DACs

Benchmark ADC1 USB Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC)

ARTICLE INDEX

In Use - Some Recordings

I started with the ADC1 in my second system so that I could compare it to the CardDeluxe directly…

Spritualized: Songs in A&E

I recorded side one of this record once with the Carddeluxe and once through the ADC1. Actually it was twice through the ADC1, the first recording suffered from some dropouts. This could be because I was doing too many other things on my computer at the same time (web, email) or it could be that I had also opened MS Word to start working on this article. When in doubt, blame Microsoft. I used the PS Audio GCPH so I could get proper levels for both the Carddeluxe and the ADC1. I used FastEdit for both recording and editing. The recording was made at 44.1kHz to avoid any issues with conversion for CD. 'Editing' consisted of breaking up the recording into individual songs. I then burned these songs to CD, alternating the track recording with the Carddeluxe with the same track as captured by the ADC1.

When I first started to play the CD through my main system (Naim CDS2 CD player) my first thought was, 'oh, too bad I won't be able to say the ADC1 is better than the Carddeluxe', the sound seemed as sublime as the record. The first track is 'Harmony 1 (mellotron)'. The sound as recorded by the Carddeluxe was sweet and transcendent. A new-age spacey intro to this great album. I quickly switched up to the ADC1 version and I thought 'oh…'. Wait, I hear a background line from a synth – was that even there with the Carddeluxe version?? I switched back – yes it was there but it didn't stand out. The same thing happened on track after track. I kept having to switch back – were those drums (drums!) even there? Yes but not so you'd notice. 'Those background vocals – when did they start? I guess they did a fade up..' switch to ADC1 'Nope, no fade up, they start at the same time as the lead vocal but it was indistinct before'. This is what I call audiophile sound – the parts, the instruments, the voices are each a separate entity. A stereo can sound pretty good without this and it's pretty hard to figure out that it's not happening until you hear it. One way to figure it out is to see how long you feel like listening. Consistently, with the Carddeluxe tracks I wanted to move on, with the ADC1 tracks I wanted to listen to the end.

I went through the same exercise with Erykah Badu's New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War. Same result as with the Spritualized. Of course at this point I had trained myself for what to listen for and the differences were subtle. But with the Benchmark the backgrounds were deeper, blacker and the voices, instruments all had more space around them. As before, I wanted to listen to the end of the Benchmark tracks. I think Ms Badu is a genius BTW.

Why should the ADC1 be better than my dedicated sound card? That card has to operate inside a computer. If you don't know how much noise is coming off a computer mother board, tune an AM radio to your favorite station and move it close to a laptop. The truly amazing news is that something as delicate as analog to digital conversion can happen at all in that environment. In addition, the Benchmark literature makes a point of their proprietary solutions to the problem of jitter. All of digital audio theory is predicated on the idea that the clock, the samples, occur at regular intervals. Any deviation from this on the recording or playback end results in noise. And this is not your father's noise. The cumulative effect of these digital 'mistakes' is not part of any harmonic, rather it is smearing and listener fatigue. I'll climb down off my soapbox now. Regarding this comparison I also have to note that the ADC1 costs about 4 times as much as the CardDeluxe, of course there is a lot more to the ADC1, the box, the display, the controls, more connection options etc all of which are part of the price.

Benchmark ADC1 USB

So that was my experience with CD quality sound. I think we've all had just about enough of that. For higher resolution I set the ADC1 to 24bit 88.2kHz (the idea being I could create 44.1 tracks for CD with minimal processing but that is a topic for another day). For playback I have a gorgeous old Bel Canto DAC1, a beautiful little box to be sure but alas no USB input. To convert the USB output from my laptop to S/PDIF I borrowed a Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB Audio Converter from my good friends at Stereotypes Audio in Portland, OR. Another happy plug and play experience. I'd like to say more about Trends Audio USB converter but other than 'it worked right away and caused no problems' I wouldn't know what to say. It's highly unlikely that any such device would drop bits or anything like that. It could of course introduce jitter that would affect the downstream DAC but I didn't have anything on hand to compare or measure it with. The Trends box worked without a hitch and looked good doing it.

Time was running short for this review (I spent a lot of time messing around with different recording software for no good reason) so I made just one hi res comparison. I recorded Sonic Youth's new album 'The Eternal' at 24/88.2 and compared it to the accompanying MP3 download. Hardly a fair comparison but that is what we are facing with these downloads. We buy the vinyl because it is superior. The MP3 downloads might provide some convenience but they certainly don't reproduce the experience of listening to vinyl. In this case the Matador record's MP3's were recorded at a variable rate. Winamp kept flashing 256 and 320 Mb/s. It also indicated that the sample rate was 44.1. My Bel Canto DAC upsamples 44.1 to 88.2. As near as I can tell, when fed 88.2 it doesn't upsample.

So does the 88.2kHz recording through the Benchmark ADC1 replicate the vinyl experience? It gets pretty close. Perhaps close enough. I have no qualms about an extended listening session with this recording. The vinyl is still a tad better, a little more presence in the room. More gravity if I may introduce a new audiophile term (oh boy we really need that). Vinyl playback makes it feel like the music is in the room. An object to itself. But other than this difference in feeling it's hard to distinguish the Vinyl from the 88.2. The MP3 for it's part actually held up pretty well - if sparkle is your thing. Like any Sonic Youth record this one has its share of treble from Thurston Moore's guitar(s) and the MP3 had its way of emphasizing that. But the soundstage was thin, with an 'in your face' quality. Texture on the bass notes was lost and then there was that fatigue thing.

I made another high res recording, this time from a Cat Power EP I found on vinyl: Dark End of the Street. (This also from Matador Records but no MP3 download – what's up with that??). This is a much more sparse record, mostly piano and voice rather than the guitar on top of guitar that Sonic Youth favors. The ADC1 seemed to really have its way with it. The recording is as sublime and enchanting as the vinyl. In this case it really seems a tossup as to which is better. The vinyl is maybe a little better in the voice, maybe. The 88.2 recording better in the bass. Maybe that's because I kept the volume down while making the recording, no feedback getting from the speakers to the needle. One other things tilts towards the ADC1's favor, this EP is a double 10" issue, one to three songs per side, if you think getting up to flip sides every 20 minutes is bad..

The Sonic Youth recording was made with the free software Audacity while the Cat Power recording was made with a trial copy of Sony's Sound Forge (trial period long since expired). I'd like to think that since I made no edits or transformations to the recorded audio the software was not a factor.