DAC as a preamp?


I need a new DAC. I use my computer for volume control, but do not trust it. I want separate volume control. The 90s me would have immediately thought preamp. But since I need a new DAC, my question stands ... DAC as a preamp?
I've posted more info about my system below.
I need some advice on the best way to go about getting volume control for these powerful asp1000 amplifiers. I've read about the high input impedance. I use a computer for my source playing Flac, wav or hi-res audio files. I'm using a very simple dongle Style USB DAC that sounds okay. I have choices, but do not know what my best bet is. For simplicity, it would seem I should just buy a better desktop DAC, such as and SMSL M500 and use the volume control knob on front. Or ANY other DAC with a volume control for that matter. I know I can use my volume control the USB. Provides through the keyboard on my computer. But with amplifiers this powerful, I figure I should have a volume control to prevent issues such as full volume noise blasts, which have happened before when the computer glitches. My second option would be to purchase a regular preamp. This would be the most expensive option, as I would want something at least as good as the Schitt Freya +, and that is $900! I would still need a decent DAC upgrade. This gets expensive with my health issues at hand. The last way I could go, is something like an all tube gain stage. I would still need a DAC, but a simple gain stage kit should only be a few hundred at most. The other two options I can think of, would be the pass B1 buffer clone kit preamp for 150 dollars, but I don't know if it would play nice with a high input impedance of the icepower amp. The most simple and cheapest route, would be be using the Sure digital volume control option. But I do not know how high fidelity that would be. I could really use some help. I've been out of this hobby for about 10 years now. I feel a bit lost and appreciate everyone who has helped so far.
flaxxer
Yes, it sounds better DAC mode.   And it sounds better after several hours of use.
@unsound ... I made my decision to buy a separate preamp, based solely on user reviews which concurred the D90 sounds better when used as a DAC only, bypassing the volume controls.
In a recent past post I suggested that one could expect 12 dB attenuation per bit. I posted that in in reference to a recently read report by ESS regarding their “hyper threading” Saber 32 bit DAC. I can’t seem to find that report to offer a hyper-link, This might or might not be specific to that brand’s internal chip algorithm. It might be misleading to suggest this is to be commonly expected. The standard rule of thumb for 16 bit attenuation is 6 dB per bit. Still even with 6 dB of attenuation per bit, with  a 32 bit DAC, there will probably be plenty of bits to spare before bit stripping occurs at critical listening levels with standard output and input voltages.
I offer my apologies if any one was previously misled.
I suggest trying the DAC direct, you might find the pre superfluous, perhaps even less satisfying than going direct. You might want to confirm return policies and restocking fees for the pre and extra cabling before committing.
@flaxxer,

see above: Antelope Zodiac Platinum on Reverb.com
Just wanted to thank all the people who have helped so much. I just purchased a topping pre90. We'll see how it works out.
What is really neat about this solution, is that it is the exact same size and look as the topping D90 I just received in the mail yesterday. They even make a two shelf rack that would fit these perfectly.
I’m going to sell my Focal Flax speakers I haven’t used in years, and buy something I’ll use now. I think I’ll get the Pre90, and justify it with the knowledge some of it was paid with the sale. What makes this funny is, I just found them in the box yesterday. I spent time wondering what I was going to do with them, now that I can no longer drive a stick, lol. Perfect solution!
You mean 40 ohm, not 40k ohm!  Generally, you want a the input impedance to be at least 10x higher than the output.  So, you should be fine with 40 ohm output impedance into an amp with an 8k input impedance.
I'm looking at the topping pre90 preamp. It has a 40K output impedance. Is this going to be an issue with my 8K impedance amplifiers? If so, what output impedance am I trying to find with a preamp? Thank you
@antigrunge2 .... really? You can't just say that without leaving your top recommendation for what you're telling me is the best solution.
@flaxxer,

pls don’t go there. You definitely want analogue domain attenuation.
That would be awesome if this were so. I'll give it a try and we'll see what happens! Thank you very much
I’m fairly confident that you won’t have issues with the two lower sensitivity speakers, the higher ones might (?) be a bit more challenging. Still, with a 32 bit DAC you’ll have at least (!) 8 bits to spend without worry of bit stripping and each bit is worth about 12 dB of attenuation; that’s 96 dB worth of attenuation before bit stripping occurs. You might not get silence before bit stripping occurs, but the lowest levels will probably be well below critical listening levels. I say give it a try. The speakers will only draw the power it needs to handle the signal. While balanced certainly has it’s advantages, singled ended will be worth trying.
@unsound .... 1 watt one meter. Those are nominal impedance numbers. BUT, none of my speakers dip much lower than 3.7 ohms. I KNOW they can be driven by a single watt. THIS IS WHAT SOME ARE MISSING ... The lower powered boards cost $600+, and were back ordered.... The 1000 watt boards are ON SALE for only $500 per pair, instead of the normal $770 per pair, and in stock. THIS is why I own these very powerful amplifiers. NO other reason.
Headroom is a good thing on digital amps. Huge headroom on Class AB amps can create noise issues (see Pro amps). But digital has a black background. SO I just need a way to control the volume, without degrading the sound quality, to prevent accidentally getting full volume, if my cat crosses my keyboard!
Only a few R2R's with the extra bits that Delta Sigma have towards volume attenuation. 
I could always control the volume on my keyboard. BUT, when I was doing this about 10 years ago. Once every couple of weeks, I would get an immediate full volume blast of noise, until I could turn it down real fast. Now I'm using 1000 watts per speaker. This would destroy most drivers. THIS is the ONLY reason I am looking for different ways to control the volume.
I have already purchased the D90. I guess I can send it back and by an R2R instead. Or I can buy a balanced headphone amplifier with remote control, if one can be had for 400. That would also be the same price. Just add that to my D90.
@flaxxer 

Trying to find the perfectly unobtrusive high quality volume control/attenuator/etc solution that doesn’t lose resolution, etc can get expensive quickly. There’s a still a good chance that you may be happy with the Topping D90 on its own (it comes down to how unforgiving your ears are). Hence, you could start there. If you’re happy with it, you wouldn’t need anything else.

Like I mentioned, the 750 dollar Topping D90 hit the peak of diminishing returns on DS dacs for my ears. However, there is another budget oriented option, the Topping E30 that sounds pretty good, while costing only a 150 bucks. My daughter who also happens to be a golden ear bat uses it on her desktop hifi setup and is quite happy with it. You can always return it if it didn't cut it for you.

https://www.amazon.com/Topping-E30-Optical-Coaxial-Portable/dp/B0865Y9F6R/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=topping+e30&qid=1614442985&s=electronics&sr=1-3

I have some of NPass’s older gear and as you may know, most Class A gear made here can cost an arm and a leg. When a) the wallet is not happy and b) you’re not too picky on the country of origin w.r.t gear, the Chinese Dragon can often offer a rescue package for many golden ear bats out there. You could try to get your hands on a Jungson (Zhongshen) class A preamp on its own (600 to 700ish USD) at a later time.
https://www.amazon.com/JUNGSON-Balanced-PREAMP-Standard-JungSon/dp/B086WVXC8T/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=jungson+ja1&qid=1614442572&s=electronics&sr=1-1
There are ways to get stuff like this cheaper directly from China. But, amazon's protection could be worth it.

One couldn’t even build/DIY gear of this caliber in the US at prices like these, let alone try to sell if for a profit. A couple of vulture pricing companies i know here contract these guys at Jungson to design/make their gear. Once it reaches our shores, it gets a different brand name and a 1500% markup. 



HI,  got into this discussion late.  I have a Topping D90 and it is a fine DAC.  Many say the R2R sound better, but as a Delta Sigma DAC it is right up there.  Very neutral sound and very dynamic.  It puts out the 2V and 4V(bal).  I didn't care for the volume control integrated into the DAC.  This left me controlling the volume through my phone and the Bluesound app.  I started a thread concerning this a few days ago so this is a very informative thread for me as well.  I too have a limit on cost so I looked at the tubes4hifi preamps as well as others but they are above your price point.  He makes a preamp that has gain on both channels($1190 on up).  He sells lower cost Chinese units as well. So in closing, could buy a 500 preamp with remote.  You could do several months same as cash if needed. The preamp tubes would not hurt a thing for your sound.  You could go with a lower cost DAC that would still sound good.  I know you already got the d90 but my 2Cents. 
There are Antelope Audio offers on Reverb.com for their Zodiac Platinum. At the price offered, I don’t think there is anything else out there that would compete aa a Dac/analogue preamp
@flaxxer, are they spec’d at 1 Watts @ 1 meter or
2.83 Volts @ 1 meter?
Are those the nominal or minimum impedances?

BTW, the 4 Volt output on the DAC is via it's balanced XLR output, the passive Schitt and buffered First Watt B1 will only accept the 2 Volt RCA output from the DAC. 
@unsound .... I have four pairs. 80db at 4 ohms, 85 db at 8 ohms, 95db at 6 ohms, and 93db at 4 ohms.

unsound
@georgehifi, Would that in turn mitigate the interconnect capacitance concerns associated with passive analog volume controls, allowing for greater choices and useable lengths for interconnects?

Even if the analogue pot was on the output of the dac, if it were a 10kohm, which meets most needs, at the worst position it’s 2.7kohm output impedance.

This into 1mt of good interconnect which is at worst 100pF per foot is 300pF for the mt, in conjunction with that 2.7kohm pot at output impedance give a HF roll off of -3db at 196khz which as you can see is no problem.

Take it a step further, if the interconnect was 2mts long and poor quality at 200pF per ft then it’s still only -3db at 98khz!! still no problem at all.

Cheers George
One of my systems is an RME-ADI2 amp to two Schitt Vidars.  Linn LP12 for analog, Audirvana for digital.   I use a MacBook as front end.

I recently deleted my preamp.   

Pros:
- You can really invest in interconnects, since there is only one set of analog interconnects in the chain.
-  Clean, clear sound.
- More dynamics
- Save money.... in theory.

Cons:

- Volume control affects the sound more than with a preamp.   If you are at -30db on the DAC... there's going to be some issues.
- A bit of a dryer, more analytical sound than we a pre.

I run my LP12 through a D-A converter at 24/96.   Maybe it loses some immediacy vs pure analog, but I enjoy the tone control of the RME for it, and it's a fuller sound than when going through a pure analog path.

Overall, there is no right answer.   You need to experiment.   If you can't afford great interconnects, then definitely try to avoid a preamp... running through an extra set of mediocre cables will hurt your sound.  

I've played with attenuators - they did more harm than good for sure. 

In an ideal world - you would pair your speakers, amp and room so the DAC is at a reasonable level at the volume you tend to listen at.
@flaxxer, what is the sensitivity of your speakers?
ALL I want is remote control volume control that won't degrade my sound quality. That is it.

Computer to DAC to attenuator of some kind to the amps, right?

And only curiosity makes me ask ... with Nelson Pass a legend, why wouldn't the kit at $150 be among the best options possible? Or is this going to harm my sound? Wanting to learn if you're willing to educate me.
It's been pointed out this is a very technical forum. I am new to this part, having never owned a setup like this before. I believe I understand the most basic parts. My amps need 4v to achieve full volume. The DAC outputs 4v . Used as a straight DAC out at 4v, it would immediately produce full volume, without a way to attenuate the 4v. But you want to use between 70 percent to 100 percent on your DAC volume control to prevent sound quality loss from lowering the bit rate. Also, keeping your signal high allows for lower noise floor. Is this correct?
@unsound. I'm only doubtful because the DAC outputs 4 volts. Which is what the amps need to achieve full volume. BUT I would probably be using the first half of the DACs volume, instead of the last 30% of 100%. From 70 to 100% being quiet to thunderous with 1000 watts.
I'm not opposed to the Schiit at $49. I enjoy learning, and was wondering what the actual best option for my situation really is. There are walwart powered stepped attenuators, alps set ups, buffer like the Pass clone, whatever the Schiit is, etc. I figured there was a rank from best to worst options. It was just curiosity to be honest. I love this audio stuff, and this is something I truly don't know.
@flaxxer, technically the $49 Schitt is not a buffer. A buffer is an active stage without gain. Schitt offers a buffer option on their more expensive units.
Why are you so doubtful? What is the input sensitivity for full output on your amp? 
The standard output of 2 Volts single ended and 4 Volts balanced of your new DAC would work with most amps. The DAC has 32 bits, the highest commercial rez media uses 24 bits, and in practice the maximum number of bits used is 21. One can usually expect about 12 dB attenuation per bit. You'll probably have plenty of bits to spare before bit stripping occurs. Again, if you do need further attenuation you can do so without the redundancy of extra volume controls with attenuators such as the Rothwell's;  
Attenuators (rothwellaudioproducts.co.uk)

As the OP, I pray my D90s volune control is in the perfect place for proper gain, but I doubt it. 
I do NOT want to bit strip after paying $750 for the DAC.
Why use a Schiit buffer for $49, when a Pass clone is $150? Or a Marantz 7 clone for $400?
What makes one buffer better than another, if all they do is attenuate?
AND I need remote control too.
Simple answer.  DAC with built in preamp is way to go.   I’ve tried super preamps but prefer my MSB DAC direct to power amp. It also has analog input for my Phonostage 
@georgehifi, Would that in turn mitigate the interconnect capacitance concerns associated with passive analog volume controls, allowing for greater choices and useable  lengths for interconnects?

@georgehifi, would there be less impedance variability with a DAC’s digital volume control than through a typical passive analog volume control?


Yes the output impedance would remain constant and lower with a digital domain vc what ever the ss output buffers (opamps) impedance is, usually 100ohms or less.

Where with an analogue one if the vc is on the output after the output buffer (opamp), it would vary a bit, and if 10kohm in value, be suited better to amps with input impedances of 33kohm or higher.

If the analogue vc is before the output buffer it would then need more complex circuity, and an input buffer (opamp) as well, as the I/V stage or da chip would need it, the output impedance then would be constant and low as in the digital one. (but this way there is an extra (opamp) buffer in the signal path, I don’t like that)

The very best is what Wadia did with their flagship CDP’s and DAC’s, use a digital domain vc but with analogue stage gain setting links inside so you set the digital vc to be used in the top 25% of full volume into that system, so there’s no chance of "bit stripping" They state this in their setup user manulas that it's the best sound to go direct into poweramp, using this system

Cheers George


@georgehifi, would there be less impedance variability with a DAC’s digital volume control than through a typical passive analog volume control?
Easy answer...I use the Cambridge Audio CXN V2. You get a Streamer/DAC, and a PreAmp...Sounds great with my Acoustat Spectra 33’s and Roy Esposito rebuilt Acoustat TNT200 Monoblocks.  The CXN V2, is an all digital unit. If you need Anolog Imputs, they also make the 851N. $1100 vs $1500.
I get a cleaner, less cluttered sound than I had with my Audible Illusions 3b tube preamp in the signal path.

I'll always agree with that.
One of the few later ones that are analogue domain volume controlled.
I prefer this "only if" there’s a chance of "bit stripping" with a digital domain one then, (still not called a preamp) more like an internal passive.
That’s why the $49 Schiit Sys is great to have, just in case the digital domain volume is too low (<70% of full) and could be "bit stripping"

Cheers George
I like my Benchmark DAC-1 HDR. No digital volume control here. It has a remote control motorized Alps potentiometer for level adjustment. Works great in my system. I get a cleaner, less cluttered sound than I had with my Audible Illusions 3b tube preamp in the signal path. 
But I only need to attenuate my volume. Not increase it.
So all you need is an attenuator.
Not more gain/distortion/colouration that an active preamplifier gives.

If you have a digital volume control in a dac, all that does is attenuate the dacs full max level. Which is what your after.

Or if the dac only has a fixed max level (no digital volume), then all you need is a passive attenuator like a $49 Schiit Sys passive. 
https://www.schiit.com/products/sys

Cheers George 
But I only need to attenuate my volume. Not increase it.
A true active preamp of quality is noticably better then a digital volume from the dac. ,for having an active preamp it has transformers ,capacitors, Mosfets, or FETs to stabilize the performance the soundstage is more stable, as well as dynamics and imaging .
I have tried a bunch of digital volume controls that are respectable but having a good active class A preamp in the mix always sounds better from my experiences . 
Hey deep_333, do you want to be my life coach? LOL. You know how to make a guy feel good about his purchase, don't you? I sure appreciate you turning me on to the D90. I've decided I am going to probably use the DAC in the DAC only mode. I'm looking at simple balanced volume control, such as a stepped attenuato. Since the DAC in balanced mode puts out enough voltage to drive my amplifiers to full power. My only goal in this is to try to get volume control that will not degrade my sound any more that it has to. And I need remote control do to my setup, and being crippled up. I'm waiting on surgery with broken bones, but not willing to go in while Covid is crazy. 
Generally, preamp mode on a standalone DAC "is an afterthought".

sorry to confuse you

No confusion, "an after thought" infers something has been tacked on, this is not the case with dacs digital domain volume controls.
As the digital digital volume option in dacs is either there or it isn’t.
If it’s there it can be activated or not and left at full output. Sorry but nothing gets "tacked on"

Cheers George
@flaxxer.  I have the Topping D90 in my bedroom. My reference is a R2R Denafrips Venus that i have in my main room. The Topping D90 is touching the peak of diminishing returns as far as DS dacs are concerned (to my ears). 
@georgehifi , sorry to confuse you...If you look at my comment again, you would note that i never referred to it as a true preamp. I referred to it as "preamp mode" (a confounding term), which is what the different manufacturers call it these days 
@deep333, you win! Lol. I decided on a Topping D90. If I find the volume control position out of whack with my amplifiers, I will grab the $60 Nobsound to see what happens. If it’s an improvement, I will look into Preamps under $700. I can NOT imagine the D90 sounding that badly when using the volume control function unless there’s an impedance mismatch, and I’m only using the first half of the volume to get really loud already. I want to really thank everyone! You guys have been a huge help no joke! Most of you kept your recommendations in my price range, and you guys gave me a huge selection to look at. In the end I went for Simplicity to try first. I looked at the RME, but read not one, but three comparisons to the D90. All agreed both DACs did certain things better than the other, and sounded VERY similar. I’ll choose almost half price for the win all.day there. I’m very intrigued with Preamps. In my experience, they sound very differently from each other, and make or break good systems. I’m mostly piqued with the Musical Paradise, then the Decware Zstage if that is even a preamp, and maybe Schiits headphone amps as a preamp. The Musical Paradise wants to work with amps with above 10k input impedance, and the Icepower ASP1000 amps are only 7k input impedance. Schiit spooks me just a little, because I’ve read several places that it leans to cool over warm, and I’ve read several reviews where the bottom end was questionable on the Freya+. I hate wooly bass! But we will see if I need one even with the D90. Thanks again!

Generally, preamp mode on a standalone DAC is an afterthought.
Sorry to correct you, there is no "preamp" in a dac it’s the same output stage, just that the volume is controlled in the digital domain before the D/A converter

Cheers George
Generally, preamp mode on a standalone DAC is an afterthought. But, considering your budget, the Topping D90 would be a good bet. It is a top notch sounding DAC and preamp mode on it is ok!
https://www.amazon.com/TOPPING-D90-Bluetooth-Balanced-Decoder/dp/B082PX5JX7/ref=mp_s_a_1_5?dchild=1&keywords=topping+d90&qid=1614211254&sr=8-5
Choosing a DAC with with extra bits such as the plethora of 32 bit DAC's available and a maximum output voltage that is commensurate with the input sensitivity for full output of your amp, will give you greater range of your volume control with less chance of bit stripping without sacrificing the power potential you paid for.
If further attenuation is needed you can try something like this:
  Attenuators (rothwellaudioproducts.co.uk)