I am not exactly sure why I am reviewing the Benchmark DAC. If not this particular model (this one thankfully fitted with a remote), variations of this model have been reviewed elsewhere within Enjoy the Music.com and almost to a one have been positive. They go a little like this:
Benchmark Media Systems has its roots in professional audio. Their DACs are very neutral, very small and very good value. Buy one.
OK. I added the last bit, as I did and this is why I am reviewing the Benchmark DAC1 HDR as I bought the DAC /Preamp on the pretense that I would be reviewing it. Here goes.
As far as the general review of Benchmark's fine Digital to Analog Converters with Volume Controls goes, it is correct. And while I am not the first one to say this, I think we are really on to a new type of Hi Fi component: a pre-amp for the early part of our digital 21st century, right now, right here with a single analog input. Anyway, as I said, I bought the Benchmark. But I had my reasons. I needed a good active pre-amp, didn't mind a neutral almost to a fault DAC for my Squeezebox, and with the remote control, I thought I would have an active preamp that would play most everything with most everything. And that's what I got.
D. F. E. T. F. T. M.
These not inconsiderable demands, aside from source and volume, are all but anathema today, the hi-fisti on occasion dispensing with pre-amps all together in systems that did not require phono amplification and re-equalization. Not only did records then spin at different speeds, equalization curves were not standardized, crystal pickups were still in use, and AM, amazingly enough, was still a Hi Fidelity source. Listening to 78s through a speaker that employed a tweeter required you to cut off the top end in order to preserve record life. Sand had actually been embedded in the matrix of the shellac so as to wear out the needle before the needle wore out the record. It was also the era of home taping and not peer to peer file sharing.
A fine example of this ancient breed of function rich preamp is that of the Leak Varislope Stereo as seen below.
While nowhere near as terrible as people claim, the Leak Varislope Stereo pre-amp has everything you need for playing whatever analog source you should have, in whatever way you want. Bass, treble and volume of course, but also settings OFR mono, stereo, mono right, mono left, reverse channels, a variable high pass filter ('the varislope'), rumble filter, two stereo pickups, balance, a tape monitor and at least six (!) different record re-equalization curves.
The 'slope could make acoustically recorded twenties 78s played back on 50s electric turntables listenable, tape the shipping news, and make The Goons on Long Wave not only intelligible but funny . Leak's art-deco masterpiece was the perfect preamp for its time, but which reveals itself to have three egregious errors for today. It is powered from the power amp (this makes it very difficult, but not impossible, to use with other power amps), modern source components sometimes drive it into overload, and with all its switches, tone controls and record equalization curves, it is not exactly a straight wire with (adjustable) gain. Such a complex and as a result less than transparent design is enough to send any member of the SET AMP, Full Range Single Driver Speaker brigade into shock. Curiously, the one thing the 'Slope does lack, unlike the Benchmark which has two, is a headphone jack. There is also no remote.
By contrast, the Benchmark DAC HDR is a preamp for today with but two knobs, source and volume, and a toggle round back to fix the volume output. It is as close to a passive preamp and a DAC and a headphone amplifier that it can possibly be without actually being a passive preamp and suffering that slight loss of dynamics or giving one of the forgotten primary purposes of any pre-amp, that is to provide a buffer between source and amplifier such that they only thing they communicate is the music.
Oh, and you can have any color you like provided it is silver or black. f course this can be said with most gear, and perhaps add goldtone to the mix. Of course removing the metal cover and painting it any color you desire is also an option.
Aside from source and volume controls, the comparison ends. Whereas the Leak specialized in tailoring the analog sound by taming, or boosting its deficiencies, the Benchmark DAC will have none of that – it is straight DAC with gain -- but while it is simpler on the outside, it is almost infinitely more complex on the inside that leaves a sea of Trade Marked terminology in its wake. The modus operandi of the Benchmark is to convert a digital signal into an analog one in the most neutral way possible – neither adding, subtracting or modifying the sound -- that may then be heard through headphones or passed on to a power amp in single-ended or balanced form.
Does it do so? I think so.
It also has a remote. About the size, shape and weight of those 10 packs of cigarettes they once sold in Britain, in what is becoming a bit of a trend, it has more buttons than the unit itself. Light in weight, slim in size and very plasticky, the remote is, I believe, one of the few bits that lets the side down. Perhaps, however, we should leave such small cavils aside. This is Benchmark's first DAC/Preamp to even sport a remote. I should also let you know, that for you reprobates of earlier adopters of SACD, FM listeners, or spinners of the black fantastic, Minidisc, DAT, or even 8-Track, there is a single analog input. Why just the one? There simply isn't room on the back with its balanced and RCA outputs, three coaxial digital inputs, one optical, and USB. The USB port, as is the DAC, is capable of supporting resolutions of to 24 bits at 96 kHz. (192 kHz on other inputs.) You guessed it, it's the trademarked AdvancedUSB.
When I needed more than a single analog in – which was not as often as I imagined it would be – I simply ganged a passive pre-amp up stream of it as a switch. No biggier as Biggie would no doubt say. Tapers, domestic impresarios and incorrigible users of equalizers will have to forgo their knob twiddling. While in my Hi FI cabinet I have two SACD players, a table with two arms and two phono pre-amps, a phono re-equalizer, three tuners, a mono-fm Troughline, a Revox Stereo FM, and a Heathkit AM – I brag – I spent most of my time listening to ripped CDs and internet piped from my son's PC through my brand spanking new Squeezebox Duet.
I believe the combination to be magic and that systems of this sort will be the norm while the lowly CD is left in the dustbin of history. While the Squeezebox Duet may not be perfect, better but more expensive solutions can be had from a great variety of vendors, the Squeezebox Duet is cheap, cheerful and, relatively, easy to get up and going. And while it's internal DAC is decent enough, playing it through the Benchmark vaults it up to a whole new level.
When I first tried them together I felt like that idiot in the advertisement who accuses the other of getting peanut butter in his chocolate and the two falling over enjoying the peanut butter cup that would seem to be greater than the sum of its parts. The Benchmark provides the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups of solutions, solving at a masterstroke the two most failings of the Squeezebox receiver, a decent but not great DAC, and a digital volume control that sacrifices resolution for loudness. As I wrote before, Benchmark, a company not short on technical terms, calls this their "new HDR-VC (high dynamic range volume control.
I tried the Benchmark/Sqeezebox with several power amps, tubed and otherwise, and two pairs of speakers – Tannoys and the wonderful Waterfalls – and in every situation it did what it was supposed to do: translate analog to digital and allow me to change volume (in the analog domain through a nice motorized Alps potentiometer.) In no way did its sound seem at all system dependant. (It also did a fine job with analog sources.) Placed between a digital source and a power amp, it did what it said on the package, transform digital into audio, switch sources and regulate volume, nothing more, nothing less. As a bonus, it is also a very fine headphone amp that in a nod to its studio heritage still employs 0.25-inch jacks. Never will I say that I have heard my Sennheiser 500 headphones sound better. B. M. (yikes) terms this their HPA2 headphone amplifier HPA2.
What could be simpler than the Benchmark?
Appearances can, however, be deceiving. While I do not think this preamp with a DAC or DAC with a preamp could be any simpler from the perspective of the user, there is a whole lotta shaking going on under that black bonnet. What goes on inside is beyond my ken. I am a 'subjective reviewer' for reasons that go beyond taste. But Benchmark Media has very obviously invested a great deal of time and effort in defeating (or at least minimizing) the jitter-bug devil which, reputedly, has so befouled digital replay systems through the employment of a digital buffer and a master clock. As such, Benchmark's products post some of the lowest jitter in the biz. They call this, of course, the Trade Marked Benchmark Media "UltraLock Clock System.
So How Does it Sound
As I already declared, I bought the DAC at the reviewer's price. I did so because I wasn't entirely satisfied by my passive preamp but did not want to give up one iota of its transparency and really, to be honest, had had enough of active pre-amps and their musicality which almost always became cloying over time. I got what I wanted. I also saw the writing on the wall. The future, guys, sorry to have to tell you this, is digital. And I was also loathe to 'invest' in anything with moving parts like a CD player. Like an old SLR camera, I was looking for the best lens and wasn't going to worry too much about the camera body. If the body stopped working, instead of having it fixed, I'd buy a cheap new one. Everyone I imagine would enjoy the perverse pleasure of feeding a thousand or more dollar DAC with a $30 transport -- at least I do. If you're looking for what the Benchmark Media DAC HDR does so well and nothing more, I really don't see how you can go wrong. So yes my review is just like the others.