The 2004 Products of the Year Editor's Choice
Benchmark DAC1 D/A headphone amplifier (review)
It was more than a decade ago that D/A processors were the "hot" product category in high-end audio. In the early 1990s, hardly an issue of Stereophile hit the streets without a new contender for "DAC of the Year" gracing our pages. By contrast, as you'll see if you peruse the paucity of the DAC listings in the 2005 Stereophile Buyer's Guide—available this month at a newsstand near you—the world of high-end audio appears to have passed the standalone D/A converter by. (The irony is that, with a few notable exceptions, DACs were technical underachievers in the early 1990s. Nowadays, the measured performance of even inexpensive designs is almost beyond reproach, thanks mainly to the efforts of the big chip manufacturers.)
Even so, the one audio product that has floored me in the past 12 months' listening was a D/A processor, the DAC1, from pro-audio manufacturer Benchmark. I was alerted to the existence of this marvel by Stereophile's point man John Marks, and boy, was he on target. The DAC1 doesn't sound quite as expansive or quite as smooth as, say, the Mark Levinson No.30.6, the Theta Generation VIII, or the Wadia 27ix—but at $975, it costs around the same as the sales tax on those behemoths!
The Benchmark's measured performance is at least as good as, if not better than, the best high-end designs. Its use of a high-performance sample-rate converter chip ahead of its DAC chip means that its rejection of word-clock jitter is about as good as it gets, allowing it to be used, say, to wrest high-end sound from a cheap DVD player. And as well as both balanced and unbalanced line outs and a volume control, which allow its owner to dispense with a preamplifier, the DAC1 has two high-current headphone jacks. You can't find much more in the way of a high-end audio bargain than the Benchmark DAC1.