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?



And then there is the advantage of less boxes and cables.  This is a reprise of the integrated amp vs separate pre and power amp issue.  When the high end companies such as ARC started making really good integrated amps that sounded basically indistinguishable from separates by the same manufacturer, the theoretical arguments for separates were more justifiable at a lower price point

“Ignoring the flexibility argument for a minute, which route provides better SQ?”

I often hear folks saying integrated got me close to 85-90% performance of separates. For many that’s good enough considering the entry price for separates, cabling and added complexities. I believe you know the path too well, separates for ultimate performance and flexibility or a great performing Integrated with fewer compromises.

Those seeking that top tier 5-10% performance will always find themselves going the separates route. The laws of diminishing returns in this arena does not apply as you’re in that rarified air of pursuing and extracting every last ounce of performance from your gear.


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I know some folks might feel that paying an extra $5-7k for a built-in DAC module on some of these higher end integrated amps might seem like a lot. But when you factor in the cost of a good power cord and interconnects, it doesn’t sound like a bad deal.



When you consider how hard it will be to upgrade that DAC (unless the manufacturer offers a plug in), then using a separate DAC will be less expensive, in the long run.

And, if you find a killer deal on a Meitner 3 or Brinkmann Nyquist 2, all you need to do is switch out the DAC.



I'm with Bob, 100%.  Digital changes more rapidly than anything else in audio right now.  I have so many obsolete digital products that are mostly worthless.(I did have to use my Krell Stealth DAC a few years ago after selling my Ayre and before the Brinkmann Nyquist showed up).  There are some great DAC's in all price ranges right now.  Plenty of great 2k options if you want to save money. JMHO

I have an Oppo BDP-95. My question is will 
I hear a great improvement by adding an external DAC.

@lalitk Agreed. Although, I think the gap between separates and integrateds has shrunk a bit in recent years. This is especially true for amps in the $15K plus range for sure. I think your Accuphase is a good example of what I'm talking about ... it will run circles around many separates in the same price range. Just my opinion.