I still swear by my Birdland Odeon-Ag. Dollar for dollar still my best purchase in audio in terms of bang for buck. $1850 new, probably in your price range used, but I hardly ever see them for sale used, and I know why.
I was looking into the Benchmark also, but after reading it sounded like it was not for me also. I went with the Bel Canto DAC2. Compared to what I've read about the Benchmark, the Bel Canto is as detailed, but more analog like or more on the velvty side of smoothness. Based upon what I've read, the Benchmark seems to be more on the silky side. The nice thing about the Bel Canto also is that is doesn't seem to be transport dependent due to the built in dejitter so that could solve your issue about using the Quad as a transport.
From what I've heard from Perrotta Consultants, he highly recommends the Northstart over the Bel Canto and MF Trivista. He is also a dealer of the Birdland and didn't even mention it. I was interested with the Birdland because all I've read are good things also. I hope this helps.
I bought my Birdland from Perotta, who is a gentleman. Based loosely on another thread from several months ago, I am surmising that there might have been a falling out between Birdland and Perotta, which may explain why he didn't mention the Odeon-Ag. I haven't ever had a chance to hear the Bel Canto, but the Birdland is significantly better than the MF Trivista, in my opinion.
Thanks very much, Tfk and Jb, for your posts. Maybe my question was too specific to attract many responses. Maybe I should have just asked, "Dude, Which DAC really rocks?!!?" On the other hand, I've already read all the threads that asked that. ;->
I'll add the Birdland to my watch-list. Rb, the Bel Canto does not have an optical-in, does it?
I'll check back in a couple days--thanks again.
Dear Jay, et al: I must say something here that is off the subject albeit related to Jay's "vibrations in the notes" theory. This may relate to, as well as help explain, why the sound of a pipe organ can never be 100% authentically duplicated by even the most advanced, expensive, custom, top-quality digital organ. Yes, one could build a million-dollar digital organ that came so close (to a pipe organ) that 99% of those hearing it would declare the difference irrelevant; but this is not the same thing as sounding exactly like a pipe organ. My apologies for the digression!