Fresh blood 3

There are many things that play a role in putting together a hi-fi system and one of them is synergy. We already talked about it in our previous article and would like to go a bit further on this one.

The big advantage of writing reviews is having access to a lot of components and then having the opportunity to pair and try those components with each other. In this way you collect a lot of information and you quickly notice whether a device makes friends easy… or not. The best way to really be sure that components ‘match’ well is of course to stay with the same brand.

There are manufacturers who build speakers and amplifiers and where you can get almost everything you need. Usually people don’t do that, but who combines a number of components from the same brand often will notice that it works very well. After all, the components are perfectly tuned to each other. My reference system itself is a ‘work in progress’ as is probably the case with many of you. Congratulations, by the way, to those of you who have already have the perfect system. I would love to be there!

But: I am not that far of… i think. One component where we think we can do better is the preamp. Although the Ps Audio Stellar Gain Cell Dac Gain Cell, who invented those names anyway, is a very user-friendly and versatile device. But in terms of playback there could still be some gain. I’m a purist myself ‘for better or worse’ and that means that I want each part separately, especially for easy testing.

My system has one common denominator and that is transparency. In order to hear clear differences between different components, this is paramount to me. After the arrival of the Benchmark Media Systems AHB2, I was of course immediately thinking about the matching HPA4 that colleagues Jaap and Yung were very enthusiastic about. But back then, it seemed unreachable. In the meantime, we have moved on a few months and by saving some money and selling some stuff, it seems to be working out anyway. The key question is of course whether it will really be an audible step.

Synergy

Well you bet it is! The synergy between pre- and power amplifier is truly magical, not to mention the DAC3 B that I received from importer Helios for the occasion. Not only a few ‘veils’ disappear, the whole window is gone. The HPA4 is dead quiet, a somewhat macabre term to express that there is really nothing to hear when you open the volume without music. I don’t know if it can be even more transparent.

The specs are also downright impressive and although I honestly had nothing to do with measurements, I have to admit that I now more and more often try to decipher the corresponding graphs. My colleague Jaap is going to initiate me in measuring (monitor) speakers because I specialize more and more in this but with the Benchmark duo (trio?) I will in any case be able to determine the signature of a speaker or other component.

Now we already did the review of the HPA4 of course but I would still like to explain a few things about this great device because when you live with a component it is different than just getting it in for testing. Especially the versatility of the device is something I would like to elaborate on

Killer feature

When the HPA4 came out a while ago and I saw some pictures of the device I found the screen quite unusual to express it softly. It didn’t appeal to me at all and looked a bit rudimentary to me. But now that I’ve been working with it for a while I have to completely rethink my opinion. This is a great touchscreen that is very intuitive. You never have to think twice to run any application. Clearly the pro-background comes into play here

The ‘killer feature’ on the HPA4 for me is the ability to play every input equally loud. Being able to adjust the gain so that different sources and dacs are equalized is a great tool. The AHB2 has a similar tool by the way. Also the balance control is a necessary feature in our imperfect listening room. With one speaker we don’t have to do anything but with another we sometimes have to adjust the balance a bit. Very useful if you have another monitor speaker to visit every two weeks or so.

The remote control, a hobbyhorse of mine, is a ‘beauty’. Really very nicely made and fits perfectly in the hand. There is no button too much or too little on it. Adjusting the volume, choosing the inputs and being able to press mute once in a while are the most important features. The other settings, which you usually only have to do once, are done via the touchscreen

Benchmark LA4

At first I thought I’d buy an LA4 (preamp only) because I’m not really a headphone aficionado and because I thought the LA4 would perform even better ‘an sich’. But Benchmark assured us that the line amplifier is identical in both devices. In fact the HPA4 is the best deal because for a limited extra you get one of the best headphone amps on the planet

It is also striking how quickly and comprehensively the answer from Benchmark came to our questions. For example, when we had a question about the DAC3 B, we even got a speech of no less than two pages long. Add to that the excellent packaging, attributes and warranty and you understand that the company has its affairs in order. The Dac3 b fits by the way, seamless in the whole. It is so good even that we prefer it over the Metrum Acoustics Onyx in this set. We just kept returning to it. Another proof that synergy is all-important.

The HPA4 has taken a permanent place in my reference system and will probably not go out any time soon. The slogan of Benchmark Media Systems actually sums it all up nicely: “The measure of excellence!

Reference system

  • ATC SCM19 V2 monitors
  • Benchmark Media HPA4 preamplifier
  • Benchmark Media AHB2 power amplifier
  • Benchmark Media DAC3 B d/a converter
  • Metrum Acoustics Onyx d/a converter
  • Metrum Acoustics Ambre streamer
  • Hifiman Sundara headphones
  • Roon software

 

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