What Does It Take To Turn The PC Into A Hi-Fi Audio Platform?

Benchmark DAC2 HGC

Few devices are consistently praised in the audiophile community. The Benchmark DAC1 is one of the chosen few. You'll have a hard time finding someone with critical feedback about that device. And, although personal preferences and arguments over value are rife, it really is the reference for a high-end DAC and headphone amplifier combination.

In October of 2012, Benchmark Media released its DAC2 HGC to weighty expectations. At $2000, it's certainly not affordable (a DAC1 HDR, comparable in features, still goes for $1600). But to Benchmark's credit, aside from the headphone amplifier, which is the same HPA2 found on the DAC1, the DAC2 is an entirely new device. It leverages what is one of the world's highest-end DACs, the ESS ES9018, adding to it, among other things, custom jitter-reduction logic. It lives up to its Hybrid Gain Control name by implementing separate volume controls: digital for digital inputs; analog for analog inputs.

The Benchmark DAC2 HGC is the Cadillac of this round-up. It includes many features I'd imagine are generally useful to PC enthusiasts:

  • Asynchronous USB input: up to 172.4/192 kHz at 24-bit PCM, plus native DSD64 support
  • Four S/PDIF digital inputs (two coax, two optical)
  • Two RCA stereo single-ended analog inputs
  • Two RCA stereo single-ended analog outputs
  • One XLR stereo balanced analog output
  • Two front-panel stereo TRS (1/4") headphone jacks
  • Input selection, word-length, and word-clock display on front panel (finally!)
  • A remote control commanding a motor-driven actuator attached to the master volume control
  • Polarity and dim/mute buttons, and a 12 V trigger (less commonly used)

Both front-panel headphone jacks can be active concurrently, without any signal degradation. The left headphone output jack mutes the back-panel analog output, while the right headphone output jack does not. This is a simple (but incredibly useful) feature that lets you mute (or not) your speakers by picking the appropriate jack for your headphones.

The DAC2 HGC operates as a USB Audio Class 1 device by default, which means that it doesn't require driver support for Windows and Mac compatibility. It can be manually switched to operate as a Class 2 device, necessitating a driver in Windows, which is included. The main reason to switch to UAC 2 is to play PCM files above 24-bit/96-kHz, DSD files, or if you need an ASIO driver for any reason. If none of those apply, there's no reason to change modes.

More affordable versions of the DAC2 HGC do exist. There's a DAC2 D without analog inputs and a DAC2 L with analog inputs, but without the headphone amplifiers. Both models are $200 cheaper at $1800. PC enthusiasts may look favorably at the DAC2 D, since it's unlikely that you'd need the analog inputs and that device supports concurrently multiple sets of both speakers and headphones, whereas the DAC2 L does not support headphones.

In case you're wondering, the DAC2 reflects exceptional build quality. That's something you'd no doubt expect at this price point, but it's still an important point to confirm. There's also a bundled remote that, while not terribly useful in a PC environment, is still a nice touch.

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  • shahrooz
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
    12
  • SuckRaven
    Bravo ! Awesome, and a very thorough review. Even though as you mention, audio gear is not usually the forté/emphasis of the reviews here, it's refreshing to have someone at least try to cut through the (more often-than-not) overpriced arena of bullshit that is the field of "high-end" audio. I applaud the review, and the effort. Keep up the good work. More please.
    12
  • kitsunestarwind
    The biggest thing I have found for the PC is no matter how good your DAC is , if your speakers and AMP are crap, then it will never sound better.People spend big money on DAC's and forget that you need a high Quality amp with very very low THD (total harmonic distortions) and a very good set of Full Range speakers with high sensitivity if you want good sound, instead of crappy (albeit expensive) computer speakers especially sets with a sub.
    12
  • Other Comments
  • SuckRaven
    Bravo ! Awesome, and a very thorough review. Even though as you mention, audio gear is not usually the forté/emphasis of the reviews here, it's refreshing to have someone at least try to cut through the (more often-than-not) overpriced arena of bullshit that is the field of "high-end" audio. I applaud the review, and the effort. Keep up the good work. More please.
    12
  • PudgyChicken
    Just wondering, why not test a Creative X-Fi Titanium HD or something like that alongside the ASUS Xonar? It would be interesting to see some of the differences between different PCIe sound cards in this matchup. However I understand that what you were really going for was showing the difference between price point and form factor at the same time, so perhaps not testing two PCIe cards makes sense.
    7
  • kitsunestarwind
    The biggest thing I have found for the PC is no matter how good your DAC is , if your speakers and AMP are crap, then it will never sound better.People spend big money on DAC's and forget that you need a high Quality amp with very very low THD (total harmonic distortions) and a very good set of Full Range speakers with high sensitivity if you want good sound, instead of crappy (albeit expensive) computer speakers especially sets with a sub.
    12
  • shahrooz
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
    12
  • maestro0428
    Wonderful article! I love listening to music and do so mostly at my PCs. I try to set up systems where audio is important in component selection. Although we all love drooling over expensive equipment, many times it is not all that necessary for an amazing experience. I'd love to see more! Including smaller, studio speakers as I believe that speakers/headphones are the most important part of the equation. Keep up the great work!
    1
  • blackmagnum
    Don't forget that for PCs: the hardware is as good as its software (drivers).
    5
  • Someone Somewhere
    Agree totally with this. It always annoys me when people say they're spending over $100 on a sound card, especially when it turns out that they're using Optical out, and the whole thing is basically moot.I now have a nice source to link to.
    0
  • 1zacster
    The thing is you can't just pick up two sets of good headphones, try them on different DACs/AMPs and expect to hear major differences, it takes longer than 5 minutes for your ears to adjust to newer headphones and for the differences to actually show. This is like taking food from Left Bank and then bringing in a bunch of hobos and asking them tel tell the differences between the foods.
    -2
  • dogman-x
    I use an optical cable from my PC to a home theatre receiver. With this setup, stereo CD audio content is sent as raw PCM to the receiver, not compressed into DD or DTS. These days you can buy a very good quality home theatre receiver for less than $200. Audio quality is outstanding.
    1
  • Memnarchon
    I would love to see ALC1150 in these tests too, since its widely used at most Z87 mobos.
    1
  • outlw6669
    Excellent in depth review Filippo! It is good to see a bit of Tom's roots shining through after all this time :)
    0
  • loosescrews
    I would have liked to see some hard to drive planar magnetic headphones in the mix (maybe some of the Audeze LCD-X or LCD-XC headphones or HiFiMAN something) and also a cheaper DAC/Amp solution like Maybe the Schiit Audio Modi + Magni or Vali. Another nice addition would be the Creative Sound Blaster Z Series ZXR with its TI Burr-Brown DAC.
    3
  • BrightCandle
    Can we get game surround sound audio tested as well? A lot of the reviews recently are focussing on sound quality differences in music but as you have determined there really isn't any difference there. But there is a clear difference I can hear in the comparative videos of battlefield with cmss, sbx pro, razor and realtek on youtube videos and the different surround sound effects really do seem to change positioning quality. This remains the only reason I think a sound card is worth it over realtek but it would be good to get to the bottom of whether its just EQ or its genuine quality differences related to the HRTF or something else.
    3
  • bstaletic
    Great article. I also came to similar conclusions. I had bought High Resolution Technolies Musicstreamer II 2013 edition for ~$140and an Asus (I don't remember which one) for ~70$. I have technics SU-V8 amplifier and Wharfedale E50 speakers (cool stuff, look it up). Muscistreamer made bass a bit better (though not everyone could hear the difference) and now I say it was a waste of money. Asus on the other hand could make a difference if you set it up correctly, but you have to do it for every album so forget about shuffle. Only DAC I'm willing to hear is DACmagic for ~$400 and I doubt I'm going to be impressed.Conclusion: Buy any PC (the cheaper the better), and spend the rest of money you have on speakers and amplifier. Also make yourown cables.
    0
  • ilovetea
    What's the purpose to invest into some special pc hardware, if major reciever brands have digital inputs and also usually unify inflows of audio through digital filters? This makes the reciever to serve as DAC both supporting and limiting the final quality.
    4
  • Someone Somewhere
    Anonymous said:
    What's the purpose to invest into some special pc hardware, if major reciever brands have digital inputs and also usually unify inflows of audio through digital filters? This makes the reciever to serve as DAC both supporting and limiting the final quality.


    What I have been saying for quite a while.
    3
  • vmnej
    Electronics are negilable. The hard part ist turn ing the electrical signal into a mechanical signal (sound waves). That' why most of the money should go into the speakers and then maybe room acoustics. I highly recommend a pair of Nubert nuPro speakers.
    5
  • gaymer1984
    I have a challenge to lay down for the writers of this article as an audiophile.Nothing you have particularly referred to can be contested; you do get more features with more expensive hardware, but price isn't necessarily an indicator of quality and it is high quality audio you are looking for, not necessarily the price point. That assumption doesn't work with sound cards as the first point in the signal path to the speakers.My challenge is this: compare your ALC 889 to an E-MU 1616m PCI-E. The quality of the DACs is higher on this £250 board than other PC sources I've heard myself, and you aren't spending £2,000 to get there. I challenge you to NOT find a difference. Don't change anything else in the signal path - keep the cable that feeds to your amp, and the speaker cables the same. Then listen to audio you know very well, and you know has been recorded well. This is harder to find with current music.You aren't looking for things to sound "better" or "louder", you are looking for greater detail. A better stereo "image" as it is called, where you can place instruments being reproduced by the speakers in a notional 3-D space. That is the mark of "good" audio.I ask you to accept this challenge because without following up this statement of $2 is as good as $2,000 you will potentially mislead budding enthusiasts down a misguided path.
    0
  • martel80
    Why not include readings from the RightMark Audio Analyzer? They don't tell you anything about how it sounds but still...
    0
  • Someone Somewhere
    Oh, great.

    Do you believe that the E-MU 1616m is significantly better than their $2k amp? If not, then they're still not going to find a difference.
    7