Benchmark Media's DAC1 Digital/Analog Converter started winning awards in pro audio circles as early as 2002. Probably the first product available for under $1000 that made a successful attempt at conquering jitter...the last-remaining hurdle to truly musical digital audio... it has since gained an enormous following among both studios and budget-minded audiophiles.
Dick Olsher reviewed the original DAC1 back in 2005 (seen here) and since then, Benchmark released the DAC1 USB for the growing numbers of people turning to computer-based audio. The DAC1 has always doubled as a preamplifier, in that it has always had a volume knob that controls either or both the front panel headphone jacks and/or the analog outputs. The version under review here, the DAC1 PRE, introduced just last year, adds an analog input, bringing the DAC1 one step closer to being a full-featured preamplifier.
What's New On The PRE
The DAC1 PRE As A DAC
While I had the DAC1 PRE in my system, Analogue Productions released their first batch of Kevin Gray/Steve Hoffman remastered Blue Note titles. Of course, the main event here is that these are SACDs, but even the Redbook layer of John Coltrane's Blue Train provided a noticeable improvement over the 20-bit RVG remaster I already owned: "Philly" Joe Jones' cymbals rang out beautifully without a hint of digital hash, and Paul Chambers' bass sounded woody and palpable, as good as I've ever heard it. Kenny Drew's piano, well...still sounded like a Van Gelder piano, but Drew swings like mad nonetheless; and the dynamics and natural timbre in the horns brought them to punchy life in my living room.
I did a comparison of the SA8003 to a friend's DAC1 PRE in my review of the Marantz unit, however that session was fairly brief, and my impressions were a tad vague. With the DAC1 PRE at home in my own system I was able to spend many hours comparing the two, but that still didn't help clarify my opinion. Other than the fact that the Marantz played a touch louder than the Benchmark (in "calibrated" output mode), no sonic characteristics stood out consistently enough that I could differentiate between the two. Falling back onto hyper-subjective criteria that I'm not entirely comfortable reporting, I found that during casual listening sessions I preferred the Benchmark...I thought it presented a more lifelike and emotionally involving musical experience. However, during blind, level-matched comparisons I preferred the Marantz for exactly the same reasons.
I'm sure that hardcore proponents of the subjectivist and objectivist camps will each have their theories as to why this was the case, but for someone like myself, who has no dog in that particular fight, it is a puzzle. On one hand, evaluating an audio component based on my own emotional reactions to the music it plays makes sense, because the main reason many of us listen to music is for the effect it has on our emotions. On the other hand, those emotional reactions are...well, emotional; and I can't say with certainty that anyone in the world will have the same reactions I did. I am forced to conclude (either because it's true or because my system/ears are incapable of making the distinction) that the units sound similar enough that, if trying to make a purchase decision between the two, you can effectively eliminate Redbook performance as a criteria.
Of course, one of the great strengths of the DAC1 PRE and it's much-lauded jitter-rejection circuitry is not how great it sounds when used with a $1000 transport, but how great it sounds with a $100 (or less) transport. To test this, I connected the DAC1 PRE to a 15-year-old CD-ROM drive that I picked up on eBay for around $7 (an NEC MultiSpin 6xe, which happens to have a coaxial digital output built-in), and used a coat hanger for a digital interconnect. Seriously...a coat hanger. Anyway, I settled in for an afternoon of comparing this rather Mickey-Mouse setup to the Marantz/DAC1 combo. It only took a few tracks to realize that trying to find audible differences here was going to be as pointless as it was trying find them between the DAC1 PRE and the solo Marantz. I opted instead to spend the day enjoying a broad range of gorgeous, non-fatiguing, compellingly presented music, courtesy my $7 transport/coat hanger/DAC1 PRE combo, with all the dynamics, clarity of focus and inner detail that I had grown to expect from the Benchmark. Due to the unscientific nature of this "test", I can't guarantee that transport quality makes no difference to the sound of the DAC1 PRE, but I can say that it makes perfectly enjoyable, engaging music being driven by just about anything.
DAC1 Pre As A USB DAC
I used the DAC1 PRE with a Dell Mini 9, bought refurbished from the Dell Outlet, fully decked-out and running Windows XP, for around $300. It is completely silent and small enough to fit neatly in my audio rack, but the 1024x600 pixel screen (combined with the audio player software of your choice) puts to shame the user-interface of every network audio player anywhere near it's price. I have it connected wirelessly to a 640MB drive shared on my main computer two rooms away, and it connected properly to the DAC1 PRE right out of the box (you know when Windows XP is working correctly with the DAC1 PRE when the volume slider in the "Sounds & Audio Devices" control panel is grayed out... Benchmark has nothing good to say about the impact digital volume controls have on an audio signal).
The Benchmark delivered the same articulate, mesmerizing performance with lossless digital files over USB that is did with Redbook. It did a fine job with MP3s as well, but seriously...if playing compressed, lossy audio is all you're doing with a computer in your system, the DAC1 PRE is probably overkill. Over the past few years, ECM Records has been distributing review copies of their new releases digitally to the press. These are available in a variety of formats, including uncompressed WAV files. One of their most intriguing releases of late was from American trumpet player/composer Jon Hassell, his first release on the label in over 20 years entitled Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street. Combining elements of world music and electronic experimentation into a rolling sonic landscape that unfolds slowly over the course of an hour, Hassell's is a unique voice. The album presents an enormously wide soundstage at times, with a myriad infinitesimal details coming at you from all directions that are as gorgeously recorded by Manfred Eicher as they were exquisitely rendered on the DAC1 PRE.
What I really wanted to hear on the DAC1 PRE, however, was some of the new 24-bit/96kHz downloads that are becoming available from HDtracks, Linn Records, and others. I bought high-resolution files from HDtracks of a few albums that have been reference favorites of mine for years: McCoy Tyner's New York Reunion and Portraits of Cuba by Paquito D'Rivera. HDtracks recommends using a free program called MediaMonkey for its high-res FLAC files. I tried it, but found it had an unsatisfactory way of dealing with gaps between tracks, so I ditched it in favor of Foobar2000... an open-source app that is about as bare-bones as they come. It worked perfectly, and is highly configurable: almost 200 plug-ins are available that do anything from improving the UI to installing an ABX comparator.
Tyner was up first, and sounded as good as ever. I can't say the 24-bit/96kHz files brought anything new to the table I hadn't already heard a hundred times on the Redbook release, but it did show that these high-res downloads are a fine way to go for those looking to ditch shiny discs altogether. Portraits of Cuba was a somewhat different story. The high-res download sounded spectacular... involving & groovy; the SACD version I own came across slightly less rhythmic, but more detailed... slowed down, in a way. Not actually slower, the 5:14 set opening "La Bella Cubana" took 5:14 to get through anywhere I played it, but D'Rivera's solos played in a way that seemed to invite close examination. I have no idea if this was to do with DSD vs. PCM, or simply how SACDs are presented on the Marantz, but the sounds of the two were more different than they were better or worse. Either way, the DAC1 PRE made a strong showing of the high-res downloads...good news for those of us who feared that the advent of digital downloads marked the beginning of the end of hi-fi.
DAC1 PRE As A Preamplifier
While the obvious weaknesses of the DAC1's preamplifier function (only one input and no remote control) make it seem like the Benchmark engineers are die-hard minimalists, it's not really the case. There isn't a remote-enabled (i.e. motorized) volume pot on the market that will fit in their trademark half-rack enclosure, nor is there an electronic volume control available anywhere that performs to their distortion-free standards. A quick look at the rear panel of the DAC1 PRE clearly demonstrates there isn't any room for a single additional input (although personally, I'd happily give up two of the three coaxial digital inputs for a 2nd set of analog RCAs). Solving these issues would require a larger enclosure, and the tooling/inventory costs of such a thing could have a huge impact on the affordability of the DAC1 PRE.
Of course, Benchmark's biggest strength is the digital performance in all of the DAC1 products. You can obviously spend more on a digital front end, but it's debatable that you could find one that performs better, especially where a neutral, uncolored sound is preferred. From a performance perspective, the DAC1 PRE gets my highest recommendation. Practically speaking, there's no shame in saving a few hundred bucks getting one of the earlier DAC1 models (the DAC-only DAC1 and DAC1 USB are both still available) if you don't need the additional functionality. Benchmark has scored a major home run with the the DAC1 series, and any one could satisfy for years to come.
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