I don't know very much about the Audioengine DAC. I'm not sure if the volume control is digital or analog. If it's analog, I doubt it would be better than a dedicated preamp or an integrated amp's volume control.
If it's digital, I wouldn't go straight into a power amp for any length of time. Digital volume control adjusts volume by altering the digital stream. It's only bit perfect when at full volume.
Most DACs I know of that have volume control have the option to bypass the volume control with a fixed or variable output setting.
If you're on a relatively tight budget and want the best sound for your main rig, you may want to get the best integrated amp you can afford. If its for background listening/second system/etc., the DAC into an amp may be good enough.
Just my opinions. Many will disagree. Other than for headphone use, I'm really can't see what the big deal is about DACs with preamps built it. Not to be confused with preamps that have a DAC card in them.
I do have some experience with this type of thing. Can you tell me if the volume control on the dac is digital or analog, and also, how you connect the dac to your pc. (USB, Toslink, ect.) We need to know this first because you will have different options depending on how
everything is connected.
Do not underestimate the advantages of a good quality integrated amp; no impedance issues, one less interconnect etc. usually translating to less hassle, more bang for your buck-but yes, less flexibility.
When looking at budget DACs with volume control, it is important to know how it is implemented, e.g., gain or no gain, digital vs. analog attenuation, and the quality of the analog potentiometer.
I have no experience with the Audioengine DAC, but I did have the Nuforce uDac I in my budget office system for a while. Although it uses an analog volume control, there was a huge improvement when I bypassed it (turned to max) and inserted an Axiom passive preamp for volume control.
If you are going to use a laptop as a music source, I strongly recommend DACs that focus exclusively on USB input and use asynchronous chips/DAC implementation or the CEntrance method (which Benchmark uses).
I replaced the uDac with HRT music streamer II, and I'm amazed how good that little DAC sounds. No volume control though.
That is how we setup the Antelope Zodiac Gold that we used in the Earo room at the last RMAF show.
The Zodiac Gold DAC was used as the preamp for the USB input from the mac laptop and also for the analog RCA input from the phono stage. The preamp and volume control are entirely on the analog side, which sounds great and preserves bit resolution.
It's going to depend on the particular pieces in question, but many around here will say they prefer using a pre or integrated to using the volume control in their DAC. I have the Perfect Wave DAC, and even inserting a very inexpensive Pre (an old Adcom) was an improvement over the PWs volume control (which sheds bits under 50%; bad for a quiet listener like me). I ended up with an integrated (Pass INT-30A), and am very happy; I'd seriously consider the integrated route, esp. for a second system.
Certainly you can use the DAC with its volume control as a preamp. Absolutely yes, that means you might be able to save some money to spend on the power amp.
This hobby is an upgrading game, and although you might get better sound with a straight-up DAC, a preamp and a power amp, that is the spendy solution. Keep costs reasonable now and you can retain the spendy solution as a goal.
The least spendy solution -- no-one wants to say cheap in the high end -- could be a DAC and an integrated, and integrateds are pretty dang good today. You could be very happy for a long time with an integrated costing $3K and maybe even more.
It depends on what level of high end will satisfy you. IME spending a lot on the power amp early on won't often get you as much fun as spending the same on the front end and using a more economical power amp for a while. But if the DAC/preamp is a good one, if it has a sound you love to listen to, why not?
There were some good threads in the past about this. Here is a short one (link at end), with the same idea. I've have plenty of gear through my system (a lot of friends that buy and sell sure helps) over the years. I have had mixed results. Most of the time, I end up with a preamp in the chain too. It's not always a gain issue, or impedance matching issue. Sometimes a preamp just makes it sound the best. I did have it running without a preamp on occasion too, and liked it. But generally, I end up with the preamp in there. If you have a chance to try it both ways, go for it, just to see. A lot depends on the blend of components your running too. A lot of preamps will deteriorate the the sound. When your using upper-end sounding ones, you may not know they're there, and other times, it just makes it right. A short thread with some answers for similar.[http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?aamps&1324679030&openusid&zz]
I'm using a DAC as a pre-amp, the Benchmark DAC1 HDR. I couldn't hear any difference between the HDR and a Levinson pre-amp. I don't like the 1/2-wide 1U form factor most of the DACs like the HDR use, but it sounds so good at such a low price it was irresistible compared to the Levinson.
I also find some integrated DAC/pre-amps are significantly quieter than most combinations of discrete components. You can easily test this by having all of the equipment on and not playing any music. Listen for how much white noise is coming out of the tweeters. Of course, if your amps have a poor small signal SNR the line-stage noise level could be covered up. (I had this problem to a small degree.) Nonetheless, even with very efficient speakers it is possible to have dead silence from the tweeters with you ear inches away. Some people say it doesn't matter once you're playing music, but if we're all so fixated on detail, how could audible noise not matter?
The Benchmark DAC-1 HDR is a good example of the kind of unit that fills the OP's bill. Its functionality is just about what he would need if he went for the high end power amp at this point.
I would suggest he pay attention to the remote control functionality of the HDR ( it can be hard to see what you've selected ) and its sonics ( the emphasis on detail may be what he wants or it may not ). Given those are OK, it's a suitable choice.
Totally agree on that HDR remote control. The buttons are in illogical places and they are hard to read in dim light. It feels nice in your hand though.
Agree the Benchmark is near the top of the current best available and would add the Wyred4sound DAC2. You can use the digital volume control, a power supply the size of many amplifiers, and one of the most reasonably priced of the current state or near state of the art DAC's. Very highly reviewed. If, as someone mentioned, the sound suffers with reduced volume from reduced BIT count, add a preamp later. 6 Moons review listened direct to amp and commented with 24 BITs available, a few can be sacrificed without a discernable loss. Get one, listen, and if it's a problem use a preamp! Trust the ears.....
I'm using a nuForce DAC-9 as a DAC/preamp with a nuForce Stereo 8.5V3 poweramp, and it sounds terrific. I believe the volume control in the DAC-9 is "digitally controlled in the analog realm," whatever that entails.
From the little I've experimented it's appears to be my preferred setting over by-passing the internal volume control of the DAC-9 and instead going by the internal (digital) volume control via JRiver MC17's software player, but the final decision has yet to be made on this.
I'd go to some length in order to avoid a hardware preamp, and see no reason to avoid a digital volume control so long as the bitdepth in attenaution doesn't go below 24 bits - which most DAC's support.