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Mastering with DAC1 HDR

(DAC now replaced and updated by a superior Crane Song Solaris Quantum DAC)

A short and sweet entry here today, I have just installed a Benchmark DAC-1 HDR here and it is already producing sublime sound. An unassuming plain looking aluminium box that has design money spent where it counts, superb audiophile grade electronics. The Benchmark takes the original DAC-1 design which is a very good DAC in its own right but the HDR steps up the fidelity, clarity and detail significantly by employing National Semiconductor LM4562 opamps in the analogue line output stage. Having a keen interest in electronics I have always found that the LM4562 has an extremely well defined sonic capability. Opamps are small integrated circuit chips, the LM4562 is a small signal audio amplifier. The LM4562 is lauded as one of the finest sounding opamps in manufacture today. The clarity, detail and sonic accuracy produced by these opamps are to my ears, unmatched. In this DAC they are installed as standard by the manufacturer Benchmark Media. However, I have used these opamps in various equipment modifications in the past with exceptional results. (As well as our DAC our ADC uses the LM4562 in it’s input buffer stages)

One of the reasons I can hear how good this DAC really is, is down to the exceptional acoustics in the mastering studio. There are gigantic 20 x henge bass traps in the studio that make a huge difference to the accuracy of the low end that comes out of the PMC (IB1S – large format) monitoring. These large broadband bass traps are part of a no compromise acoustic treatment of the studio, which includes bass trapping, lower mid range trapping, absorption for the mids and also difusion. With this kind of specialist room treatment and correct placement of high end monitoring the DAC-1 HDR is allowed to really shine and sonically inform. This is what mastering is about, true sonic reference where consistent results are expected and can be produced for clients.

The DAC-1 HDR is an oversampling DAC as most modern high end designs are and this completely eliminates jitter artifacts using what Benchmark call “Ultralock”. As such the stereo imaging is spot on, there is exceptional dynamics, transient reproduction, solidity and accuracy of sound and a ruler flat frequency response, sonic traits that are hard to beat. Some studios swap their DAC/ADC like the change of wind direction I prefer a solid reference I can trust day in day out for my clients results. The Benchmark DAC-1 HDR is exactly that, solid and accurate. In addition to being a very good DAC for driving our analogue equipment chain it has a good quality headphone amplifier, perfect for spotting defects such as clicks in audio.

There are so many DAC’s on the market and another aspect of Benchmark’s attention to detail was related to the user manual, this DAC has been very rigourously tested and that is always reassuring as a mastering engineer. Whilst specifications alone do not always give a full picture of how any piece of audio equipment will sound it does provide confidence if you can interpret those specifications. The manual is filled with graph upon graph of various test conditions and it becomes very clear that Benchmark’s engineering team are highly competent from a technical perspective and not shy of showing their achievement with this device. This DAC allows me to hear all sonic details through the PMC IB1S large format monitors.

In mastering we require accuracy and that is where these tests come into play, it truly is a benchmark piece of equipment that presents only what is really in the music. In mastering, correcting something that is being enhanced by the DAC or not really there is not correction, it’s being mistaken, and why we require high standards of engineering when it comes to DAC design in audio mastering. So with this in mind the Benchmark DAC-1 HDR presents exactly what is in the music and nothing extra which translates into better equalization and dynamic processing decisions. Ultimately that is what helps a competent engineer make good masters. It also allows the right amount of analogue characters to be added from the analogue equipment we use.

Very pleased indeed to have this extremely high quality piece of equipment in the studio.

By Barry Gardner