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Benchmark DAC1 HDR Converter - Preamplifier Review Print E-mail
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Article Index
Benchmark DAC1 HDR Converter - Preamplifier Review
Listening Session
Conclusion and Interview

Set up and Listening:

I set up the DAC1 HDR first as a straight ahead DAC in Calibrated mode.  It was connected to my "secondary" system via my Squeezebox3 network server on TOSlink and my Marantz CD 5003 via a coaxial cable. The analog output of the HDR then went into my Belles preamp. My usual DAC is a Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 with its matching external power supply. First impressions of the DAC1 HDR were extremely good; clean, detailed, and focused sound. I must have read a good dozen reviews of Benchmark products and it was a pleasure to finally hear what all the fuss was about. While listening to FLAC files via the Squeezebox, I was impressed. The same applies when I used the Marantz as a transport.  Images were very nicely defined with good bass weight. Comparing the analog output of the player was a bit tricky, as the Marantz was a bit warmer and the Benchmark was more detailed.

Comparing the Benchmark and the CIA was an exercise in futility. Sometimes I preferred the CIA, sometimes the Benchmark. A tough call. Sonically, the CIA was again, a bit warmer, and the Benchmark was slightly leaner. During my second experience with USB audio, I plugged my little Dell notebook laptop running Windows XP and iTunes into the USB input of the Benchmark with the supplied cable. Long ago, my first experience with USB audio was unimpressive. The sound felt boxy, closed in and not comparable to a CD player. The Benchmark really surprised me here. I was quite amazed at how good the files on the laptop sounded compared to CD equivilent. They were so close that I would probably chalk up differences to slight differences in output level; a definite ear opener for sure. And mind you, I am not a fan of audio directly off a computer.  But it sounded damn good through the Benchmark.

Next up, I used the HDR as a preamplifier and a DAC. I toggled the output switch to Variable, connected the HDR to my Revox power amp, and off I went.  I was pretty blown away at how good the Benchmark functioned in this capacity. It was very dynamic and clean with excellent soundstaging. This was not some thrown together, full function preamplifier for convenience; this was the real thing.  One would do very, very well to make this the centerpiece of a digital setup, connecting a transport and a music server as well. You gain very short signal paths, a dynamic presentation and a small footprint. If you have an analog source component, it can be accommodated. Limitations? Sure, there is only one analog input and no preamp out for use with an active subwoofer. Nitpicking aside, Benchmark has opened up a whole new market by adding remote control capability.

Benchmark back

Switching inputs was lightning fast and the digital signals were locked in very quickly. A word of warning: the HDR ran surprisingly warm during my audition. It actually generated more heat than any other component in the rack. I would recommend a decent amount of ventilation around the unit.

After about a week in my bedroom system, I moved the Benchmark into my main room and fed it the digital output of the Marantz SA-11S2 SACD player (reviewed here) via a QED coaxial digital cable. I also fed it the output of the Naim CD5 XS via a custom DH Labs BNC to RCA digital cable. Some of the same things I heard in earlier comparisons were still apparent. The Naim and Marantz via their analog outputs were a bit chunkier and warmer. The Benchmark was slightly leaner, a bit airier, and more detailed. Again, pick your preference.  There was a level of transparency that was quite stunning. Details in studio recordings were laid threadbare and little things like reverb decays, acoustic guitar strums, and delicate cymbal splashes were startling in their clarity. Some of this clarity may seem to some as a bit clinical, but that depends on what camp you are in. Do you want to know exactly what is on the digital file or disc you are listening to or do you prefer it a bit sugar coated and wrapped in a little velvet?

I enjoyed a wide variety of music while evaluating the Benchmark. Older, analog recordings sounded really alive, and somewhat benefited from the HDR's presentation. For example the track "Chime of a City Clock, from the late genius Nick Drake, found on his 2nd album, Bryter Later, sounded like something recorded by a current indie darling, rather than a 40 year old song, which it is. I recently bought the Simon & Garfunkel Complete Columbia Studio Recordings and was amazed at how much sparkle and texture was on those old records. To throw one more oldies example, on a whim I threw on some late 80's to mid 90's Duran Duran. Even with their more synthetic productions, the Benchmark organized everything well, and it was interesting to not that some of Duran's mid period work would sound right at home in the current environment, with the resurgent genre of electro pop.

Moving on to the year 2010, I really enjoyed soul revivalists Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings I Learned the Hardway. This album, ironically, is a new recording masquerading as a classic analog production, tape saturation and all. I really felt I was at the mixing board on this one, with punchy horns and syncopated bass lines really rocking the joint.  Another recent purchase I find my self returning to is Veckatimest, by a very cool band called Grizzly Bear. It is a textured album, recalling a bit of Pink Floyd mixed in with freak folk. The HDR spread the soundstage wide and deep, with excellent focus. On lesser systems, this album can sounded jumbled, as some of the tracks are quite dense with psychedelic vibes. One final musical example is the album of the year for me, Bonfires on the Heath, by the English band The Clientele. The dreamy tracks seemed to float free of the speakers, with a nice balance of obsessive studio detail and real musical involvement.


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