I am trying to build an all digital music system. As a first step I have been studying my options for a stand-alone DAC's and I have narrowed my options down to three. Auditioning will be either a difficult or an unavailable option. However, I am starting with a clean slate so I have no other components to match to. Since my system will be only digital, I am really looking to forgo the pre-amp which will only serve the volume control function for my purpose.
The qualities I like are clarity, articulation, ability to render musical passages well delineated without being mashed into an audio mess. Detail is welcome if it is not unnaturally emphasized as I find that sometimes distracting. Most importantly I like the listening experience to be musical, engaging and non-fatiguing. I have had some experience with a couple of quite expensive audio systems that ranged from listening to a sound that was annoying and devoid of beauty to listening to what sounded like a faultless presentation which I just could not find myself drawn to. Surprisingly, I still remember my first experience with a good music system as being one of the best. No exotic components were involved. Only T+A transmission line standmount speakers (around USD 2000) driven by Cambridge Audio components. That big smile and that foot tapping the floor came naturally and involuntarily. Glancing at the slyly smiling salesman who had steered me away from listening to mid-priced B&W speakers that were getting good reviews at the time, I thought he was used to seeing that reaction. The sound was totally engaging, entertaining, and beautiful. Unfortunately, I listened to this system in a different country and there are no T+A distributors where I live, so I can not repeat the auditioning. Cambridge Audio amps are, however, on my audition list.
So here are my three choices.
1- The Benchmark DAC USB or USB/Pre
Pros: Supposedly very good sound. Unmatched package at the price. The only DAC that allows USB input up to 24bit/96 khz. TAS product of the year. Stereophile calls the built-in headphone amplifier outstanding. It pleased many reviewers. Company strikes me as transparent about the product and its measured performance.
Cons: Reviews emphasize the value for money and the dead quiet background. Other than the tremendous value for money, I am not sure where on the sonic scale it compares to other products in the $1500 to $4000 price bracket. This DAC opened the door to great reasonably priced DACs a few years ago but ever since DACs have been getting better and cheaper each year.
2- Bryston BdA-1 ($2000)
Pros: Company says the DAC sounds the same as the BCD-1. TAS review gives the BCD-1 the rare comment that "It gets the music just right" and gave it a PoY award. There is no shortage of favorable reviews about it.
Cons: No volume control (big minus for me). USB input is limited to 16 bit and low freq.
3- Berkeley Labs Alpha DAC
Pros: The rave review by Robert Harley about the Alpha DAC performance with everything from CD-quality signal to high res. makes me wonder if (while the price is outside the outer stretches of my budget for a DAC) it could be an investment against quick obsolescence. DAC also has volume control.
Cons: No direct PC input of any type. Price. I will have to import it from the U.S. (same case with the Benchmark DAC) so a mistake will be costly
My question is: What do I lose sonically by picking the Benchmark over the Bryston? and what do I lose sonically by picking the Bryston or the Benchmark over the Berkley DAC?
I also need some help on how to ascertain that the DAC can feed a particular amplifier without distortion. What specs to look for? How can I judge if the Bryston for example can feed an amplifier through a passive volume attenuator (do not know if any high quality options are available for these as well)? Do power amplifiers require large current levels from the device feeding it? I am good with mathematical formulas by the way.
Thanks and Best regards,