Stock Benchmark DAC-1 versus EA MSB Gold Link 3

I've been reading such wonderful reviews of the Benchmark DAC-1 that I finally decided to get one (the USB version, although I have not tried the USB input yet). I'm writing this to compare the Benchmark DAC-1 with what I have been using for some time; an MSB Gold Link 3 with power base, both with full mods from Empirical Audio.

My set up is as follows.

- Transport is a Sony DVP-7700 with 24/192 upsampler board from MSB installed. Also modded by EA. The upsampled output connects to the MSB DAC using a revelation audio cable built for the proprietary MSB network. The SPDIF output goes to the Benchmark DAC.
- MSB output (single ended) connects to a Classe 6 pre-amp. Benchmark DAC balanced outputs connect to balanced inputs on the Classe pre-amp. So I toggle between the two inputs on the pre-amp to select between the two DACs.
- The Classe preamp goes to the Linkwitz Orion ASP, and from there to an ATI 6012 12-channel amp which feeds the Orion+ speakers.

The bottom line is that the modded MSB DAC is, in my opinion, superior to the stock Benchmark DAC. This is a surprise to me actually because I had been really hoping for the opposite. I've listened now to a range of music: jazz, rock, classical.

The Benchmark DAC is very good, but I find that the modded MSB DAC with the 24/192 upsampler has more depth, separates instruments a little better, and seems to carry more detail.

I don't know if there is something on the Benchmark that can be tweaked further. I'm going to try some variations on the volume control settings, as well as the single-ended outputs.

This is preliminary. I'll post further observations as I keep at this. But my first reaction is disappointment at the Benchmark DAC. I really expected it to sound better than my current setup.

Happy listening to all.
Have you adjusted the gain attenuation on the benchmark as per their instructions? It makes a big difference on the balanced connections. I also recommend trying the usb, but only if you take the time to set up the server properly...
Hi there 4est,

I have not tried any changes to the XLR pad jumpers. I'm assuming that it is set at the default which I understand is -20dB attenuation.

Is there a setup you would recommend? I'm going to try with the XLR pad set to 0 dB and the volume setting at "calibrated".

I have a server setup with the foobar player + SRC upsampler and will try the USB input over the weekend playing CD's ripped to FLAC.

I'll post what I find. Any input on XLR settings that worked for you would be most appreciated.

First thing to do is go to the Benchmark Wiki and make sure that your server is set up correctly. I use a mac and iTunes, of little use to your foobar/flac. I posted because I did notice a difference in switching to xlr with the Benchmark (I am presently using it 0 db, calibrated into a Bent tvc with the server volume set to max). Prior I used the on board volume at 0 db. The greatest difference for me by using the server vs transport was with PRaT. Digital never made me want to tap my toes/involve me before that.
I've spent some time now listening carefully to the Benchmark DAC-1 USB and my current set up, and I have to say that there is no contest: my current set up is superior.

In both cases I am running through a Classe 6 pre-amp -> Linkwitz Orion ASP -> ATI 6012 12 channel amp -> Linkwitz Orion speakers. Interconnects are Homegrown Audio Silver Lace, and speaker cables are no-name 14 gauge stranded copper. I'm going to replace the speaker cabling with Goertz MI-2.

The front ends I was comparing are: dedicated desktop machine running Foobar 0.9 playing FLAC files with and without the SRC upsampler. I couldn't tell much of a difference between the two. After much trial and error including adjusting the XLR jumpers to 0 dB I actually preferred the sound of the Benchmark DAC through the RCA outputs. The sound with this setup is excellent. I do not want to suggest for a moment that it was mediocre in any way.

But the sound using my current front end is better overall: more dynamic, slightly larger sound stage, improved bass. Vocals are as good or perhaps just slightly less airy than with the Benchmark. This front end is:

- Sony DVP-7700 transport with MSB 192KHz upsampler in player + turbomods from Empirical Audio. Output from player is 24/192 using MSB's proprietary implementation of an I2S type protocol.
- MSB Gold Link III DAC with Power Base, both with turbo mods from Empirical Audio.

So I'm going to either have a Benchmark DAC-1 USB for sale or getting it modified by Emprical Audio.
0dB on XLR is the best if you need lowest output impedance. Signal path "calibrated" or path with volume control are identical according to John Siau - Benchmark's technical Director. Mods done to Benchmark remove (if I'm not wrong) oversampling together with jiiter supression forcing to use better transport. Many people who modify Benchmark have a lot of experience but there are some who make it even worse. Modifications to power supply have no sense in my opinion - why would you modify thing that has measured -140dB signal to noise ratio. Amplifiers are pretty much the best LM4562 (National got reward for it). John Siau talked about somebody who was modding DAC1 by replacing previous cheap TI/Signetics amps with expensive Burr-Brown amps making this actualy worse - he even shows their measurements of harmonics (cheap amps had poor dc but excellent ac performance. Many people do mods to get warmer sound while again John Siau explains that Benchmark was designed to be cold (neutral) since warm does nasty job on some instruments like piano. Piano has complex harmonic structure different than typical overtones and "warm" equipment make it sound like out of tune (by lifting up even harmonics).
"Modifications to power supply have no sense in my opinion - why would you modify thing that has measured -140dB signal to noise ratio."

Because these measurements are steady-state, not transient. The dynamic response of the power subsystem not just the power supply is what is improved with these mods. It's the improved dynamics and dynamics at all frequencies being identical that makes for a live, 3-D sound

"Amplifiers are pretty much the best LM4562 (National got reward for it)."

I use these op-amps in the mods throughout. Benchmark only uses them for the output drivers. They are not quite as good as the OPA-627's, but close. Distortion measurements dont tell the whole story. The dynamic/transient response is actually more important when the distortion is already very low.

If you rely entirely on measurements to make your buying decisions, you will end-up with a very detailed, but cold clinical sound IME.

Steve N.
Steve - I know you know what you doing (I meant you when I mentioned people with a lot of experience). I just feel a little bit uneasy about removal of jitter suppression since I use cheap DVD player as a source. Many people don't like oversampling but everything is turning this direction and jitter suppression is a side benefit of oversampling signal processing. SACD is like narrow DDS - output product of sigma delta converter that needs only filtering. DDS is recorded 4 channel wide. Last time I checked Analog Devices website almost all regular DACs disappeared — only sigma-delta left. I recently bought CD recorded from DDS and sound quality is amazing. People discuss vinyl vs. digital and different modds but we are all screwed-up by CD/LP producers who don't care about sound quality.

As for cold clinical sound some people perceive super clean sound without distortion or jitter (fuzz) as clinical, cold, sterile. Just add a little fuzz or distortion and everybody is happy.

Just to let you know, my goal has always been to get as close to the recording as possible, never to "color" this with warmth or anything else. The entire decision to go with active crossovers and 10 channels of amps to drive speaker drivers directly is to remove any and all distortion.

In a lot of the comparisons I made I listened for naturalness in vocals, realism in piano (jazz and classical), horns (tenor sax in particular), and reproduction of acoustic bass.

My bias is definitely towards neutral, but I would describe it as realism. I always do a comparison with music playing and me listening in another room as well. I find this really helps discern realistic playback.