DACs that do well without a preamp

I am looking for a DAC to feed my DNA-1 gold power amp directly, streaming Qobuz or Tidal from a Bluesound Vault. Budget is $1-2K; would consider used, if worthwhile. Current contenders are Benchmark 3 HGC, Brooklyn DAC+, Gustard x26 pro, Holo Spring 3, Musetec 004 and Pontus ii. Looking for clean, detailed, uncolored sound that "lifts the veil". What are the qualities I should look for to drive an amp well, without a pre?

I've tried DAC direct a few times and put a preamp right back in the chain 

Check out the new W4S Gan1. It's an amp, that seems to not need a dac

there is a forum on AG



Can only speak to the Benchmark 3 HGC. Without my preamp the the sound was lifeless and sterile. Overall the attributes I look for that get me closer to my perception of what the music should sound like where muted without my pre, of course YMMV.

i tried several DACs w analogue volume control.  All sounded better through my preamp.

I guess If you do not have a good preamp, it is a nice way to go.  A good preamp improves the sound to my ears, that I have tried.


I do get it, I ONLY have one digital input...but I love my preamp.

I had to stand up a separate system during a renovation and found that my Hegel HD30 Dac performed beautifully when placed between streaming source and amp without a preamp. I bought it specifically for this possibility, as it has fantastic volume control.

I have a Wadia 321 with the ESS Sabre volume implementation.  It sounds very analytical vs running it through my Rogue with Mullard valves.   But I am a fan of hybrid setups (Tubes & SS). 


The Wadia 321 is a good DAC and can be had for around $1k but it has a sizable footprint.  Has a bunch of inputs (coax,digital,USB).   321di will process DSD.

Wadia gone now but 3rd party support does exist

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You’re not going to get a dac at that price that has a good volume control.
I had a Benchmark DAC 3 HGC and lived with its volume control for few weeks when I was in process of switching preamps. In my mind, that’s the only use case, to get you by. It was music to my ears when a preamp was re-introduced. Nothing at this price will give you performance comparable to a dedicated preamp. Brooklyn DAC+ or any of your other choices (except denafrips with fixed out) will just sound slightly different than the benchmark but the concept of low quality volume control will remain. 
In your case I’d actually take the $1000-$2000 and get a good preamp (i.e. Rogue RP-1 or RP-5) and keep using the BlueSound as a streamer with its built in DAC. 

I tried this with a Wadia 321 also, but had bad results. I think I got a bad one, because it just was not right. It was just missing depth, size, punch. I returned it.

Then I went to a Schiit Freya+ preamp (no DAC). It was decent, but I ended up selling it.

Currently I have a mid 90’s Wadia 15 DAC that is going directly to my Pass XA60.5s. Call me crazy, but I prefer the Wadia 15s DAC to the Bryston BDA-1 DAC that it replaced. I should say that I only listen to 16/44, so Qobuz and Tidal won't work here. I am very pleased with the results, but I think long term I will return to a preamp in the chain. Probably Audio Research.

The Wadia 321 really did look the part. Very nice looking piece of equipment. Yes it does have a large footprint as mentioned above. Think a large pizza box. I still scratch my head on why this didn’t work out.

pontus (all denafrips) have fixed outputs, i believe all holo dacs are fixed analog out as well (i am sure i will be corrected if i am wrong on this)

under 2 grand, i would consider

ayre codex (volume knob, but no remote)

soekris 1541 or 2541 (uses apple remote to control volume), excellent sounding unit

stay away from chi fi dacs with volume controls, they are poorly implemented and will strip bits at low volume, making the music sound more mechanical (true also for musetec) - same for rme adi2 (this unit has many many useful features but a quality volume control is not one of them)

This Bel Canto e.One DAC/Pre is definitely worth a look. Bel Canto makes excellent-sounding DACs — I had their DAC3 VB in my system and its sound was near flawless to my ears. But what was even more surprising was how well it performed as a preamp. When comparing it directly with my $2400 Bryston BP-6 stereo preamp I literally couldn’t tell the difference between the two. Not sure how many other DACs could pull that off, but I’d bet not many especially in your price range. BTW, I was using a McCormack DNA 0.5 RevA (getting it back Saturday with full SMcAudio upgrades) and it was an excellent combination.  Hope this helps, and best of luck.


Great replies - thank you all for your input.
@laaudionut Thank you for your tip on the Hegel HD30; it was not on my radar.  From the reviews I just read, it sounds like a very good unit, especially with your experience that it runs well direct to amp. I will certainly add it to my short list.
I am baffled as to why so many otherwise high-end DACs sound so poor when connected directly to a good power amp. It can't be the quality of the volume control ALONE, or the better companies would have fixed this flaw. Is the issue in the interface to the power amp (eg. an impedance mismatch), or is it a failure of the analog stage to accurately amplify the signal to line level?

@laaudionut ​​@cheeg   I'm a little surprised with your experience with the Hegel Hd30 without a Pre.  I have an HD30 in my system and I feel it's fantastic DAC but a while back I was chasing some noise in my system so I removed my Pre-amp and went DAC direct for a few days.  It was almost unlistenable with out my Pre amp.  I feel the HD30 with a tube Pre sounds best, I ran a CARY slp05 and just recently changed to an Audio Research REF6.  

I am baffled as to why so many otherwise high-end DACs sound so poor when connected directly to a good power amp.

Frequently it’s just that the passive preamp sections usually included in the DACs don’t have sufficient output to fully drive the amp it’s hooked up to. As always, it comes down to proper system matching. Personally, I’ll always use a separate stereo pre as I find it to be a critical component to get the best sound out of my system. But that’s me.

A great preamp with a fixed level DAC has always performed best for me.  There is no substitute for a great preamp, it is more than just a volume control and switcher 

A really good one can transform a system into next level sound quality .   There are so many great speakers and amps not being utilized to their full performance potential because they don't have a great sounding preamp in front of them. 

@alan_a , like everything in our esoteric hobby, "your own results may vary". In my case, I connected my HD30 directly to a Coda Model 11 and fed to a pair of PSB Stratus Golds and I was very pleasantly surprised with the sonic results. Perhaps in your experience there was a poor match with the gain level of your amp? I can only attest to the sound quality that I heard. And yes, in may main listening room, I have a Lumin streamer connected to a tube preamp paired with a solid state amp. 

@laaudionut  " like everything in our esoteric hobby, "your own results may vary.""

Agree fully, I run a tube pre and tube amp so may have just been predisposed to a certain sound that completely changed when the preamp was removed.  So maybe not bad just different enough for me that I didn't like it.

The HD30 doesn't seem to get much attention but I've demoed several other dacs in attempt to better it and dollar for dollar I haven't found a better unit.

Frequently it’s just that the passive preamp sections usually included in the DACs don’t have sufficient output to fully drive the amp it’s hooked up to. As always, it comes down to proper system matching.

@soix Thanks for your reply -- I think that's as good an explanation as I'm likely to find.  The voltage level of the DAC output may be in the right range, but it can't generate enough current to properly drive the amp.  I do own a preamp (Parasound 2100), but I thought it was a weak link, so I'd be better off without it.  Sounds like I may want to keep it around for a while.

Try a Teac NT-505x. Safe & Sound sells it with a return policy. I have the older version with an AKM DAC chip and the volume control works great with the few amps(tube and solid state) I’ve tried. The new version uses a Sabre chip and is more to the sound you’re looking for. Mine is a little less detailed. 

Sonnet Morpheus at around $2K used or Metrum Jade at even less should both sound pretty good.

VC is implemented by changing the reference voltage so no bits lost.

I have excellent results using a Weiss 202 DAC with volume control direct to my tube amp.  

PS Audio DirectStream works well. I go direct in my secondary system and through a preamp in the main sys.

@soix  a DAC that uses transistors, or tubes for the output stage is not passive, it may not have gain like a preamp, but it's still has an active device for the output.



a DAC that uses transistors, or tubes for the output stage is not passive, it may not have gain like a preamp, but it's still has an active device for the output.

While that may be true, many of them do not provide enough gain to fully drive an amplifier, which is the primary issue in many cases.  Active or not. 

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Running a dac direct especially at $2k not good even high end it’s sonically better sounding with a quality preamp section . In a preamp Alps pots, or Bourne are $25 and loss of detail is for sure ,that’s why I avoid any integratedthat has these,a silver round attenuator is what to look for. ,a horrible cheap way out  but used by 70% of the industry it seems , a good resistor ladder shunt type  ,relay control or linear Type  , are Night and day better and  in higher end equipment.

RME ADI fs2 with Teddy Pardo linear power supply. I use this and don’t miss either of my preamps, which are a ModWright LS36.5 and Sonic Frontiers Line 2 SE. Been running direct and have not gone back but will be here soon to compare in more depth. The RME without the Teddy Pardo, no I would not go direct to my amp, as it’s a little thin by comparison but the Teddy fills things out.

I use and completely love the Pontus II DAC, and at $1,730 it's an absolute steal. That said, I've only used it with a pre-amp, so no comparison for you 

Chord DAVE is an excellent preamp. It has remote volume control and multiple digital inputs. RCA and balanced outputs. I use it as my preamp.

I can’t agree with those of you who think a preamp adds to the quality of the sound. Touching the signal can only degrade it. the less you touch it, the more intact it stays.

Edit:  Just noticed your budget. The chord Qutest will work as a preamp I think.  I've borrowed one and used it but don't remember how I controlled volume.


I just purchased a pre owned NAD C658 to pair with a Pass XA25.  Had low expectations...but am very surprised at excellent SQ and simplicity of system.

RME adi-2. I use it with Martin Logan ESL 13 and a Classé CA2200. Very clear and present sound. It acts as a preamp as there is even tone correction and left and right controls, all this with a remote!. Great price ($1'000) 

For about $2,000 used you could get a Bel Canto 3.7. Very musical and I use it without a preamp with my tube amp (Willsenton R8). However, it doesn’t handle very hi res files or MQA.


The RME ADI-2 DAC FS at $1300 does a great job without a preamp. I’m using one in my second system paired with a PS Audio S300, KEF LS50s & a REL T/5i subwoofer. Lot’s of rave reviews out there on this great little DAC, but it hasn’t garnered must praise on this forum.  The sound of the RME definitely fits your description of "Looking for clean, detailed, uncolored sound that "lifts the veil".

I find reading this forum somewhat humorous. When I was young, I thought the preamp was more important than the power amp. It’s job is amplifying < 2 volts, so it has a proportionally large impact. Real world experience with how different amps drive very good speakers has changed that, but the only reason to forgo a preamp is funds. The other thing I’ve learned is that separate components are only better than integrate systems of an equivalent quality. A Boulder integrated amp will sound far better than separates from others costing less than ~ $20k. Or a HINT6 will sound better than separates less than ~$5k. I mention all this because the most affordable strategy over time is to buy something good and keep it. The expensive way to go is to keep buying mediocre components and then swapping them out for other mediocre components.


for mtdining: Excellent summary of affordable vs. expensive. I agree because I've tried both!.

If you want to go without a preamp I think you need to increase your budget by a good amount. People run the chord Dave as a pre but I have not liked that setup in systems that I have heard. I did run a dCS bank Tom without a pre into a Krell duo 300xd with gods results. MSB Dac are goood without preamps but I would be looking at the premier or higher. I have a discrete that does well without a pre but I highly prefer my system with the D’Agostino HD pre in it. 

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i tried several DACs w analogue volume control.  All sounded better through my preamp.

I guess If you do not have a good preamp, it is a nice way to go.  A good preamp improves the sound to my ears, that I have tried.

@fastfreight IME, if you don't like how a DACs analog volume control sounds, it's because you truly don't like the sound of your amp and the preamp is improving its sound. 

The analog output of a good DAC lets you hear your amp for what it is. 

My RME DAC lets me hear my power amps, for better or worse. My Van Alstine amp sounds glorious. My Hypex amp sounds....meh. It needs a tube pre-amp. ;-)

Hello @seanheis1 , Interesting opinion which may be sometimes true.  My Amps and Pre are perfect together.  My opinion on this is that the preamp boosts the signal making it much better for the amps.  Of course this could be more significant with my amps than yours!  I can see that makes little sense as I like my Tambaqui output at its highest level.  Regardless, the Pre G2 makes it sound better to me every time.  Have a great day!  Ken

@fastfreight thanks for explaining. I didn't mention but probably obvious is synergy. The combined sound of a preamp and power amp can of course be more preferred than the individual character of each piece. 

I use a FiiO M11 directly to a tube audio research amp using balanced cables and it’s phenomenal. Had a nice tube preamp in there as an experiment and didn’t matter much if at all.


FiiO gives you 4.2v output on the balanced connection 



Most DAC put out 2V single ended or 4V balanced.  Also check the volts required for full power on the amp.  Some volume control bit strip "bit strip" as volume is reduced.  There are several kinds of volume control, resistors based, light based, auto former, digital, etc. 

I went through this, it sounded like the right thing to do.  It did not work for me.  My volume control bit stripped.  My amp needed 1.25v for full power so I thought I was good to go.  My speakers are quite efficient.  I ended up with a passive preamp.  I have great dynamics and sound.

Soekris dac2541. It uses an internal headphone amp as the line driver amp selectable on the front panel. I'm using it to drive an old Threshold amp through a 10k Ohm pot. Works very well. 

Exogal Comet.  Great straight into an amp (no idea how it sounds with their ion amp)

Yet another big vote for the RME ADI-2. It is super in my big tube mono block amps. There’s no turning back and RME sends regular software upgrades. 

Just an unbelievable value. 

I'm currently listening to a Marantz HD-DAC1 using the variable output to a Mcintosh MC2100. The 2100 has left and right output gain levels and once calibrated with the Marantz volume control sounds wonderful.