• Benchmark DAC1 HDR Review

    Benchmark Media Systems has created a dynasty with its DAC1 series of components. Beginning with the original DAC1 and continuing with its fourth variant the DAC1 HDR Benchmark has consistently improved this series of components and remained an audiophile favorite. Adding features like a native 24/96 USB input and later a pair of analog inputs have made the Benchmark DAC1 series increasingly popular. The DAC1 HDR is likely to increase this popularity even more as Benchmark has added the one feature that eluded all previous DAC1 models, a remote control. The addition of a remote control to this already solid all-in-one DAC / preamp puts the HDR in another league and solidifies it's standing as the bona-fide leader in the DAC1 lineup.


     

     

    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)

     

    DAC1 HDR Silver & Black w/ Remote
    DAC1 HDR Silver & Black w/ Remote
    click to enlarge


     

     

    HDR Details
     
    Remote Control

    "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.

     

     


    Finishing Up

    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.


     
    CASH List


     


     

    Benchmark DAC1 HDR Silver Front

    Benchmark DAC1 HDR Silver Front
    click to enlarge

     


     

    Benchmark DAC1 HDR Black Front

    Benchmark DAC1 HDR Black Front
    click to enlarge

     


     

    Benchmark DAC1 HDR Rear

    Benchmark DAC1 HDR Rear
    click to enlarge



     

     

     

    Manufacturer: Benchmark Media Systems
    Product Page: DAC1 HDR
    Price: $1,895
    Availability: Dealers or Direct
    Documents:
    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.

     

     

     
    Comments 20 Comments
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      So what is AdvancedUSBtm and since Centrance wrote the code does this mean every company that uses it also has it?<br />
      <br />
      Also since I own one of the older DAC1 USB can I get an upgrade?<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. stanh's Avatar
      stanh -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      If you are comparing: <br />
      <br />
      [A] MAC --> DACPRE via USB (digital) --> analog out from DACPRE (analog) --> analog in to DACHDR (analog) --> analog out from DACHDR<br />
      <br />
      to<br />
      <br />
      [B] MAC --> DACHDR via USB (digital) --> analog out from DACHDR<br />
      <br />
      I am not surprised you hear some degradation of the analogue input compared to USB because you have added additional analog stages and even the best analog degrades a little bit.
    1. Eric51's Avatar
      Eric51 -
      Ok - so the new HDR has a motorized Alps potentiometer. My $400 Winsome Labs Mouse "integrated" T-amp has an Alps potentiometer! Granted its not motorized. Not a biggie for me. It sounds so damn good I dont need to obsessively control the volume! My two cents on that!<br />
      <br />
      Eric
    1. Codifus's Avatar
      Codifus -
      correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you mean airport express, no?<br />
      <br />
      If not, I didn't know that the extreme has a DAC within itself.<br />
      <br />
      CD<br />
      <br />
    1. hifimaven's Avatar
      hifimaven -
      @Codifus, you're right. It is an Airport Express.
    1. RC's Avatar
      RC -
      How does the Benchmark's DAC performance compare to that of the Wavelength Cosecant?
    1. Shane55's Avatar
      Shane55 -
      Nice review. <br />
      My DAC1-PRE sits right in front of me and is within reach, so for me, another remote would be a waste. The potentiometer sounds like it would be a nice upgrade as it should render a smooth gradation in volume... no click-stops (even to 11). But for an extra $300, I think I'll sit tight. Same sound, just a little less 'convenient'.<br />
      <br />
      I have found that the sound I've gotten out of my system with the PRE has been more open and tighter than before (I don't consider that a contradiction). All sources have yielded a greater sense of spaciousness, with the individual instruments being rendered more directionally and less muddy. Just last night my wife remarked on how she could hear the 'studio' on one of my recordings. The instruments on a good ‘acoustic’ recording seem to separate and move forward, exposing the sonic effects of the environment as background and space. <br />
      <br />
      The PRE does not add warmth or acoustic ‘roundness’ to the sound. It seems to lay bare all the individual details of the original recording without coloration. This is a mixed blessing, of course, as poor recordings will be fully exposed. But what it can do for a good recording is truly wonderful.<br />
      <br />
      I was skeptical when I first bought the DAC1-PRE (a DAC is a DAC, inside or out!), but after much use and many, many hours of listening, I have truly grown to value this little box. It has great flexibility (i/o’s) and the sound is spectacular.<br />
      <br />
      In this digital world, we need a good go-between to our analog ears. Benchmark has made excellence (relatively) affordable. <br />
      <br />
      shane<br />
    1. EliasGwinn's Avatar
      EliasGwinn -
      @ Gordon,<br />
      <br />
      AdvancedUSB was the first 'native' USB interface capable of streaming higher then 48 kHz, 16 bits (specifically, AdvancedUSB can stream up to 96 kHz, 24-bits). <br />
      <br />
      The code was written collaboratively by Centrance AND Benchmark engineers. As it was the first of its kind, it required a lengthy development and trouble-shooting period involving both companies.<br />
      <br />
      The contract between Benchmark and Centrance stipulated that Centrance retained ownership of the code after it had been developed. Therefore, Centrance may license the solution to other companies.<br />
      <br />
      The DAC1 USB cannot be upgraded...the circuits and circuit boards for each product are very specific to their respective components.<br />
      <br />
      All the best,<br />
      Elias
    1. EliasGwinn's Avatar
      EliasGwinn -
      @ RC,<br />
      <br />
      I won't comment on any competitors products. However, if you care to evaluate any Benchmark products, we have a 30-day trial (if you buy directly from us) so that you can base your judgement by hearing it in your system.<br />
      <br />
      All the best,<br />
      Elias
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Thanks for the comments Elias.
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Elias,<br />
      <br />
      <cite>AdvancedUSB was the first 'native' USB interface capable of streaming higher then 48 kHz, 16 bits (specifically, AdvancedUSB can stream up to 96 kHz, 24-bits).</cite><br />
      <br />
      Actually this was the first native unit that had 24/96. It also had a ASIO button that would link to drivers. But if you did not use that button it would work Adaptive mode USB without a problem. There were also many other PRO level devices like this that had drivers (mainly because of Windows support) but also worked with out drivers.<br />
      <br />
      http://messe.harmony-central.com/Musikmesse03/article/TerraTec/PHASE-26-USB.html<br />
      <br />
      This was done back in 2003, way before you were even thinking about USB.<br />
      <br />
      I mean as early as I can remember OSX supported Adaptive mode to 24/96. Of course that is the max available for Full Speed Class 1 Audio. Well the highest sample rate would be 170K because the highest size for a Full Speed Class 1 Audio driver is 1023 bytes per frame. Considering 6 bytes are required and each frame enters at 1ms or 1000 times a second then we can conclude this.<br />
      <br />
      Adaptive mode with native is now supported under a ton of products this doesn't make it advanced in any way.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. EliasGwinn's Avatar
      EliasGwinn -
      Gordon, <br />
      <br />
      I'm sorry you don't like the name of our USB technology. Thanks for your feedback. <br />
      <br />
      All the best,<br />
      Elias<br />
      <br />
      ps. Perhaps there was a USB device out there somewhere that did 96/24 natively, but it certainly wasn't common. Most all native devices were limited at 48/16 when we developed ours. In that respect, ours was advanced beyond the overwhelming majority of USB audio interfaces on the market. Again, I'm sorry if this doesn't satisfy your distaste for the name of our USB interface.
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Elias,<br />
      <br />
      Advanced means to move forward. Adaptive is old news... Heck you getting better performance from your SPDIF inputs why not AdvancedSPDIF?<br />
      <br />
      I don't have any problem with the name. I just don't think it applies.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. bsn's Avatar
      bsn -
      I'm glad to see that the Benchmark DAC1 HDR made the CASH List as Benchmark Media Systems make some excellent DACs that are truly worthy of this honor. However, I must admit I am a little disappointed that the PS Audio DLIII did not make it on the CASH List as well, because the DLIII is a true musical bargain. <br />
      <br />
      In the Computer Audiophile review of the PS Audio DLIII, Chris compared the PS Audio DLIII to the previous Benchmark DAC1 Pre, Chris stated: <cite> <strong> "Music played through the DLIII really sounds like live music whereas music through my Benchmark DAC1 PRE sounds more like recorded music." </cite> </strong> I must admit that I have not had a chance to hear the new DAC1 HDR. However, I own the slightly older Benchmark DAC1 USB and the PS Audio DLIII DAC. I have to agree with Chris' general assessment on the differences in sound between the two brands. Based on the units that I have heard both units produce excellent sound. The Benchmark being slightly more detailed and very neutral, while the DLIII is a bit warmer and smoother. The only thing that I must fault the DLIII is it's USB interface is no where near as sophisticated as that of the excellent Benchmark unit's design. <br />
      <br />
      So, kudos to the Benchmark DAC1 HDR for making it on the CASH List! A well deserved award! Still, it would be nice to see the PS Audio DLIII on the CASH List as well. The PS Audio DLIII is easy to recommend as a more affordable option for computer Audiophiles on a limited budget or for those looking for a slightly warmer musical sound.<br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. EliasGwinn's Avatar
      EliasGwinn -
      <em>Gordon: "I don't have any problem with the name." </em><br />
      <br />
      Isn't that the basic premise of your posts on this thread?<br />
      <br />
      I appreciate your feedback, but we don't feel at all unjustified using the name AdvancedUSB. As I mentioned previously, most all native USB interfaces (including those from your company) were limited to 16-bits and 48-kHz when we developed our 24/96 AdvancedUSB. As you mentioned, this code, which we developed with Centrance, is now being used in other devices. And that only re-inforces the fact that we "advanced" the USB technology on the market.<br />
      <br />
      All the best,<br />
      Elias
    1. dbdog's Avatar
      dbdog -
      Hey Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Great review and tempting. I'm running a Bryston DAC into my Bryston Pre into my Bryston Amp. This review suggests that I might be able to get replace both my DAC and Pre with something like this, using this as both a DAC and Pre. <br />
      <br />
      My concern is this: your review doesn't sound as glowing in terms of sound quality as your impression of the Bryston DAC. While I can't afford a Berkeley or Weiss, I could afford the Benckmark. Here's the tough question - do you think I'd be further ahead from a sound quality perspective with the Benchmark or my Bryston pair? I know it's your perspective but I'd appreciate your thoughts.<br />
      <br />
      All the best,<br />
      dbdog<br />
      <br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi dbdog - While your question is certainly valid and one that I would ask if I was in your position, there is only one person who can answer it correctly. That's you :~)<br />
      <br />
      I would talk to Benchmark to see if you can get a unit to listen to in your system. I know they have a 30 day money back guarantee. <br />
      <br />
      Component synergy is critical and the only way to know how good something sounds in your system is to try it out.
    1. EliasGwinn's Avatar
      EliasGwinn -
      Hi dbdog,<br />
      <br />
      It is true: we offer a 30-day trial to customers in the U.S. You can read about the details here:<br />
      <br />
      http://www.benchmarkmedia.com/demo<br />
      <br />
      Best,<br />
      Elias
    1. dbdog's Avatar
      dbdog -
      Hello Elias,<br />
      <br />
      Thanks for confirming the 30 day trial. Unfortunately I'm living in Canada. Us Canadians always get the short end of the stick, boo hoo.<br />
      <br />
      Is there any options you can think of available to me in Vancouver BC?<br />
      <br />
      All the best,<br />
      dbdog
    1. EliasGwinn's Avatar
      EliasGwinn -
      Hi dbdog,<br />
      <br />
      Check this list of Canadian dealers of Benchmark equipment. <br />
      <br />
      http://www.benchmarkmedia.com/locate-dealers-distributors?country=Canada<br />
      <br />
      Call some near you and ask if they have a demo arrangement.<br />
      <br />
      Let me know what you find...<br />
      <br />
      Best,<br />
      Elias