The Audio Geek!

My Benchmark DAC1 USB Review

My current headphone listening rig comprises a Cambridge Audio DacMagic into a Yamamoto HA-02 headphone amplifier, all fed by hi-res and iTunes ALAC files from a MacBook Pro via KimberKable B Bus Ag USB cable. An audiophilleo2 handles the 192 / 24 USB / SPDIF conversion. An Ear Science PF1 Powerbox is now in place to handle clean power delivery duties. Vibrapods under the Mac and Black Diamond Racing cones supporting the amplifier are controlling any stray vibrations / resonances.

I had a sneaky feeling that the DacMagic was a weak link and that I might also like solid state point of comparison to the tube-based Yammy. So, enter the Benchmark DAC1 USB, acquired second hand (but in mint condition) via the classifieds of my local audio forum.

My software of choice is Fidelia which handles the interface with the Apple Midi Setup environment seamlessly, swapping bit rates and word lengths on the fly while playing hi-res FLAC files (up to 192/24) and Apple iTunes ALAC tracks at 44/16, via an attractive interface which kills the more expensive Pure Music and Amarra products IMHO.

The Headphone Rig - 2011

The setup process in my headphone system was a breeze once I found the correct adapter to insert the audiophilleo2 into the S/PDIF input. If you can get a product going without reading the manual it is a bonus in my view, and I am a guy so the manual is an A4 paperweight anyway. My secondary uneducated challenge was cycling through the inputs to select my preferred input option. A second or so of patience as you cycle through is rewarded. Too speedy and the signal is never locked on.

And speaking of the unboxing, while it doesn't affect the sonics, the quality of the Benchmark DAC chassis & controls, the packaging materials, supplied accessories and manual all ooze quality and class.

Initial listening was done using my AKG K702, with an aftermarket AudioMinor silver cable. After listening to three different tracks, all at different bit rates it was easy to understand that the Benchmark products were originally designed as a pro audio monitoring tool. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth flowed through the AKGs. No romance, no bloom, no thumping bass, no take your ears off highs. Just the accurate rendering of what was recorded. I was initially disappointed with the lack of fireworks, but I quickly settled into listening to the music rather than the audiophile artefacts and really started to enjoy the presentation, and forgot about the technologies in play. This is not a product for those who like to use their DAC as a form of tone control.

Benchmark DAC1 USB - 2011

Without an A/B test to fully evaluate, my sense is that the Benchmark is more balanced and more composed than the DacMagic. The Cambridge Audio DAC is a great budget value-for-money performer but with multiple filters and a presentation that swings between slightly veiled and strident it is unable to match the Benchmark's confident, consistent if slightly clinical output.

I have not yet used the DAC1 USB as pre-amp, but plan to ASAP as I can run the Benchmark's RCA output into my Yamamoto amplifier to get the tube-amp headphone experience and be able to compare the two amplifiers with a standardised DAC front end.

Another use for the Benchmark is for headphone comparisons. Two separate 1/4" plugs enable two different headphones to share the same input / tracks and enable genuine evaluations on the fly. Should help remove the 'memory effect' of swapping / unplugging 'phones when comparing.

US v Japanese craftsmanship - Benchmark & Yamamoto - 2011

Is there anything not to like about the Benchmark? After a few hours, frankly, not yet. I have read quibbles about the texture of the volume control knob (are you kidding me?), the input selector is slow to lock on (get over it) and the obvious flaw that the product delivers output that is 'uncoloured' (unforgivable...).

There is much to learn about the many features and options built into this compact device. More details and listening impressions to come.

A formal (if a little quirky) Benchmark DAC1 USB review by Home Theatre Hi Fi can be found here.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the companies / products mentioned. Also my findings and thoughts are based on my ears, my music, in my room, with my BAC level and mental state. YMMV.