Get a dac with a volume control. It will allow you to get rid of that old preamp. Removing the preamp will probably make a bigger difference than the dac itself.
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I would agree with Zd. However it may be more expensive to buy a DAC with a good volume control which is analog. Another idea is to use a simple device from shiit audio that is simply a passive volume control. That would give you the option of a second source such as a CD player or turntable and you could buy the DAC of your choice.
I use a Sonore exD, which I really enjoy. 1300 MSRP; got mine much cheaper used. Sonically comparable to the PSA Perfect Wave Mk 2 it replaced.
In generally, I now lean away from spending a lot on a DAC. Differences in upgrades are often quite incremental, and technology is changing daily -- meaning you'll likely want to try new things, and there a good bit of high quality "yesterday's gear" on the used market.
My experience useing the PSA as a preamp was very underwhelming (although the PSA implementation is digital, and the subject of criticism). I think you'll here plenty on both sides of this question.
In your position, I'd get the best DAC I could afford, and plan, as you are, on upgrading amplification later.
If the DAC you select has a volume control and you enjoy that set up, call it a bonus.
"In generally, I now lean away from spending a lot on a DAC. Differences in upgrades are often quite incremental, and technology is changing daily -- meaning you'll likely want to try new things, and there a good bit of high quality "yesterday's gear" on the used market."
Can you give me some examples of what you are talking about here? Things always change, but on a daily basis? I never got that one.
I was speaking loosely. I should have said "things change at intervals of 1 to 1+n days, and often quite quickly."
The recent introduction of DSD is one such example. If one bought a megabuck DAC w/o DSD, and then really liked DSD, one might be a little distressed.
My impression is that the pace of change with digital is faster than with other components, so that a 15 yo amp or speaker might be more competitive with today's stuff than a 15 a 15 yo CDP.
Did I say CDP? Sorrr! The OP is interested in a computer set up; Nobody uses CDP anymore! :)
I'm using a Wadia 121 DAC with built-in volume control and am quite happy with it (list is $1200, but I think you can find them for more like $800 now new). Source = MacBook Pro mostly streaming Tidal lossless. Feeding a Bel Canto Ref500s amp and Linn Majik 140 speakers.
Recently, I became curious about whether using an analog volume control would make a difference. I'm currently trying out an iFi iTube, which is a pretty interesting little device that's received great reviews. You can use it as a tube buffer or a preamp. for starters, I'm using it as a tube buffer. The Wadia and Bel Canto both have balanced and RCA jacks, so I am using the balanced to go direct from DAC to amp, and the single ended plugs routed through the iFi. I can then use the switches on the amp to toggle directly from using the iFi to not using it.
So far, using the iFi purely as a tube buffer, I find an extremely subtle improvement. So subtle that I'm not sure it's actually an improvement, but I'm still burning it in, so I'm going to be patient. Once it's more burned in, I'll experiment with using it as a preamp.
I would recommend that people looking for budget DACs and components check out the iFi micro line up. From what I've seen so far, they are pretty cool little pieces that punch way above their weight class.
Anyway, back to the original questions, if I were in OPs shoes, I'd be considering the following:
Wadia 121 with digital volume control; ditch your preamp
Centrance DacMini (now on super sale on Amazon for about $500!). They make nice DACs for the money
Schiit Bifrost or Gungnir - but you need a preamp. Could use your current one or buy something like the iTube referenced above for $300
iFi micro iDAC or iDSD DAC.
"I guess it all comes down to what you consider recent. DSD came out about 16 years ago (I think 1999)."
News to me! Live and learn, I guess. Zd542, could you name some of the 1999 DSD units that were in commercial production? Would you consider any of the the 1999 units an option for the OP?
Perhaps of more interest to the OP: putting aside a bit of money for a USB cable that is an upgrade from stock can be an audible investment, if you aim to implement via USB.
"News to me! Live and learn, I guess. Zd542, could you name some of the 1999 DSD units that were in commercial production? Would you consider any of the the 1999 units an option for the OP?"
It depends. For me, the only way I get involved with DSD is with SACD's. As you know, there are any number of players that support the format. Theoretically, you could have bought an Elgar DAC in 1999 or 2000, have it upgraded periodically, and its still considered one of the best in the world today. And, yes its not a cheap DAC. But the real question, is do you really need DSD and is it worth getting involved with outside of SACD's? I say no. For hi res using a computer as a transport, I don't think it sounds any better than PCM. Also remember, Sony pulled the plug on DSD about 10 years ago and is considered by many to be a failed format. I think if the OP stays with PCM formats, he can use the same DAC for quite a while.
Another thing worth mentioning is if you judge a DAC based on its digital characteristics, you're only judging half the DAC. The analog portion of the DAC has a huge effect on its sound quality. If you don't consider the analog section, you're really missing out on a lot. In most cases, what separates an exceptional sounding DAC vs just an OK sounding DAC, is the analog section. And I think it goes without saying that a better overall sounding DAC will be kept longer by its owner, regardless of specs or formats.
You need to mention what inputs might you use other than computer and also which file types you might use via your computer. There are many DACs available, new or used at or under $500 which might serve you well. Especially if a computer is your only input and you are only going to play PCM files.
AS ZD stated there is more to a DAC than the converter chip. The power supply and analog sections contribute much to the sound.
If your only source is to be a computer and you are interested in digital room correction, then consider software solutions too. I've been very happy with Acourate, but there are other options too such as Dirac (easier to use, less powerful than Acourate, but powerful enough for most applications).