The Fifth Element #18 John Atkinson Followup May 2004
We generally restrict Stereophile's review coverage to conventional consumer products. But the reality is that many pro-audio components are equally at home in domestic living rooms and recording studios, so we do look out for promising pieces of pro gear. In his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks alerted Stereophile readers to an example, the Benchmark DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier (footnote 1), which he rated highly: "Shazam! Gloriosky, even. All you need is a transport to feed the DAC1 a digital signal, a power amplifier, speakers, and a few bits of wire, and you have a stripped-down hot rod of a system that is ready to rock'n'roll. Or Wagnerize, even."
I'll leave readers to check out JM's report for a description of the DAC1. What's important to note here is that it has three digital inputs—TosLink and coaxial S/PDIF, as well as AES/EBU on an XLR jack—and three sets of analog outputs: balanced on XLRs, unbalanced on RCAs, and a ¼" headphone jack. As a one-box solution to decoding digital audio wherever convenient, the DAC1 goes head to head with the Grace 901, which John and I wrote about in the March 2003 and August 2003 issues, respectively. John decided that the $1495 Grace had a slight edge in sound quality, with a "slightly more luscious midrange and sweeter treble." But he suggested I give the Benchmark a listen. Belatedly, I did, only to immediately wish I had done so sooner.
I drove the DAC1 with a variety of digital sources, ranging from my reference Mark Levinson No.31.5 CD transport to uncompressed AIF audio data files played back on my Apple PowerBook via a Metric Halo Mobile IO 2882 FireWire interface. Preamp was a Mark Levinson No.380S, or the Halcro dm10 reviewed elsewhere in this issue by Paul Bolin; power amplifier was the darTZeel NHB-108; and speakers were Sonus Faber Cremonas.
In level-matched comparisons with my long-term reference DAC, the Mark Levinson No.30.6, using Illuminati Orchid AES/EBU digital datalinks, I found it surprisingly difficult to hear differences. But after a lot of listening—whether it was solo classical piano, such as the recent JVC XRCD re-release of Artur Rubinstein performing Chopin piano sonatas (JM-XR24008), or classic rock, such as our February "Recording of the Month," the Beatles' Let It Be...Naked (CD, Apple/Capitol CDP 5 95227 2)—the '30.6 had more low-frequency weight, slightly more dimensionality to its stereo imaging, and a smoother presentation, overall. Both Ringo's kick drum and Rubinstein's piano's left-hand register had more authority via the No.30.6, and I could better differentiate the direct sounds of the instruments and the surrounding ambience, whether that of the Manhattan Center in 1961 (Rubinstein) or the various reverb chambers (Beatles).
However, before you conclude that I'm dissing the Benchmark, remember that, before being discontinued in 2003, the mighty Levinson cost $17,500, came in two chassis, and weighed more than 80 lbs. The Lilliputian DAC1 sells for a mere $975. Considered on its own merits as a D/A processor, the Benchmark punched way above its weight. Its grain-free presentation was accompanied by stable, well-defined soundstaging, and low frequencies that, if not as weighty as the Levinson's, were still full-balanced.
Against the CD-playback performance of Musical Fidelity's Tri-Vista SACD player ($6000), the Benchmark, driven by the MF's data output with the inexpensive Stereovox hdxv S/PDIF cable, performed creditably. It presented Ida Levin's solo violin on the Schulhoff sonata movement on Editor's Choice (STPH016-2) a little more forward in the soundstage than did the tubed Musical Fidelity, but the relationship between the instrument and the voluminous acoustic of Santa Fe's Loretto Chapel was still clearly defined. On tracks where the recorded reverberation was more subtle—the Beethoven piano sonata on Editor's Choice, for example—the DAC1 sounded slightly drier than the Tri-Vista, but still very convincing. And its low frequencies sounded definitely fatter.
To assess the DAC1 as a headphone amplifier, I fed its balanced analog output to the HeadRoom BlockHead ($3333) with 0.5m lengths of balanced Ayre interconnect, using single-ended Sennheiser HD600 headphones for the Benchmark and balanced HD600s for the HeadRoom. Level matching could be only approximate, of course, but I readily perceived the differences. The BlockHead sounded warmer, but with a more transparent window into the soundstage, on Cantus' "Danny Boy" (CD, Let Your Voice Be Heard, Cantus CTS 1201). The Benchmark had a more filigreed treble and a lighter overall balance, but with a slightly less well-defined upper bass. I used both headphone amplifiers while auditioning splices for my current recording project, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Both were equally adept at letting me know when a splice wouldn't work because, for example, of a very slight difference in the background ambiences of the outgoing and incoming takes. The DAC1 will be an essential companion when I next record on location. I bought the review sample.
Whether considered as a standalone D/A converter or a versatile headphone amp, Benchmark's DAC1 is an audiophile bargain. Use it to revitalize the sound of your long-in-the-tooth CD player or the DVD player that you never thought sounded as good playing CDs as you had expected. Thanks, John Marks, for alerting both the readers and me to the DAC1.—John Atkinson
Footnote 1: The DAC1 costs $975 (as of May 2004) and can be purchased directly from Benchmark Media Systems, Inc., 5925 Court Street Road, Syracuse, NY 13206-1707. Tel: (800) 262-4675. Fax: (315) 437-8119.—John Atkinson