In a digital system how important it an analogue preamp?

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DomT

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I am currently in Nottingham using just a digital based system.  As I had bought an ARC pre and power amp I of course just started using it without giving it any more thought.  Then the other day I was thinking about the various opinions on here about using just a power amp or active speakers even if the digital source has a digital preamp.  So I thought that it was a good idea to try out a few configurations to see what the results were.  There is no right or wrong answer but this might be useful to someone.

Kit used: Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC SP17 preamp; ARC D130 power amp; Quad Atera Stereo Poweramp; ATC SCM11 speakers; QAcoustics 3020 speakers.  I always used the Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2 as the front end.  All music was FLAC files stored on the Innuos. Atlas analogue interconnects used for ARC and Mogammi XLR for Benchmark/Quad or ARC D130.

Test 1. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC pre/power and ATCs this is my normal signal chain.  Its not perfect but its highly enjoyable and I have no real complaints for a small room, small speaker system.

Test 2. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC D130 power amp and SCM11.  What happened? The music was flat, lifeless and lacked drive.  It was also too 'neutral' aka 'very lean' that instruments that had harmonics and richness didn't seem to have them so much.  This was a real surprise as surely this should be 'better' as it would be 'closer to the original'?  Using three very very transparent items in a signal chain was a mistake.

Test 3. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; Quad Artera power amp; ATC SCM11.  Hmmm.  Some body has come back Bec cause the Quads is much warmer but still the music is lacking urgency.  Check that the Benchmark output is at the right level (it is) but its still a bit flat although more listenable than in Test 2 albeit in a blandish way.

Test 4. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC D130 and QAcoustics 3020 speakers.  Maybe these easier to drive speakers will make a difference?  No the music is still flat sounding.  The 3020 add a bit of body but the drive, richness and harmonics are not still not there.

This is not a scientific test and its not conclusive.  I have tried to keep my findings brief and to the point.  I listened to Mozart, The Police, Japan, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Frank Sinatra, Goldfrapp, Ultravox etc so it was a real mixture but the results were always the same.  The preamp if on sale today would be about £3-4k, it's valve, and I don't have another preamp to see what the difference might be.  It's an interesting test to carry out and certainly kit dependent.  

What do you guys think?

 
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JANDL100

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Hmm, yes, my recent hifi configurations largely back up your findings, Dom. 

I've several preamps and power amps and have been playing mix'n'match. Some DAC / preamps have also featured. 

Favourite combo is Concordant Exhilarant valve pre and Primaluna Prologue 7 valve monoblocks. A very vibrant sound with excellent focused and deep soundstage. Quite hard to fault really. 

Swapping in a passive pre sucks out the life. My Densen DM20 ss pre doesn't quite have the magic of the Concordant valves, but it's not at all too shabby. 

Where the Densen pre holds its own is when driving solid state amps, a refurbed Quad 303 being my favourite. The Concordant valve pre just doesn't sound right then. 

So, valve pre and valve power amps, and solid state pre and power synergise best imo. I had expected a hybrid pre/power combo to work well, but it just ain't so. 

As for passive preamps, nope, they just don't have the 3D presence with the power amps I have atm. 

All my sources are digital, but a recent play with an Audiolab MDAC Plus used as a DAC/preamp was a disaster. Ugh. Totally flat and boring. Similar attempts a while back using the volume capability of a variety of Chord DACs wasn't as disastrous, but wasn't very convincing either. 

 
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TheFlash

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Good write-up, Dom. 
 

The elephant in the room of course is familiarity. You’ve enjoyed your system for however long, and the interlopers just popped in to say hi.

I don’t doubt what you report, it’s simply that someone who liked one of the other configs might find the one with pre to be veiled, woolly or other negative adjectives.

 It would appear that while many sing the praises of passive preamps like MFA or Townshend, they probably wouldn’t suit you at all!

Enjoy

 

Fourlegs

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I am currently in Nottingham using just a digital based system.  As I had bought an ARC pre and power amp I of course just started using it without giving it any more thought.  Then the other day I was thinking about the various opinions on here about using just a power amp or active speakers even if the digital source has a digital preamp.  So I thought that it was a good idea to try out a few configurations to see what the results were.  There is no right or wrong answer but this might be useful to someone.

Kit used: Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC SP17 preamp; ARC D130 power amp; Quad Atera Stereo Poweramp; ATC SCM11 speakers; QAcoustics 3020 speakers.  I always used the Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2 as the front end.  All music was FLAC files stored on the Innuos. Atlas analogue interconnects used for ARC and Mogammi XLR for Benchmark/Quad or ARC D130.

Test 1. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC pre/power and ATCs this is my normal signal chain.  Its not perfect but its highly enjoyable and I have no real complaints for a small room, small speaker system.

Test 2. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC D130 power amp and SCM11.  What happened? The music was flat, lifeless and lacked drive.  It was also too 'neutral' aka 'very lean' that instruments that had harmonics and richness didn't seem to have them so much.  This was a real surprise as surely this should be 'better' as it would be 'closer to the original'?  Using three very very transparent items in a signal chain was a mistake.

Test 3. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; Quad Artera power amp; ATC SCM11.  Hmmm.  Some body has come back Bec cause the Quads is much warmer but still the music is lacking urgency.  Check that the Benchmark output is at the right level (it is) but its still a bit flat although more listenable than in Test 2 albeit in a blandish way.

Test 4. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC D130 and QAcoustics 3020 speakers.  Maybe these easier to drive speakers will make a difference?  No the music is still flat sounding.  The 3020 add a bit of body but the drive, richness and harmonics are not still not there.

This is not a scientific test and its not conclusive.  I have tried to keep my findings brief and to the point.  I listened to Mozart, The Police, Japan, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Frank Sinatra, Goldfrapp, Ultravox etc so it was a real mixture but the results were always the same.  The preamp if on sale today would be about £3-4k, it's valve, and I don't have another preamp to see what the difference might be.  It's an interesting test to carry out and certainly kit dependent.  

What do you guys think?
Dom, as you know I use Dave direct into my Pass Labs power amps (and indeed direct into my ATC active 150 speakers). In the days when I had the Audio Innovations MB845 mk2M valve power amps it was a very different story and the sound suffered dreadfully unless I used a pre amp. The bass lost its detail and impact and the mids became quite smeared. It was not nice. In the end I settled on the Music First passive preamps as being the best for that as they were the nearest thing to transparent as I could find. This was the same with various valve power amps that I had and as far as I can tell it might have been some sort of impedance mismatch. But I am not sure this is what you are discussing (unless any of your power amps are valve?) and I suspect your query is about adding a bit of colour or character with a pre amp?

 

steve 57

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My system ( high efficiency / low power amps is spoilt by a traditional pre amp, nick gorham even brought the top of the range music first pre round to mine ( Jonathan winds the txs and nick builds them )

Nick said mine was the first system where the pre had taken something away from the sound. It was quite a noticeable down grade

Although I would agree that's not the normal effect a good pre amp has.. 

 
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DomT

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Good write-up, Dom. 
 

The elephant in the room of course is familiarity. You’ve enjoyed your system for however long, and the interlopers just popped in to say hi.

I don’t doubt what you report, it’s simply that someone who liked one of the other configs might find the one with pre to be veiled, woolly or other negative adjectives.

 It would appear that while many sing the praises of passive preamps like MFA or Townshend, they probably wouldn’t suit you at all!

Enjoy
Not quite as all of the kit is new to me this year.  I have just spent two months out of the country and so technically I have only had the ATCs about one month and the ARC stuff a few months.  But your comment about veiled etc is valid as everyone has their own subjective preferences but the sound is the still very transparent.  But the big difference between preamp or no preamp was the energy that the music lost rather than tonal qualities and that is what I found puzzling.

 
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DomT

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Dom, as you know I use Dave direct into my Pass Labs power amps (and indeed direct into my ATC active 150 speakers). In the days when I had the Audio Innovations MB845 mk2M valve power amps it was a very different story and the sound suffered dreadfully unless I used a pre amp. The bass lost its detail and impact and the mids became quite smeared. It was not nice. In the end I settled on the Music First passive preamps as being the best for that as they were the nearest thing to transparent as I could find. This was the same with various valve power amps that I had and as far as I can tell it might have been some sort of impedance mismatch. But I am not sure this is what you are discussing (unless any of your power amps are valve?) and I suspect your query is about adding a bit of colour or character with a pre amp?
Hi Nick, certainly when I listened to your system I actually made the comment that it didn't sound like it needed a preamp.  And this is the thing it could well be very system dependent.  By all accounts the Benchmark is very well regarded which is why I was so surprised at the differences.  It's not just about the additional colour that the instruments had but more surprising was the added drive that the music had with the preamp.  

 

DomT

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And the other thing to point out that in Portugal one of my systems is currently digital only and I use either the Benchmark DAC1 straight into a Quad 909 or via a Creek OBH-22 passive preamp.  I was quite happy with the sound and in fact really loved the sound as it was well fleshed out with the P3ESRs.  

Now that I have done these tests I really should put the ARC in that signal chain.  This was my initial plan anyway as the ARC has a phono input but I had moved away from that idea and was to use the ARC in the lounge instead of my Marantz. hmmm.  

So my advice is to try a decent preamp in your digital chain but also to NOT try a decent preamp in your digital chain as you may end up liking it too much.  As always system and budget depending and completely subjective. I am sure that some people would hate the added drama that I am hearing.  

 

tuga

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I am currently in Nottingham using just a digital based system.  As I had bought an ARC pre and power amp I of course just started using it without giving it any more thought.  Then the other day I was thinking about the various opinions on here about using just a power amp or active speakers even if the digital source has a digital preamp.  So I thought that it was a good idea to try out a few configurations to see what the results were.  There is no right or wrong answer but this might be useful to someone.

Kit used: Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC SP17 preamp; ARC D130 power amp; Quad Atera Stereo Poweramp; ATC SCM11 speakers; QAcoustics 3020 speakers.  I always used the Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2 as the front end.  All music was FLAC files stored on the Innuos. Atlas analogue interconnects used for ARC and Mogammi XLR for Benchmark/Quad or ARC D130.

Test 1. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC pre/power and ATCs this is my normal signal chain.  Its not perfect but its highly enjoyable and I have no real complaints for a small room, small speaker system.

Test 2. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC D130 power amp and SCM11.  What happened? The music was flat, lifeless and lacked drive.  It was also too 'neutral' aka 'very lean' that instruments that had harmonics and richness didn't seem to have them so much.  This was a real surprise as surely this should be 'better' as it would be 'closer to the original'?  Using three very very transparent items in a signal chain was a mistake.

Test 3. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; Quad Artera power amp; ATC SCM11.  Hmmm.  Some body has come back Bec cause the Quads is much warmer but still the music is lacking urgency.  Check that the Benchmark output is at the right level (it is) but its still a bit flat although more listenable than in Test 2 albeit in a blandish way.

Test 4. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC D130 and QAcoustics 3020 speakers.  Maybe these easier to drive speakers will make a difference?  No the music is still flat sounding.  The 3020 add a bit of body but the drive, richness and harmonics are not still not there.

This is not a scientific test and its not conclusive.  I have tried to keep my findings brief and to the point.  I listened to Mozart, The Police, Japan, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Frank Sinatra, Goldfrapp, Ultravox etc so it was a real mixture but the results were always the same.  The preamp if on sale today would be about £3-4k, it's valve, and I don't have another preamp to see what the difference might be.  It's an interesting test to carry out and certainly kit dependent.  

What do you guys think?
Can you try using the ARC SP17 Tape-Out into the ATCs' inputs?

I suspect that it has nothing to do with having a pre-amp but that you prefer the more euphonic presentation which the Benchmark isn't giving.

Maybe you could try an ARC DAC? Personally I would rather keep my system as simple as possible. KISS

 

Lawrence001

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Is the Benchmark being used as a pre when only using a power amp, or are you using a digital volume in the Innuos?

I don't know the Benchmark but many DACs/ streamers have digital attenuation that involves reducing the bit rate. This will flatten the presentation and reduce resolution.

Sabre DACs are claimed to be "bit perfect" but I can say from experience that at a low volume they are definitely not. Or maybe there's a measurement trick that means they technically are but they still don't sound as good.

You could also compare the Arc pre to a similarly priced SS pre as you might be finding you prefer the presentation of valves.

 

DomT

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Can you try using the ARC SP17 Tape-Out into the ATCs' inputs?

I suspect that it has nothing to do with having a pre-amp but that you prefer the more euphonic presentation which the Benchmark isn't giving.

Maybe you could try an ARC DAC? Personally I would rather keep my system as simple as possible. KISS
The ARC SP17 is far from euphonic and the modern ARC sound is criticised by some for not being euphoric. It’s the drive and energy that the SP17 has over the Benchmark that I like as I have said now a few times in this thread. 

I don’t understand your point about using the tape output of the SP17. What do you expect it to do in terms of audio quality? Given that it’s a fixed signal and Benchmark designed the volume control to be optimised in the higher volume range the audio volume is likely to be very loud and unusable. 

 

DomT

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Is the Benchmark being used as a pre when only using a power amp, or are you using a digital volume in the Innuos?

I don't know the Benchmark but many DACs/ streamers have digital attenuation that involves reducing the bit rate. This will flatten the presentation and reduce resolution.

Sabre DACs are claimed to be "bit perfect" but I can say from experience that at a low volume they are definitely not. Or maybe there's a measurement trick that means they technically are but they still don't sound as good.

You could also compare the Arc pre to a similarly priced SS pre as you might be finding you prefer the presentation of valves.
The default config is to use the Benchmark in this property as a DAC and the Innuos as a server. Just for test purposes I listened to the Benchmark as a preamp as others do the same. 

I don’t prefer valves and am not looking to change anything in my system as it sounds great; I was just experimenting and sharing findings. 

 
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uzzy

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The big difference between preamp or no preamp was the energy that the music lost rather than tonal qualities and that is what I found puzzling.
I have tried a number of passive preamps over the years but this is also the conclusion I reached .. which is more "accurate" god only knows but for me it is as my mate's missus said when comparing two pairs of speakers, her response  "I like it better on these" ..

So for me I do not sweat it - I prefer an active preamp (and so it will remain until I plug a passive into my system and it makes my ears say "I like it better on this" but I will not be holding my breath having tried some supposedly stunning passives in the past).

 

TheFlash

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Test 1. Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with power supply; Benchmark DAC 2; ARC pre/power and ATCs this is my normal signal chain.  Its not perfect but its highly enjoyable and I have no real complaints for a small room, small speaker system.
Just looking at this again... and the Innuos, Benchmark and ATC's all have a reputation for being transparent, for telling it how it is. If you were seeking measured and heard accuracy, your "lifeless" (and ARC-less) system would satisfy the brief.

I recall asking on this forum about pre/power combos a few years ago when I though that the flavour of a system would come mainly from the power amp(s). I was gently educated about the overriding importance of the preamp in shaping the sound of a system... and your experience supports this.

Which is nice.