Review By Dick Olsher
On paper, the Benchmark DAC1 is a pro-audio 24-bit/192kHz, upsampling, Digital-to-Analog audio converter sporting excellent specifications. Over the past year it has garnered superlative reviews from the audiophile press and users alike. Part of the attraction has been its sub $1K price point ($975 to be exact) — astounding in the context of high-end audio where such a sum of money may not even buy you a pair of interconnects. Has all the buzz been on target? Is the DAC1 a contender or a mere pretender? We weigh in with our own take.
The technical innovation at the heart of the DAC1 has been dubbed UltraLock™ conversion. Time base jitter accumulates as a digital signal propagates along a cable and from one digital device to another. Theoretically, this so called interface jitter need not affect the conversion process if the signal is properly re-clocked. Most converters use a single-stage Phase Lock Loop (PLL), and premium designs deploy a two-stage PLL. The UltraLock™ converter is said to exceed the jitter reduction performance of even two-stage PLL converters and to provide 100% immunity to interface jitter under all operating conditions. What that means to you and I in plain terms is that an inexpensive CD transport may be used to feed the DAC1. For most of my listening tests I used the AH! Super Tjoeb CD player's digital output.
The front-panel gain volume pot not only controls the output level of the headphone jacks, but by setting the Calibrated/Variable switch on the rear of the chassis to Variable, it also controls the output levels of the balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA analog outputs. That means that the DAC1 may directly feed a power amplifier, without the intervention of a line stage or preamplifier. While such a system configuration may appeal to many users, I found the resultant sonic flavor to be strongly solid-state in its presentation. Specifically, image outlines diminished in 3-D palpability and soundstage depth shrunk. As a result, I decided to maintain an all-tube preamplifier in the signal chain. The Blue Velvet with its 6SN7 vintage tube sound did a far better job in fleshing out a believable soundstage with a proper depth perspective. This is a prime example of system building and how the sound of a particular component is dependent on its system context.
I will not bore you with a description of the unit's additional features, and would rather encourage you to visit the manufacturer's web site for more detail, including access to the User's Manual.
The DAC1's most remarkable sonic attribute is the absence of nasty digital artifacts, collectively categorized in my lexicon as "digititis." Almost all inexpensive DACs and CD players in recent memory have exhibited the sort of bright, somewhat edgy harmonic palette, that you never experience in live music. That's probably why mass market CD players are most adept at reproducing multi-mic studio recordings, which by definition are glazed with a layer of EQ and artificial reverb, and do a poor job with natural concert-hall recordings. In contrast, the DAC1's upper octaves are smooth and free of glare. It will blend in seamlessly into a system whose tonal balance is already emphasized in the treble. The odds are high that you are currently listening to an inexpensive dome tweeter; take my word for it, you'd be lucky to find anything more inspiring that a $10 tweeter in speakers costing upward of $3K. The point being that for many listeners the DAC1 will offer welcome relief from the indigestion and ear-burn caused by coarse and hot-sounding CD players.
The flip side of integrating a smooth, neutrally balanced, component such as the DAC1 into an existing system, is that its naturalness may be initially mistaken for lack of drive or emotional involvement. There may be a learning curve involved in appreciating the DAC1's musical qualities. Kick back and savor its exceptional resolution of low-level detail or the clarity with which it paints instrumental outlines. Transients are launched with the speed of a photon torpedo and plunge down to the depth of the recording's noise floor. Reproduction of bass lines is tuneful with excellent pitch precision. In this respect, the DAC1 runs circles around the AH! Super Tjoeb I have had on hand as a reference in the under $2K price range. And after an extended listening session, you are bound to realize that listening fatigue is not an issue with this DAC. It has the ability to involve you in the music's sweet caress without overloading the auditory system. With the DAC1 and a good tube preamplifier in the signal path, you will find yourself spending more time re-discovering your CD collection.
The DAC1 defines digital playback that is exceedingly listenable with pop, jazz or classical music. Free from tonal balance distortions, it offers welcome relief from digital "heart burn" and eliminates the need for an exotic or expensive transport. Its well-defined bass range is another strong plus. It may be connected directly to an amplifier, though my preference is to use it as a conventional DAC in conjunction with a good tube preamplifier.
The Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 does in fact set a performance benchmark, that in my experience, is unequalled at even three times its asking price. A genuine bargain and a Godsend for music lovers.
Type: Digital to analog converter
Digital Inputs: XLR, Coaxial, and TOSlink
Input Sample Frequency Range: 28kHz to 195kHz
Maximum Input Word Length: 24 bits
Digital Input Impedance on XLR Input: 110 ohms
Digital Input Impedance on Coaxial Input: 75 ohms or Hi-Z (Bridging)
Dimensions: 9.33 x 9.5 x 1.725 (DxWxH in inches)
Weight: 3.5 lbs.
Price: $975 (direct from the manufacturer)
Benchmark Media Systems, Inc.