Review: Benchmark DAC1 DA converter
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.
Parasound Halo JC1
Von Schweikert VR4jr
Kimber Illuminations D60
RS Cables Silver
Acoustic Zen Matrix II
Kimber Select KS1011
Audioquest Caldera biwire
Acoustic Zen Tsumani Plus
RS Cables Starchord
Van den Hul Mainsstream
Theta Pro Basic IIIa
Bel Canto DAC2
Musical Fidelity Trivista DAC 21