of those 3 i would pick the pontus, it is the most 'organic' sounding of the bunch imho
21 responses Add your response
thanks guys — I now have two responses with two different recommendations; isn’t anyone going to stand up for Benchmark?
Seriously, I do appreciate the replies, but if anyone could give me some idea of how the sonic characteristics of these three DACs compare, based on having heard them in comparable setups, I’d love to hear it. Of course, you’re all welcome to give your recommendations too; but how can I know if your ears like the same distortions as mine?
@soix: thank you! I expected the amp to sound good when it came back, but what I got was even better than I had expected. Unfortunately, I don't think I can give you the answer you're looking for; I just don't know how to phrase it any better then saying "when a note on a piano or guitar is struck, I want it to sound like the instrument is there in my room." I'm not a fan of tubes (or at least I haven't liked the ones I've heard), because I always find the highs to be muddy or muted. I generally like the sound of good solid-state systems, but not those that make the music sound unnatural, or brittle. I think it comes down to what the Supreme Court said about pornography: "I'll know it when I hear it" -- but without a handy public listening room (as we used to have in NYC), that's not as easy or affordable as I'd like. Sigh...
I have an all Benchmark stack, DAC3B | HPA4 | AHB2 x 2. I have yet to find anything that will replace it for my 2 channel Thiel CS3.7. Though I have had more expensive gear in recently, CODA CSiB and KRELL K-300i, I have always said I like the same music a little better on the BM stack.
The only time I had an issue with the BM stack is with my RAAL SR1a headphones. I am listening to them as I type this using HPA4 | AHB2 x 2 | Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE DAC to tame the RAAL’s ribbon.
The DAC3B was replaced by the tube DAC with the RAAL and that made things rather good. Though I will be improving things even further with the RAAL by using a CODA 07x preamp and a D-Sonic amp. So all my Benchmark gear is replaced with the RAAL. On my 2 channel the Benchmark gear cannot be beat. The BM stack does not work with all gear. For, example Paradigm Persona would be awful with my BM stack as is the RAAL.
I owned the Benchmark DAC1 and after a while I realized I hated the fatiguing nature of that DAC. I had to use a BAT VK-42 SE preamp to make the DAC1 listenable. The DAC3 is much more pleasant to listen to. It is also much better sounding when paired with the LA4 or HPA4 preamp. I have owned the DAC3 HGC and used it direct to a AHB2. The HPA4 I now have with the DAC3B is much better overall sound. Especially at low volume listening sessions.
I have used my Tubadour DAC with the HPA4 and AHB2s on my 2 channel and it is good but I like the DAC3B more in signal path for 2 channel. The Tubadour should be similar to the Pontus.
BTW - if you are in the USA get the DAC3 on a 30 day home trial from Benchmark and return it if you do not like it.
@yyzsantabarbara that sounds like a great system — I’ve always wanted to hear a pair of 3.7’s, and I’d bet the Benchmark gear compliments them nicely. Thanks for all your thoughts on the Benchmark 1 to 3B upgrade, though I’m sorry to hear it doesn’t play so well without a pre. How did the addition of the HPA4 change the sound?
@cheeg The biggest difference is in the volume control. There are something like 256 steps on the HPA4 volume and the quality of those steps is very noticeable at low volume. With DAC direct to amp using the DAC3 HGC I was never able to dial in the volume correctly for late night low volume listening. I remember this being a big problem because I just had a kid and I worked late night while the family slept. I should have just got some headphones back then.
With the HPA4/LA4 the low volume sounds full range but just quieter as one would want.
The HPA4 as a headphone amp is one of the best. As a preamp I think it is the best if you do not want to hear it. That is because it is quieter than ALL other gear. Adding this preamp is not going to add any noise to the signal. It is in the same level of noise as the quietest DACs. When I bought it last year I think it was quieter than all DACs. Not sure now with new DAC releases.
My only complaint about the HPA4 is that it became a gateway drug to the world of headphones. I have spent way too much money on headphones since the HPA4.
The CS3.7 sounds great with the Benchmark stack. The COAX on the CS3.7 is neither bright or dark and matches nicely with the neutral electronics.
My DAC3 HGC and AHB2 are great at very low levels (90dB speakers). Both have XLR level adjustment and Benchmark recommends to set the highest DAC3 HGC output and the highest AHB2 input levels. That way gain is moved from power amp to DAC - quieter environment. It also reduces relative noise pickup by interconnects. You can set XLR output to 0dB, -10dB or -20dB. I did not try unbalanced outputs (AHB2 only has XLR inputs).
@yyzsantabarbara @kijanki Thank you both for the additional detail on changing the level match between the B3 and the AHB2. If volume is the only issue, I'm tempted to try the B3; if there is a problem at low levels, I can always try a Lightspeed attenuator. It sounds like neither of you have tried the RCA outputs from the B3, since the AHB2 only has XLR inputs; my DNA-1 only has RCA's, but as long as I keep my lines short I doubt that will be an issue. Thanks again!
I actually use both XLR and RCA on the DAC3B to 2 different preamps (or integrated amps). At least until a few days ago and I now only have 1 preamp left, the HPA4. Next week I will again have 2 preamps and the RCA output on the DAC3B will be hooked up to the second preamp.
I also use the Benchmark gear in the recommended configuration with the 24 dBu+ signal. The RCA is considered the poor cousin in terms of connectivity by Benchmark. They strongly recommend XLR throughout.
I know you were asking about connecting to a amp. I the HGC has both RCA and XLR outputs so you could have both of your amps connected to the HGC at the same time.
I strongly recommend you try the LA4 or HPA4 in the chain for FREE with the 30 day home trial. I thought it was a big deal to put the preamp into the chain. I have owned DAC2 HGC, DAC3 HGC, and DAC1. The very best sound is with either of those 2 preamps in the chain.
My listening tests with both DAC3B outputs used at the same time did not show any problems. I also spoke with Rory Rail at Benchmark on this type of setup and he said a lot of customers have both RCA and XLR connected at the same time.
I tried to have both my RCA and XLR connected at the same time on my Audio Mirror DAC and that was a no go. Even the designer told me that it likely will not work, it did not. The sounds was not good.
@yyzsantabarbara I just read your two posts after sending my "PS" -- I think you misunderstood; I don't have two amps, just the one modded DNA-1. Unfortunately, when I did the mod, I didn't think it would be worth it to add XLR inputs, so I will have to live with my RCA inputs unless I get a different amp. I really like this amp, and would rather live with its RCA limitations. I am using the RCA outputs on my B1 now, and I don't detect any noise (beyond a little tinnitus, which XLRs won't help), Also, since the RCA outputs on the B3 have lower gain than the XRL outputs, I may not have the volume problem you encountered. I suspect the only way to tell for sure is to buy one, compare it to the B1, and return it if it's not audibly better. Fortunately, as you said, Benchmark has a no-risk return policy, which makes the decision a lot easier!
If I were you I would get the HPA4 (which I have) and hook up the DAC1 to it to see how that sounds. I have not tried this myself but the HPA4 does seem to have RCA outputs. I only noticed it now when I went to check on the Benchmark web site.
You will also get a much better headphone amp in the HPA4 over the HGC. I never test headphones with either of my HGC's. However, I spoke a few people that did and they were unanimous in saying the HPA4 headphones was much better.
@cheeg I got the Gustard a day earlier than scheduled. I imagine this things sound is going to open up as time goes on. I can say that listening to the first album, The Stones Let it Bleed, sounds better on the Gustard than the DAC3B. The DAC3B is more detailed and does not sound constrained. However, the Gustard is smoother and a bigger soundstage on the first listen. I am sure this will get the details and loosen up.
I am only posting this without more hours because I think it is a no brainer to buy the Gustard at the sale price of $1300. It is also better than my former Matrix Audio Mini-i-3 Pro (I no longer have it). The Gustard sounds like my AudioMirror Tubadour III SE but with a bigger soundstage. I maybe able to sell 2 DACs and just keep this Gustard if this opens up as expected.
It was easy to tell the difference with NOS mode ON and OFF. I have this hooked up to the very neutral Benchmark HPA4 preamp and AHB2 amps.