Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 HDR Preamplifier (TAS 204)

Equipment report
Categories:
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
|
Products:
Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 HDR
Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 HDR Preamplifier (TAS 204)

When Benchmark Media’s DAC1 digital to analog converter was introduced a few years ago, it not only garnered rave reviews, but those reviewers who performed rigorous laboratory tests only wound up confirming Benchmark’s claims that it was a virtually distortionless device. At the time Benchmark essentially serviced the professional audio market, where its products are widely used—it’s probably no exaggeration to say that at some point in the production of better than half of all digitally based music releases a Benchmark product is used for monitoring. But as happens every now and then, word gets out about really exceptional professional products—the original Rogers LS3/5a is a classic case in point—and soon audiophiles start buying them.

Although the DAC1 is designed principally as a DAC, it is outfitted with a headphone amplifier and a high quality volume pot, the latter enabling it to control headphone level and output level to an amplifier, but only for the digital source it is converting. Many audiophiles who purchased these units soon discovered that bypassing their own preamplifier made for even more transparent reproduction. This led Benchmark to introduce the DAC1 PRE, which adds two more coaxial inputs to the existing coaxial and TosLink inputs of the DAC1, plus a USB input and a stereo analog input, thus making it possible for audiophiles to hook up, say, their turntables (via phono preamplifiers) and their digital sources, including computers, all of which could be switched and level-controlled by the PRE. It’s hard to imagine Benchmark was here not looking beyond industry professionals to consumers. Many audiophiles, however, wanted all the DAC1 PRE had to offer plus the convenience of remote control operation, which brings me to the subject of this review. The new DAC1 HDR consists of a DAC1, with the expanded input selection of the DAC1 PRE, together with a remote control handset that operates volume, input selection, on/off, and mute functions. The “HDR” stands for “HDR VC,” a propriety motor driven Alps potentiometer that, quoting the manual, “avoids the dynamic range limitations of digital volume controls and the distortion and noise introduced by IC based analog volume controls.”

Inasmuch the DAC1, which constitutes the digital circuitry of the DAC1 HDR, is a known commodity, I shall not expend much print describing either its workings or its sound. I refer you instead to Robert Greene’s thorough review in TAS 183 (but see also my sidebar here). A man hardly given to hype or overstatement, REG judged the sonic performance so neutral, transparent, noise and distortion free, and source-accurate that he pronounced digital’s initial promise effectively realized: perfect sound, albeit within the Red Book CD standard. This correlates with my own experience of the DAC1, which I’ve used for some three years now with a variety of stand alone or integrated transports. According to Benchmark, the DAC1 circuitry inside the DAC1 HDR is identical to what is in the original DAC1, and my listening tests confirm this. Assuming a bit accurate transport, the DAC1 HDR reproduces your CDs with something approaching peerless accuracy. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like what you hear, but that isn’t Benchmark’s concern—truth in reporting is. Inasmuch as there are many ways for the digital nasties to enter the chain from recording through processing through manufacturing, it’s perfectly understandable why accuracy as such may not be every audiophile’s highest priority. But if it is yours, you will have to spend a great deal more money to buy greater accuracy than what this Benchmark is capable of; and even then the improvements, such as they are, will be incremental rather than dramatic. (It remains a fact of life—a happy fact for audiophiles—that as regards electronic components, especially digital ones, advancements in technology constantly lower the price point for ever-higher performance.)

“Super-clean, super-clear, super-quiet, super-transparent.” These are the first notes I scribbled down several moments after I had recovered from the initial burst of Ingrid Fliter’s Steinway from her scintillatingly essayed program of the complete Chopin waltzes on EMI. She and her instrument are nicely captured with a good balance of focus and ambience such that when played back at moderate levels (“moderate” here means too loud for conversation), this recording affords a good row D or E perspective. Being in a piano mood, next up was Martha Argerich’s justly acclaimed performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (DG). Here the perspective is close up and very personal, with a wealth of detail on display, both musical and extra musical, from the delicacies of Argerich’s touch and phrasings to the pages of the scores being turned (at one point, just after the opening of the “Scarbo” movement, you can hear either the pianist’s or her page turner’s lips part). None of this extra musical detail, incidentally, is due to any brightness or edginess that inheres in the Benchmark circuitry, nor does it detract from the you are there experience of Argerich’s thrilling performance.

As noted, inasmuch as I am already familiar with the DAC circuitry of the DCA1 HDR through a variety of front ends, I was most interested in evaluating the unit as a front end in and of itself, so I concentrated on a variety of vinyl and SACD sources. Once I report that it seemed to me to afford a fractionally more transparent window back to the sources than just about anything I’ve used so far, I don’t really have a whole lot more to say. The Christmas Revels is an LP I’ve used hundreds of times in evaluating equipment: When the Revelers wander in talking among themselves I heard at once greater inner detail and clarity allied to a more convincing presentation of the group, the soundstage, and the space than from any other control unit I’ve used, with the possible exception of Musical Surroundings’s SuperNova (which dispenses with a high level gain stage altogether), and the SuperNova is scarcely better, if it is better at all (review TAS 200). When Room summons the group to attention by banging on a pan, the walls of the space are in clear and present evidence as never before. This motley group of players, including a children’s chorus, and all manner of “olde” instruments is also one of the toughest tests of tone color I know. Again, the DAC1 HDR splashed their hues all over the walls in a riot of holiday festivity.

Suffice it to say that the tonal neutrality and resolution so widely observed in the DAC1 has been carried over into the HDR’s linestage. Components this electronically transparent can be very frustrating to write about it because they don’t give you a whole lot to describe. The DAC1 HDR is the same size as all the previous products in this series, which is to say so elegantly diminutive as to invite the word “cute,” strange as it may seem when applied to a piece of professional gear. Of course its small size must mean that it lacks truly wide dynamic range, the H(igh) D(ynamic) R(ange) nomenclature surely mere wishful thinking. Think again: I put on the most dynamically challenging source material I could find, including the classic direct to disc For Duke, the Sheffield Drum Test Record, Jim Boyk’s SACD Tonalities of Emotion, any number of Telarc’s symphonic productions that feature their Big Bass Drums (all in SACD)—never did I hear the slightest indication that anything was being withheld, held back, damped down, suppressed, compressed, distorted, or unrevealed, regardless of level. And bass response is by any measure simply firm, ample, and strong—try the thundering coda in Richard Goode’s Waldstein (Nonesuch). All this from a DAC/preamp that costs $1895, is light enough to hold in one hand, has a footprint smaller than an iPad and is only about three times as thick (i.e., high), and that has the sheer gall to house its power supply in the same tiny chassis as the digital and audio circuitry. Metaphors fail me—but think, Toto, this isn’t Kansas any more or Alice, this is surely Wonderland indeed?

Criticisms? Virtually none related to sonic performance. I wish the excessively bright blue LEDs could be dimmed and some kind of volume indicator visible from across the room. I do wonder about the decision to include only one pair of analog inputs, which forces users like myself and I suspect many, if not most, readers of this magazine, who enjoy both vinyl and SACD, to endure the inconvenience of disconnecting the one in order to connect another. There is no room on the back of the chassis for another set of analog inputs unless Benchmark dispenses with two of the three coaxial digital inputs (which, I think, could easily be done: How many of us need more than one, especially with a TosLink and a USB input on hand?). Or perhaps the company could make an accessory outboard switching box with two or three additional analog inputs. Although the channel to channel tracking of the HDR’s volume control is as precise as any I’ve ever used and far, far more so than most, I’d still like a balance control, but, again, there’s no room for one here. Neither is there a tape monitor or EPL loop or stereo/mono switching.

All of which only underscores the obvious—the DAC1 HDR is no more or less than what it purports to be: a high performance digital to audio converter with an analog stereo input and essential but minimalist linestage functions, including volume control and input selection from a remote handset. Still, much as I have enjoyed using this superb product, I can’t help but wonder if Benchmark doesn’t have more products up its very inventive sleeves. I for one would stand in line to try out a true full function, non minimalist preamplifier from this company, one that, in addition to everything found on the DAC1 HDR, also provides a few more analog inputs, both RCA and XLR, a stereo/mono switch, and a balance control. Of course, it would have to be larger, probably twice the size of this unit, but that still leaves a pretty compact package. In the meantime, if your control and input needs are covered by the DAC1 HDR, my final word is that you will have to spend a very, very great deal of money to find a better DAC and linestage than are in this unassuming but nearly perfect unit. If I may be indulged one last allusion to the world of children’s stories: This little Jack may not slay every giant out there, but I’ll wager he’ll hold his own against any of them.

Footnotes:

1 Benchmark publishes the most thorough test data of any manufacturer I‘ve ever encountered: 19 of the instruction manual’s 52 pages are taken up with performance graphs, measurements, and specifications.

2 That is an important qualification: good as Red Book digital has gotten these last several years, the improvements wrought from higher resolution digital formats (SACD, DVD Audio, Blu Ray, etc.) are not to be minimized.

3 Because the DAC1’s Ultralock circuit eliminates all jitter except any that might inhere in the source itself, many consumers infer that the quality of the transport is irrelevant. This would be true only if all CD transports were bit accurate. Some aren’t, and to that extent will yield unpredictable results with the DAC1 and also every other DAC. Alas, as with so many audio products, there is no necessary correlation between accuracy and price: Many cheap CD players and transports are bit-accurate, while some expensive ones aren’t. (Owing to the high intrinsic performance of Benchmark DACs and DAC/preamps, if you’re getting weird results, I’d suspect the transport.) It would be a real service to their customers if the folks at Benchmark were to canvas the field and provide a list of stand alone and integrated transports they know to be bit accurate.

SPECS & PRICING

Analog input: One pair, unbalanced
Digital inputs: Five (one USB, one optical, three coaxial)
Outputs: One unbalanced pair, one balanced pair
Headphone outputs: Two
Dimensions: 9.5** x 1/725** x 8.5**
Weight: 3.5 lbs.
Warranty: 5 years parts and labor
Price: $1895

Benchmark Media Systems, Inc.
203 East Hampton Place, Ste. 2
Syracuse, NY 13206
(315) 437-6300
benchmarkmedia.com

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