Benchmark DAC3 / AHD2 Combo (with a Goldenear Triton Reference chaser)

3.5 years ago I posted a comparison review of the Goldenear Triton One vs. Reference.

My screen name is accurate, so I just checked in here for the first time since then. I noticed that one person had asked me to comment on the Benchmark Audio AHB2 power amp and how it performed. Here you go.

My current system: Roon -> Benchmark DAC3 -> Benchmark AHB2 -> Goldenear Triton Reference. Interconnect and speaker cable are Canare Star Quad from Blue Jeans Cable (indistinguishable from previous Kimber Kable).

My previous power amp was an Adcom GFA 545.

The first thing I noticed when the AHB2 arrived was how small and light it is. When the UPS guy delivered it I was afraid Benchmark had screwed up and accidentally delivered another DAC, but once I opened the package it was indeed the AHB2. The footprint is the same as the DAC (plus the heat sinks on the side) and its only twice as high. My initial impression was “How is this thing going to put out 100W per channel and match the Adcom?”

I was super skeptical about hearing any difference between the amps, frankly. My attitude was that as long a solid state amp was well-made and put out sufficient power, there wasn’t any difference. Who has ever talked smack about Nelson Pass’s Adcom design? They were widely considered your best bang for the buck in the 90’s, which is why I bought mine and loved it.

Well, as soon as I replaced the Adcom with the AHB2, the immediate change was elimination of tweeter hiss with the system at idle. I could now stick my ear right up against the tweeter and hear absolutely nothing. Pulled out my iPhone, opened my NOSH SLM app, and it registered exactly the same 28 dB noise floor whether at my listening position or pressed against the speaker cover. (I was too boneheaded to swap the Adcom back in and measure the hiss.)

Playing music revealed a whole new experience. Improved detail, reverberation tails, soundstage in all three dimensions, more precise rhythmic drive, tighter bass (this surprised me since the T Refs are handling the bass amp duty from about 80 Hz down, but obviously the cleaner signal makes a difference) and heightened emotional engagement. Didn’t notice any difference in the tonal balance.

Reviewers who like the AHB2 tend to describe it as clean, pure, revealing and transparent. Those who don’t like it use the terms clinical and sterile. All those descriptions are accurate. Benchmark is aiming for “wire with gain” and zero editorializing, not euphonic distortion, or ugly distortion for that matter. If you want a “warm” sounding amp, you will not be happy.

Great recordings sound great and crappy recording sound crappy. Just like HD video, higher resolution will reveal flaws that were previously blurred. The Smith’s “The Headmaster Ritual” is one track that I like, but the AHB2 reveals the very subpar, brittle recording. On the other hand, Cowboy Junkies’ “Mining for Gold” is brilliant. The Benchmark/Goldenear combo reveals Margo Timmins’ vocals in stunning purity above the eerie rumble of the Toronto subway beneath the Holy Trinity sanctuary recording space. (If you can think of another a cappella vocal track that benefits from a serious woofer array, please let me know.)

My very opinionated, hyper-critical mother-in-law is a professional pianist, vocalist and teacher (a couple of her students have gone on to successful opera careers in Europe); I sat her down to listen to her favorite piano recording, Glenn Gould’s 1981 “Goldberg Variations”, and she was stunned.
I have not noticed any change in the sound of the Benchmark electronics from burn-in time since original purchase nor from the time I turn them on every day--they sound great right once you power them up. I know this is absolute heresy.

I ain’t gonna lie. I drool over the Magico 2’s; I know there are greater heights of resolution, pinpoint sound staging and bass performance to be scaled, but at an extremely steep price that I’m not willing to pay. However, I have a very hard time imagining that there are better electronics out there. This system generates an amazing sonic experience for $15K. That’s a lot of coin, but less than a fair number of people spend on cables. You’ll be hard pressed to get a better value for your money.

If you are in the market for a power amp, you really should audition the AHB2 and listen for yourself. You might find that the lack of euphonic distortion reveals a greater depth of engagement than tubes or SET designs. Then again, you might not.

Trust your ears.
I've been thinking about this amp for months and haven't pulled the trigger. With a 30-day in home audition, there is little risk. My hesitation is that I was thinking of keeping my current amp (Odyssey Audio Khartago, with Kismet upgrade) and getting a tube preamp (LTA MZ3) and Denafrips Pontus instead, to replace my Audio Alchemy DDP-1 DAC/preamp.

Trying to decide if the tube preamp or the Benchmark amp will make a bigger difference. Wish I had more $$$!
Its hard to beat Benchmark for no-nonsense sound quality.

Those who I have read reporting on the pre-amp says using it takes the setup to another level than using pre-amp functionality in the Benchmark DAC. Two very good choices though!

They strive to live up to their name I would say.

As good as your Triton Reference speakers sound with 100wpc, they will improve even more with more power. I use a 300wpc McIntosh amp with my Triton Reference speakers and I am amazed with the effortlessness of the sound.  I love the Triton Refs and the only speaker I would consider trading them in for would be the Rockport  Avior II speakers.  
Aside, re the Triton Refs: They seem to require a large room, if placing them the way Stereophile did for their review. YES?

" We began by placing the Triton References where the KEF Reference 5s had worked best, but ended up with the speakers quite far away from the wall behind them (91"), closer to the listening chair (113" compared with the KEFs' 123"), and farther away from the sidewalls. My room is somewhat asymmetrical, so the woofers of the left-hand speaker were 51" from the nearest sidewall, those of the right-hand speaker 60". "
I have not noticed any change in the sound of the Benchmark electronics from burn-in time since original purchase nor from the time I turn them on every day--they sound great right once you power them up. I know this is absolute heresy.
I am on my 3rd AHB2 now and I can also say there is no burn in with this amp. It sounds the same on day 1 as it does much later.

I am assuming you have the DAC3 HGC. I had that with the AHB2 at one time. Later on, I tried the HPA4/LA4 preamp with the DAC3B and it was better than the HGC at low volume situations. The HPA4/LA4 preamps are in my opinion the best electronics made by Benchmark. 

I also found 2 AHB2's in mono did wonders with my power hungry speakers. I also added some expensive speaker wire, Audience FrontRow with SpeakON connections to use with the AHB2 monos. A very worthwhile upgrade from the Benchmark SpeakON speaker cables.
patrickdowns, I have no experience with your gear, but, looking at specs, your DDP-1 is -32 dB THD (!) compared to your Odyssey power amp, so the AHB2 (-50 dB THD+N relative to your current amp) will get out of the way and allow your DAC to shine. I’d be shocked if you aren’t stunned with the improved resolution the AHB2 will offer. In any case, how can you argue with a no-questions-asked 30-day return policy (which only starts when you actually take delivery)? Listen and decide.

The T-Refs work great in my medium-large listening room. I’ve read positive reviews from people who have them fairly close to rear walls--the passive radiators fire to the side and there’s a knob to adjust the bass level in both speakers. For small rooms I’d definitely check out the more compact, less expensive, models in the GE Triton line.
stereo5, I auditioned the T-Refs with the 450wpc MC452 and I much prefer the sound with the AHB2 in my medium-large listening room. I do the vast majority of my listening with the volume knob on the DAC3 between the 9 and 10 o’clock position. A few times annually I’ll crank up some Devin Townsend at 12 o’clock (his stuff is mixed to be played LOUD) and peel some paint off the walls, but even then nothing sounds the least bit strained.

I read some people get better results from running two AHB2’s as bridged monos. Rock out y’all!

Gave Benchmark’s sales dude a call a while back (he’s picked up within 3 rings every time I’ve called and is very quick on the email response too) and talked to him about whether I might try adding another amp. He thought it extremely unlikely I’d hear a difference.

The DAC3 pumps out pro-level output 9.8 Vrms, so the AHB2 can operate in its lowest gain setting. Always headroom to spare.
Thanks for that info!
your DDP-1 is -32 dB THD (!) compared to your Odyssey power amp, so the AHB2 (-50 dB THD+N relative to your current amp) will get out of the way and allow your DAC to shine.
I have a phone consult with Jim Smith of this weekend to discuss improving my system and room treatments. I will discuss this with him, as I am not a techie. I have come close to getting that Benchmark amp, but then decided to consider the merits of going to a tube preamp (Linear Tube Audio MZ3) with my current amp. Maybe the Benchmark amp and the MZ3 is the best combo, but I don't have the budget for that yet.

AHB2 amp with LSA line preamp is an amazing combination. I switched out my Parasound BC2 for the LA4 line stage and the details poured forth. Would love to see the Benchmark make Integrated with an interchangeable DAC section. They would own the market.
Auralic G2 Streamer -PS audio DSD DAC-LA4-AHB2 -Paradigm S4 v2 or Tekton Imapct monitors.