Benchmark DAC1 Pre USB D/A headphone amplifier DAC1 HDR, September 2010

Erick Lichte reviewed the DAC1 HDR in September 2010 (Vol.33 No.9):

I'm trying to live in better balance with my expectations in life. High expectations for myself, the people around me, and the things I buy often leave me unhappy, frustrating, and frustrated, respectively. Slowly, I am learning that the greatest joys in life come when I don't know I'm looking for them.

Such an unexpected joy happened in 2004, when I first used the original Benchmark DAC1 at a recording session I produced with John Atkinson. Using the DAC1 to power a pair of Sennheiser HD600 headphones, I was completely impressed with the DAC1's sound quality. When I learned that it could also decode almost every PCM bit depth and sample rate, that it could function as a preamplifier, and that it retailed for only $850 (current price: $995), I was shocked and delighted. Not long after that session, I bought an original DAC1. Since then it has, well, set the benchmark for an all-in-one digital-to-analog converter, volume control, and headphone amplifier.

Benchmark has upgraded and amended the DAC1 a number of times since the first iteration. They first added a USB input (the DAC1 USB, $1295), then an analog line-level input (the DAC1 PRE, $1595). Now arrives the DAC1 HDR ($1895, footnote 1), which includes everything in the three previous models, as well as a motorized Alps volume potentiometer that responds to a remote control. Unlike my DAC1, the HDR also features National Semiconductor LM4562 op-amps throughout the analog stage, as well as Teflon RCA connectors.

When JA asked me to review the DAC1 HDR, I had one big question: Would it sound much different from my old DAC1?

I found the fit, finish, styling, and layout of the DAC1 HDR to be slightly better than those of my DAC1. The volume pot felt smooth and sturdy to the touch, and I found it easy to select inputs and put the HDR in sleep mode with the centrally placed knob. Aside from some casual use of the USB input, I fed the HDR data from my Theta Miles CD transport via a Stereovox HDXV S/PDIF coaxial cable. The HDR fed a variety of power amps and integrated amplifiers I had on hand, including Rogue Audio's M180 monoblocks, the Simaudio Moon i3.3 and Mystère ia21 integrateds, and Pass Labs' XA30.5 and Aleph 3 power amps. When using any of the integrated amps, I bypassed the DAC1 HDR's volume control and fed the Mystère and Simaudio the HDR's calibrated output. I fed all of the amps except the Aleph 3 and Mystère balanced signals via the HDR's XLR outputs.

Before doing any critical listening, I let the HDR cook in my system for a few weeks. During that time, I fell under the spell of controlling a Benchmark product with a remote. Though I thought the HDR's remote wasn't the most intuitive I'd ever used (the button that should increase the volume actually changes the input), I got used to its layout and loved having it do my bidding.

During the HDR's weeks of warmup, I slowly became aware that the music it was making sounded more relaxed, fleshed out, and dynamic than I was used to. I found myself listening to music more than I had with my old DAC1. I also found myself enjoying music more than I had in a while. My system has always had a nice tonal balance, big soundstage, and the right amounts of accuracy and soul. With the DAC1 HDR, the sound was similar to what I was used to, yet everything felt more right. The best compliment I can give the DAC1 HDR is that it made music feel good—which made me feel good.

Audiophilia nervosa eventually kicked in, however, and I got the urge to nitpick the similarities and differences between the DAC1 HDR and my old DAC1. Using the 1kHz test tone on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2) and my RadioShack decibel meter, I matched the levels of the two Benchmark DACs and began comparing them. Through the HDR, Broken Bells' "The High Road," from their eponymous album (CD, Columbia KC 55865), had fantastic separation between instruments, a soundstage both wide and deep, and a full yet punchy midbass. Switching back to my DAC1 on the same track, I was a bit shocked at how different it sounded. Actually, that's not correct—these DACs sounded quite similar. What shocked me was how different these DACs felt. The DAC1 HDR felt wonderfully organic and colorful, while the DAC1, though accurate, sounded a touch grayer and less involving.

I came to the same conclusion listening to the Pet Shop Boys and Torsten Rasch's excellent soundtrack to Sergei Eisenstein's silent film Battleship Potemkin (CD, EMI 8744502). This new score for Eisenstein's seminal 1925 film pairs Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's throbbing synthesizers and club beats with Rasch's densely scored strings. Compared with the HDR, the old DAC1 had a slightly less layered and slightly narrower soundstage, and a somewhat thinner midbass. The Potemkin soundtrack especially benefited from the HDR's ability to spatially delineate each sound and instrument from the others, to offer a clear picture of this music's disparate and intriguing textures.

My wife and I love to sing along to songs in the car, and our current favorite is Animal Collective's "My Girls," from their Merriweather Post Pavilion (CD, Domino 219). It sounds fantastic as we drive I-94 (and especially when we sing along). However, I don't like listening to it on my home stereo, which easily reveals just how compressed and overcooked this recording is. The upside of the album's bad mastering is that I now use it as a reference for how components deal with today's ubiquitous overcooked recordings. Though I consistently found that the DAC1 HDR offered more resolution than my old DAC1, it was actually more forgiving of this album's hot treble. Through the DAC1, the treble sounded a touch more homogeneous, making sibilants sound like a shaken shaker or a struck hi-hat. While both Benchmark DAC1s rendered almost identical tonal balances, the HDR laid out each treble sound with greater spatial clarity and timbral definition. The HDR's rendering of music was always subtly and surprisingly more musical, even with poor recordings.

I also used the DAC1 HDR as a headphone amp. It drove my Sennheiser HD600s every bit as well as does my DAC1. Through 'phones, the HDR again revealed itself as more refined and musical than the DAC1, with a bigger soundstage, better solidity and separation of instruments in the stereo image, and better treble resolution. I had no trouble getting the HDR's USB input to talk to my laptop (running Windows Vista) when playing files ripped from "Red Book" CDs. I wasn't able to try the Benchmark DAC1 HDR's analog input—I have no analog source. A goal for the near future is to get my first turntable. Stay tuned.

Summing up

Ostensibly, the DAC1 HDR's volume pot, RCA terminals, and op-amps are the only things that should make it sound different from my old DAC1. While I expected these upgrades would make some audible differences, I also expected that the two DACs would sound essentially the same. Sure enough, it turned out that the DAC1 and DAC1 HDR are cut from the same sonic cloth. However, the HDR offered subtle improvements in many areas of performance over the DAC1. All together, these small differences made a change greater than their mere sum. The DAC1 HDR made music in a more engaging and organic way than its little brother, and I think most listeners will be able to hear that difference—or, at least, feel it.

Yes, the DAC1 HDR costs almost twice as much as the original DAC1, and no, it doesn't sound twice as good. That said, I feel the DAC1 HDR's higher price is entirely justified, based on its outstanding performance and myriad features and inputs. If the original DAC1 was a Goliath-slayer among DACs, the DAC1 HDR is King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans slaughtering Xerxes' army in the battle of Thermopylae. Benchmark's DAC1 HDR is my new reference for a high-value, do-it-all DAC-preamplifier-headphone driver. I didn't expect the DAC1 HDR to outshine my old DAC1 as much as it did. No wonder I so enjoyed my time with it.—Erick Lichte

Footnote 1: John Atkinson reviewed the DAC1 USB in January 2008; Sam Tellig reported on the DAC1 PRE in October 2008.