Lots of variables. What resolution on Tidal? How resolving is the rest of your system. Quality of cable(s). I’m currently using a Bel Canto e.one Stream to play a Tidal and Qobuz into the internal DAC in my Anthem STR integrated amp. The Bel Canto is appreciably better than either my MacBook Pro or a Bluesound Node 2i. Now that I’ve got the streamer nailed down I’ll be looking for an external DAC to round things out. All components in the audio chain matter, and the chain is only as good as its weakest link.
My two cents? The DAC is more important as that is where the data is converted into an analog signal. It's the spot where jitter, distortion, frequency non-linearity and noise can end up in the sound we hear. Until then, the streamer and all of the other devices upstream are simply handling data packets. Now, that's not to say that the streamer isn't important. RFI control can be done poorly, or well, for example. And, the streamer and its associated programming is where we interface to select music, build playlists, etc., so a poor design here can certainly leave us with negative thoughts that may affect our perception.
I vary endpoints and sources. Having a high quality stand alone DAC is worth every penny paid. Because so many manufacturers are adding a DAC to whatever they make I expect to find one on the next toaster I buy. The side effect is a perceived diminishing importance of the DAC. The fashion on the marketing end is streaming transport DAC combinations and since money follows fashion, I expect a lot of marketing hype telling me why I need such and such. The power supply, processing architecture and analogue stage of a stand alone DAC has a massive impact on the sound. Night and Day differences between manufacturers using the same chip. Paul from PS Audio has a great video explaining this question,why specs are misleading and why the output stage is so important.
As a broad generalization, I think the DAC is more important, however it all depends on a lot of factors. For example, does your streamer output/passthrough the file type you're wanting to listen to? If you want MQA or maybe some other file type, you need a streamer that can pass that info to the DAC. You mentioned having the CXN to compare. I don't remember the details, but I know the CXN really isn't intended to be a streamer going out to an external DAC. I believe it only exports CD bit rates regardless of the source. So it might be downscaling some file types. That's an example where you're streamer might matter at least as much as your DAC.
Another factor would be if you find your DAC sounds best via a certain input. Sometimes that's USB, sometimes IS2, maybe something else. Well if you DAC sounds best via IS2, you need a streamer that has an IS2 output.
So like most things in audio... it depends.
That very question was put to the test recently during a get together at a acquaintance home where he quickly demonstrated playback comparisons through a home baked Jcat ? server / streamer and a very expensive net work switch along with a selection of wires , modem , service and a hideously expensive dac to the rest of his system. We listened to a verity of known well recorded music.
He then bypassed his server streamer and Uber up stream components switch and all to a basic components and wire and kept his 30 grand dac in place , playback wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.
Actually there was a shocking difference.
I certainly do not own anything that remotely comes close to this fellows system however I know what actual music being played should sound like and this illusion was a tiny bit closer to the real thing with everything in place including a 5 grand network switch thrown in the mix.
I don’t stream music yet my library of music is ripped to a dedicated server and I have a fairly decent dac however today good performing dacs are a dime a dozen ,
I’ve always considered the source especially the quality of recordings to be all important and still think so , actually it’s all important.
Mahler I would agree to a certain extent today with fast moving technology I chose a 1 bit FPGA dac with separate power supplies all are upgradable with firmware updates , I feel good about that and it performs very well.
Streaming is a new frontier for me and I’m reluctant to dive in for now , I have access to a huge collection of CDs I borrow to rip and so far I’m content with that .
My server was a Black Friday special from a actual audio store and though it had a retail price in the thousands it was heavily discounted being a store and audio show demo model.
ive had another borrowed server to compare and noticed a marked difference in performance and someday soon I’ll sell off my original purchase.
Though for now I’ll enjoy what I have and see what unfolds in the very near future.
Without question the Dac quality for the music is processed here
it is much better to pay to 1st buy a good digital front end
then when you can afford it then buy a good streamer.
your computer can do most of the streamers function
and a good usb cable is essential . I have listened to 5 of the best under $1500, and Final touch audio was roughly half that and the most natural I have heard .
The biggest flaw in any setup is using usb for a number of reasons:
usb is flawed and that’s why you see many many tweaks/gadgets to try to make it better;
if you use usb/toslink/coax, then it requires you to place the computer (streamers are just a computer) in the audio room which isn’t a good idea for many reasons;
get the best fpga based dac that has a network interface and use an existing computer running Roon and you will have a nice sounding system without all the bs/hype that goes with separate streamers. The dac is the more critical piece to get right
DACs went out of fashion a while back.... and now they are one of hottest categories of hardware discussion and sales. I've been using a DAC since the late eighties for good reason, they handle multiple digital sources and often sound better than one box solutions. Now with streaming and archived digital files theres never been a better time to buy a DAC. Im using a NAD M51 DAC with several digital sources including a Bluesound Vault 2i and it sounds awesome. Movies, bluray audio, files on my HD... all sound better through the DAC.
I’ll add my $.02. I’ve posed this very question to myself and elsewhere in these forums. I don’t have an answer in which I’m confident - I don’t know which is the more important. They both are.
I have multiple systems, and own a Node 2, an Aurender N100H and an Auralic Aries G2 to serve each. I’ve had a chance to compare all three streamers going into the same DAC - and they all sound different. Not radically different as I would note that the difference is presented primarily in spatial information. The tonality is the same, but the better streamers sound significantly more “open”. The Node 2 is excellent for its price, but sounds “flat” dimensionally in comparison - even when connected via a Nordost Heimdahl digital cable (more expensive than the Node 2).
I also ran all three streamers into a different DAC. Same result. I still don’t know which is more important - I’m guessing the DAC, but am unsure. But, let me also suggest that those who believe certain DACs eliminate or are immune to jitter (the inference being that a good source/streamer is irrelevant) may be missing something. As has been stated elsewhere - everything makes a difference. Unfortunately, this has been exaggerated as I’ve improved my system. Pairing a state of the art DAC with a budget streamer, or vice versa, would be a mistake in my view.
Stay safe out there.
I opted for just a DAC for reasons mentioned above.
What hadn’t seen mentioned is that I basically hook up my iPad via USB into the DAC. This way my iOS Tidal app is always up to date, works well and I get MQA level audio or up to 24 bit/192 kHz (effectively achieving same result).
and I can also easily switch between other music apps (Apple Music w lossless, Spotify, etc).