Upgrade Path - Preamp or DAC?

I need some advice on what to upgrade next - preamp or DAC. I don’t currently have a DAC. This is for my second system, which may or may not end up being my primary system. I will be streaming Tidal via Heos on both systems.

My second system is:
Rotel RC-980BX
B&K ST2140
Paradigm Monitor 9

The weak link is the pre. The Heos has analog outputs so I could use it as a DAC and send straight to my pre. The Rotel pre has all analog inputs. So I could upgrade to a pre that has a better DAC than the Heos and optical/coax inputs. Or I could keep the pre for now and get a better DAC. I am lusting after the Cambridge Audio 851D on agon right now. The third option is to just get the Heos now and see how it goes before upgrading. I really want that 851D though, but have just spent a lot on recent upgrades to system #1.


buy a cheap DAC like a Dragonfly, and then only buy upgrades that can be returned; use blind listening tests to see if you can tell the difference - if not, back it goes

meanwhile assemble some program material to test - not just your favorites but whatever people claim shows a big difference between DACs (which range up to the $30,000 Nagra)

why the lust for the 851D?

(I am a big fan of Cambridge Audio and have one of their original Dacmagics, but you need to think about the components of gear lust to make the best choice.  This also has the salutary effects of 1. slowing down your rush to buy, and 2. satisfying that itchy feeling somewhat.)
What other sources do you use in this system? The answer drives need for a preamp. Some DACs have variable output which may remove need for the pre. Is this true for the 851D? See other threads regarding direct connection of digital source to amplifier.

If you don't need USB input you could search for a older DAC having a solid power supply and analog output stage which remain quite good using SPDIF input streaming. Can be bought far less expensively than many newer DACs and in this context just as good. Many come up used here on AG. Also less expensive than a quality preamp.

If needing a preamp, i believe that piece remains the heart of a system, and therefore requires a well thought out purchase. I owned a B&K ST-140, predecessor to your amp I believe. You could easily find a quality used line level pre to compliment this amp at a reasonable budget (<$1000). What would your budget be?


I'm not sure a Dragonfly would be any better than the DAC on the HEOS.  I get your point though.  I do need a break because I just upgraded my primary system (https://systems.audiogon.com/systems/6318), and I'm already looking at upgrading the system that it replaced.

Duely noted.

My sources will be CD, Tidal and vinyl (P3).  Any yes, the 851D can serve as a pre but I can't use it because in need vinyl.  I would put my budget at 1K.

I'm thinking the pre is the way to go.  I think I will hold on to the Rotel and see how the HEOS sounds with an RCA connection before making any more decisions.  When I still had the ST2140 in the primary system, I replaced the Rotel with the CA 851N and it was night and day.  I don't see any preamps under 1K that have both digital and analog inputs.  It looks like you need to pony up for that.  So a DAC may still be in my future.

Thanks everyone.
What is your budget?  It is always a good idea to determine that before you decide how to distribute the dollars
Given that you deploy 3 sources your emphasis on the preamp makes sense, with the caveat that there is more than one way to an end. 

On the digital side improvements in both CD and Heos playback can be improved with a DAC. For this you would need two SPDIF inputs that are compatible with CD player and Heos output. On the vinyl side the phonostage will be as important as the line level stage on the preamp. The purchase of a linestage preamp and separate phonostage is a possibility. 

I was in this same situation when I upgraded my system (after 25 years) which also included vinyl, CD, and the addition of computer audio.  I found that the digital sources were taking priority over vinyl so allocated greatest portion of budget on those sources. For me that was to purchase a line level preamp that was compatible with my amp and provide it with outboard DAC and phonostage. The DAC I purchased (used Bryston BDA-1) has several SPDIF inputs which accommodate my DVD player as transport and my computer via USB/SPDIF converter.

I believe you need to establish what your priority will be towards each source and allocate budget based on that. Let time be on your side, as that can help insure best decision making and increase potential budget.

Good luck, and keep us informed along the way. 

Thanks. I have thought of a separate phono pre. I'll have to play it by ear. My problem is I want both systems to be the best system! I'll come back to earth soon.
I have no experience with that cartridge, however many on this forum have spoken highly of it within it's price class. Not knowing anything else regarding your vinyl system, considering this cartridge, I believe the phonostage within the Rotel pre to be a weak link.  That said, if you found a line level preamp you liked, you could still could use the phonostage within the Rotel until you identify (afford) a outboard one.

Regardless of system expense, balance is important, a single exceptional component will not be truly appreciated, one component as a weak link sets the standard throughout. 
I had not thought of keeping the Rotel as a phono pre but that's a good idea.  The path of least resistance is to buy a used phono pre and keep the Rotel for digital until I can spring for a better pre.  I will wait to see how everything sounds once I'm streaming Tidal.
Seems we are both up early. A step at a time is prudent. If where I live I had better internet connection I also would try Tidal. 
I am going to get a new Oppo disc player and use the DAC in it for a while.

The best "bang-for-the-buck" preamp with phono stage under $1,000 is the Doge 8. I know as I had one for a number of years. I’ve since upgraded to a Don Sachs Model 1 6NS7-based preamp and a separate phono stage (Croft RIAA), but the Doge is a great preamp at that price point.

Arthur Salvatore had this to say about the Doge 8: " Considering everything (performance, build quality, flexibility, "looks" & inflation), the Doge 8 may be the best preamplifier value in the history of audio. "

It is, however, very tube dependent. With the wrong tubes, the Doge 8 is a so-so performer. With the right tubes, it is exceptional! I had great success with Psvane 12AT7-II and Shuguang custom 12AX7 LS.

Doge 8 $900: http://www.usaudiomart.com/details/649375970-doge-8-original/
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