Benchmark DAC2 HGC D/A processor/headphone amplifier Measurements

Sidebar 3: Measurements

I examined the Benchmark DAC2 HGC's electrical performance with Stereophile's loan sample of the top-of-the-line Audio Precision SYS2722 system (see and the January 2008 "As We See It"). The DAC2 HGC's performance via its USB port was tested using my 2012-vintage Apple MacBook Pro. Apple's USB Prober utility identified the Benchmark as having the Product String "Benchmark DAC2 USB Audio 1.0" or "Benchmark DAC2 USB Audio 2.0," depending on which mode the DAC2's USB input had been set to. The Benchmark operated with the preferred isochronous asynchronous protocol in both USB modes. Set to USB1.0, the DAC2 accepted data with sample rates up to 96kHz; set to USB2.0, it also worked with data sampled at 176.4 and 192kHz. As usual, the TosLink input locked to data at sample rates of up to 96kHz, while the coaxial input also successfully locked to 176.4 and 192kHz datastreams. All the measurements were taken from the rear-panel analog outputs rather than the headphone outputs.

When the DAC2 was first turned on, the volume control smoothly rotated itself so that the level was 7dB lower than the maximum. The maximum output level at 1kHz was 3.47V from the balanced XLR jacks, and exactly half that, as expected, from the single-ended RCA jacks. (The 10dB pads were installed on the XLR outputs.) This was with S/PDIF data; to my surprise, the USB input produced an output 2.2dB higher in level. Both outputs preserved absolute polarity (ie, were non-inverting), with the front-panel Polarity LED dark, meaning that the XLRs are wired with pin 2 hot. The output impedance was 407 ohms from the XLRs and 30 ohms from the RCAs, from 20Hz to 20kHz.

The Benchmark's impulse response at 44.1kHz (fig.1) indicates that its reconstruction filter is a conventional, time-symmetrical, linear-phase type. The cyan and red traces in fig.2 are a wideband spectral analysis of the DAC2's output while it was fed 44.1kHz data representing white noise at –4dBFS. The signal rolls off steeply above the audioband, reaching the noise floor just below 23kHz. As a result, the sampling-generated image at 25kHz of a full-scale 19.1kHz tone (blue and magenta traces) is completely suppressed, while the second and third harmonics of the tone, at 38.2 and 57.3kHz, lie at or below –100dB (0.001%). (This graphical representation of the reconstruction filter's behavior was suggested to me by Jürgen Reis of MBL.) Fig.3 shows the Benchmark's frequency response with data sampled at 44.1, 96, and 192kHz. In each case, the response is flat until just below half the sample rate. Channel separation via the digital inputs (not shown) was superb, at >125dB in both directions below 1kHz, and still 100dB at 20kHz.


Fig.1 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, impulse response at 44.kHz (4ms time window).


Fig.2 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, wideband spectrum of white noise at –4dBFS (left channel blue, right magenta) and 19.1kHz tone at 0dBFS (left cyan, right red), with data sampled at 44.1kHz (20dB/vertical div.).


Fig.3 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, frequency response at –12dBFS into 100k ohms with data sampled at: 44.1kHz (left channel green, right gray), 96kHz (left cyan, right magenta), 192kHz (left blue, right red) (0.5dB/vertical div.).

The Benchmark DAC2 offered one of the highest resolutions I have measured. The cyan and magenta traces in fig.4 show the spectrum of the processor's XLR outputs with its volume control set to its maximum while it decoded dithered data representing a 1kHz tone at –90dBFS. Other than the spike at 1kHz, which peaks at the correct level, the traces show only the spectrum of the dither noise used to encode the system. Increasing the bit depth to 24 gave the blue and red traces in this graph. Note that I've had to extend the vertical scale to –160dBFS to reveal the noise floor. The drop in the level of the noise floor with 24-bit data indicates that the DAC2 offers 21-bit resolution, which is state-of-the-art performance. This graph was taken with TosLink data; the DAC2 behaved just as superbly via its USB port, but still offered some very low-level harmonics, predominantly in the left channel (blue trace).


Fig.4 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, spectrum with noise and spuriae of dithered 1kHz tone at –90dBFS with: 16-bit data (left channel cyan, right magenta), 24-bit data (left blue, right red) (20dB/vertical div.).

With the very low level of noise and superb linearity, the DAC2's reproduction of an undithered 16-bit tone at exactly –90.31dBFS was essentially perfect (fig.5): the waveform is symmetrical about the time axis, the three DC voltages described by the data are well resolved, and the reconstruction filter's symmetrical Gibbs Phenomenon "ringing" on the tops and bottoms of the waveform is readily evident. With undithered 24-bit data, the result is an excellent sinewave (fig.6).


Fig.5 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, waveform of undithered 1kHz sinewave at –90.31dBFS, 16-bit data (left channel blue, right red).


Fig.6 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, waveform of undithered 1kHz sinewave at –90.31dBFS, 24-bit data (left channel blue, right red).

Even driving a very demanding 600 ohm load, the DAC2 offered very low levels of analog distortion (fig.7), with the third harmonic the highest in level, at –116dB (0.00015%). Other than the second and fifth, all the other harmonics lie at close to –130dB. Intermodulation distortion was also superbly low, again even into 600 ohms (fig.8).


Fig.7 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, balanced output, spectrum of 50Hz sinewave, DC–1kHz, at 0dBFS into 600 ohms (left channel blue, right red; linear frequency scale).


Fig.8 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, balanced output, HF intermodulation spectrum, DC–30kHz, 19+20kHz at 0dBFS into 600 ohms (left channel blue, right red; linear frequency scale).

Tested for its rejection of word-clock jitter via its TosLink input, which is the worst case, a 16-bit version of the Miller-Dunn J-Test data resulted in a spectrum almost completely free from jitter-related sidebands (fig.9), and with the odd-order harmonics of the low-frequency, LSB-level squarewave all at the correct levels. With 24-bit J-Test data (fig.10), other than the very low-level sidebands at ±1500Hz in the left channel (blue trace), no jitter-related spuriae at all are visible! To my surprise, however, when I repeated the 24-bit test via the DAC2's USB port, a pair of sidebands appeared at ±229Hz (fig.11), though 16-bit J-Test data via USB gave a spectrum identical to that in fig.10. This graph was taken with the port set to USB2.0; repeating the test with the port set to USB1.0 gave an identical result. The J-Test signal is not diagnostic for USB data, as the bit clock is not embedded in the data, as it is in S/PDIF and AES/EBU datastreams. The data-related sidebands in fig.11 are unlikely to be jitter-related, therefore. But something is happening with 24-bit USB data—perhaps this is the Logic-Induced Modulation reported by Meitner and Gendron in their October 1991 AES paper.


Fig.9 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, high-resolution jitter spectrum of analog output signal, 11.025kHz at –6dBFS, sampled at 44.1kHz with LSB toggled at 229Hz: 16-bit data via TosLink from AP SYS2722 (left channel blue, right red). Center frequency of trace, 11.025kHz; frequency range, ±3.5kHz.


Fig.10 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, high-resolution jitter spectrum of analog output signal, 11.025kHz at –6dBFS, sampled at 44.1kHz with LSB toggled at 229Hz: 24-bit data via TosLink from AP SYS2722 (left channel blue, right red). Center frequency of trace, 11.025kHz; frequency range, ±3.5kHz.


Fig.11 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, high-resolution jitter spectrum of analog output signal, 11.025kHz at –6dBFS, sampled at 44.1kHz with LSB toggled at 229Hz: 24-bit data via USB2.0 from MacBook Pro (left channel blue, right red). Center frequency of trace, 11.025kHz; frequency range, ±3.5kHz.

Used as an analog–analog preamplifier, the DAC2 HGC offered an unbalanced input impedance of just under 19k ohms at 20Hz and 1kHz, this dropping slightly to 17.4k ohms at 20kHz. (There are no balanced analog inputs.) The maximum gain was 6.4dB from the balanced outputs, 0.6dB from the unbalanced; both outputs preserved absolute polarity. The analog inputs offered a very wide frequency response that was not affected by reducing the load impedance from 100k ohms (fig.12, blue and red traces) to 600 ohms (cyan, magenta). The channels are superbly matched in this graph, both dropping by only 0.6dB at 200kHz. Reducing the volume didn't affect the DAC2 HGC's ultrasonic bandwidth, but a slight imbalance of 0.25dB in favor of the left channel appeared at the control's 1 o'clock position.


Fig.12 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, analog input, frequency response at 1V into: 100k ohms (left channel blue, right red), 600 ohms (left cyan, right magenta) (0.5dB/vertical div.).

I measure a preamp's signal/noise ratio in the worst-case condition: with the input shorted but the volume control set to its maximum, Even so, the wideband, unweighted S/N, ref. 1V, was a superb 95.8dB in the left channel and 90.7dB in the right. Restricting the measurement bandwidth to the audioband improved both channels' ratios to 113.6dB; A-weighting gave a further improvement, to 116.4dB. Regarding channel separation and harmonic and intermodulation distortion for the analog inputs, the results were just as superb as for the digital inputs, so I haven't shown them.

Summing up the Benchmark DAC2 HGC's measured performance is easy: It's simply superb.—John Atkinson

Benchmark Media Systems, Inc.
203 E. Hampton Place, Suite 2
Syracuse, NY 13206
(800) 262-4675

russtafarian's picture

Did you evaluate the DAC2's analog line stage?  If so, what are your impressions?  

I've used the DAC2 HGC since November 2012 as a DAC and preamp, so take this for what it's worth.  I found the line stage to be impressively transparent and resolving.  My vinyl playback setup took a nice step forward in sound quality when I connected the phono stage to the DAC2's analog input.  The ability to tie together and control both digital and analog sources equally well makes the DAC2 HGC an exceptional value at this price point.

agrave02's picture

Oh man. I was saving up for the NAD M51 and now this review comes along. 

I was dissapointed that you did not compare the two for that selfish reason. But they are both at the same price point - NAD is $2,000 and a Class A+ recommended, was hoping that it would be compared to the Benchmark unit. 

Damn. This really does throw a wrench into things.

ylb35's picture


Many thanks to you and Sterophile for such review, I really appreciate.

You were speaking about Bel Canto, and what about the Audio Research DsPre ?

Despite the ARC is less versatile and may cost four DAC2 ^^,
Your evaluation between those two pieces of art, about pre amplifier section and UBS/DAC should be very very interesting,

Hope to read you again

Best regards

Johmck's picture

I have noticed that the Benchmark Dac1 is going for cheap on the various audio web sites -- I guess once a new vers comes out that happens.
I liked that you saw fit to compare the Benchmark, but the thing about this review is it is a little too pat and predictable in claiming the Bel Canto sounds marginally better than the Benchmark product, thus I suppose leaving all parties satisfied with their purchase.