A digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is a great device. They play a valuable role in the audio industry. DACs are widely known to translate digital data from devices such as laptops into analog form.
Aside from this, can DACs perform any other function? Can you use a dedicated DAC as a preamp? This is the question most audio enthusiasts have been asking, and this article will address it, so read along.
You can use a DAC as a preamp, provided it can supply a strong enough audio signal to drive the power amplifier you’re using. However, the sensitivity of many amps is too low to be driven by a DAC.
What Is A DAC?
A Digital-to-analog converter ( or DAC) is a device that converts digital audio signals to an analog signals.
Audios on smartphones, computers, CDs, or DVDs are all in digital formats. And this cannot be played back amplified by a power amp or played by a speaker or headphones. So, a DAC essentially receives the audio in their digital format from any of the devices mentioned and then converts them into an analog audio signal.
This analog audio signal can then be sent from the DAC’s output to a preamp, power amp, headphone, speaker, or any of this analog audio equipment for further processing.
There are DACs built into computers, smartphones, audio interfaces, A/V receivers with digital inputs, and more. However, many audio enthusiasts prefer standalone DACs made by reputable audio brands. That’s because dedicated DACs offer better conversion than DACs built into digital devices.
What Is A Preamp?
A preamp is a device that boosts a weak audio signal into a strong enough signal to be processed by other audio devices. In other words, the sole purpose of a preamp is to amplify low-level audio signals into line level. Line level is the standard level of operation for recording devices.
Audio signals from devices such as turntables, guitars, microphones, and even some DACs are so weak that other audio devices such as amps, mixers, or speakers are not sensitive enough to detect it. This is where preamps come in.
A preamp will receive that weak audio signal from a guitar, mic, turntable, or DAC and boost that signal into a strong signal known as a line-level signal. This line-level signal can then be passed on to other audio devices for further processing.
Preamps have an important knob known as “Gain .” Gain knobs on preamps allow you to set how loud you want a signal to be boosted. The higher the gain, the louder the audio signal becomes and vice versa.
Another thing worth mentioning about preamps is that they “color” the sound output. This simply means every brand or model preamp boosts certain frequencies to give the output a unique characteristic.
For this reason, some audio enthusiasts combine multiple preamps in a signal chain, although they don’t have to. We talked about this, in detail, in our article on ways to combine multiple preamps. Feel free to check it out.
Difference Between DAC and Preamp
The difference between a DAC and a preamp lies in their primary functions. A DAC is responsible for the conversion of digital signals to analog. It works by converting raw digital audio signals to analog format.
DACs do not provide any form of amplification. They serve as the link between the source of sound and a preamp.
On the other hand, a preamp is responsible for increasing the strength of the signal. It amplifies a weak audio signal into a stronger one. Unlike a DAC, a preamp does not perform any audio signal conversion.
Why Some DACS Can Be Used As A Preamp
Back then, DACs that were made had one primary purpose – convert digital audio signals to analog audio signals. Now times have changed, and competition among DAC manufacturers has led to many innovative features on DACs.
Some DACs come with headphone outputs, support Bluetooth, and, most importantly, volume controls.
DACs with volume control allow you to increase the audio output volume. The volume will be increased digitally. Here is how that works.
The DAC will receive the digital audio signal from your input device and process it through a program or algorithm on the DAC. This program or algorithm will alter the digital audio signal to make it louder. After that, the digital signal gets converted into a much louder analog signal.
This is similar to increasing the volume on a computer program or smartphone. You’re essentially increasing the volume digitally.
DACs with volume control can be used as preamps, provided they can supply a loud enough analog audio signal to the amplifier when you increase the volume.
As I mentioned earlier, the main purpose of a preamp is to boost a weak audio signal so that it is strong enough for further processing. As long as your DAC can deliver strong or loud enough audio signals for the amp you’re using; you may not need a preamp.
A DAC’s output audio signal will never be as loud as a preamp’s audio output. However, as long as your amp or whatever device you’re connecting the DAC into perceives the output audio loud enough,
This means you can go directly from your streaming DAC to an amp without connecting to a preamp device. Doing this will help to reduce the noise that might be introduced into the sound by the numerous devices in the signal chain.
In summary, if your DAC has volume control and you are comfortable with the sound being produced, you do not need a preamp. However, if you want to add more sources or connect more components to your setup, you may have to get an actual preamp.
Why Most DACs Can’t Be Used As a Preamp
The output audio of a DAC is usually a weak audio signal. DAC manufacturers usually don’t design DACs to output a loud audio signal. And this is why most DACs can’t be used as a preamp. Let me explain why.
You see, every power amplifier has an input sensitivity. Not to get too technical, the input sensitivity of an amp simply refers to how sensitive an amp is to the audio signal it is receiving through its input port.
Amps with high input sensitivity can detect very low-level or weak audio signals. On the other hand, amps with low input sensitivity can only detect strong audio signals.
Unfortunately, most power amplifiers have low input sensitivity. This means when you plug a DAC directly into the power amp’s input; the amp may not even detect the audio signal coming from the DAC to amplify it. They are not designed to detect weak audio signals from DACs.
And in such an instance, you’ll need a preamp. The preamp will essentially boost the weak audio signal from the DAC to a level strong enough to be detected by a power amp. The power amplifier can then amplify the signal for the speakers or headphones.
DACs That Can Be Used As a Preamp
You can do without an external preamp when you do not have a high gain demanding speakers or amps as part of your setup. In such a situation, getting a slightly more expensive DAC that can deliver a strong analog audio signal can do you a world of good. Also, it would be a more cost-effective option than acquiring a standalone preamp.
Let’s look at some DACs that can work effectively as a preamp.
RME ADI-2 DAC FS
The RME ADI-2 DAC FS (on Amazon) measures well among the very best DACs on the market. It has an amazing design and provides high-quality Digital-to-Analog conversion. This DAC has a number of features that make it extremely useful.
Some of these features include tone control and balance, auto reference level, and dynamic loudness. Additionally, it comes with a 5-band parametric EQ and Bass, Treble, and Loudness controls.
Most importantly, it has a volume control that allows you to increase the audio output volume. And you can get a considerably loud audio signal from this unit.
It’s a DAC that many people really love. And that’s because it’s versatile, sounds great, and has a ton of features. Therefore, if you are in the market for a DAC which can serve as a preamp, the RME ADI-2 is worth considering.
The Soundavo HP-DAC1 (also on Amazon) is a high-performance DAC/Headphone preamp. It has a volume boost and can function effectively as a preamp. This DAC has a simple but solid chassis design of high build quality. Also, it comes with buttons for selecting inputs smartly laid out on its front panel.
This DAC is well constructed, has multiple inputs, and can serve as a preamp without any issues. Thus it can be used for running a power amplifier. The connections it comes with include; a USB input and optical input and output. This device produces a sound of high clarity and detail, with less muffling.
Do You Need a DAC if you have a Preamp?
You will still need a DAC if you have a preamp. That’s because preamps don’t have built-in Digital-to-Analog converters. This means they can’t convert digital audio signals to analog.
As we’ve already discussed, DACs and preamps are two completely different devices with different functionality. A DAC converts digital audio into analog audio. A preamp, on the other hand, boosts a weak audio signal into a strong line-level signal.
Preamps don’t have the functionality of a DAC. And that’s because manufacturers don’t install Digital-to-Analog converters into preamps.
If you’re looking for a DAC and preamp in a single unit, then you should consider getting an integrated amplifier. For those who don’t know what an integrated amp is, this is a device that has a preamp and a power amp in a single unit.
Recently, few integrated amp manufacturers have started integrating DACs into their integrated amps. Inside these units, the DAC’s output is connected to the preamp’s input. And the preamp’s output is connected to the power amp’s input. You get the picture.
One of such amps is the Denon PMA-600NE Integrated Amp (on Amazon). This unit is, without a doubt, one of the best integrated amps on the market.
It includes a DAC, which allows you to send a digital audio signal to it via Coaxial or Optical Inputs. The signal will then be processed through the preamp after conversion. And then finally, the signal is sent to the power amp to drive speakers.
Can You Connect a DAC to a Preamp?
You can definitely connect a DAC to a preamp. You want to connect the DAC’s output to the preamp’s input using the appropriate audio cable. This will send the output audio from the DAC to the preamp for preamplification.
It is worth noting that connecting a DAC to a preamp can greatly increase the quality of sound that is produced. In an audio chain setup, a DAC should come before a preamp so that after the conversion of the digital signal has taken place; the preamp will then amplify the weak signal.
The back of most DACs comes with the standard left and right RCA outputs. Depending on the input port on your preamp, you can easily connect your DAC to your preamp using an appropriate connection cable.
If your DAC has built-in volume control, you do not need to hook up a preamp to your musical setup. This is because DACs with volume control, particularly analog volume controls, can function effectively as a preamp.
That notwithstanding, your sound output may sound a little better when you run it through an actual preamp that is of high quality. However, this difference is insignificant for many people. So if you are not looking to add more connections to your setup, you should be fine using your DAC as a preamp. You should not spend money acquiring a preamp.