Review: Benchmark DAC1 DA converter

Category: Digital

I wanted to share my analysis and experience with the Benchmark DAC1. Particularly because this unit has been praised by one camp of audiophiles and diminished by another camp. It is another one of those designs that seemed destined to polarize our community.

At a listener and audiophile, I come from a perspective of being a professional musician, trained at the conservatory level in piano and voice. Although my musical tastes are very diverse, in the past year I have gravitated to hardcore jazz, from small ensembles to large jazz bands. Vocals from the jazz and pop greats are also often on my listening sessions.

Listening to a duo, trio, or quartet certainly has its advantages in simplicity of line that makes deciphering the musical threads an easier task. However, I also find that complex multi-instrumental textures can reveal things about the abilities and shortcomings of components that simpler recordings do not. This is not for everyone, however, as it requires a well-trained ear and mind, and an intimate understanding of the instruments, both individually and in ensemble. Although non-musicians can attain proficiency in this area, trained musicians have an edge that only the study and perfection of this art form can provide.

A few recordings of note that I used:

Joe Henderson - Big Band - Verve 3145334512
All Star Big Band - GRP - GRD9672 (out of print)
Jon Faddis - Remembrances - Chesky JD166
Johnny Frigo w/Pizzarelli - Chesky JD1, or SACD264
Paquito D'Rivera - Portraits of Cuba - Chesky JD145
Diana Krall - When I Look in Your Eyes - Verve IMPD304
Julie London - Wild, Cool & Swinging, Artist Collection - Capitol CDP724352033126

The Joe Henderson is indispensible and big band jazz at its height. Similarly, the GRP Big Band is phenomenal. The Jon Faddis is big band at the height of sophistication and sonic polish and a must.
Do not discount Chesky's first recording of Johnny Frigo. His violin and the Pizzarelli's guitar duo make incredible sound and can show what a component is lacking.

Several years ago, John Atkinson and John Marks of Stereophile found this unit very appealing, and gave high praises to it. It was a somewhat obscure unit, as Benchmark is a pro sound manufacturer, and not well known by most audiophiles. Herein lies part of the reason some audiophiles are so critical of it. What does a pro sound company know about high end sound? The unit's diminutive size and weight is possibly another reason its capabilities are questioned by some.

In keeping with my usual modus operandi, I searched for as many reviews, user posts, and other commentary as I could possibly find before deciding on whether to purchase it. In the end, I found such overwhelming praise from such diverse sources. I knew this was a unit I had to try, so I bought one.

Upon inserting the Benchmark in my system, I was astounded by the high resolution and clarity. It showed that my beloved Musical Fidelity Trivista DAC 21 was not resolving detail to anywhere near this degree. Indeed, it actually sounded like the MF was adding texture and haze, and was not providing good high end extension and detail. It was also immediately clear that the Benchmark, however, did not have the warmth of the MF DAC, and the bass seemed leaner.

After careful comparison and analysis, I did come to realize that some of the MF's warmth was an additive coloration that possibly contributed to the clouding of detail, and superimposing texture or glaze. Although the MF's bass was fuller, it also seemed a bit pumped up or bloated, although not in an unpleasant way.

Take into consideration, however, that the Pioneer PD65 I use as a transport is a wonderful sounding transport, but its bass, while very decent, is not as extended or powerful as other more expensive transports.

The resolution, cleanness, and crystalline clarity of the Benchmark pretty much made my decision—it was staying.

A STORY OF CABLING: Every kind, Digital, IC, and Power.

The Benchmark is so resolving that it will reveal cable differences like a laboratory instrument. I had been using a Kimber Illuminations D60 with my prior DACs. Benchmark claims that the reclocking and jitter insensitivity of their design makes expensive digital cables unnecessary and inaudible. I then thought I could possibly sell my D60 and use a cheap cable. Sorry, but Benchmark is dead wrong. I tried the much vaunted Canare digital cable, and it truly sounds awful. I'm sorry, but it is not a good sounding cable in any respect. It has grain, hash, forwardness and a shrillness that becomes unbearable to me after several minutes of listening. The Kimber D60 is a very nice sounding cable that is extended but not bright. It is very clear and clean, and has great bass and impact. It is a rather neutral cable, and I highly recommend it.

I then began to experiment with interconnects and power cords. The character of every cable that I tried was clearly revealed by the Benchmark. RS Cables Silver was a bit too bright with a somewhat thin midrange. Acoustic Zen Matrix II was too colored and hollow sounding in the midrange, and lacking ultimate resolution and extension in the treble. Kimber PBJ was too bright and forward in the upper midrange and lower treble and too light in the bass. Kimber Hero was the best of the bunch. I used the Hero for some time on the Benchmark.

It may strike you as insane to match a $500 interconnect with a $975 DAC, but when I inserted a loaned cable from Kimber's high end line, the Select 1011, I couldn't believe the improvements. Dynamics increased 50%. Bass was tighter, fuller, more powerful. The crystalline clarity and extension of the Benchmark's treble was now even cleaner and clearer. The midrange was more palpable and fuller.

The result was that literally every area of the Benchmark that I thought needed improving was near perfect. I personally feel there is no justification for any cable manufacturer to charge these prices for cable, regardless of how good it sounds. It still is only wire and dielectric. In the end, however, I felt that the synergy between the cable and the unit was so astounding, I had no choice but to buy this cable. So, Benchmark owners, you owe it to yourself to at least try this cable, and let me know your opinion.

Next to power cords. The RS Cables Starchord was very decent sounding, though it was a bit more distant in the mids, so was the RS interconnect. My beloved Acoustic Zen Tsunami Plus was a fine performer, but its stiffness makes it difficult to use on small components. Also, I feel this cord is best on units other than source components. It has a tendency to sound a tad midrange forward on digital sources. However, it is an incredible cord and my reference on power amps. I should point out that there are many products out there I have not heard.

My ultimate choice was the Van den Hul Mainsstream, as its black background and high, clear resolution seemed to be the perfect choice. I do not recommend this cord on power amps at all, as it can be a bit aggressive and clinical sounding. I need to give out the warning that there are many fake Vdh Mainsstream cords circulating in the community. For further information on this subject, feel free to email me. Keep in mind, the real Van den hul is not cheap at $435, and rarely do you see an authentic one for sale used.

With all my equipment choices, I look for units that sound musical. Units that have a coherency to their sound. I don't find many solid state preamps that have this coherency. Many cables don't have coherency either. In DACs, I didn't find my Theta ProBasic III very coherent, or my Trivista DAC, for that matter.

Is the Benchmark perfect? Is my analysis perfect? Of course not, nothing is. Like many audiophiles, I'm sure I will eventually look for something else, as we are always on the quest for something better. Sometimes I think we should just be satisfied and stop. The Benchmark is a product that makes you feel like stopping. That is why when you see a used one for sale, it sells very quickly. With used prices being so high, you might just consider getting a new one and settle down for a while, and just listen to the music.

Associated gear
Pioneer PD65
Rogue M99
Parasound Halo JC1
Von Schweikert VR4jr
Kimber Illuminations D60
Canare digital
RS Cables Silver
Acoustic Zen Matrix II
Kimber Hero
Kimber Select KS1011
Audioquest Caldera biwire
Acoustic Zen Tsumani Plus
RS Cables Starchord
Van den Hul Mainsstream

Similar products
Theta Pro Basic IIIa
Bel Canto DAC2
Musical Fidelity Trivista DAC 21
Thanks! I have been debating whether to buy this dac for my computer audio setup and you've convinced me. Great review!

BTW, do you have any comments on its performance with headphones? This was one of the main reasons why i was originally attracted to the benchmark.
Kevziek: Thanks for the suggestions on the great music, just ordered them used on amazon!
Very methodical review of the Benchmark and more importantly the synergy with other components including cables!
Unless I missed it, (which is entirely possible) you didn't say whether you used the DAC1's fixed or variable outputs, or whether you used it direct into your amps or through a preamp, and you also did not say which type of digital cable you used or whether you used the balanced or RCA outputs...

When I reviewed the DAC1 I found it bass shy (and a bit lacking in macro-dynamics) until I used it via its fixed (calibrated) outputs through a buffered unity-gain preamp.

I further found that going through an active linestage hurt the resolution, and that changing AC cords definitely made a difference.

That said, I got fantastic results using the DAC1 with SignalCable's inexpensive $29 digital cable (no grain, natural sound and excellent focus and resolution). In fact, the results were so impressive that I'm still using that cable and have no reason to want to change it -- which is not to say other cables would not sound equally good or better.

Overall, a nice review, but you did leave out a few details.

Kubla, I think the headphone amp in the DAC1 is dynamic and well balanced, but it does lose some transparency and detail compared to the other rear-panel outputs.
I use the Benchmark in variable mode, with the volume turned to the top. I tried calibrated mode, but the gain is lower, which I don't like. I'm running single-ended.

I did list my preamp in the review, so, yes, I am using it through a preamp. I did not like the result of running it direct into the amps. It did not sound the same to me, but then I'm using a tube preamp.

I spoke in depth about the importance of the digital cable, and I discussed the Kimber D60 as my cable of choice.

Sorry, Kubla, I have not used the headphone jack, but Plato has and thinks it is very decent. I will try it soon.
Plato, may I ask what headphones you tried with the Benchmark? And what would you recommend looking for in a set of cans for this unit. Currently I have Senn 650s that i've been very happy with using a Berning microZOTL but haven't tried them anywhere else.

Not to confuse things, but have any of you Benchmark owners tried the Apogee mini dac? Seems to be along the same line feature-wise, also a product of pro audio, and has its share of glowing reviews.
Hi Kubla,

I tried the Grado SR60 which is not the best but it gave me an idea of the Benchmark's quality. I also drove my full-range speakers from the headphone output via a couple of different RCA adapters (into the power amps) and that's how I concluded that the headphone amp loses detail compared to the fixed outputs. I use the Grados mainly to check that preamps are working properly and have a set of Stax 4040 Signature electrostatic phones as my headphone reference.

Kevziek, thanks for your reply, I should have realized from your equipment list that you were using the RCAs (and I am, as well). But I can tell you that you still haven't heard the full capabilities of the DAC1 if you're going through the Rogue M99. I used to own the Rogue 99 preamp and that piece definitely loses a fair amount of detail. It sounds nice and musical and all, but it's not the tightest ship in the bay. This is not a slam on the Rogue 99 in particular -- I find that all tube amps lose detail (though they sound lovely and musical). The amount of detail they lose can vary from very little (just perceptible) to quite a bit, depending on the design and the parts quality.

I thought the Rogue 99 lost a fair amount of detail, but hopefully the Magnum version is somewhat better in that regard. The sound of my particular 99 seemed very affected by the particular type of feet I used. As I recall, hard feet like hardwood blocks or BDR cones worked best and provided the most detail and articulation. My apologies for getting off the track of this thread.
I agree with you that the Rogue does lack some ultimate detail. Because it is so musical and holistic and pleasant sounding, I have been able to overlook this. Interestingly, in spite of all this, the Benchmark and my amps are providing incredible resolution, and I am able to hear this through the less than perfect Rogue. The Rogue's full, dynamic sound is hard to find at this price point, and it is a vastly-underrated preamp in my opinion. Tell me what tube unit can provide these attributes, and I'll certainly try it.

When I had Audio Research LS16, even LS25, I didn't find them as "right" sounding or coherent. They were thinner, and, in the case of the LS16, the bass was too weak, and the sound just didn't have enough 'legs' to it. Impact and oomph were lacking. Of course, the AR's have puny little power supplies. AR expects you to pay 10 grand to get big power supplies.

Solid state preamps just didn't do it for me. I lost body, certain aspects of dimension, and just overall realism, even though they were more 'detailed'. Voices and instruments whose fundamentals were in the midrange lost dimension, body and color.

I lost my interest in tube amps due to their problematic nature and the fact that I found they clipped and distorted when pushed only moderately loud. I have found the Halo JC1 to have beautiful sonics, lacking ony a bit of the midrange that tube amps provide. This is another amp whose sonics have been diminished by audiophiles seeming bent on hating it. Let them hear what they hear; I know what I hear, and there are many out there who agree that the JC1 is a very refined amp, and certainly up to the task of passing along the high resolution of the Benchmark DAC1.

Hi Will, I too have gotten a genuine Mainsstream in here after experiencing the fakes. I think I was unaware in our prior communications that you also used a Theta DSPro Basic IIIa DAC. So far I have experimented with the Mainsstream feeding my PLC and McCormack power amp only, still have yet to try it with the tube amps, preamp, or digital front end, but I will get to these soon. With the DNA-125 I find the vdH to be anything but clinical and agressive (compared to a Shunyata Sidewinder, but that's a cord I never preferred for this amp anyway -- it works great on the VTLs however), more like organic and musical I'd say, very dimensional, flowing, and tonally rich. Meanwhile I continue to be happy with the Theta -- my own tests (of the bypass variety, less subjective) have shown that it is capable of being very accurate to the source, with the transport match being the bigger variable IMO. The last time I auditioned a newer DAC in-home was the MSB Gold Link/PB1000, which the Theta just trounced, but if I do another comparo sometime the Benchmark could be a likely candidate. As always, it all depends and everything affects everything :-)
Hi Alex, great to hear from you. Glad to hear you got a real vdh Mainsstream. Interesting that you found it not to be aggressive and clinical, but I don't know how the Sidewinder sounds. Perhaps it is an interaction thing, but on my JC-1s, which are far from aggressive or clinical, the Mainsstream does sound aggressive. It may be that on higher power amps, the Mainsstream doesn't have enough gauge to handle the power. I did notice I had to turn the volume up more with the Mainsstream than with my Tsunami.

Regarding the Theta Pro IIIa, it has been a long time and many equipment changes since hearing it. I do know that when I replaced it with the Bel Canto DAC2, I found it grainy and forward in comparison. Before this switch, I loved it, though. It would be interesting for you to listen to a Benchmark and hear your thoughts.
Alex, the Mainsstream does have a cleanness and clarity that lacks the grain and texture some cords have. It also will resolve detail that may not be heard with other cords. You really owe it to yourself to use it on the source component, digital or analog. Also, the preamp. These would be my choices before the power amp. For those interested in knowing how to spot a fake Mainsstream, the first thing to look for is a greenish hue to the yellow jacketing. The real cords have a dusty gold color that is not yellow/green. Phony knockoff Wattgate plugs are also used.
Just to amplify the tipoffs to ID'ing counterfeit Mainsstreams, the fakes I've had the misfortune of inspecting show two color variations, while the genuine vdH can have two different plug types. Perhaps the best way to tell the difference at a glance if you're not familiar with the genuine colors or plugs is the texture of the jacket -- real vdH cables of any model/type use their proprietary "Hulliflex" casing, which has just a dull, diffuse sheen under light in this model (due solely to its 'metallic' color -- solid color vdH cords I own have no shine at all) and feels distinctly 'rubbery', whereas the fakes use conventional PVC, which (when clean and unabraded) has a bright, well-defined shine under light and feels smooth and 'plasticy'. Of course the other tipoff is the combination of length and price -- the fakes seem to be around 5ft. and about $125 'used' (but you cannot automatically assume that any seller of a fake Mainsstream must be acting fraudulently, because it seems many examples may have circulated around Audiogon and who knows where else at about that price without knowledge on the part of secondary buyers and sellers).