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as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
I haven't heard an inexpensive giant killer in quite a while, but the latest Benchmark DAC1 is just that sort of beast. Hook up your favorite CD player, laser disc player, or just about anything that outputs digital signals (up to 24/192), and enjoy the near-top-notch performance of this little $995 wonder. Benchmark claims that the DAC1 produces no jitter, and given its smoothness, I believe them. The DAC1 makes music sound charming, super detailed, involving, and pleasant over long-term listening sessions. It beats anything and everything under $2000 in DAC land, and is supremely flexible. What a bargain!
Originally produced in 2002, the DAC1 has undergone numerous modifications–I count eleven—though none are claimed to affect the specifications. I can tell you this: I heard a DAC1 three years ago, and while it sounded clean and accurate, it was no charmer. With the current unit, etch is 95 percent gone, and realism and textural cues are improved. I tried the balanced and single-ended digital inputs, and was delighted with both. The balanced input sounded richer and silkier, the single-ended more detailed and snappy. I fed it 24/96 from my Alesis Masterlink CD recorder, and it clearly bested the machine's own DAC. It made my Pioneer LD Player sound much more musical, on all media. I did not try the Toslink input, but who cares?
The DAC1 is power cord sensitive, and I found the Harmonic Technology Fantasy ($475) to be the perfect choice. I used Kimber Silver Select balanced interconnects, as well as their digital cables. These yielded a very detailed soundstage, precise imaging, and a smooth, silky presentation. The DAC1's consistent truthfulness tells me that its electronic components were carefully selected.
The highs are delicate, and do not sound much different from those of my much more expensive sources. The DAC1 is a bit snappier than my tubed CD and SACD players, and very slightly crisp, though I did not find this disturbing in any way. Piano hammers sound a bit clangier, and cymbals are a tad more emphasized, but here's the key—the DAC1 sounds just a bit sweet, and this offsets the slight pre-emphasis I heard.
The mids are clean, clear, smooth, and accurate, with a slight underlying warmth and sweetness. Dynamics are very good to excellent, but the soundstage, while also very good, was a bit smaller than that of my reference units. Again, the DAC1 has a delicacy and light-handed approach that is unique at this price point. It rarely sounded hot or strident, even on Mercury CDs. The DAC1 possesses a lovely interaction between the mids and highs that lends a 3-D quality to the presentation.
Voices sounded very pleasing and textured, with an honesty that I very much enjoyed. Whether I was listening to Kiri Te Kanawa or Jacintha, the Benchmark sounded right as rain, with none of the ear-ringing overshoot and etch that characterize many other solid state DACs, even ones that cost considerably more than the DAC1.
The DAC1's mids, highs, imaging, and depth were all so terrific that I hoped the low end would be similarly great, but while it was tight and detailed, the bass was not as powerful as that of my higher-priced references or as dynamic as that of my one-box Denon DVD 2200. I got better bass through headphones, so the slightly disappointing bass I heard through my speakers may have been due to the digital cable I chose. You may get more slam than I did, though what I did hear was very, very good, and quite deep. No Theta bass here, but no Theta price either.
Breathe new life into your LD, CD, or DVD player and enjoy real high-definition sound with the Benchmark DAC1. With every kind of input and output you will need, and a headphone jack too, this is one flexible DAC. It has been updated over the years, and improved to the point that it has become a worldbeater at the price. I loved the DAC1's mids and highs, and its honest musical sound. Its bass, while quite good, is less outstanding. The Benchmark DAC1 performs at a level way beyond its price, and is THE choice of DAC for under $2000. Robert H. Levi
Addendum to Benchmark DAC1 Review
Hot Rod time!
After checking around with other Benchmark DAC owners, none report reticent or polite bass. I shouldn't either as I'm running the unit balanced bypassing the volume control. I've even changed to the Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II Balanced interconnects which cost more than the Benchmark! However, it still sounds polite on the bottom and a bit slow and fuzzy overall.
After reading the well written manual, it was obvious that the jumpers added to the output stage when using the balanced outputs were doing more than reducing the volume 20dBs. They were changing the textural cues and the bass response of the entire unit.
I popped the top, found the very small jumpers [what a pain], and moved them to the 0dB position on all four circuit board points as instructed. Dear Benchmark, the jumpers should be delivered in the zero position with the option to move them to the 10, 20, or 30 dB roll off positions if needed. You have to assume minimal smarts on the part of the person who buys a separate DAC these days.
Now we're cooking! The sound has transformed into a powerhouse of digital energy with charm and musicality galore. Using the Alesis or my Pioneer LD/CD/DVD Player, the audio approaches my super references. Moreover, the bass is room shattering with powerful, intense, focused bass going down to the center of the earth. It's now every bit as good as my venerable Theta 5a and equal to my ModWright Sony 999. Now you must make this change on the Benchmark DAC1 if you want this kind of solidity. Also, you will get added focus in the mids and highs with even more sweetness and smoothness on delicate passages. Overall, the DAC1 in 0dB mode is 10% improved in the mids and highs and 25% improved on the bottom frequencies. Its performance is just a bit behind the $3000+ DACs, with tube output stages, in textural cues. This is a gap no all solid state DAC at any price has bridged in my experience. However, the bass focus, layering, and authority is right up there now with the very best DAC brands around!
Conclusion. What a bargin! With the nefarious output jumper adjusted, the Benchmark DAC1 has evolved into a giant killer of the first magnitude. I love it. Add a top transport and quality digital cable, and my oh my it sounds marvelous. Run it balanced for best performance overall. The AES/EBU and SPDIF inputs sound about the same. The volume control works beautifully, but avoid its use for everything except headphones. Benchmark has cooked up one great DAC over the years and it's better than ever. My top buy recommendation!