Debating a DS DAC or preamp

Ultimately, I would prefer to have both, but have a few thoughts. I’m currently using a recently upgraded McCormack DNA-1 paired with the stock RLD-1 preamp. The preamp is about 15 years old but still sounds good, I realize there are better options and I’m confident it’s one of my weak links. I have debated upgrading the internals of the preamp but given the cost I’m considering options.

My DAC is a Marantz SA8005 and doubles as my CD/SACD player. I tried a VTL 2.5 and it just didn’t mate well with the DNA-1, likely a gain issue. The VTL sounded great, but the hiss or tube rush was too much, easily audible from 10’ away. No luck rolling tubes, the Mullard’s did better than others but at no time was it quiet, or remotely quiet. The 2.5 was an earlier model with no gain options.

I wanted to begin with the SGC preamp/DAC but feel I will only begin the DAC/preamp upgade again, but still an option since the price is attractive.

So now I’m considering starting with the preamp and waiting on a DAC, or vice-versa, that’s my dillema. The BHK preamp looks like it could be a possible end-game unit for at least a number of years. My question is compatibility. My RLD-1 specs are:

Output Impedance: less than 100 ohms
Input Impedance: 13.5 Kohms

The DNA-1 input impedance is 100K ohms

Would the BHK preamp mate well with the DNA-1? I want to mention that currently the DNA-1 is unbalanced only, XLR is a possible option in the future for the DNA-1.

Given the cost of either the BHK pre and the DS DAC, I will likely only go for one or the other for now, also hoping for something to come along pre-owned at TMR.

I also believe the DS DAC would be a quite a substantial upgrade from the SA8005, my gut is saying to source a BHK pre first. I do stream Tidal and use an Aries Mini for my streamer, the DS DAC would fit in well in this regard.

With regards to the amp, the DNA-1 has been Ultra Modified and is really a stout performer, if I upgraded I would likely need to go with mono amps at quite a higher pricepoint. The DNA-1 is truly a wonderful amp and does just about everything right.

Any input appreciated, hopefully I gave enough info. All input and criticism appreciated.

What speakers are you using?

Current speakers are Polk SDA 2.3TL. Some history so sorry to get long-winded…these have been extensively modified with all new components, only the drivers themselves and the cabinet have been left untouched. Since the upgrades have been completed, is when I started to pursue higher end gear as they continue to respond favorably. While not a Sonus Faber lol, their soundstage, clarity, and overall “realism” have been excellent.

I started sourcing a 2nd 2-channel rig before the acquisition of these SDA’s, (my 2nd pair) I’ve heard some very nice setups and I’ve always found a compromise south of an almost 5-figure pair. This is why I want to extend my source, amp, preamp and see where that brings me.

I would go with the DS DAC first since it can also be a preamp. You do not lose bits when you attenuate with this DAC. Just plug it straight into your power amp. Later you can get a BHK preamp to enhance the performance of the DAC.

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Good to know there is volume control on the DS DAC, thanks. I was hesitant to try removing the preamp as the last time doing this resulted in initially more clarity but after a short while found the sound lacking body and warmth, almost a bit on the “hot” side.

That was using the SA8005 and it’s volume control so I don’t want to try to compare it with the DS, albeit definitely a consideration.

There is no lost of resolution using the DS DAC unlike the Marantz or my Oppo 205. There is a load of users perfectly happy going straight into the amp with this DAC. You get the full body and warmth plus exceptional clarity with this DAC and no preamp.

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Definitely get the DSS first. It’s pretty good as a preamp (in most cases, better than a preamp unless you start to get into high $).

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Agreed, DSD would be my choice as well. Ted did implement a clever volume control inside which works really well!

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If you believe your speakers have more to give - meaning better sources will make them “sing” even better - then I recommend the DS DAC first as long as digital files are your focus. It could be the last DAC you ever buy. (At least until you have purchased your end-game preamp and amp(s)). :wink:

The little voices in my head had this debate a couple of months ago, and they told me to upgrade to the BHK Pre from the SGCD to feed my M700s and Thiel speakers. I’m using the SGCD in DAC-only mode and planning a DAC upgrade in 2021, probably to the DSD - especially if it gets a bit of a “refresh” in the not-too-distant future.

I love the BHK Pre, but I’ve second-guessed my decision a few times now that I’ve started to take the BHK’s tube input stage for granted. The other day, I tried the experiment of going back to using the SGCD as both preamp and DAC, and I was shocked at how much the soundstage collapsed and the fuller tone disappeared with the BHK Pre out of the system. The SGCD and M700 combo still sounded very good overall, but the BHK Pre - M700 combo can sound magical as well as very full and natural with the right sources. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be enjoying that same sound if I had upgraded the DAC and not the preamp.

So now the little voices in my head are telling me to go ahead and get a new DAC without further delay, but louder voices at home and at the bank seem to have different ideas.

For anyone else facing this upgrade dilemma, the right choice depends on what type of sound you want to hear right now, how much you like your current preamp and DAC, whether you might want to try living without a preamp for a while (I wouldn’t), and how much money you want to spend on this quest. Either choice can give you better sound, so go ahead and chose one and enjoy the music.

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Hear, hear!

:slight_smile:

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I did the DS only as my Digital “Preamp” (I don’t do Vinyl anymore) for many months. I was skeptical when people mentioned using an Analog Preamp inline with the outputs of the DS. I even built XLR Y-Adapters so that I could feed my STAX Headphone Amplifier (FET/Tube Hybrid) on one side and my then M700 Amplifiers on the other side (but never both at once of course). When I traded in my PS Audio Amplifiers to The Music Room for a Balanced Audio Technology 21 year old VK-50SE in mint condition, it just brought a whole new level to my system.

The DirectStream Sr.'s Analog output stage no slouch by any means.

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I’ve got a pair of Polk SDA 2Bs that I bought new in 1986 (I think). They are great speakers, but I ultimately replaced them with some Martin Logan Vistas. I just can’t bear to part with them, though, because they gave me so many years of great listening! I’m glad to hear some love for these classic Polk speakers!

If your amps have sufficient gain for your speakers, you can use a DS DAC without a preamp, but there’s no point in having a preamp without a DS DAC. :wink:
You might well find that you are completely happy without the preamp, and save a ton of money.
My amps are a good match for my speakers, so the DS DAC has plenty of headroom - I’ve only tried turning it up to 100 a handful of times. I have no interest in trying to find a preamp that does not distort the music in some audible way.
Oh yeah, and there’s those excellent PS Audio return policies if you’re not thrilled.

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Buying the DS Sr DAC was the single biggest improvement in my sound since getting the my Martin Logan ESL 13A speakers. Unless your amp is very deficient, I’m hard pressed to believe changing your amp will make as big a difference to your sound quality. The DirectStream DAC is amazing! I upgraded from an Ayre QB-9, which was no slouch.

The DS takes the harshness out of the sound I was getting, providing a smoother, listening experience. Music has lots of punch; it just doesn’t have the jangliness that was present in some recordings with the Ayre. Though I vastly prefer the Steve Hoffman mix of Steely Dan’s Aja, I can actually tolerate the Roger Nichols mix when I use the DS. See https://audiophilestyle.com/ca/the-best-version-of/the-best-version-of…-steely-dan’s-aja-r772/ for a breakdown on that. I finally got a copy of the Hoffman mix, and it is SO much better!

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