Pros & Cons of Buying an Integrated with Built-in DAC?


I'm currently looking at integrateds. Ideally, I'd like the next one to be my last and I'm wondering whether I need to purchase one with an internal DAC to provide flexibility for computer audio should I be compelled to go that route in the future. Will today's DACs be outmoded 3 years from now? Am I better off waiting to buy a separate DAC until I really need one? I'm confused. Technology is speeding up and my middle aged brain is slowing down! 

stuartk

With a good quality integrated like the Parasound JC Halo Int,. the cost is more for the amp, and the dac which is the ESS Saber if your into dsd, is mostly a token gesture thrown in. You don’t have to use it, but it’s there.

http://www.stereophile.com/content/parasound-halo-integrated-integrated-amplifier#sDizZsxamZoqZCft.97

Cheers George

georgelofi;

As it happens, I demo'd a Halo but it didn't move me. I'm going to try out a Peachtree nova 150, which also has a sabre DAC, next.  
Buy the best 2 channel integrated that's in your budget without a phono stage or DAC. You'll always be better off buying an outboard phono and DAC than a Swiss Army Integrate. Look for something used like an Ayre, Pass or ARC and you'll be happy. 
+1 adg101. Purchase a separate DAC when needed. There always is a number of quality used DACs on the market when one is interested. 
An integrated amp with a built-in D/A is the modern equivalent of a receiver and all the old pluses and minuses apply.  It's a single box as opposed to multiple boxes and requires only a single shelf space.  You don't need interconnects (or additional power cords).  No need to fret over mismatched gain or impedance matching.  A single remote control.  The downside is you can get better quality (at a higher price) with separate components.

Newer D/As will decode higher sampling rates of both PCM and DSD.  If you are downloading these hi-rez files, then get a recent model converter.  My experience is unless you go above $3k all D/As more or less sound the same, which is uniformly good.  My question to the OP is "do you have a reason not to go with an integrated solution?"
If there's no demand on higher power, the combination units similar to vintage receivers will work great depending on unit quality.
Many vintage receivers tuner/preamp/amp combos compete very well against modern full function integrated amps
I agree with ADG - get the best sounding integrated amp you can, and then add a separate DAC.

I've been using a Meridian 263, from about 1992, and it is still very good musically/sonically.  The downside is that it won't work with any newer formats, but since it was effectively free I don't really care. 

Good, inexpensive DACs are all around these days.  Don't limit yourself by trying to put everything in one box unless you really have to. 
Very happy with Hegel H80 in second system. In five years I will either sell it or buy an external DAC.  Easy either way.
If simplicity and convenience matter along with good sound, there are some very good choices available out there.

I bought a BelCanto C5i (true digital amp with DAC and phono) as an experiment to test the downsizing option in my second system and gotta say this unit is absolute top notch and competes well with separates.

60 w/ch is really its only limitation but if very high volumes out of less efficient speakers is not required, you are golden.
I agree with the above posts that you should buy the best possible sounding integrated amplifier that matches your needs and purchase a separate DAC.  Based on current market conditions, it seems, that DAC technology is constantly being upgraded (mostly new chips) while amplifier design, generally speaking, changes less frequently.  

I suggest you separate these two functions so that you have the option to upgrade either the amplifier, or the DAC, as your system and interest requires.  The separation of the amplifier and the DAC into two boxes maybe more expensive but will be worth it, in the long run, when you decide to upgrade.  There are many separate quality DAC's on the market today in many different price ranges that should work for you.  The separation of the amplifier and the DAC will give you the most audio system "flexibility" for future system upgrades and improvements.   

Thanks to all for your input. Clearly, the consensus is that I should not go the "Swiss Army Knife" route. 

onhwy61: no- I have no reason not to go with an integrated. In fact, I prefer it.  

hgeifman: my original rationale for considering an integrated with a built-in DAC was that I wouldn't have to buy a DAC in the future, should I be compelled to switch from CDs to downloads/streaming (not a change I want to make at present). However, your post has revealed the fault in my reasoning-- the fact that DAC technology is constantly changing strongly suggests any  DAC bought today will be outmoded by the time I might switch my source format-- the very outcome I was hoping to avoid! Thanks for setting me straight. 
MAN UP STUART!  Are you going to let a bunch on internet forum posting know-it-alls steer you in the wrong direction?  Are you really going to make a decision today about what might possibly happen a few years from now?  It's a scientific fact that nobody knows what's going to happen in the future.  My dog doesn't even know.

Seriously, buy the integrated with the built-in D/A and if at some point in the future D/A technology really does change, then purchase a separate D/A and plug it into an aux input.  Flexibility is wonderful, but it costs money and you still might not get it right.  Your most flexible option is to do nothing and keep all your options open.  Does that really make any sense?
I don’t believe an integrated with a DAC is a swiss army knife, although I understand the metaphor.

I have a Musical Fidelity M6Si. It includes a DAC. Overall I’m very happy with the unit as a whole. In my case I wanted an integrated and didn’t want to spend tens of thousands on separates (amp, preamp, dac, phono, etc.).

I think it comes down to budget and/or physical space limitations. In a perfect world where money is no object and space is virtually unlimited, sure, might as well get top of line separates in every category.

Key in any case is to look for something of optimal value. My M6Si MSRP is $3K and it can compare quality and sound wise to an amp, preamp or DAC separate that each cost that much.
I have Leatherman all in one tool and it's made of great steel so all of the units work perfectly and never getting bent.

if you buy a separate DAC, it too will age,  at the same rate as the built in one...
and some Integrateds come with a upgradeable DAC.  no right choice, whatever makes you happy 
Stuartk, your choices are an integrated amplifier with built-in DAC or a separate amplifier and a separate DAC.   I happen to believe that the separation of the integrated amplifier and the DAC provides the most audio performance and flexibility for future system upgrades and sound improvements.  I had the same question for my 2-channel video system and decided to keep my integrated amplifier (Ayre AX-7e) and purchase a separate DAC (Prism Sound Callia DAC).

HOWEVER, from a cost viewpoint, the combination of an integrated amplifier with a built-in DAC offers some cost savings and other usefulness.  This might be the "best solution" for you, based on your original post of this being your last one.  In addition, as was stated above, you can always purchase another separate DAC in the future and use it and not the built-in DAC.

You need to review these comments and make a decision based on what is best for you, your budget and your audio system. In other words, you need to make a combination amplifier/DAC vs a separate decision based on your budget, one box or two box space limitations and audio system sound quality performance.  There is no hurry to rush this decision since a mistake is expensive and very frustrating.  Audiogon, and other similar Internet forums, are useful places for gathering opinions from others about your question. Other people opinions, may, or may, not be useful to you.  

You are asking the right questions and I suggest you continue to research the topic until you feel comfortable with your decision.   

Keep 'em separate, stay flexible, preserve value.
My kids use an iMac at home and for the kids it's just fine. I look at an all in one integrate as the one box computer, being an Apple or a HP. I prefer to have my computer in separate boxes so if my monitor takes a dump I'm not totally out. No iMac or one box PC/Monitor machine is ever going to outperform a workstation and standalone monitor for the same money. 

There are many nice integrated amps out there with onboard DACs and etc. Can you likely for the same money put together a better combination with a few boxes... yep. Plus if you want to upgrade to a better DAC, experiment with cables to find the sound you prefer you can customize or tweak the sound to your liking as you change out speakers or other components in the future if that happens. 

There's no right answer as some above have noted and you should trust your ears and not the advice of others in the end. Try to drag equipment home from local shops if you can, or buy gear used and if you end up not liking something resale it it likely losing little if any. This is hobby and in my experience part of the fun is experimenting with gear and chasing to put together the best system you can afford. If you want the all in one solution and really think this is the last purchase then maybe this makes sense. 

Best advise is visit some stores and listen and hopefully you can demo at home. If nothing too close to home, then make a road trip; it's a lot of fun visiting new stores.Trust you ears. Good luck.
Stuartk stated he did not need a DAC at present however MAY find use for it at a later date. Also he is intending to keep the integrated of choice for a very long time. There are far more choices available for finding the integrated amplifier that 'float one's boat' when considering all integrated amplifiers, whether they have, or don't have, an internal DAC. I also can't help but believe that those integrated amps that have an internal DAC, where that DAC does not add greatly to the cost, contains a DAC that could be readily improved by an external one.

Searching for an integrated/DAC combination greatly limits options/flexibility in both units. 

Also the need for a DAC will depend on what digital source will eventually be used. Many digital sources (streamers) have built in DACs. 


I'm thinking back to when I was a kid, in bed with a transistor radio, listening to "Love Me Do" on the Cousin Brucie Show, broadcast from WABC in NYC. Enjoying music sure was a lot simpler back then!  The fact is, there aren't many audio stores in the Sacramento area and as a rule, they don't keep demo units on hand. I learned the hard way that a unit that sounds good in a showroom can sound very different at home. Personally, my idea of fun is listening to music, not buying and re-selling gear, although many audio hobbyists do seem to enjoy the latter. In the end, however, I may have no choice. The Peachtree nova 150 arrives today from Music Direct. If that doesn't, as mesch says, "float my boat", I will, in all likelihood, have to purchase something used that I haven't heard and keep my fingers crossed. The Rogue Pharaoh, for instance, although the reviews are all over the place when it comes to describing its sound. The Rogue website touts its "organic midrange and sweet top-end that only a tube amp can provide" but to others, it apparently sounds more SS than tube. At this point, having read through all the comments, I'm most inclined to find an amp I like, and not worry about a DAC.  many thanks to everyone for your input. 
I'm selling my Job INTegrated if anyone is interested.
I’m with onhwy61 - don’t discount the positives of a fully integrated unit too quickly.

Ironically, someone above who voted for going with separate units also pointed out that good inexpensive dacs are so easily available, which actually makes the point: good dacs today are like squirrels, they’re all over the place, and they don’t require that you spend $2000 to get one. So if someone like Hegel, or Parasound, or Peachtree, or many others are willing to give you one of those inexpensive good dacs as a bonus with your integrated amp, and save you space, the cost of extra cables, etc. why wouldn’t you take advantage of these combinations of great modern technology?  They're not stuffing these units with poor dacs - many use ESS's best reference 9018 chip.  If they're going out of their way to make your life easier, and give you everything you want in one box, why snub the offer and make things more complicated than they need to be?

Look at it this way - if someone could easily make the case that you can’t get good sound without spending $5000 on a dac, but none of the integrateds came with a dac that good, then you’d have your answer...you’d be forced to buy separates. But that’s not the world of dacs today - you can get great sound from a $300 dac today. So why go nuts sourcing something like that separately, when integrateds are offering that same quality built-in?
bcgator; I can't argue with your logic. To clarify, I didn't mean to suggest I'd become opposed to integrateds with a DAC; simply that I would no longer be limiting my search to such units, exclusively. What you say makes a lot of sense, especially given the fact that my finances are limited and getting the most bang for my audio buck is always a top priority. 
it costs way less for a company to include a DAC in an integrated than build a stand alone unit of the exact same quality, not to mention cabling...
what about the two Creek units?  

don't they have good DACs?
Integrated amps like the new ARC and Mark Levinson have excellent built in dacs and quite good phonostages.  If you are interested in very high quality and not into the upgrade game you will have a lifetime of enjoyment with this level of gear. Also the devialet product offers excellent dac/streaming and phonostage options in one nice package (Micromega also has a new integrated option). 
you could consider something like the Vinnie Rossi ILO http://vinnierossi.com/. Its a modular system that in the future you could pop in a new dac or something else that comes along. makes the whole upgrade path easier as you don't have to change the whole box and can but modules as budget allows. not to mention its a capacitor based system so runs separate from your ac line. I've been eyeing them for a year now just saving funds. But in the interm I picked up a Luxman L560 form 1986 that's wonderful (50wpch Pure class A) so don't count out quality older stuff.
sorry it the LIO typo
I sent back the Peachtree  nova 150 today. It yielded more detail than the Jolida but the tonality, overall, struck me as very "dry" and "flat". Don't know if these are audiophile terms, but it sounded to me like all the sensuality and depth had been drained from the music. Not my cup of tea. I'm going to try a demo unit Wells Majestic, next, (considerably more than I'd planned to spend) and if that doesn't please me, I will probably resign myself to staying with tubes and go with something like a Rogue Cronus Magnum II, which would presumably be an improvement over my current Jolida 302B. Luxman might be just the thing, but even used, they're more than I want to spend. As my audiophile buddies with high-priced systems have reminded me, audio is an expensive hobby. 
glennewdick;
 The LIO is too pricey for me. 
It would probably be worth trying a Nait XS or a SuperNait.  Both very good sounding, have built-in upgrade options, will last effectively forever, and have excellent support.  If you don't mind used, a SuperNait has a good DAC built in (yes, ironic in that that is one of the reasons I don't have one). 
DACs seem to outdate in 5yr cycles(with some exceptions for niche or unconventional products off-the-shelf chips are used which stay current for quite a few years.) We're at the end of the current cycle by the looks of things; the Sabre 9018 has been on the market a few years already & AKM just put out a new chip. A lot of companies seem content with refining designs based on older DAC chips.

Integrates have the advantage of short signal path & the lack of guesswork on voicing/electrical factors. Your money is also going into purchasing only one box of casing & power supply so in theory you will get more DAC for your money. The disadvantages are that companies usually prioritize the amplifier circuitry and may not be experienced in DAC design.

My thought on the matter is that if you do decide on a one-box solution shoot for something made within the last year. I'm not sure on your budget however you say the LIO is too much; by giving a miss on redundant parts(the box/psu) you may get a superior value. What it really comes down to is if you can get the sound you're after in a unit which has a DAC option. Trimming down to one box takes a lot of different implementations & brands off the list.
@redfuneral

You should differentiate between dacs being outdated from a technical perspective vs. outdated from a marketing perspective. 

If you're talking marketing, I agree.   Manufacturers have to always market the latest and greatest to create emotional reasons to buy, even if there's no good reason to.  If you're talking technical progression, I disagree.   There is nothing that has happened in the last 5 years, or 6 years, or 7 years, that would make even a 10 year old dac obsolete or even subpar.   People upgrade because they want to - it's far less often that they're upgrading because they need to.
@bcgator 

I both agree and disagree. USB receiver chips and clocks have come a long way. If you are using modern D/S chips these are imporant factors to the overall performance. This is the only kind of DAC you will find in fully integrated units.

Personally I use a R2R filteless DAC which is 6yrs old & prefer it to far newer and costlier units. However this technology has obvious testable tradeoffs for the things that it does right which are masked to some systems/ears regardless. Digital's more recent advancements are less important here simply as these designs work differently. I figured it would over complicate matters bringing this tech into the discussion as it involves niche markets or vintage purchases(and the convertex boxes which come with.)

It is much like the debates over amplifiers. Class D makes great advances every year whereas Class A sees more subtle refinements. Most everything is up for debate other than Class D amps outdate quicker simply due to the markets focus and more rapid advancements. 'Marketing' is the simple but perhaps incomplete answer.
@redfuneral

Ah yes, great point about the advances in USB chips and the adoption of asynchronous implementations.  That has been a welcomed advancement.  
I also think that there are many older DACs (5-7 years old, possibly older) that could serve well in todays system. For computer audio most would require a USB/SPDIF converter, however this also is no problem as many good ones are available on the used market. Buying a used older DAC often provides for a much more robust power supply and analog stage for the money spent.
I have ended up with a Wells Majestic integrated. I don't miss tubes at all with this amp-- it sounds incredibly musical to me-- very engaging in a non-fatiguing way yet more dynamic and dimensional than my tubed Jolida. Yes; in the end, I had to spend considerably more than I'd originally budgeted, but my goal was to buy my "last integrated". It's upgrade-able and built in USA-- only a couple hour's drive away from me. All concerns about DACs have evaporated since the Majestic has been in my system. Jeff Wells even burned it in before shipping it. He's a real pleasure to deal with. I'm really happy. Thanks to everyone that contributed to this discussion. 
Congrats! I am not familiar with this integrated. Will look it up. 
mesch;

It's sure made me appreciate my Silverline monitors !
I enjoyed my Jolida integrated; it was great for Jazz and other 
types of acoustic music, but the downside was that I ended up
largely limiting my listening choices to those genres. The Wells
lacks the euphonic mids of the Jolida-- it doesn't do the 2nd order 
harmonic 3D thing that you get with tubes-- when I used the word 
"dimensional" I meant each instrument now has more presence/solidity
in the mix and that the soundstage, which was formerly quite "flat", 
has much more depth. But, the Wells is enabling me to enjoy All
the music in my collection. I listened to "Blow by Blow" by J. Beck,
this morning-- just the ordinary remaster-- and it was like hearing it 
for the first time. The usual caveat re: the downside of increased resolution with poorly recorded cds applies, needless to say. 
I realize there's  a lot of hype and I also understand that each person not only hears differently but has a unique conception
of what constitutes "good sound", but I think Jeff Wells' gear deserves 
to be much better known. 
I looked this integrated up. I like the clean looks and simple design. The 'less is more' approach. Now to find a dealer located such that when I travel I might hear one. Currently  I own a Jolida Fusion pre, driving a BEL 1001 MK V.  I went from an integrated amp to separates when I moved into a dedicated room. Not because at my budget separates might be better than an integrated, but for equipment placement/cable length issues. Well also I got a great deal on the BEL.
mesch;

I'd e-mail Jeff Wells and ask him. 
There is more to DAC performance than what chip is used.  I have the Oppo 105 Universal Player/DAC and the freestanding DAC Mytek Manhatten. Which uses the same chip.  The comparison isn't close; there is so much more detail with the Mytek.  Of course the Mytekhas a much bigger power supply, and doesn't have to divide it 's power to a multiplicity of tasks, like the Oppo.  I will be suspicious of Integrateds with included DACs for that reason.  I would by a separate entry level DAC and a traditional Integrated Amp and then upgrade as needed

I would totally agree with mahler123.  The actual DAC chip used has very little to do with the overall sound quality.  Although, I have heard that the Sabre DAC chip is actually very picky and can be challenging to implement properly.  The biggest parts of a DAC sound quality are the power supply (enormously important!) and the I/V and LPF circuits  (which op amp / discrete? / Class A?).

Going back to the original question - Is it worth it to get an integrated with a built-in DAC.  The power amp section is probably going to have it's own power supply, since it will typically operate at something like 50V or 63V DC with high current.  However, the preamp/DAC section has these stages:

digital receiver (usually 3.3V, sometimes 5V)

DAC chip (typically 3.3 - 5V)

I/V (voltage to current) conversion circuit (anywhere from +9V to +/-15V)

LPF (possibly) (anywhere from +9V to +/-15V)

preamp output buffer stage (anywhere from +9V to +/-15V)


On an integrated amp, all the low voltage circuits are going to be using a shared power supply because there is limited space and there's no room to space out different power supply sections for the different DAC/preamp stages(capacitor bank / regulator / any post-regulator caps).  The 3.3/5V regulators are probably going to be tapped on the +15V power supply line (example).  This means that when a waveform hits (such as a drummer hitting a snare) the DAC chip, I/V, LPF and preamp buffer are all going to try to draw that voltage/current from the +15V power supply line.  If the power supply is not beefy enough (and it typically isn't), then the power of the waveform can suffer and this can translate into a weaker sound that lacks punch/authority.  It may also lack clarity. 

I would not focus much on the future and new formats/technology.  The most important factor is the quality of the analog audio circuits themselves.  I have had a old Krell HTS 7.1 from 2001 that pretty much kicked the crap out of a LOT of new stuff (even though I could not play hi-res audio or bluray formats).  Even though the new technology promised better sound, my old Krell still beat it with lo-res data.  The Krell had all individual power supply sections for digital / DAC / Analog sections.

Buying an Integrated with a built-in DAC is definitely very convenient and this may fit your requirements.  If you're after sound quality, it's best to use a separate DAC.  That allows the preamp section in the Integrated to use it's own isolated power supply.

heh, just re-read and caught up.  Didn't realize you bought a Wells.  That one looks very nice!!