DAC/PRE

August 8, 2015
 by Paul McGowan

I wrote yesterday that audio is in a state of flux and changes are afoot. This is nothing new, of course. Home audio reproduction has been changing since its debut in the late 1800s. But change comes in waves. Remember Quadraphonic? Home Theater? Console stereos? Walkmans? Each was a wave of change that began in a trough and ended on a crest. This seems the typical pattern where one presages the other, and it is difficult to know where in the cycle we are. My guess is we’re at the bottom of a trough riding to its crest.

Like anticipating a storm’s fury in the safety of the calm before, I am always fascinated by these cycles. What’s sure to come are things of great interest to us and it is fun to see where bright minds take us in our journey for better sound.

One trend I am surprised never went very far is the DAC/PRE. Let’s take a look at that piece first because of its untapped potential. Many DACs have digital volume controls. Case in point, our DirectStream and PerfectWave DACs have excellent volume controls that many use to feed power amplifiers directly, including me. In recent years I have added an external analog preamplifier for better sound, though it offends my sense of logic and understanding to do so.

DACs with digital volume controls are not DAC/PREs. A DAC/PRE accepts both digital and analog signals and manages their volumes. The first such device I am aware of was from our own company, and that product was called the Reference Link. And while this ancient piece accepted both analog and digital, I would not, today, refer to it as a DAC/PRE. The Reference Link used an A/D converter to digitize analog. Thus, it was merely a DAC with a digital volume control, technology we take for granted today.

A DAC/PRE combines an analog preamplifier with a DAC and tomorrow we’ll dive deeper.

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11 comments on “DAC/PRE”

  1. I’m sure this won’t really surprise but there have been other DAC/Pre devices. They just came from small companies and didn’t sell that much. I’m currently using a 2 piece device called a GeorgeMark Audio First Overture device that is mainly a DAC plus high level stage with an extra input that dates back to at least 2004.

  2. I take a different approach to integrating digital and analog. in my system , and recommend this to my friends. It is more cost effective to keep them separate because DACs are essentially computers, with an obsolesce measured in months. My McIntosh tube preamp with phono stage and AudioPrism amps sound great as they have for many years. Progress in analog is incremental.

    I have gone through about 10 CD players and DACs, but only a couple of preamps and amps in 35 years ( the time when I really got serious about audio).

    My setup is new school/old school with my Direct Wave DAC / Bridge connected to “traditional” analog pieces. My Nottingham 294 turntable and McIntosh MR-78 classic FM tuner provide the analog. It ALL sounds great!

      1. I have gone from Perfect Wave I, to II ,and to Direct Stream with no regrets, and appreciate PS Audio’s dedication to customers in providing an upgrade path. And then there is Ted’s firmware upgrades – amazing. I did forget to mention that one of the components that make my system sound so good is my ADAM Classic III speakers with the pleated ribbon tweeter and midrange drivers. People need to hear how good these are, and for a moderate price.

  3. As someone who grew up in an analog world and had little interest in digital technology, I came to terms a long time ago with the reality that digital technology has the potential to be far superior to anything analog can do. It appears to have no limit. What’s more, the best digital technology can be rapidly commoditized, that is mass produced at low cost. This will drive what is now regarded as high end to an affordable cost for a much larger market. IMO it is therefore inevitable that the audio technology of the future will be entirely digital from the signal source through the power amplifier output where it will be converted to whatever is required for loudspeakers (which may not be the same as they are today.) Inputs for legacy equipment such as phonographs, FM tuners, and analog tape players will utilize A/D inputs built into the equipment. Conversion into the digital domain will open up enormous opportunities for signal processing in the digital domain that are either unthinkable or very expensive in the analog domain. Analog is doomed to extinction except as a museum curiosity and for collectors of antiques. The process has already begun and will only gather pace.

  4. You have me confused. Like you say, audio journey is about better sound and this a fact. You use a Direct Stream/ Prefect Wave DAC to feed your amp but have added an analogue preamp for better sound. Why is this offensive to the sense of logic and understanding ? It can only be offensive if one is a die hard digital backer but this is self defeating since better sound is the goal not a certain technology. Regards.

      1. Yet adding a good preamp always seems to improve all audio aspects of the system over passive controls. JA of Stereophile wrote that the preamp is the heart of the system. I couldn’t agree more. For now, IMO, it’s irreplaceable.

  5. Let’s see. I have a DAC/PRE device that accepts both digital and analog signals and manages their volume. It also provides amplification. It is an inexpensive device that works brilliantly. You may have heard of it. A Sprout!

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