Trying to get a general idea of SQ hierarchy for combo pre/DAC vs separate boxes


How does a combo preamp and DAC compare to separates? And do you spend more on the preamp or the DAC? I started out looking for comparisons of the PS Audio Stellar GDC because I liked the idea of its analogue volume control, but there are a lot of options. With separates I might upgrade my DAC first before I start messing with anything else. Here's a quick list with current prices on both sides of the GCD:

$ 900 - Schiit Saga ($300) & Bimby ($600)
$1500 - Schiit Freya+ ($900) & Bimby
$1550 - Schiit Saga & Gumby ($1250)
$1700 - PS Audio Stellar GCD
$2000 - Benchmark DAC3 L
$2150 - Schiit Freya+ & Gumby
$2200 - Mytek Brooklyn DAC+

Current system is Dynaudio Audience 82, Musical Fidelity A300 Integrated, Oppo BDP-105 for discs and DAC. Leaning toward a PrimaLuna power amp, either HP stereo or monoblocks . The list of speakers I want to listen only gets longer the more I read so I'm putting that off for a bit. Might try streaming and a dedicated server eventually. Most of my CDs are already ripped lossless on an SSD plugged into the Oppo, but the interface is heinous. Ripped files through the Oppo sound fine, but I really miss the AH! Njoe Tjoeb I had until the transport finally died. I think that may be what is making me want to go the tube amp route.
cat_doorman
Friend

The comparison of DAC to Amplifier compared to DAC to Preamplifier to Amplifier will depend largely on the combinations of components.  When you start spending big Money on DAC's you get into better output sections in many (not all) cases - which makes the need for a Preamplifier less important.  However, just when you have spent Big Money on a DAC there will sure enough come along a DAC to Preamplifier to Amplifier combination that will outperform that combination.  

Personally, I prefer having a Preamplifier in my System to accommodate Vinyl; in my System the Preamplifier lays out the Soundstage better.

As for your choice - Benchmark and Mytek are tough to beat!!!  You can get either one and try inserting a few different Preamplifiers from your local Audio salon to get an idea of whether or not your system will benefit.
I'm not good at upgrading. I don't do it very often. I'm trying to future proof for a big upgrade that realistically may never be completed. I mostly bought the Oppo to watch movies when I finally broke down and bought a TV a few years back. The speakers and integrated I have now were bought new 15+ years ago for about $4k total. It may seem like overkill to look at $2k+ stand alone DACs or DAC/pre combos, but I know to make the kind of system improvement even my tin ears can recognize will take some scratch, so I'm trying to budget accordingly.

I've never gotten into vinyl because I always found the noise floor too distracting to really appreciate the benefits of analog. But I've been thinking about it. I always liked the deliberation and ritual associated with a single disc player as opposed to multi disc or file playing. Vinyl has that in spades. From what I've read it seems that a separate phono stage is usually much better than what generally gets included in a preamp. So many things to take into consideration. I suppose it wouldn't be as much fun if there were definitive answers.
For an all-digital system, a DAC-preamp or DAC that is functional as a preamp offers a lot of advantages. (I've owned several in that category.) That combination avoids the duplication of costly items like chassis, front panels, and power supplies; and you can avoid a set of interconnects. If you are doing digital only, all you need is a DAC with a good volume control.

As others have said, the Mytek and Benchmark entries have gotten great reviews. However, neither is said to have a particularly tubey sound, so you may\find other DACs or combinations suit your tastes better.
I am not into tubes myself, having lived in hot climates for too long, and being averse to the continuing costs of retubing. I have heard people say that a tubed source followed by a SS amp can give a lot of tube sound at lower cost (and heat) than a tubed power amp.
Have fun with it!


Friend

You can keep the Oppo for movies; but the Digital Front End and Amplification should be upgraded.  If you want to stay with Integrated Amplification McIntosh has some impressive options starting at $3500 with the MC252.  As for digital, Benchmark or Mytek will get you where you want to go; and of the two - Benchmark also has a Power Amplifier now that should match well with their DAC.  You have a lot of decisions to make.  You can Audition the McIntosh at Best Buy; keep us posted on what you decide to do. 
I’ve never had separate pre/power amps before. I remember auditioning my MF A300 integrated umpteen years ago. There was another customer listening to matched pre/power separates that were 3-5x as expensive. We took turns listening to each setup and each other’s test tracks. The separates did sound a little bit better, but were too far out of my budget at the time to even warrant consideration. I felt pretty good about how close it was and have been happy with it since though. At the time I lived in a small studio apartment and with that purchase I had more money in my system than a year’s rent. Priorities.

This time I definitely want separate pre/power amps. I’m just not sure if a pre/DAC falls in the same category. The hard part is comparisons when it’s not apples to apples. Do you compare a $2k pre/DAC to a $500 pre/$1500 DAC or is the split $1000/$1000 or $1500/$500? Is the DAC an afterthought the way some phono stages are or is the volume control sketchy? The reviews I’ve been reading don’t seem to answer those kind of questions.
Separate pre/power are especially good if you want to put the equipment rack near you and the amp(s) by the speakers. I think it’s a great approach for anyone with the space and cash. I like to use balanced cables for that.

In contrast, I think separating the DAC from the preamp usually is not a great deal for the consumer.

YMMV

There is really no one answer, as it depends -- as always -- on your ears, priorities, and wallet. Volume controls in modern DACs are very good indeed, and maybe better (at least at sane pricing levels) than purely analog ones. Also, I don’t think that, given today’s digital-based world, the DAC will be an afterthought; and absolutely not in a Benchmark or Mytek product. Probably, you need to find a dealer who will let you try some of the items at home and see how you like them.

And to your list of DACs, you could add the Audiolab M-DAC+. I have not heard it, but it is characterized as "smooth", and if might be worth a trial.

People say that a system sounds better when you add in a USA$10k+ preamp; but in my price range (a little, but not a lot, higher than yours), my systems have sounded great running a DAC (with volume control) straight into a power amp.

HTH


Friend

HTH answered correctly; there is no one answer due to the various combinations that can yield various results at different price points.  More Money spent does not always equate to superior performance over more economical gear.  

As should be with any hobby - Learning is should be part of the experience; therefore, take advantage of savvy people like Arthur Salvatore (http://www.high-endaudio.com/rec.html), Michael Fremer on Youtube, and Factory Tours such as Audio Research, Audio Note, and Radio just to name a few also on Youtube.  

An Audio Show coming anywhere near your area would also be a treat to visit and get samples of many combinations.