Nice Cans now sells and stocks Benchmark

I've picked up a line I've long admired (and owned), Benchmark Media Systems.

They make small, precision-engineered digital front ends with stout headphone amps as separate modules (and even separately configurable, with or without). Lately, they've broadened their lines with more connection possibilities, including more analog interface options. Thus, you can use the Benchmarks solely as DACs that feed a geek-out tube amp. You can even order them without the internal headphone amp so you get better value.

These guys all have remote controls.

I like these products because they are at the pinnacle of digital-to-analog conversion, using the latest technology. They're small and easy to tote around, but full-featured and very sophisticated. I strongly doubt that a DAC can be much better, so the issue for me will be whether the ergonomics and headphone mating are equally solid. I'll report back on these issues.

At least one Head-Fier has accused me of being in love with small, complete, all-in-ones. It's true. I personally don't run tube equipment and prefer to upgrade periodically to the best digital-to-analog conversion I can afford. You can pay more for a DAC than Benchmark's, but I doubt you can get much marginal additional benefit.

I'll be ordering the new DAC2-HGC, which is in essence a complete system front end for even a 2.1 stereo setup.

Important for my purposes, however, it's got two headphone jacks in front and a robust amp driving them. I'll be comparing it with my favorite solid-state device, the Fostex HP-A8C amp/DAC, which I've blogged about before. I suspect the products will sound identical, but the Fostex's ergonomics could be better. The Fostex is very pretty. Only a hard-core device geek like me would call the Benchmarks pretty -- they look like they belong in a warship skipper's bridge (that's a compliment, by the way). The pricing is roughly the same for both products. I'll tote both as my demonstrators at the upcoming Austin Head-Fi Meet in January, 2014.

Fostex HP-A8C Amp/DAC

I've been using my dealer demo unit of the Fostex HP-A8C amp/DAC for a couple of months, trying it out on different cans. While I have some issues with the ergonomics -- the selectors are too small, too slippery, and too close together for my big hands -- this is, hands-down, the finest piece of audio electronics I've used since 1978, when I first got involved in audio. When you take a good digital signal from an uncompressed source and send it either to headphones through the unit's amp, or to a regular stereo system amp, the sound is better than anything I have ever heard. Using my personal favorite the Beyerdynamic Tesla T1, it is a new experience in sound. There are many new DACs I haven't heard, so I'm not saying the Fostex is better than those. The Fostex is extremely solidly built.
It seems to me that implementation of modern digital electronics has come so far, it's hard to see how it could be improved. I suspect that modern products like the Fostex amp/DAC are recreating the original waveform about as perfectly as can be done. If so, it gives me confidence that when I give customers different headphones to compare, they're able to make meaningful choices independent of the digital conversion and amplification.