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Are Passive Preamps Any Good?

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Classical preamplifiers are leading a niche existence these days. With digital-to-analog converters such as the Mytek Brookly or my very own Gustard X20u serving double duties as a digital volume control, there seems to be no real need for them anymore. And most of us have digital sources anyway. Historically though, preamps were designed to support multiple high-level output sources. Those include FM tuners, tape decks and even turntables with a dedicated phono stage. Back in the day I owned a very nice Proton P1100 preamp (Proton was an early predecessor of NAD). Only the recent resurgence of vinyl has brought back the demand for true analog solutions.

Unfortunately, the market seems to favor integrated amplifiers which give you no choice but to live with certain compromises in the design. Personally, I’d like to choose what power amplifier technology I use. And I also want to choose my own phono preamplifier. In other words there are situations where a simple analog volume control is just better.

What Is a Passive Preamp?
Passive preamps are essentially just a potentiometers with a few switches and no power supply of their own (some do need one for remote control functionality) hence the “passive” distinction. By contrast, an active preamplifier would give you the ability to boost a line level signal and act as an impedance buffer between your source (e.g. CD player) and power amplifier.

When I bought my turntable, I needed a cheap and great sounding analog solution because I only had the Gustard DAC between my music server and the Hypex power amp. Great reviews led me to the Schiit Audio Sys. It’s a cheap little device for under 30 Euros. It does only two things: switching between two pairs of RCA inputs and adjusting volume. The Schiit Sys is extremely well made and comes with a nice miniature ALPS potentiometer.

Sonic Results
Unsurprisingly there’s nothing special about this unit except that it performs damn great in my system. Placed directly above the Hypex power amp, I could keep cables short as you should with passive preamps. Sonically, I’d say it is almost as good as my Pass B1 buffer with the latter having more authority in the bass department and slighty better dynamics. But for 30 Euros, I would start with the Schiit and save my money for great vinyl or CDs. What do you think?

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