Benchmark DAC-1 Get The Most Out Of Your DAC-1

Like all other reviewers I like the DAC-1's transparent and neutral sound, but many people may not have got the maximum potential from their DAC-1.

In the past 6 years I've owned all versions from the original DAC-1 to the USB/PRE/HDR, and have tried different configurations in different systems from tube to solid state to active monitors to headphones.

In all cases I found it sounds MUCH better if you:
(1) Use XLR output instead of RCA
(2) Set the XLR output jumpers at "0 dB"
(3) Set the headphone jumpers to "+10 dB gain"
(4) Set the output to "Calibrated" instead of "Variable"

A few notes and explanations:
(1) The DAC-1 was originally designed for professional audio where XLRs are more popular than RCA. I've owned a Cary 306 whose XLR performance is very close to RCA, and I know there are superb sounding DACs out there which only have RCA, so I am not against RCA, but the XLR on the DAC-1 is WAY BETTER than its RCA. To take this advantage, you need fully balanced, differential pre/pwr amps to work with the DAC-1.

(2) When the XLR output jumpers are set at "0 dB", the output voltage can reach a max of 10 volt, which satuates a lot of preamps especially tube preamps. If you hear noise that means your preamp's input stage can not handle it. If you decrease the output voltage, the output impedence goes up and the sound becomes less transparent/direct. Again, 10 volt is for pro audio, not Hi-Fi, Hi-Fi sources normally output 2~4 volt on XLR.

(3) The headphone gain jumpers works pretty much like the XLR gain jumpers. When you use "+10 dB", the sound is more dynamic and transparent than "0 dB". Of course you have to turn the volume knob down to get the same listening level. DAC-1's headphone amp fits low-impedance headphones (~30 Ohm Denon or Audio technica) better than high- (300~600 Ohm Senn or Beyer).

(4) Assume you have an High-end balanced preamp, the DAC-1 sounds better as a DAC with calibrated output. But if your preamp is not top notch, running DAC-1 directly into a power amp may give you pros and cons. There are many threads about preamp v.s. preamp-less sound.

(5) Over the years DAC-1 has received some revisions and the newer units sounds smoother and less agressive than the old. But if you don't need the analog input, DAC-1 USB sounds slightly better than DAC-1 Pre/HDR due to simpler circuits. The HDR sounds different especially when you use variable output -- it's got a different potentiometer. Whether you like the difference is up to personal taste and system match, but after trying all models, I've sold the HDR and will stick with DAC-1 USB as a DAC only (with external preamp).

(6) DAC-1's USB v.s. other USB/SPDIF converters: I found DAC-1's own USB input to be very good, adding another USB/SPDIF converter could lead to plus or minus. I have tried Logitech Transport, Halide Bridge, Stello U2, and a friend of mine tried M2Tech Hi-face Evo. We found while one maybe superior than the other, each device adds its own signature to the sound. Stello U2 by far is the most natural sounding device and Halide Bridge condenses the sound which you may or may not prefer.

Overall, DAC-1 is a superb DAC at an affordable price. When setup right, the DAC-1 can compete with high-end digital front end. You may not like DAC-1 if your personal taste leans towards a forgiving, laid-back presentation with somewhat recessed treble and sweetened midrange.

The DAC-1's pro audio heritage may give you some trouble choosing the right preamp, but as a plus, try DAC-1 directly into a quality studio monitor, which is what DAC-1 is designed for. Even a moderate Dynaudio BM5A Mk-II may surprise you. Cheap studio monitors will not sound as refined as your Hi-Fi, but there are something foundamentally "honest" and "right" in the music.

Enjoy your DAC-1!
Great units, and hard to beat for the money. They are very sensitive to power and power cords too. One will be well rewarded experimenting with one. Lastly, I leave mine set on USB with cable attached to a CPU in so that it stays on avoiding standby.
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Thanks to everybody's input to my thread, Regarding vibration control, having spikes underneath might help but I can live with the stock rubber feet. Adding weight on top makes the sound dull and less alive. Unless you have a bright system, the DAC-1 is meant to be a free standing item without weight on top of it. I know this is surprising because common sense tells us light-weight components benefit from weights on top.

I've tried many things including MapleShade heavy hat/foot, vibrapods, various wooden feet, various metal cones, Totem beaks etc. Finally I just let the DAC-1 sit on a 2 inch solid maple board with its original feet.
I had the Chris Johnson mod and just had the opamps of that mod changed by Chris to the Burson discreet op amps. Chris said the change would be "massive" and he was right. All the hardness that was sometimes evident with the DAC and not very good recordings is gone. The sound is more detailed but much, much more natural. I still have the balanced outs with the original chris johnson mod and when I switched from the rca outs with the Bursons to the balanced mod without them, I felt as though I had gone to a shrill sounding low-fi system.