Benchmark DAC3 Review

The DAC3 by Benchmark is the newest entry in a long heritage of digital processing. Obviously now in its 3rd incarnation, the DAC3 takes many queues from the “pro” side of audio, but its contribution to, and response from audiophiles is both significant and noteworthy.

One could almost get lost in the technical specs and updates for a D-to-A converter with as much flexibility as the DAC3. Most worthy of note is probably the updated brains of the unit. The newest Benchmark has been outfitted with the ESS 9028PRO chipset and is capable of native DSD conversion. The website also boasts a feature set with “active 2nd and 3rd harmonic compensation” and “Lower THD+N” over the previous DAC2. Although not directly chip-related, there is also a mention of faster switching between inputs. This comes as a welcome addition for those who intend to use the DAC’s pre amp capabilities and/or direct pairing with Benchmark’s matching AHB2 power amplifier. The designers have long opted for the use of LED indicator lights over a display panel, so owners will still get their feedback via a pretty set of blinking lights instead of a larger readout.

 

There was no delay, or any issues at all with setup. Both the optical and USB connectivity started up without a hitch – no driver installation is necessary for Mac computers. Even though the unit shares a small “half size” rack footprint, the inputs are flushed out and completely fill the back of the bible-size case. The DX version we reviewed is intended for those who don’t need the extra analog inputs that the HGC version offers for $100 more. The DX offers 2 coaxial, 2 optical, USB, and AES as choices for digital inputs with two pairs of SE and one balanced analog out. One of the coaxial connections can also be used as a digital pass-through output with no processing applied (surround formats will pass through, but can’t be decoded from the DAC3). It’s more than most will need, but all the options the demanding market looks for. There are two headphone jacks located on the front panel of the DX, but if you want to save a few bucks you can opt for the headphone-less “L” variant (-$200). The size feels appropriate in a way that makes many other audiophile hardware feel excessive. It can fit on nearly any desktop for all-in-one headphone use and slides in under the television without too much fuss. Having opened many cases during the review process, you would be surprised how densely populated to eerily vacant the innards of HiFi gear really can be. The knob that graces the front panel has a good feel to it as it turns and the texture is fairly aggressive, so there is no way it will slip as it is being used. The knob manually turns when used with the included remote. This rotation is usually accompanied by the sound of a quiet motor running, but nothing that would interfere with day-to-day listening. The DAC is more of a set-it-and-forget it style piece as a traditional two channel source. This time around Benchmark has forgone the home theater bypass setting for a slightly more sophisticated and custom solution. The “calibrated mode” now allows for unique output settings for each digital input along both output buses (Main XLR/RCA and AUX RCAs). From the manual:

“The factory preset calibration is +24 dBu at 0 dBFS on the XLR outputs, and 2 Vrms at 0 dBFS on the RCA outputs. The calibration is adjustable up or down by up to 4 dB in 1 dB steps using internal jumpers. On the XLR outputs the calibration range is +20 dBu to +28 dBu. On the RCA outputs the calibration range is 1.26 to 3.17 Vrms.”

Yes, along with the headphone gain stage, these parameters must be adjusted by removing the lid and setting a pattern of jumpers to a desired location. While this may seem a bit tedious at times, most tech-oriented folk should be able to manage this extra step with little to no issue. The quirk has been established in the Benchmark DAC line from the beginning, so for fans of the brand it should come as no surprise, still it would be nice to see headphone gain as a switch on the front panel. In the case of the output settings, it is very unlikely that the level will need much adjustment after the initial setup. A locked line level output is a good idea for both up and downstream volume control where a preamp is controlling the listening quantity for the latter and something like a phone, computer or streaming software contributes to the former.

The remote is a confident weight in the hand and works as promised for the most part. The flow of the DAC3 DX is very much streamlined for easy use once the initial motions have been made. As previously mentioned, one of the new features for the 3 series is quicker switching between inputs, which is more relieving than one might think for multi source setups. The new lag time is as spontaneous as any well meaning amp, with little wait, clicks or pops to fill the time between USB and optical. The volume control also no longer rotates when engaged into HT/calibrated mode, so users don’t have to wait for the physical knob to catch up to the pre-designated level upon engagement or startup, as was the case with the DAC2.

If you a take step back its easy to see how the Benchmark DAC3 can handle pre amp capabilities just as easily and delicately as its digital duties are executed. Despite the pro styling and design elements, home theater and two channel endeavors are deftly covered much in the same detail-oriented manner as the now-mature conversion capabilities are. It is clearly one of the internal design elements for Benchmark, now offering a matching power amp called AHB2 ($3k) that plugs directly into the DAC3. Loaded into the theater-friendly ELAC UB-5 the pairing made for a very interesting system, one that really didn’t take up much physical space for the power and capabilities held within.

If we had to categorize the sound of the DAC 3 using three words, those words would be precision, precision and precision. Truth be told, the ELAC UB-5 never sounded so good as they do with the DAC3 plus AHB2 combination. That speaks volumes for not only the possibilities for the entire system but even moreso for the specifics of the preamp responsibilities, a category that many DACs attempt to penetrate, but few ever achieve with any sort of above par behavior. No, most DACs sound downright horrible as preamps, but not this fine specimen. Overall the two part rig was so detailed and acute, resolution practically gushed out of the over performing bookshelf with little to no effort. Dynamics were surprisingly tight, quick and responsive in a manner that would make most audiophiles take another look at the “pro” side as a viable category to dip into for some two-channel populace.

The 3’s strength is in its digital prowess. With the upgrade to the ESS 9028PRO things have shifted a bit in the correct direction. Whether those changes be attributed to the chip itself or its implementation the winds are blowing in a most proficient way. While Benchmark has always seen the light in terms of transparency, some of the musical language in the Benchmark DAC2 could occasionally be outspoken by our reference VEGA DAC. Some adjustment in this regard has definitely been addressed as the difference between the two appears much more neck and neck across the board. The DAC 3 can handle it. “It” in this case, being any file, musical genre, task or reproduction. The flipping of 1’s and 0’s pulls out the analytical, and redeems with a fullness and natural delivery of a seasoned, classic audiophile piece.

Once again Benchmark looks to set its namesake on the field of digital conversion. The DAC 3 hits the mark with its acute sound quality and massively diverse application from DAC to pre to monitoring system. Partnered with the AHB2 power amplifier, the system represents a significant powerhouse in a relatively small footprint. While the combined pricetag of over $5k may be out of reach for some, those in the market will find a complete system that pulls together some of the best parts of audiophilia without all the fuss and formality. The DAC 3 DX stands tall on its own. Replacing a previous generation with only a mild bump in cost, the upgrade makes perfect sense from both a technological standpoint and an acoustic one. It weaves itself around many product categories and lands with a solid statement for each. While most surprising may be the pre amp capabilities, the DAC3 would make for a great desktop listening station all on its own. But perhaps its greatest capability is the most obvious, it’s a solid DAC from end-to-end and fine complement to any system needing some additional digital to analog love.

More info: https://benchmarkmedia.com/