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"There are plenty of DACs I'd rather listen to - but they all consume in sales tax alone what the Benchmark DAC retails for." This from a high-profile reviewer who recommends this piece to anyone on an insanity-deprived budget. Now make that two of us. Granted, when considered on an endless scale of sheer sonic performance -- unlimited by any considerations other than what is possible -- the Benchmark is somewhat overrated and not exactly what I'd ultimately want in my reference system. However, that's not entirely surprising given my penchant for the $10,000 Zanden DAC, my enthusiasm for the $5,500 Audio Aero Prima SE or my go-and-get-one feelings about the $3,500 sold-direct Resolution Audio Opus 21. But back in the real world, this little box from the pro world is an uncontested overachiever.

What it achieves is tremendous resolution in a very candid, unflinching way. If you're looking for warmth, romance and seduction, keep looking. Likewise for the far more subtle modes of enhancements and flair that the best of tube-powered DACs can provide, possibly due to 1/f noise effects as one digital designer recently suggested to me. Ditto again for DACs whose designers had more money to spend on truly substantial power supplies. Even if nothing else were changed, this nearly always adds body and hence warmth. The Benchmark DAC's calling card is crystalline clarity and a 'forward' shift into the transient field of each tone. This makes for an incisive, slightly edgy demeanor, edgy here not as though leading by the treble but by emphasizing leading edges over the subsequent bloom. The question simply comes down to your system's core temperature. Ice water on a winter day will drop your temperature like a rock while, on a high-desert summer day, it's the best and cheapest feel-good medicine extant. This DAC tells it as it is in a very factual and precise matter. Even if I hadn't seen the measurements by now, I'd not be surprised to find them stellar. It sounds that way. Whether you find that refreshingly uncomplicated and admirable or a bit bland and sterile depends on how you view these things.

Personally, I side with the MiniMaxes of the world. They emphasize body and that intangible flair while giving up resolving power with higher noise floors and less spectacular overall specs. Ultimately of course, I want it all. Since I'm hip-deep in the morass of high-priced gear, I get this level of resolution plus the flair and magic. By this I mean a certain kind of softness that's not a function of lacking resolution or rolled-off frequency extremes but a 'central' shift into the bloom portion of tones. This moves away from a slightly mechanical mien of precision and into a realm of -- for lack of a better word -- flow. But those are my priorities. If you had to decide between resolution and flair, you might well decide that all things considered, resolution at the source was the more vital of the two poles. After all, anything lost here can't be recovered downstream whereas body and warmth most certainly can be injected into the mix at a later juncture.

For context, it's useful to mention that by late June, the Reflection Audio OM-1 statement-level preamp will be available with twin Pro versions of the DAC1 run in parallel. Their digital BNC input will replace one of the unbalanced line inputs of the OM-1. Reflection Audio's Stephen Balliet is also working on the 5-way digital crossover/DAC for Alon Wolf's over-the-top Ultimate hornspeaker, experimenting with marrying the Australian DEQX DSP board to 10 Benchmark Media DAC1s and custom power supplies. Ditto for the just-reviewed Overkill Audio Encore system. It uses the DAC1 with an after-market outboard supply. In all of these cases, we're talking Xtrme Audio efforts and these folks rely on (or seriously consider) Benchmark for their digital conversion stages. That's one helluva compliment in my book.

As my review of the CIAudio VHP-1 headphone amplifier described, the Benchmark's headphone outputs exhibit the same kind of ultra-precise but somewhat edgy gestalt which the unit does in DAC-only mode - again as though by slightly overemphasizing transient incision. Portions of this effect resemble what used to be called digititis whereby analog lovers pointed at early digital's cold, stark and choppy nature. That's not what the DAC1 does. There is no glare or grit surrounding the notes like sandpaper. It's simply that the astounding level of detail retrieval comes across as just a bit - um, factual rather than poetic. Those are terribly nonscientific terms that drive engineers up the monkey tree but it's how I responded. This gets further sharpened when the DAC1 is used amplifier-direct, something where I believe the overbuilt power supplies of preamps by Wytech, BAT, Audio Aero and Audiopax make the vital difference.
Lower half of Magico's Ultimate, with the 4' x 6' midbass Tractrix horn section not yet attached.

When you consider the general trend of fine audio versus life music, audio systems usually perform in a lower embedded noise floor than the real thing. Simply measure the noise floor of your room when no signal is present and compare it to the average background din of a club or concert. Now factor in the ongoing advances in pushing operational noise floors in audio components lower and lower. Resolution keeps gaining on us but unless a balancing force is introduced, the audible end result doesn't feel entirely natural. The Benchmark's designers have incorporated a very trick interface called Ultralock that is claimed to be essentially immune to jitter. Our friendly -- but occasionally unreliable -- Uncle Theory would predict that cleaning up the time domain should eliminate fine blurring or fuzziness. Is that the reason why the DAC-1 behaves slightly sharp and incisive? My uncle thinks so. The balancing force needed is additional body on the notes. Likely for reasons of both cost and intended professional monitoring applications, the DAC1 doesn't go there. In my book, it thus remains more of a somewhat surgical tool than musical instrument. Mind you, that dividing line is blurry and I'm additionally overstating for effect. But if I were Allen Burdick of Benchmark Media, I'd buy a Birdland Odeon-Ag to compare and find out what Gilles Gameiro did to service that balancing action. I'd also add a standby switch on the front.

Cold out of the box, the DAC1's treble performance is on the icy and somewhat forward side. This clearly benefits from run-in and melts completely over time. Even lesser transports (i.e. not dedicated ones but using affordable CDPs with digital outs) had far less than the usual impact. This speaks to the claimed low jitter performance. If full-on immunity against jitter equated to zero audible differences, this DAC either isn't entirely immune or other factors outside of jitter are reasons why transports don't sound exactly the same even with the Benchmark in the chain.

From a purely number-crunching perspective and as compared to the Prima SE, the DAC1 takes no prisoners and is smack at the edge of what's possible. Where audiophile and professional sensibilities diverge is likely in the analog output stage and perhaps additionally in the effects of a power supply that might look entirely unnecessary on paper but could inject some body and heft to serve as counterpoint to the
extreme levels of transparency and resolution. But let's get (or stay) real. The Benchmark piece is $995 and that includes amp-direct and headphone functionality for crying out loud. I fully appreciate all the excitement surrounding its discovery by cash- rather than card-carrying audiophiles. If I've been a bit hard on it, it's because of the giant-killing implications. They're spot-on in the resolution domain but not in a final tally that approaches these matters not from the recording console but the pleasure listening seat. For a different take
from that perspective, Stephen Balliet of Reflection Audio has sent over his modified Benchmark Media DAC which adds $975 to the bill [above]. Its only external giveaway is a pair of Cardas RCAs. As per Stephen's included menu, the mod performed on the submitted machine includes overall cryogenic treatment; Stillpoints' ERS cloth shielding for the power supply section; fast soft-recovery diodes; and a plethora of Bybee devices (2 for analog power, 2 for digital power, 2 for unbalanced audio out, 1 for coaxial digital input). Not included but available are Bybees on the balanced digital input, a low-impedance output driver, super-low impedance analog power regulator boards and a new analog output which would add a further $1000 to the final bill.

Balliet had also pulled in the output level toggle on the rear panel to discourage users to engage the variable output through the volume pot [upper right]. On the subject of Bybee devices, we're entering into deep audiophile voodoo mostly because their operation on the quantum level isn't completely understood. The theory goes that while electrical signal propagates very rapidly, the motion of the individual electrons is very slow. This somewhat haphazard motion generates bumper-car traffic noise. Transiting through the Bybee tunnel,
electrons are supposedly stripped of this thermal quantum noise because some type of field effect organizes them into a more efficient formation. As a byproduct of this reorganization -- often compared to how a magnetic field will align iron particles -- current flow purportedly accelerates through the crystalline lattice of conductive materials. A follow-up will report on the comparison between stock and Reflection-modified units.

For today, the simple fact that Derek Wilson of Overkill Audio, Alon Wolf of Magico and Stephen Balliet of Reflection Audio -- to name just the few I personally know -- think highly enough of this unassuming affordable black box to make it part of their operations should confirm that the Benchmark DAC1 is far closer to perfection than its price would suggest. Whether you will account for its slightly newscaster personality downstream with other components or feel compelled to tweak its own innards is up to you. But before you spend the long green on some so-called statement DAC, get ye to a friend who has one of these. Whatever those statement DACs may offer above and beyond (if they in fact do) could be so low on your personal list of priorities as to not matter. After all, not everyone will be uncouth enough to evaluate the Benchmark DAC in the context of a $90,000+ system as your nutty scribe just did. If you had an older system slightly on the foggy and indistinct side of fence neutrality, the DAC1 could be the magic rotorooter to clean out your plumbing and increase your music pressure. Regardless over how you'd ultimately react to it, this is one of those watershed products one needs to know about. If you require further proof, more than 2000 have already sold. And there you thought the outboard converter market was dead in the water. Not when the cover charge is $995!
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