Which DAC for $5K or less?

I have been reading about the Benchmark Dac1 Pre (Equation "solved"?!), Berkeley Alpha Dac (rave review by same mag.), Audio Research Dac7 (no reviews that I know of but I respect company), Weiss Dac, et al. I am trying to make sense of all this. I like the idea of getting an external dac rather than a higher end CD/DVD player for various reasons--both cost and flexibility. I know the Benchmark is by far the cheapest and can be auditioned in home easily for 30 days, which is great. I might be able to arrange a loaner in a month or so of an ARC unit, tho no guarantees. The ARC is a good bit less than the Berkeley Alpha Dac and the Weiss, but I have no clue how it stacks up. Anyone have some insight as to what the current state of the art is without blowing the budget completely on dcs current gear?

All dacs sound different. So, if you have a chance to listen first, do so. These are just my opinions. Others will disagree, and I would likely disagree with their choices.

If I were in your shoes and based on my tastes, I'd get a used Emmlabs DCC2. They go for around $4K. I had a DCC2 and upgraded it to the DCC2se. IMHO, the difference was very subtle, and probably not worth the upgrade. So for $4K you get extremely close to the state of the art DCC2se, plus it includes a great preamp.

I also had a Benchmark DAC1 w/USB in my system at the same time. The Benchmark was in a much lower league than the DCC2 and sounded dry in comparison--which it should since its $1K price point is much lower than a new DCC2se ($14K).

The other option I would consider is the new Empirical Audio Overdrive DAC for around $2500. In my experience with PC-based audio so far, no one does USB audio better than Empirical Audio. YMMV.
I had a chance to demo the new Bryston BDA-1 dac..very impressive..one of the few dacs which samples at 176.4(the holy grail rate)(44.1x4)(88.2x2) formula ,without being expensive.
retail $1995.00
bel canto dac3, new bryston, ......or.....wait for the cary audio one that is coming out this year
The problem with most dacs is the connection between transport and dac. Berkley offers several alternatives to the pathetic SPDIF and AES/EBU. Unless your transport outputs a high res, separates are waste.

Check out the Raysonic 168 or 228. I just upgraded my 168 to the 228. If you can afford $4200 grab one now. If not, my 168 is for sale.

Both have outstanding variable tube outputs and both are balanced designs
For pure sound quality performance per $ - I'd go for the DAC1 - it is dry it is precise but not harsh, although a recording may sound like a recording depending on the mix. If you want something a bit more organic sounding then the others will be a better choice although not nearly as good in terms of performance per $. A lot will depend on your speakers and your room. If you don't have a near perfect acoustically treated and sized room and world class speakers then I'd tend to use money saved on a cheaper DAC to upgrade the room and speakers first (usually more mileage there).
Tweak: Why pay money for a Raysonic which has dacs built in? Less expensive options would seem to output high data rates like the Oppo players for around $200. I understand jitter may be an issue with less expensive transports, but it seems like the current crop of dacs handle jitter pretty well perhaps rendering a high end transport superfluous.

The frustrating thing about some of the dacs is lack of USB inputs. The trend seems to be heading to where that is a desirable feature. I know the Benchmark accepts usb as does the new Audio Research (I wish there was more feedback on this one!) but some of the others don't.....
The Yamamoto YDA-01 is a great DAC and not just for it's bargain price of $2450. Read the rave review on www.6moons.com.
the Kora Hermes, is hard to beat,Extreamly and organic sound, if you can find one in the used market, sales for around $1300 :
You should take a look at Reimyo. Their 777 DAC is about $5k new and $2-2.5k used. I've had it for several years and have been very happy with it. They also have a new 999 DAC but it might be above your price ceiling (haven't heard it yet, would like to).