Benchmark DAC2 HGC


The Benchmark DAC2 HGC In Use

While I'm going on about the driver, getting the DAC2 to work with my computer was not as straightforward as I (or probably you) have become accustomed to with USB devices. Making a very long story short it seemed to boil down to the fact that I had previously installed CEntrance's version of ASIO drivers on the two computers that I had trouble with (one Windows XP the other Windows 7). Removing those and installing the Benchmark driver (also ASIO) seemed to clear it up. Likely you won't have this issue. On yet another Windows 7 computer that I had access to, the Benchmark was indeed plug and play for USB 1.1 (good up to 96 kHz, 24 bit data word). Installing Benchmark's driver gets you higher resolution (up to 192 kHz) as well as DoP (DSD over PCM). I did take some steps towards playing some DoP files but since I could not find a free player that didn't require multiple steps and downloads to get working and since the only recordings available are obscure Audiophluffery I gave it up. I'll try again when Joy Division is available in this format.

A note on power cords:

I found the Benchmark to have a much lower noise floor and 'ease' about its job when powered by a Shunyata Venom-HC. This power cord is quite heavy and is intended for high current components but the DAC2 was clearly better with this than with a Venom-3 or the stock cord. The DAC2 does get mildly warm when powered up so maybe it is drawing some current after all. 'Mildly warm' is a most welcome improvement over the DAC1 which runs on the hot side.

As a DAC:

I compared the DAC2 to both my Naim DAC (with XPS) which I still have around and my new favorite digital player, the Parasound CD 1. In all cases I used the Parasound as the source. Like the CD 1, the DAC2 was better at pulling instruments apart and into their own space than the Naim. The Naim does have its famous warmth, especially with voices, but that seemed to be as much blurring as warmth when compared to either the Parasound or the Benchmark. Both the Benchmark and Parasound extended bass to a greater degree than the Naim as well.

Comparing the Benchmark directly to the Parasound, I found that the latter could delineate the room presence to a greater degree while the Benchmark did a better job with timbre, the texture of the instruments. Thus I found that I preferred the Benchmark for electronic music where the techy quality of carefully crafted synth sounds is key. Listening to Lida Husik's Faith in Space was once again a transporting experience. For more raucous music like Holly Golightly's latest effort with the Brokeoff's I preferred the Parasound.

I should say that the differences were minor and I could easily live with either one of these as my digital converter. I switched back and forth several times (this required swapping cables as my Sim preamp has only one balanced input) and each time I felt like I was going to miss the one being disconnected.

As a headphone amp:

I sampled the DAC2 with both Grado 325i's and Focal Spirit One cans. The DAC2 was more than capable of driving either of these and made them each sound their best. The Focal's are great for travel with their closed-back design offering a reasonable level of sound isolation without noise cancellation but they sound like a closed-back design, there is a bit of constriction and what seems like a struggle to get the sound out. The DAC2 pushed through this quite well and got me into the music. With the Grado's there is no pushing required, this open-back design is fast and delicate but also able to produce deep bass when driven correctly and the DAC2 was all over it. I couldn't get enough of my Grado's through the DAC2. When I was finally forced to unplug I noticed that the 1/4" headphone jack was on the warm side. Yes the DAC2 generates a little heat.

As a preamp:

Replacing my Sim P5.3 with the DAC2 I found that I probably needed to adjust the passive attenuation of the output pads to the next lower level as volume was too loud with CD source even with the control near the low end. Furthermore, turning the knob down just a little from there turned the volume down a lot. No satisfaction. Still listenable though at the high level so I didn't crack open the box. How did it compare then? I wouldn't necessarily say 'more transparent' or something like that. Rather, it was that different things were emphasized. Bass especially seemed if not more pronounced, better delineated. For instance, track two of the aforementioned Holly Golightly and the Brokeoff's 'Sunday Run Me Over' is called, "They Say". This track features a didgeridoo (or something that sounds like one) in the background, seemed much more in the foreground when using the DAC 2 as the preamp.

All of that was using the DAC2's DAC function of course, I wanted to try it as a straight preamp for playing vinyl but since the DAC2 has only unbalanced analog inputs (there's just no room for another XLR pair) I had to switch to my trusty old AudioQuest Sidewinders instead of my pricey Nordost Blue Heaven balanced wires. So, this comparison was certainly colored by that change. But once again I found that bass was more pronounced, very pleasantly so I would add, though I didn't listen long. Listening to the first side of the (45 RPM) Atoms for Peace first and only record, 'Amok', seemed like a slightly different mix. This is how it goes with hifi – sometimes things are different and it's not clear which, if any, are correct. The point is, it sounded great! The higher frequencies, way up there, like hand-claps and symbols, were not quite as crystalline through the Benchmark as compared to the Sim but it was a small difference and not enough to sway me from potentially using the DAC2 as a preamp. If time had allowed it certainly would have been an interesting experiment to dial-in the Benchmark (using the passive output attenuator adjustment) and redo this comparison. Any pre-amp/amp combination is something to try-before-you-buy. To me, the fact that Benchmark is taking the extra step to add this adjustment shows their dedication to the task.