"Sound was extremely well-integrated and controlled, and the bass memorable."
"The Note received signal through the introductory version of the company's Liquid Cables. Each cable contains 27,000 wires. The company's introductory Elephant memory player joined Benchmark Media's AHB2 power amps, DAC3 B D/A processor, and interconnects."
"With the aid of a forthcoming DEQX HDP4 processor that's due in the fall, the system sounded super on a 16/44.1 file of the famed rendition of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, recorded by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra for Reference Recordings."
"The product under review is a stripped-down version of theDAC3 HGC."
"While it uses the same complement of ES9028PRO DAC chips as the flagship HGC and retains the USB port, the B offers a fixed output level and omits the headphone amplifier, balanced and unbalanced analog inputs, volume, mute, and polarity controls, and the remote control."
"I never auditioned theDAC3 HGC in my own system, so when I got an opportunity to borrow a sample of the DAC3 B, I eagerly agreed."
"I had been using MBL's network-connected N31 CD player/DAC ($18,680 with Roon Ready module) before installing theDAC3 B."
"The MBL offers an excellent sense of drive and low-frequency impact, but when I replaced it with the Benchmark, both these aspects of the music seemed enhanced."
"Whether it was an orchestral bass drum or a kickdrum, electric bass guitar or acoustic double bass, the MoFi speakers seemed to acquire more low-frequency weight without losing definition."
"Highly recommended for Class A+ in Stereophile's Recommended Components."
The HPA4 is not just a "Reference Stereo Headphone Amplifier"; it is also a "Reference Line Amplifier" with "Relay Gain and Input Control."
"The fully balanced relay-controlled gain stage applies up to 15 dB of gain or up to 127.5 dB of attenuation for a total range of 142.5 dB. There are 286 volume control steps in precise 0.5 dB increments."
"During my first day of HPA4 listening, I noticed that every digital and analog recording ... sounded cleaner, better sorted, and more macrodynamic."
"The HPA4's sharp-focus specificity is something I associate with recording studio sound but almost never encounter in home systems."
"The THX-888 headphone amplifier board "is a unity gain (current) amplifier with feedforward error correction." Feedforward error correction is also used in the AHB2 power amplifier."
"With most headphone amplifiers, the tires go flat trying to drive HiFiMan's Susvara open-backed planar-magnetic circumaural headphones.
"The HPA4 exhibited no difficulty driving low-sensitivity, low-impedance planar magnetics."
"I had a feeling the Benchmark's absolute clarity coupled to the Susvara's legendary resolving powers would finally show me what the album's producers heard."
Abyss TC Headphones
"The Benchmark-Abyss combo really clicked for me. It gave me a fresh, intriguing look at my most familiar recordings."
ZMF Vérité Headphones
"I recommend you audition the Vérité closed-backs. They were my favorite music-listening headphone with the HPA4."
After a month ...
"Spending a month with the HPA4 forced this old triode-tube lover to first acknowledge, then accept, and finally enjoy a new type of engagement, one that satisfied my engineering mind and my audiophile lust to look and listen into the hidden nooks and distant corners of every recording. Thank you, Benchmark."
As a line preamplifier, the HPA4 performed almost identically to Benchmark's superb-measuring LA4, which Kal Rubinson reviewed in January 2020, so I will refer you to that review. This report therefore focuses on the HPA4's behavior as a headphone amplifier."
"The headphone amplifier's frequency response was flat in the audio band and down by just 1 dB at 200 kHz. With the very low output impedance, the response into 300 ohms was identical to that into the high 100k ohms load, and there wasn't any audio band rolloff with impedances as low as 10 ohms."
"Both the response and the superb channel matching were identical at lower settings of the control and from the unbalanced headphone output."
"From balanced inputs to balanced headphone output, the Benchmark had extremely low noise, with the power supply–related spuriae in its output close to –130dB, even with the volume control set to +15dB. With the volume control set to unity gain, the noise floor was 12dB lower!"
"The THD+N percentage was extremely low throughout the audio band into both 100k ohms and 300 ohms."
"I concluded my report on Benchmark's LA4 preamplifier by saying it was the widest-bandwidth, widest-dynamic-range, lowest-noise, lowest-distortion preamplifier I had encountered at that time. To those virtues, the HPA4 adds equally superb headphone outputs."
Jim Austin wrote, "The DAC3 was all about depths, in several respects . . . I heard deeper into the music."
The concise conclusion to John Atkinson's Measurements sidebar: "All I can say is 'Wow!'"
In a Follow-Up, Jim Austin wrote of using the Benchmark processor with the same company's AHB2 power amp—a combination of high source output voltage and modest amplifier gain that he describes as "optimal for minimizing noise and distortion"—and reported hearing "richer and more interesting" reproduction of very subtle details.
- Stereophile Magazine
"Class A+" is Stereophile's highest award for Digital Processors
"Much more apparent low-level detail in already-familiar recordings"
"Sounded more 'right' than any of [the other amps on hand]."
- Kalman Rubinson, Stereophile
"An extraordinary amplifier"
- John Atkinson, Stereophile
"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.""
"Class A" is Stereophile's highest award for power amplifiers.
"As soon as everything powered up, there was a big smile on my face."
"With the LA4 in control of the system, everything sounded right, and subtle differences among recordings, amplifiers, and speakers were clear."
"Compared to the other preamps on hand, the LA4 was consistently quieter, more open, and more revealing of detail."
"The LA4 is probably the most transparent and revealing audio component I've ever used."
"It does not seem to leave any fingerprints on the sound. It has a useful array of inputs, outputs, and functions, and the use of sealed relays for volume and input selection assures a long and noise-free life."
"Benchmark'sLA4is the widest-bandwidth, widest-dynamic-range, lowest-noise, lowest-distortion preamplifier I have encountered."
- John Atkinson, Stereophile
"I measured the Benchmark LA4's performance with my Audio Precision SYS2722 system."
"The preamplifier's frequency response in both balanced and unbalanced modes was flat from 10Hz to 200kHz."
"Channel separation was simply superb ... a testament to excellent circuit-board layout."
"I looked at the spectrum of the distortion ... each harmonic is at or below –120dB (0.0001%)."
"Tested for intermodulation distortion in balanced mode with an equal mix of 19 and 20kHz tones at peak level of 5V, the second-order difference product at 1kHz was effectively absent, and the higher-order products all lay at or below –114dB (0.0002%)."
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.
"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."
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 madeStereophile'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.
"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."
"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 ..."
"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."
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."
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 - "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."
"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."
"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.""
"Although similar in appearance to previous Benchmark models ... , the new DAC2 HGC uses four 32-bit ESS Sabre DACs, run in balanced configuration, for a significantly lower noise floor; has a new Hybrid Gain Control (HGC) for volume attenuation, which combines active analog gain control and passive low-impedance attenuators in the analog realm with a 32-bit digital DSP gain control for digital signals; and provides front-panel displays for both sample rate and word length."
"It had a pleasantly forward sound, with smooth highs, a solid bottom end, and excellent image separation, said EL."
"JI noted the DAC2's good scale and sense of ambient space."