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March 2018
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Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC, Headphone Amp, And Preamplifier
Benchmark's DAC3 HGC includes a killer DAC, plus headamp and preamp functions too!
Review By Tom Lyle


Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC Review


  It was back in March of 2009 when Clarke Robinson reviewed the Benchmark DAC1 PRE digital-to-analog-converter / preamplifier / headphone, and it was about the same time this component became the reference DAC in my own system. Back then, some might have looked at this diminutive DAC and wondered how a $1600 converter could be described as one that could compete with DACs three times its size and weight, not to mention those three times its price. In his review Mr. Robinson called the DAC1 PRE a "miracle of engineering", and "a bargain" due to its "neutral, uncolored sound".


I lived with the DAC1 PRE in my system until 2014, that's when I reviewed AURALiC's impressive VEGA DAC, which from then on became my reference. Even though Benchmark Media introduced a replacement for the DAC1, the DAC2, just about at the same time I reviewed the AURALiC, this was by no means a slight to Benchmark. My excuse is a bit convoluted, but try to follow me: The reason Benchmark Media's DAC2 did not make it into my system was because at the time I had lots of other equipment passing through my system, and since I wasn't offered a DAC2 for review, nor did I ask to review it, I never had the chance to audition a DAC2. Of course, I regret never auditioning that newer model, mostly because I was so impressed with the DAC1, and so I assume that the DAC2 was even better than that. So, there you have it. Of course, I assume the DAC3 HGC that I'm reviewing here is even better than the DAC2, so perhaps I can redeem myself.


After listening to the DAC3 HGC for a while, I asked Benchmark Media's sales manager Rory Rall about the lack of an outboard power supply, and how they achieve this model's high performance with such a small internal one. His answer made perfect sense: that "good engineering practices" allow for such a compact power supply to be so effective.  Despite its small size – it measures only about 9.5" wide and deep, and is only about 1.75" high – the DAC3 (I'll usually call the Benchmark Media DAC3 HGC the DAC3 from now on) is packed with features. First of all, this DAC doubles as a preamplifier, a real preamplifier. Not only does it have two analog inputs, it used an HGC (Hybrid Gain Control), which combines motor-driven active analog potentiometers, 32-bit digital attenuators, and passive analog attenuators to achieve what Benchmark claims is state-of-the-art performance. It has what's called "low-impedance passive output pads" (0, 10, and 20 dB) which they also claim optimizes its output level while maximizing the unit's signal to noise ratio.


Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC Review


The star of the show is the unit's digital converter, which uses an ESS Sabre Pro 32-bit converter chip. I could easily fill the rest of the review with not only a description of the converting prowess of this ESS Sabre Pro chip, but also discuss its excellent specifications. Briefly, the ESS Sabre Pro has a 32-bit PCM D/A conversion system, four 32-bit D/A converters per channel. Other features of the DAC3 HGC include two adjustable headphone outputs on its front panel, and on its rear panel a total of five digital inputs – two S/PDIF coax inputs, two TosLink optical inputs, and a USB input – plus two stereo RCA analog inputs, and both RCA and XLR outputs. The sample rate and word length of the incoming signal are both displayed on the unit's front panel, the USB input is of the Audio 2.0 type, and can handle signals up to a 24-bit/192 kHz, and of course a DSD signal (which is sent over PCM).


Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC Review


Benchmark's DAC3 includes a digital output, which is a digital pass-through from its USB, S/PDIF coax, and TosLink optical inputs when the function is enabled. The Benchmark Media DAC3 comes with a nice metal remote that controls all of the functions that one is most likely to need when sitting in one's listening seat. One should also be aware that Benchmark Media also manufactures two other models in its DAC3 series besides this DAC3 HGC. One is the DAC3 L, which is identical to the DAC3 HGC reviewed here, but it lacks any headphone outputs. There is also the DAC3 DX that does not have any analog inputs, and in their place, it has an XLR AES digital input, which would come in handy if this converter was used in a pro studio environment. Incidentally, the maker of the DAC3, Benchmark Media, at least in the past, was much better known as a pro-audio gear manufacturer, and it was with their DAC1 that the audiophile community began to take note of their products and their components started ending up in audiophile's systems.


I auditioned the DAC3 in my main system in my dedicated listening room. This space has two dedicated AC lines, but this hardly mattered because while auditioning this Benchmark DAC I was still using the Stromtank S2500 battery power supply I reviewed last month, and so the bulk of my equipment was not running off the AC coming from the wall sockets but rather from the Stromtank's lithium-iron-phosphate batteries. The gear that wasn't connected to the Stromtank, such as my speaker's transformers and the subwoofers had their power cords connected to a Chang Lightspeed ISO 9300 power conditioner.  The DAC3's outputs spent time connected to two outstanding preamplifiers, both 2017 Blue Note Award winners, the outstanding Merrill Audio Christina Reference and a Mark Levinson No. 523.

I also used the DAC3 as a preamplifier. All preamp outputs were connected to a Pass Laboratories X350.5 power amplifier. My reference speakers are the Sound Lab Majestic 545 full-range electrostatics, their very low-end augmented by a pair of Velodyne 15", 2500-Watt subwoofers. Interconnects used were the Merrill Audio ANAP, with speaker cables being a 12-foot bi-wire run of a rather extravagant cable made by Westlake Audio. All the equipment rested on the suspended acrylic shelves of my Arcici equipment rack. The listening room is fitted with acoustic treatment panels, and the walls are painted with Sherwin Williams "Sky Fall" blue indoor acrylic-latex paint.


I was immediately impressed by the sound of the Benchmark Media DAC3. Before the unit was even broken in I first noticed its powerful bass response. The DAC3 had more bass than I was used to, but more importantly this bass had characteristics that were more in line with what was on the recording than I've ever heard from a DAC anywhere near the DAC3's price. The bass also went much lower than what I was accustomed to from a unit costing anywhere near as low as the DAC3, was extremely pitch stable, and never overpowered the rest of what was featured on the recording. Yes, that last quality might have more to do with the high-quality components that comprised the rest of my system, but again, never had I heard a bass that had this type of quality anywhere near the DAC3's price range.

Using full-range speakers plus a pair of large subwoofers, I was able to hear what the DAC3 was sonically attempting to tell me, that I wasn't going to miss any of the low-frequency information that was on the recording. This wasn't only noticeable with instruments that contained lots of low frequency information, such as electric bass, kick drum, and low synth tones, but was also obvious in recordings that featured an acoustic guitar, where its lowest notes rang with overtones that reached well into the bass region. The air around instruments also contained lots of low-end information, depending on the space the instruments were recorded in, or the engineer added to the recording to replicate such a sound. This also gave the sonic appearance of a widened and deepened soundstage, making it much more of a three-dimensional representation of the recording.

Am sorry I'm allocating so much space to the DAC3's bass prowess. I've let this happen more than once before; I suppose this has more to do with the fact that I'm an American male more than anything else. I'll admit it; I like a component that has excellent bass response.


Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC Review


More than a few times I've had conversations with non-audiophiles around my age who have grown up with LPs that asked me why CDs sound so "flat". My answer to that question often depended on who I was speaking to, but what was most interesting about our discussions had to be the fact that even non-audiophiles notice this trait. But, I've noticed that this "flatness" they spoke of is also observable on high-end gear. Of course, it isn't nearly as severe as what these non-audiophiles heard with their mass-market CD players and late 1980s reissue CDs. But the differences I hear between the more technically advanced DACs and other digital components (and I'm afraid that usually means the difference between more expensive DACs and more reasonably priced digital components) is this sense of space – and again, it isn't as severe as what we've heard in those early days of the CD, but the separation of sounds, that see-through quality, and the air around individual instruments and voices is what distinguishes the difference between simply good high-end digital components and excellent sounding high-end digital components. It lies in the ability to create this sense of space in the sound of a recording.

As the years passed and the rest of my system improved with the introduction of higher quality components, I was able to hear this difference with greater and greater clarity. Of course, there are other characteristics, such as high-frequency accuracy, transparency, and bass quality, and that comes with advances in digital conversion competency. But it is this sense of space that I more often than not notice first. And I noticed this trait immediately with the Benchmark Media DAC3 HGC.


Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC Review


The controls on the front panel of the DAC3 are rather small, so I ended up using the remote for most of the navigation, but it was also nice to have it display what the incoming sample rate and word length of the digital signal was, and so when listening to a DSD file, it said so on the front panel. Still, I spent most of my time listening to plain old "CD quality" files, because that's mostly what I have stored on my hard drives attached to my music server. But since DSD files usually sounded much better, it brought out the best in the DAC3. I'm lucky that I have quite a few decent high-resolution recordings, one of them that I listen to fairly often is the DSD file of Marc Bolan, better known as T. Rex, his1971 release Electric Warrior. Tony Visconti was the producer on this album, and similar to his 1970s David Bowie albums his production style led towards keeping things tidy when it came to using multi-track recorders.

To me, his style was sort of like the opposite of Phil Spector's wall-of-sound. I found the best way to hear Tony Visconti's uncluttered style on Electric Warrior played on my system is with either the Japanese LP pressing, or with this high-resolution file. This digital file I have on my server just happens to also be a Japanese release, a rip of the SACD from 2011 on A&M Records of Japan. I've played this on my system through enough DACs to be very familiar with its sound, and I can honestly say that the Benchmark Media DAC3 reproduced it as good as any that I've ever had in my system, and that includes some very expensive models.


Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC


The album starts with "Mambo Sun", his ode to a nameless lover in typical T. Rex style, if lyrics such as "My life's a shadowless horse, If I can't get across - to you", and lines such as "I got a powder-keg leg and my wig's all pooped - for you" are any indication.  And I think they are. Marc Bolan lays down three guitar tracks, all in their own area of the huge soundstage, including a relatively clean electric guitar in the left channel, a fuzz guitar in the right, and his guitar solos in the center. On my system, even if there was a bit of bleed into other areas of the soundstage caused by the applied reverb, I felt as if I could measure the space between these three guitars with a yardstick.

The background vocals sung by x-Mothers Of Invention members Flo & Eddie float above the guitar, mostly in the left channel, also in their own space of the huge soundstage. T. Rex's lead vocals are front and center, with lots of slap-back echo which eliminated the need to double his vocals. Handclaps are added, and as they occupy the same space as the snare drum the two are combined to make a single sound. Near the end of the song, a string section is added, it too occupying a distinct space in the soundstage. I'm not sure how producer Tony Visconti does it, as I doubt that the monitoring system he used allowed him to hear the minutiae of the recording's playback as well as a modern audiophile system. Or it could have been just Visconti's instincts, as they seem to have worked for him on many other projects, and in many different recording studios.


Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC Review


It's about time I discuss two other features of the DAC3, its headphone outputs and the fact that the DAC3 can be used as a preamplifier. Firstly, the headphone output of the DAC3 is magnificent. It seems as if many components add a headphone jack almost as an afterthought, their headphone output or outputs sounding only passable. My reference headphone amplifier is a Pass Laboratories HPA-1, which has made me almost hyper-sensitive to the characteristics that a good headphone amplifier should possess. The Benchmark Media DAC3 HGC costs about a third as much as the Pass Labs headphone amplifier. If the Benchmark Media DAC3 was a headphone amp and only a headphone amp I would proclaim it to be not quite as good as the Pass Labs component, but at least in the same class as this first-rate headphone amp. The DAC3 has enough output to drive just about any headphone on the market, as it could drive either of my not-so-sensitive reference headphones, the Grado PS2000e and OPPO PM-1, to a more than useable volume.

Used as a headphone amplifier the DAC3 seems to have many of the same traits as its main outputs., as its separation of instruments is extremely admirable, and its way of reproducing what some call a soundfield, or a headphone soundstage, is also outstanding. There isn't as much air around the instruments, and the frequency extremes aren't as fully fleshed out as the Pass Labs headphone amp, but it was to my surprise scary close to my reference in both regards. Depending on the quality of headphones used with the DAC3 one might not even be able to detect much sonic difference between it and my reference, and that's quite an accomplishment! Plus, unlike the Pass Labs HPA-1, the DAC3 HGC includes a killer digital-to-analog-converter.


The same can be said for the DAC3 when used as a preamplifier. It might not suit every audiophile and system, as it has only two analog inputs, which might be enough for some, and not enough for others. Plus, these two inputs are both unbalanced RCA. But if that's okay, one will be rewarded with a remote-controlled preamplifier with gobs of output, a dead silent background, and many other traits that define what a good preamplifier should or should not sound like. Immediately before checking out the performance of the DAC3 as used as a preamplifier I was using the Merrill Audio Christina Reference, that not only costs nearly six times as much as the DAC3, but is designed and manufactured with the express purpose of being used as a preamplifier, and only a preamplifier. And so, this might not be a useful comparison. That is why when listening to my analog source connected to the DAC3 I tried not to judge it too harshly.

But you know what? The DAC3 sounded pretty darn good. This was because the DAC3 had so much gain, and at the same time had such a black background that I really could hear the contributions made by the rest of the components in the chain. No, it didn't have the same level of crystalline transparency, spectacular characteristics at the frequency extremes, and other sonic qualities that make the Merrill Audio preamplifier, and the Mark Levinson No. 523 preamplifier that I've also been using of late, two of the best preamps I've ever heard in my system. But so what? I bet that many who own the DAC3 HGC end up using it as a preamplifier in their system, connecting both analog digital sources to its back panel. As a bonus, and unlike my reference preamplifiers, the DAC3 HGC includes a killer digital-to-analog-converter.


Benchmark DAC3 HGC Hi-Res Audio DAC Review


The Benchmark Media DAC3 HGC is a fantastic digital-to-analog converter that comes with a fantastic headphone amplifier with two outputs, and can also double as a fantastic preamplifier. Its asking price is more than reasonable for such a versatile component, with a sound quality that can be compared to units costing much more. Whether or not one likes the sound of the DAC3 depends on the audiophile who auditions it, since those who are hard of hearing might not like it.

Sure, you can find a better DAC if you want to spend much more money, you can find a better headphone amplifier if you want to spend much more money, and you can find a preamplifier with more features and better sound quality if you want to spend much more money. But here it is folks, a digital-to-analog converter, headphone amplifier, and preamplifier all-in-one unit that can be called a bargain, even at a cost of about $2200.



Sub–bass (10Hz – 60Hz)

Mid–bass (80Hz – 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz – 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)



Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room


Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money


Audio Performance:
Fs = 44.1 to 96 kHz, 20 to 20 kHz BW, 1 kHz test tone, 0 dBFS = +24 dBu (unless noted) 
SNR – A-Weighted, 0 dBFS = +27.5 dBu: 128 dB 
SNR – Unweighted, 0 dBFS = +27.5 dBu :126 dB 
Dynamic Range - A-Weighted at maximum volume: 128 dB 
Dynamic Range - Unweighted at maximum volume: 126 dB 
THD+N, 1 kHz at 0 dBFS: -113 dBFS, -113 dB, 0.00022% 
THD+N, 1 kHz at -1 dBFS: -114 dBFS, -113 dB, 0.00022% 
THD+N, 1 kHz at –3 dBFS: -119 dBFS, -116 dB, 0.00016% 
THD+N, 20 to 20 kHz sweep at –3 dBFS: -113 dBFS, -110 dB, 0.00032% Frequency Response at Fs=192 kHz: 
+0 dB, -0.015 dB (20 to 20 kHz), -0.015 dB at 10 Hz 
-0.005 dB at 20 kHz, 
-0.031 dB at 40 kHz 
-0.15 dB at 80 kHz 

Frequency Response at Fs=48 kHz 
+0 dB, -0.015 dB (20 to 20 kHz) 
-0.015 dB at 10 Hz 
-0.005 dB at 20 kHz

Crosstalk -116 dB at 20 kHz 
-130 dB at 1 kHz 
-137 dB at 20 Hz 

Maximum Amplitude of Jitter Induced Sidebands (10 kHz 0 dBFS test tone, 12.75 UI sinusoidal jitter at 1 kHz): < -144 dB 
Maximum Amplitude of Spurious Tones with 0 dBFS test signal: < -138 dB Maximum Amplitude of Idle Tones: < -147 dB 
Maximum Amplitude of AC line related Hum & Noise: < -133 dB 
Inter-channel Differential Phase (Stereo Pair – any sample rate): +/- 0.25 degrees at 20 kHz 
Inter-channel Differential Phase (Between DAC3 Units Fs <110 kHz) Any sample rate: +/- 0.25 degrees at 20 kHz

Digital Audio Inputs
Number of Digital Inputs (switch selected): 5 (1 USB, 2 Optical, 2 Coaxial) Number of Channels: 2 
Input Sample Frequency Range:
28 to 210 kHz (Coaxial Inputs) 
28 to 96 kHz (Optical Inputs) 
44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz (USB Input) 
Maximum Input Word Length: 24 bits 
Digital Input Impedance 75 Ohms (Coaxial Inputs) 
DC Blocking Capacitors on Digital Inputs: Yes (Coaxial Inputs) 
Transient and Over-Voltage Protection on Digital Inputs: Yes (Coaxial Inputs)
Minimum Digital Input Level: 250 mVpp (Coaxial Inputs) 
Jitter Tolerance (With no Measurable Change in Performance) 
>12.75 UI sine, 100 Hz to 3 kHz 
>1.5 UI sine at 20 kHz 
>1.5 UI sine at 40 kHz 
>1.5 UI sine at 80 kHz 
>1.5 UI sine at 90 kHz 
>0.25 UI sine above 160 kHz
Jitter Attenuation Method: Benchmark UltraLock3 - all inputs 

Balanced Analog Outputs 
Number of Balanced Analog Outputs: 2 
Output Connector: Gold-Pin Neutrik male XLR 
Output Impedance: 
60 Ohms (Attenuator off) 
425 Ohms (Attenuator = 10 dB) 
135 Ohms (Attenuator = 20 dB)
Analog Output Clip Point: +29 dBu
Factory Set Bypass Level (with 0 dBFS digital input): +24 dBu (Attenuator = 0 dB) 

Number of Unbalanced Analog Outputs: 4 
Output Connector: RCA 
Output Impedance: 30 Ohms 
Analog Output Clip Point: +13.5 dBu (3.7 Vrms) 
Factory-Set Home Theater Bypass Output Level (with 0 dBFS digital input): +8.2 dBu (2 Vrms) 
Output Level Range (with 0 dBFS digital input): Off to +11.7 dBu (3 Vrms) Output Level Variation with Sample Rate: < +/- 0.006 dB 

HPA2TM Headphone Outputs 
Number of Headphone Outputs: 2 
Output Connectors: 1/4" TRS with switch on left-hand jack 
Output Impedance: < 0.11 Ohms 
Output Level Control: Stereo Control on Front Panel 
Output Level Range (with 0 dBFS digital input): Off to +21.5 dBu (9.2 Vrms) Output Power: 1.25 W into 30 Ohms 
Maximum Output Current: 250 mA 
Overload Protection (independent per channel): Current limited at 300 mA, Thermal 
Bandwidth: > 500 kHz, -0.35 dB at 200 kHz 
THD+N at 20 mW: 
-108 dB (0.0004%) into 300 Ohms, 
-100 dB (0.0010%) into 30 Ohms 

Unbalanced Analog Inputs 
Number of Unbalanced Analog Inputs: 4 
Input Connector: RCA 
Input Impedance: 20 kOhms 
Analog Input Clip Point: +18.5 dBu (6.5 Vrms) 
Input Sensitivity: +8.2 dBu (2 Vrms) 
Bandwidth > 500 kHz, -0.6 dB at 200 kHz 
THD+N (Analog to Analog, 2 Vrms in, +24 dBu out): -110 dB (0.00032%) 
Status Display 
Indicators - Type and Location: 16 LEDs on Front Panel 

Selection/Status Indication:
1 – Dim/Mute 
1 - Polarity 
7 – Input 
1 – Bypass/Calibrated Output 
2 – Word length 
4 – Sample Rate

Form Factor: Half-rack wide, 1 RU high 
Width And Depth: 9.5" 
Height: 1.725" 
Weight: 3 lbs.
Price: $2195


Company Information
Benchmark Media Systems, Inc.
203 E. Hampton Place, Ste 2
Syracuse, NY 13206

Voice: (800) 262-4675
Fax: (315) 437-8119
E-mail: sales@benchmarkmedia.com
Website: www.BenchmarkMedia.com














































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