Best Preamp = No Preamp?

I'm currently looking for some DACs. I'm looking at Benchmark DAC1, Bel Canto DAC3, Slim Devices Transporter, etc...

I noticed most of these newest high performance DACs have built in volume control with remote.

I'm thinking that I can connect these DACs directly to my Power Amp skipping preamp.

Is that right thinking? Why go through additional peice of device when I can avoid? Anybody doing it that way?

What'll be the pros and cons?

That's what they are designed to do. Downside? Do you have more sources? Need additional controls?

No, it's a common misconception. If you're using the volume control on your source unit, THEN that piece is pulling double duty as your preamp. PERIOD

The heart of any preamp is Volume control.

I guess it's just a matter of time before people using a receiver, start saying they're forgoing a tuner and preamp.
No. I only need a couple of digital inputs. One for a transport and one for computer.

What kinds of additional control would I need?

I'm wondering if there's sill added improvement using preamp as far as sound quality is concerned.
While you can do that, I think you'll find that most listners will suggest you still need an active preamp for optimal sound - that is the volume controls in DACs, while functional, are not up to the standards of dedicated preamplifiers.
The other main con is that the outboard DAC may not have enough output to drive the power amps. Some DAC's only have the volume control as an afterthought.

I heard a system which was substantially improved by the addition of a preamp. Before the preamp was added, the system would run out of puff when given something dynamic to play. Even with the volume control maxed out, the system could not go higher than 85dB. CD's that were mastered at low volume were especially problematic - the lack of gain made these CD's much too quiet to listen to.

It all depends on your DAC and power amp. Specifically, the output voltage and output impedance of your DAC, and the input sensitivity and input impedance of your power amp. If these are poorly matched then you won't be happy.

All the best from sunny Australia!

It really depends on your system, with multiple amps etc. I would think a preamp is necesary.
I am using passive preamp but I have very sensitive speakers (horns) and a very sensitive amplifier (low input voltage and very high input impedance) and in my case the passive did beat a top of the line preamp, by a very small margin.
In different cases active preamps do add body and dynamics to the music, but low quality preamps do mess everything up so it is dangerous. One of the most important parts of a preamp is the volume control which can vary in price and quality, I like resistor loaded attenuators, which can be used in active or passive preamps, a bad volume control can destroy the signal!

As always, there is no rule....
I have found the opposite, if you want Body and the absolute dynamics, warmth etc.. Nothing can replace a good Tube Preamp, even no preamp.. Just my opinion, but something is always dry or missing in the emotional connection running digital raw, some super hi end players might put pretty good preamp sections in their top digital pieces that will work well, but I don't feel any DACS in these price ranges can compete up against the equal DAC with an excellent Preamp in the Chain.
I guess the best answer is it depends as always...

Anyway, I just read a couple of manuals of the DACs with volume control.

Both of them kind of claiming that connecting directly to amp and using it's volume control is the best.

I guess for these DACs, better to follow the manufacturer's suggestion?

Benchmark DAC1

Bel Canto DAC3
"Direct Interfacing to Power Amplifiers:

The DAC1 USB is designed to interface directly to power amps and powered studio monitors in order to provide the cleanest and shortest path from the digital source to the monitor output. This often results in a substantial improvement in sound quality.

10, 20, and 30 dB pads are provided for interfacing directly to monitors and amplifiers that often have too much input sensitivity to handle high-level (+29 dBu) signal levels."

Above is from the Benchmark DAC1 manual.
A preamp is not needed if the goal is to simply have a way to control loudness/volume. However, if you want it to sound great, the best your system can sound, then to pick up that last 10 to whatever % of improvement you must have a good preamp. Key here is having a good/great preamp. I have always found that a good preamp improves the sound. I have found this regardless of the reference system I had at the time, regardless of how good the DAC or CD player was and finally regardless of the cost of the CD or DAC in question. I have owned the AA Capitole with volume, the Opus 21 with volume etc, and a good preamp always improved the sound greatly.

Only those who prefer a more threadbare or thin sound will go preless. Some do and for them preless is fine. These are the simple facts of this long debated question based on my experience with lots of top end gear and sound systems.

Ha! Have fun and play for yourself.


Read my post again. You agree 100% with me and I with you.

When you put a pre amp into your system you are now listening to music that has been changed by the manufacturer of said pre. If you had the option of playing two or three pre amps one after the other your system would sound a little different with each pre. Going direct with the correct combination of equipment can deliver full, warm and very detailed music. Every pre amp out there has some type of sonic signature---some you may like, others you may not. No pre---no signature-------
Forgot to mention----sonic signature os interconnects and another power cord!!!!!!!!
isn't using the variable output that's built into a dac or cd player the same as using a preamp? only difference is that the preamp is built-in to these units. if that assumption is correct, any preamp better than the built-in volume control should be better.

no preamp would be more like taking the fixed line out, with the variable output defeated, and connecting straight to an amp, which is not too practical in the real world.
Grannyring, your right, and here is the deal, your post came out and got approved at the same time as mine to be viewed by others... actually about 5 other posts went at the same time and hours later posted that were not up when I wrote mine, so when somebody looks at the thread it looks like comments were directly posted about immediatly above posts.. We will see if A-Gon lets this explanation post, I have put it several times on other posts and they just block it and sometimes it can make people look "Wrong" or un-clear of who they are directing posts toward. Yes we totally agree on the preamp issue.
I have both a transporter and a squeezebox. Problem if you use the integrated volume control is that the preamp gain setting is implemented in by a digital gain setting in the DAC chip: if you output less than ~30dB below the max volume, you start losing on S?N ratio (that's why I use two passive attenuators at the input of the amp, as the amp gain is too high). Result is quite good...
On other DAC/CD players, the preamplification is done in analog domain, like in my (ordered) APL NWO 2.5T (supposed to be great, even better than the best preamp, will tell you when I receive it next month)
I totally agree with Undertow and Grannyring. That too has been my experience with passive and straight-into-the-amp sources...something is always missing and that something has ALWAYS translated (for me) into a flat, dry, and smaller sound than going through a good preamp.

Itsalldark, you said:
"When you put a pre amp into your system you are now listening to music that has been changed by the manufacturer of said pre"

That basically says nothing or everything, depending on your view point. The result of any signal passing through ANY component is changed from input to output by some degree.
As we all know there are those audiophiles who desire to re-create the exact (but amplified) copy of the what was captured in the recording studio (unless you were in control of the mixing process you fail this quest at this step) in their homes...and feel that any component that colors the signal is bad (even if that results in a beautiful sound)...of course its not possible to re-create this signal with 100% accuracy and it's also something i happen to not care about. What I care about is good sound, and if, for example, a pre-amplifier's colorations result in my increased listening pleasure then so be it.

After spending thousands on gear...give me "colored", interesting, musical, sound anyday over analytical, dry, mechanical sound, even if that accuracy is objectively a closer correlation with the captured waveform in the studio...bottom line is if it sounds good to my, yours, or his ears that's all that matters.

In keeping with the theme of this post, I have yet to find a truly great/captivating sound with any pre-amp less system. It would be sweet if that were the case (who wouldn't welcome one less box?), but so far in my experience a pre-amp has always improved the perceived sound quality. YMMV :)
I have my Audio Aero Capitole cdp direct through the Threshold T-200. Nothing touches it BUT the table goes through the Audible Illusions M3A or it doesn't shine.
In order to get rid of the pre-amp, I think a few conditions need to be met:

1) high quality parts for the attenuator at the CD/DAC output
2) enough muscle/high quality parts in the DAC analogy section to drive the cable and power amp.
3) Good cable that's easy to drive
4) Easy load at the power amp end.

I personally consider a Pre-amp is an outboard attenuator + extra muscle to drive the cable and power amp.

In my experience, no pre-amp is always better than a crappy pre-amp; a good pre-amp is always better than having no pre-amp.

But then I have never tried super high quality passive pre-amps.
Undertow, Grannyring, Dpac.

If a colored tube preamp sound better to you, it means your systems are dry and analytic. You're only partially compensating inherent flaws in them. Maybe it's time to invest in better speakers and acoustics, only then will you discover the virtues of a neutral preamp.

My experience also:

In my experience, no pre-amp is always better than a crappy pre-amp; a good pre-amp is always better than having no pre-amp.

Your comments are so off point. As I have said, I have owned the best high end has to offer. My reference systems consisted of gear all reviewers would say is not dry and lifeless. No flaws.

A good preamp just sounded better then no preamp in every instance over the years with various pieces of gear - all well respected and match well in a nicely treated room.

Tube or SS, a good preamp always gave the music more body and weight. Even with Thor, CJ, Belles, Wavac, AA, top of the line electronics and Silverline, Dali, Audes and other natural sounding speakers that were far from dry.

I have owned several good passive preamps and great CD players with volume and the preamp always helped.

ever hear the term synergy...?
My take on the "high end sound " is the result YOU come to love after much hardware experience....synergy comes to be it if you call one component dry and and others compensating...Jmaldonado whatever terms you use within your comfort zone remain that.
to me it's as much about finding the colorations in your gear that make your feet tap. If you call your colorations neutral, that's your bag baby and nobody will fault you for that. That's the beauty of this passion!!

A friend lived with a Benchmark feeding a power amp directly ' no contest ' an active preamp created a more listenable presentation.
I agree with the preamp believers. I used the Benchmark direct with several power amps, and it sounded weak, compressed, flattened imaging...not good.

The Bel Canto DAC3 has much more drive and bass and dynamics than the Benchmark when run direct. The DAC3 has a much larger power supply and a digital volume control that was designed with some buffering to get around the usual problem passive drive has.

However, placing a quality tube preamp in the circuit shows you what you are missing. More air, more expanse, more space, more dynamics. However, if you can't afford a good enough preamp, you won't get these results with so-so preamps. I could live with the DAC3 direct, and have, while between preamps. If expense is the factor, the DAC3 might be an answer for you.
A bad preamp is the worst thing you could add to a system. A good preamp can do wonders if your system is not well balanced or not too sensitive.
With a very sensitive system, the best I heard is a passive preamp, resistor attenuators wired directly into the amps, smooth extened on both ends and dynamic.
Less is more....but it needs to be enough!
I too have messed around greatly with going direct and then using preamps and going back and forth and wondering why would anyone bother with a preamp in a sytem that only has one source.

That was until I got a great preamp in my system. It was the best move I ever made. I wouldn't be without one regardless of the number of sources. It's probably not what someone trying to save a couple of bucks wants to hear, but if you get a chance to hear things with a great preamp then you'll likely never go back to direct again.
One thing that people don't always realize is how important it is for the preamp to control the interconnect cable between the preamp and amp. Passives cannot do that, but a good preamp can, if there is intention to do so in its design!
When had AA Cap mkII connected directly to Clayton M100 it sounded somehow uninvolving , dry, but after tubed Supratek Chenin was added to the chain it changed to magic, sound was musical, alive. I tried some cheap passive preamp it was disaster, much worse them without preamp.
I could neither believe nor understand how few resistors can damage sound so much.
I tried some cheap ($1000-1500) solid state preamps it was different or worse then direct. So in my experience good quality tube preamp is greatly recommended.
GOOD vacuum tube preamps seem to be common with a truly captivating, inviting sound.
I think we all seem to agree on that, more or less.
My experience has been on the pro-preamp side as well. As to preamp flavors, I'm fine with that as well. I've recently owned CAT,LAMM and Placette Active and Passives. The main problem with the direct approach is that the quality of the volume controls are very poor compared with those on great preamps, so even if it is direct, the distortion of a less than great volume control is very harmful more harmful than the additonal stages and ICs with a pre. As Atmasphere points out the ability to drive the amps through the interconnects, and I'm not talking about gain here, my Placette Active has no gain, but it provides a very low output impedance while buffering the source. A great passive with a great volume control with the right IC and amp can also work very effectively, in this case simply by providing a SOTA volume control (e.g., Placette RVC, Bent, etc). A DAC direct is a fine place to start, but ulitmately I think you will come to the preamp school.
I echo the sentiments that a pre-amp is one of the most important components you can have. Get a good one or don't get one at all.

I love what tubes in the pre have done for my system.
DACs you mentioned, I think you're better off getting a tube preamp. If you want to go without preamp, consider Mark Levinson or Wadia cd players. Otherwise, with Bel Canto and Benchmark I think you will benefit from a preamp, especially a tubed one. You will get better soundstage and overall timbre of instruments.
Also, FWIW, I would take Bel Canto over Benchmark. Keep in mind that Benchmark is a recording studio tool.
It will be very detailed and may make some CDs unlistenable, depending on the rest of your system. If the system is revealing now, I'd go for Bel Canto.

you can run volume control all you want. it is GOOD. VERY GOOD on the Squeezebox 3, but man, it really opens up nicely with a nice tube preamp.

you dont need to spend a ton on a preamp. Get something infinitely resellable, desireable, and affordable like a Melos SHA-1.

You wont regret trying it. MAKE SURE YOU GET DECENT INTERCONNECTS, otherwise you are taking yourself out of the game before you start.
Not really. Either the dac or an integrated amplifier incorporates the preamp gainstage. So one isn't actually ridding a stage but placing it in another location.

However, lack of physical space will limit the quality, especially a tube analog gainstage.

Perhaps those who think no pre-amp is the best preamp should consider attaching their DAC output directly to their speakers. Then they could avoid having that nasty power amp in the signal chain with the changes it makes to their signal. This would be the logical extension of such thinking.

As for me, I use a very nice preamp, with outboard power supply. I like how it preserves the dynamics of the recording. If one has limited shelf space, there are now many fine choices in integrated amplifiers - perhaps this would be a good way to avoid using a preamp. Or maybe many would be happy to use nice headphones with the Benchmark DAC-1.


An old thread, but I wanted to "testify" as I have recently been enjoying my old Monarchy 18B DAC direct to a PSE Studio IV amp with wonderful results. Coming off of "old iron" tube integrated too, which surprised me- huge soundstage, great height/width and air- I didn't think I could live without tubes, let alone without a preamp too, crazy. The tipping point was replacing the cheap volume knob with a ladder stepped attenuator (inexpensive one)- this created a significant SQ improvement- true, there really is no "slam", I can't crank it and rattle the windows (I don't do that much any more) - I couldn't do that with my30 watt tube piece either, so I guess I'm used to that- but I'm pushing Vandy 2CE's this way, so I am doubly surprised- just a wonderful, clear, crystalline presentation-

I will likely grab a preamp at some point both because I'm an itchy audio guy who is always changing things, and because I feel a little "inadequate" without the pre- Ha! But I recommend those with the right set-up give it a try- a quality attenuator is a key factor too, keep an eye on that.
I tried going directly from my Metrum Octave II DAC to my Bryston 4B SST2 and the sound was too edgy for me. I also tried a passive pre but with the same results. Also, I could not get the volume I needed for some songs. The Benchmark DAC 2 pre is very transparent without the edginess of going direct. The Bryston B100 SST as a preamp also sounds much better, but not quit as transparent as the Benchmark
getting a cd-player, or Dac with very good type tubes and running direct to amplification has no hardness, edginess, quite the opposite, organic, way more transparent than most active pre-amps, and with full bass slam and tube magic mid-range if you get a hybred tube/solid state source with specs of below 20hz to 20khz and a little more, mated with good cabling, you will get incredible results with a high quality solid state amp that is high power and high current, this is my system now, Happy listening.
I went w/o a preamp and thought it sounded good but when I added a jeff rowland criterion, I discovered the error of my ways. I am firmly in the camp that the preamp is the key to the whole presentation.
a pre-amp cn add it's own sound to the total
Direct sounds thinner with less body, weight and texture. This had been my experience with trying the LSA Attenuator three times, Placette, several DAC's direct, and several CD players direct. To some it sounds cleaner or more resolving, but I feel this is either mistaken for "transparency" or some folks like that lighter than real sound. Ha! I know that sounds negative, but we do all have preferences.

To each his or her own. Just enjoy!
Most SS sources (excluding tube ones) have an output stages that can equal and sometimes better many preamp output stages, especially tube ones.
So the myth that a preamp can drive the interconnects to the amp better is a "furphy", and started by preamp manufactures, and "Ohms Law" will prove that time and time again.
The only time you may like a preamp in the way is if you prefer it's colouration it gives, at a cost of transparency.

Just remember the Nelson Pass quote:
"We’ve got lots of gain in our electronics. More gain than some of us need or want. At least 10 db more.
Think of it this way: If you are running your volume control down around 9 o’clock, you are actually throwing away signal level so that a subsequent gain stage can make it back up.
Routinely DIYers opt to make themselves a “passive preamp” - just an input selector and a volume control.
What could be better? Hardly any noise or distortion added by these simple passive parts. No feedback, no worrying about what type of capacitors – just musical perfection.
And yet there are guys out there who don’t care for the result. “It sucks the life out of the music”, is a commonly heard refrain (really - I’m being serious here!). Maybe they are reacting psychologically to the need to turn the volume control up compared to an active preamp."

Cheers George
Direct sounds thinner with less body, weight and texture. This had been my experience with trying the LSA Attenuator three times, Placette, several DAC's direct, and several CD players direct. To some it sounds cleaner or more resolving, but I feel this is either mistaken for "transparency" or some folks like that lighter than real sound. Ha! I know that sounds negative, but we do all have preferences.

To each his or her own. Just enjoy!

"To each their own [fortune]" may also apply to those who've struck upon a winning DAC-direct combination instead of being simply in the camp of preferring a faux sonic imprinting; in fact I believe it's an old relic of a presumption believing the DAC-direct route generally devoid of body, weight etc., and not in keeping with the results currently possible here - especially since the OP originally posed his question. My latest and successful DAC-direct encounter is with the SOtM sDP-1000 (just entered my setup on a permanent basis), which sports a dedicated preamp section with volume attenuation in the analogue realm (digital "actuated"). Should people want for more body, weight and texture here I'd say it's a preference that goes contrary to what sounds natural to my ears though my setup. It sounds wonderful, plain and simple, and not in the slightest anemic or whatever. Actually I'd say the trend is reversing towards the DAC-direct route getting the upper sonic hand compared to separate preamp solutions, with the advancements being made via integrated components. Having a sole digital source makes it even more compelling.
"To each their own [fortune]"[quote]
Couldn't agree more!

[quote]instead of being simply in the camp of preferring a faux sonic imprinting

Those two statements are completely contradictory. Were you being intentionally ironic?
Swampwalker --

It seems you take things a bit out of context here, and misunderstand what I mean.

My "gripe" in a sense with poster Grannyring was that I found he tended to label the DAC-direct defenders to adhere to a "non-real" sound:

To some it sounds cleaner or more resolving, but I feel this is either mistaken for "transparency" or some folks like that lighter than real sound. Ha! I know that sounds negative, but we do all have preferences.

To each their own would then be like saying: the ones who prefer the "real" sound, and those (the DAC-direct people) who embrace a "faux" imprinting. On the surface it's a benign statement saying "to each their own," but in the context of what he wrote I found it got a slight knowing-it-better tone.

My comment ""To each their own [fortune]" may also apply to those who've struck upon a winning DAC-direct combination instead of being simply in the camp of preferring a faux sonic imprinting" was trying to communicate that those in favor of a DAC-direct solution wasn't necessarily defenders of a "faux" sound, but could as well achieve a winning combination with "real" sonics.
OK, understood, Phusis. You make good sense.
Thanks, Swampwalker :)
My statements are fact and true for me and my opinion based on my pretty vast experience over the past 2-4 years. Nothing to disagree with. My opinion, my experience, my recent experience.

My preamp is special and has always proven to be better than a direct or passive with the systems it has found itself in.

I can absolutely state this is absolutely true for me and every other person and system my preamp has been compared to direct or passive attenuators. That is the scope and reality of my statement.

I have also found we Aphiles have sonic preferences that lead some to active preamps and others to no preamp. No way to argue or persuade as preferences are preferences.....end of story.
One last clarification. To each his own means just that. If you think it
sounds more real direct, then it does for you. If you think a good active
sounds more real in your given system, then it does for you.

The direct and/or passive crowd seems to state the active crowd likes a
less than "real" sound. Exactly the kind of statement Phusis
stated he would like to stay away from. I agree with Phusis in that we
should stay away from that conclusion. The knife cuts both ways. Sonic
beauty or fidelity is indeed in the mind and ear of the beholder.

Preference is the real determinant here. I will restate my comment on the
direct/passive crowd "mistaking resolution for..." by simply saying they
perceive and hear live music or live/real sounding music to sound more like
their passive/direct set up. In my opinion the two camps are attracted to
different sonic attributes and perceive "real" differently.