Benchmark DAC 1 - first thoughts

By way of background, I have recently switched out a bunch of components in my system. Much of the change has been due to logistical, rather than performance related, reasons. I am awaiting the delivery of a QSonix server (they're still ripping my CDs) which I bought for the interface and the ability to centralize my music library for high quality listening and distributed listening (via Sonos) on a single hard drive. The sound of the Qsonix was very good at the dealer (Evolution AV in Agoura Hills, CA) but I certainly wasn't confident that it would represent improvement over my Cary 303/300.

Due to the QSonix cabling regimen, an outboard DAC would be required in my room. TAS also suggested the use of an outboard DAC and even QSonix Corp acknowledged that, while they liked their own internal DAC, many customers preferred outboard units. Since I had specific (and quirky) multiple output requirements, auditioning my final choices of DAC wasn't possible. I posted here for advice and ended up with the DAC 1, largely because it seemed like a "safe choice".

The DAC 1 replaced the Cary's internal DAC which, app 2 years ago replaced a Sony SCD 1. The Sony was the first CD player I really liked and it was in my system for 5ish years before I found the Cary. I really like the 303 and would not have considered replacing it. but for the logistics above. The Cary allows great flexibility (U/S or NOS, tube or SS). While I never found a single "default" setting I really appreciated the ability to "tailor" the sound for any given CD.

The DAC1 arrived yesterday -ahead of the QSonix- and I inserted it into the system temporarily using the Cary as a transport. I was more than a little surprised by the impact of the new DAC,

I was concerned that the DAC1 would be "dry" (solid state pro gear) and hopeful that it would provide powerful bass for the same reason. I cued the CD and.....
dramatic improvement in image depth, front to back. This hadn't even crossed my mind-but (pardon the pun) it leapt out at me instantly. My first track was Rachelle Ferrell's "Sista" with it's punchy bass/kickdrum and powerful vocal. The separation between Ferrell and her backing singers was striking in a way I hadn't heard before. Subsequent tracks continued to highlight this phenomenon. Very surprised, very happy.

Tonally, the change was less dramatic, but still evident. Bass and mid-bass seemed lower in absolute level, but a tad tighter and cleaner. Similarly, the presence region seemed a touch more recessed. The KT88s in my amp seemed a bit "tamer", less evident and more neutral through the DAC 1 than through any setting on the Cary's internal DAC.

This is a very quick first impression after a few hours of listening. The good news is that the DAC 1 is clearly a great sounding DAC. I'm pretty sure that I prefer it to the internal DAC in the Cary which, honestly, comes as a bit of a surprise. Tonally, I suspect that the DAC 1 will complement some systems more than others- in mine it feels a bit more neutral when KT88s are in the loop. That may not be true when other amps/output tubes are in use. I'll follow up when I know more.

Hope this is interesting/useful.

I am also using a DAC1 with KT88's, mine in C-J Premier 12's. I agree with Martykl, the DAC1 is neutral, detailed, and provides excellent soundstaging without grain or glare. The clean sound of the DAC1 matches well with the liquidity and bit of warmth from tubed down-stream components. The DAC1 bests the DAC in my Sony 999ES with RBCD's. Wish I could use the DAC1 for SACD's!
If you are running balanced out, don't forget to adjust the output attenuation. The factory default limits the sonics. Check your manual and run it full (0 db). Did you get the USB version. If not, swap it with Benchmark for the USB version (They used to have 30 day trial). You may not think that you will need it, but sonics are better through USB, and it will hold its value better long term. Don't forget to try some AC stuff. I've found it to be very responsive to power cords and conditioners. In fact, I have mine plugged into over twice it's value of product. It sort of pisses me off, as it is the only thing I use conditioning for (besides my Sound Lab's bias supply- because it is available and handy). When I try to remove something, the sound suffers and I put it back in.

If I were to buy it today, I would get the pre-amp version with the extra inputs as I prefer mine without a traditional preamp. Enjoy- it is a great unit. From what I can tell, they have steadily (and quietly) made improvements over the years to fix its weaknesses. Over the last year I have run mine with a lot of amps- tube and solid state. I keep "feeling" I should change it out because of its sticker price, not its sound. However, until the big guns start pumping out USB Dacs, it has few peers IMHO (ARC's due this spring- cannot wait for the review, yet hope the reviewers understand computer audio).

Disclosure:I haven't heard the Bel Canto Dac3. I was tempted to try it until I heard ARC is introducing one. With their introduction, others are surely to follow soon.
If you are running balanced out, don't forget to adjust the output attenuation. The factory default limits the sonics. Check your manual and run it full (0 db).
Can you explain further, 4est? This is news to me.
DAC1's output impedance is dependant on this divider. 0dB provides lowest output impedance and best sound according to one review I read.

I second buying USB version since it also has newest National Semiconductors LM4562 OP-Amps and scaled down mentioned divider (lower resitance values - since this new OP-Amps are stronger).
How do you set to 0 db?
Drubin, There are jumpers inside that allow you to change its gain. Details are all documented in the manual.

Make sure you try driving the power amp directly, you might be surprised by how good it sounds.
Signal path inside of DAC1 is, according to Benchmark's technical director John Siau, identical with or without volume control. Running Benchmark directly to power amp allows to get rid of one set of interconnects (and preamp's circuits - less is more). Be sure to protect switch on the back of the Benchmark to avoid accidental full power.
I switched the jumpers and think the sound may indeed be better. But I'm not sure how practical it is in a multi-source system. Through my pre-amp, if the normal listening level for vinyl and Benchmark via RCA is 20, it is now 10 or less via Benchmark XLR. This creates an opportunity for a major screw-up! I suppose I could switch to variable out and attenuate, but that would surely degrade the sound quality. Ah...maybe the calibration adjustments?
Variable doesn't work if you use volume control (one or another - identical signal path). -10dB is the worst (1600 Ohm output impedance), -20dB is 500 Ohm and 0dB is 60 Ohm. DAC1-USB has it lower. If you don't use volume control (have preamp) try to adjust calibration pots. After that get disk with low frequency (100Hz - 1kHz) calibration signal and adjust pots for perfect balance between channels using any voltmeter (or count full turns on trimpots - they have at least 10 turns). Most of preamps and integrated are designed to provide 100% of the signal at 1 o'clock position to leave room for soft sounding CDs or sources. I decided to keep it at 0dB and use only 1/3 of DAC1 volume control range (it is balanced well - at least mine)
I received my Dac1 (w/o usb) today and was absolutely surprised at how good it sounds, right out of the box. I'm using it with my squeezebox (CI power supply and upgraded power cord between the two) and absolutely agree about the power issue. Mine is using a shuntata taipan helix Vx into a hydra 8 - a bit overkill but I had the extra PC and the hydra had an open digital socket.

The convenience is awesome. I haven't compared it to my esoteric x-03 se but my intent was to use it for casual listening. After listening today, it isn't so "casual" but a very involving experience. I haven't tried the Bel canto Dac 3 either, and did consider it, but for the money, I just can't complain (yet).
Trying to decide between dac 1, electroacompanient edc, or bel canto dac 2 for my system. Used with hard drive based system, tube amp, merlin speakers. Suggestions? BTW, don't need usb input.

I've now used the DAC-1 with KT 88, KT 66, and solid state amps into current spec VSMs. After a couple of weeks, I feel like I'm getting a sense of the DAC-1 versus, at least, the Cary through the VSMs. My basic reaction is that the DAC -1 will feel less "tubey" in that the mid-bass will seem shelved down a bit. The traditional Merlin character (to me, 'stat-like) in the mids will seem even more enhanced. In some systems, this may walk a fine line, flirting with too much of a good thing and approaching a slightly thin, analytical character. So, paradoxically.....

On the one hand a slightly aggresssive amp (in my case KT88 in Prima Luna 7s) may sound "tamer".

OTOH a lusher amp may also sound more neutral.

but, if your system is tonally where you want it now, the DAC-1 may bump you over the "analytical" line, IMHO.

Best Luck

That's a good assessment, Marty.

James, you may also want to consider the Lavry DA10 at about the same price as the Benchmark. Compared to the Benchmark, it is warmer, smoother and less analytical.
Thanks guys for the info. I'm currently using the Ars Filharmonia tube amp.
Can't use the Lavry as I need RCA connections.
You could use the Lavry if you used adaptors.
I'm going to try the benchmark dac1. Will let you know how it goes. Thanks for the input.
Hey guys, got the dac 1 two days ago and have listened to a variety of music now for several hours. My first impression is it's very nice and detailed, however, as several of you mentioned it does seem thin. Not tinny of harsh but sound stage seems thin. I'm going to continue to play with the unit. Low volume levels are disappointing but I get happier with volume. Unfortunately, given that I have a 2 month old low volume is necessary.
Upgrade the power cord and get a good pair of head phones. You'll be thrilled. Mine was thin as well, but I had an extra Shunyata Taipan Helix Vx lying around, so gave it a try. I'm not suggesting a $650 power cord for a $900 dac, but since I had the extra cord, it made sense.

No more thin soundstage.
I have been running DAC1 for over 2.5 years 24x7 now. (Yes, it is designed to be on all time not just turn on and listen kind of deal). Stock DAC1 is a bid thinner in mid. I send my DAC1 to Empirical Audio for Turbo and opamp mod to BB OPA627. The result is first class.. The mid and bass is a lot more weighty. High is even more airy and extended then before. The best part is after the mod, the holographic imaging factor increase dramatically. I feels air and space between each instruement inside the music. Comment from some of my audio friends who are analog guys "This is just like playing analog on the mid and high. Bass is much better than analog. The best part for DAC1 over analog is that there are a lots of pops and hiss from the album but DAC1 is clean and crisp". After listened to my system, they are thinking to move to digital with computer music now.. I use RWA SB3 as transport to drive my DAC1 with XLR output to my BAT VK31SE.
I bought my Benchmark Dac-1 before the Audio industry

caught wind of it, at its first distribution.

First I recall going through Transports like socks to

find the "match". Eventually a suprise player fit like

a glove. The venerable Sony SCD-XA7E.S. player is like

peanut butter and jelly. They sound like they are meant

to go together.

So I took the Sony SCD-XA7E.S. player and the Dac-1

and began cable hunting.

The power cord that did it for me was a Transparent Audio

Super Power cord.

Next, some Audio Alchemy Digital Data Stream B.N.C. to XLR,

with A.A.'s largest Power supply for the cables.

Better than any other Digital cables I tried.

Finally, P.S. Audio provides the Statement Balanced XLR's,

to the Balanced pre-amp.

The Synergy of each step in the signal path is fully

observed while "experiencing" the "metamorphosis" like

change that happens when You push that "PLAY!" button!

From out of the box New until now, my Dac-1 has aged

much like a "fine wine", it's sound now, is quite simply

far beyond the expectations I had for this sub. $850 DAC.

The a.c. is Pure, The Dac and the XA7E.S. player, both

plug into a P.S. Audio Duet Power box, which in turn is

plugged into a Power Wedge to wall. I tried every

configuration of 1 or the other and in the end... The Best

Sound was achieved when I used both. More weight in mid.,

and low frequency big time.

Is it the best Dac? No! But in the "odd" configuration

that I currently enjoy...I "HEAR" what the Artist Plays,

every fine detail is clearly heard or felt with uncanny


Nothing more,nothing less. I know APL 3.0, or Spectral or

D.C.S. are "considered" awesome; So if I want to spend

$17k or more, it will sound better. How much? Jury is still


Me? My mind Has been made up! I "Enjoy What I Have!"

It's funny because every C.D. I hear, I still can't get

over how inexpensive I got this precious Synergy of

pieces each making the next sound better.

I never dreamed of truly enjoying music, at "this" level

Ever! In my Life! I could not be more overjoyed!

"The Briefcase Live in Koln in '94" Awesome C.D.

Peace to All!
Hi Tantra I will run the B.dac1 with sacd using a "3D Lab Sonata drive". The trick is to convert dsd to pcm 24/88.2

Hi Gianluca, Whether it's working for such converts? how is the perfomence? Can You pls explaine me how the connection like through hdmi?
Your description of the DAC1 is what I noticed to. I also think it is pretty amazine. All the subtle changes it offered made for a very involving and listenable presentation. It doesn't seem to add any extra umph, but gives an honest listning experience.