John Atkinson wrote about the Benchmark DAC3 B D/A processor in March 2023 (Vol.46 No.3):
After I read John Marks’s review of Benchmark Media Systems’ DAC1 D/A processor/headphone amplifier in the July 2003 issue of Stereophile, I bought a rack-mounted version to use for my on-location recording projects. I subsequently wrote, in a follow-up review, that the diminutive Benchmark “punched way above its weight. Its grain-free presentation was accompanied by stable, well-defined soundstaging, and low frequencies that, if not as weighty as [that of my reference, the 18×-the-price Mark Levinson No.30.6], were still full-balanced.”
Benchmark updated the DAC1 by adding a USB 1.1 port that could handle data with sample rates up to 96kHz and bit depths up to 24, but for years I stuck with the original non-USB DAC1 as one of my daily drivers. The DAC1 now resides in our storage unit, as I have been using a succession of D/A processors that offer USB or Ethernet ports, reflecting my increasing use of a computer as the primary source of digitally encoded music.
More than a decade later, Benchmark made a major step forward with its DAC3 D/A preamplifier-headphone amplifier. In November 2017, Jim Austin reviewed the fully loaded HGC version, which featured an asynchronous, 192k-capable USB 2.0 port, S/PDIF, and AES3 inputs that are fully isolated from interface jitter by Benchmark’s UltraLock3 jitter attenuation system, and 32-bit PCM and native DSD conversion using four balanced 32-bit ES9028PRO DAC chips.
Comparing it with his DAC1, Jim was impressed by the DAC3’s sound, as was I by its measured performance. “The Benchmark DAC3 featured extraordinarily low levels of analog noise at its outputs,” I wrote, adding that the Benchmark’s resolution was at least 21 bits. “This is as good as a DAC can currently get!” I concluded.
I never auditioned the DAC3 HGC in my own system, so when I got an opportunity to borrow a sample of the DAC3 B, I eagerly agreed.
The product under review is a stripped-down version of the DAC3 HGC, the B, which is priced at $1799, significantly less than the HGC’s $2299. While it uses the same complement of ES9028PRO DAC chips as the flagship HGC and retains the USB port, the B offers a fixed output level and omits the headphone amplifier, balanced and unbalanced analog inputs, volume, mute, and polarity controls, and the remote control.
I connected the USB output of my Roon Nucleus+ server to the DAC3 B via an AudioQuest JitterBug FMJ. The Benchmark’s balanced outputs were connected to the Parasound Halo JC 1+ monoblocks with 3m lengths of AudioQuest Wild Blue cable. The Parasounds drove the MoFi SourcePoint 10 loudspeakers I reviewed in the February issue.
The Roon 2.0 app recognized the DAC3 as an ALSA device and allowed me to control the playback level. With a 1kHz tone at 0dBFS and Roon’s volume set to 100, the Benchmark’s balanced output level was a very high 12.3V. This is about 10dB too high to be optimal with a typical domestic audio system, though Benchmark says that the DAC3 B is ideal for use with their HPA4 headphone amplifier or LA4 line preamplifier. With the Halo amplifiers set to their lower sensitivity, I set the Benchmark’s volume between 84 and 79 for critical listening, which reduced the output level by 2227dB. I subsequently examined whether the Roon’s volume control was compromising the DAC3’s resolution by using an NHT balanced passive volume control with Roon’s volume set to 100. If there was degradation with Roon controlling the volume compared with the NHT, I didn’t hear it.
I had been using MBL’s network-connected N31 CD player/DAC ($18,680 with Roon Ready module) before installing the DAC3 B. I found that the MBL’s minimum-phase filter gave the best balance between detail and listenability. The MBL offers an excellent sense of drive and low-frequency impact, but when I replaced it with the Benchmark, both these aspects of the music seemed enhanced. Whether it was an orchestral bass drum or a kickdrum, electric bass guitar or acoustic double bass, the MoFi speakers seemed to acquire more low-frequency weight without losing definition. The locked-tight, bass-and-kickdrum groove on a DSD64 file of Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” (from Gaucho, A&M/ Analogue Productions) steamed along like a locomotive. To quote Donald Fagen: “Nice!”
A chance conversation with Michael Fremer just before Christmas reminded me that it had been too many years since I had listened to the groundbreaking 1980 performance of Handel’s Messiah with Christopher Hogwood leading the Academy of Ancient Music from the harpsichord. So on Christmas Eve, I cued up the 24/96 remastered version with Roon (Decca/Qobuz) and sat back to celebrate the season.
As I wrote in my SourcePoint 10 review, the MoFi speakers’ in-room balance has a little too much high-frequency energy. I expected the DAC3’s high resolution to result in a superbly detailed soundstage, but I was concerned that the presentation with these speakers would be on the “ruthlessly revealing” side.
I used to use Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film, pushing it to 800ASA and compensating for the underexposure when I developed it. When the contrast of the original scene was low, this process would result in what is called “Mackie lines” in the print, where the edge sharpness of dark parts of the image is enhanced by a light outline. Some audio products that are described as “revealing” or “detailed” produce a similar effect, subjectively.
With the DAC3 decoding the bits, my attention was held from the opening “Symphony” to the closing “Amen” 136 minutes later. The images of the solo singers, the original instruments, and Christ Church Cathedral Choir were all superbly resolved and stably positioned. The soundstage was deep and stable, the soloists palpable, especially the divine-voiced soprano Emma Kirby in “Thou Art Gone Up On High.” I heard no fatiguing “Mackie lines” in the sound, no thrusting forward of detail. The solo trumpet in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” for example, seemed natural, not thrust forward.
Perhaps there wasn’t quite the sense of ease I had become used to with the MBL processor, but the fatigue-free wealth of recorded detail was a consistent factor in my auditioning of the DAC3 B. That remained true after I replaced the Parasound monoblocks with a Benchmark AHB2 stereo amplifier. (To cope with the DAC3’s high maximum output level, I switched the AHB2’s input sensitivity to the lowest setting.)
I subsequently replaced the 10′ AudioQuest Robin Hood speaker cables with Benchmark’s SpeakON-fitted cables, which had been recommended to me for use with the AHB2; the Benchmark cables use Canare Star Quad conductors. (The 10′ pair of Benchmark cables are priced at $188/pair; the AudioQuest speaker cables they replaced cost more than the DAC3 B and the cables combined, at $2235/pair.) With the Benchmark amps and cables, the balance was slightly lighter, the soundstage somewhat less enveloping, but the overall presentation was still involving. Nice.
I concluded my May 2004 review of Benchmark’s DAC1 by calling it an “audiophile bargain.” The same applies to the DAC3 B. Highly recommended for Class A+ in Stereophile‘s Recommended Components, along with the DAC3 HGC, which Benchmark says sounds identical.John Atkinson
Benchmark Media Systems, Inc.
203 E. Hampton Place, Suite 2
Syracuse, NY 13206
Benchmark DAC3 B
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