For Those Golden-Eared Couch Potatoes
by John Gatski
Beginning its life as a professional audio company in the 1980s, Benchmark Media has recently solidified its parallel commitment to the high-end audiophile community — with versions of its flagship DAC1 digital converter. I own an original DAC1 and ADC1, and have reviewed the evolutionary versions of it — from the DAC1 USB in 2006 to the DAC1 Pre in 2008.
Benchmark’s latest commitment to the audiophile is the new DAC1 HDR — announced last month and now hitting the market at $1,895. The DAC1 HDR takes the essence of the DAC1 Pre with analog, USB and digital inputs and finally adds a much-requested remote control.
Although the DAC1 Pre’s analog input option gave end users the ability to also use it as a standalone analog line preamp, many used it and the other DAC1s for digital connection to TV audio. Folks were plugging in digital outputs from HD plasma and LCDs and cable boxes to get better boob tube audio. Some those customers said it would be nice to have a remote control to eliminate that trip from the comfy sofa to the rack in order to switch between components or change the volume on the DAC.
They asked for remote control option, and the company listened.
The DAC1 HDR contains the same inputs/outputs, the same decoding technology and headphone amplifier as the $300 less expensive DAC1 Pre, but it gets a new custom-built, ALPS motorized volume potentiometer that enables Benchmark to maintain the post-converter, analog signal integrity for remote control use. The larger-element pot should be a bit more robust in terms of durability.
Digitally, the Benchmark DAC1 HDR was designed with the same, high accuracy, ultra-low jitter and low-distortion converter that locks in sampling frequencies, between 28 kHz and 195 kHz, to 110 kHz.
The Benchmark converters have proven to be excellent sounding, highly-accurate DACs — especially for the money. And they are 100 percent assembled in the USA.
As with the DAC1 Pre, the HDR can accommodate four SPDIF digital source inputs (TOSLINK and three RCA), and a USB digital input up to 96 kHz sampling for computer audio enthusiasts and pros. Analog input is via a pair of unbalanced RCA stereo jacks. The analog signal stays analog all the way to the output.
The DAC1 HDR outputs its analog audio via RCA unbalanced and balanced XLR jacks. Like the DAC1 Pre, the HDR does not have an AES/EBU balanced XLR input, although AES/EBU audio can be fed to the SPDIF input through an 110-ohm to 75-ohm transformer/XLR-to-RCA adaptor. The rear panel also includes a three-position switch for fixed, variable or muted output control for the main outputs.
The front panel includes a rotary input selector knob, which also doubles as push-to-engage, standby switch (the power section and remote IR are still active in standby). Blue LEDs indicate which input is active.
The much-requested, remote control offers the following functions: input, volume up/down, mute, and “soft dim” audio mode for those pesky TV commercials. The user can adjust the “dim” volume setting and the “normal” volume settings independently, and the DAC1 HDR will remember each of those mode’s volume settings.
The remote control worked fine during my test, but I wish Benchmark had spec’d a nicer unit; the small, plastic, plain-jane remote is nothing fancy. Most of my remote-capable, audiophile products have beautifully constructed, beefy-metal remote chassis and big solid-feeling buttons. Although perfectly adequate for function, the remote’s look and feel does not equal the pedigree and price of the DAC1 HDR.
In defense of his remote, Benchmark President/Chief Design engineer John Siau said the extra investment for the DAC1 HDR was focused on the internal volume control and maintaining a transparent audio signal path, not the remote control chassis.
“A metal remote would have added significant costs without improving audio quality.” Siau said. “We invested money in the audio path rather than on the remote control housing. Competitors have implemented cheap IC-based analog or digital volume controls and invested money in a fancy remote.”
My test unit came in the attractive audiophile silver finish that is my favorite among the finish options (black is the other option). Benchmark includes its customary, detailed manual with pages of measurement specs and technical digression on its internal design. The box also includes the power cord, remote, batteries and extra fuses.
I connected it to a variety of digital and analog sources, including the Esoteric DV-50 universal players, a MacBook Pro laptop, and a TASCAM HDP-2 high-resolution FLASH recorder/player. I monitored through Legacy Focus 20/20 tower speakers in the main system and also listened through AKG K701s for headphone amp testing.
All source components were connected via Kimber Cables, and the speakers were linked to a Pass X350.5 amp using Alpha Core solid-silver speaker cables.
I first auditioned the Lawrence Juber — Guitar Noir DVD-A (AIX Records) through the DV-50, feeding the DAC1 HDR. This 24/96 jazz guitar album is impeccably recorded. Being extremely familiar with the music, I could immediately tell through the headphone amp and AKGs that the remote control DAC1 HDR sounded exactly like the DAC1 Pre.
The new volume control does not change the sound at all; it offers the same excellent audio as the Benchmark DAC1 Pre.
I compared it to the sound of my original DAC1 from 2002; it was close, but the original DAC1 was a smidgen less open on the transients than the DAC1 HDR and DAC1 Pre. If you have an old 2002-2003 era DAC1, maybe its time to get a new one with a remote control.
Through the USB and TOSLINK ports from my MacBook or the SPDIF input from the TASCAM HDP-2, all my recordings of acoustic guitar and jazz guitar cuts from my pro rig — sounded first rate. There’s a reason why so many pros use Benchmark D/As — accurate rendering of the digital PCM recordings with wide, deep and detailed imaging, and a total lack of harshness.
Functionally, the remote control worked flawlessly, and I liked the “soft dim” memory function that remembers where you set the lower level every time you push it. And there was no extraneous IR noise coming through the audio system, which I have heard from other remote products when pushing the buttons.
The DAC1 HDR is, essentially, a DAC1 Pre with a remote control and an upgraded motorized volume control — with the same superlative sound quality. If remote control is paramount to your audio listening routine, its worth the additional. $300. Come on if you can pay $1,600, you can pay $1,900. The remote ain’t nuthin’ fancy, but it does the job. Now, if Benchmark would would only make a version with balanced analog input. Hmm, I see a new model coming soon...the John Gatski signature version! Just kiddin'.
Visit the company web site at www.benchmarkmedia.com