Dr. Perry Alexander

The University of Kansas

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Benchmark DAC1 HDR

About 6 months ago Benchmark made me a sweet deal to upgrade my original DAC1 to a DAC1 HDR. I’m a huge fan of my DAC1, but passed on the original offer. I had just made a serious investment in amp, preamp, and home theater processor and just couldn’t justify one more purchase. This week I got a chance to revisit the offer and with some hesitance took them up on it.

The new DAC1 arrived today and it’s now successfully installed in my main system. Unboxing revealed a device that is nearly indistinguishable from my original DAC1 from a distance, but a closer look reveals some nice features that I’ll touch on in a moment. It took about 5 minutes to get everything hooked up and I was ready to go for an initial listen.

First the sonics. There is a definite improvement over the original DAC1 that is not at all subtle. The separation among instruments is definitely improved and is something I care a great deal about. The original DAC1 had this as one of its strengths, so improving was no small task. Also important to me is the speed of a stereo. What I mean by that is how quickly an attack occurs at the beginning of a note and now quickly it ends. Instruments like acoustic guitar and bass, acoustic piano, and drums require speed to reproduce effectively. There’s nothing worse than cymbals that don’t sound like cymbals - a surefire test for a bad system. After listening to Lambchop’s latest and Ari Hoering I’ve noticed a substantial improvement in speed and the ability to reproduce acoustic instruments generally. Again, this was a strength of the original DAC1, so improvement here was not easy. I am exceptionally pleased with the sound of this DAC and would be happy if that was all the upgrade did. I’ll report back further when I’ve have more listening time.

Other improvements include some nice new functionality. First, Benchmark has added a USB input, 3 additional digital inputs, and kept the single optical input. There’s also a new analog input pair as well. What this does is makes the DAC a digital input source selector. I’ve wanted this capability for a long while. I have 3 digital sources that I want to switch between. The old DAC1 (and every other DAC I’ve owned) made this difficult. The addition of a remote and 6 different inputs (USB, 4 digital, 1 analog) means that I can run all of my digital sources and choose them using my universal remote. Way cool.

The DAC1 also functions as a pre-amp if you want it to. I don’t use this feature, but the addition of an analog input makes the original system even more useful. The DAC1 has a wonderful headphone output (also something I don’t use much). The volume knob makes this a sweet little digital pre-amp. A switch on the back allows you to choose to go around the volume and generate line out, include the volume knob and have a preamp, or mute the whole thing and have a headphone amp. If you buy one of these, just keep in mind that it comes set in preamp mode. This caught me off guard when I didn’t get any sound out when I first hooked it up - I’m not used to a volume knob on my DAC that controls output. A quick switch flip configured the device how I wanted it.

All-in-all, 3 hours after plugging the device in I’m pretty darned happy. The DAC1 HDR is not a cheap device, but I’d challenge you to find something as good for the same money or less. My old CAL Alpha comes as close as anything, but CAL is long gone thanks to some dip wad consumer audio company - GoVideo - who swore they would leave them alone after buying them. Right. Living well is the best revenge, so my DAC1 makes me even happier.