- Lacks luxury feel
Say you want to buy a fridge. You walk into your local electrical retailer and look at the ones on offer within your budget. After making sure it has a good Eco rating, you’ll probably open the doors, check out the space inside, wobble a few shelves and make your decision.
If it all looks and feels good you, like us, will probably buy it. And that’s without ever knowing whether it's actually any good at cooling food.
Perceived value counts for a lot, and sometimes no matter how well a product performs there’s every chance it’ll get overlooked in favour of something that looks and feels better.
In the case of Benchmark’s DAC3 HGC that would be a shame, because this really is a top-class unit.
The Audiolabs have crisper casework, clearer displays and smarter, more modern aesthetics. The Benchmark, on the other hand, lacks any hint of luxury. It reminds us more of lab equipment than premium hi-fi.
We may be off to a shaky start, but things improve once we delve into the details. This is a sensibly equipped digital-to-analogue converter.
It’ll accept all the standard formats, from 24-bit/192kHz PCM right through to DSD – that should be more than enough to cope with most people’s digital music collections.
While some rivals go even further in this respect, that added capability often seems more a matter of box-ticking than something of genuine use. Double speed DSD files and 384kHz, let alone 768kHz PCM recordings, are in extremely short supply.
We’ve got the HGC version of the DAC3 on test here, and it’s the best-equipped of the range. It has dual 6.3mm headphone outputs, a pair of analogue inputs and a variable output.
The presence of analogue line level inputs and a volume control mean this compact unit – about the size of a small hardback book – can be used as the hub of your system.
Digital sources are handled by USB (type B), a pair of digital coaxials and two opticals. The optical inputs are limited to signals of 96kHz, while the others can cope with 24-bit/192kHz. There’s a choice of balanced XLR and single-ended analogue outputs.
If you don’t need all that functionality, there are simplified versions of this product available: the DAC3 L (£2100) loses the headphone outputs while the DX version (£2200) drops the preamp features instead.
Look inside and things become even more interesting. Benchmark has never been shy about using the latest technology – seven years ago it pioneered the use of ESS Technology’s ES9018 DAC chip, since used in many highly rated premium digital products.
With this third generation DAC, it has moved to ESS’s latest, the ES9028Pro – an eight-channel, 32-bit chip. In the DAC3, its channels are grouped into sets of four to produce a stereo output. This configuration is claimed to reduce distortion significantly.
The initials HGC in the product name stand for Hybrid Gain Control. The volume control uses a clever design that works in both analogue and digital domains separately.
Digital signals are governed by a 32-bit dithered volume control, while analogue streams aren’t touched by the processing but remain in their native state throughout the product. The advantage is better analogue sound, in theory at least.
Elsewhere you’ll find the company’s HPA2 headphone amp module, which is specifically designed to have enough grunt to drive two sets of headphones concurrently, and has built-in gain adjustments to maximise performance with a wide range of headphones.
If the one on the left is used, the line outputs – both XLR and RCA – are muted, but the one on the right keeps everything active. We try both outputs and the unswitched one sounds a touch crisper.
The unit’s front panel is a mess of LEDs. There are seven lights to indicate source, one to show Home Theater bypass mode (where the line-outs are fixed at maximum volume), two for bit depth (16 or 24-bit) and another four to show sampling rate and DSD.
It could all be more clear, as Audiolab (for example) proves, but it doesn’t take long to get used to things.
While we like the feel of the knurled, nicely damped volume dial, the small black plastic control buttons don’t inspire and feel a little vague. Benchmark needs to do better here.
However, our irritation at the switchgear is soon swept aside once we start listening. As you would expect, a product at this level positively demands top-class partnering equipment.
We use our resident Naim NDS/555PS as a digital and analogue source alongside a MacBook Air (loaded with Pure Music) for USB duties.
Once up and running the DAC3 HGC is a hugely accomplished unit. Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight Rises (24-bit/192kHz) is a stern test for any piece of hi-fi, with dense compositions, wild dynamics, plenty of low-end action and a strong rhythmic foundation.
But the Benchmark responds with enthusiasm. There’s plenty of drive here, coupled to class-leading levels of insight and organisation.
We’re pleased with the DAC’s ability to deliver a huge and expansive soundstage populated with nicely layered instrumentation. It remains controlled and composed even when the music becomes demanding, yet uncovers a level of nuance and drama all but class-leading rivals such as Chord’s Hugo tend to miss out on.
Tonally things are well balanced, with no part of the frequency range gaining undue prominence. This is coupled to a good dose of refinement, so any aggressive tendencies in recordings, while revealed, are never overemphasised.
Moving onto Bruce Springsteen’s Radio Nowhere shows the Benchmark is happy to rock. It has a surefooted sense of timing and conveys the hard-charging momentum of the music well.
There’s plenty of attack here too, yet despite the bold presentation the DAC3 HGC never overlooks the subtleties. It has the finesse to render the passion in The Boss’s coarse vocals as well as resolve the sonic textures of the instruments used.
We move to the analogue inputs with a bit of trepidation. Traditionally, digital-biased products rarely do well with analogue signals - but the reality here is different.
Benchmark’s work with the Hybrid Gain Control seems to have resulted in a lovely, transparent performance that, if anything, sounds even more impressive than the number-crunching section.
There’s a high degree of transparency here, and a fluidity of dynamics few rivals can match. We enjoy everything from the relatively stripped-back charm of Aretha Franklin’s Respect through to Arvo Pärt’s haunting Tabula Rasa without issue.
Like all the best products, the Benchmark manages the difficult feat of stepping out of the limelight and letting the music take centre stage.
These results remain unchanged whether we use the Benchmark as a conventional line-level DAC or as a headphone amp. It is consistent regardless of set-up used, which is a testament to the precise way the company has developed this product.
While Benchmark doesn’t make many changes to the preamp section (compared to the DAC2 HGC), we’re more impressed by the way this DAC performs than previous versions. Close rivals such as Sony’s TA-ZH1ES struggle when asked to replace a dedicated preamp, but the DAC3 is happy to accept the challenge.
In absolute terms there is a small shortfall in transparency, drive and solidity when compared to dedicated units, but it’s not enough to dampen our enthusiasm.
The DAC3 HGC works well, and combined with a pair of quality active speakers would make for a wonderfully neat set-up.
The DAC3 HGC may not make a great first impression, but give it a little time to prove itself and you’ll find it’s an impressively capable unit – we can’t think of an alternative that does so much so well.
If your interest is digital-only there are similarly priced alternatives from Chord that are well worth considering. However, if you need analogue inputs as well, dive in. The DAC3 HGC is the one to go for.
See all our Benchmark reviews
All of the lights.
Professional music studios can be confusing – even if you think you know your audio. Ask a stressed-out sound engineer (is there any other kind?) what a particular piece of gear does, and you’d better be prepared for a long dissertation on routing functionality and transient dynamics. And you’re more likely to find a calm sound engineer than you are to find a piece of equipment that crosses over into the home space. Headphones are one thing, but getting an amplifier or a DAC that can pull double duty in both environments is very, very rare. The Benchmark DAC3 HGC is one of those pieces of equipment. But how successful is it? In this review, we break down the DAC3 HGC’s sound, design, packaging and accessories, specs and more. To see how it stacks up, see our list of the best DACs.
Hybrid Gain Control
The Benchmark DAC3 HGC – which is a combination headphone amp, Digital-to-Analogue Converter (DAC) and preamp - requires a ton of perseverance to get the best out of. It’s work that will be rewarded with jaw-dropping sound, but you do need to be aware going in: this is not your average piece of gear. What the DAC3 provides you with is a collection of individual technologies which, when brought together, create something splendid. Chief among these is the Hybrid Gain Control - the HGC in the name.
Without going into the exact nature of the technology behind this, which can be read in full and excruciating detail on the Benchmark website, it uses things like passive attenuators and analogue and digital gain controls to really fine-tune the dynamics of the sound, preserving and presenting them in the best possible light. Add the HGC to a SABRE Pro conversion system, a fine-tuned jitter attenuation system which helps preserve the clarity of the audio, a high-headroom DSP, a harmonic compensation system, a...look, we could do this all day. There is an absolutely staggering amount of high-level technology packed into the tiny black box, and what it amounts to is this: glorious noise.
Clarity and Realism
Whether we were using it as a preamp, a headphone amp, or a straight DAC, it was nothing but outstanding. What grabbed us, more than anything else, was the clarity and realism. We genuinely felt like we were hearing every single note like it was meant to be heard, with almost no coloration or distortion. That HGC tech preserved the dynamics beautifully, really allowing us to appreciate things like drum rolls and bass drops. Audiophiles talk about blackness, which is in an oblique way of referring to the noise level present when no audio is actually playing: the more silent it is, the more black – and therefore better – it is seen to be. The DAC3 was black as deep space. And it had a soundstage about as wide, too. It worked well in all genres, but particularly excelled at things like heavy metal, offering mids and highs that really allowed the guitars to bite.
And again, everything was just crystal clear, with no distortion whatsoever. It got to the point that we were throwing different styles and genres at it, just to see if we could get it to falter. It didn’t. No matter what we tried, the DAC3 never missed a beat. It’s definitely not going to satisfy anyone who wants a lush, deep tube sound, that’s for sure. But in terms of sheer audio brilliance, there is very little in this price range that can beat it. We tried out with a variety of speakers and headphones, including our standard tester cans, the Beyerdynamic Amiron Home (full review here) and it didn’t put a foot wrong. As far as we’re concerned, it comes as close to flawless sound quality as we’ve ever heard. Certainly, in this price range, it’s among the best currently available.
DSD and Home Theater Bypass Mode
The DAC3 also has nifty features like a Home Theater Bypass mode, which lets the DAC3 drive the front left and front right speakers of a surround system for stereo recordings, which works very well indeed. If we had one criticism, it’s that we wish it handled DSD audio better. While it does take it, it only takes it up to DSD64, meaning anybody after super high resolution audio is probably going to have to look elsewhere. This is a little bit of a shame, but it’s a minor point. For the most part, the DAC3 excels, putting out audio quality that more than justifies its price point. We adored it.
The Manual (Yes, The Manual)
We don’t normally start off this part of the review by talking about the accessories that come with a piece of equipment, or the box it comes in. In this case, we’re going to make an exception, and we’re going to do that because of one particular accessory: the manual. Please keep reading. This isn’t going to be nearly as boring as it sounds, we promise. The Benchmark DAC3 HGC has perhaps the most comprehensive manual we’ve ever seen. Not to say intimidating. It covers not only every single eventuality and situation in which the DAC3 could conceivably be used, but also includes a wealth of technical information, from jitter tolerance to total harmonic distortion graphs. It’s the kind of information that only a very small fraction of people would ever possibly be able to use, let alone understand. Even the Bryston B60R (full review here) - as intimidating an amp as one can find - had a manual shorter than this.
We don’t mean this as a negative. If you know what to do with it, this kind of stuff is all very useful. But even a short page through the manual primes you for what kind of experience this is going to be: a complex, technical one, that is going to require a little bit of work to get things the way you want them. Plug and play this is not. In a way, it’s a little refreshing. Although we love the fact that so much audio gear is easy to set up and run, it’s refreshing – even startling – to encounter something that takes a little bit of work.
Inputs and Ouputs
The DAC is a small, compact box with black housing and a metal front plate, one that is clearly been designed for insertion into a studio rack but which is equally at home sitting on a shelf next to a pair of headphones or a set of speakers. Check our list of this year’s best headphone amps, and you’ll see that it has a very similar type of construction to many of them. Round the back, you get two balanced XLR outputs, and two unbalanced RCA outputs. You also get analogue, digital and coaxial inputs (two of each) as well as a 12V trigger. There’s also a direct USB input. Everything is clearly-labelled, and there’s no barrier to connecting up just about anything you want. It’s simple, and easy-to-use. We wish we could say the same about the front-end. This is where things get…confusing.
Good bits first. The sleek metal panel looks and feels great, with an engraved Benchmark logo and buttons that have a pleasing solidity to them. Although the features on the front may prove a bit head scratching at first, things like the Dim/Mute option, which lowers the volume twenty decibels with a single press, prove surprisingly useful. And the DAC3 has just the most fantastic volume control: a machined, motorised metal pot that not only moves on its own when commanded (with a pleasing whirr) but also turns beautifully in the fingers. The DAC3 isn’t the sexiest unit we’ve ever seen from a distance, but it feels premium – and definitely feels like it’s worth the price tag ($2,195 on Amazon, since you ask). The twin 6.3mm jacks also offer some smart functionality. Plugging headphones into the left one mutes the XLR and RCA outputs, while using the right keeps all of them active. It’s a nifty, intuitive way of controlling things – although, again, it’s something you’ll have to delve into the manual to figure out. If, by the way, you don’t have need of a headphone amplifier, you can buy the slightly cheaper DAC2L, which offers similar functionality without the HPA2 amp included here.
Unfortunately, the DAC3 falls down in a pretty annoying way. In order to communicate information – the input selected, the firmware version, whether home theater bypass mode is activated – the DAC3 relies on a collection of blinking LED lights on the front. In order to work out what’s happening, you’re constantly having to refer back to that manual, trying to decipher whether a slow-flashing red D1 light is good or bad, or what 2X and 4X actually mean. It slows things down to a crawl, and is the kind of thing that would have been much better as a digital display. To be sure, this would add a little bit to the price, but come on: if you’re in the market for a $2000-plus DAC, then that sort of thing probably doesn’t bother you. In either case, it’s a baffling and befuddling design decision that quickly gets infuriating. Compare this to the beautiful digital display of the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ - they cost exactly the same ($2,195) and yet we know which one we’d rather look at.
It’s not a deal breaker. While the lights are confusing at first, the manual does clear things up, and if you’re willing to put in the work, you’ll be rewarded. And it does reward tinkering: you can, if you’re so inclined, lift off the top panel and mess around with the amp gain and output jumpers to achieve a desired effect, all of which is covered extensively in – you guessed it – the manual. What it comes down to is that while the design isn’t perfect, its premium enough to satisfy its four-figure pricetag, and intelligent enough to do the things you want it to do. Benchmark also have a generous warranty policy - one year standard, with five years upon registration. Huzzah!
Accessories & Packaging:
Outside of that wonderfully deep manual (which, thankfully, is available online), the most notable accessory is the remote. We didn’t like it. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se; it gets the job done fine, with a sensibly-laid-out set of buttons. But you have to make a real effort to push them, as they’re almost flush with the surface, and the whole thing just feels out of keeping with the otherwise excellent overall design of the DAC3. The remote feels…cheap. Like something you’d get to control a second-hand DVD player. Or a motorised bed in a hospital ward.
This is the kind of thing we will never understand. If you’re going to put a huge amount of thought into the design of your equipment, then half-assing something like the remote, which is going to negatively impact the experience, just doesn’t make sense. And it’s the kind of thing that could so easily be sorted out, especially when there are some salutary examples in the same price range, like the slim black cigarette that comes with the Sony TA-ZH1ES (full review here). Beyond that, accessories are minimal and functional: a few cables, including ones for USB and power. Packaging is the same: efficiency is everything here, with the DAC3 slotted into a foam-lined cardboard box. It’s simple, effective, and gets the job done – albeit in a slightly less premium fashion than we might expect for our $2,000.
What We Like:
- The Benchmark DAC3 HGC has extraordinary, crystal-clear sound that we think is the best currently available, in terms of DACs.
- The build quality of the DAC is excellent, with robust materials and decent design.
- We looooooove the motorized volume knob.
- The DAC3 rewards exploration and effort, and despite being idiosyncratic, we think it’s worth the money.
What We Don’t:
- The DAC3 HGC has an utterly befuddling interface. You’ll constantly be referring to the manual.
- The remote feels cheap and tacky - way below what we’d expect for this price.
- The DAC only takes DSD64 - not a dealbreaker, but still mildly annoying, especially if you like ultra-high-res audio
|Benchmark DAC3 HGC||$2,195||Yes||SABRE ES9028PRO||Yes||24bit/192kHz|
|NuPrime DAC 10H||$1,795||Yes||SABRE ES9018K2M||Yes||24bit/384kHz|
|Mytek Brooklyn DAC+||$2,195||Yes||SABRE ES9028PRO||Yes||32bit/384kHz|
|Benchmark DAC3 DX||$2,095||Yes||SABRE ES9028PRO||Yes||24bit/192kHz|
The Sony TA-ZH1ES somewhat more expensive than the DAC3, and is more a dedicated headphone amplifier with a DAC added in than it is a versatile multi-function box, but there’s no denying that the TA-ZH1ES is something special. It’s a joy to use, beautifully designed, and absolutely sings with DSD rocketing through it. “Couple this with a good pair of headphones” (we said in our review) “and a decent source, and you’ll have one of the best setups we can think of. We didn’t expect it to be so easy-to-use, either, but it was, and we loved it all the more for that. It might cost four figures, but this is a genuinely extraordinary amp, and one we highly recommend.”
Or how about the NuPrime DAC 10H? Its design is somewhat more idiosyncratic than the DAC3’s, even taking into account the latter’s blaring whirlwind of lights. But there’s no doubt that this is a superb DAC/amp combo, and one that comes at a slightly cheaper price than the Benchmark model. While it may be getting a little long in the tooth now, it’s still extraordinary, offering superb sound that is particularly friendly with high-sensitivity headphones. NuPrime aren’t the most well-known of manufacturers, but perhaps they deserve to be. This is an excellent alternative.
In terms of functionality and price, the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ is probably the closest model to Benchmark’s DAC3 HGC. We prefer the sound of the latter, but there's no question that Mytek make one hell of a DAC - and they're also canny enough to provide a digital display. No blinking LEDs here! There's an MQA decoder, if you like that sort of thing, plus a phono analog preamp and the ability to take DSD up to 256. Costs a little bit more, but it's excellent. It may also be worth checking out Questyle's CAM800i, another worthy alternative.
The DAC3 HGC is the flagship Benchmark model, but there are several variations available. Our pick is the Benchmark DAC3 DX. It’s $100 less than the HGC ($2,095 to the HGC’s $2,195) and very obviously doesn’t have the Hybrid Gain Control. You also lose the RCA inputs - but gain an XLR digital input. Ultimately, you can view this as an alternative to the HGC, one that offers similar sound with slightly different options.
There’s no denying that the DAC3 HGC has its flaws. The zillions of blinking LEDs and the cheap, tacky remote definitely detract from the experience. But they don’t do enough to destroy it. This is still a DAC/amp that you absolutely have to try, if only to get a taste of the truly gorgeous sound that it puts out. In so many cases, the smorgasbord of technology shoved into the latest black or grey box can often seem superfluous, or at the very best, too subtle to be noticeable (we’re looking at you, iFi). That’s not the case here. This is technology that you can genuinely hear the impact of, and it makes for a fantastic time.
More importantly, while some might see the amount of time required to get the best of the DAC3 as a negative, we don’t. Yes, it demands a little bit of effort. Yes, it assumes a knowledge level that is way, way above what most of us actually have. But the things you have to work for are often the things that prove worthwhile; it’s why we put up with the fifteen-minute warm-up time of tube amps, because the waiting is part of the fun. And if you like to tinker, if you like to go deep into your equipment, and if you like to have your efforts rewarded, then you are going to want to hear this. It’s spectacular. And even while we were writing this review, we were constantly referring back to the manual to try and figure out if there were things that it could do that were worth mentioning, simply in case we’d forgotten any. That’s a distinct possibility - even now, we’re not entirely sure we’ve covered everything. The DAC3’s range of functionality is just massive. When we next update our roundup of the best DACs, this is top five. Easy.