Every once and a while a product comes across the bench here that stands out more than the others. While sound quality always king of the castle, occasionally some products will also rise to the top assisted by their complementary virtues like versatility or other non-sonic features. This less glamorous attribute still finds it way to contribute to the overall evaluation and value of many products. Thus is the case with the new Benchmark DAC 2 D ($1,800). It offers up a great sound and an amazing feature set for its price range.
The Benchmark product line is tiered well across the $1k-$2k price range. Entry-level products are paired down versions of the flagships, but the whole line seems thought out in a very budget-conscious, self-aware manner (which can be surprisingly vacant from many audiophile products). The “D” itself is a slightly refined version of the top-tier “HGC” (Hybrid Gain Control). The “D” forgoes two pairs of analog inputs in favor of all digital throughput and drops a substantial $200 in the process. The seeds of value are sown with a simple visual spot check of the inputs and outputs. 5 digital inputs: 2 coaxial, 2 optical, and a 24 bit 192 kHz USB input. 5 Analog outputs: 2 pairs of RCAs, 1 pair of balanced, and 2 headphone jacks. The left headphone jack mutes the mains, while the right can be used in conjunction with another output. Additional adjustments can even be made with jumper changes inside the component. The second optical input can be configured as a pass-through digital output from any of the digital inputs (even USB). This allows the DAC2 to act as a USB converter. Roll in pre amplifier functionality and DSD playback and you have audio reviewers dream. The D is a very versatile piece for any number of component arrangements for both loudspeaker and personal audio.
The DAC1 series gained some notoriety among the Head Fi crowds with its implementation of a well thought out headphone amplifier. The DAC 2 series continues this personal audio tradition and also includes an update to the main processing chip. Benchmark decided to go with the popular and oft-talked-about ESS Sabre ES9018 DAC chipset. And while output from these chips can vary greatly upon implementation, most (if not all) iterations that have come out recently in this price range have turned out favorably.
As the swiss army knife of DACs, the DAC2 impresses as a desktop all-in-one headphone unit. According to the Benchmark website, the headphone output claims a “near zero” ohm output impedance for a superior damping effect. Power was substantial enough to drive the 300 ohm Sennheiser HD650 to ear bleeding levels, albeit a little further up the dial. The branded “HPA2” headphone amplifier actually comes with three gain settings hidden underneath the hood. A jumper change allows for +/- 10 dB swing either direction to customize the output to your headphone of choice. I found normal listening levels to land around 11 o’clock with a pair of Audeze LCD-3 on the factory default middle setting. Even with all this gain at its disposal, the DAC2 D still did an excellent job of delivering a quiet, black background void of any hisses or ground hum.
The casing takes up a unique bible-sized footprint. The D is a perfect size for a desktop junkie, but with looks that could are refined enough to be seen within a full-sized loudspeaker rig. The front and side are comprised of somewhat typical materials for audiophile components in the $1-2k area. Its simplistic approach doesn’t include as much custom machining as you see on the ultra high end of audio, but the unit has it where it counts. The LED-based interface contains all of the pertinent information you would usually find in a well rounded high end DAC and pre amp, but it makes you work a just little harder to figure it all out. A combination of lights lets you know what resolution and bit usage you are receiving as well as what inputs are active. As a whole the experience takes very little to master, but may strike some as less elegant than a full screen layout like the one found on the [Auralic VEGA].
The volume knob features firm resistance and turns automatically with certain settings and volume changes from the remote. The signal to the analog output is variable, but the home theater bypass option jumps the volume control to the appropriate line level automatically when engaged. A soft whirring could be heard from my review sample as it rotated from the designated home theater bypass setting level to the off position as it shuts down. I developed an unusual fondness for this physical/mechanical existence in my time with the DAC2. The knob is unmistakable underneath your fingertips and the build appears rightfully solid. The inclusion of choice features makes this DAC an excellent candidate for pre amp usage, especially considering it comes with a remote (something that is surprisingly vacant from so many good pre amp and DAC or headphone amplifier combinations). But even more than that, the overall design truly calls for attention as a true all-in-one, plug-me-in-and-go device.
As a headphone amplifier, one of the first things you notice when you plug into the D is the bass impact. It is impeccably robust in this regard. A pleasurable, actionable, but never overbearing low end accompanies every song across a wide selection of genres. While the genre band is wide, if you prefer rock or dance, then I would recommend an audition with the DAC2 for headphone listening. Bass drum beats hit with the authority of a live kit or a well amplified show. Pairings with both the HD650 and Audeze LCD-3 were outstanding. The headphone sound is direct and to the point. Treble is noticeably concise, but never brittle. Mids are as enthusiastic as they are detailed. From the headphone output, the “near 0 ohm” amplification lands a little on the cooler side when compared to other amplifiers in this range (including tube technologies). At times it appeared to have more analytical tendencies which pushed it to a somewhat less humid delivery. Overall the HPA2 headphone amplifier on the DAC2 is clean, organized and extremely responsive. But the Benchmark is a digital converter first and foremost, and it would be remiss to not place its transparency in a designated seat on the chopping block. Connected with a wide range of headphone amplifiers, the Benchmark as a source never failed to impress. Its multiple outputs allowed for easy connection to even the ultra high end through its balanced connections (also a good fit for loudspeaker setups). The DAC section produced distinct vibrancy and articulate sonics across the frequency spectrum. For many audiophiles, much more is expected of their products at the $2k range as they make their way upwards through the price points. The Benchmark DAC2 D delivers on expectations based on its DAC section alone – forget about the other features. Pre amp and headphone capabilities are just icing on the audio cake. Lucky for consumers, Benchmark didn’t decide to skimp on the quality of those features either. The nuances are all there in the mix. Listening to the Jimi Hendrix cover of Little Wing from Cheskys record The Ultimate Demonstration Disc Volume 2, the female vocals told the whole story. Smooth, soothing tendencies underscored by an acute attention to dynamics follow the track wherever it led. The sense of closeness with the music that becomes the dragon that audiophiles chase is strongly represented within this singular component. From the surprise splash of a cymbal to the subtle creak of a pianist bench as he prepares to play, all is laid out on the soundstage for amplifiers, loudspeakers and headphones to pick up and run with.
All in all, the Benchmark DAC2 D and the entire Benchmark line have a firm grip on value driven products. While the pricepoint may be out of reach for some, those willing to spend a little more coin are rewarded handsomely for their investments. The Dac section of the D is transparent when held up to the light, and the feature set pushes out value by any means necessary. The little all-in-one unit is extremely successful in all of its endeavors for high quality output, making it a jack of all trades and a master of all as well. Highly recommended.
On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CYNPZOW/