I didn’t log too much time with the DAC2 and my descriptions of the original DAC1 must be tempered by the amount of time elapsed between when I had one to evaluate and today, but I am confident in saying the DAC3 has hit the Goldilocks spot in tonal balance. The original DAC1 was clean and slightly forward sounding (no real criticism in the late 2000s, as that was the prevailing sound of digital audio of the time), the DAC2 line had that kind of silken sheen, warmth, and almost rounded off treble of early ESS Sabre implementations, but the DAC3 is more like the best of both (again, no real criticism as this was also the sound of the time, and – in hindsight – was probably almost like an overcompensation for those first generation ‘computer audio’ designs). It has the treble extension and clarity of the original coupled with the effortless and refinement of the next generation.
Coming at this DAC hot on the heels of one of the best DAC’s I’ve ever experienced (the Chord DAVE, which costs almost 4x as much as the DAC3) I was expecting a significant down-shift in performance. In fact, what I heard shows just why digital audio is so exciting at the moment. The two were closer than I expected in performance and tonal terms. Yes, the DAVE is the better of the two, and the better the system, the wider the gap tends to become, but the DAC3 sounds excellent in a standalone capacity, or in systems that don’t culminate in more than £20,000 worth of loudspeakers.
What surprised me about the DAC3 was just how capable it was with a surprisingly catholic selection of music. It’s easy to point to a few audiophile recordings that sound great, in part because they sound great on anything, but this is more accommodating beyond the audiophile comfort zone. I’ve been playing Gang Signs & Prayers by Stormzy [#Merky Records, on TIDAL] and grime isn’t high on the playlists of audiophiles, but it seriously works through the Benchmark DAC3. It’s fresh, clean, and dynamic, never once making too much of a thing about the compression, exaggerating the top-end, or making it seem too diffuse or amusical.
There’s an intrinsic sense of honesty to the sound. Stormzy’s fun but there isn’t much imaging involved, where ‘It’s Goodbye And So Long To You’ from Alison Krauss new Windy City album [Capitol, also on TIDAL] is atmospheric and expansive, with Krauss’ soprano soring high and pure, with an almost nostalgic acoustic bluegrass backing sitting a step or two behind and around her. Even moving to large scale orchestral, or transient-led electronica didn’t phase the DAC3 HGC, as it always sounded, just right… in the Goldilocks sense.
Looking to the headphone amplifier, and in passing addressing that claim about balanced operation. I think Siau has a point, that the importance of balanced operation in headphone amplifier is not necessarily a requirement of better sonic performance, simply a means whereby an expensive headphone amplifier can justify additional cost. That being said, the full Questyle Golden Stack (which is a true balanced, dual mono design) does sound exceptionally good. But the Benchmark more than makes its own argument through its own sound quality on headphones. As with its predecessor, the headphone amplifier is detailed and capable, can drive practically everything with ear-cups (save for electrostatics), and yet is noise-free enough to work with very sensitive IEMs. And again, pragmatism reigns here: there are sonic benefits to be had moving from the DAC3 up to either one of the ultra-DACs or a dedicated and expensive standalone headphone amplifier, but they become harder to justify as they will not come cheap.