fit in straight away.
 
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