Based on the the Benchmark DAC1 USB (last reviewed July '07 PAR), the Benchmark DAC1 Pre gets a set of analog inputs to provide greater utility for those who want to use their DAC as their solo gain device — for digital and analog sources.
According to Benchmark, many of their customers love the sound of the DAC1 USB (or standard DAC1) as a digital converter — with its excellent sounding headphone jack and line out, but they cannot play their analog sources through it. Well, now they can.
The Benchmark DAC1 Pre, priced at $1,595 retail, adds analog input selection (RCA unbalanced only) that bypasses the digital converter to maintain an all-analog signal path through the headphone jack and line out. Like its other siblings (the standard AES/EBU, SPDIF, TOSLink input DAC1 and the DAC1 USB), the DAC1 Pre contains Benchmark's, ultra-low jitter and low-distortion converter that locks in all sampling frequencies 192 kHz and lower to 110 kHz sampling. These converters have proven to be among the best in terms of sonic transparency — especially for the money.
Benchmark sent me one of their silver and black DAC1 Pre units. It resembles the standard DAC1 and the DAC1 USB on the front panel, except for a new knob control for rear-panel input selection. The rotary selector positions are: 1-TOSlink input, 2-SPDIF input, 3-SPDIF input, 4-SPDIF input, USB input, and the Analog inputs. The latter receive their signals from the RCA unbalanced jacks.
Like the other DAC1s, the front panel contains the two headphone jacks and the detented-volume control, but there is no non-PCM status LED. The headphone amp is based on Benchmark's HPA-2 standalone headphone amp, which is one of the best available.
Since the Benchmark DAC1 Pre was primarily intended for the audiophile market, it does not have the AES/EBU digital XLR input (standard on the DAC1 and DAC1 USB), or XLR balanced analog inputs for the straight analog connection. You only get the RCA unbalanced input for line and the SPDIF RCA jack for wired digital input. You do get XLR balanced output.
Although they probably would have to increase its size from the DAC1's half-rack format, I would like to see Benchmark make the DAC1 Pre with AES/EBU XLR digital input, XLR analog input — as well as XLR output — to make it a perfect pro piece.
But because of converter's pristine audio reproduction, as is, with RCA jacks, I believe pros can still use the DAC1 Pre for digital and analog monitoring tasks — minus the XLRs. There are a number of adaptor cables on the market that allow an XLR to mate to a RCA. I used the one from my Lynx L22 PCI card for digital, and it worked fine handling my digital XLR output source machines.
Besides the digital and analog inputs on the back panel, there also is a handy line-out switch that selects between fixed output and variable output level, and one extra click of the switch mutes the line output for exclusive headphone listening.
Internally, like the DAC1 USB and DAC1 Standard, this latest Benchmark has improved line gain stages and and headphone gain to make it easier to drive high impedance loads with out any loss of sonic transparency.
Fast Facts Applications
Studio, Mastering, Broadcast
Analog-to-analog signal path via RCA input jacks; low-jitter 24-bit D/A converter; SPDIF RCA digital input, TOSlink digital input, and USB digital input connections; unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR analog line outupts; high quality headphone amp with two stereo outputs.
Benchmark Media | 1-800-bnchmark | www.benchmarkmedia.com Knowing how good the D/A is with reviews of the DAC1 USB last year, I decided to test the newest feature first. Using Westlake Low PE RCA cables, I found the analog inputs' audio quality (acoustic guitar and jazz guitar) to be outstanding, rivaling some separate analog preamps costing three times the price. I connected the RCA output of my Esoteric Audio DV-50 DSD/DVD-A player and found the DAC1 Pre close to the sound of my reference Legacy/Coda preamp. The analog input's noise performance is excellent — very quiet.
As expected, the Benchmark DAC1 Pre sounds identical to the standard DAC1 and the DAC1 USB — which is excellent. My various 24-bit/96 kHz recordings were detailed, accurate with a wide and very deep stereo image.
If you are satisfied with your connection options on your DAC1 USB or a more recent DAC1, there is no need to upgrade since the sonics are identical. If you have one of the older DAC1s, however, you might want to consider the upgrade a newer one. Although the DAC circuit is the same, the new parts in the analog stage, seems to add a bit more detail out on the edges of the audio transients. The difference was small, but in direct comparison with my original DAC1 from 2002, there was a teeny bit more detail — especially with the headphones.
One other point: I still wish Benchmark would add a power switch to the DAC1s, ADC1 and the HPA-2. I always have to power down my entire strip just to turn off the Benchmarks.
Although not purely a pro device, the Benchmark DAC1 Pre now gives you the option of analog-input monitoring — along with its renowned D-to-A — all in one package.