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
"This contest produced another tie, and yet another contrast between two wildly different philosophies—economical, if not technical. As Jim Austin pointed out in his initial review, the DAC3 HGC D/A processor from Benchmark Media Systems—a company known for making pro-audio as well as domestic-audio gear—sells for less than the price of certain high-end interconnects. The dCS Vivaldi D/A processor sells for 16 times the Benchmark's price, and in our pages was first reviewed, by Michael Fremer, as part of a $114,996 dCS digital front end."
"Both DACs impressed their respective reviewers with magnificent sound—and in his measurements for both, John Atkinson offered the same one-word conclusion: "Wow!""
"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
"Speaking of reference gear, few names in high-end audio are so closely attached to the reference sound as Benchmark. Their fantastic HPA4 reference amplifier could be found at booths throughout the show. This year, Benchmark was introducing its new DAC3 B."
"I spent some time playing around with the Benchmark pieces, and they really have a high quality pro-audio-like build to them. They're the polar opposite of some of these more DIY-feeling boutique amps and DACs out there – Benchmark has a very professional level of finish on it."
"Benchmark Media Systems used RMAF 2018 to launch two new products that it was able to lump together into one neat little stack."
"On the top is the DAC3 B, which has the same basic circuitry as the company’s more expensive DACs, but deletes the volume control, polarity and mute buttons, and headphone amp found on those models."
"On the bottom is the LA4 linestage preamplifier..."
"The LA4 has two pairs each of single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs, and boasts some impressive specs: THD of less than 0.00006% and a signal-to-noise ratio exceeding 135 dB from 20 Hz to 20 kHz."
"Volume is controlled by dual 256-step attenuators that operate in 0.5 dB increments."
"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
DAC3 HGC - Class A+ Recommended Component - Fall 2018 - Digital Processors
'Class A+' is Stereophile's highest classification for digital processors. Stereophile defines Class A and the digital processor 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. With Super Audio CD, DVD-Audio, and Hi-Rez PCM and DSD files now available, we have created a new Class, A+, for the best performance in those digital categories."
DAC3 HGC - "A maestro of any musical genre."
"The DAC3 HGC has a servo-driven, knurled volume control. Raising or lowering the volume via the remote control physically moves the volume control on the DAC3. When you move the volume control by hand, you can’t help but love its smooth, precise motion."
Unboxing the DAC3 is an audio geek’s dream. You’re greeted by a spiral-bound, 8.5 x 11-inch color user manual. New users would do well to review its contents.
"Benchmark’s infrared remote control stands apart from the crowd. Its hefty, die-cast aluminum design puts it in sharp contrast to most of today’s remotes."
"The Benchmark DAC3’s DAC, headphone, and preamp functions are outstanding. I tested the preamp section with two of the company’s AHB2 power amplifiers with the amps set to bridged mono. I paired a set of of RBH Sound’s top-of-the-line Signature SV-1212NR Reference speakers with the amps; served content via an Oppo UDP-205 universal disc player, Roon Media server, and Tidal; and used Focal Clear, Oppo PM-2, and Beyerdynamic Amiron Home headphones in my listening tests."
"Jazz, hip-hop, classical, or rock, the Benchmark DAC3 proved a maestro of any musical genre, consistently demonstrating tremendous balance, refinement, neutrality, and most of all, command."
- Theo Nicolakis, Tech Hive
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
DAC3 HGC - "I was immediately impressed by the sound"
"The separation of sounds, that see-through quality, and the air around individual instruments and voices is what distinguishes the difference between simply good high-end digital components and excellent sounding high-end digital components."
"It is this sense of space that I more often than not notice first. And I noticed this trait immediately with the Benchmark Media DAC3 HGC."
"The Benchmark Media DAC3 HGC is a fantastic digital-to-analog converter that comes with a fantastic headphone amplifier with two outputs, and can also double as a fantastic preamplifier. Its asking price is more than reasonable for such a versatile component, with a sound quality that can be compared to units costing much more."
DAC3 DX - "Open, smooth detailed sound with that recording studio accuracy that I am used to from Benchmark."
"I cannot say enough about the DAC3-DX’s sonic character of transparency and accuracy."
"My DSD DSF rip (of the often played) Warren Bernhardt - So Real SACD sounded incredible through the MartinLogans using this DAC. The audible cymbal splash sheen detail is like hearing the cymbal in the front of your listening room."
"Same with the Steinway piano tone. Upper register notes are so live sounding. The “air” and “space” around and between the instruments is simply stunning when played on the best gear."
"On numerous hi-res tracks, the opinion was the same: sonic excellence!"
"The DAC3-DX most certainly gets an EAN Stellar Sound Award, and should be closely looked at by pros and audiophiles alike."
2017 EAN Product of the Year
- John Gatski, Everything Audio Network
"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
DAC3 DX - "Will bring the studio to your home audio system."
"Benchmark’s DAC3 DX DAC is designed for recording and mastering studios, but it is a great product for consumer use as well."
"The Benchmark Media DAC3 DX is the successor to the DAC2 DX. The differences between the DAC3 DX and the DAC2 DX are (1) active 2nd harmonic compensation, (2) active 3rd harmonic compensation, (3) lower THD+N, (4) lower passband ripple, (5) improved frequency response, (6) faster PLL lock times, (7) faster switching between inputs, and (8) adjustable calibration."
"For the bench tests, I have moved to using much more sensitive measurements with the Audio Precision ... the distortion is so low, it is beyond the Audio Precision’s capability."
- John E. Johnson, Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity
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 HGC - "Astonishing Fidelity and Emotional Expressiveness"
"Benchmark Media Systems’ DAC3 HGC is evidence that an engineering-focused company—one that seems to spend more time staring at instruments than testing its devices with their ears, and that cares more about transparency than it does about whether or not you like the sound their products make—can produce a product of astonishing fidelity and emotional expressiveness."
"Science works ... never underestimate a good geek."
- Jim Austin, Stereophile
DAC3 HGC - "All I can say is 'Wow!'"
"The Benchmark DAC3 offers extremely low levels of harmonic distortion from all its outputs. Intermodulation distortion was similarly vanishingly low."
"No power-supply–related spuriae can be seen, and the random noise floor lies below –160 dBFS!"
"When the DAC3 decoded dithered 16-bit and 24-bit data representing a 1 kHz tone at -60 dBFS, the increase in bit depth dropped the noise floor by more than 30 dB, indicating that the Benchmark’s resolution is at least 21 bits."
"This as good as a DAC can currently get!"
"All I can say is 'Wow!'" - John Atkinson