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Benchmark Media DAC1

A Little Box Of Joy

Dave Thomas

December 2004

   

A few years ago I purchased the Electrocompaniet EMC-1 CD player simply because I thought it was the best reasonably priced single-box CD player available. I had never been much of a fan of separate transport and DAC combos. Even when EC came out with its own DAC, the ECD-1, I decided that for me, the incremental sonic improvement didn’t justify the additional cash pay out. In other words, they built the original EMC-1 so well, why introduce another box into the system? Having said that, I have heard the ECD-1 do wonders for many lesser systems and Mike Wright swears by it.

So when Clement Perry approached me about reviewing the $975 Benchmark Media DAC1, I was obviously a bit skeptical. After all, if the much more expensive ECD-1 didn’t float my boat, what was this little dude supposed to do? And when I say, “little,” I mean this bad boy only sits 9.5” wide, 9.33” deep, and 1.75” high. Heck, I’ve eaten steaks bigger than this thing. (Of course I nearly passed out from the pain brought on hours later by an experience that had to be akin to giving birth … but I digress).

Short, Dark, and Handsome

Despite its Hobbit-like size, this little dynamo is packed full of an embarrassment of audio riches:
 2-channel 24-bit/192-kHz D to A conversion
 Two Benchmark HPA2 high-current, high-output ¼” stereo headphone jacks
 Balanced and unbalanced outputs
 Balanced (XLR), Optical (Toslink), and coaxial (BNC) digital inputs
 Variable output control
 Jumper selectable 10, 20, or 30 dB pads on balanced outputs
 Benchmark’s own phase accurate UltraLock technology
 Detachable power cord
 Five Year Warranty

The DAC1 is ruggedly built and quite attractive in an industrial sort of way. To the left of the center of the ¼” thick brushed aluminum front panel are three vertically stacked LEDs. The top LED is blue and illuminates when the unit is plugged in. There is no power button so the DAC1 is always on. Below that is a red LED that, when lit, indicates that the sample level is too low or that there is no digital input signal. The bottom LED is also red and, when lit, indicates a signal that can’t be read by the unit (such as Dolby AC3). Next to the LEDs is a three-position toggle switch for selecting the type of input (Coaxial, XLR, or Optical). To the right of the toggle switch are the two headphone jacks. And finally, there is a sturdy knurled gain control knob for adjusting the output to the headphones. It can also be used to control the output to your amplifier, allowing you to bypass using a preamp for those of you who are “digital only” users. Above the knob is a stylishly engraved company logo. There are also rack-mounting holes at the corners of the faceplate. The DAC1 can be combined with another DAC1 or any other 9.5” Benchmark product to fit a standard 19” wide equipment rack.

The rear panel hosts most of the input and output connections. Facing the rear panel you will see a set of unbalanced (RCA) outputs on the left. Next to them is another three-position toggle switch for setting the output level. With this switch in the up position, the calibrated analog output level can be set via rear left and right 10-turn trim potentiometers. In the down position variable analog output levels can be controlled with the front-panel knob. And with the switch in the center position the analog outputs are muted though the headphone jacks remain active. Next to the toggle switch are the balanced outputs and next to them are the coaxial (BNC), optical (Toslink), and balanced (XLR) digital inputs. Finally, there’s an IEC AC power cord connector and fuse drawer.

Inside is a neatly laid out circuit board and low radiation toroidal transformer. On the circuit board are numerous jumpers that give you added flexibility by disabling unused outputs when you’re using the DAC1 in the critical audio path. Most of my listening was done using the factory jumper settings and balanced input and outputs. I also kept the output level set in the variable position except for a few occasions when I muted the output level and did some listening through my Grado SR60 headphones. I also used the Element Cable Red Storm power cord in place of the stock cord and I used Element’s Balanced Twisted Pair cables to connect the components. I got the best overall results using the DAC1’s balanced input and output though there really isn’t a huge sonic difference over the coaxial or optical connections.


Sonic Considerations

I took a selection of discs and listened to the same tunes with the DAC1 in the system and without it. I did most of my listening with my reference Talon Audio Peregrine X loudspeakers because of their full-range capabilities but also enlisted the services of the exciting new Escalante Design Pinyon monitor. I wasted no time in checking out the DAC1’s ability to reproduce dynamics by playing the soundtrack from the 2001 version of The Planet of the Apes [Sony Classical SK 89666] produced by Danny Elfman. The fourth track, “The Hunt”, calls upon a system to reproduce some subterranean bass and the EMC-1 reproduced it well. But surprisingly, the DAC1 added a larger and better defined soundstage. The deep bass is portrayed as coming from a musical instrument and not just deep bass energy. This was particularly true when I compared the DAC1 to the EMC-1 using its unbalanced outputs.

The next disc that I got into was Acoustic Alchemy’s Red Dust and Spanish Lace [MCA 5816]. The first track, “Mr. Chow” is a bit over-produced but nevertheless shows off Greg Carmichael and the late Nick Webb’s synergistic acoustic guitar playing. Once again, the effect of the DAC1 was an increased definition of the musical soundstage. The performers appeared to be occupying a decidedly more realistic space compared to my basic EMC-1. On the downside though, the upper frequencies became a bit more aggressive through the DAC1 and I preferred the EMC-1’s more balanced presentation. Just for grins I replaced the Element Cable interconnects with the excellent new KAS Audio Maestro balanced cables (review to come) and that seemed to take a bit of the edge off and bring the upper frequency performance closer to that of the EMC-1.

Finally, I played my favorite live disc, Kurt Elling’s Live In Chicago [Blue Note]. I know this disc like I know deep-dish pizza, and considering that I come from Chicago, that means I know it well … very well. Elling’s voice is as smooth as aged scotch and his command of classics such as “Smoke Gets In Your Eye” is very much in evidence on this recording. This is where the DAC1’s ability to throw a believable stage is important. The slight upper frequency aggression can easily be forgiven because of the realism with which this DAC reproduces the scale and detail of the performers and the ambience of live space. The tempo changes of track five, “Night Dream” are handled particularly well with the DAC1. A hot jazz band backs Elling, and the dynamics of the customary piano and drum solos are very well rendered.

I also used this disc to compare the DAC1 with the ECD-1 and got the mixed results I expected. The DAC1 was very much the equal of the ECD-1 in terms of soundstaging and deep bass reproduction but the ECD-1 was a bit more natural and refined from the upper midrange on. But bear in mind that the DAC1 costs less than a grand and offers outstanding flexibility, very nice sonics and dual headphone jacks!

Conclusion

If you’re a lover of deep bass reproduction and lively soundstaging (who isn’t?), this little gem will more than satisfy. If you are an audio minimalist and want to do away with a preamp while still enjoying the fun and convenience of headphones, this little gem will more than satisfy. And finally, if you want to inexpensively upgrade a standard redbook CD player to enjoy the benefits of 24-bit/192Hz digital converting power, the Benchmark Media DAC1 will more than satisfy you, it will absolutely thrill you. Highly recommended!


                             _______________


Manufacturers Response

First I wish to thank Dave Thomas for what I consider a very positive review. I do however, have an observation under the category of listening tests.

The main item of note is that the DAC1 was specifically designed for the recording studio marketplace where accuracy of playback is the total goal. When listening at home though, I personally would like the DAC to mask many of the faults that are in some older discs to which I may be listening. I know, however, that masking would quickly take away from the pleasure of the uncompromised recording.

Recording and mastering engineer Bob Olhsson, known as the “Motown legend”, was the recording consultant to the recent film “Standing In The Shadows of Motown” as he made many of the original Motown recordings. Bob is still a very active and much sought after engineer. His comment when reviewing some of his recent past recording projects was: “I wish I had the DAC1 when doing these projects, I now hear elements in the mix that I couldn’t hear before and I would do the mix differently.”

What makes the DAC1 truly unique is its ability to eliminate jitter induced audio sidebands and to prevent aliasing, which is a far bigger problem than many engineers acknowledge. Most DACs are unable to reject these artifacts. This cleanliness isn’t normal and the missing audio artifacts sometimes are perceived as a fault in the overall response. The frequency response of the DAC1, however, is ruler flat to beyond 40 kHz, with an overall –3 dB bandwidth of 55 kHz.

The DAC1 does not emphasize any frequency or band of frequencies. The goal is accuracy, whether we like what we get back or not. In most cases, with carefully recorded material, using state-of-the-art equipment, the listening results will bring tears to my eyes, at least. I would strongly recommend the DVD-A recordings made by Dr. Mark Waldrep of AIX Records as an excellent example.

A well-known recording engineer named David recently purchased a DAC1. After listening to a high-resolution piano recording that was made with one of his Neumann microphones, David called to discuss the DAC1’s frequency response. He wanted to know if we were rolling off the high frequencies of the DAC1. No, of course not. He did not hear the “normal” edge that he believed was an intrinsic part of the microphone’s response. The conversation ended where David was not at all convinced that the DAC1 was more accurate than his $14,000 reference DAC, though with that piano recording, he liked the DAC1’s playback better. He called it “luscious”. We believe the “edge” that David was hearing was the result of artifacts created by his reference DAC. This certainly is a difficult concept to get one’s mind around, given the cost differential of the two DACs.

Also remember, any artifacts from the analog sources and A-to-D converters in the original recording will also be faithfully reproduced by the DAC1.

Sincerely,
Benchmark Media Systems, Inc.
Allen H. Burdick
President

Specifications:
-2-channel, 24bit, 192-kHz D-to-A conversion
-All sample rates playback with a 52-kHz analog bandwidth.
-THD+N = -106 dB (0.0005%) measured at -0 dBFS, any sample rate, any test frequency, with any degree of input jitter!
-116 dB signal-to-noise ratio @52 kHz, A weighted
-AES/EBU (XLR & Coax) and S/PDIF (XLR, Coax, & Toslink) inputs
-Digital input source-selection switch
-Balanced, low-Z XLR outputs
-+29 dBu output level capability
-Unbalanced RCA outputs
-Variable or preset output level controls, switch selectable
-Direct connection to powered monitors
-Built-in Benchmark HPA-2, a high-output, ultra-clean headphone amplifier with dual outputs jacks
-Total jitter immunity via UltraLock™ technology!
-Phase Accurate D-to-A conversion across any number of channels
-1 power, 2 error indicating LEDs
-Internal low-radiation toroidal power supply
-International 115-230 input voltage range
-Automatic De-emphasis for 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96 kHz when Pre-emphasis bit is set
-Milled aluminum front panel
-1/2 wide, 1RU chassis
-Rack mount kit available
-CE Compliant

Price: $975.00

Address:
Benchmark Media Systems, Inc.
5925 Court Street Road
Syracuse, NY 13206-1707
Telephone: 1-800-262-4675
Fax: 1-315-437-8119
Email: sales@benchmarkmedia.com
Website: www.benchmarkmedia.com
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Luminous Audio

Benchmark Media DAC