The Benchmark DAC3 HGC – A New Standard in Transparency and Resolution

I’ve been a longtime follower and fan of Benchmark’s products. When the DAC1 was introduced it caught many audiophiles totally off guard. Traditionally a Pro-Audio company, the engineers at Benchmark came out with a Digital-to-Analog Converter that became the standard for audiophiles everywhere. The DAC1 was one of the first DACs to offer USB support and a dedicated built-in headphone amplifier. Coming from a Pro-Audio background, Benchmark’s “in-house sound” has always been, “no in-house sound whatsoever”. What I mean by that statement is that I’ve always found Benchmark’s products to impart little of their own character into the music. Especially the DAC2 HGC (and now the DAC3 HGC), I’ve found these DACs simply get out of the way and let the music flow through just as the artists had intended; regardless of the digital input (USB, SPDIF or Toslink). Very much like my HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 headphone amplifier, the Benchmark DAC3 HGC is like an open window into the recording to which you are listening. Immediately upon opening the box, the build quality of this high end item really jumped out at me. The DAC3 HGC may be small, but it is so very well built and the engraved “Benchmark” brand on the front face-plate is the finishing touch on this brilliant looking unit. Unlike many DACs I’ve used and reviewed through the years, the DAC3 HGC comes with a very well built and highly functional remote controller. The newly released flagship DAC3 HGC by Benchmark really impressed me from the unboxing; and all before I actually put it into my home setup.

The DAC3 HGC continues in the already very strong tradition of Benchmark’s previous offerings. Everything from native DSD support to full balanced operations (an ES9028PRO chip with 4:1 channel summing to reduce distortion to their lowest levels yet) is included with the new DAC. Four balanced DAC channels are summed together to create each balanced analog output. This ratio of 4:1 summation provides a whopping 6dB of noise reduction. Styling is very much in line with the Benchmark line up of digital-to-analog converters and really has an understated level of elegance that really shines. Internal digital processing to 32 bits (included with this processing an additional 3.5dB of headroom above 0dBFS). This added headroom prevents DSP overloads that commonly occur in other DACs. The full list of specifications are:

AUDIO PERFORMANCE
THD+N, 1 kHz at 0 dBFS -113 dBFS, -113 dB, 0.00022%
THD+N, 1 kHz at -1 dBFS -114 dBFS, -113 dB, 0.00022%
THD+N, 1 kHz at –3 dBFS -119 dBFS, -116 dB, 0.00016%
THD+N, 20 to 20 kHz test tone at –3 dBFS -113 dBFS, -110 dB, 0.00032%
DIGITAL AUDIO INPUTS
Number of Digital Inputs (switch selected) 5 (1 USB, 2 Optical, 2 Coaxial)
Number of Channels 2
Input Sample Frequency Range 28 to 210 kHz (Coaxial)

28 to 96 kHz (Optical)

44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz (USB)

Digital Input Impedance 75 Ohms (Coaxial Inputs)
Jitter Tolerance

(With no Measurable Change in Performance)

 

>12.75 UI sine, 100 Hz to 3 kHz

>1.5 UI sine at 20 kHz

>1.5 UI sine at 40 kHz

>1.5 UI sine at 80 kHz

>1.5 UI sine at 90 kHz

>0.25 UI sine above 160 kHz

Jitter Attenuation Method Benchmark UltraLock3™ – all inputs
BALANCED ANALOG OUTPUTS
Number of Balanced Analog Outputs 2
Output Connector Gold-Pin Neutrik™ male XLR
Output Impedance 60 Ohms (Attenuator off)

425 Ohms (Attenuator = 10 dB)

135 Ohms (Attenuator = 20 dB)

 

UNBALANCED ANALOG OUTPUTS
Number of Unbalanced Analog Outputs 4
Output Connector RCA
Output Impedance 30 Ohms

 

HPA2TM HEADPHONE OUTPUTS
Number of Headphone Outputs 2
Output Connectors ¼” TRS with switch on left-hand jack
Output Impedance < 0.11 Ohms
Output Level Control Stereo Control on Front Panel
Output Level Range (at 0 dBFS) into 60-Ohm Load Off to +21.5 dBu (9.2 Vrms)
Output Power 1.25 W into 30 Ohms
Maximum Output Current 250 mA
Overload Protection (independent per channel) Current limited at 300 mA, Thermal
Bandwidth > 500 kHz, -0.35 dB at 200 kHz
THD+N at 20 mW -108 dB (0.0004%) into 300 Ω, -100 dB (0.0010%) into 30 Ω
 

 

With asynchronous USB, the DAC3 offers jitter reduction by transferring the data to a buffer and then transfers this asynchronously to the D/A conversion sub-system. This secondary asynchronous transfer eliminates any traces of jitter that accumulates as the data is transferred between the USB and conversion subsystems. UltraLock3TM   provides a new system lock that reacts instantaneously to incoming digital signals (< 6ms). The full list of improvements of the DAC-3 to the DAC-2 are:

  • Active 2nd Harmonic Compensation
  • Active 3rd Harmonic Compensation
  • Lower THD+N
  • Lower passband ripple
  • Improved frequency response
  • Faster PLL lock times
  • Faster switching between input signals

There are a few different versions offered by Benchmark for the DAC3, the one used in this review is the HGC version with Hybrid Gain Control ($2195US). The DAC3 DX is very similar to the HGC version, but with no analog inputs ($2095US) and finally the DAC3 L is purely a stand alone DAC without the headphone amplifier option. But as I’ve come to find out, unless you are purely a “speaker kinda guy/gal”, I would strongly recommend you pick up a DAC3 with this most excellent headphone amplifier!

For the purposes of my review, I used the Benchmark DAC3 HGC in several different settings as a standalone digital-to-analog converter and as a combination headphone amplifier and DAC. My prime sources were CDs played from my Cambridge Audio CD650 Azur CD player, high resolution music from my iMac (including 192kHz & DSD files played through Audirvana 2), and streamed music via Tidal HiFi and Tidal Master level quality material. Having several great flagship headphones on hand, I literally threw everything I had at them from the most excellent and transparent Focal Utopias all the way to my electrostatic Stax SR-009s. I even used some of the IEMs I had on hand, like my Empire Ears Zeus -R ADEL, Westone W80 and Campfire Vega in-ear monitors. With everything I threw at the Benchmark DAC3 HGC, this wonderful unit not only performed well, but truly excelled in terms of outstanding clarity, transparency and class leading detail resolution.

My first serious listen to the Benchmark DAC3 HGC occurred after a solid 2 weeks of use. For this session, I used the DAC3 HGC exclusively as a digital-to-analog converter and fed my electrostatic Cavalli Liquid Lightning amplifier and flagship Stax SR-009 headphones. My two primary sources were CDs played from my Cambridge Audio 650C Azur player and Audioquest Toslink cable, music from Tidal (Hifi and Masters) streamed via USB (Audioquest Carbon USB cable) and high resolution PCM and DSD files played via Audirvana 2 (also via USB). One thing that continually impressed me about the DAC3 HGC is the extremely high level of resolution that this DAC is able to achieve. It is a detail monster and renders even the smallest nuances within a recording that will leave you speechless. The SR-009/LL match is likely the very best at fleshing out every detail from a recording, but when coupled with Benchmark’s newest offering, I was shocked at all the little details that so many of my previous DACs seemed to gloss over. Everything from hearing kd Lang’s lips open immediately prior to her singing in “Hymms from the 49th Parallel” to John Bohnman’s foot tapping as he struck the pedal on his bass drum on Led Zeppelin’s “In Through the Out Door”. The amazing thing with this extremely high level of resolution and detail retrieval, the DAC3 HGC never came off as “clinical”, but rather retained an incredibly high level of musicality and transparency both at the same time; a rare feat indeed!

When listening to the David Chesky 192kHz PCM recording of “Primal Scream” with this setup, I was hooked from the first few minutes. The extremely transparent nature of the DAC3 HGC was an open window into the recording. The tonal balance of the DAC3 was absolutely dead flat to my ears. Nothing was accentuated, but rather the bass/mids/treble perfectly flowed together without any area of concern. In fact, in terms of frequency response, I would rate the Benchmark DAC3 HGC as the most “neutral” and “get out of the way” DACs I’ve come across. If you are looking for a DAC that doesn’t impart any of its character into the recording, the DAC3 HGC is for you! Everything from kd Lang’s vocals, to the bass notes to the cymbals were all perfectly laid bare and in almost perfect proportion to each other with the DAC3. Throw in the amazing resolution that this DAC provides and you will be shocked at both what you are hearing currently and what you previously missed with other digital to analog converters.

Next up, I decided to use the DAC3 HGC as a combination DAC + Headphone Amplifier. For these tests, I decided to use 3 headphones specifically due to their vastly different amplification requirements. The relatively newly released Focal Utopia headphones have taken the world of personal audio by storm and I’ve found them both incredibly balanced sounding and revealing of both the upstream amplification and source. Their relatively low 80 ohms and very reasonable efficiency of 104 dB/mW, they may seem relatively “easy to drive”, but getting the proper timbre and tone with just any old amplifier can be a challenge. Conversely, the 300 ohm Sennheiser HD800S headphones can be even more challenging to drive as they can come off on the brighter and thinner side of things if you have any issues upstream. The third pair of headphones that I used for this test are the relatively power hungry Audeze LCD-4 orthodynamic headphones. Orthodynamic headphones tend to always sound their best when supplied with plenty of power and this has never been more apparent than with these 200 ohm headphones and only a 97 dB/mW efficiency. For this series of listening sessions, I decided to use yet another David Chesky recording: the DSD version of “The Jazz Side of the Moon”. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” is likely my favorite album of all time. This version is a very clever take on that brilliant recording, but as the title strongly suggests, it is a jazzy rendition of this Pink Floyd opus. The dynamic range contained within this Chesky recording is quite wide and if a headphone amplifier isn’t up to the task, it is rather simple to pick up on and note the areas were the recording seems to run out of steam. The headphone amplifier section can be set to one of three gain settings (0 dB, -10 dB, or -20 dB). This ability to “dial-in” your gain setting is ideal to allow the HPA2TM  headphone amplifier power anything from sensitive IEMs all the way up to some of the most power hungry full sized headphones you can throw at it. But the downside, is that this adjustment is made with internal jumper settings that require you to take off the cover (via four easily accessible screws) and make the change over. While simple enough, I would have preferred that this ability be brought to the front face-plate to allow for an easier gain setting change on the fly as you change headphones or in-ear monitors.

The Focal Utopia headphones were brilliant with this combination. In fact, this was as good as I’ve ever heard them. The headphone amplifier (HPA2TM) very much reminds me of the most excellent HeadAmp GS-1. This headphone amplifier sold for $1000 when it was available and offered incredible drive, control and transparency. The HPA2 is very much in that same vein. Just as with my HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 (the balanced and upgraded version of the GS-1), the amplifier section on the Benchmark DAC3 HGC is a “get out of the way and just add gain to the signal” type of amplifier. Very similar results were attained when I plugged in my 300 ohm Sennhesier HD800S headphones. The utmost in clarity and transparency could easily be heard. In fact, when playing Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”, the initial bass drum thumps were forceful, very well defined and incredibly tight! The bass is so well controlled that it offers just the right amount of decay on the recording; never more. Bass notes don’t overly linger and smear the presentation, but what you get is a very well defined and clean sound with incredible instrumental separation. Back to The Jazz Side of the Moon, the soundstaging of the Benchmark DAC3 HGC was outstanding. Each player was clearly defined in that soundscape and they never overlapped into each other. Listening to David Chesky’s take on “Money” with the Audeze LCD-4s revealed that the DAC3 was fully up to the task to not only properly power these power hungry headphones, but offer outstanding definition, clarity and class leading resolution. The amplifier section of the DAC3 HGC  (like the DAC section) was able to dig to the lowest depths of the recording and pull out the smallest of the smallest details and render them in a way that never came off as clinical. From the individual string picks by the musicians’ fingers to the very slight top taps on the stage; they were all there and this only helped to transport me in time and space to the actual recording of this album! The musicality of this brilliant recording was laid bare and the headphone amplifier section was able to drive the LCD-4s with full authority. Something I felt the significantly more expensive Chord Hugo TT (and DAVE for that matter) never could fully do and required a separate amplifier to get the most out of these headphones. But the 1.25W on board the DAC3 HGC were more than enough to play even the most demanding of recordings.

Next up, I added my HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 ($2999 USD) balanced headphone amplifier to the DAC3 HGC. In between these two outstanding units, I used the Audioquest Water XLR balanced cables and the same headphones as in my previous sessions; but this time with balanced connections in order to use the full 5.5W on tap from the GS-X Mk2. With two of my favourite Patricia Barber albums on tap (Cafe Blue and Companion) via 192kHz USB to the DAC3 HGC, I was off to the races. Almost immediately I was struck how similar this combination sounded to the DAC3 HGC used as a stand alone DAC/Headphone Amp combination with the lower impedance dynamic headphones like the Focal Utopias or Sony MDR-Z1Rs! Simply amazing that the designers at Benchmark added a headphone amplifier in this already small package that was able to drive so many different headphones so very well and all with very different power requirements. In fact, not just drive them very well, but compete with stand alone headphone amplifiers costing over $1000 US! Again the DAC3 HGC did not fail to impress! Patricia’s voice was as sultry and life-like as I’ve ever heard it and in a major thanks to the DAC3 HGC, the level of detail extraction gave me goosebumps! This is what HiFi is about for me; an incredibly clean sound with superb instrumental separation and clarity, wonderfully rich and detailed mids, stupendously good treble extension, and world class sound staging. The Benchmark DAC3 HGC never failed to impress with either of these recordings and regardless of the headphones used! Sure the LCD-4s did sound a bit more “open” when run with the full might and power of the GS-X Mk2 and the 5.5 W behind it when compared to single-ended mode straight from the DAC3 HGC, but that’s nitpicking in my opinion as these headphones are quite unique in their hunger for power. But overall I was thoroughly impressed using the DAC3 HGC in both DAC only and DAC/Headphone Amp modes! Talk about win-win!

I was so very and thoroughly impressed with Benchmark’s DAC3 HGC, that it is going to be very hard to send back to Benchmark! In fact, I’m already deciding what to sell off in order to keep this wonder in my setup! Bringing the improvements of the new ESS Sabre chipsets to market and talking full advantage of what those improvements were was no small feat, but the engineers and designers at Benchmark have done just that as evidenced by my time with this DAC. Don’t let the addition of the headphone amplifier section fool you; it is not just a throw in, but rather a very well designed and robust amplifier that competes with the very best out there and many costing more than $1000 US. The small form factor will fit any rack or desktop setup you can conceive; whether using the DAC3 HGC for headphones or speakers, it will offer world-class transparency, detail and clarity. If you are in the market for a digital-to-analog converter or DAC/headphone amp combo, I strongly suggest you consider the Benchmark DAC3!

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