Tbadder, The Birdland Audio DAC "Odeon-lite" can be purchased new for under $1000 or used for a lot less. It is a good unit. Check out: WWW.Birdland.com
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If you get a DAC with a volume control make sure you understand if it is a digital or analog control. Digital volume controls may tend to sound compressed at lower than maximum output because they are simply scaling down the numbers. I use my DAC's digital output set at max and prefer to control the volume with a preamp. I have not tried the direct route you describe because I have other audio sources which the preamp must control.
How about going for a whole CD player? I heard a Resolution Audio CD-50 in a system recently when I went to pick up a pair of interconnects I purchased from a local audiophile, and I was absolutely blown away. He had it with a pair of Meadowlark Heron i's and the new Jeff Rowland 150 wpc integrated. My system isn't quite as expensive as his, but it's in the same neighborhood. I would, however, swap mine for his in a minute. It's the first time I've ever been asked by an audiophile "What do you think I could do to improve my system" and the only upgrade I could think of was "hire the New York Philharmonic". The volume control (analog) on the Resolution Audio was superfluous for him, but it would be great for you. I just checked and there's one on Audiogon right now for $1750. I'm not sure if its replacement, the CD-55 has a volume control, but I'm sure the folks at Resolution would be very happy to help you. If you're determined to get just a DAC, a not-terribly-cost-effective but viable option might be to get a Meridian 518 digital controller. It goes between your transport and dac, and has a digital volume control. I happen to have one, and it's great. It's also a jitter-reduction device and allows you to select from 5 noise-shaping algorithms (but the effects of these are very subtle). Steve
The Creek OBH-14 is only about $300 new. The Monarchys are very nice and they are inexpensive. You can choose from the Monarchy Model 18B, 22C or 33. All have analog line amps built in. The model 33 also has 2 additional inputs, so it can replace a line level pre-amp and DAC and it sounds great. You can purchase one direct from MonarchyAudio.com for $719 which is 50% of original list.
The Monarchy Model 33 is very good and has been favorably compared to well regarded DACs such as Bel Canto and MSB linkDAC3.
Geez, one day and all these responses, you guys are great. You've given me stuff to start my research, and I love researching!
Does anyone else agree with Stevegolf1? That if I'm looking to save money by "skipping" a component it might be better to go with a CD player with a volume control? Hmmmm...thinking out loud. My eventual upgrade path then would be via a superior DAC as opposed to a superior Transport with my original idea.
Which upgrade path would probably be more fruitful? Improving the DAC with a long standing transport, or improving the transport with a long standing DAC?
You could build a bottlehead foreplay preamp for $150 and get a sony sacd 333es or 555es player for under a grand from some of the dealers on the net or good guys in california. I think they are selling the 333es for $400. With the money you save, you could get yourself alot of sacd's and regular cd's and I bet it will sound as good or better than any 2k dacs out there except maybe for the EVS dac.
EVS Millenium DAC II has optional volume controls. ($100 option)I saw it mentioned in another thread, see:
Word has it it will be upgradable to future DVD-A and SACD, though two channel only. bnc coax, aes/ebu. i2s is coming. I'm surprised this DAC can't walk on water, the way some people review it.
I tried using a new but cheap sony dvd player as a transport with an MSB Gold DAC. I was hoping this combination would work but it was not really listenable. I bought a rega planet to use as a transport and it sounds significantly better on its own than the sony/msb combination did. The rega/msb together are another fairly substantial improvement over the rega alone.