DACs With Killer Built-In Preamps

I see a lot of DACs with volume controls with the ability to act as a preamp. The Audio Research Reference Dac/Digital Media Bridge ($15k) has a volume control and a lot of innards of its Reference 5SE preamp...which makes for a very serious preamp section on that DAC.

Are there any DACs with voulume controls under $7k that can compete with top-tier preamps?
The PS audio PWD MK2 sounds very nice. It's a great dac and I have been using it as a pre amp with various tube amps with success. Underwood Audio has great prices. Very pleased with mine.
There is no volume control technology that beats adjusting the D/A reference voltage to adjust the DAC output. This adds no parts to the signal path, adjusts no gain stage and puts no resistor or gain stage in the signal path. It actually increases S/N ratio and lowers THD as the volume is lowered unlike all other volume technologies. It is in another class from other volume control technologies, but can only be accomplished with digital in a DAC. This is like using no preamp at all.

This is EXACTLY like connecting the line-out on a typical DAC directly to the amps. No difference, except that the volume does not blow-up the speakers.


Also, a version of the BIDAT evidently used this technology although I have never heard it.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
For those with more limited budgets, or who feel that spending big bux does not necessarily give you the best value for your dollar, the Emotiva XDA-2 DAC/Digital Preamp/Headphone Amp might be a great way to go. And at only $399 with a 5-year, transferable warranty and a 30-day in-home trial, this could be just the ticket.

Emo also has a very highly-regarded, fully-balanced, differential reference preamp available for $899. Check out the XSP-1 for more details...


I'd take a hard look at the Empirical Audio DAC, and a lot of people seem to like the Berkeley DAC run directly into an amp as well. Best of luck.
I have owned the Meitner Bidat referred to in an earlier post and I now own the PSAudio MKII DAC TAS raved about a few months back. I've run both DAC's direct. One *can* achieve that last nth degree of micro detail with such a set up. But I've found that something is also also lost. I call it the "soul" of the music. I have yet to hear a DAC preamp that could match the incredibly organic and natural *sound* created when I let my Conrad Johnson CT5 preamp drive the system.

In my experience, there's just something "clinical" sounding in all the preamp-less systems I've heard. I would concur, though, that today's very best DACs going direct to amp *do* beat a less-than-stellar preamp and mediocre interconnects.

See Stereophile's latest review of the Pass Lab XP-30 for more musings about the joys of a preamp. What shouldn't be good sometimes is.
Also look into the Aesthetic pandora. It has a preamp / VC option based on technology from their acclaimed calypso tube preamp. It is supposed to be a phenomenal DAC to boot. It is right at your pricepoint.
Ok, write this down and read the Six Moons review and owner comments.
April Music Eximus DP1 dac is simply a must listen to with or without a preamp. Wonderful and the poster child of,how audio is changing...
"One *can* achieve that last nth degree of micro detail with such a set up. But I've found that something is also also lost. I call it the "soul" of the music."

Interesting. Must be an implementation problem in the Bidat. I don't have this problem with the Overdrive as you can see:


Steve N.
Empirical Audio

If you're ever in St. Louis and wanna bring a fully tricked out SE, I'm sure I can rustle up a few audiophiles to come over for a shoot out with my CT5 and PWD MKII. ;-)

Here's the deal; plenty of people prefer the preamp-less sound. Plenty don't. My ears are open, but I know what I prefer so far. I know a number of people who went direct to amp, only to return to a good line stage later. That said, nothing would please me more than to dispense with a preamp, power cord and IC's so there's no "principle" at stake for me.
VHiner - There is an easy explanation for this. Either the driver on the DAC output was weak (AKA op-amp) or the preamp implementation in the DAC sucked. Most DACs have both problems.

I have never been to St. Louis. I wish I had time for this. I do have a fully tricked-out Overdrive SE demo with money refunded after it is returned, less shipping.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
I clearly understand you position and agree. We all like what we like.As you correctly point out, both approaches have their strong supporters.I prefer the implementation of a top quality active for the same reasons as you.I have no arguments at all with those who prefer the alternative, why should I? I'd have no interest in trying to persuade anyone to change their mind, what's the point of that? Everyone needs to choose the best path for their own needs and stop trying to convince others their way is the better choice for all others.
Are you replacing your Dude preamp with the Eximus DP1?If so let us know your impressions, sounds interesting.
Yes, I decided to go preampless for the first time in my audio life. I have tried all manner of passives and digital sources with volume control and always preferred the active tube preamp by a country mile. Never even close.

Well, the Eximus DP1 is my first experience where an active preamp was not needed. I still can't believe it, but it is true indeed. It must be a synergy thing with computer based audio done right with great tube amps.

I cannot even believe I am writing this to be honest. But the facts are the facts. No loss of weight, texture or tone straight from the dac into my tube amps. I give up some stage size and scale, but the music comes through with less "noise" and wonderful resolution and intimacy.

I am always open minded and settle for what sounds best to me. This is a great DAC and when implemented as part of a well executed computer based system - it floats my boat. Easily outperforms any CD based front end I have encountered.
This is a case of the body snatchers. Where is the real Grannyting and what have you done with him?
Be careful, I understand the Killer Dacs are claiming old
school dyed-in-the-wool audiophiles by the hundreds. Don't
get too close, or you could be next.
Out of a half dozen friends that went preampless , only one didn't go back after a while .
IME, having a stepped attenuator installed into the input stage of my amplifier gave me the best sound I heard in my system. I've tried both active and passive preamps, both colored the sound more. I've actually had increased dynamics, soundstaging, and frequency extension this way. No thinning of sound often encountered with passive preamps and no veiling of sound often heard with active preamps. Sorry for off topic remark.

Getting back to OP question, a friend of mine got the Lampizator DAC which uses computer controlled resistor based volume control. Sounds quality of the DAC is excellent.
Grannyring, I went the other direction. I never found a preamp below $10K (never tried one over $10K) that bested a well implemented VC in the DAC and hence always ended up selling the preamp. Then a trade in Ref5SE showed up and I gave the preamp one last ditch try. It beat the crap out the DAC VC. I think the reality is both DAC + VC and preamp price/performance continues to improve. My hypothesis is the Ref5SE level of performance would set you back >20K just two years ago, but this level preamp will handily beat the preamp-less route.
Edorr, my fully tricked out Dude preamp sounds better than the Ref5 and according to some past Ref 25th Anniv owners, better than that preamp. Not a question of preamp quality, just synergy and what I have put together in my home.
That makes sense, you`ve come across a particular system match that`s ideal for you. I feel the same about my current system with an active linestage.Let your ears be the guide. When you find the right sound,rejoice in it.
Edorr, I want to say that your preamp is awesome and I do respect the AR product line. Not trying to say they are anything less than wonderful.

I have heard my Dude and the Ref5 in the same system and just want to share that the Dude plays in the same league.

I cannot explain why this time around a preless set-up just sounds as good. I do know what I hear however.

Go figure
Apple Mac Mini 2009 with 256 SSD, Mojo Audio power supply, Mountain Lion optimization and Amarra.
How about a killer preamp with built-in killer DAC and other nice things like biamping, subwoofer crossover, room correction, etc.? The Classé CP-800.
In my experience , the more things a preamp can do , the more the sound is compromised .
I'm a huge fan of the Perreaux Audiant DP32 - massively adaptable, great sound and built like a tank. Havent found anything that fully compares in the same price range. Just my .02
@ Grannyring,, Hi, I just bought a Ayon 2s player running direct to amp, still burning in the unit, does not sound bad at all, not exactly my cup of tea of choice of tubes, 6h30 x4,, I am very currious about your expertise with audio!,, The main reason I am running direct to amp is because my I/c is A Taralabs Zero Gold, Retail, $15,000.00 a meter!,, I cannot afford to get another one for a pre-amp, LOL!, I have read this entire thread and liked it and the gentlemen here, I do not know anything about the Eximus DP1, Or Dude pre-amp, I would like to ask, can you elaborate more on these 2 products?,, I am not sure if I want to keep the Ayon 2s permently in my main system, The Ayon Sounds good, I like 12ax7 and 12au7 type tubes sound alot, different, the 6h30 and the 12ax7 sound from each other, both have good qualitys,,, I am using A Krell 700cx for An amplifier, Thankyou, cheers!
The Ayon is a very nice player and enjoy it! The Dude is simply the finest sounding preamp on the planet based on my experience with all manner of preamps. It simply play s music with the scale and ease one hears in a great live setting. If you like your music served up with a huge and dynamic presentation with an ease one expects at live venues, then this this preamp is it!

The Eximus is very lively sounding with great energy and excitement. Not dull at all.
@ Grannyring, Thankyou for you answers here, I never even heard of these brands, Is the dude pre-amp a tube unit? I like the tube sound!, If the Dude is a tube unit, what tubes does it use?, what is the retail cost of the dude pre-amp?,, thankyou Grannyring, you are a gentlemen!, cheers!
Just a quick update. I put my TRL Dude back into my system after living with a preampless system for many months. Well, I missed the Dude and it was a mistake to take it out of the system. I think removing the Dude gave the impression that the music gained transparency and improved detail.

Well, that was my ears tricking me for a short while as over the long haul I started to find the music a little brittle, forward and a tad threadbare. I put the Dude back into the system and the music was back.

My preampless system give an impression or perception of improved detail when I found is was really highlighting this area as the body and other musical cues were missing without the Dude.

This was not apparent until time made it absolutely clear. The Dude abides!
Granny - this demonstrates that your DAC has insufficient drive to be used direct.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
I respectfully think that had nothing at all to do with it. All the numbers and
specs line up to make the dac sing in my system, it did sing , but not as
well as the active Dude.

Or perhaps we agree......what do mean by drive?
Granny - drive refers to the current-driving capability of the DAC output. If it has 1 ohm output impedance, then it can drive more current than one with 100 ohms output impedance. This is simple electronics 101, batteries and bulbs. The current output capability of the DAC driver is a function of the size of the output device and the power delivery to that device. Either thing can limit the current when di/dt is required (change in voltage over change in time)

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
"This is simple electronics 101"

Yes, in "High End Audio 550", fundamentals still count for a lot, perhaps even more so than bank accounts. :^)
I struggled with this issue but decided with DAC/DSD changing all the time, sticking with good tube pre-amp and separate dac. that is for main rig, for the pc setup in office, DAC into active speakers does it for me.
I understand many things audio and the Eximus dac has enough drive. Just found my tube preamp sounds better.
@ Grannyring, Hi, Is Dude making a unit that has balanced inputs yet?,,, Cheers.

Great way to o about it!

AudioL, you would need to ask Paul about that, but I think he will build one fully balanced.
Your revised impressions over a long term listening period don't surprise me. I'm one of those who find systems with high quality active linestages sound more realistic and natural. You missed the full body that's present in live instruments and voices.
Has anyone heard or listened to any of the NAD components i.e C390 DD - Direct Digital DAC Amplifier? Or their Integrated C375D Integrated with,"USB device side input for direct connection of PC or MAC?
Just curious as I was purusing their site looking for inexpensive integrated for bedroom setup - we all need some good Jazz in the bedroom for those stormy summer nights! Then I ran across their other devices - intergrated amplifier DAC. Ive yet to purchase a NAD of any sort as my money jar is being filled for a new Accustic Arts Reference STREAMER ES to play FLAC and other formats as I build an HD cateloug. The Dead's American Beauty from HDTracks sounds incredible and thats streaming apple lossless via Apple TV, Arcam R-DAC->Rotel pre/power amps->magnepan 1.6.. Id love to hear the FLAC version off foobar and jamcast.