DAC with Volume Control and Audio Research Ref 5SE

I have been a firm believer in taking out the preamp in an all digital source system, whenever possible, and using either analog or digital VC on the DAC.

This was based on the idea that a preamp is always "subtractive", i.e. it can only degrade the downstream signal through insertion of circuitry, and anything it adds to the signal is an distorting artefact. The philosophy was confirmed with a number of very decents preamps (Modwright 36.5 LS/PS, EMM Labs Switchman, Pass Lab xp-10), none of which improved on the (digital) VC in the DAC.

Enter the Audio Research Ref 5SE. This preamp breaths a level of dynamics into the sound of my DAC (MSB Signature DAC IV) relative to using its internal analog volume control, improves soundstage and timbre that must be heard to believe. Artifacts? May be. Pleasant distortion (tubes!)? Possible. Do I care? Not one bit! It sounds just too damn good.

So my filosophy and theory are out the door based on a new empircally based data point. I Still believe you need to get into the preamp stratosphere to get this result, but if you do, the outboard analog volume control still lives.

I suspect one of the reasons for this finding is the Ref5SE has just improved price performance in tube preamps by 70%, and made a $20K+ performance accesible for $13K. I would not have never tried this with a $25K preamp, but getting a fairly prices trade-in Ref 5SE brought doing the expiriment within the realm of almost realistic economics.

Conclusion: The preamp is dead, long live the preamp!
Sorry guys. Double post. The previous (near identical) post was held up by the moderator for 24 hours so I reposted, and then all of a sudden it showed up twice.
I've only heard the REF5 (not SE)in one system and can't be sure how much it contributed to the overall system sound, but it was one sweet rig!!
Edorr, in most case you are correct, the good pre-amplifier needed instead of going direct, but MSB signature does not have great volume control, I used Aoyon cd-5s and now using esoteric k-01 direct to amplifier and the sound is great. In order to get better sound and improvement can be marginal, I need to buy pre-amp in range of 13-20k and more. Add to this high quality ICs and power cord and investment may be expensive.
Denon, no doubt the preamp route is an expensive proposition, and the internal VC will always be more cost effective. However, the MSB VC is not bad at all, and one hifi mag put is at par with using the old ref 5 (also 13K) for volume control. However, the arrival of the SE version has changed these economics.
I like the ayon straight to amps myself,wadia sounds good too,when you have a 15,950.00 1-meter i/c,you better believe its more cost effective!,I like pre-amps as well,such as the one edorr is speaking of,currently its hard to do more cables at this cost!,the ayon 2s isnt shabby either with its digital volume control,the 5s is a real analog pre-amp/cd-player,the 2s and 5s sound good to amp.cheers!
I´ve also been testing ARC Ref 5 (not SE) against VTL 6.5. VTL 6.5 sounds great when setting output level of my Paganini DAC to 2V. But in 6V sounds too much agressive, metallic, irritating. On the other hand on REF 5se It happens the oposite. Sound just comes closer gets puncher, and simply fills amazingly the room. Really liked in that way, because in 2V sounds very lifeless, velled and boring. Even Paganini DAC not letting to disable volume control I think 6V will never distort on ARC preamps.
In order to get better sound and improvement can be marginal, I need to buy pre-amp in range of 13-20k and more. Add to this high quality ICs and power cord and investment may be expensive.
Yep, that last bit of MARGINAL improvement is always the killer. Law of diminishing returns!

Personally I've always prefer with my VAC Sig MKIIa pre in all scenerios I've experimented.