By Rob Stewart - JustMastering.com - March 29, 2015
If you are considering purchasing a Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 series unit, and are looking for an objective opinion, I hope you will find this review both meaningful and practical.
First, some background information...
The biggest part of my role as a mastering engineer is listening. I spend a great deal of time listening to my clients' mixes, offering my observations and recommendations before moving to the final mastering stage. While Audio Mastering can improve some mix issues, I prefer to address material mix concerns at the mix stage as much as possible, and my ability to hear "into" a mix is critical.
I use a DAC in my monitoring environment out of necessity because eventually, the music needs to move into the analog domain so that it will reach my loudspeakers. I consider a quality DAC to be a crucial part of a high resolution listening system. The DAC is the final point where sound or music transforms from being merely data, back into an analog signal.
Bearing this in mind, a DEC must execute the conversion process as cleanly as possible. Because I spend so much time listening for the smallest of issues, I depend upon accuracy above all else in my monitoring system. I need to hear exactly what the mix engineer and producer created. If my system is too "artificially musical", too noisy, colored or "euphonic", it is much more challenging for me to hear those fine details, or accurately assess what I am hearing.
My reference point
The Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC is my first dedicated DAC, and in fact is my first reference DAC. I made the decision to purchase one because I have known of Benchmark Media's products for over a decade, their love of all things audio, and their strong reputation around the globe. For example, the DAC1 series has been a standard DAC used for years by professionals the world over, and it is designed and built to such a high specification that it is far from being obsoleted by the the DAC2.
Prior to buying the DAC2, I was using a firewire audio interface (different brand) made for recording. It has been a trustworthy device for several years. I was able to use it in the field as a location recording engineer, and it was very much at home as my mains DAC for my first four years as a mastering engineer. In 12 years using the interface, I never experienced a single issue with it. To be quite honest, my only concern with it was that it was noisy, relative to the rest of my audio system. My listening room is very quiet, and my power amp is relatively quiet as well. I found that my room and system revealed the interface's noise to a point where it was quite obvious in my listening environment. That made it more challenging for me to work, because system noise masks fine details in a recording. In mastering, such as when you are working on fade outs or listening for very minute issues, any noise you hear should be in the recordings, not in your system :).
I must stress that I still consider my old firewire audio interface to be a fantastic piece of gear - especially for recording purposes. I plan to keep it for that task since I record as a hobby. My moving to the Benchmark DAC2 merely points out that my room and audio system reached a level where I needed to focus on my Digital-to-Analog conversion stage, by upgrading to a reference DAC.
My listening room
As I mentioned above, I have built my mastering room (details, here) to be very quiet because that is necessary for audio mastering purposes. The room is outfitted with acoustic treatments designed to maximize the clarity and focus of what I hear from my listening position. The power amplifier has plenty of reserve power to deliver wide bandwidth, wide dynamics to my loudspeakers, and I have invested in high grade locally manufactured loudspeakers that have become known for their neutrality and ability to reveal subtleties and defects in a recording.
Review of the Benchmark DAC2
I purchased a DAC2 HGC, but I should note that there are currently two other flavors available (DAC2 L, and DAC2 DX), but, as you will read at BenchmarkMedia.com, they all sound identical, they just have different features.
You may have read elsewhere that Benchmark Media Systems products are exceptionally well built, and I am happy to say I have no surprises to report, here. The DAC2's buttons and connection points all appear to be very well designed. From front to back, the DAC2 HGC looks and feels really solid. In fact, even the remote control is made of metal. The unit comes with a 1-year warranty, but that is extended as soon as you register your DAC2, to either 2 years (international) or 5 years (U.S. and Canada).
As with other Benchmark Media Systems products, the DAC2 HGC looks fantastic. I have read reviews that criticize the DAC2 for having a "busy" layout compared to earlier DAC/DAC1 series products. I understand why some may feel that way if they are used to an earlier product, but be reminded that the DAC2 HGC has a great deal of features relative to many of the earlier products. Everything you see on the front of the unit has a purpose, and I find that having the necessary diagnostic information that I need in one place - bit rate, sample rate, any errors, etc. - is very helpful to my workflow.
It is also important to note that the DAC2 series units (and likely all current Benchmark products, I'd imagine) have their CE Professional designation which means that - relative to unrated products or products designated "CE Consumer" - they are built to reject a higher amount of external noise, while generating a lower level of their own noise. That's a big deal if you are looking maintain a low noise floor in your audio system.
I won't spend too much time here because there is a great deal of information on the Benchmark Media Systems Inc. website about the DAC2 HGC's features. What I will say, is that if you feel you don't need all of these features, but want the same level of audio quality, you can opt for one of the other DAC2 series at a slightly lower cost.
The DAC2 HGC doubles as a reference DAC and a reference preamp. It has analog inputs which remain in the analog domain from input to output. That is a nice feature because if you are using the DAC2 for a personal hi-fidelity system, you can connect your other analog components to it without having to use another separate preamp that would further degrade the sound.
The DAC2 HGC features two HPA-2 headphone amplifiers. These are very high quality, high current headphone amplifiers that are built to drive a wide range of full-sized headphones very well. The HPA-2 has become known for it's exceptional ability to control headphone drivers, which will reduce distortion and improve dynamics and response.
You will also read about the DAC2's use of the Sabre 9018 chipset. Again, I won't go into a lot of detail here, other than to say that the DAC2's entire architecture has been designed around the Sabre 9018, which is partly why the DAC2 has such exceptionally low noise specifications and linearity. The analog stages of a DAC play a measurable role - in fact more of a role in its sound than the chipset itself. While there are many other DACs on the market that use the Sabre 9018 but they will not all sound alike. It takes an exceptionally high quality analog architecture such as what is found in the Benchmark DAC2 to take advantage of everything that the Sabre 9018 has to offer.
The DAC2 is the first product I am aware of to implement a "high headroom" DAC. There is more specific detail about that on Benchmark's website. I have not had a chance to fully assess the difference that the high headroom DAC makes. In theory, a high gain audio file (a.k.a. a "hot master") should have higher clarity when played through the DAC2 because the DAC's architecture and its analog output stages have been designed to accommodate reconstructed peaks well above the 0dBFS limit. For my listening purposes as a mastering engineer, I typically work at lower gain levels, and through newer mastering guidelines such as Mastered for iTunes, my hope is that there will be less of a need for high-headroom DACs in the long run. For hot masters created between 2000 and 2010 or thereabouts, I don't doubt that listeners will hear a big difference with the DAC2. It doesn't solve the issue with the file itself, but it should make the music more listenable than on a regular DAC where any reconstructed peaks would be heavily distorted to the point where listener fatigue would set in much quicker.
Another key feature is the Ultralock II system which makes this DAC literally immune to interface jitter. That's right, you can feed it a "dirty" digital signal that contains interface jitter, and the DAC2 can actually eliminate that jitter during the conversion process. While it cannot remove ADC or recording-system-induced jitter from a recording (nothing can), you can be guaranteed that whatever you hear over your loudspeakers from the DAC2 has no added jitter from the digital-to-analog conversion process.
Sound Quality - hey... Wow!
As I mentioned above, I use a DAC out of necessity. I buy gear when I believe it will help my workflow. For me, a DAC is a tool, and nothing more. I made the decision to make the purchase because I needed to reduce the noise level in my monitoring system. I was expecting the DAC2 to sound basically the same as what I had before, only with lower noise. My listening system is level calibrated, and I typically listen to music at the same SPL which should reduce/eliminate subjectivity from this review.
Bearing that bias in mind, I can tell you that from the first 3 seconds in, I found that the difference in detail that I was hearing via the Benchmark DAC2 vs my old DAC was much more dramatic than I expected. You may have read several other reviews for the DAC1 series and DAC2 series that discuss things like "added separation of instruments", added depth, or a jaw-dropping sense of three-dimensionality. I will confess that when I read such things in other reviews, I was dismissing them as mere wishful thinking. I am happy to report that they are in fact true in my experience with the DAC2. I will discuss my impressions on each of these themes.
In general, the DAC2 excels at revealing subtleties. I was amazed from the first few seconds of listening at how I was hearing details that had clearly been rounded/dulled by my old DAC. For example, acoustic guitar transients, ambient information, even vocal noises all come through in more detail than I recall hearing using my old DAC. It is not that I couldn't hear them on the old DAC, but my impression is that everything is brought into tighter focus with the DAC2. I found it quite startling at first on some mixes. From a mixing, or audio mastering perspective, some of what I was hearing would actually cause me to make slightly different decisions on whether to leave or fix certain aspects of a mix. Yes - in my opinion, the DAC2 HGC is that good, to a point where it will influence my workflow.
Regarding what some report as "added separation of instruments", I am hearing the same thing compared to my previous DAC. On some mixes, I actually thought that something might be wrong with my setup because I was perceiving spaces between mix layers (e.g. between the vocal and the guitar) that were much larger than I was accustomed to hearing, before. It took a few days for my ears to get accustomed to that, and now, I cannot go back because I wouldn't have it any other way.
Regarding hearing a larger sense of depth or 3D realism, again, I am happy to report that I am hearing this, also. The DAC2 translates the delicate details of reverb or ambient information incredibly well. Listening to binaural recordings over loudspeakers reveals some added depth that I hadn't heard before (bearing in mind the limitations of playing binaural program material over loudspeakers). Listening to NOS or ORTF recordings is a joy given that they are designed to closely replicate how we hear a live event with many of the depth cues intact, and translating well over loudspeakers. Getting more specific, I was listening to the song "Lucy Watusi" (Calum Graham & Don Ross - via iTunes, well worth a purchase if you like acoustic guitar), and through the DAC2 HGC over loudspeakers, I can actually hear very subtle front-to-back shifts in position (maybe less than 4 inches) as Calum and Don appear to rock/shift on the chairs while they play. I think I might be able to pick that out if I went back to my old DAC, but clearly this level of detail was not as obvious to me before despite hearing that song hundreds of times. For it to jump out so much to me on first listen with the DAC2 really speaks to what this unit is capable of. I have to stress that I was not listening for this, and I didn't expect to hear it. It is something that simply jumped out at me - "Hey... wow!".
From jet fighter fly-bys to loud cracks of thunder, the DAC2 handles dynamics effortlessly. To properly assess the dynamics of a mix, I need to hear the slightest changes in amplitude very clearly. With the DAC2, I can easily hear subtle issues with mix compression that might otherwise be missed. On highly dynamic material, the DAC2 excels at translating all of the important transient details across the audible spectrum. Well-recorded drums sound shockingly real, for example. The DAC2 can do this without losing any focus on the subtleties of the recording. What you experience with the DAC2 will only be limited by the capabilities of your room, amplifier and loudspeakers (or headphones).
I have read some reviewers describe benchmark products as "clinical" or "sterile". I have no experience with the DAC1 series, but I can tell you that the DAC2 series has no "personality" per se, and I mean that in the best possible way; it is not "sterile", or clinical, nor is it euphonic. I would use words such as "clean", "accurate", "detailed", "faithful", "linear" and "correct" to describe the sound of the Benchmark Meda DAC2 HGC. It is exactly what I would expect of a high grade DAC. It neither adds or removes anything to or from the sound, nor should it.
Again, my primary reason for buying the DAC2 HGC was so that I would be introducing less system noise into my monitoring system. I am happy to say that at any playback level, noise is not a concern for the DAC2 HGC at all. If you hear system noise using the DAC2 HGC, it is coming from somewhere else in your system. Thanks to this, I can now hear more hiss, more quantization noise, and other issues in recordings much more easily than I could using my old DAC. This also makes it much easier for me to set accurate fade-outs than I could before.
The headphone amps are great, too. I never thought that would make much difference but even my trusty old MDR-7506s sound remarkably better than I am accustomed to. When driven by the HPA-2, I am hearing much better control of the bass, and significantly less distortion. I imagine that using high-resolution headphones with the DAC2 HGC would be a real treat.
To sum it up, the DAC2 is such a revealing DAC that in my view, this is the level you need to go to if you want to truly appreciate high resolution audio, but, this DAC will also ensure that you can enjoy standard resolution audio, hearing things in the music that you may not have noticed, before.
A high grade, high resolution, highly neutral DAC is an essential foundation point for any music system. If you are a serious music lover (you do not have to be a professional, or call yourself an audiophile), who wants to get the very most out of your playback system, I think you owe it to yourself to check out the Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC. If you are interested in assembling an audio system to playback high resolution audio, the DAC2 is an essential starting point. You will need the exceptionally low noise, high linearity and exceptional clarity that this DAC has to offer before you can enjoy everything that high resolution digital audio has to offer. Happy listening :)!