Benchmark System – HiFi Review

Benchmark System – HiFi Review


hifiandmusicsource.comThis is my HiFi Review of an all in Benchmark system, the Benchmark DAC3 B with an LA4 pre-amplifier and the flagship 100Wpc AHB2 power amplifier.

Benchmark systemA few years ago a good friend of mine mocked Naim as a middle of the road English HiFi Brand, and I was incredulous. To some extent, I am less concerned about this view because I like the Naim sound and I have invested so much of my time and money into the glowing green logos of Naim Classic Series.  However, as several years go by and I’ve experienced premium systems from the likes of  T+A (HV), Rega, Moon and now Benchmark, I do get the original premise and I may have taken a different path as I’ve expressed many times.

At the end of the day, this is all very subjective as we know and all of this equipment is rather good in broad terms, it is mostly about your perception of tone and then the interaction with the equipment (Naim’s App is still poor, Moon’s better, Auralic is great, BluOS is still my preferred interface).  So with this in mind, I am very interested to see how this Benchmark system stacks up (literally) against the outgoing Naim Supernait 3, ND5 XS2 with the same speaker and cable set-up.

Design

The system I have here is the Benchmark AHB2 Power amplifier (retailing near £3,300), a Benchmark LA4 pre-amplifier (£2,750) and a Benchmark DAC3 B (£1,900, total cost near £7,950, excluding cables and speakers, etc.).   It is quite a system then.

This Benchmark system is characterised by its compact size; it is nearly half the width of a standard HiFi separate, indeed the AHB2 (just under 30 cm wide) seems amazingly small given the power it seems to be chucking out.  This is all in the design with Benchmark using a hybrid Class A/B  design that uses revolutionary THX-patented AAA™ technology to virtually eliminate all forms of distortion.

Indeed the key element that Benchmark focusses on is the cleanliness of the signal path, as evidenced by the Specs below that centre on minimal noise.  The LA4 is the case in point.  It does very little other than connect the source to the amplifier with a gain knob in the middle.  It is a stripped out Benchmark HA4 that I reviewed recently, it was gorgeous.

Benchmark system

DAC 3B

My source in this Benchmark system test is, in fact, a Bluesound Node 2i as a streaming transport connected with a Coaxial audio cable from Chord.  The final element in this Benchmark system is a DAC3 B, which is simply Benchmark’s DAC with no bells and whistles.   Other Benchmark DACs have pre-amplifiers and headphone amplifiers that I am not interested in.  I’m getting more and more into the idea of getting the best box for a single job, so this system test is right up my street.

Quality

The boxing of these three elements is very heavy and well up to scratch.  The AHB2 is a lovely chunky thing, mine is in a brushed black aluminium finish, the cooling fins are to the sides but don’t seem to heat up much, despite the compact nature of the set-up.  The LA4 has the same finish but the DAC3 has a different nobbly black finish that is not so nice but is fine.  The DAC 3 is a fraction light and feels less compact and substantial compared to the other two.

Benchmark systemAll three boxes are faced up with a metal front panel with the Benchmark signature heavily engraved at the front, I really like this touch.

At the backs of each, there is an intuitive layout although at the end of setting up you end up very cramped at the end.  The AHB2 has limited space given the compact nature and it takes only 3 Pin DIN balanced input.  There are various sensitivity settings that you are walked through in the documentation.   I am using balanced input from the LA4 so my set-up was pretty easy.

The LA4 has several inputs including 2 balanced pairs and 2 unbalanced RCA inputs.  Output can be balanced 3Pin DIN or RCA/Phono.  The LA4 has a touch screen for settings.  Volume control is by a 256 step 0.5db incremental step.  The volume knob clicks along beautifully and you do have a feeling of total control.

The DAC3 has a blue light system showing you the bit rate and sample rate clearly at the front.  It has DSD support which is great, but again, I ask who has DSD recordings?

Benchmark systemThe three boxes have a 12V trigger system allowing you to only need to press one power button for them all to fire up.  This is pretty cool and I set it up with the AHB2 as the centre of this system.

Documentation is substantial but slightly old school with spiral bound instructions that suffice but hint at low volume production.

The AHB2 can be rack-mounted with a separate facia.

One of the slight concerns on unboxing was the number of spare fuses included in the packaging!  I was wondering of I was going to be tripping local power supplies for a week but it has slipped my mind as I progress with the review.

Specification

The AHB2 has the following spec: including,

  • 100 W/channel into 8 Ohms, both channels driven
  • 170 W/channel into 4 Ohms, both channels driven
  • 340 W Bridged Mono into 8 Ohms
  • 130 dB A-weighted
  • 125 dB 20 Hz – 80 kHz

The LA4 has the following spec:  including,

  • Low-Noise Line Amplifier
  • 256-Step Fully-Balanced Relay Gain Control
  • Precision Timed Relay Closures
  • Precision Metal Film Resistors
  • Gold-Contact Relays
  • Touch Screen Control
  • 2x Balanced Stereo Line Inputs
  • 2x Unbalanced Stereo Line Inputs
  • 1x Balanced Stereo Line Output
  • 1x Unbalanced Stereo Line Output
  • 1x Balanced Mono Sum Output
  • 2x Bidirectional 12V Trigger Ports

The DAC3 B has the following spec:

  • Sample Rate Display
  • 5 Digital Inputs
  • 2 Stereo Analog Outputs (1 RCA, 1 XLR)
  • Digital Pass-Through
  • Native DSD Conversion
  • Control-lock Switch
  • Asynchronous USB 2.0
  • Driverless Asynchronous USB 1.1
  • Bi-Directional 12 Volt Trigger
  • Power Switch
  • Low Power Consumption
  • ES9028PRO Converter

Performance

Set-up

Benchmark systemMy initial set-up was the same as that for the recent Naim review with the Benchmark system hooked up to the still terrific Jern 14 DS speakers and my supporting REL T/5i.  I am using QED Supremus cable.  With the DAC I’m using a Bluesound Node 2i as my streaming transport, so just collecting the digital signal (unpacking the MQA) using the excellent Bluesound BluOS App, and putting it straight in the DAC with a high-end Chord Coaxial cable.

First Impressions on switching out the Naim system

My first impressions were immediate and clear, out of the box the performance was spot on.  The overall tone was warm and it was immediately apparent the AHB2 was exerting very little effort to deliver such a confident yet soft soundstage.

With Paradigm Persona 3F floor standing speakers

This is such a dynamic amplifier easily delivering the low-end control needed

At this point, a pair of Paradigm Persona 3Fs turned up.   £12,000 a pair roughly and a serious piece of engineering featuring twin Berylium drivers on the tweeter and mid-range.  But surely the diminutive Benchmark would struggle to deliver?   No chance; without any effort, the AHB2 has been driving these speakers with ease; and what a great sound.  This is such a dynamic amplifier easily delivering the low-end control needed with such tracks as Maroon 5’s early track, ‘Secrets’.  Next, I had to check in with Daft Punk’s ‘Lucky’, the amplifier delivers a clean and punchy signal to the speakers and it goes loud, pretty easily.

The speakers themselves are so good they are able to reflect the transparent sound delivered by the Benchmark system, for example, the nails can be heard on the guitar strings on the beautiful ‘Oil Rigs at Night’ by The Delines.

Channel separation seems perfect, ‘Faust Arp’ (Radiohead) is a fantastic track (full stop) for listening to channel separation.  The track comes to life with the amplifier happily driving the 3Fs.

I have found the Benchmark system very easy to live with.  Firstly it is effortless, there is no strain anywhere it feels.  Also, it is very easy to listen to with the warmth in the tone noticeable from where I usually sit.   I also find I’m quite happy turning it on and off as required.  I’m used to leaving Naim boxes on for years (my Uniti 2 was on for about 3 years without moving or touching it until the CD player went) but here, with the Benchmark system, I’m happy to turn it all off and know I’m getting performance straight up.  It is very impressive.  I am bound to add the compact footprint is worth noting if you have space issues.  Finally, the box itself is very cool and I’ve given this system a good listen.

Interestingly, I’ve not really noticed the DACs performance over these few days.  It is particularly clean as is the rest of this Benchmark system and I’ve not had any room to be noticing it’s input.

I had the Auralic Vega G2 streaming DAC that was wonderfully crisp and high resolution and this DAC has a similar crispness and clean delivery, that I really like.  The DAC 3B has the ESS Technologies ES9028PRO converter chip

The Bluesound Node 2i seems to be a decent streaming transport in this system and its key selling point for me, the BluOS App on PC, Android and iPad is a killer.

Overall

The pre and power amplifier combination overall is wonderful, it is dynamic and punchy

The pre and power amplifier combination overall is wonderful, it is dynamic and punchy, powerful enough to drive most speakers, I’m sure.   Tonally it is warm and careful and very easy on the ears; my Naim critic will get that one!  The DAC seems to me to be particularly clean and the fact I have barely thought about it signals to me that it is doing a decent job of not being noticed and delivering the perfect source.  Overall it is an easy 5 star, it is an ‘Outstanding’ system for me.

hifiandmusicsource.com

Love 

Benchmark engraved signature

Compact size

Warm presentation

Effortless delivery

Like 

Always ready

Very capable individual components

Wish 

I’d heard this system 15 years ago.

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