In some ways, I owe Benchmark a debt of gratitude. For years, I’d used my Dynaudio Contour 1.8 Mk.II loudspeakers exclusively with an old Sony 5.1-channel receiver and five-disc carousel CD player. I ran an RCA-to-stereo-miniplug cable from the receiver to my aged Apple PowerBook G4, a college stalwart I’d used to write naïve papers on some of the world’s most esteemed thinkers, as well as play MP3s of bad techno music. But four years ago, when I bought my well-worn Krell KAV-300il integrated amplifier to partner the Dynaudios, I realized that my Sony carousel also needed replacing.
Rather than buy a used CD player, I took a chance on computer-based audio, then nascent, and bought a used Benchmark DAC1 USB digital-to-analog converter. I hadn’t previously heard it, and had reservations about the idea of using a computer as a digital front end. But within a few minutes of playing some awful compressed music through the DAC1, my worries vanished. The DAC1 was, in many respects, a more significant upgrade for me than the Krell -- it tightened up everything I played through it. The Benchmark reignited my interest in hi-fi, and set me on a course that led me to begin writing for the SoundStage! Network. When Benchmark announced their new DAC2 HGC at the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I was eager to snap up a review sample and see how far the company, based in Syracuse, New York, had come in the few years since they’d helped launch the computer-audio boom.
Benchmark’s benchmark: the DAC2 HGC
When I compared my DAC1 USB to Benchmark’s new DAC2 HGC ($1995 USD), there was no mistaking the familial resemblance. The two models’ dimensions (9.5”W x 1.7”H x 9.33”D) were identical, and their appearances nearly so. The front panel, available in silver or black brushed aluminum, was carried over from the DAC1, but it was quickly apparent that the DAC2 promised greater functionality. From left to right are buttons for power, dim/mute, polarity, and input selection. Sample-rate and word-length indicators are arrayed alongside input indicators, and on the far right, next to the volume-control potentiometer, are two 1/4” headphone jacks. The fully featured remote control is crafted from a substantial piece of aluminum, and has membrane-style buttons like those found on a credit-card-sized remote. I wasn’t terribly enamored of the complete lack of feedback from the remote’s buttons -- when you press one, you don’t really feel any engagement.
The DAC2 HGC is not a quiet piece of hardware -- the servo-driven volume control, built around a custom-made Alps potentiometer, slowly ratchets up when you turn the DAC2 on, and ratchets down when you turn it off. A standard volume can be set via the remote, so if you use the DAC2’s home-theater bypass, the volume can be set low so as not to blow out your speakers, and can be preset to maximum when using the Benchmark as a traditional DAC. With every volume adjustment from the remote, however, the dial makes a bit of a racket. It’s not annoying, but it’s noticeable, and illustrative of Benchmark’s roots in pro audio, where functionality trumps unobtrusive ease of use. For a $1995 product, however, the quirky behavior of the remote control and volume control are but details. What matters is what’s inside, and how it sounds.
The DAC2 HGC has a remarkable feature set that’s not available from any of the industry’s big names for anywhere near $2000 -- its DAC section alone is worth the price of admission. ESS Technology’s Sabre Reference 9018 is the heart of the design, and is the same chip used by Simaudio in their Moon Evolution 750D DAC-transport ($11,500). While it’s true that a good processing chip is necessary for top-quality sound, it’s only the beginning of reference-level D/A conversion, with the surrounding analog circuit design every bit as important in maximizing fidelity. The eight-channel 9018 allows for 4:1 redundancy, with four channels allocated to each side of a stereo signal, meaning that the distortion present in a single channel is averaged with that of its three associated channels, and improves the signal/noise ratio. In practice, this means that the 9018 chip offers some of the lowest distortion levels and highest signal/noise ratios available to audio designers.
On the rear panel the inputs are plentiful, with a multimode asynchronous USB port that permits USB 1.1 or 2.0 connections, and input signals up to 24-bit/192kHz. Two optical inputs accept signals up to 96kHz, while a pair of coaxial inputs can support all sample rates from 28 to 210kHz, even nonstandard ones. All of these digital inputs support native DSD conversion. Outputs include two pairs of RCA ports and a pair of balanced XLR ports. There’s also a bidirectional 12V trigger. The DAC2 HGC includes an improved version of Benchmark’s jitter-attenuation system, which was implemented to great effect in my DAC1. UltraLock2’s DSP processing is 32-bit, with 3.5dB of headroom and a sample rate of 211kHz. The volume control, which Benchmark calls Hybrid Gain Control -- the HGC in the DAC2’s name -- is also worthy of mention. Its 32-bit DSP system handles the digital inputs -- a digital signal is never routed through an analog potentiometer -- while analog signals are handled by an active analog gain control, and never pass through the 32-bit DSP system.
All of this is impressive. But the DAC2 also has two pairs of analog inputs, making it a traditional analog preamplifier as well as a digital preamp, and even has a built-in headphone amplifier with two 1/4” headphone jacks. The headphone amp is almost exactly the same as that in the original DAC1, with a change only to the input buffer and gain settings. Lastly, the DAC2 HGC, like its older brothers, has variable internal jumpers for the headphone section, XLR outputs, and digital pass-through that can be adjusted to suit the user’s needs.
Short of a phono input for vinyl fans, I’m not sure what else Benchmark could have crammed into this modest little box. It doesn’t have Apple products’ refinement of operation, but my, is it ever practical -- and I’ve only touched on some of its abilities here. Its 68-page instruction manual sheds a great deal more light on the DAC2 HGC’s talents.
The flexibility of the DAC2 HGC allowed me to use it as a traditional DAC, connected to Hegel Music Systems’ H300 integrated amplifier-DAC via a pair of Nordost Blue Heaven LS XLR interconnects; and also as a DAC and preamp, wired to the Hegel’s home-theater bypass inputs with a pair of Dynamique Audio Zenith RCAs, which let the Benchmark directly feed the Hegel’s amp section. In both setups, the Hegel was fed by a Dynamique Audio Infinite power cord, and drove my KEF R900 loudspeakers via Dynamique’s Celestial speaker cables. The Benchmark was connected to an Apple AirPort Express with a generic optical cable, which allowed me to wirelessly stream my collection of lossless iTunes files. Additionally, I used a Nordost Blue Heaven LS USB cable directly into my Apple MacBook Pro to play high-resolution music via Songbird.
I briefly tested the DAC2 HGC’s headphone amp by wiring the Benchmark to my laptop with the Nordost USB cable, and listening via Shure SE530 earphones using a 1/8”-to-1/4” adapter.
I used a Nordost Blue Heaven LS power cord with the Benchmark throughout the review process, but it’s worth noting that the DAC2’s AC and USB inputs are very close together; aftermarket power cords with large connectors will make it impossible to use the USB connection, as I found when using Dynamique Audio’s Infinite cord. For those who think that aftermarket power cords don’t matter, this is a nonissue.
The original DAC1 was revered by many audiophiles for its breathtaking clarity and resolution -- the kind of thing that takes only seconds or minutes, not hours, to appreciate. Indeed, I recently lent my DAC1 USB to my brother, and within ten minutes of his plugging it in I received a text message: “How much do you want for it?” But for all its overachieving strengths, the DAC1 has a signature: a slightly forward sound with a crisp, perhaps slightly hard treble. I liked that signature, though I realized that it wasn’t quite neutral.
The DAC2 HGC is a different animal. To my ears, it didn’t bear much of a sonic resemblance to its forebear, and so doesn’t have any kind of Benchmark “house sound.” As expected, the DAC2 was every bit as transparent and resolving as the DAC1 -- more so, actually -- but gone was the bite, the crispness that marked the DAC1’s treble, and gone too was its stridency. To say that the DAC2 sounded relaxed would be unfair, but it was more laid-back than the DAC1.
For instance, “Without Help,” from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (16/44.1 ALAC, Epic), has a brash sound. As a CD-based recording from the late 1980s, it suffers from the slightly thin, anemic mastering that marred so many early CD releases. Add to that a track full of trumpets and other winds mimicking the approach of a Klingon Bird of Prey, and it all can sound a bit harsh on top. Through the DAC1, “Without Help” was sometimes wince-worthy, but the DAC2 HGC didn’t impose itself on the sound. The recording’s raucousness was rendered just so, but was never unlistenable.
As far as transparency was concerned, the DAC2 was about as good as I’ve heard. It’s easy to say that I could hear “way back” into a recording, with clarity in abundance. But with the newest DACs, that’s not enough. These days, you don’t have to spend all that much to get sound that’s exceptionally clean and clear from front to back. Where the DAC2 was transcendent was in allowing recordings such as the Goldsmith cue and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Always On My Mind,” from their Introspective (16/44.1 AIFF, EMI), to sound as if they were being played through a giant metal trashcan. Did they sound good? Not particularly, but I’m certain that it was a more honest reproduction of their sound than many other DACs can muster. If you want your recordings, even your bad ones, to sound better than they are, invest in something like Musical Fidelity’s M1DAC, which I reviewed last year.
Regarding tonality, the DAC2 HGC was very good: almost dead neutral, with a smoothness that differentiated it from the DAC1. It reproduced voices with near perfection -- it was smooth, but without glossing over the texture of individual performers. It was also very quiet. Backgrounds were as stark and black as could be for a component costing under $5000. “Chained,” from xx’s Coexist (16/44.1 AIFF, XL/Young Turks), is a spare recording, but the voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim were richly portrayed, the DAC2 capturing the texture of each with no smearing or ambiguity to speak of. Oliver’s singing retained a slight edge -- but only slight.
As a $1995 DAC, the DAC2 HGC is very, very good. But remember that it can also function as a digital and analog preamplifier. I split my listening 50/50 between using the Benchmark only as a DAC, and as a DAC-preamp plugged directly into the Hegel’s power-amp section. That the differences were minor I chalk up to the excellence of the Hegel’s preamp section -- very quiet, it does a competent job of remaining anonymous. So while the DAC2 sounded a touch more immediate and pure when run directly into an amplifier, the difference was hardly dramatic. When I briefly ran the Benchmark through my significantly older Krell KAV-300il, both as a DAC and directly into the Krell’s amp section, the differences were much more pronounced. Bypassing the Krell’s preamp section cleaned up the xx’s newest disc quite a bit.
And the headphone amp! It’s easy to forget the little guy, but in the brief testing I did, it vastly improved the sound from my Apple laptop, even with lossy MP3s. If you listen to a lot of music through headphones via your computer and smartphone, as I do, it’s easy to forget just how terrible consumer electronics’ built-in D/A conversion is. Plugging my Shure SE530 earphones through the Benchmark was like opening a window on my music collection. I have no idea how the DAC2 HGC compares to other headphone amps, but it worked well for me.
Compared to similarly priced competition, such as Arcam’s FMJ D33 DAC ($3299) and the DAC section of Hegel's H300 integrated amplifier ($5500), the DAC2 HGC held its own. The Hegel’s DAC has a very slight bite, and is a bit forward compared to the Benchmark. On the other hand is the Arcam, which, as I stated in my review, is one of the best digital front ends I’ve ever heard. Music played through the Arcam has no edge at all, nor can it be described as smooth. There’s a fullness and a three-dimensionality to the sonic images the D33 presents that are just so . . . right.
The Benchmark DAC2 HGC fell somewhere in between the Hegel and the Arcam. It didn’t have the Arcam’s perfectly smooth, clear, composed sound; it retained the slightest hint of that quintessential digital presentation, and couldn’t quite match the Arcam’s detail retrieval. But, like the Arcam, the Benchmark sounded more relaxed than the more forward Hegel, while seeming to equal the Hegel’s outright resolution, transparency, and soundstaging abilities. No mean feat.
Considering that the Benchmark’s performance matched the Hegel’s and came quite close to reaching the heights of the Arcam, which costs $1299 more, while also thoughtfully providing a headphone amplifier, two pairs of analog inputs, and the ability to be run directly into a power amp and so obviate the need for a preamp altogether, my estimation of the DAC2 HGC rose from “merely very good” to “bloody terrific.”
Benchmark has not rested on the laurels adorning its aging line of DAC1 products. While those models are still very good, D/A conversion has progressed rapidly in the past few years, and Benchmark has not sat idly by. The DAC2 HGC uses one of the best digital chipsets on the market today to produce a quality of sound that, until a few years ago, wasn’t available for less than $10,000. It sounds far more refined than its $1995 price would suggest, and when you consider that it can serve as the keystone of a digital and analog system, on a desktop or in a listening room, it becomes all the more remarkable. Benchmark offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee. Take them up on it. Begin your search for a digital front-end here, even if you have the funds and the desire for something more expensive.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF R900
- Integrated amplifiers -- Hegel Music Systems H300, Krell KAV-300il
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro computer running Songbird and iTunes, Arcam FMJ D33 DAC, Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 USB DAC, Hegel Music Systems H300
- Speaker cables -- Dynamique Audio Celestial
- Interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Zenith RCA, Nordost Blue Heaven LS XLR, generic TosLink
- USB cable -- Nordost Blue Heaven LS USB
- Power cables -- Dynamique Audio Infinite
Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC DAC-Preamplifier-Headphone Amplifier
Price: $1995 USD.
Warranty: One year, parts and labor; with registration, extendable to five years in the US and Canada (two years elsewhere).
Benchmark Media Systems
203 E. Hampton Place, Suite 2
Syracuse, NY 13206
Phone: (315) 437-6300, (800) 262-4675
Fax: (315) 437-8119