IntroductionHardly the newest DAC on the block I was enthusiastic to hear the DAC3 as I haven’t heard a Benchmark DAC since the originally released DAC1. At that time, I bought the Benchmark rather than the Chord DAC64, which I felt was equally as good but rather more expensive. The comments that I read on the Naim forum about the DAC1 were less than stellar, so I took mine down to my local Naim dealer, who let me play for a few hours in their dem room. I set it up in a 282, Hicap, 250 system into Focal speakers; I could now understand the comments I was reading. Synergy counts. I wondered how the Benchmark DAC3 HGC would play with my 300DR & SBLs.
The Benchmark DAC3 HGC’s full specs can be found HERE.
For most items I review I do not include a technology section, mainly because what interests me is the sound quality I can hear, not read about the stunning signal to noise ratio. I frequently make an exception for Benchmark as they have an approach and attention to detail that I appreciate.
This DAC is built around the Sabre ES9028Pro chip, which when this DAC was originally released was probably the latest and greatest thing, this does not deter me in any way. Implementation and design are far better assurances of sound quality than cutting edge technology. Some of my favourite DACs are positively antediluvian in comparison with this Benchmark. Originally released in 2015 this chip was last updated in 2020. The full skinny can be found HERE and HERE
I won’t go into any detail about the DAC as the horse’s mouth on this can be found via the spec link above. It all reads very impressively. What I do want to cover a couple of the major features:
- Pre-amplifier & Hybrid Gain Control
The Benchmark DAC3 HGC is named for this. Having a good quality pre-amplifier built in is a great feature, especially when combining digital AND analogue inputs, this is TRULY useful. Benchmark has gone further by using two different schemes for volume control, bit decimation for digital, starting at 32-bit, and a traditional analogue preamp; both working through the same volume control.
As you switch between inputs the volume control moves to return to the last position you used for this device; very nice.
- Home Theatre Pass-through
This is something I need, but the implementation here is first rate. You can apply pass-through to ANY input. This allows the volume to be controlled by an upstream device, in my case, this was a Lexicon MC10.
The USB input on the Benchmark DAC3 does date the DAC somewhat. Natively it will work at a maximum of 24/96 with a Windows-based PC. If the driver is loaded this goes up to 192/24 and also allows DSD via DoP, but only up to DSD64. As I don’t use a PC as my source this didn’t impact me. I find either my dCS Network Bridge or Meridian 210 gives me a better source than a computer without a LOT of detailed effort.
The one disappointment for me is that, unsurprisingly, there is no dual spdif input, which would make it an ideal partner for my Chord M-Scaler. Hey, I can dream!
We are about to find out whether the well-documented Benchmark technical feats make an aural difference!
Test TracksThe tracks were selected to allow:
- Comparison of local and Qobuz sourced versions of the same tracks;
- Comparison of standard and remastered versions of the same track;
- The presentation of uncompressed LP rips served digitally;
- The presentation of vinyl played via my turntable;
- Comparison of older and modern tracks, with their different mastering priorities;
- How problem tracks and LPs were presented.
Nearfield Playlist: https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/9987268
Main System Playlist: https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/12562415
My local files are held in FLAC on a Synology NAS and served up by Minimserver. The files are transcoded to WAV and upscaled, 44.1 > 88.2kHz and 48 > 96kHz.
I use Qobuz as my streaming service.
The instructions for setting up the Benchmark DAC3 HGC are straightforward and well written.
In the context of my nearfield system, I replaced my usual Chord Hugo TT with the Benchmark DAC3 HGC. The Benchmark is a more complete pre-amp than that in the Hugo as it accepts analogue devices. Several years ago I spent time looking for this type of product in the hope of removing an ‘unneeded’ box from my system; I ended up buying a Bel Canto 3.5vbs DAC, this was the only product I could find that matched my requirement, having a single analogue input. In the event, the included pre-amp in the Bel Canto was rather disappointing, but not so with the Benchmark DAC3 HGC.
I am currently comparing a pair of Falcon LS3/5a with the Sound Artist (faux) LS3/5a. As the Falcons were in situ they remained for this review. The Benchmark DAC3 HGC worked well with the Falcons. The sound was well balanced, detailed and dynamic. It never veered into the sharp.
As a system, I found the addition of the Benchmark DAC3 HGC with the Falcon LS3/5a gave me a system that drew me in. I found my attention drawn into the music as excitement and drama built, and as that musical climax was completed interest was held. This was the best musical experience I have had from my nearfield system.
Angel, Mezzanine, Massive Attack, Qobuz, CD
The ‘massive’ bass is not on the scale of larger speakers but this system still manages to give you the feel for what is intended, the kick of the bass notes works. The macro-dynamics of the track as it builds in intensity and then backs off is present and correct. Nice grip and presentation of detail.
Killing Me Softly with his Song, Killing me Softly, Roberta Flack, Qobuz, CD
Flack was well presented, as were the reverb enhanced backing singers. As with the Sonus Faber Lumina Is the count in of the backing singers. This was detailed without distracting from the music.
Gladiator Medley, Live in Prague, Hans Zimmer, Qobuz, 2448
No small speaker will fully present this album's enormous scale, but the Benchmark and Falcons did an excellent job of giving you some feel, whilst presenting lots of detail of the constituent parts.
Headphone AmpI listened to the Benchmark DAC3 HGC as a headphone amp via my Quad ERA-1 Planars. This was a pleasurable experience. I listen to the Chord Mojo for extended periods every week, the Meridian 210 / Benchmark DAC3 HGC is a better source than the diminutive Chord Mojo. The music is better balanced and has more detail, without thrusting that in your face. So how would the DAC3 measure up against the Chord Hugo TT?
I played a wide range of music on both pre-amp/DACs. The Chord was a tad better at presenting problematic files, such as the 2017 9624 version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Big Love’; this display sibilant Ss, also present in another of my much-used problem files, 10cc’s ‘Rubber Bullets’. Other than the minor difference in the handling of problem files these two headphone amps went toe to toe. I could use either with much pleasure.
My approach was to work through the Benchmark’s features in my main system in the following order:
- Full pre-amp & DAC fed by my Chord M-Scaler;
- Set it in DAC only mode fed by my M-Scaler & Icon 4 pre-amp; and
- DAC only fed by my Icon 4.
This allowed me to get a feel for how the Benchmark DAC3 HGC performed in comparison to my Chord Qutest and Icon 4 passive pre-amp; could it upset my system apple cart?
Having set up the pre-amp section with Home Theatre passthrough for Analogue 1 and the M-Scaler into Digital 4 I was always re-assured by the movement of the volume control into the last used position. I had to reduce the output of the Chord M-Scaler to 192 kHz/24 bit, as this was the maximum accepted by the Benchmark.
For the next few days, I was very happily entertained by the musicality of the system, both as a part of my AV setup and as a source of digital music and from my turntable. This said the soundfield, musical detail and bite were somewhat less than I was used to; but we are talking about small degrees.
Placing the Benchmark into DAC-only mode, or COMPATIBILITY mode, and re-introducing my usual Icon 4 passive pre-amp raised the musical capabilities of the system. In saying this I would like to highlight that the Icon 4 is an autoformer passive. This and the Townshend Allegri are two of the very best passive pre-amps I have heard. While the Benchmark DAC3 HGC pre-amp may not be quite in this class it is one of the best passive pre-amps I have used in my system.
The Icon 4 within my system allowed the Chord M-Scaler / Benchmark DAC3 HGC to absolutely shine; The soundfield was wider and deeper; detail was revealed that I had not heard before; Problem tracks suffering from sharp sibilance now didn’t; and, the Benchmark loaded my room in the bass very nicely, without obscuring mid-band detail. This was musical excellence.
How did the Benchmark DAC3 HGC perform as a DAC without the added assistance of the Chord M-Scaler?
Seven Wonders, Fleetwood Mac, Big Love (2017 Remaster)
A track I enjoy despite the simulated groans and ahhhhhs; at least I hope it is simulated otherwise it seems like a very unsatisfactory session!
In the opening, the splashes of the cymbals are somewhat unfocused and bright. The Sssss are generally too hot in vocals, especially on such phrases as, ‘...house on...’. The Benchmark DAC3 HGC is better than the Qutest on Neutral/Incisive in this respect.
Adding the M-Scaler solves the sibilance issue for the Benchmark. Also allows the bass notes to expand and contract within the acoustic. Excellent.
Girl on Fire, Alicia Keys, De Novo Adagio
I do enjoy this album’s opening, unsupported piano. The sound spreads across the two speakers, it is easy to follow each hand on the piano.
As with the previous track, the M-Scaler places the piano into a more expansive acoustic allowing the music to breathe. It also presents the music in a more relaxing way, that is it allows me to relax, always a sign of digital done well.
Girl on Fire, Alicia Keys, Brand New Me
Vocals and piano are soon joined by some nice underpinning bass. This does not dominate the proceedings or mask the midfield. With the Benchmark, my room is nicely loaded.
The bare Benchmark shows a touch of sibilants, this is solved by the M-Scaler.
REL Bass Test Disc, James Horner, Cosmo
Typical Horner soundtrack. Wonderful underpinning bass and beating bass drum. This is great with the bare Benchmark DAC3 HGC. The M-Scaler does give the track, and the bass in particular, a bit more room to breathe.
REL Bass Test Disc, Johnny Cash, Personal Jesus
I do enjoy this track, so it gets a regular outing on my system. The bass carries some nice weight. The Benchmark DAC3 places JC within the ensemble. Adding the M-Scaler took the Benchmark to another level, I was aware of guitar slides going on in the right of the sound stage that had been very much buried in the mix.
ConclusionI enjoyed having this little box at home. Much is made of transparency, dynamics and sound fields, and the Benchmark DAC3 HGC performs well on these counts, but it is also highly listenable. That is it doesn’t offend by picking out deficiencies in the mastering or recording, certainly not in a way that slaps you around face.
Just to be explicit, I like this DAC. I think that the Benchmark DAC3 HGC is excellent value for money. The pre-amp is not the best passive I have heard, but I do rate it highly and enjoyed it within my system. The DAC does not trounce the Qutest, which in low bass I think still has a trick to play, but I love its tonality and its ability to present music in a musically cohesive sound field; I was wowed by the way it produced Johnny Cash’s ‘Personal Jesus’ as one example.
As a DAC in combination with the Chord M-Scaler it goes to the next level. I listened to this combination in my main system for many happy hours. It is musically relaxed and allows instruments to breathe, that is they build and decay naturally, loading my listening room in a very musically enjoyable way.
Currently, I am trying to resist buying a Benchmark DAC3 HGC!