Benchmark was the brand that introduced the first serious small scale digital to analogue converter. Before the original DAC1, most converters were either full width or not taken seriously. All that has changed with a plethora of high-spec, all-singing DACs that are primarily designed for the headphone market but which also have preamp outputs. The DAC2 HGC has a lot more competition than its forbear, so Benchmark has upped the ante in terms of conversion capability, but it remains very similar in facilities terms.
There are three DAC2s in the Benchmark line of which the HGC (hybrid gain control) is the most comprehensively equipped. The DAC2 DX (£1,599) is essentially a professional version that dispenses with the analogue preamp and remote control but adds another analogue output and AES/EBU digital input, while the DAC2 L is as per the HGC but has no headphone outputs (£1,549); that’s right, this DAC has two analogue inputs and full preamplifier functionality thanks to XLR and RCA phono outputs with volume control. Unusually, the analogue input does not get converted into digital so that it can be attenuated with a digital volume control, instead it bypasses the digital side and has its own passive attenuator – hence the H for hybrid.
The feature list is rather larger than its sub 25cm width might suggest, it includes sample rate and word length display via LEDs with rather tiny legends, five digital inputs including asynchronous USB, digital pass through, 12V trigger, home theatre bypass, and a polarity switch. Oh yes and a diecast remote handset with squidgy keys somewhat reminiscent of a Sinclair ZX81. With all of this and a lovely knurled aluminium control knob, it’s easy to see why Benchmark has established itself in both our world and that of the burgeoning home studio market. But £1,699 is quite a lot to pay for a compact DAC. Most of the competition has most of these features, albeit proper analogue in/output is rare. So with this DAC there is more: internal jumpers allow you to convert a digital input into digital pass-through (more of a studio thing), the attenuation of the XLR ouptuts can be altered by +/- 10dB, as can headphone output level, and finally, the headphone output on the left can mute or let be the pre-output as you choose. So it’s pretty flexible, definitely more so than most.
On the commercially sensitive side of what the converter is capable of, you have a native DSD channel that does not turn DSD into PCM prior to conversion to analogue. However, the DAC2 is limited to DSD64 and not the multiples thereof offered by some in the market. And even if the DAC2 runs four 32-bit DACs arranged in balanced configuration to minimise noise, this does not produce a balanced output at the XLR connections. The USB input can be run in class 1 or 2 with the latter requiring drivers when used with a Windows based computer. You can run it in class 1 too, but that limits sample rate to 96kHz. As the driver is a free download it seems worthwhile installing it for the truly high-res material in your collection. Given that Benchmark is a North American company it’s surprising and refreshing to see it point out that while the differences between the now discontinued DAC1 and its replacement are many and various, those wanting to enjoy great sound alone and who do not want to play the latest formats will not find a big difference between the two. I am not familiar with the DAC1 so cannot comment, but it sounds as though those that are can rest easy, for now at least.