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Thread: Review: Benchmark DAC2
07-08-2013, 08:29 PM #1
Review: Benchmark DAC2
Iím auditioning the Benchmark DAC2 as possible replacement for my Peachtree DACiT. I only planned on keeping the DACit for 6 month as a ďstarterĒ dac, but I liked it and now 18 months after buying it I think that it is a giant killer in terms of bang for the buck. See, the CASH list for a detailed review by Chris that I agree with right down the line. The Stereophile has also reviewed it and awarded it a Class B rating FWIW.
My Wish List
What I am looking for in the potential successor is to find a dac that maintains the strengths of the DACiT and improves on the shortcomings. Specifically, I would like: (1) more detail in terms of teasing out complexities of large orchestral pieces (as Paul Raulerson noted the DACiT can get a bit muddled here especially during loud complex passages), (2) an improved soundstage thatís wider and deeper and places instruments more precisely, (3) more harmonic ďrichnessĒ and a slightly smoother sound (this is mainly an issue with massed violins). What I donít want is an etched sound or one where details are presented in a ďlook-at-meĒ in your face manner. The overweening factor is that whatever dac I buy has to be musically engaging. If I am not tapping my foot, bobbing my head, toe conducting, or simply closing my eyes and getting lost in the music then there is a problem. I picked dacs that had DSD capability because I suspect that is the way things are heading; however, as youíll see if you plow through this whole review I am not reporting on any DSD recordings in the review. At present I donít have any, and Iím not quite sure even how you get them into a library. More importantly, 90% of my albums are Redbook 16/44ís. Itís critical for the dac to make these shine. I donít want a dac that is ďruthlessly revealing.Ē Whatís the point in having a piece of equipment that only sounds good with three albums?
You should also get an idea of my listening conditions. Iím in a dedicated listening room in the basement. My long suffering wife says ďdo whatever you want, just keep all the crap down there, I donít care just donít expect me to clean anything.Ē Bless her heart she has suffered many of the torments of the lady who writes the Audiophiles Wife blog. The room is 19 x 11 with the speakers firing down the long axis. My listening position is about 9 feet from the speakers (which are about 4 feet from the wall), and 4 feet from the wall behind my listening position. Because the walls are brick the room is very live. I have RPG BAD (BAD EXPO Product Detail ) absorption/diffusion panels on the wall behind the speaker and on the wall behind my listening position. Sonex panels are on the side wall at the first reflection points, and rigid fiberglass insulation panels are in the corners behind the speakers. These are essentially a poor (cheap?) manís tube traps. They help break up corner reflection and with a bass bump. It isnít perfect but itís the best sound Iíve ever achieved by far and Iím happy. The equipment I use is in my signature. One exception is an IFI SPDIF link I acquired recently. This made a big difference in sound quality of the DACiT. The player used was Audirvana + 1.5.2. All files were played at native sample rates. Either the AppleRemote via the iPad or the screensharing function via a MacBook Air were used to control the player.
I did not have the time for an extensive run in period. I gave the dac 40 plus hours of run in time before evaluation began. All evaluation sessions began with a cold boot, and I allowed the system to play for 30 minutes before beginning serious listening. The DACiT was reinserted at intervals to compare against the Benchmark. I donít have the capabilities to match the volume across the two dacs precisely; this is a limitation.
You should know the main albums I used to evaluate the dacs and what I was listening for. I listen to about 70% classical and 30% jazz and bluegrass. This is reflected in my choice of albums. Please note that I have no formal musical training. I donít have the words to express some concepts and I donít have the technical music vocabulary. Please bear with me on this score.
Blue Diamond, Johnson Mountain Boys Rounder Records
This is a very well recorded bluegrass album with virtuoso playing and wonderful vocals. Itís not everyoneís cup of tea, but I was raised on it and love it. I listened to two cuts. Cut #1 Duncan and Brady (Heís Been on the Job Too Long) starts off with an opening that should knock you back in your chair from its sheer exuberance. These boys were having fun and it should show. There are also some close harmonies where the vocals should blend, but each voice should also be distinguishable. Cut #6 Blue Diamond is about getting old and tossed aside. If you are of a certain age this song should resonate deeply. I normally get a very visceral emotional response.
The Lush Life, Audiophile Jazz Prologue III. Kent Poon (available as a download)
This cut is available as either a 96K or 192K. Itís stunning. I love the performance and the recording is among the best Iíve ever heard. I use it evaluate the high rez and to see if I can discern a difference between the 96 and 192.
Sibelius, Lemminkšinen Suite Neeme Jarvi, Gothenburg Symphony, BIS
This is one of the first CDs I ever purchased. Itís full of very densely orchestrated passages and has great dynamic range. There are numerous passages where one section (e.g. the strings) plays a very subtle accompaniment for others (e.g. woodwinds). I want to hear the accompaniment distinctly and as string sections (e.g. first violins and second violins). There is also some bass that my system has had trouble presenting cleanly (it can get all grumbly). I want to see if either dac can handle it.
Hanson: Symphony No. 1 Nordic; Symphony No. 2 Romantic; Song of Democracy (Hanson Conducts Hanson) by Howard Hanson, Eastman-Rochester Orchestra and Eastman School of Music Chorus (1990)
This recording is over 50 years old I believe. The 1990 date is a reissue date. I listen to the Song of Democracy movement to assess the ability of a dac to create front to back depth and place the chorus precisely. Choral music can make your ears bleed if itís not well reproduced. That should not happen with this piece. I want to hear the lyrics (from the Walt Whitman poem) clearly. Bless its heart the DACiT struggles with this one. Itís also (to me) a piece that can evoke an emotional response. Very appropriate for the 4th of July too!
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7
Anton Bruckner (Composer), Bruno Walter (Conductor), Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Columbia (Sony)
I love the introduction to this symphony. There is a lovely ďbloom,Ē the music should swell and almost reach out and embrace you. I want to feel the hug. Donít know how else to express it. As for the rest, I consider it to be the best 7th available. SQ still holds up and the orchestral playing is outstanding IMHO.
Mahler: Symphony No. 2 by Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Mahler, Klemperer and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (1998) - Original recording remastered
This recording has a huge soundstage with distinct spatial separation between instruments and sections of the orchestra. I want to hear this. The sound holds up quite nicely in spite of its age, and it is one of my favorite versions of this symphony.
I listened to many others along the way but these will only be mentioned in passing. I didnít limit the listening to redbook; I also listened to several 24/96 24/88.1. Before I start the review, the standard disclaimer. This is my opinion, based on my room, my equipment, my ears etc. We all have our own biases and tastes in recorded sound and playback. YMMV OK?
I am not going to comment on the technical details of the Benchmark. I will leave that to someone who is qualified. Set up was very straightforward. Plug in all the inputs and outputs in the right holes, power up, select the input using either the remote or the front panel buttons, enable the High Throughput (HT) if you are using a preamp (as I am), get startled by the volume control cranking itself up to the maximum setting on its own (no kidding I jumped a foot-ok three inches), and start playing tunes. Note that you need to set the HT for each input. When I used the USB input I had to need to set it for HT and for USB 2.0 so that I can listen to files with sample rates higher than 96K. Itís just a matter of holding down a button(s) and waiting for lights to flash. However, if you buy a DAC2, I would strongly recommend you read the manual first or talk with one of Benchmarkís service reps. Otherwise you could either be puzzled as to why no sound or do damage to your speakers. I should note that Rory (who took my order) took the time to check on my system and made certain I understood about HT. He also cautioned me to turn it off if/when I plan on using the unit as a preamp. I would need to purchase a longer cable to try it as a preamp so I didnít try this option. All in all the Benchmark people provided very helpful patient service. Hatís off to Benchmark for this.
Be warned that there is a ďthunkĒ when turning the unit on or off. Itís not loud enough on my system to do any damage, but YMMV. During the period I was running in the dac I alternated between the SPDIF and USB inputs. I used the SPDIF primarily. The USB seemed slightly less transparent (though quite listenable). I did discover that the IFI Link jitter reduction and ďsuperĒ output did not agree with the Benchmark. Perhaps itís because the Benchmark does internal jitter reduction? The Benchmark does offer balanced outputs, but I could not discern a difference between these and the unbalanced so unbalanced outputs were used primarily. I didnít want to play the pieces that I planned on using to evaluate the Benchmark immediately until I had a sense of its sonic character. So I put on albums more or less at random.
I have to say that out of the box the Benchmark was revealing. Very detailed in terms of teasing out harmonies among instruments and revealing the subtleties of the timbre of various instruments. When the flautist inhales during his long passage in the first movement of Arnolds Symphony #3 (Naxos Arnold: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 by Malcolm Arnold, Andrew Penny and National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland 1998) you hear it distinctly. It was a ďyou are thereĒ experience.
Out of the box, however, there was an edginess to the strings. At that point I wasnít sure if the DACiT was rounder, if the Benchmark is more accurate, or if it simply needs to warm up and settle in a bit. With around 20 hours strings smoothed out noticeably (or my ears got used to the Benchmark). During this time it was also apparent that the Benchmark was much more dynamic than the DACiT. There was a bit of harshness in the crescendos at their peak in Arnoldís Scottish Dances, but to my mind this isnít the best Chandos and some problems are on the album. It did do a creditable job of presenting this densely orchestrated music. No muddling at all.
One of my random albums was Hansonís (Naxos) Lumen in Christo. My listening nores read ďWOW!!!!Ē I had listened to this piece previously and it didnít register. Throught the Benchmark it took on life as wonderful choral music. The Benchmark did an excellent job of capturing the acoustics of the hall. Went back and listened again two days later. Same reaction. Front to back depth however seemed a little restricted. Orhestral works seemed slightly flattened in terms of depth. This improved somewhat after more run in time. The Benchmark will also let you know about the quality of the recording. SQ of Symphony #7 on the same album is not nearly as good. Go figure. Had a couple more revelatory experiences during the run in period. I also checked a few high res files (96k only) which as expected sounded great.
My first formal evaluation session was the Sibelius. It was a ďwhiff.Ē I was so engaged in the music that I didnít write down a single note. So back to the salt mines. The level of detail was exceptional. For example, in the third movement, the first and second cello sections are clearly distinguishable along with the double bass accompaniment. Iím hearing a richer sound too. Not a hint of stridency in the strings. Bass is much more controlled and articulate. I heard a lot of detail that I had not heard previously. Dynamics were excellent with no hint of strain. The woodwinds are succulent. Can hear the wood and the wind. The Benchmark gave me everything Iíd hoped for and more. A+! Next up was the The Lush Life with the 96 vs 192. Anti-climactic. I couldnít detect any difference. Tin ears? Maybe. It was as close as Iíve ever come to the feeling that the singer was in my room.
I switched over the Bruckner 7th. Hmm. No bloom. Score one for the DACit. Still the Benchmark sounds lovely with a great sense of the hall acoustic. You can hear very natural decay, which is very important with Bruckner. There was also an excellent sense of depth. So now for something completely different I switched to the Johnson Mountain Boys. (It took a minute or two because I was wallowing in the Bruckner. I kept wanting to listen to a couple of more bars.) The Benchmark did not quite capture the exuberance in Duncan and Brady. OTOH, it handled the acoustic portion with flying colors. I had the same experience with Blue Diamond Mines. I could hear more detail in the vocal, and I was bobbing to the rhythm but no emotional reaction. This might be an unfair test. Canít fault the SQ in any way, and had to struggle to go to the next album in the evaluation list. Caught myself playing air double bass. I wonder if Chris has that a problem? Naahh. Later in the session I decided to expand my sample of songs that grab me emotionally. Went back to 1952 Black Vincent (Del McCoury). ďRed hair and black leather is my favorite color scheme,Ē OK that one got me just like it should. Same with Iím Not Over You (Rhonda Vincent). Icy Blue Eyes (Emmy Lou Harris) didnít do it. I hit Sarah Jaorosz (Follow Me Down) by accident and ended up listening to the whole album. Iíd previously written this album off. They could ease off on the reverb, which I think they overdid, and which the Benchmark showed plainly.
In the Mahler 2nd depth was slightly less than I expected, but there was still a noticeble separation between orchestra sections from front to back. Lateral dispersion was excellent. It seemed to go wall to wall. The width of the first and second violin sections was distinctly reproduced. There was a wonderful bloom to the double bass in the opening. Just for grins I put on the Channel Classic version of this piece (96k). Difference in SQ was staggering as it should be for such an unfair comparison. Violins are so much sweeter at 96k. However, the older redbook recording was still musically engaging and enjoyable and the SQ was still IMO quite good. The Hanson Song of Democracy was pretty much as I expected by now. Excellent detail, great articluation of the lyrics. One could easily and precise place the sections of the choir laterally, but ther wasnít a clear separation between the choir and the orchestra.
So how well did the Benchmark meet my wish list? Pretty well. Greatly improved detail, no muddling, and a richer smoother sound overall. Note that I donít think it was adding any character of its own. The richness was there when it was there on the recording, and the difference between different recording companies (e.g. EMI, Naxos, BIS, Chandos, RCA, Columbia/Sony) was plain as day. I actually donít think the Benchmark has a character of its own. It just lets the music through. It also has the ability to draw you into the music which is a must for me. About the only short coming was that I did not get noticeably improved depth over the DACiT. I have heard one dac that cost nearly twice as much as the Benchmark provde greater depth, but overall I liked the Benchmark much better. In term of SQ my only caveat is that on violins it seemed as if the Benchmark slightly (and I mean very slightly) emphasized the the bow (i.e. horsehair rubbing on the string) as opposed to the wood. If you are thinking of auditioning the Benchmark give it some time. It took me around a week of run in time to get the best out of it. I had never had this happen before, but thereís a first time for everything. Note also that the Benchmark is so dynamic that you can easily overload the room be judicious in your volume setting.
Overall, two words came up over and over in my notes: Neutral and detailed. Note that when I use the term neutral I mean it as a positive. The Benchmark doesnít impose itís character on the music as far as I could tell. About the only caveat Iíd mention is that it engages your head a bit more than your heart. I could live happily with this dac. At under 2,000 Iíd consider it a bargain. If you are looking Iíd recommend you give it a listen.2012 MacMini 8G ram -> Pure Music 1.86, Audirvana+ 1.5.10 or Amarra 2.6 > Ayre QB9 DSD > Ayre k5x -> Bryston 4BSST -> Wilson Sophia -> Sazerac 18 yo Rye
07-09-2013, 07:31 AM #2
- Join Date
- May 2013
- Sarasota, FL
Thanks for posting your impressions. Unfortunately the turn-on "thunk" is probably a show stopper for me. This indicates that the design is less than ideal; there really is no excuse for this. There has been a lot of comments/complaints about this turn-on noise but Benchmark has not done anything about it. But as you say, YMMV. Question: are there any choices that you can make for the digital filtering?Mac mini (late 2012, 2.3GHz i7 quad-core, 16 Gb), Pure Music, Ayre QB-9DSD, Mark Levinson 380S, Classe CA-M300 (pair), B&W 802 Diamond, RealTraps acoustic treatments
07-09-2013, 08:11 AM #3
- Join Date
- May 2013
I agree that it's not ideal, but it's not a deal-breaker either, in my opinion - especially when the device sounds so good.
There are no digital filter options.
07-09-2013, 09:35 AM #4
07-09-2013, 09:40 AM #5
PS: I have to add that I very much agree with the LBob that the sound of this DAC is fantastic: very clean, tight bass and an amazing soundstage. One thing that I noticed in his review is that he found the SPDIF input more resolving than the USB input, while I had the opposite impression. I wonder whether this could be related to the fact that he was running a direct USB connection from the computer to the DAC2 without the isolation and power-regeneration of something like the iUSB or an AQVOX. In my case I compared the SPDIF input fed by an AQVOX-powered Audiophilleo AP2 to the USB input fed by an iUSB-Gemini cable combo, and I found that USB was slightly more resolving than SPDIF. I did not try to take the iUSB out of the chain because at that point I was fed up with testing and just wanted to keep enjoying the music.
07-09-2013, 09:46 AM #6
- Join Date
- Mar 2010
- Sgr A*
- Blog Entries
Nice review - neutral and detailed is pretty much what I think as well. It is also well constructed.
-PaulAnyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a
Robert A. Heinlein
07-09-2013, 10:09 AM #7
- Join Date
- May 2013
I have also found myself listening at louder volumes than normal when using the DAC2 because the music is just so much more dynamic and involving. With other devices, music just sounds... flat and lifeless.
07-09-2013, 04:17 PM #8
Re the USB, I compared the inputs early on and there was only a slight (if any) difference. I haven't gone back to recheck because the sound is very good as it is. If it ain't broke don't fix it. I wlll say that I wish they had made things a bit simpler. I keep forgetting that you have to punch the button twice to turn it off.
Is anyone running the unit as a preamp? I've had a little experience with that, but I always found that I liked the preamp better than direct.2012 MacMini 8G ram -> Pure Music 1.86, Audirvana+ 1.5.10 or Amarra 2.6 > Ayre QB9 DSD > Ayre k5x -> Bryston 4BSST -> Wilson Sophia -> Sazerac 18 yo Rye
07-09-2013, 06:24 PM #9
- Join Date
- Mar 2009
- Chester County, PA
- Blog Entries
I had the DAC2 HGC in my system for three weeks serving as a DAC/Preamp. It replaced a DAC1 USB that was in my system for nearly four years. Benchmark's DACs are everything I want out of a DAC in terms of sound quality, meaning that they get out of the way and don't impart their own coloration on the signal.
Had I kept my system simple: PC->DAC->active Speakers I'm sure the DAC2 would've been a keeper, in fact I probably wouldn't have dumped the DAC1. As my system began evolving into something more traditional I found the DAC2 too limited (for me) in it's preamp flexibility.
BillSimplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
iMac->iTunes+BitPerfect->AIFF->Oppo HA-1->McIntosh MA6300->KEF LS50
07-09-2013, 06:47 PM #10
Very nice review LBob!
You say you could live with this DAC .. but will you? Perhaps you are still in audition mode and have others to listen to .. yes?
07-09-2013, 09:36 PM #11
BTW, Have my Greater Western Sydney Giants won a game yet this year?2012 MacMini 8G ram -> Pure Music 1.86, Audirvana+ 1.5.10 or Amarra 2.6 > Ayre QB9 DSD > Ayre k5x -> Bryston 4BSST -> Wilson Sophia -> Sazerac 18 yo Rye
07-10-2013, 01:59 AM #12
- Join Date
- Oct 2011
- Pacific Northwest
I have the DAC2 for 5 months and I enjoy its sound profile very much! I can see how some are annoyed by the on/off noise 'thud' and the blinking lights but they don't bother me. I always turn on my DAC before I power on my cpu so I don't hear the thud. I have never used the DAC2 to power speakers, I strictly listen via USB with my headphones. I fell that you get the best sound via headphone monitoring. If I want to listen to music aloud I will listen to my SACD's, DVD-A, and Blu-Ray spec's with my Oppo and surround system.
For me DAC2 gets the job done I would say that I might be a Benchmark customer for life I had the DAC1 and traded that in for the DAC2 and never looked back. Benchmark has great customer service they let you preview DAC's with no obligation to buy if you don't like it after 30 days send it back. If you have any issues with there gear just call them they are quick to respond and offer help. Sure the DAC2 has minor esthetic flaws, but then again what DAC doesn't. I wish DAC2 would have supported DSD128, DSD256, and 384kHz but maybe they will tackle all this on there next DAC.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Benchmark DAC2 HGC -> Double Helix Power Cord -> Double Helix Powerstrip -> Sliver Dragon USB cable -> Macbook Pro
iFI Micro iDSD -> Gemini & Mercury USB cables -> iFI IUSB -> Macbook Pro
Sennheiser HD650's w/Silver Dragon V3 and HifiMan HE:500 w/Silver Dragon V3
07-10-2013, 03:57 AM #13
07-10-2013, 03:59 AM #14
07-10-2013, 05:16 AM #15
07-10-2013, 06:10 AM #16
- Join Date
- Aug 2011
07-10-2013, 02:09 PM #17
Color me embarrassed. Another senior moment ...
07-10-2013, 05:10 PM #18
07-10-2013, 07:53 PM #19
07-10-2013, 09:59 PM #20
- Join Date
- Aug 2012
- California, U.S.
LBob, thanks for the clear and thorough review. I had the DAC2 D (the version without analog input and 12V trigger) for a month and enjoy it very much, and agree with your assessments. I never owned any Benchmark products, but have always wanted to try their DACs. I am glad I did. I have tried many DACs in the past couple of years and the DAC2 is the best so far. In terms of sound quality, in my system it beats the Rega DAC, Ayre QB-9, T+A DAC8, and Bel Canto DAC2.5 (with their uLink USB converter). All of these DACs had something that did not sound right and I was not engaged in the music. The DAC 2 solved that problem. Another DAC that I had that beat the DAC 2 in sound quality was the Meitner MA-1, but the Meitner costs $7000 so it is expected to sound better than the DAC 2. However, it was hard to justify the cost of the MA-1 when the DAC 2 sounds so good for $1800. I have sold the Meitner a while a go and used the extra money towards an Audio Research PH6 phonostage.
Which USB cable did you use? I have tried three different USB cables: Wireworld Silver Starlight (had it for the past 2 years), Audioquest Coffee (~150 hours on it), WyWires USB Silver series (~150 hours on it). I found that that Wireworld sounded thin in the mid range and the treble was emphasized too much. The Audioquest has great midrange, but treble was a bit soft and not as smooth as the WyWires. I ended up using the WyWires, which has the smoothest sound with great bass and treble extension; more importantly, it does not emphasize any particular frequency range.
07-12-2013, 06:07 PM #21
- Join Date
- Jul 2012
I'll add just one comment.
LBob's comment about the DAC2 taking some time to settle in is right on. I've been running the DAC2 HGC since November and it took nearly two months of always on, regular play for it to really show its potential. Since then I've been fully digging its potential.
07-12-2013, 11:55 PM #22
WRT the USB cable. I used a Pangea cable I got from Audio Advisor. Supposed to be partly silver. I haven't tried a Transparent cable. I could not hear a difference with the DACiT. There wasn't a major difference with the Benchmark. Might go back and try again. But it sounds so nice now I am not very motivated.
07-13-2013, 08:37 AM #23
07-13-2013, 01:10 PM #24
07-15-2013, 03:14 PM #25
- Join Date
- Jan 2012
I replaced a DAC1 with a DAC2, but sold the DAC2 after a couple of months. I found that the USB 2.0 only worked correctly after I cycled through UBS2->USB1->USB2 (owners will understand what I mean). That is: immediately after a reset of the USB connection, it sounded swell=noticeably better than DAC1, but it seemed to drop down to USB1 quality whenever there was a track change. (Still showed as USB 2.0 in all system panels, Amarra preferences etc.).
This was using Amarra on a Mac. I'm not ruling out the problem was on the software side, but having gone through the whole "Ultralock" story on the DAC1, and after spending forever trying to isolate the problem, I just decided to move on.