Benchmark DAC1 Harshness & Empirical Audio

Category: Digital

You probably have seen discussions in these pages on whether or not the Benchmark DAC1 is "harsh" and "digital." Now REG in the Absolute Sound has put his position on paper:

"The Benchmark version of digital lives up to the promise of the CD digital process, without any of the artifacts - the nastiness, buzziness, edginess, whatever your pet peeve-of earlier, jitter-prone, non-linear versions of Red Book digital."

Prior to receiving my Empirical Audio modded DAC1 with I2S Off-Ramp, I would not have been able to comment on whether or not the DAC1 is Harsh or Digital. Now, with an Empirical Audio Turbo-Mod and Op Amp upgrade, plus I2S, I can tell you there is substantial positive upside available through through the DAC1.

My initial set-up was a Pass Labs X0.2 Pre and X350.5 Amps; Arcam DV-29 DVD Player, unmodded Benchmark DAC1, Nordost Blue Heaven Interconnects and Speaker cables into Coincident Total Eclipse. Rack is maple - Steve Blinn Designs, Vibrapods, Vibracones, and Finite Elemente cereballs. My listening leans toward female vocal, jazz standards, and 50's, 60's, 70's and contemporary jazz.

With the original DAC1, I would characterize the sound as more lively, and less congested than the Arcam direct output. Higher levels of detail were apparent, and generally the sound was more engaging and listenable with the DAC1. I would not have characterized the sound as harsh, but there were edges. There was an overall treble emphasis.

Enter the Empirical Audio mod. Most equipment stayed the same - same Pass Labs Amp and Pre-amp. Empirical Audio Balanced interconnects were added between the modded DAC1 and the Pre, and between Pre and Amp. A Mac Mini and La Cie Hard Drive are now the source material using Apple Lossless through I-Tunes. A Belkin USB connects the Mac to the Empirical I2S Off-Ramp, which then sends it's signal to the DAC1 through a Revelation Audio pure silver I2S cable.

Steve at Empirical Audio says that the Turbo Modded DAC1 needs about a month of break in to show it's stuff. At this point, I have two weeks of 24/7 throughput.

Out of the box, my first impression was a significant elimination of harshness and a more true tonal balance and harmonic layering. My wife's first comment was "I heard the difference immediatly. The sound is full and round." The ease of listenability continues and grows as I break the unit in.

Steve Nugent claims that the unbroken-in modded unit shows levels of congestion that lessen over the break-in period. This is similar to my own experience. Simple and sparse music sounded best on the "new" unit and complex, dense music continues to sound better, with more air as I put more hours on the modded DAC1.

I do not have experience with other digital converters like the dCS, EMM, Esoteric or MBL. So, I cannot offer opinions or comparisons. I am however, very pleased with the improvements wrought to my Benchmark DAC1 by Empirical Audio. The Benchmark unit is good, but it can be made substantially better. I am very intrigued by Steve Nugent's proposal to bring a Digital Pre-Amp to market. That might just replace my Pass Labs unit.
Not surprising. Nice report.

I'd venture to say that's not the "ultimate" DAC, but it sounds like the mods brought you really close to the top of the pile.

DC, thanks for your comments. One other thought here - I also purchased the poor man's battery supply for the I2S, and there is a noticable and pleasant increase in ease of sound. I suspect that better speaker cables would increase the perceived impact.

Oh yeah, no doubt, ICs and speaker cables can move things further along. That's another thread...