A traditional preamp (the pre – amplifier, the interface before the main power amp) had four main functions: input selection, phono stage, gain stage, volume/balance control.
Preamplifiers were the center of the HiFi system—the main unit users would interface with to choose which source to listen to and then to set the volume level. Sources back then included tape, radio, and phono.
When PS Audio entered the marketplace back in 1974, we introduced a new idea: the separate phono stage. Our standalone phono amplifier/equalizer was better than the ones built into many of the preamps of that day. Over time, preamps began shedding their phono stages and became line-level preamps.
As the digital age was ushered in during the mid-1980s, the output of CD players and DACs were connected into the preamplifier’s aux inputs. In those days, there were no such things as a digital volume control. All DACs and CD players had analog outputs.
As we left the 1900s and moved into the 2000s a few DACs started sporting digital volume controls. These weren’t very popular amongst audiophiles because they sacrificed resolution. Moving up the history ladder a decade or so and products like our own DirectStream DAC began featuring lossless digital volume controls which today, are fairly commonplace.
Today, if your sources are all digital, then most modern DACs can effectively replace the need for a traditional analog preamplifier.
If you are like many of us using both vinyl and digital sources then you still need an analog preamplifier.
Lastly, there are many of us (including me) that prefer not to use DAC’s volume control. In this scenario, we run the analog output of our DAC through a top-of-the-line analog preamp for better sound.
The preamplifier has a long history in the world of high-end home audio reproduction.
My guess is that it will continue to have the center seat in a high-end system for many years to come.