Ever since PC audio started making its way into the Hi-fi market, the need for dedicated DAC or Digital Analogue Converters became premium. Better still, if your CD player’s DAC could not be trusted, this has always been an option. For e.g., in a recording studio, a great place for a DAC is between the electric guitar and the console. So before the analogue guitar is captured digitally, it is run through a DAC so that the best digital conversion of its analogue signal can be made. But then, when you have a company like Benchmark, whose DAC1 won the ears of pretty much the entire audiophile industry, you can hear a marked difference. To up what they’d done with the DAC1, they’ve released their DAC2 HGC—a hi-end DAC that costs enough to make you wonder whether it’s worth it. Well, that’s exactly what this review is all about.
OUT OF THE BOX
The DAC2 HGC most closely resembles a computer’s off-board soundcard. It’s encased in a little rectangular shell with no real fancy design elements. The colours used in the model we were given were primarily silver and black. The front panel, as compared to that of other DACs looked pretty busy with small dots for indicators, a volume knob and small, black buttons. At first it seems a bit overwhelming but as you read the markings, things become a lot clearer. You have to understand that a DAC isn’t something that you care too much about when it comes to aesthetics. It’s truly a functional piece of equipment and doesn’t look to draw any attention to it.
Where do we start? The DAC2 HGC may be the most feautre packed product DAC out there, and that’s the reason why this little guy is priced as high as it is. To start with, this DAC employs an ESS Sabre32 DAC chip that offers better signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), more headroom and allows gain management through a Hybrid Gain Control or HGC (the second half of its model name). We are comparing it to the DAC1, that didn’t have the HGC and also didn’t come close to the SNR and headroom that the DAC2 offers. The extra headroom lets the DAC2 take on PCM peaks that are more often than not higher than 0 dBFS. So throughout the gain stages, the DAC2 offers +3.5dBFS as headroom for any extra peaks that might still be in a digital recording.
The HGC works using a combination of active analogue gain control, passive low-impedance attenuators, a 32-bit gain control and a servo-driven volume control. The best part about the signal chain is that Benchmark has made sure that analogue inputs will never convert to digital and digital inputs will never pass through an analogue potentiometer. This gives the DAC2 authority over the signal path. You can also open the top of the DAC2 and mess with the jumper settings on its motherboard that allow you to tweak the gain-jumps (i.e. instead of 10dB jumps you can shift to 20dB), headphone automatic muting and home-theatre bypass. That last feature is to set the DAC2s pass-through gain to unity when the surround system is active. This makes the DAC2 relinquish control of the gain and hand it over to the surround system.
There are so many features like polarity switch, UltraLock2 Jitter Attenuation System that it’s hard to cram them into just one review. It would also be wise to check out everything this little guy can do from its website that offers about four pages of features that you could never think a DAC would ever have. But before we move onto the next section, we’d like to point towards the front panel for a moment. The tiny light indictors are in fact a quick and easy way of telling exactly what the word length and sample rate of the input audio signal is. More often than not, you could have a 192 kHz/24-bit file on your computer and running it through the computer’s sound card that downgrades the audio file to 16-bits/44.1kHz. But you never really know that it’s doing that because your computer’s got no way of telling you about the file when it’s outputting the audio. These indicators confirm just what you’re inputting and, hence, outputting from the DAC2 HGC.
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