Benchmark Media DAC3 – The Review

Musical truth…

I began the preview blog of the Benchmark Media DAC3 with the above comment.  It was my thinly veiled intimation as to where the review, this “part 2” blog, is heading…
So, what exactly is musical truth?  The truth is when your senses receive what the artist intended to portray.  When the audio quality gets to your ears at a more accurate level, the groove and emotion of the music improves accordingly, getting you closer to exactly what occurred in the studio or at the live concert, in a blood, sweat and tears kind of way…

Trust me on this one…!
The folks at Benchmark Media, with their background in the recording industry, are driven to get that musical truth into the home with their products.  With the release of the original DAC1 models and the second generation DAC2, Benchmark has been on the bleeding edge of digital technology trends, especially from a price/performance perspective. 

The new DAC3 ups the performance ante with the new ESS Technologies ES9028PRO converter chip, the brain or “centerpiece” of the DAC3.  Utilizing this new and impressive chip, along with other engineering creativity generates improvements in lower THD and noise, reduction in jitter of the digital signal, better harmonic performance and better headroom. 

A quick rundown of the feature set of the DAC3 HGC shows a similar setup to the previous gen DAC2, starting with the clever Hybrid Gain Control, essentially a way to combine volume control in both the digital and analog domains.  Add in Benchmark’s excellent HPA2 headphone power amplifier with 2 headphone outputs, a home theater bypass, configurable digital pass through, 5 digital inputs (1 USB, 2 Optical, 2 Coaxial), balanced and RCA analog outputs…  you have one flexible and capable DAC.
Now that I’ve properly introduced you to the DAC3, you’re probably curious how this little dynamo sounds…

My time spent during the review process consisted of both critical listening as well as casual, a benefit of having my system in a central living area as opposed to a dedicated room off in some west wing.  Of course, room acoustics suffer a bit, but fortunately my wife has green-lighted several décor-friendly moves to eliminate as much unwanted resonance as possible.  The majority of my listening was done with the DAC3 connected directly to my Pass Labs X250.8 amplifier, but you can configure it for use with a preamp or integrated amp if preferred.  As usual, the Feldmann music selection runs the gamut from classical through jazz, R&B, folk, and all the way to Disturbed… er… metal.  I feel strongly that all genres of music are necessary to completely wring out a product. 
The first thing I noticed, in casual listening and without any hours of break-in on the DAC, was nothingness… a vacuum, or if you prefer, a “sonic void”.  There exists no extraneous noise between or behind notes or sounds.  You don’t realize the noise is there until you hear a system without it.  The difference can be illuminating! 

After running the DAC for several days off and on, I spent more time in critical listening mode.   Along with the aforementioned black backgrounds, I became enamored with the transient speed of the Benchmark unit.  Whether the leading edge of the thwack of stick hitting drum, or the decay of a plucked guitar string or cymbal, the DAC3 nailed it with absolute realism.  Harmonic structure also stood out as being properly balanced and sorted, with piano and other stringed instruments fleshed out with excellent presence and weight.  Matt Haimovitz with his baroque cello playing Bach, Emilie-Claire Barlow’s jazz vocal stylings, or Billy Howerdel’s rock guitar work with A Perfect Circle… all presented with nuance, detail and life!
Are there any negatives here?

Nothing that comes to mind.  One could nitpick about the design aesthetic being too utilitarian as opposed to audiophile jewelry, but the build quality is without fault.  You might also find a DAC that has a smidge more soundstage size, but you will likely pay 3 or 4 times as much to get there.  The price/performance ratio of the DAC3 is in the stratosphere...! 
In my time with the DAC3 I kept going back to my musician days, and the time I would spend in the studio.  The immediacy and intimacy of how everything sounded, from single tracks to the completed mix of a song all came to mind.  That says a lot to me about this DAC…!  Musical truth…
Kudos to John Siau and the Benchmark team.  Impressive…!

Review system:
·         Logitech Squeezebox w/custom power supply
·         Parasound Zdac DAC
·         Simaudio Moon P3 preamp
·         Pass Labs X250.8
·         Dynaudio Contour S3.4 speakers
·         Richard Gray power
·         Cables from Transparent and Zu Audio
·         Dedicated 20-amp circuit
·         All music in FLAC format

Marty Feldmann, The Connoisseur, is the highly sought after consultant who assists businesses and individual clients with the acquisition of the finer things life has to offer.  Whether you are planning a weekend getaway to wine country, selecting audio equipment to outfit your home, planning your dream vacation or purchasing your ultimate transportation, Marty is your personal connection to the good life…

Marty can be contacted at:   916.952.9529    Marty@ConnoisseurCorner.com