Intro - From DAC1 to DAC1 HDR
The DAC1 series began several years ago with the simple, yet sophisticated DAC1. A two channel D/A converter with Benchmark's HPA2™ headphone amplifier, balanced XLR, and unbalanced RCA analog outputs. Improving on this design Benchmark made some internal changes to the output stage and added a native 24/96 USB input. The new model was dubbed the DAC1 USB. Early in 2008 Benchmark announced the DAC1 PRE. This model improved on the DAC1 USB by adding analog inputs. The DAC1 PRE was now a very competent preamp in addition to D/A converter and headphone amplifier. These three DAC1 models still exist in the Benchmark lineup today and each has it's place in the right audio system. However without any means to remote control the aforementioned units their use was somewhat limited. Enter the DAC1 HDR. Benchmark made great use of its successful DAC1 pedigree by incorporating every feature of the DAC1 PRE and adding a remote control. The HDR introduces Benchmark's High Dynamic Range Volume Control™ (HDR-VC™) as well. Here is a very brief description of the DAC1 series progression.
DAC1 - The original 2 channel D/A converter with Benchmark’s HPA2™ headphone amplifier and Jitter-Immune UltraLock™. ($995)
DAC1 USB - Addition of the 24/96 USB input with Benchmark's AdvancedUSB Audio technology, a high-current output stage designed to drive even the most difficult loads. This model also uses a momentary switch to scroll through the 4 inputs, and does not have a manual standby feature. ($1295)
DAC1 PRE - Addition of analog inputs and analog paths featuring the new LM4562 op-amp from National Semiconductor. A rotary source selector can also be pressed to put the DAC1 PRE into standby mode. Benchmark's Elias Gwinn explained the differences between the DAC1 USB and DAC1 PRE right here on the Computer Audiophile forum. ($1595)
DAC1 HDR - All-in-one high quality stereo pre-amp with remote control and High Dynamic Range Volume Control™ (HDR-VC™). ($1895)
"The remote control solution of the DAC1 HDR has an intelligent implementation of dimming and muting. The ‘Dim’ (quiet) and ‘Soft-Mute’ settings of the remote control can be easily adjusted independent of the normal volume setting. The DAC1 HDR remembers and recalls your specified ‘Dim’ setting. This feature is ideal for HDTV users, as it allows you to set your preferred ‘Dim’ level for commercials, etc. The ‘Soft-Mute’ function fades down the volume to the ‘Dim’ level before muting and smoothly raises the volume to the normal level after unmuting." - Benchmark
The IR remote control included with the HDR is certainly not an all-out-assault on remote controls. However it does include the three most important functions, on/off, input selection and volume control. In an audio system these three functions may be all a listener every needs. Plus, I will gladly accept the existing remote at the current HDR price rather than an extravagant remote cut from a solid block of billet aluminum at an exorbitant price. The HDR is a great value and the modest remote most likely has something to do with this value. Benchmark has included two additional remote control features called adjustable Dim and Soft-Mute, with a "hidden" hard-mute function. The Dim feature lowers the volume to a user defined level somewhere below the normal listening volume. This is similar to other mute implementations that reduce the volume by a specific decibel level, but differs in that Dim allows the user to create the Dim preset that lowers the volume to the desired level with the push of a button. In its default setting the Dim button lowers the volume enough to carry on a conversation. The Soft-Mute function takes Dim one step further. Soft-Mute fades the volume to the Dim level before cutting it off completely. This is a function that I personally don't use. When I want the volumed muted I want it done the moment I hit the button. Call me impatient, but those milliseconds add up over the course of a few decades :~) I labeled the hard-mute function as "hidden" only because it is not 100% evident just by looking at the remote control. Fortunately people who read reviews but never read the manual are still safe from the HDR manual after reading this paragraph. I don't condone skipping the HDR manual as the 52 page document is well written and features other computer audio related information. In other words RTFM. The hard-mute button is self-explanatory. Hit the button and the volume lowers to zero immediately. Exactly what I want when I hit mute.
It's hard to complain about the HDR remote control because it is definitely not designed, or priced, to be the Super Duper Universal Remote 3000. However I will lodge my formal complaint right here. The remote has a learning curve that such a simple piece of hardware should not have. The remote is not the most user-friendly. I frequently confused the volume up/down buttons with the elongated horizontal input selector. Sure this is user error, but the remote was part culpable as well. Also, the Dim, Soft-Mute, hard-mute, and normal volume symbols are very confusing. I often selected the wrong button and was forced to recover by hitting random buttons and following that up with a brief re-read of the manual. These issues are little annoyances that can easily be avoided with a little education via the manual or by programing any standard IR learning universal remote.
HDR-VC™ High Dynamic Range Volume Control
"The DAC1 HDR features Benchmark’s HDR-VC™ (High Dynamic Range Volume Control). The HDR-VC™ is achieved with a custom-built motorized Alps potentiometer. The DAC1 HDR’s motor-driven volume control maintains the dynamic range of the converter and audio output. In contrast, digital volume controls reduce dynamic range, and analog volume IC’s introduce distortion and noise." - Benchmark
The High Dynamic Range Volume Control (HDR-VC™) in the DAC1 HDR is very good to say the least. Perhaps the best description of the HDR-VC is that it does no harm when compared head-to-head with the DAC1 PRE. In other words the HDR sounds identical to the PRE despite the PRE's lack of a motorized volume control. One simple explanation for this consistency is zero variation of the signal path between the two models. According to Benchmark, "The DAC1 HDR looks, sounds, and measures the same as the DAC1 PRE." Based on my listening sessions with both units in the same system I agree that the sound is identical. I cannot vouch for the measurements, but Benchmark has published them in the HDR manual. The look of the HDR is 99% the same as the PRE with two exceptions. The faceplate has minor changes to accommodate the IR receiver and the abbreviated input labels.
One improvement I highly recommend Benchmark look into is the visibility of the volume knob's current position. The black volume knob has a little un-illuminated red dot identifying its position from 0 to "11" (only kidding about the number 11 reference to Spinal Tap). No matter what I did I could not see the position of the volume knob. I turned on all my listening room lights but still failed to locate the little red dot from my listening position. My guess is the little red dot was a hold-over from the days when the DAC1 was used closer to the listening position without a remote control. The current red dot would work perfect if the HDR was placed on a computer desk in front of the listener, but then the remote wouldn't be as appealing.
Expounding on the sound of the DAC1 HDR
All my listening was done connected to a Mac Pro running OS X 10.5.6 and 10.5.7 with 10 GB of memory and 8 processing cores. Music was played through iTunes and the iTunes / Sonic Studio Amarra combination. I relied heavily on the native 24/96 USB input of the HDR. This input is one of a few available right now that handles 44.1, 88.2, and 96k without additional device drivers or special software. Connect the USB port from the computer to the HDR and it just works. All DAC1 models with USB inputs use Adaptive mode USB as opposed to Asynchronous mode. The difference between Adaptive and Asynchronous is substantial, but this is a topic for another article to be published soon on Computer Audiophile. Benchmark has been on the forefront of computer based playback with the 24/96 USB implementation that it has used for a couple years. The best way to describe the sound of the HDR via this interface is tight and focused. It reminds me of a live recording done from the soundboard as opposed to a hanging microphone. The soundstage was commensurate with the tight and focused presentation of the HDR. Using the USB interface of the HDR some hard rock albums sounded a tiny bit harsh. This was far from a show-stopper and very possibly related to my preference for tubed gear which can sound a little softer. Overall the sound was very good for an all-in-one DAC / preamp priced less than $2k.
Listening to the HDR through its analog inputs was a little different story. I heard a difference in sound quality when i listened to the same tracks via the USB input compared to the analog inputs. Testing this further I connected my DAC1 PRE to my Mac via USB and connected the PRE's analog outputs to the DAC1 HDR's analog input via single ended RCA interconnects. Since the HDR and the PRE sound identical via the USB input and analog output this configuration enabled me to single out the analog input of the HDR for listening sessions. Right away after clicking play through iTunes I could hear the difference in sonic quality between the USB input and the analog input of the HDR. The analog input constricted the sound stage and dynamics a bit and made the highs a little thin sounding. The bottom end had less definition through the analog inputs as opposed to very tightly defined bass via the USB input. I described the sound earlier as a tiny bit harsh via the USB input whereas the analog inputs swing the pendulum more to the softer and smoother side. Granted there is no perfect sound, but a compromise between harsh and smooth would have made the HDR absolutely perfect for my taste. Needless to say I was less impressed with the sound of the HDR trough the analog inputs, but that does not mean I was unimpressed overall. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. If the DAC1 HDR was limited to analog inputs alone I imagine I would've been very satisfied with the sound quality. Unfortunately for the analog inputs the HDR has a stellar USB implementation to compete against.
The Benchmark DAC1 dynasty rolls on with the release of the DAC1 HDR. Building on an a terrific pedigree of DAC1s Benchmark has done it again and raised the bar to another level. The addition of a remote and a transparent motorized volume control clearly separates the HDR from its siblings. The HDR is now a full featured all-in-one preamp / DAC that will be perfect as the hub of many audio systems. The decision of which Benchmark DAC1 to purchase is a no-brainer. The remote control seals the deal for me. It allows a superior listening experience free from trips back and forth to the component rack to change the volume and free from listening to tracks at a much higher or lower volume than desired because, let's face it, we can get lazy once in awhile. The days of homing pigeons and physically moving from point A to point B to change the volume are long gone. For some people this means biting the bullet and upgrading their previous DAC1 to the new HDR. Others will relish the fact that they waited this long to get into computer based playback and they can now purchase the all-in-one component that really does it all. Congratulations to Benchmark as the DAC1 HDR is the newest component on the CASH List.
Manufacturer: Benchmark Media Systems
Product Page: DAC1 HDR
Availability: Dealers or Direct
1. User Manual (6.26 MB PDF)
2. HDR Data Sheet (1.11 MB PDF)
Associated Equipment: Mac Pro, Lynx AES16e card, Kimber USB cable v1 & v2, Benchmark DAC1 PRE, Kimber Select cable, Avalon Acoustics speakers, McIntosh tube amplification, Virtual Dynamics power cables, Richard Gray's Power Company cables, Bel Canto USB Link, Wavelength Proton USB DAC, Devilsound DAC v2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, Ayre QB-9 USB DAC.