Preamp w/DAC (or Integrated w/DAC) vs. Outboard/External DAC? (Again! Forgive me!)


Please forgive this question if you think it's been answered before. I really have been researching it and am still confused.
Regarding prospective purchases of preamp or integrated amp —total budget about $3-4k.
I am still trying to decide a basic question of tubes vs. solid state.
But, I am *also* stymied by the "external vs. internal DAC" issue. This is the question I'm raising now.
  • Some say "you must get an external DAC because things change so much."
  • Others say, "get an internal DAC, you'll be fine and then can do a pre-out later, if DAC's change."
  • An audiophile friend says, "Even having an internal DAC that you bypass still adds noise, so keep it separate for that reason, too." (He recommends audio-gd DACs.)
  • Because I'm very interested in PS Audio's StellarGainCell (and it has a built in DAC) and I raised the DAC issue with them — I asked, basically, "Why shouldn't I worry about the obsolescence of the DAC in the GainCell Preamp?"
  • PS Audio replied: "It’s true that DAC technology has changed a lot in the last decade and obsolescence has been an issue as the industry has shifted towards streaming….The Gain Cell is compatible with all of the popular formats, like DSD and high rate PCM, so obsolescence is unlikely for what we can foresee. All of the streaming services we’re seeing, even new ones like Qobuz, are doing 24/192 and the Gain Cell is more than capable to handle all of that. While we can’t predict the future, we’re not seeing anything on the horizon that we expect to change this. We haven’t heard of anything that would be game changing and drastically alter this product’s relevance as the Gain Cell can process the file types and sizes we’re seeing with streaming which is increasing in popularity….We’re proud of the design of the Gain Cell’s preamp section, and I think its performance both in the DAC section and the preamp section will have a lot of longevity for years to come."
Any opinions about the general issue?
Any suggested $$ breakdowns for how to spend $3-$4k — how much for preamp, amp, dac, proportionately?
This is a system-building in progress. I'm spending reasonable, similar amounts on other elements but not gobs of money -- e.g. I will not have $5k speakers or a $2k streamer, etc. So if you think I'm over-worrying this question *given my total system's modest profile* you can just tell me straight, "Dude, don't bother worrying about this question. Your system isn't worth it." I'll appreciate that candor, too.

8700e65e 845e 4b1b 91cc df27687f9454hilde45
I'd definitely recommend an external DAC.  An internal DAC will be a bit of a 'white elephant' and also devalue your equipment once it becomes outdated.  An external one can be either kept or sold at a bit of a loss as you upgrade!
I have a Schiit Bitfrost and I think it's just superb.  As for an integrated...I've never heard one, but the PrimaLuna EVO series seems just excellent.  If you want separates...again a recommendation for Schiit, this time, the Freya+.  For an amp, I don't really know.  I have a Cambridge Azur 651W that I got a deal on...but the amp is always easy to swap out if you don't like it!  They're the easiest component to just sort of "buy one" as they don't really have many features that you may/may not want.
Which speakers do you have?
You’re singing the tune I’m singing today... prima Luna and schiit. Somehow I caught the ps audio bug and I’m not sure I can shake it. Take all this with a grain of salt, as I’ve not auditioned anything yet.
I am considering two different pairs of speakers right now. Both are 84db sensitivity and one is 8 ohms and the other is 6 ohms. Salk Wow1 and Dynaudio evoke 10. They will be compared and one will be sent back. Others have relayed the very good advice that I should probably look for a more efficient speaker and then I would enjoy a greater range of choices for the amplifier and preamp and Dac. But something has be a fixed point in all this or I’ll go crazy. And people love the Salks and I loved the Dynaudios.
The more general issue is that I will be listening in a fairly small room and so it would be easy for the speakers to be too large. At some point I might want to move things to a larger room and so having some extra capacity in the amplifier would not be a bad thing.
I've never looked at a single PS Audio product, I don't think!
I don't know of either of those speakers...but ones that I think would do well in a small-ish room are the ones I heard the Freya+ with at a friend's house: Buchardt S400, they were incredible.
I have Focal Aria 936 speakers, they're also great, but quite large! Lol
I know what you mean about 'something has to be fixed'...in my case, I've had a Marantz 2240 as the heart of my system for nearly a decade.  Over the last few years I've bought a new TT, CD player, speakers, then I needed a more powerful amp so I got that too.  Now the 2240 is a definite bottleneck in my system.  So, that's why I've got a Freya+ on order :) I think the improvement should be jaw-dropping!
It'll be relegated to a vintage setup with matching tape deck and turntable, once they're refurbished a bit. I'm quite excited lol!  Paradigm speakers too, very nice stuff.
Buchardt speakers were on my list, too! I probably watched four different videos about them today and spent 30 minutes on their website. I have a feeling we have very similar instincts. Ok, they just made my speaker short list. I think I have a fetish about Denmark! It could be all the blondes. :-)
Hey hilde45, the Technics Grand Series is where I landed with a sense of wonder still intact.
Two somewhat different integrateds in the Grand Series lineup: SU-G30 / Integrated Streamer and Su-G700 / SL-G700 can be added for Streaming capability.
Each in the $4000-$5000 Range new. The SB-G90 Loudspeaker are around $4000 also. I would have to check into the price on the SL-G700.
The Streamers do a-lot MQA included.
PS Audio uses PWM also.
Even a demo at a retailer was not enough for me to realize just how good this gear is.
Compared to a Freya / Gungnir MB / Vidar it is a stark difference.
Quiet / Detail / Holographic / Very Fast with great Tone as well.
Grand Series components do come up on Audiogon occasionally.

Hahaha very good! Yes, sounds like we have a similar hifi style.
@rego you said “PS Audio uses PWM also.” can you tell me what this means and how it bears on the issue? Thanks!
DAC's are reasonably stable, and good for the last 10 years.

What's constantly changing and needs updating is the streamer.

I'd go for the best sounding integrated, and if it blows your budget without a DAC get the Parasound ZDAC v2. :)
@erik_squires Thanks for that. I think you have already helped me before with this question on another thread. One question for you, since you mention the Parasound -- do they make an integrated or preamp *without* a DAC?

Of course the elephant in the room is how the heck I listen to all these options! I’ll do what I can, locally, and just make the best choice for now.
Not sure. Parasound has been moving to integrated DAC's for a while, but the president said the very first Pre/DAC was just pure convenience, afterwards they put in more serious efforts.

I wouldn't say an integrated with a DAC was a negative, at all, but my preferences haven't gone that way.
PWM = Pulse Width Modulation.
PWM in general is a way of handling a Digital Signal.
Class D Amps can process a signal in the digital domain for all parameters.
In an amplifier Power Chips are Highly Efficient compared to Class A / AB.
So different amplification Topology.
McGowan ( PS Audio ) explains like this:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rj6h4qYxkCc
Also refer to Technics website:
https://www.technics.com/us/products/grand-class/stereo-integrated-amplifier-su-g700.html
Thanks, @rego. The technical explanation is helpful, but I'm not sure how it impacts the bigger question I asked. Does the fact that PSA uses PWM somehow make their inclusion of the DAC immune to longevity issues? Also, I read some really hard stuff about PSA's product (especially the DAC, oy!) this morning which is causing me some pause:  https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-the-ps-audio-stellar-gain-cell-dac.9273/
With those speakers I would get an integrated amp, if it has a dac that's fine if not there are good ones that are fairly inexpensive. The Parasound Hint 6 has the power, a pretty good dac and runs $3000 new. The Vincent 237MK has enough power, tube pre section, an older dac but not bad for $2500. Musical  Fidelity M5si ditto for $2000. If you want something different the NAD C388 with bluOS module has the power you need , dac and built in streamer for $2200. Good luck on whatever you decide.
@djones51 Thanks for your suggestions. What's the background rationale? Is it because the speakers are basically mid-fi and so there's not much reason to push things in the direction I'm going? In other words, an inbuilt DAC in the equipment level we're talking will be just fine and if I ever evolve my system, I can tackle that question later? I don't want to put words in your mouth, so let me know if you've got other rationales for your comment. Thank you!
Actually I was thinking if you moved to a larger room or floorstanders later on these amps  and others like them would work good as well. I have used separates, integrated with and without dacs and I never really noticed a whole lot of difference. As long as you have digital out you can add a different dac later.  Perhaps because I never had expensive speakers except maybe what I have now Joseph Audio  Perspectives and I still use an integrated. Also in my opinion you get more for your money with integrated amps. Just take my advice with a grain of salt just giving you something more to think about which is probably  what you don't want.
No, I appreciate the input. There's the difference in *theory* and in practice, of course. I'm just gotten such vigorous advice to "keep the DAC out" that I'm trying to see how others have faced this issue. 
I do not think DAC tech is changing that fast anymore. Streamer tech is for sure.

An internal DAC is rather convenient considering the shelf space saved, 1 less set of interconnects and power chord. Maybe even better sound from the internal DACs short wiring.

I have been considering the Mola Mola Makua preamp with internal DAC and other cheaper alternatives. Some of these alternative are separate external DACs. However, when I calculated the inclusion of a streamer, preamp, DAC, and wiring. I get close to the cost of the Makua which I believe will offer better sound due to the short internal wiring to the DAC.

BTW - At $6K the Hegel 390 is an Integrated with internal DAC to seriously consider. The older Hegel 360 is going cheaply now.
Thanks yyzsantabarbara
I am seriously conflicted now!
I do wonder if the Hegel 360 is going cheaply now because it has a DAC in it. In other words, this is too big a research project for me, now, but I'd love to see a comparison between similarly priced units -- some with DAC, some without -- and compare their relative rates of depreciation. 
I’d look into the ML 585 integrated amp which has a multitude of digital inputs. The 585.5 has phono also. All I know is that the sum of its parts is pure high end in a box that exudes quality at the highest level. It’s passes any audiophile test and is also fun to use with the best operating software in the business. I’ve seen used and demos for 7k which must be one of the best value opportunities in high end audio. I’ve had an embarrassing amount of high end gear and know that this is an A+ product. IMO
In the past two months I’ve switched from an integrated DAC to an external $500, then a $1250, and finally a $2450 DAC.  I wish I had tried an external years ago.  It’s amazing the difference in between the units. I’m very happy with the unit I’ve settled on. I never dreamed I’d spend $2450 on a DAC, but it is worth every penny. My speakers are used, but they were $5000 retail. I currently use my desktop computer, a preamp, DAC and dual amps to my two speakers. I’m extremely pleased with my system. 
Schiit-Freya S preamp
Schiit-Yggdrasil DAC
Schiit- Vidar amps in mono
Dynaudio Focus 260 speakers 
That may be where I’m headed, generally. Your choices exceed my budget. Do you like their tubes?
Here's what psaudio said about the external DAC issue. I now have roughly half of people saying "get an external DAC" and the other half saying "it doesn't matter." Ugh!
"While I would agree that an outboard DAC is the most ideal situation it would also take a far superior DAC to the Gain Cell to be a better performing unit. So having the DAC internal to the unit is not the most important factor to consider. If you’re asking if something like an outboard DAC like our DirectStream DAC would sound better the answer is yes, it certainly would. But that is largely because the DAC is superior over the Stellar unit. But on the other hand if you’re wondering if a less expensive standalone DAC will sound better then the answer is likely no because the DAC isn’t as good. So I wouldn’t get to hung up on making sure you have an internal/external DAC rather than selecting a unit that you like and works well for your use."

Just having visited a small audio show I can say that built-in dacs and streamers are becoming the norm for mid-fi. I would not worry too much over future resell value.

The noice your friend is talking about is probably not noticable in this price range. The more expensive systems mostly used pre-amps, amps and a combined dac+streamer or separate dac and streamer but then we are talking $3k per piece or so with a total (sometimes way) over $10k.

I heard a Hegel h590 integrated that sounded very good and an Arcam SA30 (I think) that was also good but not as good (only $2.5k and with cheaper speakers). Hegel has a model called h190 that is cheaper if you don’t want to go to the h590 or h390, still with dac and streamer.

I know Bryston has a good integrated with dac but don’t remember what it costs. Ayre has one for about $6k, maybe they have a cheaper model too. And so on.

See what you can listen to and again, I don’t think you have to worry too much about parts being integrated.

Good luck!
thanks @headphone. You’re exactly right. My friend has an insane system...monoblocks, maggies, etc. His advice is a bit askew my needs. You’re more attuned. Thanks for thinking about my situation, specifically. That’s what I was hoping for. 
@hilde45, About my post how PWM is utilized with regard to amplification.
My input is intended to address the statement:
"I am still trying to decide a basic question of tubes vs. solid state. "
PS Audio as well as Technics have developed / use Hybrid Amplification
solutions.
Back to the question of DACs.
Manufacturers develop products in different ways!
The Stellar GC Preamplifier combines Pre-Amp function with DAC function.
Further the Stellar GC Pre features a full range of Digital and Analog inputs. With Ballanced and SE Analog Output.
Now do you want to play High-Rez, 16/44.1, MP3 files ... if you only want to play MP3 files you do not need a Stellar Pre.
A Pre Box DS2 (for example) similarly is an Integrated Pre-Amp / DAC and Headphone Amplifier " Digital micro preamplifier with MQA and DSD512" without balanced connections for $399.
The Pre Box DS2 sounds 'very good' paired with QA Sixty Watt Monoblocks and brand X Speakers.
If you like Buchardt my suggestion would be model S400 because the S400 uses a Wave Guide to better integrate the high range frequencies.
And the S500 would probably integrate into a 'room' even better than the S400.
No I have not had an opportunity to listen to any of any in the Buchardt 
lineup ...

@rego thank you so much for your answer. I do want to play high-resolution files and so what you say is very useful. By the way, regarding PS audio I had the following exchange with them on about the topic we've been discussing (should one buy a preamp with a DAC in it) on YouTube and got a reply! 

Me: Why doesn't PSA make an entry-level preamp and DAC as separates? What compromises did you accept for the Stellar GainCell and why? Thanks so much.

PS Audio
3 hours ago
”We have a pair in the works right now but they won't see the light of day until later this year.“

News we can use, perhaps. 
If you've done much forum searching, you probably understand that the speaker/amp interface is a much bigger deal than most realize.

I have owned quite a bit of PS Audio over the years, and of late I did buy the PS Audio Stellar dac/pre and M700s, which I used together. The amps are vg, but the dac/pre sound is thin, lacking fuzz on the peach (texture and color). Frankly, I was shocked that it has no external power supply option

I have owned several Parasound dac/pres; hopefully their new one P6 (?) is more hi-end, and more $$$. Check out the Elac dac/pre/streamer. Enjoy The Music gave it a rave review


For a good while now I've been using a Oppo 105 (for audio only) with aftermarket LPM (Linear Power Module) and IEC upgrade combining Furutech Rhodium IEC and heavy gauge pure silver wire to board (~ $300). These are magical additions, along with Machina Dynamica New DARK Matter to the CD tray.

The 105 has built in VVC (variable volume control). I run it direct via Wire World Series 8 XLRs to my Ric Schultz EVS 1200 (see my thread). Combined, it's quite a bargain, playing well above it's price

hth
@tweak Thanks for the head's up about Ps Audio pre's. I'll just need to try them out with whatever speakers I eventually choose.
I'm planning on auditioning the Parasound dac/pre very soon here in Denver. Not sure where the Elac is to try around here. I'll look.

The other stuff sounds just lovely. Will keep an eye open, for sure.
@hilde, Crescendo Fine Audio in Wheatridge, Co for Elac and PS Audio.
Thanks @rego. Didn’t know they had ps audio. They told me they had Atoll