When this DAC arrived in the UK in 2007, it was practically in a gang of one. Funny to think it now, but the digital to analogue converter had almost completely died out. The Benchmark DAC1 was something of a curio then, and its exceptionalism was underlined by the USB option that followed soon after.
The unit’s pro audio origins give it an interesting feature set that you won’t find on cooking hi-fi designs. There are balanced XLR outputs to go with the RCA phono line outs, and the latter can be switched between fixed and variable output. The front panel mounted knob is actually a volume control for when the latter option is selected (by a small switch on the back panel). Interestingly, even when using the fixed out, the unit has adjustable trim pads, letting you fine-tune channel balance. This, according to the manufacturer, is for use with active pro monitor speakers.
Digital inputs are via TOSLINK optical, coaxial (via BNC, an adaptor is provided for those who don’t have BNC leads), XLR and of course USB. These are all rear mounted, whereas the front panel has two 6.3mm (i.e. ‘quarter inch’) headphone outputs – yes, as well as having a variable out the Benchmark is also a headphone amplifier. Some in the hi-fi fraternity will find this a welcome ‘free gift’, others will not think it matters one jot, but you can bet it’s an essential feature in pro audio applications. The single front mounted switch toggles between the four digital inputs, which are represented by blue LEDs that flash if they haven’t locked onto a digital signal.
The DAC1 USB works at sampling frequencies of 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, and 192kHz, with up to 24-bit resolution. There’s no manual control of this, and disappointingly no LEDs to indicate what exactly is going into the machine. The company’s bumph makes much play of its UltraLock technology, which is designed to suppress jitter and thus make choice of transport less critical. As you’d expect, the Benchmark is a generally very well built machine, reminding the world that pro audio kit inhabits a different world. It comes in a choice of black or silver, with optional rack mounting handles. The volume control and input selector feel great, but the rear mounted RCA phono sockets aren’t as rugged feeling as I’d hoped.
Pulling the lid off reveals yet more user-configurable options, such as a jumper giving 10dB gain reduction for sensitive headphones, and the ability to mute the machine’s line outputs when phones are plugged in. It’s neatly assembled with mostly surface mount componentry on a single PCB, plus a largish toroidal transformer with big reservoir capacitors. An Analog Devices AD1896 sample-rate converter is fitted, feeding an Analog Devices AD1853 multibit sigma-delta stereo D-A converter chip which is driven directly from the reference crystal oscillator and feeds three NE5532 op-amps per channel.
Retailing for £1,000 in the UK, the DAC1 sounds powerful and detailed, even by today’s standards, with a taut, grippy and musically cohesive character. The midband really impresses, unwrapping lots of detail that a similarly priced CD player would simply gloss over. The Benchmark proves to be very neutral and open, and yet quite commanding low down. High up at the opposite end of the spectrum, again it impresses with a crisp and open treble, and the DAC1 also USB throws out a considerably wider recorded acoustic than some rivals. It sounds correct, without imprinting its own character on the proceedings.
The USB input works flawlessly, although is not asynchronous (this was early days for USB), and the headphone outputs are an unexpected bonus, giving excellent sound. As a preamplifier, it works well but is no match for a good passive rival, making things sound fractionally more diffuse and less dynamic. Overall though, it would make an excellent upgrade to most sub-£2,000 CD players, as well as being a wonderful way of getting your DVD player, DAB, computer and Sky box to sound better too.