Benchmark Media has hit the 25 year mark, and has been an established name in broadcasting, pro audio, and more recently, in the home audiophile market. Audio engineers swear by their reliable, compact, and great sounding gear that works well in a variety of listening environments. Their products have included microphone preamps, DAC’s, headphone amplifiers, and many other essential tools used in critical professional applications such as recording and mastering studios.
Benchmark is based in Syracuse, New York, and their products are designed and built there. Benchmark is committed to keeping it that way, unlike some of their competitors, who have gone offshore. They are known for customer service, employee and customer loyalty, as well as solid and fairly priced products. What sometimes gets overlooked is Benchmark’s reputation for cutting edge technology.
Benchmark DAC1: An Evolution
For years, Benchmark was essentially a manufactuer of pro audio gear. I like to call their penetration of the home audio market a happy accident. Several of the well known domestic and U.K. high end audio publications got samples of the DAC1 and were quite exuberant about the price to performance ratio. Once some of the better known audio journalists had put their stamp of approval on the DAC1, the flood gates opened and a wave of positive reviews followed as well as robust sales. Today Benchmark products are available in high end audio salons and web only stores.
Benchmark was quick to capitalize on this new market and kept the DAC1 moving forward with several updated incarnations. The DAC1 USB followed the original DAC1. As the name implies, it included a USB input to accommodate the growing use of computers as preferred digital source. Then came the DAC1 Pre, which was well reviewed as a very competent linestage with a highly engineered volume control. Was it a fantastic DAC with a preamp built in? Or an excellent preamp with an DAC on board? Probably both. Or how about an excellent headphone amp? Yes, all the DAC1 models also include this feature. Even though the HDR is roughly half the size of most components, it is extremely well built with a solid feel to the connectors, knobs, and chassis. The aluminum faceplate is quite luxurious for a component under $2000.
I received the latest incarnation of the DAC1, the DAC1 HDR, which retails for $1895. With this newest offering, Benchmark adds a remote control. It allows for input switching volume control, muting, and power on and off. On the analog side, the HDR offers one set of phono inputs and outputs, and one set of Nuetrik XLR outputs. On the digital side, there are 5 inputs, one USB, one TOSlink, and three coaxial. It is interesting to note that other versions of the DAC1 offer a BNC connection as well. There is an IEC connector on the back for a detachable power cord.
To sum up the back panel, there is a small toggle switch for Output Level. This a vital area to pay attention to. On the Calibrated setting, the output is factory set to 2V max. However, by opening the unit, one can increase or decrease the output in 2db increments via a trimmer that requires a small screwdriver. It should be noted, that is very important NOT to have the toggle set to Calibrated if the HDR is going to be connected directly to a power amp. Amplifier and speaker damage will most likely occur. The other options are Variable, which allow the output to be controlled via the digital volume control knob on the front panel or the remote. Another option is Mute, which does not affect the headphone output. Other options including defeating the headphone output and calibrating the headphone output level.
Benchmark claims the DAC1 family is packed with proprietary technology that puts it first in its class. I have no idea if it is first in its class, but the tech inside the DAC HDR is very interesting. The 52 page manual goes into vast detail regarding the advances, so I will only sum up the major points. First, AdvancedUSB Audio(tm) supports 96khz sampling rates and 24 bit word lengths and is plug and play with no software installation required. It is compatible with Windows 2000, XP, Vista, and Mac OS X. Secondly, their HDR-VC(tm) (High Dynamic Range Volume Control) claims to sacrifice nothing sonically, which traditional volume controls do. It is based on a custom Alps motor driven potentiometer. Finally, Benchmark’s ace in the hole is their 100% jitter proof UltraLock system ™, which Benchmark claims makes all the digital inputs perform superbly.
I set up the DAC1 HDR first as a straight ahead DAC in Calibrated mode. It was connected to my “secondary” system via my Squeezebox3 network server on TOSlink and my Marantz CD 5003 via a coaxial cable. The analog output of the HDR then went into my Belles preamp. My usual DAC is a Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 with its matching external power supply. First impressions of the DAC1 HDR were extremely good; clean, detailed, and focused sound. I must have read a good dozen reviews of Benchmark products and it was a pleasure to finally hear what all the fuss was about. While listening to FLAC files via the Squeezebox, I was impressed. The same applies when I used the Marantz as a transport. Images were very nicely defined with good bass weight. Comparing the analog output of the player was a bit tricky, as the Marantz was a bit warmer and the Benchmark was more detailed.
Comparing the Benchmark and the CIA was an exercise in futility. Sometimes I preferred the CIA, sometimes the Benchmark. A tough call. Sonically, the CIA was again, a bit warmer, and the Benchmark was slightly leaner. During my second experience with USB audio, I plugged my little Dell notebook laptop running Windows XP and iTunes into the USB input of the Benchmark with the supplied cable. Long ago, my first experience with USB audio was unimpressive. The sound felt boxy, closed in and not comparable to a CD player. The Benchmark really surprised me here. I was quite amazed at how good the files on the laptop sounded compared to CD equivilent. They were so close that I would probably chalk up differences to slight differences in output level; a definite ear opener for sure. And mind you, I am not a fan of audio directly off a computer. But it sounded damn good through the Benchmark.
Next up, I used the HDR as a preamplifier and a DAC. I toggled the output switch to Variable, connected the HDR to my Revox power amp, and off I went. I was pretty blown away at how good the Benchmark functioned in this capacity. It was very dynamic and clean with excellent soundstaging. This was not some thrown together, full function preamplifier for convenience; this was the real thing. One would do very, very well to make this the centerpiece of a digital setup, connecting a transport and a music server as well. You gain very short signal paths, a dynamic presentation and a small footprint. If you have an analog source component, it can be accommodated. Limitations? Sure, there is only one analog input and no preamp out for use with an active subwoofer. Nitpicking aside, Benchmark has opened up a whole new market by adding remote control capability.
Switching inputs was lightning fast and the digital signals were locked in very quickly. A word of warning: the HDR ran surprisingly warm during my audition. It actually generated more heat than any other component in the rack. I would recommend a decent amount of ventilation around the unit.
After about a week in my bedroom system, I moved the Benchmark into my main room and fed it the digital output of the Marantz SA-11S2 SACD player (reviewed here) via a QED coaxial digital cable. I also fed it the output of the Naim CD5 XS via a custom DH Labs BNC to RCA digital cable. Some of the same things I heard in earlier comparisons were still apparent. The Naim and Marantz via their analog outputs were a bit chunkier and warmer. The Benchmark was slightly leaner, a bit airier, and more detailed. Again, pick your preference. There was a level of transparency that was quite stunning. Details in studio recordings were laid threadbare and little things like reverb decays, acoustic guitar strums, and delicate cymbal splashes were startling in their clarity. Some of this clarity may seem to some as a bit clinical, but that depends on what camp you are in. Do you want to know exactly what is on the digital file or disc you are listening to or do you prefer it a bit sugar coated and wrapped in a little velvet?
I enjoyed a wide variety of music while evaluating the Benchmark. Older, analog recordings sounded really alive, and somewhat benefited from the HDR’s presentation. For example the track “Chime of a City Clock, from the late genius Nick Drake, found on his 2nd album, Bryter Later, sounded like something recorded by a current indie darling, rather than a 40 year old song, which it is. I recently bought the Simon & Garfunkel Complete Columbia Studio Recordings and was amazed at how much sparkle and texture was on those old records. To throw one more oldies example, on a whim I threw on some late 80’s to mid 90’s Duran Duran. Even with their more synthetic productions, the Benchmark organized everything well, and it was interesting to not that some of Duran’s mid period work would sound right at home in the current environment, with the resurgent genre of electro pop.
Moving on to the year 2010, I really enjoyed soul revivalists Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings I Learned the Hardway. This album, ironically, is a new recording masquerading as a classic analog production, tape saturation and all. I really felt I was at the mixing board on this one, with punchy horns and syncopated bass lines really rocking the joint. Another recent purchase I find my self returning to is Veckatimest, by a very cool band called Grizzly Bear. It is a textured album, recalling a bit of Pink Floyd mixed in with freak folk. The HDR spread the soundstage wide and deep, with excellent focus. On lesser systems, this album can sounded jumbled, as some of the tracks are quite dense with psychedelic vibes. One final musical example is the album of the year for me, Bonfires on the Heath, by the English band The Clientele. The dreamy tracks seemed to float free of the speakers, with a nice balance of obsessive studio detail and real musical involvement.
Benchmark’s reputation and fast rise into the home audiophile market is justly deserved in my opinion. Benchmark has responded to the demands of the marketplace, adding features to the DAC1 and maintaining a high standard of quality. I was very impressed with the HDR as a preamp, a USB DAC, and of course, as a DAC. I did not use the HDR as headphone amplifier, as I am not a huge headphone listener, but several other reviewers have raved about it in that capacity.
If accuracy, neutrality, and a very detailed sound is what you seek from your digital music collection, the Benchmark delivers in spades. If you like warmed over, lush, or retro sounding source components, you may want to look elsewhere. I can conclude by telling you if I was building another system from scratch, it would more than likely include the DAC1 HDR to serve both as linestage and DAC for a music server and transport. I don’t believe you can do better if you are looking for a made in the USA DAC and preamplifier for $1895. Buying a separate DAC and remote controlled preamp will without a doubt set you back more, and in my opinion, with no benefit of added performance. The small footprint, five digital inputs, and even balanced outputs make this an extremely versatile product.