Benchmark DAC2 HGC

Category: Digital

for the longest time, i had been using my old trusty $6.5k Accuphase DP-65v CD player as a DAC. i loved the sound of it as a CD player, and as my music listening transitioned more and more to be exclusively based on streaming FLAC and 256-320k MP3 files from a Squeezebox Player (as of today it is the Squeezebox Touch, and a series of others distributed about the place) i used the Accuphase's ability to also act as a DAC for other digital sources. however, the Accuphase CD player is also *big* and as i moved to a new place a few months ago i decided to build a more compact system that was more appropriate for my new listening environment.

early on I zeroed in on the Benchmark DAC2 HGC because of its feature set, the multitude of inputs it supported, as well as its compact dimensions. the fact it gets many rave reviews for a very accurate sound also helped, because the Accuphase clearly had pampered my ears for many years.

getting it out of the box i was immediately impressed by the very high build quality, with a thick front aluminum plate, buttons that click authoritatively, a volume knob that feels good and provides great feedback, as well as a remote that is seemingly carved out of a solid piece of aluminum - very unusual.

given all the inputs it offers (analog inputs, and several optical digital, coax digital and USB inputs) i was also impressed by the very compact design of the Benchmark, it's easy to make it fit anywhere.

for now, i use it to switch between the two digital optical inputs. the Squeezebox Touch feeds it FLACs sampled from 192kHz to 44Hzk; and MP3 files. i rely on FLAC for classical and jazz wherever available, even though of course not all albums have a recording quality that merits the additional investment. for popular music, really, 250k MP3 is plenty, because as a rule it is indifferently recorded (at best) and often horribly overdriven... there should be a special place in hell for some recording engineers (but that is another topic).

i use the Benchmark as a headphone amp (for Grado RS-1) and as a preamp. in the latter case, the chain goes into either and Accuphase E-306v IA or a Creek Destiny Power Amp, depending on my mood. these in turn power superb KEF LS50 speakers. the DAC2 also drives a Velodyne MiniVee sub from the other pre-amp output (it's *great* to have 2 preamp outputs coming out of the DAC), which admittedly i keep turned down all the way most of the time.

how does it sound? The DAC2 absolutely mesmerizes as either a headphone amp or as a preamp.

as a headphone amp, it drives the Grado RS-1 to their dripping warm sweetness, and many people claim the Grado's are hard to drive. a phenomenal combo - full class A sound for under $3k, it doesn't get better as an audiophile. but of course, with headphones, the stage is within your head.

the same superb sound is projected through the speakers, and the quality of the recording and the power-amp and speaker combo will always be the gatekeeper to what you hear, the Benchmark DAC2 will provide every nuance, every detail with utter and total transparency and clarity - that is the DAC's job. I do not want the DAC to inject any "personality" into its output - leave that to the amplifier and loudspeakers: they are the ones that ought to cater to my preferences. note this means that if the entire chain is highly accurate, linear and revealing - yes, you will be able to hear a mouse fart behind the left wall in the studio etc, which also means you may end up with the kind of sound that is a bit fatiguing - i like accuracy, but too much of it can get a bit edgy (which i see some people accuse the benchmark of). be aware of your preferences, i do like my music to be accurate yet also with a bit of warmth, and the Accuphase or Creek do that well. you will NOT get "warmth" out of the Benchmark, it is designed for utter and total transparency just as the recording engineer mixed it, and leaves it to the components that follow to color the sound to your preferences.

btw, the other digital input i feed from the audio pass-through in my TV, so the DAC2 also takes over converting sound for my 2.1 home theater system, and does a predictably excellent job at that - but to me that is a secondary task. but it just shows given the multitude of inputs you can keep using the Benchmark DAC2 for other tasks.

if you wonder why i use the 2 optical inputs - i don't think they are better, in fact the coax and USB input are the ones that truly support 192kHz natively (i don't hear a difference between a good recording in 44/16 and 192/24, honestly, but maybe there are such recordings out there). what i like about optical inputs is the convenience and electrical decoupling, hum doesn't get a chance. that's all. i will use the coax and USB inputs over time, though. and will use the analog inputs when i continue to digitize my analog music collection.

i *love* the Benchmark DAC2 HGC. sure nearly $2k is not cheap for a DAC, but given the sound quality and the sheer versatility i regard it as a total bargain. the transparency of the Benchmark is ridiculous, and given the amount of input and output ports as well as its feature set, it is sure to fit into a system for many years to come, taking on all DAC tasks with the highest possible reference system quality.
Nice review....I have the Dac1 HDR and I love the
Benchmark sound!
Nice review. THis Benchmark or what may come down the road even from teh company is high on my to-try list someday.

How does the BEnchmark do with high quality recordings of massed violins in orchestral pieces?

In another thread, we were just discussing this as an acid test for digital. Massed violins often come across as somewhat grainy in CD recordings. Any of that with your SB Touch/Benchmark combo?

Yeah they pose a big challenge.

I have some excellent solo cello recordings by Gabriel Lipkind, and many Bach and Pachelbel recordings. And Debussy's La Mer. I can say I wholeheartedly enjoy them. I get geometric staging from well recorded orchestra pieces. And the musicality is astounding.

I haven't done comparisons with stuff like Bel Canto and such though. But truly can't imagine needing much more.
I should also state that -imo- the Banchmark DAC2 provides so little coloration and such a degree of resolution that it is the rest of the chain you will be hearing - your power amp and your speakers will be the gatekeepers.
I was just hearing the Casals Quartet's recent Schubert album -a recommended 24/96 recording- and you can hear every single instrument placed in front of you. Super-detailed imaging can get tiring because you may lose yourself in irrelevant details ("oh some spittle in the sax") rather than take in the whole performance, but one good thing I can say about my current (and reasonable) chain is that it all comes together. You *can* go for the detail but you'd rather listen to the whole. I credit mostly the KEF with that, the Benchmark and the amp do what good solid state electronics do - they stay out of the picture.
Since the topic is violins and strings, I may add my favorite rendition of Pachelbel's Canon is by Karl Munchinger (Polygram Records ASIN: B0000041PK), and it is old, and by all means not a stellar recording. You get staging, but it is a bit congested and sports some analog hiss. You'd think it is the type of recording you would not want to listen to through the Benchmark and KEF, because the flaws would be brutally exposed. But lo and behold, I have never enjoyed it more. :)

Disclaimer: I do agree that solid state stuff -like the DA and the Amp- can be so neutral that they seem lean in the middle compared to the creamier, sugary serving of middles you get with tubes. I think that's where the preference for analog comes with strings and I get it. But then again, anyone that's attended a concert with heavy strings knows they can have attitude and be harsh. Vivaldi's storm is the antithesis of the adagio... that's the beauty of strings. I don't think the Benchmark colors them any harsher than they are intended to be by the conductor...
Long time benchmark fan here. I positively loved my years with the DAC1 pre. However, having tried the DAC2 twice now, I have to say that I think they lost some of their mojo with the DAC2. The thing that made the DAC1 a true "benchmark" for all DACs was the utter transparency. The DAC2 sounds less transparent to me, not more. It's definitely way smoother sounding. I know a lot of people claim to like that because it sounds "less digital" but I also think it sounds less open. Just my opinion.
with respect - i disagree. i did own the DAC1 and i sold it to a friend because it sounded far less musical that the DP65v acting as a DAC. i could not adjust to the sound. with the DAC2 i immediately could - *more* detail but revealed in a playful, musical way.
I too owned the DAC1-Pre, I was always impressed with how well the DAC1 could improve my FLAC files coming from my Macbook via Audirvana
I've recently obtained a DAC2-HGC, simply!! The difference is nothing short of staggering, considerably and obviously more transparent, blacker background allowing each individual instrument to be heard as if the musicians have now stepped out of my speakers and begun entertaining me in my listening room live.
I can hardly begin to praise the DAC2 HGC enough, playing 24/192 flac or DSD files have brought my audio system to a whole new level of realism, its as if I've upgraded every component in my audio system!
Love it! My hats off to Benchmark for designing such a beautiful piece for such an affordable price.
Uhhhg. You guys are making want to get one!! I want to use it as a preamp too, but not sure about that. I'd like to hear more about hat if anyone has any insight.
Benchmark makes some great gear...their amp is a little jewel as well. And in case it matters to your purchase (as it does to me), you won't meet a better guy than Rory...down to Earth and really cares about making his stuff top quality and reasonably affordable.