The Fifth Element #18 Page 2

On to the Benchmark. In many ways—size, shape, layout, and functions—the DAC 1 is startlingly similar to the Grace 901 headphone amplifier I wrote up in my column in the March 2003 issue (footnote 3) with the important distinction that, in addition to the two front-panel headphone jacks, the Benchmark's rear panel has RCA single-ended and XLR balanced analog line outputs that are switchable between line level, trim-pot-set "calibrated" level, and variable level, which in its default mode is controlled by the front-mounted volume control (footnote 4).

Shazam! Gloriosky, even. All you need is a transport to feed the DAC 1 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.

After carefully using the pink-noise track from Stereophile's Test CD 2 as a reference to help match the DAC 1's output level to that of the Marantz SA-14, I played a variety of favorite CD tracks—from Ella to Mahler—and concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the three-times-more-expensive Marantz.

The Benchmark was slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth. Not night-and-day differences, to be sure, but the race was won by at least a nose. On CDs. The Benchmark—and you are shocked, shocked—of course cannot decode DSD digital data, of which there isn't much outside the professional realm anyway, as SACD players do not output DSD.

If you listen only to CDs, the combination of a workable transport, Benchmark's DAC 1, a purebred power amplifier such as Plinius' under-appreciated 8200P (the power-amp section only, from their top-of-the-line 8200 integrated amp, which, at $2000, is $1000 less expensive than the 8200), and a pair of nearly full-range speakers such as Shahinian's Compasses or Totem's Forests, will set you back $7000 or so, but will deliver sound plainly superior to a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none mongrel setup.

I used DH Labs' D-75 digital interconnect, which is absurdly good for $75 . For a trifling upgrade charge, DHL will even make up for you (as they did for me) a digital cable with an RCA plug on the send end and a BNC connector on the receive end. (Benchmark thoughtfully includes a BNC-to-RCA adapter with the DAC 1, but in my view, the fewer metal-to-metal, friction-fit interfaces in the signal path—especially a digital signal path—the better.

The Benchmark DAC 1 is making quite a buzz, in professional as well as consumer circles. I will send this unit on to John Atkinson, and perhaps he'll find time to write a Follow-Up. By the way, in direct comparison with the Grace 901, using Sennheiser HD 600 headphones, I still had to give headphone-amp pride of place to the Grace, for its slightly more luscious midrange and sweeter treble. And, for those for whom such things matter, the Benchmark's industrial design and build quality, while certainly unobjectionable, don't have any of the Grace's "Wow" factor.

On to the other extreme. TEAC is not a name one usually associates with all-out assaults on the high end of things, but the stunningly exceptional CD playback offered by TEAC's Esoteric P-70/D-70 transport/DAC combination should go a long way toward changing that. Memory is fallible, but I've been substantially more impressed and engaged by the TEAC setup's CD playback than I was by that of the twice-as-expensive combo of Accuphase DC-101 SACD transport and DP-101 DAC ($28,000). I'm not prepared to say that the TEAC Esoteric system is the best digital sound I have heard, but I'm certainly prepared to say that it is the best sound I have heard from conventional CDs (footnote 5).

That is perhaps more surprising than it should be. You may not know that TEAC is the parent company of the professional recording-equipment manufacturer TASCAM. TASCAM was a leader first in DAT machines, then in using the possibilities offered by using Hi-8 videotape transports to store high-resolution, audio-only data. Indeed, TASCAM is (as far as I know) the only company making a tape-based DSD recorder; all the others use hard disks. Another part of TEAC's corporate family is a world leader in aircraft flight-data recorders. So a large and transferable knowledge base is in place there.

Footnote 3: Another parallel is that, just as Jerry Bruck, the engineer for my record label, JMR, has used Grace professional gear on my projects, he has also used gear from Benchmark. Once again, I was well-disposed toward the product even before it arrived.

Footnote 4: A rear-panel switch can be set to dedicate the volume knob to control only the headphone jacks. This would be useful in a setting where the unit was being used for both headphone listening and as a line-level DAC feeding a preamplifier. As that suggests, the DAC 1 is a completely thought-out product.

Footnote 5: I have not heard the dCS SACD rig Michael Fremer wrote about in April 2003, but even if it's better, at $34,000, that setup costs $20,000 more than the comparatively modest TEAC: $7500 for the transport, $6500 for the DAC.