DAC as pre amp

This post is just a brief for posterity sake in regards to the the significance of a good pre.  As I have stated in other threads over the last few years , when the subject arise,  I occasionally remove my pre from the chain and run my Wadia 321 as the pre.  I always find my way back to my dedicated pre.  I got some Quad Z-4s awhile back and after a recent post regarding the DAC direct question I decided to try again.  This round the improvement was even more dramatic with the dedicated pre and the Quads. My modest system is good enough for my level of listening sophistication.  but If I ever decided to upgrade a component in the future , the pre would be the unit I would explore.   Another member stated that a good pre will ad a "richness" to the sound.  I think that is exactly what I hear.  


This is a bit late but IME either of two pre amps (Parasound, Benchmark) that I have on hand sounded better, hands down, than running dac balanced-out directly to solid state amp. Nothing on the order of an expensive Chord or T+A but an older Oppo BDP 105 and a much better Musetec 005.   With the Musetec I was left wondering why they'd even include a volume control that, in my experience, severely shrouded the Musetec's SQ in my system.    

For what it's worth - I had considerable experience using various DAC's with my Veloce tube (battery powered) preamp with great results and every time ( except the last) the preamp added space and refinement to the sound quality.  The last time I was using the T+A DAC 200 with the preamp and then took the preamp out of the system and experienced NO loss of sound quality, refinement or control.  I agree with Audioman58 - the DAC 200 is VERY special both as a DAC and a preamp.  My vinyl (Gold Note phono stage and PSU) also sounds just as wonderful running thru the DAC ( NO conversion- analog in and out, just volume control).

input impedance: preamp = usually 47k

                        power amp = >20k

 inexpensive cd player output = 100 - 200

direct connection (cd + power amp) 200 ohm/ 20k ohm = 1/100 

no meaningful signal loss @ low and high frequency regions

so, there is no impedance matching issue.


some people usually say such as "impedance...", showing they are technically oriented...   not worth listening to them at all, ha ha ha!

I have no problem with people who prefer not to run a preamp if that's what they prefer.  A decent preamp introduces negligible distortion, though.  The difference may be impedance matching or long cable runs I don't know.  It's funny how the anti-preamp people are much more emotional and dogmatic about it.  Where does that come from?

carlsbad2 = this man said it absolutely right.

pre-amp = long time ago, when only phono signal was only a source (with am, fm radios), the signal was too weak, so pre-amplification was needed before any power amp.

no more we need the pre. b/c any dac or cd player makes signals strong enough. now, we have to change the name of ¨pre-amp¨ to ¨control amp¨.

maybe, ¨control amp with slight signal modification¨.

it is truly sad there are people who like the modified sound !!!

when you eat some bbq meat, somebody likes a bbq with lots of sauce. actually the guy enjoys the sauce rather than the meat itself.

go and listen real live music, then you can realize that how much your home audio sound different from the live sound, in terms of vividness.


rich sound = usually, original sound + artificial sound produced by audio electronics as a by-product, usually base frequency.

whenever i hear somebody likes the rich sound improved by a new pre-amp, i have no intention to talk with the person.

Thing is you need to have the volume above 88% and set the gain on the amp to match because Wadia volume control affects resolution. I used my Wadia 521 / 571 combination direct to amp and found coloration with every preamp in the chain. Direct is best.  Presently I also prefer my MSB DAC direct to amp. 

I have not heard a DAC that was as good as my current 2 preamps. Though the Lumin X1 with the Leedh volume control (that I owned) was as good, except at very low volume. 

My 2 preamps are the Benchmark LA4 and Holo Serene. You will be hard pressed to find a more quieter, better measuring, and sonically neutral preamp.

The vast majority of DACs are just not as good as a dedicated preamp. I know the skeptics out there will say digital is digital, but it's more complicated than that. The quality of the gain is what missing on DACs and the quality of that analog signal to your amp matters a lot.

The problems not enough gain to drive you amp to full output. The majority of DAC's don't have a volume control or input for others components. Preamp should be able to drive long cables not a DAC. All DAC have an analog output and it a matter of changing resistors in there feedback loop to increase the gain.  I have done this before, however the sound difference was still improve with an extra gain stage/ preamp. 

Interesting conversation. I've been moving in the opposite direction. I have a very nice DAC from Ayre, QX-5, which has the option of using it as a preamp as well. For the last two years I didn't even bother trying this option, as following common knowledge I decided to use my old preamp (also from Ayre) instead. I recently tried using the DAC in PRE mode. Maybe I shouldn't have done it.

I immediately noticed more resolution, which is very obvious in loud orchestral passages. It just brings a degree of detail that I was not getting before. My Ayre dac, K-5xe, is famous for its warm, robust sound, and I do miss that sometimes. I think depending on the type of music, one characteristic can be more desirable than other. I would characterize the sound coming from the DAC in PRE as analitical. But what does that mean? Lack of coloration as others have pointed out?

So from my experience, it all depends what you are comparing.


For me swapping in a quality Dac into my Audio Research pre and power amp rig was my first step to going pre-ampless. Next my friend talked me into selling him my ARC SP 15. Now I am DAC connected by XLRs to my ARC power amp and loving it. To me the sound is "cleaner" - specifically the bass which is more controlled and faster. The mids sound the same and the tweeters are sharper. I suppose that is all due to the voicing ARC built into the SP 15. 

Looking back my conclusions are thus: 1) A pre gives you more volume. 2) A pre colors the sound which may or may not be a bad thing depending on what you prefer. I have a few years more experimenting to go before I have a solid table pounding resolution to this question. For now I like DAC direct to tube amp.

@carlsbad2 I have a Chord DAVE ...

The Chord DAVE, valued at $14k, should ideally have an exceptional preamp section. Marketed as the 'ultimate DAC, Preamplifier, and Headphone Amplifier,' your experience using the DAC as a preamp should have been undoubtedly positive. However, for individuals without a $14k or luxury budget for a DAC, their experience might differ, as many of us have attested.

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This is one where I agree with OCD Mikey the HiFi Guy. If you only have one source and your DAC has volume control then why have a Pre Amp other than if you have multiple sources, as I do.All a pre amp is, is a expensive (in some cases) volume control.

I am not real keen on using my Innuoos Sense Application as the volume control through my DAC. I know Jerry @carlsbad2 is using the Chord Dave that technically is a pre-amp and agree his use will have less coloration than say Quicksilver Pre Amp. I respect Jerry and he is one of the smartest people on this forum.

I'll suggest adding a good preamp at least once to all setups. If, after trying this, you don't notice any improvement, sticking with the direct connection might be the best choice. However, like myself, if you experience a noticeable improvement, it's unlikely you'll go back.

After integrating Parasound Zpre2 and Zpre3 into my systems, I shifted from the 'No preamp is the best preamp' belief to becoming a preamp believer. What's remarkable is that these enhancements didn't break the bank.

The top ends exhibit more airiness, the mids are fuller, mid-bass has greater extension, and the low-end notes carry more weight. Even the control over pops and plosives is notably better. These sonic improvements transcend simple coloration. Audiophiles often attribute them to 'synergy,' although the specific elements contributing to that synergy remain a mystery to me. I hope that someday, a knowledgeable audiophile might shed some light on this.

While it's possible to manage without a separate preamp if your DAC or streamer has a good preamp section, most DACs/streamers lack this feature.


For a couple of years,  I was feeding my PS Audio M700 amps directly from my PS Audio Directstream DAC,  and I thought that the sound was great.  I  began to wonder if and how a good preamp would improve the overall sq of my system.  This was after reading Paul McGowan change of opinion regarding using a good preamp rather than just the dac. So when PS Audio came out with the Stellar Gold Preamp  ( in beta testing) I decided to give it a try.  The improvement was very significant!! Soundstage is deeper,  instruments have better air,  and vocals are much more realistic and natural.  Overall,  the entire sound is more musical and natural.  Much closer to a live performance.  And I found that the improvement applies across all musical genres,  classical,  opera,  jazz,  and rock. BTW,  my speakers are a pair of Legacy Audio Signature SE. 

@carlsbad2 - it doesn't necessarily follow that people who have a large sum of money invested in a preamp are blindly biased. Arguably, those are the people who would have the most to gain if they could simply run their dac into their poweramps since they could junk their preamp and use the funds to upgrade their system.



I have been very very impressed with the EAR Acute used as the Pre Amp with EAR Power Amplification and the Acute couples extremely well with Sansui Valve Power Amp'.

How this marriage would produce a sonic, especially in relation to the attractiveness, if adopted for other Power Amp's is an unknown to me.

I recently purchased an Okto Research dac 8 stereo that is surprisingly good when used as a pre into my amp. This wasn’t as much the case with my previous dac. Even though it still presented well enough on its own, doesn’t hold a candle to the Okto overall (whether as dac or dac/pre). Really does boil down to design, quality of output stage and voltage.

I still overall prefer using my SPL Elector before the Okto, which brings more nuance, timbral delicacy/transients and depth of stage to the presentation. Still very curious what a different amp might bring in a direct configuration, however.

I have had the same experience as the OP. In my case I have a somewhat vintage (late 90's) Krell KRC-2 pre. My theory is that the volume control quality likely has something to do with the superior sound in a pre. We do most of our listening at lower volumes where the line level signal is severely attenuated. A good pre and its volume control are optimized to insure that there is no deterioration in the sound at lower levels. A DAC is really a line level component and the volume control is not critical to its function. In fact, many DACs have digital volume controls that reduce the resolution as the volume is lowered.

Theoretically, every component in a system causes coloration. I suppose we all have a preference about how we'd like it to sound.

There are always good and poor examples of every design approach, so exceptions occur.  What I'm saying is that it seems that more preamps currently do a satisfactory job of overcoming whatever obstacles are posed by the signal and the amplifier load than DACs at this point in time.   That could certainly change in the future.

@knotscott  I am far from alone in this stance and indeed I wasn't even the first to post it  (in other threads).  Frankly, I don't come up with many of my own ideas (like Xerox, I get) but am good a building on the wisdom of others.

To me, it seems a poor design of an amp to not support various levels of input and indeed I have never had a amp that required more output than my DAC could provide.  That said, I haven't tried a lot of DACs.  I have a Chord DAVE and LOWERING the output voltage of the DAC is a recommended way to combat harshness in your system if you have that problem.  The Chord Qutest actually has switchable output voltage and I have used it on the lowest setting with no problem.

The one group who is consisitenly fully supportive of the preamp, and often emotional about it, as you appear to be, is the group of people who have invested a large sum in a preamp.

I'll close by saying that we are saying the same thing, you just want to dress it up by saying the coloration is "improved performance".  Ok.  That's your definition.  But any preamp, except possibly a passive preamp, especially a transformer based passive preamp, is going to add it's own color to the signal.  It processes it just like an amp.  Every amp sounds different, every preamp sounds different.  

I'm glad you like your preamp.  I prefer my sound as naked as possible, as close to what was recorded on the original tapes as possilbe.


I resisted buying a preamp for a long time. 

Me too. My Matrix Element X provides pretty good source-switching and volume control (as well as a very good DAC). However, it does not supply the same signal boost (4.5 vrms, XLR out) as my Benchmark LA4 preamp.  The Element X does have a 10 dB output boost, and my Benchmarlk AHB2 power amp has an input sensitivity switch. Together, these 2 controls help with gain-matching.  For low level listening, here may be a subtle SQ improvement from inserting the LA4 between the DAC and power amp. In my system, for my ears, this alone would not be enough to easily justify the added expense and clutter. But you do get other benefits from it (including an extra set of analog inputs, 2-way 12v trigger, and balance adjustment).

Why would you need a second input ?

if using the dac , -preamp just go straight out to the amp , you should check out 

on back .

There are exceptions to the rule for example the Excellent T+A 200 dac- preamp 

is a true dedicated pure class A preamp with a discreet output stage and galvanic isolated ,and that’s built into this fabulous dac ,I have heard this running a nice 

Custom SET Tube amp, as well as a Pass labs amp and sounded excellent 

vs several $5-7k preamps that is saying a lot. 

My DAC has at least twice the signal boost of the preamp and I have tried using the DAC to biamp directly to the speakers with acceptable results.

Uh.  What?  You use your DAC to bi-amp speakers directly?  What DAC/amp exactly are you using?

@soix  My DAC has at least twice the signal boost of the preamp and I have tried using the DAC to biamp directly to the speakers with acceptable results. However like others I find using a preamp gives a richer sound but there is not a lot in it and if anything omitting the tube pre gives a quieter darker background.

So an integrated amp is a bad idea to? This may not a good way to think about preamps but it seems to me if you stay with the same brand the synergy should be there…there’s a lot of convenience using a preamp…turntable, cd player and two dacs hooked to mine…

‘I definitely would like to hear more on this subject…


So you enjoy the coloration provided by the Pre.

It’s more likely that they enjoy the improved performance due to better impedance matching, a better output stage, and better ability to drive an amplifier. I’ll think you’ll be standing alone in this line.

I resisted buying a preamp for a long time.  I eventually did and was surprised how it improved the sound.  I don't know why, it made an improvement in definition and/or forcefulness.  I didn't spend a ton either.  I bought a used Bryston BP25 for $1000 about 15 years ago.  It works as well today as it did when I got it.  Everyone should at least try it.  Parasound, Schiit and I'm sure others make good cheap preamps.

Thank you for sharing your experience. 

This is the most common experience, but having it documented is really helpful to those who have just joined high end audio and never experienced a high end preamp, or swapped them out without proper comparison. . 


I have a project pre box s2 digital and I use it for a dac. It has a volume knob but I ask myself how much could they have possibly invested in this attenuator and still come in at $400? 

@soix yeah i have considered the pre in the Wadia just ain't that good. 

@carlsbad2 yeah call it what you want.

Full disclosure: The pre is the only component with valves, the rest is solid state. Is it the NOS matched Mullards I got from Andy's Tube Services?  I don't know but I am satisfied with the configuration at this point, but also intrigued. 

Maybe someday collapse the DAC into a nice pre with both.  The cool thing is I am learning more and more as I go and my taste in music (evolved I would like to think) over time. 

Or maybe the DAC doesn’t provide enough signal boost for the amp to work optimally.  Either way, the only thing that matters is that the OP likes what he hears.