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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.