What makes a bigger change, dac or preamp?

Hello everyone,

I would first like to start by thanking everyone for the help and apologize for exhausting this question but I I was hoping everyone can educate a slightly confused hobbyist. Recently brought Quad 12l active which is being feed by Squeezebox Touch. I have being using the Touch as a preamp which is not the ideal setup.

Now what is honestly confusing me is the entire upgrade path. On one end, I have people telling me the next step should be a DAC to add to the Touch. On another end, I have people telling that the very first thing I have to do is get the volume control away from the touch and by a good preamp or just straight volume control unit like the Warpspeed optocoupler.

Most agree that separates is the best way to spend my money.

MY question to everyone, which will affect the sound the best period. What makes a better upgrade path?
amp or DAC? It depends on the system and other variables. In one system the the DAC is the weak link, it will have a better impact. Or you may drop a component into a system and it will have great synergy with what you have so it will have a greater impact. So to answer your question is, it depends. I'm not a source first guy, so in my experience with my system, amps have had a greater impact. Others will have a different experience and tell you the source or DAC will be the better move.
You can get a DAC that _is also_ a pre. I tried the Benchmark DAC1 Pre for this purpose, found its sound not to my taste, and settled happily with a Wyred4Sound DAC-2.
As Cymbop said, a combination DAC and preamp is an option and there are quite a few of them now in all price ranges. A couple I'm familiar with that work well are the Beresford TC-7520 and the Aune X1. What you don't get in that price range is remote control.
The idea that Cymbop (and I think a few others on your previous post) mentioned is a great option. By having a DAC with a volume control, you should be able to improve the sound that you are currently getting out of your Squeezebox.

In addition to the Benchmark and Wyred units, I would also highly suggest taking a look at the Bel Canto DACs (1.5, 2.5, 3.5) which also have volume controls and remotes.

***** Bel Canto dealer disclaimer *****

Good luck!

Pre amp would make the most significant change, all other elements remaining unchanged.
Generally speaking I think Buconero117 is right - in most cases.
DAC with volume control.
IMO, pre-amp, no question. Three reasons.
1. I have found that they have a profound effect on overall system character.
2. Using the digital volume control on the squeeze products will adversely affect the sound once you attenuate more than about 3 dB or so.
3. By all accounts, the DAC in the Touch, while not SOTA is much higher up the food chain than the volume attenuation (see #2).

I don't know what the Warpspeed sells for, but it appears to be a variant/clone of the Lightspeed Attenuator which you can buy direct from the designer for a pretty modest sum, as high end products go. I've used one and its quite transparent. However, be aware that there are some compatibility issues w either product because they are passive rather than active pre-amps. If you go the the Audiogn Lightspeed thread, you can "read all about it", as along as you've got a day or two to spare ;-)
In your particular situation I second Buconero17 and Swampwalker. I would pay particular attention to Swampwalker's argument as it applies to your setup. Also, with the active Quads where you need longer Interconnects, consider preamps/pre-amp DAC combos that have balanced (XLR) outputs. If you are on a budget, you might want to check this out: http://www.pacificvalve.us/MatrixBalanced.html
Good luck
What makes a better upgrade path?

A better Preamp.
The best upgrade for any system is upgrading the weakest link.

As has been said, the DAC in the Touch is acceptable. It's digital volume control is not. To control volume, it more or less removes bits. It's digital output is bit perfect at full volume output, but not at any other volume level. Don't hold to me that exactly, as I'm not the white paper/tech type, but it's what I understand of it.

Also, get a preamp with XLRs if all other things are equal. XLR cables do far better with long distances and other things than RCAs.
What's your budget? Is the Squeezebox your only source or do you need analogue inputs as well?

If your budget is ample enough, you can go with something like the Peachtree Grand Pre, which is a preamp with a high quality dac built in for around $4000 (I think).

Or, if your budget is smaller, you can get a dac with volume control that will work as a preamp for only a digital source. The Emotiva XDA-1 fits this bill, costs around $370.

The third option is a separate preamp and dac. In this scenario I would buy a dac without volume controls, a basic, well regarded example of which is the Musical Fidelity V-dac at around $350. You could combine this with an affordable preamp, like the Emotiva USP-1 at around $500, and be set for multiple sources including digital and vinyl. Emotiva is just the first such preamp that came to mind, but there are other brands in this price-range.

If your goals are modest, I recommend the last example.

Good luck, have fun.

First let me thank everyone for their advice and for educating me. Although I love the hobby its a bit confusing with the enormous amount of information out there. I like to buy things that will grow with my system instead of buying equipment on the fly then turning around and selling it in a couple months. I can't afford it although I wish I could :)

Thank everyone for clearing that up.
Agree with Buconero17, preamp makes a surprising contribution to the system sound.
preamps make a bigger difference by far than DAC's, But I would suspect a good DAC would make more difference than the DAC in the Touch. I've not listened to your Quad to comment, but I believe that is the real question.
I have come to the conclusion over the years that the preamp is the heart and soul of the system and a world class one in a world class system makes the biggest improvements I've personally heard. I would also add that I've never heard a preamp that knocks off my socks that is cheap. I'm recalling that you wanted to spend like 500 bucks. So in this case I would say definitely get a DAC with volume control. I personally own the Quad speakers you have and they sound really good with a Benchmark DAC that has volume control. I know you don't want to buy and then sell again but the Benchmark is readily available used and you can sell it back if you don't like it. If you are set on keeping the Quads and have one source then I would see no sense in getting a preamp. Otherwise if you were thinking of a bigger budget then you would be getting into a situation of possibly upgrading the speakers and getting a good integrated amp that would be a lot better than getting a great preamp for the Quads. I own the Quads and the Benchmark and I've never heard anything better for 1000 used price. Next step up is a better set of speakers and an integrated I think. I'm no arguing that the preamp is not the most important thing in a general sense but with your setup I'd say get a DAC with volume. There are plenty of choices around and under 1000 pick your flavor. I personally like the sound of the Benchmark with the Quads, that is what I'd get and it's an easy sell if you don't like it.
I think that power amp is the heart of a system and turntable and speakers are the soul of it.
That said, preamp is very important. Cables are important too.
While I, in theory, agree that the preamp is the "brains" of the system, your DAC is at the front of the system. If you have a fantastic preamp and a mediocre digital converter, you will not hear what the preamp can do, only what the dac's abilities pass on to the preamp. And then how would you know the preamp's total capabilities (i.e., its highest level of revelations).

It's like driving a Maserati on Sears and Roebuck tires. You will NOT get the total effect of the Maserati, even though it is more "important" than the tires.
A front end is the "money piece" of a system, and THEN the preamp.
I'm surprised to read otherwise, although, to be fair, Dave Wilson did an experiement with a pair of 1,000 speakers with a very expensive front end, and then reversed it: a pair of Sashas with an iPod. Naturally (and I say this as someone who knows Dave), the second setup won. I would imagine what Dave recorded to use on the iPod was atypical (as in, not typical) of the recordings others would have, so that is my caveat.
If you have, for instance, A Bryston BDA-1 and a Modulus 3A, it'll sound fantastic. If you have a JVC XL Z-1010TN CD player and a Modulus 3A, not so much. (I've had both, so I know of what I speak). EVERYTHING COUNTS, so you're eventually going to want components of equal rank in order to achieve the best sound.
Common wisdom is, though, that the preamp is the "heart" of the system.
You'll have to audition this out for yourself. There are places with 30-day return policies, such as Music Direct. I've bought and returned items, because they just didn't perform as expected in my system.
Yes, the DAC is at the front (and I do believe you have to look from front to end,
since you can't undo what is messed up early in the chain), but what if the
differences between DACs are so small, that qualitative variance is relatively
minor between competent DACs, while differences between preamps are more
significant and easily discerned by comparison when listening? I think this is in
fact the case. But perhaps others might hear things differently.
I'd certainly think that, if the DACs are similar in quality and the rest of the system is "colored" enough, it would hide the differences. That's the problem, isn't it? If a system is built to sound "beautiful," the preamp will most likely reveal more differences. If it is put together to sound "uncolored," then I would say the DACs WILL sound different enough that it is the DAC and then, equally, the preamp, that will reveal differences in the system.
It truly does boil down to that, and your suggestion is every bit as valid as mine.
Beauty or truth - to paradigms for system building, and possibly to key to the variety of opinions we get on the same piece of equipment.

I liked the quote in the February issue of TAS, Neil Gader interviews John McDonald of Audience, and he said something that somehow seems related to this idea:

"At Audience,the Golden Rule is 'first, do no harm,' defining harm as any deviation to the original recording. So high-end to me and to the Audience team is about staying true to the music. Sound-sculpting should be left to the recording artists and engineers"

Do no harm - a good way to describe it, and as we know, preamps can do a lot of "harm", more so than most DACs IME. Oh, then we have cables:)