I am doing a head-to-head comparison of the Bryston BHA-1 vs the Benchmark HPA4. The only external DAC I have today is the Benchmark DA3B. My headphones are the Meze Empy with the WyWire Platinum XLR cable. My digital comes from a computer via a Sonore microRendu.
I am testing with Neil Young’s "Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere" only because I played it last night on ROON + TIDAL and it was what was open when I started the computer. I also love this album.
The volume control on my BHA-1 is stuck at a very low position since it gets way too loud as I turn it. I am around 10 O’clock position, not happy about that, but not a deal breaker.
Before I get to the comparison with the Benchmark, I should state that this BHA-1 was used for the past month in my bedroom connected to a tuner and a Sony SCD-1 SACD player. The SCD-1 has been modified on the SACD circuit and it sounds great on SACD’s even though it is 20 years old. Every night I listen to some SACD’s or tuner and dose off in bed. It is a very relaxing sound, obviously to put me to sleep. The sound is not extremely detailed but rather warm and rounded. I kind of like it a lot. I am thinking of getting a R2R DAC to compliment this system.
Now to the listening session I am doing right now with the Neil Young album streamed via TIDAL to my Benchmark DAC3B (my digital streaming is very good, a 8/10). First up was the BHA-1. The sound stage was bigger than I remembered the previous night on the HPA4. The performers (Crazy Horse) seem farther separated out with Neil singing in the middle. The sound seems have the illusion of extending outside the headphones to the left and right of my ears. I like that. However, with DAC3B the sound seems to have a bit of a blanket around it. The bass is also rather pronounced. Meaning it takes more of an upfront role in the music. My ears also seem to be a little irritated by this bass. After listening to the whole album my ears are not relaxed, a bit of fatigue. This is a new thing with the BHA-1, never happened with the Sony SCD-1 or tuner.
Next, I removed the the power cord (stock Benchmark cord) from the BHA-1 and plugged it into the Benchmark HPA4. I unplugged the DAC3B XLR interconnects from the BHA-1 and into the HPA4. Queued up the Neil Young album and started listening. First thing I noticed was the blanket removed from the sound. The sound was beautiful, not soft or warm, but not hard either. Just crystal clear and non-fatiguing. The sound stage is smaller than with the BHA-1. The sound does not give me the illusion of projecting out to the left and right of my ears. Though the performers are separated and everything sounds correct. The bass is much different in the HPA4. It is not front and center. It is in the background, with clear delineation of the tone of the bass. It is also less powerful, but it seems more correct. Even after some fatigue from the first listen with the BHA-1 the second immediate listen with the HPA4 is fatigue free. Just an amazing feeling listening on the HPA4.
I sold my external 2 channel amps this week so I have been doing a lot of listening with headphones, not my preference during the work hours, but no choice. I get zero fatigue with the Benchmark DAC3B + HPA4 combo.
I am a little bummed today with the Bryston BHA-1 results but I must remember that it sounds great with my Sony SCD-1 SACD player and tuner, No fatigue with that combo, though the DAC in the SCD-1 is not as revealing as the DA3B. I will keep the BHA-1 and keep it relegated to second system duties for sleeping. I paid $900 USD for a used 10/10 unit so still happy about that.
If you are looking to get into headphones, give the HPA4 + DAC3B combo a 30 day trial from the Benchmark web site. Just brilliant.