NOTE: Subjective impressions and review are written BEFORE measuring the device. I deliberately avoid measuring until I have finalised my subjective impressions to avoid objective behaviour influencing my opinion.
Benchmark is a company known for a straightforward, transparent and objective approach to their product design and marketing.
When you buy a Benchmark product you get a thorough manual complete with not only operational guidance, but technical information and measurements too. The level of information provided is typically rivalled only by companies like RME with their somewhat famous ADI-2 manual.
And their products across all categories are typically some of if not the highest objective performing in most areas.
The AHB2 is to my knowledge still the lowest distortion speaker amplifier available.
The LA4 was only recently beaten by the Holo Serene.
And the DAC3 boasts quite a lot of impressive objective specs, but perhaps more importantly, care and attention paid to areas that are critically important but where most people would not look.
For example the DAC3 has quite a lot of internal digital headroom to ensure that it does not clip what is known as ‘intersample overs’, something which occurs a lot on many DACs where no extra headroom is given.
But, I personally have had a bit of a mixed experience with Benchmark products from a subjective standpoint; I absolutely adore the AHB2 and it’s still one of my favourite amplifiers, but the HPA4 headphone amp was in my opinion too clinical/sterile sounding and was beaten by other well measuring products like the Singxer SA-1.
So how does the DAC3B stack up?
If you’d like to see more about the design and objective performance of the DAC then please see the measurements post here: TBD.
But for now, let’s talk about the sound you get with this DAC.
-AudioQuest Niagara 5000 power conditioner
-ifi Zen Stream as USB Source
-Holo Serene Preamplifer / Headphone amp
-Benchmark AHB2 amplifier
-Hifiman Susvara, Sennheiser HD800, ZMF Atrium headphones
The DAC3B features a powder-coated metal shell, with a thick brushed-finish faceplate.
The faceplate is similar in design to that of the LA4/HPA4 or AHB2 and will match nicely as a stack, with a milled benchmark logo, front-facing bolts and a rather beautiful black finish adorned by crisp white text.
However whilst the faceplate of the unit is excellent, the main body does feel a little bit unsubstantial for the price, and in comparison to the AHB2 for example. It would have been nice to have a more solid metal body rather than the single piece sheet metal.
The unit is conveniently compact and the weight comes in at around 1.3kg (3lb) so you should have no trouble fitting this on any desk, shelf or rack.
On the rear we have fairly standard I/O. USB input, an internal SMPS with IEC mains connection, a pair of balanced outs and a pair of single ended outs.
The two coax inputs can be configured to act as two separate inputs, or as a linked passthrough, so you can feed the DAC3 via D3 and output via D4 to another device.
The DAC3 also includes a 12v trigger I/O. Allowing it to control or be controlled by other 12v trigger compatible devices such as Benchmark’s own AHB2, or third party devices like the Ferrum HYPSOS power supply.
Overall the build is nothing too standout, but nothing problematic either. For the money it would have been nicer to have a slightly more premium build, but given as Benchmark is to a fairly large degree targeting professional use, not home audio setups, function is more important than form.
If I were to nitpick, it would have been more ideal to have a display that could be read more easily at a glance as opposed to the various indicator LEDs the DAC3 has. This is being done on even very low cost units like the SMSL SU8S so cost should not be an issue, though again, in a professional environment, perhaps the reliability and longevity of simple LEDs compared to a full display is more important.
Pairings and Testing:
The DAC3 is a professional oriented product, and as such the default output level is considerably higher than most consumer audio equipment, at 12.22Vrms on balanced out.
However internally there are passive attenuators you can select via jumpers to reduce the signal by 10dB (to 3.8Vrms) or 20dB (to 1.22Vrms).
For most of my listening I used the -10dB attenuator to get the DAC close to 4v, and then used Roon to DSP volume match it and the other DACs I was comparing against to the nearest 0.001dB. Most consumer audio devices will not be able to accept a 12.22Vrms signal. My preamplifier can accept a max of about 8.5Vrms for example.
However I did also try connecting the DAC3 directly to my AHB2 at full output with the AHB2 in low gain.
To give an impression of the overall sound of the DAC3, I can best describe it as ‘fine’.
I couldn’t point out any particular problems or specific issues in the sound. There were no troubles with sibilance, no lack of impact on energetic tracks, it could stage decently, and detail retrieval was good.
But….I also couldn’t really find anything that stood out to me as particularly impressive. Resolution didn’t seem to be any better than a Gustard X18, soundstage wasn’t as big as an SMSL D1SE, timbre wasn’t as realistic as a Holo Spring 3, and it left me feeling a bit mixed. For £1999 I wanted the DAC3 to be more impressive sounding than it was.
I currently have the ZMF Atriums in for review, and one thing they do exceptionally well is low-end ‘slam’. These things punch HARD and they make it pretty obvious when you’re running them on a softer sounding chain.
Playing DROELOE’s ‘Bon Voyage’, at around 1:00, the synth kicks and claps were fast, clear and sharp without coming across as harsh or aggressive.
They were certainly hitting harder than a more ‘polite’ sounding DAC such as the Chord Qutest, which does tend to feel a little held back on tracks like this. But when swapping directly to the Gustard X26 Pro there was suddenly just that bit of extra punch and control. It was hitting you in the chest and SHOWING the force of those synths, not just telling you about it.
Overall technical performance:
Other areas of what some might call technical performance such as the clarity of separation is again ‘fine’.
How clearly the space between instruments or elements of the mix is presented is a big factor for me personally in how immersed and drawn into the music I can get. How easily you can focus on just one thing, listening to it and it alone, like focusing on a single voice or conversation in a crowded room,
When I listen to music I tend to move my attention between different elements at different times, especially on tracks I’m more familiar with.
And so on DACs like the Holo May or Denafrips Terminator, this aspect of separation is absolutely sublime, allowing you to focus on just that one little hi-hat in the background, with nothing obstructing it no matter how busy the rest of the track gets.
Poorer DACs often have an issue whereby when low-end heavy tracks in particular get more busy, the clarity and low level resolution of elements suffers. You can no longer hear that hi-hat clearly because the bass guitar is bleeding over the rest of the mix!
But the DAC3 was something of a halfway house here. Even in tracks with rock guitar, plenty of drums, big airy reverberations and all sorts going on such as Plini’s ‘Sweet Nothings’, there was never an issue with a lack of clarity. The detail of any particular element never suffered from the rest of the track being busier, but what did get worse was the clarity of SPACE between them.
Even though you could still hear all of the lower level information about that hi-hat, the imaging from the DAC3 is not particularly precise and as a result it sounded slightly as though things were coming from the same general direction.
At 2:02 in this track there is a piano, ride cymbal, guitar, and what seems to be a woodwind-esque synth.
On the DAC3 the actual detail of all of these is there even with all playing simultaneously. But the direction of each element is slightly ‘smeared’. And so it’s not quite as easy to focus on just the percussion for example because other elements are somewhat laid ontop of it.
Then you swap to the Chord DAVE and suddenly everything is absolutely laser precise. Everything in its own very specific direction with no intrusion over eachother and you can simply focus on any element of your choosing and ignore the rest.
The DAC3 provides something of a ‘wall of sound’ as opposed to a fully separated and distinct rendition of each element.
Usually this would indicate poorer jitter performance, though Benchmark speaks at length about their ‘UltraClock’ design in the manual so I’m not sure. At the time of writing I have not measured the DAC3 so it will be interesting to see if this does correlate at all, especially in contrast to the DAVE which does have practically perfect jitter performance.
Soundstage is another element that was remarkably ‘just ok’ on the DAC3.
Some tracks such as ‘Losing You’ by Ephixa will sound huge on all but the most problematic of chains, and that’s true here too. So it isn’t that it CAN’T stage, just that it doesn’t really get as big as other DACs including much lower priced options like the SMSL D1SE or Gustard X18.
But more moderate in spatial presentation tracks such as ‘WE ARE’ by Jon Batiste can often provide more contrast between source chains and devices.
In this track at just over 10 seconds in, Jon’s voice can change in depth/distance to a surprising degree based on the chain you listen on.
Even on some good DACs that just happen to not excel in spatial presentation, such as the Luxury and Precision W2 (yes it’s a dongle but it performs well and in fact outperforms the DAC3 objectively in some areas and demonstrates this aspect well), Jon’s voice will be quite firmly in the ‘headstage’ realm, a foot or so away at most.
And then on a Holo May with HQPlayer he’s standing 6 feet from you with beautifully convincing subtle cues about the room.
On the DAC3 it’s on the edge of headstage. Mayyybe 2 feet from you. You do get some pretty decent layering and variance in depth for mixes that allow this, but the maximum size of stage does feel confined and leaves you wanting more when you’ve paid this much, especially if you’ve heard DACs like the Spring 3 which for almost the same money as the DAC3 is quite frankly playing in an entirely different league when it comes to spatial presentation.
This is another critical aspect of realism and getting that sense of ‘presence’ for me.
It’s all well and good having more resolution than you know how to handle, but if the actual presentation of that information isn’t done in a natural and convincing fashion then it can at times be a bit wasted.
This was one of the reasons I personally never fell in love with electrostatic headphones or STAX. I owned some for a while, and the SR-Lambda Signature are still to this day the most resolving headphones I’ve ever heard. But I hardly ever listened to them and ended up selling them for the simple reason that the timbre was just….wrong. I could hear more in Hosier’s voice than I’d heard on any other headphone, but it was dry and etchy. I adored the detail but it just couldn’t give me a presentation that would trick my brain into feeling that the things being played were there in front of me.
And unfortunately the DAC3 follows a similar story.
When listening to ‘WE ARE’ on the DAC3, the detail is happily competing with the likes of the X26 Pro and not far off higher end DACs like the Chord DAVE or Bricasti M1SE. But the vocals are just slightly too dry, without the required body and warmth that his voice portrays on various other chains.
This problem extends to instruments too.
In Grissini Project’s rendition of ‘Mother of the Sea’, the violin in the opening feels thin and ethereal, with the lower level details seeming almost exaggerated and creating a distinctly digital sounding result.
Switching back to the X26 pro and suddenly that disappears. The body and internal reverberations of the violin chassis are clearer, with less over-emphasis on the transient detail. That information is still there, but it is no longer the explicit focus and the sense of realism is considerably better.
Even on the DAVE, which markets itself as focusing on transient accuracy, and a DAC that on its own can sometimes be a bit lightweight in presentation the presentation is much more even handed and fuller sounding.
This review is a little shorter than usual.
I could go on for quite a bit longer about my experience with the DAC3 and describe more aspects in detail, but in just about any area I can think of the result is the same:
It’s not bad, but it’s not great, and for a pricetag this hefty, there are certainly better options in my view regardless of what your preferred sound signature is.
Even if you PREFER a more dry and clinical presentation, a Topping D90SE will offer that whilst outperforming the DAC3 in imaging and possibly detail retrieval too.
The DAC3 is a good product, but I do not feel it offers good value for money and would take either an SMSL D1SE or Gustard X18 over it even if they were priced identically.