Benchmark DAC1 PRE D/A Converter - Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Ken Taraszka, MD   
Friday, 01 August 2008

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.

Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Island) is a classic.  I started off with “Funeral for a Friend,” which gave me an intense thrill.  The keyboards were very lively and exciting without being bright, drums had excellent attack and bass remained powerful and clear.  “This Song Has No Title” showed how clearly the DAC 1 can handle delicate piano and kept plenty of air around the notes.  John’s voice was excellently portrayed and the transitions and attack were spot-on.  The acoustic “Candle in the Wind” was powerful, with the staccato of Elton’s voice eerie and the subtle strumming of the guitar light and delicate.  I ran this album through the DAC 1 PRE with my laptop via USB, and Teac Esoteric DV-50s connected both with coaxial digital and analog outputs.  I must say the difference between my laptop and the digital output from the DV-50s was extremely close, so close I don’t think I can truly call a winner.  Sometimes the bass seemed a bit better controlled and deeper using the DV-50s as a transport, sometimes not. I did find the midrange to have just a slight bit more smoothness this way, but it was a very subtle difference at best.  I did notice a difference between the analog outputs of my DV-50s, especially with both FIR and RDOT filters on, which gave me a slightly more open sound with increased soundstage width and a little more weight to the individual instruments. 

For something different, I chose Chris Botti’s Midnight Without You (PolyGram Records).  The opening track, “The Steps of Positano,” gave me a great taste of how well the DAC 1 could handle sax, giving a great brassy sound, while the bass in the background remained solid.  “The Way Home” kept me rapt in the sax, while the percussion came through with perfect balance.  The musical pace and rhythm were dead on.

Having seen that the DAC 1 PRE was a solid performer, I decided to torture test it on some horrible material, so I went the Devo’s Greatest Hits (Warner Bros./WEA).  This is clearly not the best-recorded album, but on the ‘80s classic “Whip It,” I was amazed by the amount of detail I heard.  I hate to say this, as it’s thrown around so much, but I really did hear subtle background sounds I had no idea were in this song.  The bass lines stayed sharp, while the vocals didn’t have the edge I have heard on this song with other systems.  “Girl U Want” again impressed me with the distinction I was able to appreciate between the drums and bass that can get lost in lesser systems.  “Freedom of Choice” had a huge soundstage and deep bass, while guitar licks jumped into the field.  I found the smooth nature the DAC 1 PRE gave older and lesser recordings often had me playing them louder than I have in the past as they just sounded so good.
I went to a favorite test disc of mine, Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele (Atlantic/WEA), and immediately went to my favorite song, “Muhammad My Friend.”  I was impressed at how well the DAC 1 PRE handled the piano, giving it great depth and weight, I switched to an MP3 version recorded at 192 kbps and there was clearly a decrease in the weight and smoothness of the piano, but it was still listenable, even on a system with this much detail.  There were less dynamics and clarity, but the DAC 1 PRE did a great job smoothing out the upper end and keeping the music clear.  When I compared this performance with how the song played on my Esoteric DV-50s, I found the DV-50s DACs were a little more dynamic and detailed and offered a wider soundstage, but the DV-50s cost almost four times as much as the DAC I PRE, and I would hope its DACs were a bit better.  This said, when I used only the FIR filter on the DV-50s, the differences were significantly less.

The Downside
The DAC 1 PRE is small and light, and this may cause a problem with using large, heavy aftermarket power cords or interconnects, but even with the long runs of cables I used, it sat solidly placed on its stand, so I don’t think this will be too much of a problem, unless you go crazy on upgrading the power cord.  The unit only has one analog input, and some might need more.  If you run two channels, then all the digital inputs the DAC 1 PRE offers would easily allow you to connect your cable box, DVD player, a CD transport and HD-based music server to you system.

There is no remote and no home theater pass through.

The Benchmark DAC 1 PRE is a beautifully-made, exquisite-sounding two-channel preamp that happens to house one of the most famous and best-sounding USB DACs.  It offered amazingly easy set-up and use and an open and smooth sound that rivaled DACs costing far more.  Its small size and user-friendly interface make it ideal for anyone looking for a high-end way to extract music on the computer, or transport to amps and speakers.  For when you don’t wish to play your music out loud, Benchmark has included their renowned headphone amp as well.

The DAC 1 PRE is a highly functional and musical piece that sets a new mark for audio.  Its simple integration into a computer-based system, either Windows or, thankfully, Mac, as well as its excellent preamp and headphone section, make this unit a piece I will remember for a long time and will continue to recommend to friends.  The lack of home theater pass-through and remote are the only things that kept me from adding it to my reference rig.  Benchmark is best known for professional audio gear.  They have put much of what they’ve learned in that market into this new piece and it really shows.  Solid build quality, incredible simplicity of use and flexibility make this a landmark piece and one I am voting for AVRev’s gear of the year
Manufacturer Benchmark Media Systems
Model DAC1 PRE D/A Converter - Preamplifier
Reviewer Ken Taraszka, M.D

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