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DAC Shootout Series: Benchmark DAC2 vs Lavry DA11
by Dan Richards

Main test area for DAC listening sessions

10 years ago, I did an extensive series of tests and listening sessions with what wound up being published over six months in a forum. The edited results are at Lavry DA10 vs Benchmark DAC1: DEATHMATCH. When I heard about the Benchmark DAC2 DX being released, it seemed a good time for a rematch of sorts with the two newer offerings, The Lavry DA11 and the Benchmark DAC2.

In the DA10 and DAC1 Deathmatch, I had been an owner of the DAC1 since its release, and had used it for years, and it was part of a growth period, not only in technological advancement, but also for me personally, where I got to the point that I felt digital no longer sucked. I'd been through that long tunnel that lasted a good 10-15 years moving from analog technology through many digital formats. I finally got to a system with RME ADI8 AD, Nuendo, DAC1, and Dynaudio AIR15s, and it was stable and sounded great. I'd finally arrived at the other shore of music production where part of me wasn't cringing and missing the old days of analog tape and large-format consoles.

While the Benchmark DAC1 had served me well, over several months of comparisons, the Lavry DA10 ended up handling the DAC duties in my studio.

Moving into the Lavry DA11 ($1480) and Benchmark DAC2 ($1995), these two strong companies offer different philosophies of design and approach to their devices. Some strong points on the Lavry DA11 are the accurate stepped-gain volume switch, and the Playback Image Control (PiC) for use with headphones. Refer to masteringmansion.com/common/docs_d/doc_372.pdf. Strong points for the Benchmark DAC2 are the nice big volume knob, two headphone jacks, and the full-feature custom Benchmark remote.

The look and feel of the Lavry DA11 is more of a precision laboratory device, whereas the Benchmark DAC2 looks and feels more tactile. The DAC2 is going to score all around much more house friendly with multiple users including significant others. Write this off at your peril. In the previous DA10 vs DAC1 shootout, the DA10 won the match, I honestly can't claim a clear winner between the DA11 and the DAC2. It's interesting that people have no problem with having a number of different mics, preamps, and monitors in their studio. And this might be a case where you could make use of two different, but complementary DACs. And here's the reasoning behind this idea: When people think of DACs, they're using focusing on monitoring during mixing and mastering, and the idea is that the most neutral and transparent DAC is optimal. But there's also a larger side of work in the modern studio, which uses DACs for monitoring all through the production stages as well.

As purely a reference DAC, favor leans to the Lavry DA11. Dan Lavry just knows how to do it right. And while everyone and their brother would love to jump on the AD/DA-converter-design train, and have opinions about what the DAC should have and do, Dan Lavry does it his way. And if Dan Lavry makes it, I'm listening.

As purely a production DAC, the Benchmark DAC2 is a pleasure to work with. During tracking and production work, the nice throw on the volume knob adds a great ergonomic feel to the process, as well as the two headphone jacks coming in as invaluable features for allowing two people to monitor at once. And this is no small thing. The Benchmark DAC2, Grace m920, Resonessence INVICTA, and SPL Crimson were the only DACs in the tests that supplied the user with two headphone jacks. And I don't feel that this is something to be dismissed by manufacturers. The very real fact of music production and music enjoyment is that a large part of the market are working in smaller, private studios, and more and more people have also adopted using higher-end headphones with high-quality DACs as a preferred way to enjoy music. Whether it's two people working in a studio together, or listening to music, the ease of use with two handphone jacks can't be overlooked if you're choosing between features offered on a DAC.

The Lavry DA11 and Benchmark DAC2 sound different. The strengths of the DA11 are in its near transparency and clarity, bordering but not quite landing in clinical territory. The imaging is excellent, the separation of instruments is clear and easy to discern, the soundstage is deep and wide, but not overly exaggerated or processed.

The Benchmark DAC2 uses the Sabre chipset for the DAC portion of the device. The sound is alive, energetic, and organic. This can prove a good choice for using the DAC2 for production, where the energy coming out of the monitoring system is going to directly influence not only the vibe and feel of production sessions, but also decisions made during the production stage.

Contact Dan Richards, the author of this review, at dan@dr.com.

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