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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIV DAC; Accustic Arts Drive-1; Audio Aero Prima [on review]; DEQX/Overkill DAC/Pre/room-correction/speaker-correction engine [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe2; Audiopax Model 5
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88; Overkill Audio/Belles amps [on review]; Bel Canto Design eVo4 Gen.II
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo; Gallo Acoustics Reference 3; Overkill Audio Encore [on review]
Cables: Stealth Audio Varidig S/PDIF, Stealth Audio Indra (x2), Crystal Cable Reference speaker cable and power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature for source components; Walker Audio Velocitor
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan
Review Component Retail: $975

The most amazing aspect about the Benchmark Media DAC1 isn't that it exists or is priced sanely at 1Kilobuck. It's that audiophiles have discovered and embraced it in a big way. Without seemingly trying or realizing how very fortunate they were to be handed such coverage on a silver platter, the gents at this firm -- which serves recording professionals, not audiophiles -- have landed key reviews and serious accolades: Stereophile ("Editor's Choice" during year's-end round-up), SoundStage! ("Reviewer's Choice"), StereoTimes. Alas, whether these benched marxists will figure out how to really make hay of this situation remains to be seen. I'm not giving away any secrets by stating that the audiophile zoo and professional arena are two very dissimilar animales. Having helped spearhead Mesa Boogie's attempt at breaking into the audiophile scene with Randy Smith's Mesa Baron and Tigris amps gives me a fair bit of appreciation for the challenges involved. What way are you commonly wearing your baseball cap? You're gonna have to turn it around or sideways while trying to romance the other half into your camp. Benchmark Media men in disguise will cruise the hallways of the Alexis Park and St. Tropez at the 2005 CES to rub shoulders with our kind and learn, first-hand, what audiophiles want. "We're trying to get ideas for future speciality products" is how their marketing man put it.

Existing press suggests that the Benchmark DAC1 is a cost/performance landslide on par with the Bel Canto Design DAC-2. Test measurements seem as good as imaginable. What's more, those reviewers who've lent their ears responded equally enthused as music lovers while mastering engineers Bob Katz, Doug Sax, Rick Ruben, Jerry Harrison, Bob Ohlsson, Glenn Meadows, John Atkinson, Mike Glossop and other heavy-hitters use and endorse this li'l 3.5 lb half-width box with the rack mount ears. This already tells us something: Truth in signal processing - perhaps also truth in advertising. After all, if part of the audiophile religion revolves around finding a personally pleasing interpretation of the recorded event, the credo of the recording engineer centers on employing tools that tell it as it is. He/she needs unvarnished, highly resolved feedback that demonstrates with utmost clarity the most minute results of microphone placement, cabling, acoustic treatments and other choices that make up the life of a recording/mastering engineer.
Throwing in two headphone amp modules (2 x 60-ohm phones may be run in parallel) and master gain as well as balanced i/o ports (and a fixed-gain provision to bypass the volume pot altogether) merely underlines the designer's focus on the tool/functionality aspect here. A 2-pin jumper can defeat the frontal source selector toggle. Popping the hood reveals attenuator jumpers of 0/-10/-20/-30dB adjacent to the XLR outputs. They allow for fine-tuning final gain (max +29dBu) by setting the potentiometer's range to the one most optimal for any chosen system context. The DAC is of the 24/192 upsampling variety, with claimed monster specs of THD+N at -107dB, S/N ratio of 116dB, cross talk of -100dB, jitter sideband rejection of -141dB and ruler-flat frequency response in the audible range. Auto de-emphasis for all supported sampling rates (44.1, 48. 88.2 and 96kHZ) is included. The center indent of the three-position rear-panel toggle mutes the master outputs but not the 1/4" headphone sockets. This allows convenient switching between powered monitors/amps and cans. +5/-15dB 10-turn trimmers accessible via screwdriver holes on either side of this toggle allow fine-tuning of the outputs to optimize the interface with the following preamp, amp or active speaker.

It seems fair to call this the Leatherman approach to affordable DACing - you know, those all-in-one he-man gizmos that combine the essential tools required to cut through an electric fence, check your tire pressure, uncork a fine bottle of bubbly and manicure your nails. High-End audio in general is far too blasé to include this amount of options/adjustability in machines marketed at the upper crust. There, the purity of the signal path and various jumpers or trim pots turn either/or scenarios, hence the concept of convenience is traded for escalating retail pricing and bare-boned inconvenience.

Should our Beo-marxists catch on, expect some kind of full-width monstrosity with a massive gleaming face plate, an even more massive master volume knob, zero features but a mondo price tag in their future. But perhaps not? The DAC1 is far too real-world and practical a product to suggest that its engineers and marketing people would pull a 180º just to mesh with our strange crowd.

My question had nothing at all to do with fair price, good value or comprehensive features (all covered without ever plugging this unit in) but with whether the audible performance would suggest squeaky-clean sterility, neutral ultra-resolution, gushing musicality or anything in-between. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that test-bench excellence and listener satisfaction didn't see eye-to-ear. Of course, the phenomenal audiophile press suggests such boiler-plate qualifiers to be a mute point but still, there's no accounting for personal taste.

To take the measure post-CES, I will not only rely on my usual digital front-end and the currently in-house Audio Aero Prima DAC (in both stock and modified forms) but also the Overkill-Audio modified DEQX DAC/pre/room- correction engine that shall take up residence as part of Derek Wilson's $60,000 Overkill Audio Encore show system right after the Las Vegas showing. To test jitter immunity and presumed tolerance to various levels of transport excellence, I'll leash up everything from my Accustic Arts Drive-1 to the Jolida JD-100, Eastern Electric MiniMax and Bel Canto Design PLayer PL-1A used as outboard disc spinners.
Identifying dragon-slaying giant killers in the more-or-less vacated field of high-performance outboard DACs (remember when Parasound had four different ones in their line-up?) is a promising prospect. For me, it would serve as a nice counterpoint to my recent encounter of the super-expensive kind, with the state-of-the-art Zanden separates. The fella who encouraged this assignment and put me together with the Media man to make it happen was Lenny Mayeux of Running Springs Audio, a price-conscious high-value maker of powerline conditioners. Lenny and I go back to my Mesa days when he was still in retail and I called on him. I've come to trust Lennymendations as being in sync with my own biases and preferences. The next two months will tell whether he was right again or fired a blank for once.