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Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC digital converter

Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC digital converter

Benchmark was the brand that introduced the first serious small scale digital to analogue converter. Before the original DAC1, most converters were either full width or not taken seriously. All that has changed with a plethora of high-spec, all-singing DACs that are primarily designed for the headphone market but which also have preamp outputs. The DAC2 HGC has a lot more competition than its forbear, so Benchmark has upped the ante in terms of conversion capability, but it remains very similar in facilities terms.

There are three DAC2s in the Benchmark line of which the HGC (hybrid gain control) is the most comprehensively equipped. The DAC2 DX (£1,599) is essentially a professional version that dispenses with the analogue preamp and remote control but adds another analogue output and AES/EBU digital input, while the DAC2 L is as per the HGC but has no headphone outputs (£1,549); that’s right, this DAC has two analogue inputs and full preamplifier functionality thanks to XLR and RCA phono outputs with volume control. Unusually, the analogue input does not get converted into digital so that it can be attenuated with a digital volume control, instead it bypasses the digital side and has its own passive attenuator – hence the H for hybrid.

The feature list is rather larger than its sub 25cm width might suggest, it includes sample rate and word length display via LEDs with rather tiny legends, five digital inputs including asynchronous USB, digital pass through, 12V trigger, home theatre bypass, and a polarity switch. Oh yes and a diecast remote handset with squidgy keys somewhat reminiscent of a Sinclair ZX81. With all of this and a lovely knurled aluminium control knob, it’s easy to see why Benchmark has established itself in both our world and that of the burgeoning home studio market. But £1,699 is quite a lot to pay for a compact DAC.  Most of the competition has most of these features, albeit proper analogue in/output is rare. So with this DAC there is more: internal jumpers allow you to convert a digital input into digital pass-through (more of a studio thing), the attenuation of the XLR ouptuts can be altered by +/- 10dB, as can headphone output level, and finally, the headphone output on the left can mute or let be the pre-output as you choose. So it’s pretty flexible, definitely more so than most.

On the commercially sensitive side of what the converter is capable of, you have a native DSD channel that does not turn DSD into PCM prior to conversion to analogue. However, the DAC2 is limited to DSD64 and not the multiples thereof offered by some in the market. And even if the DAC2 runs four 32-bit DACs arranged in balanced configuration to minimise noise, this does not produce a balanced output at the XLR connections. The USB input can be run in class 1 or 2 with the latter requiring drivers when used with a Windows based computer. You can run it in class 1 too, but that limits sample rate to 96kHz. As the driver is a free download it seems worthwhile installing it for the truly high-res material in your collection. Given that Benchmark is a North American company it’s surprising and refreshing to see it point out that while the differences between the now discontinued DAC1 and its replacement are many and various, those wanting to enjoy great sound alone and who do not want to play the latest formats will not find a big difference between the two. I am not familiar with the DAC1 so cannot comment, but it sounds as though those that are can rest easy, for now at least.

 

Those who use reading glasses will need them to identify what the legends on the front of the Benchmark say, but that is where the remote comes in. Even if you don’t recall which coaxial input you used, clicking through the options reveals the active one to have a steady blue light and the empty ones to flash, ditto other inputs which is handy. I started by connecting the DAC2’s single ended outputs to my ATC P1 power amp with a Macbook Air hooked up to the only USB input, so no input selection challenges there. I played a DSD version of Dylan’s  ‘Visions of Johanna’ [Blonde On Blonde, CBS], which seemed a little lightweight but it’s an old recording that the effects of DSD do not necessarily enhance. That said, the song retained its evergreen appeal, and the soundstage was notably wide, if lacking in depth. After a few more pieces, which proved that this DAC is transparent enough to reveal big differences in recording style, I switched to the coaxial input. This was fed by the somewhat convoluted chain of the Melco digital transport via Ethernet to a Moon MiND streamer and thence through Chord Co’s finest to the coax input. All of which did nothing to stop this input sounding clearly superior with the soundstage opening up in width and depth to provide a space for far more realistic instruments and voices to unfold within. The effect produced what seemed like a doubling of resolution thanks to the increase at low levels, and the structure that brings to the overall sound. Even the bass seemed to be tighter, which wasn’t expected, but the Melco is a rather more dedicated audio source than the Macbook.

That said, when I made comparisons between coaxial and USB inputs using the Melco alone, the former remained obviously superior. This time the change was more subtle, but nonetheless pretty obvious. In essence, the coax input sounds more relaxed and delivers more detail and the music becomes more sophisticated or intricate, allowing you to hear further into the mix. It even makes the music played on the Benchmark DAC2 easier to enjoy. In fairness, USB is louder in both level and character, which may of course suit some systems. However, in a system designed for maximum resolution, the older input remains the more appealing.

Going from the DAC2 connected directly to the power to having its full output routed into a Townshend Allegri passive pre also brought gains. Given that I was using digital inputs and thus digital volume control this is not entirely surprising, but Benchmark does go to some lengths to get this aspect sounding as good as possible. However, the Allegri is very good and improves the timing, dynamics, and the high frequencies on this DAC despite the extra run of interconnect in the system. Switching to the XLR outputs did help to redress this, and the extra voltage available proved a better match for the power amp and delivered dynamics far more effectively. Now Barenboim’s Symphony No.7 in A Op.92 [(Beethoven For All, 24/96, Decca] had light, shade, and vigour and no longer receded in the way it had via the RCAs.

The analogue input proved to be rather good, too. Using a Naim Audio NAC-N 272’s digital and analogue outputs via the Benchmark made a good case for the latter, which produced a more relaxed and open result that made me want to listen for longer. It reveals what you would expect: the Naim NAC-N 272 has a better DAC as you might hope at around twice the price of the DAC2, but also that the analogue inputs on the latter are sufficiently transparent to show as much.

 

With DSD recordings, results are on a par with PCM. Modern classical recordings, such as a Marianne Thorsen recording of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D major (TrondheimSolistene, 2L), sound beautifully open, detailed, and just a tiny bit bright, but spectacular nonetheless. Contrasting the Benchmark with a Hegel HD12 DSD (£900) made a case for the extra cost of the newcomer,  but only in terms of openness.  While you get more of the hall acoustic with the Benchmark, in other respects the two are more or less at level pegging.

The latest incarnation of the Benchmark DAC remains a comprehensively equipped and highly capable piece of kit. Those looking for flexibility of operation will find little that competes while listeners in search of the ultimate affordable DAC have a small but remarkable contender to add to the must hear list.

Technical Specifications

Type: Solid-state high-resolution PCM and DSD-capable digital-to-analogue converter/preamplifier.

Digital inputs: Two Coaxial, two Toslink, and one USB 2.0 DoP V1.1 transmission protocol supported through USB only

Analogue inputs: Two single-ended pairs (via RCA jacks)

Analogue outputs: One stereo single‑ended (via RCA jacks), one balanced (via XLR connectors), two headphone (via 6mm jacks).

DAC Resolution/Supported Digital Formats: All PCM from 44.1KS/s to 192kHz with word lengths up to 24‑bit, DSD64 (2.8224MHz)

Frequency Response: 20Hz–20kHz, +0dB / –0.04dB

Distortion (THD + Noise): < 0.00035%, 20Hz–20kHz at 0dBFS

Output Voltage: not specified

User Interface: diecast metal remote handset

Dimensions (HxWxD): 44.5 × 249 × 237mm

Weight: 1.36kg

Price: £1,699

Manufacturer: Benchmark

Tel: +1 315-437-6300 

URL: benchmarkmedia.com

UK Distributor: SCV Distribution

Tel: +44(0)3301 222500

URL: www.scvdistribution.co.uk

Tags: FEATURED

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