Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC digital converter

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Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC

Those who use reading glasses will need them to identify what the legends on the front of the Benchmark say, but that is where the remote comes in. Even if you don’t recall which coaxial input you used, clicking through the options reveals the active one to have a steady blue light and the empty ones to flash, ditto other inputs which is handy. I started by connecting the DAC2’s single ended outputs to my ATC P1 power amp with a Macbook Air hooked up to the only USB input, so no input selection challenges there. I played a DSD version of Dylan’s  ‘Visions of Johanna’ [Blonde On Blonde, CBS], which seemed a little lightweight but it’s an old recording that the effects of DSD do not necessarily enhance. That said, the song retained its evergreen appeal, and the soundstage was notably wide, if lacking in depth. After a few more pieces, which proved that this DAC is transparent enough to reveal big differences in recording style, I switched to the coaxial input. This was fed by the somewhat convoluted chain of the Melco digital transport via Ethernet to a Moon MiND streamer and thence through Chord Co’s finest to the coax input. All of which did nothing to stop this input sounding clearly superior with the soundstage opening up in width and depth to provide a space for far more realistic instruments and voices to unfold within. The effect produced what seemed like a doubling of resolution thanks to the increase at low levels, and the structure that brings to the overall sound. Even the bass seemed to be tighter, which wasn’t expected, but the Melco is a rather more dedicated audio source than the Macbook.

That said, when I made comparisons between coaxial and USB inputs using the Melco alone, the former remained obviously superior. This time the change was more subtle, but nonetheless pretty obvious. In essence, the coax input sounds more relaxed and delivers more detail and the music becomes more sophisticated or intricate, allowing you to hear further into the mix. It even makes the music played on the Benchmark DAC2 easier to enjoy. In fairness, USB is louder in both level and character, which may of course suit some systems. However, in a system designed for maximum resolution, the older input remains the more appealing.

Going from the DAC2 connected directly to the power to having its full output routed into a Townshend Allegri passive pre also brought gains. Given that I was using digital inputs and thus digital volume control this is not entirely surprising, but Benchmark does go to some lengths to get this aspect sounding as good as possible. However, the Allegri is very good and improves the timing, dynamics, and the high frequencies on this DAC despite the extra run of interconnect in the system. Switching to the XLR outputs did help to redress this, and the extra voltage available proved a better match for the power amp and delivered dynamics far more effectively. Now Barenboim’s Symphony No.7 in A Op.92 [(Beethoven For All, 24/96, Decca] had light, shade, and vigour and no longer receded in the way it had via the RCAs.

The analogue input proved to be rather good, too. Using a Naim Audio NAC-N 272’s digital and analogue outputs via the Benchmark made a good case for the latter, which produced a more relaxed and open result that made me want to listen for longer. It reveals what you would expect: the Naim NAC-N 272 has a better DAC as you might hope at around twice the price of the DAC2, but also that the analogue inputs on the latter are sufficiently transparent to show as much.

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