Objective Reviews & Commentary - An Engineer's Perspective

March 10, 2011

Benchmark DAC1 Pre

WHY THE DAC1? nwavguy-dscope-benchmarkSome 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.


  1. I'd be curious to hear your opinion of the Anedio D1. Although now it's currently out of production it should be making a return with at least more USB support. They have posted some very impressive AP measurements which are the best I have seen for a DAC as well as a headphone amp.

  2. I've not seen the Anedio D1 independently tested anywhere, but their measurements indeed look very good. The headphone amp, and design in general, is very similar to the DAC1. It's also fairly close in price and that was without USB.

    They seem like a great company mostly focused on the right things--just like Benchmark Media. The 32 bit hype is a bit hard for me to swallow, however. To my knowledge nobody has ever achieved even 24 bit effective (ENOB) resolution in consumer audio gear. But it's great to find companies that publish real measurements and focus on solid design and performance instead of audiophile hype.

    They do have their work cut out for them with high-resolution USB, however. There are currently no (AFAIK) easy/cheap "plug and play" chip solutions for that deliver really high performance USB at 24/96 with native driver support.

  3. Hi NwAvGuy,

    I have been enjoying your blog quite a bit and it has been very eye opening compared to many sponsored forums.

    I do have a question about DAC recommendations, I see that you gave the Fiio e7 and this Benchmark Dac1 good marks, but they are on opposite ends of the cost spectrum, are there any worthwhile DACs in the $200, $300, $400 etc range?

  4. I think once you spend several hundred dollars it's good to have 24 bit support via USB but that's hard to find. My best suggestion right now is the Centrance DACport at $400. Another for Mac owners is the Apogee One. I suspect there are going to be some new options soon that will do hi-res audio via USB with native drivers.

  5. Hello,

    I own a Bancmark DAC 1 Pre. My problem is the source.. From my laptop through USB or optical the SQ is much worse than through for example a Slimdevice/Logitech transporter digital out or a soundcard digital out (ESI Juli@).
    But I would like to use my laptop..
    Do you have any suggestion? Shall I buy a "high quality" USB to Spdif coverter (galvanically isolated and asynchronous)?
    Thanks a lot

  6. Your Benchmark DAC1 should work fine on your laptop. It has excellent jitter reduction from any of its inputs. Check the link about Computer Audio on the right hand side of this blog to make sure you are sending the best possible signal to the DAC1.

    Do you have any EQ or other processing enabled in your Transporter or on the PC? That could account for the differences you're hearing. The Transporter, by the way, has an excellent DAC already and I would just its analog outputs and not bother with the DAC1.

    I don't believe in USB to S/PDIF converters when they're not required as they're a potential source of added jitter. The internal I2S interface is a much better way to go from USB to the DAC. In other words, it's best done in one box with everything running from one clock as Benchmark does.

    There can be some value to galvanic isolation which the DAC1 lacks unless you're using optical. That's usually only an issue if you connect the DAC1 to something that's grounded like an A/V system with a cable TV connection. Then you can get hum from ground loops. If you just use it to drive headphones, galvanic isolation is unlikely to yield any benefit.

    It's possible you're simply imagining the sound quality difference and it would disappear if you didn't know which source was which. I have a DAC1 and no matter what I connect it to, it always sounds great--USB, coax, or optical. I also have a Transporter and suspect the two would be tough to tell apart in a blind test.

  7. Hey, do you think dac1-hdr is worth additional 300$ compared to pre? I want to buy decent dac (my pc has a lot of noise when being 100% utilized, especially gpu adds a lot of noise[GTX285SSC]), to drive "all possible headphones" (from iems to 600Ohms phones) I might get in the future including some IEMs like UE Triple.Fi 10.

  8. The only reason to get the HDR is if you want the remote. The only reason to get the Pre is if you think you may need multiple inputs (especially an analog input). For basic DAC/headphone duty, the USB will work well. The sound quality is the same among all three.

    I have lots of respect for Benchmark, and can't say enough good about them, but you might also want to look at the Centrance DACmini with the $100 low impedance output upgrade is a somewhat less expensive but still excellent alternative to the DAC1 USB. I don't think it can handle as wide of range of headphones but it offers similarly excellent hi-res DAC performance.

    The (nearly) "all possible headphones" goal is what's behind my O2 and ODA/ODAC. Benchmark uses a similar approach.

  9. just for clarity - are you saying that the plain vanilla benchmark dac-1 can be both reference dac, and headphone amplifier for most headphones? or do you need to get the dac-1 pre to drive most headphones?
    for example coud i use both of these with one of the dac-1 models? - westone es5 custom iem's (16 ohm) and LCD-2 orthos (60 ohm)

    thanks so much for your amazing blog!

  10. @Anon, you're welcome. All the DAC1 models, I believe, offer very similar DAC and identical headphone amp performance. The basic differences are:

    DAC1 - S/PDIF Only
    DAC1 USB - Adds USB
    DAC1 PRE - Adds more inputs including analog
    DAC1 HDR - Adds remote control

    There are some other differences as well, see the Benchmark website (or call/email them) if you want to know more.

    Any of them should handle both the LCD-2 and Westones. But the gain requirements of those are rather different and you might be better off with a DAC that has an external gain switch. The DAC1s use an internal gain adjustment and you'll have to set it high enough for your LCD-2 which will force using the lower end of the volume range with your IEMs. The upcoming ODA/ODAC will, like the O2, have an external gain switch.

  11. There's a good review of the Benchmark DAC1 HDR here: http://www.theaudiocritic.com/plog/

    Also a lot of other stuff which is interesting too. Good to see that rational empiricism still has a place in reviewing audio equipment.


  12. Hi NwAvGuy,
    I received the parts from Mouser for the O2 today!
    I'm a looking to buy my first reference grade headphones (currently I have the Senn HD238, not very neutral), and an dac/amp.
    I use Shure SE425 with my iPod for portable use.
    My question is this: How good is the amp with the Benchmark DAC 1 ? Do I need to buy anything else?

    1. I'm not sure I understand the question. There's little point in using the O2 with the DAC1. The DAC1 already has a great headphone amp (and in blind tests it sounds just like the O2).

      If you mean for portable use, the O2 can drive virtually any headphone the DAC1 can drive. So short of the couple of "edge case" headphones I mention in the O2 articles, you're free to choose most any dynamic and even most planar headphones for portable use with the O2.

      If you don't yet have a DAC1, you could save a lot of money and buy something more modest to use with your O2--such as an HRT Streamer II or the upcoming ODAC.

    2. Hi,
      Sorry I was a bit unclear, but thanks for the reply.
      I was planning to put together the O2 with batteries only, because we have 240VAC here, and finding a 240->16/18/22VAC adapter was proving to be somewhat difficult. Ultimately I found this: AD3515-18.0-0267EU from RS-Online. I hope it can work. Do I need to add the desktop capacitors if I use the AC adaptor?

      I have a lot more flac music in my PC, so I also need a dac.
      As you suggest, its not worth spending the money on the Benchmark (if there is no audible difference), but I would shell out a bit more for the Streamer II+, if it makes any difference in soundstage as claimed.

      Ive ordered the pcb & front plate from JDS Labs, and once they arrive I'll start soldering them.

    3. That adapter will work fine, I should add it to the O2 parts list as it's only 5 British Pounds. You need all the capacitors on the O2 parts list. Please see the O2 Details article and the PDF documentation for more information. This is getting far off topic for the Benchmark DAC1.


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