Built-in vs. Standalone DACs

The general consensus here seems to be that standalone DACs are generally better than those built into an integrated amplifier. Many also agree that standalone DACs provide more flexibility, i.e., you can swap DACs without changing the amp.

For the sake of discussion, let’s set aside the flexibility argument and only focus on sound fidelity for now. The primary advantage of a standalone DAC is that it provides better isolation (reduction in electrical noise) since it’s not sharing its architecture with other shared components like power supplies and chassis, etc. I’m also assuming that service and repair is a bit easier as well. What other technical advantages can you guys think of?

Another salient point that I’ve come across is that many manufacturers treat a built-in DAC as an afterthought, and so while the DACs might not be bad per se they are never the star of the show. As a result, the manufacturers don’t go the extra mile in a way that a company producing standalone DACs might. I think you can put Krell, Hegel, McIntosh in this bucket. If you disagree, feel free to correct me.

But on the other hand, we see some high-end manufacturers providing built-in DAC modules and charging quite a bit for it. Examples include Accuphase, Gryphon, Aavik, Soluution, Audio Research, etc. In many cases, the addition of a DAC module can set you back an additional $5-7k. Do you guys think the high cost is basically a ’convenience’ surcharge, or can these high-end built-in DACs compete with DACs that cost about the same, e.g. standalone DACs in the $5-10K range.

So let’s say someone is ordering a Gryphon Diablo 300 and have to decide between adding their DAC module, or buying a separate DAC. Ignoring the flexibility argument for a minute, which route provides better SQ?



@gdnrbob I agree with you regarding the flexibility argument. No doubt separates gives you the ultimate freedom to upgrade and experiment. If you look at my virtual system you will see that I have, and always had, separate DACs. The Denafrips Terminator 2 DAC that I have is fantastic and I love the sound.

Having said that, I don’t know if the technology in DACs is evolving as fast as we think. Before I got the Denafrips, I was running a Luxman DA-06 which despite being a 12 year old design can still stand up to many modern DACs.

I did briefly try a Hegel H390 and it’s built-in DAC a couple of years ago. At the time, I was not very impressed. I wonder if the outcome would have been different had I tried it with a higher quality external DAC. Who knows?

But regardless, I think the DAC modules that companies like Gryphon, Aavik, Accuphase, and ARC are integrating with their amps are a cut above the rest. If you set aside the flexibility argument for a moment, I think these integrated DACs (as @drrsutliff can attest to) provide excellent SQ since the designers make fewer compromises.

Boulder is another company who is serious about integrating DACs in their higher end amps.

Wow I would think a 5-7k up charge would be a pretty damn good dac! I’m sure it probably betters the 1-2k dacs for sure. Also I’m sure is matched to the unit so that’s a plus for sure. Maybe a huge benefit. 

In addition to flexibility’I’d also introduce the issue of noise.  Separating the DAC gives it its own power supply and separates the noise from the sensitive analog signal.  Combine them if u must for space/cost reasons, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be my first choice.  Hell, I don’t even want my digital front end plugged into the same outlet as my other components.  Just mu $0.02 FWIW.

Before I peeve anyone I meant to say I’m sure it betters the 1-2k dacs and could be the equivalent of a 5-7k + stand alone dac but have no idea. My experience says when something tries to be a Swiss Army knife it’s often not as good as dedicated units.