There are very few products that have been sat in our Clerkenwell showroom since the day we moved in back in September. In fact other than a vintage Roksan record player, the Benchmark DAC1 HDR was the only non-ATC product we had in our original set-up. Granted the doors weren’t open yet and we were not selling them (they were just listening for our own pleasure); but it shows you that Benchmark is a name that we trust and personally like to use.
Benchmark Media are a New York based company that has a big reputation in the hi-fi world for making studio quality DACs and ADCs. They have been building their renowned products for over 30 years and sell to a wide range of customers including broadcasters, recording studios and home audiophiles.
Benchmark are often seen as a company that knows what they are doing when it comes to digital music. With the current technological advances in this area, there are an ever-growing number of manufacturers producing DACs, digital amplifiers and streamers. Benchmark now see themselves having to stay ahead of the pack when it comes to their DACs.
As a big fan of the extremely versatile Benchmark DAC1 HDR, you can imagine my excitement when the demo unit of the new DAC2 HGC (HGC stands for Hybrid Gain Control) arrived this week. I got it straight out the box and had a play. Like the DAC1, this is a DAC, Pre-amp and headphone amp all in one. Unlike the DAC1 it can now play high-resolution 24/192 and DSD files, whereas the DAC1 can only manage 24/92. New features on the DAC2 also include the hybrid gain control, a home theatre bypass option, polarity control and a bi-directional 12V trigger. Oh, and it also comes with an IR remote control.
It is worth mentioning here that the DAC1 HDR is the advanced version of the DAC1. It is the special analogue volume control version, so not a standard DAC1 at all, but designed to be a pretty good pre-amp in its own right. It also costs almost double the Standard DAC1 costs. This should help put into context the comparisons with the DAC2 HGC that I am going to mention.
Looks wise, it is not hugely different to the DAC1 HDR, it is the exact same size and the faceplate is very similar, the main difference being that the DAC2 HGC looks a touch more technical, it has a ‘studio’ look to it with more buttons and indicators gracing the front of the device. The DAC2 HGC now displays the bit-length (16-24 bit) and sample rate (44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 or DSD) of the files that are being played. It also features a polarity switch and a dim/mute button. The volume knob and 2 x ¼’’ headphone inputs on the front remain the same as on the DAC1. Fans of quality finishes will appreciate the volume knob on both the DACs. It has a solid look and feel and rotates smoothly.
The ability to play 24bit/192kHz and DSD files is a wise addition from Benchmark, with the recent interest rise of high-resolution downloads, A DAC with the ability to play such formats is crucial for the modern audiophile. DSD files though still rare are seen as the future of digital audio, with Sony recently announcing that it is going to release its full back catalogue in DSD format.
The brilliant thing about the Benchmark’s is the technology that they pack into the small frame. The DAC2 HGC is a DAC, stereo pre-amplifier and headphone amplifier all-in-one. It has 2 coax inputs, 2 optical inputs, 1 USB 2.0 input, 2 pairs of RCA analogue inputs, 1 coax output, 2 pairs of RCA output (both are variable but can be setup to be fixed) and a pair of XLR analogue outputs as well as the 2 headphone outputs on the front.
‘Benchmark’s unique Hybrid Gain Control (HGC) system combines active analogue gain control, passive low-impedance attenuators, a 32-bit digital gain control, and a servo-driven volume control. Though it is a DAC, Benchmark have made an effort of ensuring that analogue inputs are never converted to digital, and digital inputs never pass through an analogue potentiometer; meaning you can get a true analogue sound out of this product if you set it up right. (And it means that there is no loss of resolution as you reduce the volume; which happens in many DACs that control volume in the digital domain)
The DAC2 is produced to work well in both the home and the studio. It is designed to be able to interface directly to power amps and powered studio monitors. This configuration provides the cleanest and shortest path from the digital source to the monitor output, and often results in an improvement in sound quality.
Enough of the jargon, let’s talk sound.
As a headphone amplifier, this is a very analytical piece of equipment, capable of producing an extremely wide sound-stage with excellent detail and separation. My favourite thing about this headphone amplifier though is how diverse it is able to be; it really plays to the strengths of the headphones that you plug into it. The first combo I tried was with the Fostex TH600s, I put on some electronic music and the great bass, separation and clear top-end of the headphones were there. After starting with that I was thinking that the DAC2’s sound was swinging to the exciting side rather than the natural, but then I plugged in the Grado SR325is and the Benchmark suddenly gave a great natural ‘Grado’ sound, I put on ‘Soul Kitchen’ by The Doors and drifted back to the 60s happily.
I suppose if I was looking for downsides to the DAC2, it would be that though you can get a good natural sound with the right cans, it might not have charm of a really analogue sounding headphone amplifier like perhaps a Graham Slee Solo. It really depends on what you listen to the majority of the time, if you have broad tastes the Benchmark is ideal.
For those looking for a nice desktop set-up, the DAC2 HGC is a great option to look at. I tried it out by using it as a DAC/pre-amp with the Pro-Ject Amp Box RS power amp and ATC SCM7 bookshelf speakers. The results were great, the piano and bass on ‘A Day in the Life’ by The Beatles were very sweet sounding and the venerability in John Lennon’s vocals was really emphasized bringing the song to life in a terrific and enthralling way. Even at low volumes (which might be required often for a desktop system) the detail and depth of the tracks was very evident. The other good thing about the set-up is that if you need to quieten down for a bit, stick the headphones into the Benchmark and the music from the speakers automatically stops and the headphones start, take them out and vice versa. It’s all very simple.
You could even use the DAC2 HGC with active speakers, eliminating the need for anything else. Just plug computer into the DAC2 HGC via USB and the DAC2 HGC straight into the active speakers via XLR and you are away. It is about the simplest way of getting an amazing desktop hi-fi sound that you can get.
Finally it was time to test the DAC2 HGC out with the big boys. I connected it as a DAC between the Aurender hard disk player and the ATC SCA2 Pre-amplifier which was powering the ATC SCM50ASL active tower speakers. A fine combo to say the least. This was the ideal time to test out the new DSD capabilities of the DAC2 HGC. I put on a variety of DSD tracks from Bob Dylan and Elton John to Miles Davis and Beck. Every single track I played sounded incredible. DSD really is the future. The sound is so smooth and inviting, it is the closest I have felt to the real thing that I have felt from digital music (or vinyl for that matter). I can see a DSD capable DAC becoming a must have for systems in the next couple of years no doubt. Hopefully the ease of finding and downloading the files will improve soon too.
Testing against the Resolution Cantata as a DAC, I played 24/88 FLAC files through both, the Benchmark had a bit more deeper bass but the Resolution had a little more smooth highs, it is what you might expect from a ‘studio’ device like the Benchmark (and the Cantata is over twice the price).
OK, the final test, does it stand up as a quality pre-amplifier in our system? I set up the resolution as the source playing into the Benchmark DAC2 HGC as the pre-amp and through to the ATC P1 power amp running the ATC SCM40 Passive towers. I was very surprised by how good the sound was. I used the old Adair Acoustic reference track of ‘Riders on the Storm’ by The Doors. The highs sounded crisp and avoided sounding tinny, the soundstage and imagery was very commendable. Granted it was not the greatest pre-amplifier I had ever heard but for the size and price range it was very pleasing. I then decided I needed to test this against the Benchmark DAC1 HDR to see how it compared and if the improvements on the DAC2 HGC were simply the added features. They are not, I found the sound of the DAC2 HGC to be a lot more engaging and the high-end was managed a lot better, at some points with the DAC1 HDR I was a little disappointed with the treble, but this was not the case with the DAC2 HGC. You can tell a lot of work has gone into this product and the benefits are there for all to see (or hear).
In conclusion id say the DAC2 HGC is not cheap; it retails for £1,750.00 so if you are looking for simply a headphone amplifier there might be more affordable options, but if you are looking for a very versatile piece of kit capable of really incredible sound across the board this is a great investment and comes highly recommended.
– Many thanks to SCV London for letting us demo this product
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