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Benchmark DAC 1 HDR Review

Benchmark DAC 1 HDR

By: Dr. Ken Taraska

While analog reproduction of audio is all the rage these days, most, if not all of us have our music in some digital form. Be it on a hard drive, iPod, Compact Disc or server, we all need high quality digital to analog conversion to extract the most from our collection. Benchmark Media has a history of producing high quality DACs, and now has raised the bar with their DAC1 HDR which incorporates their famed DAC with a USB input for computer audio, analog preamplifier, headphone amplifier and a high dynamic range motorized volume control allowing the inclusion of a remote control, which all other Benchmark products had been missing. Audio gear has historically been better the bigger and heavier it was, but technology is changing this notion. Benchmark Media has such a piece with its diminutive DAC 1 HDR. Retailing for $1,895, this units small size and multi-feature design make it the ideal hub for a modern digitally based audio system, yet maintains functionality with an analog preamp section as well.

When you receive the DAC 1 HDR, it comes packed in a box smaller than a shoe box, the unit itself is only nine and a half inches wide by nine and a third deep and one and three quarter inches tall and weighs just three and a half pounds. The DAC 1 HDR is extremely well padded and comes complete with everything you need to get going, including a USB cable, power cord, remote with high quality name brand batteries and the most comprehensive manual you will find in audio. Benchmark gives you an in-depth account of the technology in this piece. The USB interface can accept up to 24 bit 96 kHz input, and you also get three coaxial and one optical digital in as well as a single ended stereo analog input. Both balanced and single ended stereo preamp outputs with fixed or variable output allow you to effectively bypass the preamp section if you wanted the DAC 1 HDR only for digital to analog conversion. The left headphone jack mutes the analog outputs and internal jumpers allow trimming of the dual headphone jacks.

Fit and finish of this component is top notch. My unit came in the black finish and it was physically perfect. The unit is small but has a solid feel to it. The controls are well made and smooth to operate and the inputs and outputs are all high quality and where applicable, gold plated. The face is pretty simple with cool blue lights for sources that also indicate mute and dim functions. The two-tone finish makes for a clean, industrial look.

The included remote is small and black with rounded edges that make it comfortable to handle; the buttons cover the top half. The buttons are well positioned albeit a bit strange. The top button is a left to right rocker for power, below that is a rocker for input, then below them are four buttons in a plus sign configuration. The top and bottom buttons are for volume; the left and right are for the unit's mute and dim functions. The dim function allows you to set the volume level that a tap of the button will take you to, while mute is a full mute. While I found the setup easy enough to use, it seems strange to have power on the rocker switch and volume on two separate buttons. When switching sources you can go forward or backward through the six options, but once you hit numbers one or six you have to go back, you can't loop around, and no discrete source access exists.

The Hookup
I quickly unboxed the unit when it arrived and connected my Transparent Reference interconnects to the balanced output of the DAC 1 HDR, these fed my Krell Evolution 403 amp and Escalante Fremont and Canton Reference 3.2 DC speakers during evaluation. For sources I used my EMM Labs TSD1 and DAC2 to feed the piece with single ended stereo analog inputs, a Philips DVD-963 SA for coaxial and optical digital feeds and my MacBook Air via USB to feed both MP3s and totally uncompressed versions of music. A quick trip to my setup menus of the MacBook, which was perfectly defined in the manual, and I was up and running. Due to the small size of the unit, it was simple to just slip it on my rack, make the connections and play. I loved the small size, but connecting some power cords to it made it want to slide off it's shelf, so I nixed the big power cord and used the included one from Benchmark and the problem went away.

Performance
The Benchmark DAC makes for a smooth and pleasant presentation of music, even on older material like Jimi Hendrix's Blues album (MCA). On "Hear My Train A Comin'" the guitar was lively and clear, while bass of the drums was well portrayed. "Catfish Blues" had a depth and energy that made the piece so powerful to listen to, and the emotion continued through "Voodoo Chile Blues" keeping plenty of air around the instruments making for a very open presentation. I found the sound amazingly similar if not almost identical from any of the digital feeds. I did discern some subtle differences but was unable to pick a favorite and they all were very easy to listen to.

Moving on to Prodigy The Fat of the Land (Maverick) allowed me to truly test the DAC 1 HDR's bass performance. The opening track of "Smack My moo Up" was deep and solid while maintaining a lively and open sound. "Breathe" continued to impress me with the openness of the piece and bass control. "Minefields" was exciting without being harsh or edgy. The DAC 1 HDR did a great job with this album, whether it was fed by USB, coaxial of optical digital. There was a step up in separation and detail when I used my EMM Labs via the analog outputs, but I would hope a $20,500 player would sound better.

I next cued up some Ray Charles Genius Loves Company (Monster Music) and the DAC 1 HDR didn't fail to impress me. "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" with Bonnie Raitt showed rich piano and subtle drums while again keeping the vocals right. On "Sinner's Prayer" with B.B. King the vocals remained clear and rich while B.B.'s guitar was true to life and the drums were spot on. I switched between the various digital inputs on this album and again could appreciate subtle differences, but never was able to choose which was better; they just were slightly different and likely source dependent. When I used the Mac Book Air to send MP3's at 192 kbps of this album to the DAC 1 HDR I did loose some separation and smoothness in the upper end but it was still surprisingly pleasant.

Low Points
The size of this piece is one reason I love it but those who plan to use massive power cords and interconnects could find the cables pulling it around. This device has so much inside but only a single analog input; this will be enough for most, but not for everyone. The remote is simple yet has unusual button placement that will take some getting used to and lacks discreet source selection.

Conclusion
The Benchmark DAC 1 HDR is a landmark piece. Its small size and inclusion of not only a great DAC but remote controlled preamp with analog input as well as a flexible headphone amplifier make this a great piece for a top notch system at a reasonable price. Forget your prejudice that audio gear needs to be big and heavy for great sound. Pair this piece with a NuForce amp, add computer, and you could run anything from bookshelves to massive floor standers, making the possibility of true high-end audio a reality in any sized space, and for a real world price. From condo dwellers to dorm rooms, this is a piece you'll continue to see and hear of as it offers so much for so little. The DAC 1 HDR is a gateway into the high-end audio world giving performance that far outweighs its cost.

Benchmark has packed so much into the DAC 1 HDR, it's seems impossible. The DAC 1 HDR sounds great, and is more feature laden than it has a right to be. It is flexible enough to grow with you as you and your system change, and can adapt to seemingly anything with all its customizability. The DAC 1 HDR is so good, Benchmark offers a 30-day money back trial, but once you hear it I am sure you won't be sending it back. The smooth and detailed sound of the DAC is matched to an exceptional analog preamplifier, when you factor in the headphone amplifier and flexibility of this piece, it is truly a unit that can adapt to any system and be a piece you can buy knowing you won't outgrow any time soon.

Chrisy

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benchmark , computer audio , d to a converter , dac 1 hdr , digital audio , headphone amplifier , stereo preamplifier , usb

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