Most people consider a reference-caliber component to be one that represents the state of the art -- that is, the best there is at present, regardless of cost. That’s one way we look at it here at the SoundStage! Network, but it’s not the only way. There are different reference components for different price ranges -- components that are the best you can get for the price, and so become the standards against which we judge all other components of that type at that price.
Benchmark Media Systems’ line of DAC1 models are such products; in fact, four SoundStage! Network reviewers now own and use at least one DAC1 component in their systems, more than any other single component available, and each has found the Benchmarks’ sound and reliability to be first-rate. The DAC1 models have also remained remarkably consistent for a long time -- a rare thing in the fast-moving DAC market.
The first model in the DAC1 series was the DAC1 itself, which also incorporates Benchmark’s HPA2 headphone amplifier, and at $995 USD remains the least expensive model in the line. SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider reviewed the original DAC1 in SoundStage Hi-Fi in October 2004. Now there are three more DAC1s: the DAC1 USB ($1295), which adds to the DAC1 a USB input for direct hookup to a computer; the DAC1 PRE ($1595), which adds limited preamplifier functionality; and the DAC1 HDR ($1895), which has all the others’ features, as well as a higher-quality volume control and a remote control. And all current DAC1 models are capable of accepting 24-bit/192kHz signals.
The original DAC1 could be considered a reference at its price point, for its combination of price, performance, features, and longevity in the marketplace. But it’s the DAC1 HDR we’ve singled out as a Recommended Reference Component -- it performs exceedingly well in every respect, and its richer feature set increases its versatility and value, despite its being the highest-priced DAC1. Doug reviewed the DAC1 HDR in GoodSound! in June 2010. As he said then:
Evaluated separately or together, the DAC1 HDR’s main sections -- DAC, preamp, and headphone amp -- shared the same sonic character: a bold, dynamic, incisive sound that belied the Benchmark’s small size and light weight. The DAC1 HDR had levels of detail, clarity, and transparency that rivaled those of far more expensive, best-of-breed components. The thing sounded startlingly clear. Whether it was a simply produced recording of an a cappella performance, naturally recorded with space and ambience around the singer; or an in-your-face, hard-driving rock album whose soundscape was a pure studio creation; or a work for full orchestra in which the space the musicians were recorded in stretched from speaker to speaker and then beyond the front wall, the DAC1 HDR had the resolution and precision to convey all of these recordings with tremendous accuracy. This is no surprise, really, given Benchmark’s background in pro audio and their bent toward top-level measured performance, including full-bandwidth reproduction, extremely good linearity, and very low distortion. A colored, "voiced" sound isn’t their thing. The DAC1 HDR sounded extremely controlled and ultraprecise.
Benchmark Media Systems’ DAC1 HDR is a high achiever, but it’s not perfect -- other components beat it in various aspects of sound, functionality, and appearance, though almost always for a much higher price. And that’s the key to the DAC1 HDR’s success in the marketplace, and why we’ve named it a Recommended Reference Component: extraordinary performance and functionality for the price, as well as long-term reliability and consistency that consumers can count on, and that reviewers can confidently recommend and use as . . . well, as a benchmark against which to measure the competition.
Manufacturer contact information:
Benchmark Media Systems
203 E. Hampton Place, Suite 2
Syracuse, NY 13206
Phone: (315) 437-6300
Fax: (315) 437-8119