Stereophile's editors chose 10 products to receive their top award, the "2018 Product of the Year - Editor's Choice Award". Two Benchmark products made this exclusive list - the AHB2 power amplifier and the DAC3 HGC D/A converter.
"I was impressed by this revolutionary stereo amplifier but it became an obsession when I mated three as monoblocks to a trio of Benchmark's DAC3s."
"The AHB2 is deadly silent, musically revealing, surprisingly compact, and quite powerful."
- Kalman Rubinson
"Benchmark has created a long line of DACs (several of which I've purchased) that present recordings with as little embellishment as is possible at their price points. The latest incarnation, the DAC3, is no exception, and excels at presenting the unvarnished truth, as the artist intended."
- Jon Iverson
The competition in the amplification category was very tight. There was a two-way tie for first place between two amplifiers that cost $30,000 a pair and $13,500 a pair.
The Benchmark AHB2 was just two points behind the leaders when the Stereophile reviewers cast their final votes. In all, there were 13 amplifiers that made Stereophile's select list of finalists. The Benchmark AHB2 was the least expensive amplifier on the list, yet it received top scores from the reviewers. The list included amplifiers with stratospheric prices. Six amplifiers were priced between $25,000 and $118,000 a pair!
At Benchmark we believe that a great audio system shouldn't set you back by the cost of a sports car.
"In my September 2018 column, I wrote of my discovery of miniDSP's U-DIO8, which converts multichannel data fed to its USB port to eight S/PDIF or AES-EBU outputs at resolutions of up to 24-bit/192kHz. Armed with a U-DIO8, you can use three or four of your choice of stereo DAC."
"I went commando with the DAC3s directly connected to the three AHB2s. All three DAC3s were set to Home Theater Bypass, and I used JRiver Media Center's volume control."
"For the first time I can recall, I heard no noise from my system, even with an ear flush against a tweeter."
"I know that we audiophiles can obsess about small changes and make them seem more important than they actually are, but that's what this hobby is about: Eliminating as many audible flaws as possible, however tiny. In this case, the effect was striking at first listen, and endured through everything I played, even tracks that had troubled me before."
- Kal Rubinson, Stereophile
"RMAF 2018 was really good, with significant numbers of attendees, and more new-product introductions than I remembered ever seeing there."
"Led by engineer John Siau and based in Syracuse, New York, Benchmark Media Systems has built a sterling reputation for making compact, well-engineered, moderately priced electronics that challenge the state of the art, both on the test bench and in the listening room."
"What I took notice of were the specifications: total harmonic distortion of less than 0.00006%, and a signal/noise ratio exceeding 135dB from 20Hz to 20kHz."
"If those claims are true, and there’s no reason to believe they aren’t -- Benchmark gear has always performed as specified on the test bench -- the LA4 should be about as transparent-sounding a line-stage as you can find at any price."
- Doug Schneider, SoundStage! Hi-Fi
"John Atkinson's measurements corroborated Benchmark's claim that the DAC3 is capable of "at least" 21-bit performance ..."
"Benchmark created an amplifier that more than matched the DAC3's dynamic range: the AHB2. Bridged to mono, the AHB2 has a claimed A-weighted dynamic range of 135dB ... it now sits in Class A of Stereophile's 'Recommended Components.'"
"With the DAC3 HGC and the AHB2, Benchmark seems to have achieved the lowest-noise, lowest-distortion system of source and amplification on the planet. The signals this combo sends to loudspeakers should be cleaner—truer to the source—than any other audio components can achieve."
"This article is unusual in that my goal was not to take the measure of a particular component but to determine whether Benchmark's entire low-noise system could resolve musical detail that a more typical audiophile system, with noise and distortion levels that are low but not as low, could not."
"The comparison system consisted of PS Audio DirectStream DAC and BHK Signature preamp and, variously, PS Audio BHK 300 and Pass Laboratories XA60.8 monoblocks."
"Through the Benchmark amps those quiet sounds were richer and more interesting. There seemed to be more going on in those quiet moments. It's harder to describe than it was to hear."
"Over the course of several days, I went back and forth between the Benchmark amplifiers and heard it every time. The difference didn't go away."
- Jim Austin, Stereophile
AHB2 - Class A Recommended Component - Fall 2018 - Power Amps
'Class A' is Stereophile's highest classification for recommended components. Very few components receive this elite classification. Stereophile defines 'Class A' as follows:
"Best attainable sound for a component of its kind, almost without practical considerations; "the least musical compromise." A Class A system is one for which you don't have to make a leap of faith to believe that you're hearing the real thing."
AHB2 - "Tightness, accuracy and punch"
"The most identifiable positive trait (there are many) of the AHB2, and that is low end control. Tightness, accuracy and punch."
"The AHB2 has power in spades, especially with two units running in mono mode."
"A single amp in stereo will suffice for most normal situations, and was in full control of all sonic responsibilities with every pair of loudspeakers we threw at it."
"The low end tightness and thrust is just where it should be, and pass though information is the name of the game."
"The sound of the amplifier is true to source and one that takes many queues from the production world of balance and monitoring."
"... will rock the house (or sooth the baby to sleep)."
HPA4 - "The best sounding headphone amp I've heard"
"For the first time in my audio life I can pin my ear to each speaker driver and hear absolutely no sound coming from the speakers in a quiet room with the system volume control at any position from minimum to maximum with no source material playing."
"I find that lowering the background noise paints the music on as black a canvas as possible and thus seems to bring out realistic low-level detail in recordings."
"The Benchmark HPA4 is the best sounding line amplifier I've yet heard. It's innovative approach to controlling system volume/SPL results in what for me is a uniquely transparent-to-source experience."
"It is also the best sounding headphone amp I've heard, both for very-insensitive, hard-to-drive phones and those sensitive enough to easily be used directly from a smart phone."
"The HPA4 truly stands apart in terms of measured and subjectively low background noise and distortion when driving either loudspeakers or headphones."
- tmallin, moderator of Tom's Corner, whatsbestforum.com
"A well-curated sound system"
"That’s what Benchmark Media had put together in Chicago for AXPONA this year in room 670 at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel: a smooth, curated system... to showcase their AHB2 power amplifier, running here in bridged-mono mode and being directly driven by their DAC3 HGC DAC/headamp/preamp. "
"The ESL 11A presents a unique challenge for amplifiers... making sure those big curved ‘stat panels are being given not only the watts they need to perform best, but the current as well. Here the AHB2’s linear amplification design excels, as a pair running in bridged-mono delivers 480 watts into six Ohms, and 29 A (peak) of current/channel."
"Whether there was rock, jazz, classical, or even electronic playing while I was in the room, the Benchmark DAC/Pre/Power combo had a way with digital files that seemed to never put a foot wrong, and maintained a balance between resolution, dynamics, and believable acoustic warmth in instruments, and vocals."
"Aurum Cantus’s new V80F loudspeaker is a 3-Way floor standing speaker using the award winning Aurum Cantus wide-band aluminum ribbon tweeter technology."
These speakers were driven by an all-Benchmark signal chain:
"Great acoustic synergy in this configuration."
- Jay Luong, AudioBacon.net
"Dana Cables, Benchmark, and Aurum Cantus joined forces at AXPONA 2018 to deliver a memorable sound."
"Fast, precise, and nice harmonics is what my notes say."
- Steven R. Rochlin, Enjoy the Music.com
"In this age of ultra-refinement in the production and playback of music, Benchmark Media shows that it is to be recognized as a paragon of musical integrity at an affordable price point."
"I suspect that especially younger ears, and the ears of those who spend much time with headphones, will appreciate the Benchmark sound. I appreciate them as I have experienced many less accurate systems, and I revel in high purity playback."
"The only listener who will need to consider carefully prior to commitment to Benchmark is the lover of warm, perceptually “softer” or “laid back” sound."
"Those who are seeking a highly revealing sound, perhaps considered “honest” or “truthful”, and invigorating, would find great satisfaction with these components."
- Doug Schroeder, dagogo.com
"Masterfully detailed and transparent with spot-on tonality and some serious punch."
- Ben Shyman, Home Theater Review
AHB2 - Driving Martin-Logan ESL 11A Electrostatic Speakers
Capital Audiofest 2017
"The folks from Benchmark and Martin-Logan teamed up to do something just a little different, and entirely enchanting, in the Jackson Room!"
"The resultant sound was extremely clean and fast, surprisingly dynamic, and the space, as you'd expect with good multi-channel, was get-up-and-walk-around through. Well done!"
- Greg Weaver, enjoythemusic.com
DAC3 DX - "The DAC3 hits the mark..."
"If we had to categorize the sound of the DAC3 using three words, those words would be precision, precision and precision."
"Partnered with the AHB2 power amplifier, the system represents a significant powerhouse in a relatively small footprint."
"Dynamics were surprisingly tight, quick and responsive in a manner that would make most audiophiles take another look at the “pro” side ..."
AHB2 - Stereophile Class-A Recommended Component
"The AHB2 makes use of THX Corporation's Achromatic Audio Amplifier (AAA) technology, in which a low-power feed-forward amplifier drives a low-bias class-AB output section, the latter energized by a system of class-H power-supply rails that deliver power in response to demand—resulting in an extremely efficient amplifier capable of robust power output."
"In his listening tests, KR discovered "much more apparent low-level detail in already-familiar recordings"—a characteristic he credited to the Benchmark's evident noiselessness—and a tonal balance that "sounded more 'right' than any of [the other amps on hand].""
"In measuring the AHB2 and attempting to confirm its specified very high signal/noise ratio, JA observed nonlinearities in his testing equipment that "haven't affected the measured performance of other amplifiers I've tested, but they were detectable with the AHB2's very low intrinsic distortion and noise." His conclusion: "an extraordinary amplifier.""
"KR's last word: "bargain.""
AHB2 - "It's phenomenal! Gobs of power, detail, finesse and control."
"Benchmark has been around for a long time. In fact, they are one of the early Audiophile pioneers of USB DACs ... I had always thought of them as more of a digital conversion company, and not an amplifier company—until the AHB2 came about."
"A PF colleague of mine (Steven Lefkowicz) said... Dude, you HAVE to try the Benchmark in your system (which at the time was going through a gamut of speaker changes as part of a myriad of reviews being done for PF) to which I replied, wow, they have an amp?"
"I was immediately taken aback with the level of detail given to this unit. Just one glance at the back plate will tell you that this is a well-engineered piece of equipment. Fully Balanced = Check. Speakon Outputs = Check. Bridging Support = Check. Input Sensitivity Adjustment = Check. 12v Trigger support = Check."
"So, how does it sound, after all of that? Well, this thing is no slouch. It's phenomenal! Gobs of power, detail, finesse and control."
- Peter Davey, Positive Feedback
AHB2 - "It improved my listening pleasure for a song that I have probably heard 500 times."
"As with a Class A amplifier, I could detect the muscle of the AHB2 and hear it in the sheer weight of presentation in the lower octaves."
"The AHB2 can drive virtually any speaker load with significant power--especially in monaural mode--yet it never lacked finesse on delicate passages."
"It is a technologically advanced and remarkable amplifier ..."
- Ben Shyman, Home Theater Review
AHB2 - "Stereophile Amplification Component of the Year" - 2016 Finalist"
The AHB2 was one of only 11 finalists in Stereophile's "Amplification Component of the Year" category. The finalists included 6 power amplifiers, 2 preamplifiers, 2 integrated amplifiers, and 1 headphone amplifier. This elite selection of amplification products included power amplifiers ranging in price from $2,995 (Benchmark AHB2) to $52,000 a pair (Vandersteen M7-HPA).
At $52,000 the Vandersteen includes a chassis milled from a solid billet of aluminum, liquid cooling and a vibration dampening suspension. It is an impressive example of mechanical engineering and industrial design.
At $2,995, the Benchmark AHB2 delivers the quietest, cleanest power available at any price.
The AHB2 proves that top-quality audio can be affordable.
AHB2 - "I Took a Leap of Faith"
It's not the first time I've heard Error-Correction amplifiers, but those were prototypes that weren't working all too well. Classic feedback, TIM-free design was better, so I was afraid that AHB2 might be “wrong” somehow. It took a little bit of “leap-of-faith” to buy one, but I could not ignore the advice I was given about it, as it was given by people that are insiders in this Audio industry of ours. I'm happy to say that my thoughts of Error Correction approach being maybe wrong, could not be farthest from the truth.
"End of the Journey"
What can I say ... maybe the shortest way to summarize it would be this: the AHB2 is the end of the journey for me. I have no desire for ever going back to typical multi-thousand Dollar High-End amplifiers.
- Aleksandar Radisavljević, Founder and Director of RAAL