Benchmark Media Systems is one of the bastions of the new face of audio electronics. Benchmark was and is a pro audio brand at the forefront of the democratisation of the recording industry and audiophiles became interested in the product line toward the end of the last decade, because the Benchmark DAC1 was one of the first products that took USB audio seriously. No company can afford to rest on its laurels for too long today, and the Benchmark DAC1 was replaced by a number of equally highly respected models. Which brings us to the latest Benchmark DAC3-HGC.
Despite looking very similar to the DAC1 and DAC1 HDR, and virtually identical to the DAC2 HGC, the DAC3 HGC brings a lot of ‘new’ to the table. To recap, the original DAC1 was a fine 24-bit, 192kHz PCM converter with an excellent headphone amp, the DAC1 USB added 24/96 USB 1.1 input, the DAC1 PRE added a line-level input (at the expense of AES/EBU digital input), and the DAC1 HDR improved the circuit design, with special focus on the volume control. The DAC2 added native DSD processing and 192kHz compatible USB 2.0, with a range of variants that re-introduced the AES/EBU connection, removed the headphone amplifier, and finally added the company’s own Hybrid Gain Control. The DAC3 is the latest iteration of that Benchmark concept, once again revising the circuit to reflect the latest developments in digital design. It’s available in three variants today: the digital-only DX model (which includes an AES/EBU input), the L model (which removes the headphone amp but retains the analogue preamp) and the HDR model tested here, which features both the headphone amp and a line input in place of the pro-digital AES/EBU connector. All three are available in black or silver.
The headline change to the DAC3 over the DAC2 is the use of the latest ESS Technologies digital converter chip, the ES9028Pro SABRE. Currently, the number of DACs that sport this state-of-the-art chipset could be counted on the fingers of one hand that had been involved in a fairly nasty industrial accident. This is a 32bit, eight-channel DAC chip with an impressive THD+N rating of -122dB and a world-class dynamic range of 140dB. It also allows native DSD over PCM (DoP) coding, so DSD256 signals can be played without any form of transcoding. Benchmark also makes sure this ESS chip is run with all its lights turned on, benefitting in the process from active compensation for second and third harmonic distortion, and improved passband ripple. The new chipset demands an equally new circuit design, and this has resulted in the DAC3 having faster PLL lock times, faster switching between signals, and a more accurate frequency response than its predecessor.
In use, the Benchmark models have a reputation for being fuss-free, no-nonsense designs that just get on with playing music, and the DAC3 is no exception. A lot of this comes from the top down: John Siau is the Director of Engineering at Benchmark Media and writes some extremely sensible, pragmatic, and forthright ‘applications notes’ and the occasional blog on the Benchmark website. Siau is pragmatic enough to include DSD, despite not being a supporter of the format. The commercial reality today is that regardless of whether or not you think DSD a viable format, and irrespective of how many DSD recordings you might own, if you don’t include DSD replay on a DAC like the Benchmark DAC3, it will simply fail to sell in some parts of the world. His pragmatism only extends so far, however, and both balanced headphone output are beyond the pale. Siau is not unwilling to back up any claims, and he presents good reasons why balanced headphone output is unnecessary, namely that the headphone is inherently balanced and cannot recognise any difference between singled-ended and voltage-balanced operation, and that making two separate output amplifiers for balanced operation doubles the noise and halves the load impedance – accept these reasons or not, they are generally well grounded.