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Do You Need a DAC if You Have a Preamp?

DACs (digital-to-analog converters) and preamps are critical audiophile gear. At a glance, they appear to serve the same function of ensuring you get clean, refined, and distortion-free sound. In that case, do you really need a DAC if you have a preamp?

You do need a DAC if you have a preamp to get quality audio. A DAC converts stored digital audio data to analog, while a preamp takes the converted data and increases its gain, and removes any signal distortion. In its digital form, audio data exists in 1s and 0s, which you can’t hear.

Read on for more information on the functions of preamps and DACs, and why your audio system wouldn’t work without the two.

What’s the Function of a Preamp?

A preamp is an indispensable piece of musical gear in sound production. Without this device, listening to music wouldn’t be enjoyable. Instead, you’d get poor audio signals, distorted sounds, and background noises during playback.

Here are the two primary functions of a preamp:

Increasing Gain

In the simplest terms, gain (often confused with volume) means how much a given signal level increases when it passes through the preamp.

Each component of your home stereo, PC, or phone that receives and processes sound signals is generally designed to work best at a given signal range, which is often higher than the music source. 

Because of that, your audio devices need preamps to match the signal level of the music source with that of the amp, which then amplifies it so the sound becomes audible.  

Changing Tone

A preamp comes in handy when you need control over EQ, warmth, distortion, or the subtle qualities that bring out the best listening experience.

Whether you want tonal variety and EQ controls, absolute transparency, or everything in between, you can bet on a preamp to improve sound quality.

Does a Preamp Improve Sound Quality?

A preamp alone cannot improve sound quality. Every component of an audio system impacts your listening experience, starting from the music source to the speakers.

Even the highest quality preamp will not help if you have a poor quality turntable with a damaged cartridge or needle, or if you have not wired your home stereo system correctly.

Notably, you’d be sending poor quality signals to the other components, including the preamp. To solve this, it’s best to check the entire setup from the signal source to the speakers.

It’s critical to note that the speakers provide an interface between your ears and your music system’s components.

If your system is in tip-top shape, the speakers will provide the best output. Similarly, listening to chart toppers can be an earsore if the speakers aren’t working correctly.

In a nutshell, you have to ensure every other component works perfectly fine to get the most from your preamp. Doing that could include getting a better turntable, tonearm, or cartridge. It could also mean acquiring better speakers or buying an external DAC.

What’s the Role of a DAC?

Have you ever wondered how the audio data on an MP3, CD, or FLAC file become sound? The magic usually happens in the ingenious device known as the digital-to-analog converter.

As the name implies, a DAC converts digital audio signals to analog format. This is a crucial step during playback since you can’t hear sound in digital form.

During recording, your mic receives sound in analog form, which is audible to the human ear. The data is then converted to digital signals using an analog to digital converter (ADC). This is necessary to minimize the storage space needed to keep the data.

To listen to the stored audio data, you need a DAC. Therefore, most modern music systems come with a DAC; the chances of buying an audio player without one today are slim to none unless you opt for a record player.

Despite its critical role, the DAC remains one of the most underinvested components of your phone, stereo system, or PC.

Most notably, non-Hi-Fi makers, like PC and smartphone manufacturers, only include basic DACs that produce sound that is “good enough” for most people but not optimal for audiophiles who want the most from their favorite audio tracks.

Can You Have a Preamp and a DAC Together?

At this point, we guess you’ve picked the key takeaway from the descriptions of the roles of preamps and DACs: the two performed entirely different functions. Specifically, a DAC converts audio from digital to analog, while a preamp “boosts” the signal to become audible.

So why would you need both?

Basically, audio in digital form is “worthless” in the sense that you can’t listen to it without a device. Digital data exists in the form of ones and zeros, which only a computer can interpret. To hear the sound, your audio setup must include a device that converts the data to analog form.

However, the converted signal might not be strong enough for further processing by your amp or speakers, and this is where the preamp steps in. The preamplifier transforms the audio from weak to strong, noise-tolerant signals, removing all distortions.

You actually don’t NEED both a separate preamp and an external DAC. An integrated amplifier will have both a preamp and a DAC built in.

However, sometimes your music system’s DAC might not deliver the best results. Using a poor-quality converter is a sure-fire way to deteriorate your music system’s sound quality. Notably, if your device comes with a bad DAC, you’ll hear some background noises, such as hisses, during playback.

If you notice some distortion, your system may not operate at the bitrate of the audio files being played.

To solve all those problems, you may need to buy an outboard DAC.

Why You May Need an Outboard DAC

Here’s a breakdown of how an outboard DAC delivers a better listening experience:

  • Clean audio: A quality DAC creates clarity and depth, transforming the best hits into works of art. It improves the sonic background and overall soundstage of any setup, creating an incredibly wide and deep listening scape. As a result, it lets you hear the subtle details in vocals and instruments.
  • Immersive listening: An external quality DAC is an excellent addition to your setup, especially if you’re a fan of live concerts, classical music, or tracks with complex layers. A DAC gives such music to life by letting each element shine.

Tip: Most of the DACs produced in recent years come with amplifiers, although they’re marketed as amps. Similarly, some active speakers have built-in DACs. Therefore, you can have the best of both while keeping costs minimum by buying pro-grade DAC/amp combos or speaker/DAC combos.

Here are two of the best combos:

  • Burson Audio Conductor 3X: This DAC/amp offers incredible audio quality. It’s built to last, thanks to its corrosion-resistant aluminum casing. It delivers unrivaled soundstage and depth. With a 7.5-watt rating, this combo offers plenty of headroom. It’s a great choice if you need an immersive listening experience.
  • Swan Speakers M300: This powered speaker/DAC/amp combo is an excellent choice for any audiophile who wishes to get the most of their sound system. It comes with fiber dome tweeters for clean treble, Bluetooth connectivity, and remote control.

Final Thoughts

Getting the most of your music system goes beyond having a preamp. Although a preamp comes in handy by improving gain and giving you control over EQ and warmth, it isn’t the silver bullet to audio problems.

A quality preamp can only make the flaws in your setup, such as a poor quality music source, clearer. Therefore, you need more than your preamp to have the best audio output.

Besides, without a DAC, your setup is incomplete. This device converts audio data from digital to analog. Without it, your preamp wouldn’t have any input signals.