The Benchmark DAC3 HGC (buy at Amazon) is one flavor of many in their DAC 3 line-up. The HGC model is a full-featured, mature DAC rocking the latest and greatest ESS ES9028PRO chipset. At 37 years strong, Benchmark has been making studio-grade electronics that are as transparent and neutral as one could ever ask for. Transparent and neutral seems to be the root of the often-polarized reviews Benchmark DACs have gotten over the years since they do not romanticize the music. Benchmark is pretty clear about its performance goals and what to expect from their products, so let’s explore why I believe haters are missing the point of why our community needs products like the DAC3 HGC, and why it should be on the consideration list at its competitive price.
What Makes the Benchmark DAC3 HGC DAC Special?
- Zero noise, is good for starters. The DAC 3 series has amazing measurements that Benchmark is thrilled to boast about on their product page. And they should be proud. Signal preservation is the name of the game if you want absolute sonic transparency, and they hit their design goals, hard. Much of this is thanks to the new ESS ES9028PRO chip.
- Volume for the analog input and all digital inputs are independently handled by their Hybrid Gain Control. This is a wild concept that assures any analog inputs are handled analog, and all digital inputs are handled digitally. Approaching attenuation this way preserves each type of signal in the best way possible. For those wrinkling their nose at the idea of digital volume control, it is not purely a bit-loss system that is lowering the volume, injuring the DAC’s signal to noise. All volume in the digital realm is handled by a 32-bit active gain control that plays to the end game of preserving all the dynamic information in the music.
- Even a novice to the hobby likely knows that clipping is bad. The DAC3 HGC is designed with ultimate transparency in mind, so Benchmark had to do something about the fact that commercial digital recordings can contain information that causes clipping in DACs. Typically, these distortions can be attributed to the top-end sparkle in the sound some audiophiles like, but in reality, it is distortion. The DAC3 HGC’s High Headroom DSP eliminates clipping artifacts that are inherent in the conversion process, mitigating this problem.
- Do you need to use a pair of wired, audiophile headphones now and again? The HPA2 headphone amplifier drove the snot out of my Grado SR80’s. The HPA2 headphone amplifier in the DAC3 HGC is designed to deliver the full rated performance of the DAC, even with dual, power-hungry headphones connected.
- Designed, built, and tested in the USA. Precision, consistency and quality require production control. Benchmark keeps a tight grip on their product through the manufacturing process which assures nothing but the best quality possible without having to charge hefty prices.
- I cannot let this section end without mentioning the distributed power regulation system that, in short, means each critical section of the DAC3 HGC gets its own, independent power. The distributed power system is a clever way to keep cost down, but assures noise does not start at the beginning of the chain with the power used to make the signals we hear.
Why Should You Care About the Benchmark DAC3 HGC DAC?
The DAC3 HGC does not color the sound of your audio. It is a studio-grade piece of audiophile equipment that can be used by recording engineers and mastering artists alike to flesh out all the musical detail they wish without having to worry about the sonic signature of their equipment. All for $2,299, which is a strong value. In the audiophile world, utilizing the DAC 3 HGC properly can bring realistic texture, voice, and integrity to instruments that would normally take a DAC well over five-figures to do. The DAC3HGC has a lot of flexibility for easy integration into a system with multiple sources (including home theater with its home theater bypass), and let us place that cherry on top with what sounded to me like a world-class headphone amplifier. Making a deal with the devil often comes at a price, and for Benchmark and the DAC3 HGC, the price seems to be derogatory name-calling when the utilization of the DAC3 HGC is less than ideal.
Some Things You Might Not Like About the Benchmark DAC3 HGC DAC
- When not utilized synergistically as part of a complete system, the DAC3 HGC gets a bad rap for being too analytical…But it is not too analytical, and here is why. The DAC3 HGC is a professional audio component used to make, monitor, and engineer the very recordings we love. All of what is prioritized in the DAC3 HGC has been developed with laser-like focus for this purpose. Individual audiophile listening ranges from second order distortion rigs like tubes, vinyl, and vintage speakers, to systems with such low distortion and high accuracy, a reflection off a wall is annoying to hear. Neither one is correct, but it is what the end-user enjoys to create their listening EXPERIENCE, and that’s all that counts. Since the listening experience begins at the source, the DAC3 HGC is a great place to start, and if the end user wants to warm it up a bit, that can be done by having the rest of the system play in kind with the DAC3 HGC to make a warmer presentation of the music happen.
- The DAC3 HGC is a nonstandard size. I am fortunate. I have a dedicated listening space where I can have all the furniture I need for my audio gear. Many do not have this luxury and must stack components. The DAC3 HGC’s form is not very stack friendly. It can be paired with another half-width product or used with a custom rack shelf from a company like Middle Atlantic.
- The DAC3 HGC looks like a pro audio piece of equipment. There are no fancy displays, organized front layout with the conversion numbers, and that is it. If you are looking for audio jewelry, this ain’t it, kid.
- There are “under the hood” settings that are likely to might changing by the end-user. The DAC3 HGC has very high output since it typically will be received by another piece of pro gear. This can cause the inputs of amplifiers and preamplifiers to become overdriven, and when this happens, there is distortion. Benchmark allows DAC3 HGC owners to pop the hood on it and change a couple of jumpers to lower the output gain a bit. It is an easy task, however some may not be comfortable with doing so, and feels like a this-could-have-been-done-with-a-toggle-switch-on-the-back sort of thing.
Listening to the Benchmark DAC3 HGC DAC…
I spun CDs and used Qobuz for most my listening to the DAC3 HGC. This set-up allowed me to test the different sound of the digital inputs. Ultimately, I did not feel there was enough of a sonic difference between the inputs to differentiate whether the sonic changes were from the type of digital input used, or the DAC3 HGC’s handling of the input signals. In this spirit, we will proceed with a few tracks I really enjoyed on the DAC3 HGC, regardless of the source I used.
Roger Waters, better known as one of the musical geniuses behind the legendary band Pink Floyd, released a re-take of some of the greatest songs he helped create. The Lockdown Sessions (buy at Amazon) seemed to be his COVID-19 project, and includes a beautiful rendition of the song “The Gunner’s Dream”. This 24-bit recording is keyed down from the original, and Water’s aged voice is not quite like it used to be, yet there is much to love. The DAC3 HGC held the integrity of Water’s voice, as it laid above the extremely true-to-instrument piano to create a deeply realistic experience. The sound was very balanced from top-to bottom, and the separation of the female chorus was etched into their individual voices. I enjoyed the attack of the dynamics as well, the DAC3 HGC seemed to excel here.
I was left wishing I had a little extra spatial information outside the speakers in spite of things placed very well across the horizontal soundstage. This is where the magic of the DAC3 HGC can get lost on some. I am not sure I would be willing to sacrifice that spatial information for how brilliant the instrumentation and voice was, regardless of how complicated the music got. Oddly enough, when listening to digital recordings with odd-ball spatial queues intentionally built into the music, such as “Sail” by Awolnation (buy at Amazon), the soundstage extended WAY beyond the loudspeakers in both the vertical and horizontal planes. It was very cool because those hard to reproduce queues were so locked-in by the DAC3 HGC, they were presented nearly as good as my $10,000 Bricasti M1. In short, if the space is engineered into the recording, it’s there, if it is not engineered in, it is not there with the DAC3 HGC. Here are links to both songs to explore.
The band Alice in Chains was a stable in my grunge era teenage years. Jar of Flies (buy at Amazon), for me, was their greatest album of musical genius, and the track “Nutshell” haunts me to this very day. A combination of acoustic guitar with electrical guitar embellishments, haunting vocals, and a complementary bass line that seems to accentuate the music at exactly the right moments is genius. Layne Staley’s voice is full of sorrow and angst and the DAC3 HGC captured his message beneath the lyrics of this quick track in a way that was hair raising.
During the more dynamic passages of Nutshell, it is not uncommon for the subtle snare work of the drums to get drowned out, however they were full-bodied and each attack was present when listening to the DAC3 HGC. Rounding off the track is one of the things 90’s era grunge was known for: The guitar solo. Jerry Cantrell plays with genius mastery, and the Benchmark DAC3 HGC truly had no problem capturing the subtle details that brought his playing into my room.
Does the Benchmark DAC3 HGC DAC Have Any Resale Value?
The Benchmark DAC3 HGC will hold its value well. Benchmark has a reputation for reliability and performance. There should be no issues offloading it for a reasonable amount in the future if the itch arises. Its professional audio crossover appeal and relatively modest price along with an easy/cheap to ship form factor help resale values in your favor too.
Who Is The Competition For the DAC3 HGC DAC?
The glaring competitor for the Benchmark DAC3 HGC is the legendary Schiit Yggdrasil+ (review pending) that comes in a few flavors ranging from $2,299 to $2,699. When comparing the two side-by-side I am not sure the Schiit Yggdrasil+ is better as it is better described as different. The Schiit Yggdrasil+ is much more atmospheric or open sounding with a deep soundstage that might be more appealing to some listeners. It is a difficult comparison that will truly come down to the individual listener.
Luxman makes a low-noise, high performance DAC that includes a high-drive headphone amplifier. The Luxman $2,895 DA-250 USB is an exercise in great engineering by Luxman who has been around since the dawn of radio broadcasting in 1925. Luxman has a strong following in the audiophile community thanks to their reputation for accurate sound reproduction. This is another I would love to hear side-by-side with the DAC3 HGC. At $2,499, the Musical Fidelity M6X (buy at Amazon) is a well-received DAC using a differential arrangement of ESS DAC chipsets to lower noise and increase performance. Add the silent power supply and Musical Fidelity has created a DAC with extremely low distortion, noise, and incredible measured performance.
Final Thoughts on the Benchmark DAC3 HGC DAC
The Benchmark DAC3 HGC (buy at Amazon) is a pro audio DAC with audiophile appeal that allows a look into your music as a recording/mastering engineer would hear it. While there is a lack of romance in that statement, there is a huge up-side to the DAC3 HGC. This up-side comes in the form of music appreciation on a very honest, and deep level that would appeal to musicians and those who listen to and work with live instruments. The ability of the DAC3 HGC to keep the integrity of instruments, and the recording, make the listening experience one of honesty, rather than an experience that is euphonic and romantic. I like the DAC3 HGC, and would rather have a completely authentic front-end I can throw tubes behind to soften up, if necessary, than try to get more resolution from a system that may not already have it. I certainly recommend the DAC3 HGC, and would urge anyone to put it on their list if shopping for DACs between $2,000 and $3,000.