Professional music studios can be crazy confusing – even if you think you know your audio. Ask a stressed-out sound engineer (is there any other kind?) what a particular piece of gear does, and you’d better be prepared for a long dissertation on routing functionality and transient dynamics. And you’re more likely to find a calm sound engineer than you are to find a piece of equipment that crosses over into the home space. Headphones are one thing, but getting an amplifier or a DAC that can pull double duty in both environments is very, very rare. The Benchmark DAC3 HGC is one of those pieces of equipment. But how successful is it? And if you need to know a bit about audio tech to use one, is the sound it rewards you with worth it?
We don’t normally start off a review by talking about the accessories that come with a piece of equipment, or the box it comes in. In this case, we’re going to make an exception, and we’re going to do that because of one particular accessory: the manual. Please keep reading. This isn’t going to be nearly as boring as it sounds, we promise.
The Benchmark DAC3 HGC – which is a combination headphone amp, Digital-to-Analogue Converter (DAC) and preamp – has perhaps the most comprehensive manual we’ve ever seen. Not to say intimidating. It covers not only every single eventuality and situation in which the DAC3 could conceivably be used, but also includes a wealth of technical information, from jitter tolerance to total harmonic distortion graphs. It’s the kind of information that only a very small fraction of people would ever possibly be able to use, let alone understand.
We don’t mean this as a negative. If you know what to do with it, this kind of stuff is all very useful. But even a short page through the manual primes you for what kind of experience this is going to be: a complex, technical one, that is going to require a little bit of work to get things the way you want them. Plug and play this is not. In a way, it’s a little refreshing. Although we love the fact that so much audio gear is easy to set up and run, it’s refreshing – even startling – to encounter something that takes a little bit of work.
Having said that, it’s relatively easy to actually connect up. The DAC is a small, compact box with black housing and a metal front plate, one that is clearly been designed for insertion into a studio rack but which is equally at home sitting on a shelf next to a pair of headphones or a set of speakers. Round the back, you get two balanced XLR outputs, and two unbalanced RCA outputs. You also get analogue, digital and coaxial inputs (two of each) as well as a 12V trigger. There’s also a direct USB input. Everything is clearly-labelled, and there’s no barrier to connecting up just about anything you want. It’s simple, and easy-to-use.
We wish we could say the same about the front-end. This is where things get…confusing.
Good bits first. The sleek metal panel looks and feels great, with an engraved Benchmark logo and buttons that have a pleasing solidity to them. Although the features on the front may prove a bit head scratching at first, things like the Dim/Mute option, which lowers the volume twenty decibels with a single press, prove surprisingly useful. And the DAC3 has just the most fantastic volume control: a machined, motorised metal pot that not only moves on its own when commanded (with a pleasing whirr) but also turns beautifully in the fingers. The DAC3 isn’t the sexiest unit we’ve ever seen from a distance, but it feels premium – and definitely feels like it’s worth the pricetag ($2,195 on Amazon, since you ask).
The twin 6.3mm jacks also offer some smart functionality. Plugging headphones into the left one mutes the XLR and RCA outputs, while using the right keeps all of them active. It’s a nifty, intuitive way of controlling things – although, again, it’s something you’ll have to delve into the manual to figure out. If, by the way, you don’t have need of a headphone amplifier, you can buy the slightly cheaper DAC2L, which offers similar functionality without the HPA2 amp included here.
Unfortunately, the DAC3 falls down in a pretty annoying way. In order to communicate information – the input selected, the firmware version, whether home theater bypass mode is activated – the DAC3 relies on a collection of blinking LED lights on the front. In order to work out what’s happening, you’re constantly having to refer back to that manual, trying to decipher whether a slow-flashing red D1 light is good or bad, or what 2X and 4X actually mean. It slows things down to a crawl, and is the kind of thing that would have been much better as a digital display. To be sure, this would add a little bit to the price, but come on: if you’re in the market for a $2000-plus DAC, then that sort of thing probably doesn’t bother you. In either case, it’s a baffling and befuddling design decision that quickly gets infuriating.
It’s not a deal breaker. While the lights are confusing at first, the manual does clear things up, and if you’re willing to put in the work, you’ll be rewarded. And it does reward tinkering: you can, if you’re so inclined, lift off the top panel and mess around with the amp gain and output jumpers to achieve a desired effect, all of which is covered extensively in – you guessed it – the manual. What it comes down to is that while the design isn’t perfect, its premium enough to satisfy its four-figure pricetag, and intelligent enough to do the things you want it to do.
Benchmark also have a generous warranty policy - one year standard, with five years upon registration. Huzzah!
And here’s the thing. If you persevere, if you stick around long enough to learn the ins and outs of this demanding piece of equipment, you’ll be rewarded with some absolutely jaw-dropping sound.
What the DAC3 provides you with is a collection of individual technologies which, when brought together, create something splendid. Chief among these is the Hybrid Gain Control - the HGC in the name. Without going into the exact nature of the technology behind this, which can be read in full and excruciating detail on the Benchmark website, it uses things like passive attenuators and analogue and digital gain controls to really fine-tune the dynamics of the sound, preserving and presenting them in the best possible light. Add the HGC to a SABRE Pro conversion system, a fine-tuned jitter attenuation system which helps preserve the clarity of the audio, a high-headroom DSP, a harmonic compensation system, a -
Look, we could do this all day. There is an absolutely staggering amount of high-level technology packed into the tiny black box, and what it amounts to is this: glorious audio quality.
Whether we were using it as a preamp, a headphone amp, or a straight DAC, it was nothing but outstanding. What grabbed us, more than anything else, was the clarity and realism. We genuinely felt like we were hearing every single note like it was meant to be heard, with almost no coloration or distortion. That HGC tech preserved the dynamics beautifully, really allowing us to appreciate things like drum rolls and bass drops. Audiophiles talk about blackness, which is in an oblique way of referring to the noise level present when no audio is actually playing: the more silent it is, the more black – and therefore better – it is seen to be. Well, the DAC3 was black as deep space. And it had a soundstage about as wide, too.
Although it worked well in all genres, it particularly excelled at things like heavy metal, offering mids and highs that really allowed the guitars to bite. And again, everything was just crystal clear, with no distortion whatsoever. It got to the point that we were throwing different styles and genres at it, just to see if we could get it to falter. It didn’t. No matter what we tried, the DAC3 never missed a beat.
It’s definitely not going to satisfy anyone who wants a lush, deep tube sound, that’s for sure. But in terms of sheer audio brilliance, there is very little in this price range that can beat it. We tried out with a variety of speakers and headphones, including our standard tester units, the AudioQuest Nighthawk Carbon (full review here) and the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 80 Ohm, and it didn’t put a foot wrong. As far as we’re concerned, it comes as close to flawless sound quality as we’ve ever heard. Certainly, in this price range, it’s among the best currently available. It also has nifty features like a Home Theater Bypass mode, which lets the DAC3 drive the front left and front right speakers of a surround system for stereo recordings, which works very well indeed.
If we had one criticism, it’s that we wish it handled DSD Audio better. While it does take it, it only takes it up to DSD64, meaning anybody after super high resolution audio is probably going to have to look elsewhere. This is a little bit of a shame, but it’s a minor point. For the most part, the DAC3 excels, putting out audio quality that more than justifies its price point. We adored it.
Outside of that wonderfully deep manual (which, thankfully, is available online), the most notable accessory is the remote.
We didn’t like it. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se; it gets the job done fine, with a sensibly-laid-out set of buttons. But you have to make a real effort to push them, as they’re almost flush with the surface, and the whole thing just feels out of keeping with the otherwise excellent overall design of the DAC3. The remote feels…cheap. Like something you’d get to control a second-hand DVD player. Or a motorised bed in a hospital ward.
This is the kind of thing we will never understand. If you’re going to put a huge amount of thought into the design of your equipment, then half-assing something like the remote, which is going to negatively impact the experience, just doesn’t make sense. And it’s the kind of thing that could so easily be sorted out, especially when there are some salutary examples in the same price range, like the slim black cigarette that comes with the Sony TA-ZH1ES (full review here).
Beyond that, accessories are minimal and functional: a few cables, including ones for USB and power. Packaging is the same: efficiency is everything here, with the DAC3 slotted into a foam-lined cardboard box. It’s simple, effective, and gets the job done – albeit in a slightly less premium fashion than we might expect for our $2,000.
There’s no denying that the DAC3 HGC has its flaws. The zillions of blinking LEDs and the cheap, tacky remote definitely detract from the experience. But they don’t do enough to destroy it. This is still a DAC/amp that you absolutely have to try, if only to get a taste of the truly gorgeous sound that it puts out. In so many cases, the smorgasbord of technology shoved into the latest black or grey box can often seem superfluous, or at the very best, too subtle to be noticeable (we’re looking at you, iFi). That’s not the case here. This is technology that you can genuinely hear the impact of, and it makes for a fantastic time.
More importantly, while some might see the amount of time required to get the best of the DAC3 as a negative, we don’t. Yes, it demands a little bit of effort. Yes, it assumes a knowledge level that is way, way above what most of us actually have. But the things you have to work for are often the things that prove worthwhile; it’s why we put up with the fifteen-minute warm-up time of tube amps, because the waiting is part of the fun. And if you like to tinker, if you like to go deep into your equipment, and if you like to have your efforts rewarded, then you are going to want to hear this. It’s spectacular. And even while we were writing this review, we were constantly referring back to the manual to try and figure out if there were things that it could do that were worth mentioning, simply in case we’d forgotten any. That’s a distinct possibility - even now, we’re not entirely sure we’ve covered everything. The DAC3’s range of functionality is just massive.
When we next update our roundup of the best DACs, this is top five. Easy.
- Extraordinary, crystal-clear sound.
- Great build quality.
- Splendid volume knob.
- Rewards exploration and effort.
- Worth the money.
- Befuddling interface.
- Cheap remote.
- Only takes DSD64.
It’s somewhat more expensive than the DAC3, and is more a dedicated headphone amplifier with a DAC added in than it is a versatile multi-function box, but there’s no denying that the TA-ZH1ES is something special. It’s a joy to use, beautifully designed, and absolutely sings with DSD rocketing through it.
Our review said: “Couple this with a good pair of headphones, and a decent source (like the aforementioned DSD, or a turntable, and you’ll have one of the best setups we can think of. We didn’t expect it to be so easy-to-use, either, but it was, and we loved it all the more for that. It might cost four figures, but this is a genuinely extraordinary amp, and one we highly recommend.”
Its design is somewhat more idiosyncratic than the DAC3’s, even taking into account the latter’s blaring whirlwind of lights. But there’s no doubt that this is a superb DAC/amp combo, and one that comes at a slightly cheaper price than the Benchmark model.
While it may be getting a little long in the tooth now, it’s still extraordinary, offering superb sound that is particularly friendly with high-sensitivity headphones. NuPrime aren’t the most well-known of manufacturers, but perhaps they deserve to be. This is an excellent alternative.
In terms of functionality and price, this is probably the closest model to Benchmark’s DAC3 HGC. We prefer the sound of the latter, but there's no question that Mytek make one hell of a DAC - and they're also canny enough to provide a digital display. No blinking LEDs here!
There's an MQA decoder, if you like that sort of thing, plus a phono analog preamp and the ability to take DSD up to 256. Costs a little bit more, but it's excellent. It may also be worth checking out Questyle's CAM800i, another worthy alternative.
|Benchmark DAC3 HGC||$2,195||Yes||SABRE ES9028PRO||Yes||24bit/192kHz|
|NuPrime DAC 10H||$1,795||Yes||SABRE ES9018K2M||Yes||24bit/384kHz|