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To Hans Wetzel,
A simple question: What would be the best Benchmark Media Systems DAC for my system, which consists of an Adcom power amp and a Sony ES CD player? I am not interested in computer audio or home theater whatsoever. All I want is the best possible sound between my CD player and my power amp.
Edward J. Roell
While I think Benchmark's DAC2 HGC is a really terrific DAC, as I wrote in my February review, at $1995, I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense for your system and needs. If you are not interested in computer audio, I would go with Benchmark's base DAC1, which sells for $995. Despite its age, I think it is a solid-performing DAC that will offer an audible improvement over the digital-to-analog circuitry in your Sony ES CD player. The only caveat would be that, since you don't mention a preamplifier in your system, you would be forced to use the volume control dial on the DAC1 to change the volume of your system, as the base DAC1 does not come with a remote control. If this is an issue for you, then the decision becomes more difficult, for with the DAC1 HDR priced at $1595, which comes with a remote control, the DAC2 HGC would be just $400 more expensive. At that point, I would probably spring for the DAC2 HGC. I hope this helps. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I see that you own the Hegel Music Systems H300, which has a built-in DAC. I'm trying to decide if I want an integrated amplifier with a DAC built into it or if I should buy an external DAC. Since you own the H300, I'd like to know your thoughts.
Thank you in advance,
Jerry, there used to be a time that integrated amplifiers were looked down upon by most audiophiles. I don't think there was ever a good argument for why this was, but I suspect it was a status thing -- someone who bought an integrated was too poor or ill-informed to buy conventionally excellent separates. These days, I think that stigma has largely vanished, and with good reason. It's because integrated amps usually sound just as good as the separates on which they're based, while costing less money.
In the Hegel's case, $5500 for just the amp and preamp in the H300 strikes me as very reasonable. Having a built-in DAC tips the package into "flaming bargain" territory. Yet the DAC section of the H300 is hardly an afterthought. I was told by folks from Hegel that its quality exceeds that of Hegel's $2000 HD20, and comes close to matching the performance of Hegel's flagship $2500 HD25. Jeff Fritz recently reviewed that DAC on our sister site, Ultra Audio, and found it held its own against far more expensive gear. In my experience, the H300's DAC is very good, and combined with the amp and preamp section, make it an easy recommendation.
But you sound like you may be considering other integrated amps that may or may not have a built-in DAC. Here's what I'll say: Most companies have a certain type of sound that pervades their various product lines. If you like a certain sound, and can find an integrated-DAC that fits your desires, I say go for it. However, if you want to strike a balance between, say, the musicality of a Musical Fidelity product and the sheer resolving power of a Hegel DAC, then buying a separate DAC makes sense. For many this kind of "system tuning" is what hi-fi is all about. For me, I want the best balance between maximum utility and maximum sound quality. Hegel's H300 just so happened to fit the bill for me. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
Thank you for the sane and thorough review of GoldenEar Technology's Triton Three. I was curious about the lack of ±3dB and you addressed it nicely. I wish more reviewers would shed more light than heat, as you did in your review.
Richard, thanks for writing. I am glad that you appreciate our approach here at GoodSound! We think it's more helpful and illuminating for our readers than simply waxing poetic on a product. I can only hope that what our other contributors and I write correlate with what listeners are likely to hear in their own listening rooms, nothing more, nothing less. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I am buying new speakers and don't want to spend much more than $2000 unless I need to. They need to go on stands. I would like to know what your favorite speakers are from this list: GoldenEar Technology Aon 3, KEF LS50, KEF R300, Monitor Audio GX100, Aperion Audio Verus Grand Bookshelf. If there are others I should know about, let me know.
Troy, you’ve singled out some great speakers in this list. If you’re definitely limiting yourself to bookshelf speakers, the KEFs are standouts in this group. The LS50 has received wide acclaim, including from our own Doug Schneider, while the R300 is the smaller brother of my reference R900 loudspeakers (review to be published on GoodSound! in May). The R300 has the benefit of a dedicated bass driver to complement its Uni-Q driver, and this allows for not only deeper bass, but also less distortion through the midrange, as the R300’s Uni-Q is not saddled with the burden of producing full-range sound. Personally, I find the LS50 to be the cooler design, but I’d bet the R300 will play louder, cleaner, and ultimately better than the LS50 for just a little more money.
The GoldenEar Technology Aon 3 should produce a broad, smooth sound for under $1000/pair, as would Aperion Audio’s Verus Grand Bookshelf. The GoldenEar will have greater low-frequency extension than the Aperion, but in the case of both companies, floorstanding models can be had for less than $2000 that bring significantly more to the table.
I can’t be sure why you’re limited to using stand-mounted speakers, but you should seriously consider GoldenEar’s Triton Three and Aperion’s Verus Grand floorstanders, both of which retail for just under $2000/pair. Both of these options will produce more bass than any of the speakers you’ve listed, and probably by a wide margin. I have not taken a good listen to anything made by Monitor Audio, but the GX100 was reviewed on our sister site, SoundStage! Hi-Fi, last year, receiving a Reviewers’ Choice award. I have also seen the GX100 at recent audio shows, and I have to say they are very pretty, and seem well-built. Though their fit and finish might be better, I suspect the GX100s will come up just a little short of KEF’s R300 in sound quality, as the KEF is a three-way design using the crazy-good Uni-Q. You may find the Monitor’s ribbon tweeter to be pretty intoxicating, however.
The only other suggestion I would have is Sonus Faber’s Venere 2.0. At $1699/pair, the stylish Italian bookshelf speakers would arguably be the best looking of this group, with the Monitor Audio a close second. With their matching stands, the price would be right around $2000.
Which is my favorite? By default it would have to be KEF’s R300 since I own its bigger brother, but every speaker here makes a compelling argument for itself in some form or another. The question is which fits your wants and needs, and you can only answer that by taking a listen to them all. Let us know which direction you wind up going. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I am the proud owner of a Rogue Audio Sphinx, so I’ll be interested in your review of it in the near future. Due to “environmental” issues -- very bad AC and RFI -- I replaced the included cheap power cord with a Pangea Audio shielded cord with good results. I also went all out and bought a PS Audio P3 Power Plant to protect all my electronics. This “hobby” can get expensive!
Vic, glad to hear that you like the Sphinx -- which I mentioned in an editorial earlier this year -- so much. I think it’s a very interesting piece, and quite affordably priced. I’m hoping to write up the review in the next six weeks or so, with a likely June or July publication date here on GoodSound!.
As for your investment in a power cable and power conditioner, I’m not exactly shocked, but I’ll wait to say more until the review is published. And while this hobby can certainly get expensive, I think the Rogue, on its own, offers quite a bit of quality for its rather approachable asking price. I’ve never been a fan of tubes, as I explained last summer, but I do think the folks at Rogue are on to something with this hybrid vacuum-tube/class-D topology. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I’m e-mailing you to let you know that I find your articles and equipment reviews really enjoyable, and quite refreshingly honest, as well. Your complete lack of pretense, artifice, and common, unrehearsed honesty that comes across in your writing is unique and just a kick to read.
Your latest article prompted this e-mail; not sure why except that it struck a chord like many others. A lot of other reviewers take pains to always be reminding us that “. . . of course, it’s really all about the MUSIC,” and then continue to go on about some $20k speakers, or preamp, or whatever. And I’m thinking, “and just how many CDs (or downloads, or whatever) and concert tickets could I buy for 20k?”
At the moment, my system has evolved (and simplified) over about 30 years to a Bryston integrated amp, MartinLogan Vantage electrostatic speakers, two HSU subs, an Oppo BDP-105, and a Magnum Dynalab Etude FM tuner -- I’m lucky enough to have two good classical FM stations nearby. I also listen to ‘80s/’90s rock as well as deep-space electronic ambient, and organ music, as well -- my wife is a church organist. So, not a cheap-crap system by any means, but, relatively speaking, fairly modest. I make my own interconnects and speaker cables from decent wire and connectors, mostly because it’s easy and fun. At one point I had about a dozen boxes in my system -- separate everything. I simplified as I upgraded over the last seven years or so.
It is of course a truism that very, very few people appreciate spending even this kind of money on a stereo audio system. So your point is hardly new. It is just as much a truism that very few people appreciate any obsessive, niche hobby. It doesn’t make us particularly elite, or discerning, just a little weird. But I’m okay with that.
A friend of mine at work thinks I’m insane, and teases me about it. However, he’s taken up flying private planes as a hobby, owns his own plane, and has spent more in five years than I’ve spent on audio in my life. He is just crazy about it, so, money well spent. I don’t begrudge buyers of $250k+ audio systems -- they're fun, and I do like reading about really expensive equipment.
One closing observation: we read a lot of hand-wringing about two-channel enthusiast-audio dying, dealers closing, etc. So how to explain the mind-boggling variety of equipment available, at all price points? Compared to 30 years ago, when I started, the number of choices is just incredible. Not just that, but real improvements have been made in power amps and speakers, not to mention high-resolution digital audio. DSD is really appealing, except that the selection is so limited now. Handy that the Oppo has a flash update to support DSD.
So, thanks for all the good writing and interesting ideas, and I expect you’ll keep at it.
Thanks for the kind words, Doug. I plan on writing as long as readers are able to stomach my monthly efforts. I only hope to contribute to the discussion on this audio hobby of ours beyond the banal “be sure to audition this product” or, as you suggest, “it’s all about the music.” There’s a lot of worthy conversation to be had about equipment, formats, cost, and even forays into psychology/philosophy, as I’ll touch on in my May 1 editorial. I imagine that it will resonate with many readers, if not all, to one degree or another.
As for your “deep-space electronic ambient” music, color me curious. About one third of my music collection is comprised of electronic music, so it’s nice to hear that others dabble in the abstract and esoteric! . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I just read your latest editorial. I was once the crazed, obsessed "audiophile" (I do have the addictive gene, I believe.) I would lust and spend above my means for the next, best flavor of the month.
Eventually, doing that lead to having very little money left to spend on new music. Listening became more like work, less like pleasure. Well, times and priorities have changed. The "audiophile" system is gone. It’s been replaced with a PC, some powered speakers, a headphone amplifier-DAC, and headphones. This is located in the family room, and the family uses it. Decisions on equipment purchases are not based solely on how something sounds. Sure, I want good sound, but will the wife, daughter, and son be able enjoy the system as well? The major considerations are ease of use, features, price, and sound, in no particular order. Now having said all that, I can still get a little crazy over this piece or that thingamabob because of something the audio press has written. When I feel that craziness coming back, I remember back a few years ago when I served the equipment. Those weren't really fun times. The pleasure truly comes when the music serves me!
Great read and keep up the good work,
Jay, glad to hear that I'm not alone. I was really looking forward to reviewing the Cabasses that are mentioned and pictured in the article (you’ll be able to find my review in Ultra Audio, our sister site, on the 15th of this month). But after seeing those (beautiful) 124-pound beasts leave my listening room, I never want to review something that big again. They're huge! If I had that dedicated listening room, perhaps, but not for a normal city apartment.
I'm finding that I derive the most pleasure from products that sound good and are thoughtfully designed. For that reason, Audioengine's little A5+ remains a favorite of mine, despite the fact that a pair only costs $399. My bamboo review samples looked great, had everything one needed right in the box, and sounded pretty good, to boot. They weren't the best in any individual respect, but as a package, it was so livable, as I wrote in my review. It's no surprise to me that you've replaced your traditional hi-fi setup for a computer-based setup with powered speakers. We have at least one powered desktop speaker review in the pipeline, and possibly another, so stay tuned. It's pretty crazy just how good some of these small desktop solutions can sound. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I just got my Benchmark DAC2 HGC this afternoon to use in my main two-channel music-only system to connect to my Audio Research LS27 preamp. It is replacing a Stello DA220 Mk.II DAC. I also have a Benchmark DAC1 USB that I’ve only used on my desktop with my computer.
I just wanted to ask a question: when you used your review DAC2 only as a DAC, how did you have it configured? I think I understand how to hook up the DAC2, but I just wanted to verify things because it is different due to the volume/gain control knob in the front compared to my old Stello. The Stello was just the same normal hookup: source to DAC and DAC to preamp (with a fixed output). But with the DAC2, is the knob in the front a gain control when using the digital inputs? Should that just be set to the maximum level when I hook it up to my preamp? Or should I play around with the levels and find the one that works best? Is that how the DAC2 is meant to be used when using it as a traditional DAC like my old Stello DAC? I am using the balanced XLR outputs from the DAC into my preamp. For now, I‘ve left the DAC2's XLR output jumper pads at the factory default of 10dB.
Just a little confused. Thanks for any light that you can shed.
Congratulations on the DAC2 HGC, Sanjay. I think you'll find it to be a noticeable improvement over your DAC1, and you can be confident that you own one of the most overachieving digital components on the market today.
As for the setup, the DAC2 can be a little confusing. Unlike the DAC1, which has a switch on the back to select whether you want a fixed output (for use as a DAC) or a variable output (for use as a DAC-preamplifier to be run directly into an amplifier), the DAC2 only has the volume control on the front. I, too, was a little befuddled at first as to how the volume control should be set, but your hunch is a correct one. When used solely as a DAC, simply set the volume to maximum and you'll be all set. As I recall, Benchmark's informative manual details how to preset the volume on the DAC2, so you should be able to preset it to maximum whenever the unit is turned on.
But if you decide to try running the DAC2 as a DAC-preamp, bypassing your Audio Research LS27 in the process, pay very close attention to the setup. When run as a preamp, you'll want to have the volume preset very low so as not to blow out your speakers. You will also want to always make sure to turn on your amp before the DAC2 when powering on your system, and turn off the DAC2 before the amplifier when powering down your system. I experienced a brutally loud pop through the GoldenEar Technologies Triton Three loudspeakers when I got that backwards, though luckily all of the equipment was fine. It can't hurt to double- and triple-check everything if you decide to go this route.
Please let us know how the DAC2 HGC works out for you. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
It was with smile on my face that I read your post-CES article. While I truly admire those companies that push the outer envelopes of audio performance with cost-no-object designs, a good amount of the shit being pushed onto the public is somewhat dubious at best.
If you want to read what happens when you suggest that a $200,000 speaker is overpriced, check out the comments under Stereophile's review of Wilson Audio's Alexandria XLF. I posted two well-though-out comments about how I thought the Wilson XLFs were drastically overpriced and you'd think that I just spat in Pope Francis's face.
Here's my first comment:
Since most of these dopes who were flaming me know as much about speaker design and audio engineering as a shit I take in the morning, I opted out of adding anything else. It did seem that about half the people who posted actually understood what I said.
Take it light,
Jeff, you're fighting an uphill battle against legions of audiophiles, including many reviewers, like Michael Fremer, who penned the review you commented on. Name recognition and rave reviews seem to cement a product's quality in the minds of many folks. Michael Fremer's outgoing speakers were Wilson Audio MAXX 3s. A pair matched with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Lamm Industries' electronics behind them were blazing away in one of the rooms at CES, and, without exaggeration, I couldn't listen to the setup for more than a minute or two. The tweeters were old inverted Focal domes that happen to ring like hell when they begin to break up, resulting in a really edgy and sharp top end. I followed two younger guys out of the room, and without provocation, one muttered to the other: "Those sounded terrible." It goes to show you that just because something is expensive -- $68,000 for the MAXX 3s -- it doesn't mean it's any good. Trust your ears, then ask what the price is -- I think you'll be shocked to find that there's more engineering (and better resultant sound) in products costing an order of magnitude less than either of those Wilsons. I would have thought that $200,000 would buy you bespoke drivers, but it looks like that would have pushed them over their intended price point. Maybe next time. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I've read your opinion of the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, and while I find it very well detailed in putting on the table all the differences when comparing this DAC with the DAC1 USB, I was surprised not to find any comment regarding the possibility that the DAC2 has to play DSD files, since it supports native DSD conversion. I am a glad owner of a DAC1 USB and I was thinking to have someday the possibility to play DSD, partially in order to find if there are improvements in sound quality, and to see (better to say listen!) if, depending on the music, DSD is really better than PCM. Do you have any experience about a comparison between DSD and PCM files on the DAC2 HGC?
Luciano, the DAC1 USB was my reference for the last few years, and I think it's still a terrific piece of gear. The DAC2 would be a noticeable improvement, however, as it offers a more cultured and refined sound than its older sibling. Regarding DSD, I actually did mention that the DAC2 supports DSD. Beyond that, though, I can't provide you with any perspective. I am behind the times in terms of high-resolution formats, with by far the majority of my music collection comprising digital rips of Red Book CDs. This is partly because I am an inherent cheapskate (hence my writing for GoodSound!), and partly because most of the music I like isn't available in high-resolution formats. As more DSD content becomes available, however, we will be sure to review some of these releases and will hopefully be in a better position to then offer a comparison of the two formats. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I just stumbled across your site. Nice writing. Wondered about your opinion -- are you familiar with New England Audio Resource (NEAR) speakers? I like their bookshelf speakers (yeah their drivers are kind of in your face, but I like that), and have found some old 50Ms that I'm thinking of purchasing. I'm wondering if it makes sense to purchase speakers that are around 15 years old and how they'd stack up against more modern stuff? I used to use a lot of vintage quadraphonic receivers, and am currently running a Denon AVR-3808CI with a Sansui QSD-2 for my legacy quadraphonic vinyl. I use the same setup for video in 5.1, as well.
Matt, I don't think you're crazy for thinking about buying older equipment. In fact, I just purchased a pair of almost 15-year-old Mirage OM-5 loudspeakers because I'd always thought they were pretty cool. I'm not familiar with NEAR (I was learning my multiplication tables when they were new), though I think that the 50Ms would be a pretty neat fit for your vintage rig. But as to how they would fare when compared to more modern designs, I hate to tell you, but not well.
Driver and cabinet design has come a long, long way since the 50Ms were in their prime. Many manufacturers make tower speakers under $2000/pr. that would outperform the 50Ms in just about every way. I would also worry about speakers that old because of normal wear and tear. Driver surrounds may deteriorate, having a deleterious effect on the sound, meaning the vintage towers may have a pretty short lifespan. And if the speakers were abused, you will have a bear of a time trying to find replacement parts. Given your affinity for older gear, I imagine that you're leaning towards buying the 50Ms, and so long as they're in good shape, I think you should jump on them. Worst case, you move them on and take a small hit to the wallet, but with no regrets after having been able to try them out. That's my approach with these Mirages, so I'm practicing what I'm preaching! . . . Hans Wetzel