|Benchmark DAC1 PRE D/A Converter - Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Ken Taraszka, MD|
|Friday, 01 August 2008|
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While most AV enthusiasts at the very high end of the market strive to achieve the best audiophile grade surround sound system, many of us still hold to the merits of two-channel audio for its breadth of content, ease of install, overall simplicity and pure sound. Personally, my sources have evolved from LPs to CDs to the now-defunct DVD-Audio and SACD discs to the current full-resolution, uncompressed AIFF files stored on an Apple Mac Pro’s internal terabyte hard drive. Thanks to the commercial death of the higher-resolution audiophile formats, I find myself more and more drawn to files on my computer for my dedicated theater and my audiophile system, as well as for my network devices. This said, I am still an audiophile and the urge to make these CD quality files sound better is in my blood. Enter the Benchmark DAC-1 USB drive.
The Benchmark DAC 1 PRE is a high-end digital-to-analog (DAC or D to A) converter and preamp designed to get your digital files to your amps and speakers in true style. The DAC 1 PRE offers one optical and three coaxial inputs, as well as a USB digital input and one pair of single-ended analog inputs. There are both single-ended and balanced analog outputs, as well as two front-panel headphone jacks. Capable of sampling rates from 28 to 195 kHz via optical or coaxial and 44.1, 48, 88 and 96 kHz via USB at up to 24 bits, this tiny piece endeavors to be the center of a modern two-channel system. The DAC 1 PRE comes in silver and costs a modest $1,575.
The Benchmark DAC 1 PRE is a small wonder, and I do mean small. Measuring just over nine inches deep, nine-and-a-half inches wide, under one-and-three-quarters inches tall and weighing in at three-and-a-half pounds, it is the smallest piece of audio gear I have owned, other than my iPods. Benchmark does a first-rate job in packing this tiny piece for shipping. Mine came double-boxed and the entire unit was encased in form-fitting dense foam. Included with the DAC 1 PRE are the manual, power cord, a USB cable and two replacement fuses. The Benchmark DAC 1 PRE is exceptionally well-built. The faceplate is heavy machined aluminum, with a simple yet elegant design. The knobs are beautifully knurled and have a smooth ratcheting action to them. The rear connectors are extremely high-grade gold-plated connectors that far exceed the quality usually seem on such a reasonably-priced preamp.
One the front right is the volume. Moving leftward in a small recess are the dual headphone sockets, then a smaller input selector knob. Continuing to the left, there are six source indicator lights and an ID badge carved into the fascia. The Benchmark name is also deeply engraved into the faceplate above the volume knob. On the rear are an IEC power socket with fuses, a pair of balanced and single-ended analog outputs, a pair of single-ended analog inputs, three coaxial, one optical and one USB digital inputs. A small switch on the rear of the unit allows you to control the analog outputs, making them muted, variable (and therefore controlled by the front volume knob) or calibrated, so that you can set the output level to a fixed level. The left headphone jack mutes the analog outputs, but this can be defeated. The right jack does not mute the analog outputs and the headphone levels can be adjusted internally. The calibrated settings for the analog outputs allow one to bypass the volume control for systems where the DAC 1 PRE is not the master volume controller.
The input selector doubles as the power switch; it is operated by tapping it on and off. When the unit loses a digital signal for 15 seconds, it will automatically enter standby mode. Tapping the input selector will immediately and silently bring it out of standby, as will resumption of the digital signal.
Setting up the Benchmark DAC 1 PRE was simple. I powered down my system, swapped the balanced Transparent Reference interconnects from the AV preamp to the Benchmark, and connected my Mac laptop via the supplied USB cable. A quick trip to the Audio MIDI Set-up in my Utilities folder was all that was required to start listening to music from my computer, which I streamed from my main system that houses all our CDs in AIFF, as well as a secondary library of MP3 and AAC files for iPod use. Set-up took no more than five minutes. Computers can be frustrating, especially when integrating them into an audio system, but the Benchmark DAC 1 PRE was immediately recognized by my laptop. Changing the MIDI set-up was all that was required, other than connecting the USB cable, and I was off to see what this piece could do for my hard drive-based music server. Later, after extensively playing with the music server function, I added in my Teac Esoteric DV-50s connected via stereo analog and coaxial digital outputs for comparison. I used my Mark Levinson ML 433 amplifier connected with Transparent Reference speaker wires to a pair of Escalante Design Fremont speakers to round out the system. Despite the small size, all the connectors were laid out pretty well, giving me good access to them. This was helped by the ease of picking up the PRE and turning it around for access to the rear. You won’t want to try that with most other preamps.