To pre or not to pre

The answer is


For the first time ever, since I finally have a worthy streamer/DAC, I experimented with running the Auralic Altair G1 direct to the amp via balanced. If I had nothing to compare to, I would have been perfectly happy with the results.

However, once I ran the G1 back through my Quad Artera preamp via balanced (of course), everything just sounded better. Without the preamp, just a little bit of life and depth was sucked out of the system. And no, there are no tone controls active on the preamp.

So for me, the answer is definitely “Preamp”. So much so there’s about to be a rather large upgrade in the very near future.

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What upgrade are you considering?

My BAT VK50-SE is always set to “100” and the MK1 DSDac is set to “50” as my baseline and is used as my Volume control. For me, it was that easy using my ears the measuring tool.

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I don’t want to say just yet, but it’s a preamp upgrade… A darn substantial upgrade at that!

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I recently had the opportunity to compare a direct connection MSB DAC + M1200s and the BHK Pre between them.
With the Pre is my choice.

Even if less detailed and unveiled, the sound coming from the Pre was smoother, more vivid, real and pleasant. Not a night and day difference, I could live without it but I liked it more.

I’m wondering if synergies count so much when you pair amp and pre of the same brand.

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I’m sure that something to do with it, but not necessarily an absolute.

As you stated your findings with and without the preamp in the signal chain, I too found very similar findings and I’m running a Quad Artera Pre into an old Emotiva XPA-2 Gen 2 amp via balanced ICs.

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This week I’m going to test at home a MSB amp with and without the BHK Pre. Curious to know if my impressions might change (as I’m expecting).


I posted this in the MKII impressions thread.
tonight for the first time I bypassed my tube pre and passive pre and tried the MKII direct into my BHK300’s.

Even with volumes between 35 and 70, I am shocked at what I’m hearing. A whole other level of information from each instrument. The acoustics of each instrument are much more pronounced and the bandwidth speed and depth of response is phenomenal. There’s a grip on the music and drive that’s addictive. I’m Hearing qualities I don’t think I’ve ever heard before in a system. It’s much more like real instruments, which I had the pleasure of listening to just this afternoon.

This is like stereo 2.0 for me.

At the end of the session, I wondered about any kind of noise, and sure enough the hiss was there! It’s quite loud on my 86db TAD CR1’s.

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My initial impressions were similar. It took a few days to change ideas. After a few A/Bs I ended up that I liked more the BHK Pre in the chain.
Did you make some comparisons after a period without the pre?

I am currently running a Line Magnetic 845 premium integrated which has a direct input to bypass the pre amp section. So I went direct today and found very similar improvements. In fact, I think the voicing is more clear and distinct.
I will listen to it in this direct mode with the DS volume control for a week and report back.

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I enjoy that whether a preamp or not Is best is system and listener dependent.


FWIW, I’m solidly in the pre-amp is the heart of your system school. I’ve owned a bunch of good ones: sutherland director, both cary SLPs, a tricked out rogue 99, my current pass xp-22, and some I’m forgetting.

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The VTL TL6.5 SII made me a believer. Swapping out the stock Sovtek’s for Siemens took it even further. No cable change has ever been so dramatic.


You were quite fortunate to find a used TL6.5 ii for sale.

It’s on my short list of preamps under consideration, and probably at the top of the heap… not only for its performance, but also since their “birthplace” is only about 20 miles away from me.

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If I see one show up, I will let you know.

I used to be in the ‘less is more’ camp until I tried BHK Pre inbetween my DSD MK1 and my purfii amp. I am not sure why, but, the end result is so much more organic with spciousness and pace of a vinyl setup. My Marantz AVR when compared to the 2 channel system is so lifeless and congested. But, when I run the Marantz into the BHK Pre, the difference between the DS Dac and Marantz becomes quite narrow. For untrained ears, the two would sound nearly identical. So my experience is in line with what’s been said. A quality PRE will really improve the sonic quality.


Even with MK2, I found BHK pre in the chain brought more “life” music out. I do not have any analog gear.

Luca will probably tell us there is no improvement with pre on his MSB setup soon! :laughing:


My journey:

  1. The DS DAC has a lossless digital volume control and a 20dB analog attenuator that’s not in the signal path – surely going direct and eliminating an entire box of added noise and distortion would give the purest sound
  2. Most people say using a pre sounds better, I have to at least try it. Got a reasonable one 3rd hand, fully balanced, purist hifi brand… definitely some things better (not using DAC 20dB attenuator sounds more transparent, bigger soundstage, reduction of harshness) but also a definite sense of added warmth and colour that takes me away from the “straight wire with gain” principle that I find usually makes me happier. Oh and the gain structure is all wrong with my amp, spending too much time down in the scratchy bottom end of the volume pot.
  3. Crazy sale price on a new Benchmark LA4. Also fully balanced, with a huge >120dB volume range via gold-plated relay switches and high precision resistor networks. A reputation for being sonically invisible.

Got the LA4 only a few hours ago and it seems to be a perfect fit for my system. Two changes stand out immediately. First the EC2.7 was definitely fattening up the bottom end. It was often enjoyable but it isn’t what I want in my system. Second, the LA4 is incredibly quiet, and it makes the DAC noise floor debate seem basically foolish. Because I can run the DAC at its best volume (92dB on the MkI, without the attenuator) I get its maximum SNR into the pre, and when there’s no music actually playing my speakers are the closest thing to silent I’ve ever heard from them while the amp is on. I’m simply not hearing the DAC’s noise floor. Whatever the number is, it’s enough.

Maybe there are other DACs with active output stages and lower noise floors and practically lossless digital attenuation which would sound their best without a pre, but I think my modified DS DAC MkI is in its happiest place with the LA4 in charge of attenuation and feeding the power amp.


Wonderful! Thanks for sharing your experience.