It is near impossible to say vanilla tastes better than chocolate. These choices are so individual, like any matter of taste, that suggesting one's better than another makes no sense. But then there's questions about better or worse without regard to taste. Somethings just are better as others absolutely are worse: pleasure vs. pain, lying on a beach or freezing till lips turn blue, cars that run vs. those that don't, and so on. And when it comes to the best DACs with zero-loss volume controls feeding power amplifiers directly, vs. inserting the right preamplifier to control the volume instead, there are cases where the sound is just plain better–and no, it's not a matter of taste. Done right, a good preamp adds amazing musical qualities to every performance played: better realism, less haze, evidence of the instrument's body and the placement of it in an orchestra, more air around each player, nuances that weren't obvious before. We know when something is right vs. putting lipstick on a pig and calling it beautiful. For a long time I found that DACs with no-loss digital volume controls sounded better, cleaner, livelier, directly into the power amplifier. Whenever I inserted a preamplifier it sounded different–but not better. That is until I tried a different preamp. My first revelation happened with the stunning Aesthetix Calypso preamplifier. Placed between the DAC and power amplifier, music took on a life and dimensionality that took all of 10 seconds to find it was better–not just different. I wrote yesterday that it's been suggested my issue with this setup–lengthening the signal chain to gain clarity–was easily explained away by a reversal of logic. In other words, I had been asking the wrong question. The first assumption then, the choice of preamplifier or volume control, had to be looked at. Do all preamps and volume controls improve the music when inserted in the path? That answer was no, they do not. Yes, they all change the flavor of sound, but not always for the better. Clue number one. My first experiment, then, was to insert a simple passive attenuator in the signal path. Did this have the same clearing of the cobwebs as putting the Calypso in place? Yes and no. My first reaction was one of greater cleanliness, less haze than before. But something was missing. The immediacy, attack, and bottom end of music had shriveled up, like desiccated fruit. And this was a clear case, to me, of a flavor difference. Better in some respects, but not all. The journey continues tomorrow.
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