WHY THE DAC1? Some here have asked why I would own a product like the Benchmark DAC1 Pre when it seems I’m relatively pleased with even a $29 Behringer DAC? That’s a fair question and here are some of the reasons:
- For professional reasons, I needed a DAC that’s more accurate than other equipment I work with. It needed to have as complete of performance specifications as possible. I also needed balanced outputs, multiple digital inputs, and USB connectivity that did not require proprietary drivers. I needed a reference-grade DAC. That list of requirements narrows the choices considerably.
- I partly chose the Benchmark because it’s been very well reviewed subjectively by the audiophile media for its “soundstage”, “micro-dynamics”, “lack of artifacts”, “pace”, “black background” and general “musicality”. Here’s an Absolute Sound Review by Robert Greene. Greene said “It is as if the electronics had simply vanished”. It has won product of the year awards and numerous other accolades.
- The DAC1 has also been praised for its excellent objective measurements. Several have hooked it up to an Audio Precision analyzer and been rather stunned by the results. Various versions of the DAC1 have won the title of “best DAC ever measured” by some reviewers. It’s relatively rare to find one piece of gear that pleases both the highly subjective esoteric audiophile reviewers, and also the hardcore objective engineers of the world. Often gear that measures really well gets branded with adjectives like “sterile” or “clinical”. But the Benchmark is rare in that it largely pleases both groups.
- Benchmark has some very rational views on jitter (they’ve written an interesting paper on it). They’ve come up with a scheme that works very well in the real world (ASRC). You can argue about how much jitter is audible. But it’s hard to argue with how little visible jitter artifacts there are on the DAC1’s outputs no matter what you feed it—my tests and those of others back this up.
- It’s a 24/192 DAC that properly supports 24/96 via USB with no special drivers. A lot of products don’t properly handle 24/96 on a Windows PC without proprietary drivers. It’s becoming more common, but when the DAC1 was introduced, it was hard to find. Many USB DACs use the rather jitter-prone, old and low-end TI PCM29xx or PCM27xx chips for their 16/48 USB interface. I needed something better.
- I respect Benchmark Media as a company. They have a very solid design philosophy and they take their time developing and refining a small number of products. This is in sharp contrast to some similarly small high-end companies that churn out new models every few months trying to follow the latest fad or trend. Benchmark’s roots are in professional gear and it shows in their quality, detailed specs and lack of gimmicks. They’ve done an artful job of bridging professional requirements and performance with the often irrational desires of high-end home audiophiles.
- Finally, it’s not a huge deal, but I like that Benchmark products are made in the USA. They have total control over the products from the original design to shipping them out the door. You can call Benchmark on the phone and the person who answers can probably can tell you what size screws hold the case together (I’m only exaggerating a little). They also have a 5 year no questions asked warranty. They’re a small company and very focused on doing only a few things really well. They haven’t sold out to some heartless share-price-driven public corporation like Harman International or some Chinese company eager to leverage an established brand name for maximum profit. I hope they never do.
The DAC1, in some ways, exceeds even the high-end abilities of my Prism Sound dScope Series III measurement system. I have published a few DAC1 measurements, where applicable here and there, but a full review would be challenging. Regardless, the DAC1’s performance, in every sense, is well past the point of diminishing returns. It’s one of those rare products you never have to worry about not being up to the task. You can just about arc weld with the high current zero ohm headphone output and the line outputs have vanishingly low distortion of any kind.
Some have asked if the Benchmark sounds better than DAC X, Y or Z. And, in some cases it does. In other cases it’s a much harder call. It matters what the source is, what it’s driving, etc. The whole idea is it’s genuinely a true reference-grade piece of gear. It’s the standard by which other gear can be judged.
I think it would be difficult to find a more accurate sounding DAC at any price. Some DAC’s might have an intentionally soft high end that some prefer. Another might have a tube output stage with “euphonic” (pleasant to some ears) distortion. So there are other DACs that sound different. But I would be surprised if anyone can find a DAC that’s more audibly true to the original recording than the Benchmark. As Robert Greene at Absolute Sound put it, it “vanishes” which is exactly what I want a DAC to do. I don’t want a piece of gear that colors the sound or uses other gimmicks to try and be different.
LISTENING TEST (added 3/16): I conducted a couple of listening tests mainly to evaluate the Behringer UCA202, a modified UCA202, and the Nuforce uDAC-2. But I included the Benchmark DAC1 Pre as a reference. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the results interestingly favored the Benchmark overall even when the listeners didn’t know which was which. This was hardly a conclusive test, and I plan to conduct better blind tests in the future, but the result did confirm the DAC1 seems to sound better.
COMPETITION (added 3/28): The closest competition to the DAC1 Pre is probably the Grace Designs m903 but it’s even more expensive and not as thoroughly specified or tested. The Lavry DA11 is also well regarded but has a somewhat different feature set and is less popular.
It’s partly about needing a “better than the rest” reference product for professional reasons. And it’s partly about wanting a DAC I don’t have to worry about being the “weak link” in any setup I might use it in. The Benchmark fills both rolls nicely.