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Monday, June 17, 2013

Audiophile/Home Recording Review!
Benchmark DAC2 D D/A Converter:
Lower-Cost DAC2 Sheds Analog Imputs,
Retains Sonics, DSD-on-PCM Playback

Benchmark DAC2 D

Price: $1,795
Likes: same great DAC2 sound, less $
Dislikes: no AES/EBU input
More info: Benchmark Dac2 D

by John Gatski

  Based on its highly acclaimed DAC2 HGC DAC, introduced last Fall and reviewed by yours truly, the new Benchmark DAC2-D gives you the same great decoding, headphone amp, and DoP (DSD over PCM) playback; but by eliminating the analog inputs and 12V trigger of big brother HGC, the DAC2 D nets you a $200 savings. Yay!
  With audiophiles and computer audio buffs always looking for better deals, and the fact that foreign-made DACs are putting pressure on US manufacturers, it was smart of Benchmark to find a way to create a lower-priced model.
  For many audiophiles, the analog DAC input is an option that is not always used. Since I have my personal preferences for either my Coda line preamp, Rogue Model 99 Magnum tube stage and or passive, volume control Pass XP-10, I rarely used the analog inputs on my old DAC1 Pre nor do I on the new DAC2 HGC, which I have had since October. And I have never used a 12V trigger to activate a component in a real-world setup, except to see that it works during a review.
  In my opinion, it is more important that the DAC have exemplary decoding, one each of the typical digital inputs and balanced and unbalanced line outputs. And, of course, a great headphone circuit is required.

  Priced at $1,795, the DAC2 D’s performance is exactly the same as the top-of-the-line HGC model — with the Sabre32, eight-channel (summed to stereo) 32-bit DAC (ES9018), DoP DSD conversion, onboard sample rate/word length indicators, UltraLock2 jitter attenuation, and asynchronous USB 2.0 audio.
  As well, the DAC2 D utilizes the high-resolution 32-bit volume control and excellent headphone amp contained in the DAC2 HGC. Other features include polarity switch, home theater bypass (high throughput mode), multiple digital inputs, digital pass-through, and high-efficiency, low-noise power supplies.

The DAC2 D offers the same dynamic accuracy, yet warm, smooth analog character as the "HGC." It just has a few less bells and whistles, but it is lower in price. In my opinion, both Benchmark DAC2s set the standard for today’s full-featured, modular high-resolution audio DAC.

  Although it eschews analog inputs, the DAC2 D still has plenty of connections: two SPDIF RCA inputs, two TOSLink SPDIF inputs, USB input, two sets of analog RCA outputs and a pair of balanced line outs. (The DAC2 Series, however, does not have AES/EBU balanced input). Throw in the ESS Sabre chip, DOP decoding, and one of the few DACs to display both word length and sample rate values, and you have the recipe for a great DAC.
  You can read my detailed rundown on the performance design that went into the DAC2 HGC/DAC2 D in my DAC2 HGC review, but I want to refocus on the the Hybrid Gain Control (analog/digital) volume control, which is key to its sonic signature. My DAC2 HGC review noted the increased smooth ness factor of the DAC2 vs. the old DAC1 series.
  John Siau, Benchmark VP and chief product designer, stresses that the DAC2 HGC’s High-Headroom DSP allows the new DAC2s to deftly handle digital signals as high as +3.5 dBFS, which transmit smoother-sounding audio on maxed digital recordings. According to Siau, most digital systems clip signals that exceed 0 dBFS. For years, he explained, the 0 dBFS limitation seemed reasonable, as 0 dBFS is the highest sinusoidal signal level that can be represented in a digital system.
  However, Siau noted that real-world measurements and math equations show that PCM digital systems can have inter-sample peaks that may reach levels slightly higher than +3 dBFS — though the individual samples never exceed 0 dBFS.
 These inter-sample overs have a negative impact on the PCM interpolation filter, which is a key component of 24-bit DAC performance. The inter-sample overs cause distortion components that are audibly non-musical and harsh under subjective testing; with hot digital recordings, the old DAC1, as good as it sounded, could relay a certain harshness with revved-up recordings.
  “The DAC2 HGC/DAC2 D avoid these problems by maintaining at least 3.5 dB of headroom in the entire conversion system,” Siau noted.
  Another design element that contributes to the DAC2‘s lush analog character, is the volume control. To achieve linear volume control, the DAC2 HGC combines active analog gain control, passive low-impedance attenuators, a 32-bit digital gain control and a servo-driven volume control. All inputs are controlled by the rotary volume control, and the volume control moves in response to commands from the remote control as well.

DAC2 D's lower price means no analog inputs

  According to Benchmark, “analog inputs are never converted to digital, and digital inputs never pass through an analog potentiometer.”
  Speaking of inputs and outputs, the DAC2 D also includes the useful digital output via SPDIF jack. This is done by moving an internal jumper, which turns the Coax 2 Input into the output. You can feed another input, such as receiver, recorder, etc. with the digital output. Just one more DAC2 asset that stays put in the “D” model.
  My silver finish sample looked right at home in an audiophile rack or computer set up, but the DAC2 is perfectly at ease with home recording or pure professional rigs as well. The myriad of digital inputs, analog unbalanced and balanced XLR output, professional grade headphone amp gives it enough features, and the decoding is worlds above many DAC-equipped recording/playback interfaces used by pros. Remember, Benchmark ha always catered to professional recording engineers and broadcasters.

The audition
  I tested the DAC2 D in the same scenario as I tested the DAC2 HGC last Fall. I threw in a few extra components for headphone use. Components included Pass Labs X350.5 amplifier, Coda preamp, MartinLogan Montis electrostatic loudspeakers, Macbook Pro computer, Oppo BDP-105 universal player; for headphone listening, Bryston BHA-1 headphone amplifier, AKG K702 and Shure SRH1840 open phones. I used Wireworld USB and HDMI cables and Alpha-Core solid silver interconnects and speaker cables.

As with the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, the DAC2 D sound quality is A+. Via its headphone amp and line outputs, the sound is ultra-detailed with a wide soundstage — not a hint of harshness. Drums, cymbals, piano single notes and acoustic guitar flat picking are presented in an honest fashion, with instruments perfectly placed in the mix.

  I had several DACs on hand including my Mytek Stereo192/DSD, and a review sample of the new TEAC UD501 for comparative listening. Most of the audio samples were 24/96 or 24/192 kHz. To test DoP playback, I took original recorded acoustic guitar recordings made on a TASCAM DVRA1000 in DSD-64. They were than transferred to computer and played via the Mac through Audirvana playback software.
  As with the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, the DAC2 D sound quality is A+. Via its headphone amp and line outputs, the sound is ultra-detailed with a wide soundstage — not a hint of harshness. Drums, cymbals, piano single notes and acoustic guitar flat picking are presented in an honest fashion, with instruments perfectly placed in the mix. The amount of width and depth contained in hi-res instrument tracks is truly impressive — especially through the spacious character of my MartinLogan Montis electrostats.
  That ultimate smooth factor added that much more to the realistic sheen of my original recordings’ playback. Through my AKG K702 headphones, for example, my Martin acoustic guitar 24-bit recordings were vivid in their presentation The recording rig, without any compression, limiting or multi-track layers, imparts an immediate, live feel to my acoustic guitar recordings; the DAC2 relays the A/D recording, like its big brother, with an enveloping accuracy that was not possible ten years ago from such an affordable DAC.

Dac2 D word/sample rate status LEDs

  Through the MartinLogans, the breadth of the Tom Jung-recorded SACD of Warren Bernhardt So Real, dubbed to 24/192 PCM, filled the room with layers of detail of percussion and piano. Within the playback system, the Benchmark helped make a virtually live performance in my listening room.
  Compared to the Mytek, which uses the same ESS DAC chip, the DAC2 D was a touch warmer via its headphone amps, but via line out they are very similar. (The TEAC was a bit more present in its tone via the headphone and line out, but not quite as smooth on more modulated instruments, such as brass.)
  I have to emphasize how pleased I am that the Benchmark ‘D’ model comes includes the informative word length and sample rate visual indicators — via front panel LEDs, which first appeared on the top model, Dac2 HGC. In my opinion, you need that feature when listening to audio on a computer.
  For example, since the Core audio system on a Mac doe not always follow the playback program’s playback word length/sample rate settings, I have found that the Mac system can inadvertently default to 16-bit and a lower sample rate — without the operator knowing it. Since the Mac sample rate converter kicks in without you knowing it, the music still plays out the analog and digital ports, but it can be dumbed down to 16/44.1 — even if the recording is 24/96.
  With the Benchmark digital status indicators, the DAC2 D reveals the true digital output of the source — computer or another player. For example, its indicators showed me that the Oppo BDP-105 no longer supports full 24/192 SPDIF output from commercial DVD-As. All you get is 16/48 from a DVD-A via the SPDIF.

The verdict
  In essence, the DAC2 D offers the same dynamic accuracy, yet warm, smooth analog character as the "HGC." It just has a few less bells and whistles, but it is lower in price. In my opinion, both Benchmark DAC2s are the standard for today’s full-featured, modular high-resolution audio DAC. The DAC1 personified the DAC world in the early 2000s, but the DAC2 rules today. Like its big brother the DAC2 D receives an enthusiastic Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award

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Anonymous said...

Hello, I believe the rear panel picture in the article shows the DAC2 HGC (with analog inputs) and not the D model which, as you noted, has no analog inputs.

John Gatski said...

Mr. Anonymous:
You were indeed correct. I fixed it. Thanks. The DAC2 D is the Benchmark I use in the reference system.

John Gatski