Built-in vs. Standalone DACs

The general consensus here seems to be that standalone DACs are generally better than those built into an integrated amplifier. Many also agree that standalone DACs provide more flexibility, i.e., you can swap DACs without changing the amp.

For the sake of discussion, let’s set aside the flexibility argument and only focus on sound fidelity for now. The primary advantage of a standalone DAC is that it provides better isolation (reduction in electrical noise) since it’s not sharing its architecture with other shared components like power supplies and chassis, etc. I’m also assuming that service and repair is a bit easier as well. What other technical advantages can you guys think of?

Another salient point that I’ve come across is that many manufacturers treat a built-in DAC as an afterthought, and so while the DACs might not be bad per se they are never the star of the show. As a result, the manufacturers don’t go the extra mile in a way that a company producing standalone DACs might. I think you can put Krell, Hegel, McIntosh in this bucket. If you disagree, feel free to correct me.

But on the other hand, we see some high-end manufacturers providing built-in DAC modules and charging quite a bit for it. Examples include Accuphase, Gryphon, Aavik, Soluution, Audio Research, etc. In many cases, the addition of a DAC module can set you back an additional $5-7k. Do you guys think the high cost is basically a ’convenience’ surcharge, or can these high-end built-in DACs compete with DACs that cost about the same, e.g. standalone DACs in the $5-10K range.

So let’s say someone is ordering a Gryphon Diablo 300 and have to decide between adding their DAC module, or buying a separate DAC. Ignoring the flexibility argument for a minute, which route provides better SQ?



I have a Diablo 300 with the DAC module.  It replaced my Ayre QX5/20 DAC and i have auditioned some others in the 5K to 10K range that have not motivated me to retire it.  I feed it with a Wolf Alpha 3SX server via USB.  Not having additional interconnects or power cords is also an area where sound quality can be preserved IMO.  The Gryphon DAC module also runs off an internal capacitor bank so basically same as battery powered and once the bank is charged it disconnects itself from the Diablo 300’s power supply. 

 Ignoring the flexibility argument for a minute, which route provides better SQ?


In my opinion, you should focus on what you are looking for.

Is it convenience? Is it highest fidelity?


IMHO, if you want the most flexibility, then go for separates. It gives you the ability to dial in your system to what you want to hear. And, DAC's are evolving fast, what is SOTA now might be yesterdays mashed potatoes.


@drrsutliff Thanks for chiming in. It's good to know that high end manufacturers like Gryphon take the integrated DAC architecture very seriously as is evident by their innovative approach towards powering the module. I remember reading somewhere that Gryphon consider the shorter path (no additional cords) as an advantage.

BTW, lovely system you got :) I love how you enjoy your digital and analog systems and have worked to bring parity between the two. I bet the Diablo and Rockport combo along with the Wolf streamer is kickass.

@gdnrbob I agree with you regarding the flexibility argument. No doubt separates gives you the ultimate freedom to upgrade and experiment. If you look at my virtual system you will see that I have, and always had, separate DACs. The Denafrips Terminator 2 DAC that I have is fantastic and I love the sound.

Having said that, I don’t know if the technology in DACs is evolving as fast as we think. Before I got the Denafrips, I was running a Luxman DA-06 which despite being a 12 year old design can still stand up to many modern DACs.

I did briefly try a Hegel H390 and it’s built-in DAC a couple of years ago. At the time, I was not very impressed. I wonder if the outcome would have been different had I tried it with a higher quality external DAC. Who knows?

But regardless, I think the DAC modules that companies like Gryphon, Aavik, Accuphase, and ARC are integrating with their amps are a cut above the rest. If you set aside the flexibility argument for a moment, I think these integrated DACs (as @drrsutliff can attest to) provide excellent SQ since the designers make fewer compromises.

Boulder is another company who is serious about integrating DACs in their higher end amps.

Wow I would think a 5-7k up charge would be a pretty damn good dac! I’m sure it probably betters the 1-2k dacs for sure. Also I’m sure is matched to the unit so that’s a plus for sure. Maybe a huge benefit. 

In addition to flexibility’I’d also introduce the issue of noise.  Separating the DAC gives it its own power supply and separates the noise from the sensitive analog signal.  Combine them if u must for space/cost reasons, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be my first choice.  Hell, I don’t even want my digital front end plugged into the same outlet as my other components.  Just mu $0.02 FWIW.

Before I peeve anyone I meant to say I’m sure it betters the 1-2k dacs and could be the equivalent of a 5-7k + stand alone dac but have no idea. My experience says when something tries to be a Swiss Army knife it’s often not as good as dedicated units. 

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I have had a Musician Aquarius for about a week and it’s just stupid good in my system! I put on an old Sepultura cd just for fun tonight to see what it would sound like. Old late 80s compressed metal album . Holy s..t did it sound good. Brought all the dynamics back out of that POS recording and all harshness went away. Just crazy! My 1st foray into a ladder dac but I have never heard a DS dac sound anything like this. It’s almost like you can feed it any damn thing and it makes it the best it possibly can be. Forget about slow and not detailed etc it’s all there in spades. No idea if it’s neutral but it’s natural as hell and makes EVERY DAMN thing sound like gold. 

I guess my point is there has been a shift happening in digital/dacs for the better. Hate to say it but probably mostly because of the Chinese dacs have caused the US and Europeans to up their game for the cost. To spend another 7 k for an internal one seems kind of silly if things keep progressing over the next few years. 

If you are on a journey for the very best sound quality, then you want separates. All high end companies build the very best they can into a single box solution… often two box solutions. Then they may combine.  Assaults at the high end are never boxes with lots of functions. For instance, my Audio Research Reference 160m monoblocks sound better than my Reference 160s stereo one box solution.

Multifunction boxes are those of compromise. There is a market for people that do not have the room or are more concerned with aesthetics. So as all the effort goes into single function components, it only makes sense to put them together and offer this to a less discriminating audience.


Of course, then most audiophiles work over decades to build better and better systems and so need to be able to make improve a single component at a time or the cost to upgrade becomes too large.


For me it was the flexibility of upgrading the DAC in the future. I brought a very highly rated DAC that back 5-6 years ago was considered state of the art in DAC's, it's probably a middle of the road one now. Some of the technologies they are using today were not even being used 5-6 years ago. It could be true that they have maxed out DAC technology, but I bet they are not anywhere near done. Take almost any audio equipment and look back 5-10 years. 

it really depends on the manufacturer we sell krel hegel and avik

all the dacs in these pieces are stellar the dac board in the krell is a 1k add on and you would have to spend 5k to beat it so the krell k300 i is just a steal for what itis 


the avik electronics are among the best we have heard and their built in dacs will blow away many really expensive dacs 

we just became dealers and their s180 streamer reminds me of an really good analog  playback system just amazing super liquid and involving 

probably the best sounding dac/streamer under 10k

so it really comes down to engineering prowess and intent


Dave and Troy

audio intellect NJ

krell,hegel and avik dealers


I have the Hegel H390 and the built in DAC is actually pretty good, but it’s no match for let’s say a Denafrips Pontus ll. Now they say the DAC in the H590 is even better, but I doubt it is better than the Pontus ll either.

Dave/Troy you are not helping anyone. Seriously you need to spend 5k to beat the dac in a Krell they sell for 1k extra in an integrated! Not according to the reviewers but you must have golden ears. According to who and how did you come up with 5k. You are seriously full of s..t Bud….. 

Diablo 300 owner here, when I auditioned the amp it had the DAC module and I really liked the sound/synergy, awesome scale and dynamics, like it was on steroids. But I ultimately didn't get the module and spent the $5K on a Terminator II, not because it's better but because I was looking to bring balance to my system by adding some refinement - plus I knew I would buy other external DACS too for variety.

The DAC in my Boulder 866 is the same as their stand alone. It’s fantastic! 

mofojo we have other dacs in the 5k price range and the internal dac being fed by our 432Evo server sounds incredibile the built in streamer is okay feed the dac usb from a great server and the dac  sounds fantastic

as per reviewers not all of them know what they are doing


Dave and Troy

Audiointellect nj

krell dealer



I have owned a Audio Alchemy DDP-1 (DAC/PRE)+ PS 5 (outboard LPS). My entire system has been significantly upgraded since owning it, and it still amazes. They do come up for sale occasionally HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Great comments and feedback!

I know some folks might feel that paying an extra $5-7k for a built-in DAC module on some of these higher end integrated amps might seem like a lot. But when you factor in the cost of a good power cord and interconnects, it doesn’t sound like a bad deal.

Either way, I’m running an experiment this week. I’m auditioning an Aavik U-280 which has a built-in DAC that’s supposed to be excellent. I will compare the Aavik to my Qualiton a50i and Denafrips Terminator 2 combo. I will also run the Aavik with the it’s internal dac as well as the external dac (T2). Will be an interesting comparison.

@audiotroy Interesting that you have started carrying the Aavik line. What do you think about their S-180 streamer when compared to 432 Evo?


The DAC in my Boulder 866 is the same as their stand alone. 

Thank you for sharing your impression. I think some might say that the Boulder standalone dac might still be better (SQ wise) since it has a separate chassis, power supply, and is probably better isolated due to this. Did you get a chance to compare both?


I didn’t compare the two but I agree with you the stand alone is probably a little better for the reasons you have pointed out. Happy listening !

I know some folks might feel that paying an extra $5-7k for a built-in DAC module on some of these higher end integrated amps might seem like a lot. But when you factor in the cost of a good power cord and interconnects, it doesn’t sound like a bad deal.



When you consider how hard it will be to upgrade that DAC (unless the manufacturer offers a plug in), then using a separate DAC will be less expensive, in the long run.

And, if you find a killer deal on a Meitner 3 or Brinkmann Nyquist 2, all you need to do is switch out the DAC.


+1 @gdnrbob 

I completely agree with you. When it comes to flexibility -- including, the ability to change/upgrade/experiment, serviceability, etc., separates take the cake 100% of the time. That's why I wanted to focus purely on SQ for the purpose of this discussion. No argument on the flexibility aspects. However, having a built-in DAC doesn't mean you can't connect an external DAC in most cases.

A point I don't think has been raised is that of the power supply.  I have 2 current systems set up, my own in a music room, streamer transport, separate dac, CD transport, pre amp and power amplifier, all have their own power supplies. My lounge system is a Naim Uniti it has all the above in one box with one power supply. Naim place great emphasis in their separate indeed often stand alone power supplies, I do too. It is very likely separate units with dedicated power supplies will sound better than one trying to drive 5 different devices.

Normally 90% of the times stand alone dac will betters module.

gryphon makes very good products ,a Denafrips terminator + new 12 th anniversary ,or Holo springs May KTE is more refined and detailed 

mybrother has the Diablo300 with latest module ,you will need a top quality usb cable like the Final Touch Audio Sinope usb cable which is $1500

It really depends on how demanding you are on the sound … what is good enough to make you happy.  So for example, are you going to use your digital sound as background music while you work/read/play then getting things just right is not as important as if you were setting up for critical listening. I of course understand the urge to keep seeking out the next level.  What I have discovered, going down the digital rabbit hole, is that better sound (at least to me) is about getting rid of noise/jitter.  If that is the goal, then everything in the digital chain matters … from your ISP right through to the DAC output.  Anyway, I digress.  In most equipment a separate DAC is better isolated from those things in your system that cause noise/jitter.

Honestly I wonder about the separates argument in the highest price tiers.  If I bought a streamer/DAC combo, or integrated amp/DAC, in the $20K range, I would expect the DAC to be damn good, and not an afterthought.  Separates might make more sense in the $5K range, where a standalone DAC is likely to significantly best one included with another component 

@mahler123 That’s exactly what I wonder about as well. I recently talked to a couple of designers of higher-end ($20K+) audio equipment and my understanding is that they put in significant R&D efforts to avoid the usual pitfalls of integrated DACs at lower price points. They also mentioned that having a shorter signal path and less buffering along the way often results in better results.

At least one of the designers is confident that his built-in DACs are as good as separates at around the same price point. For example, if he charges an extra $6k for a DAC module, he is quite certain that this DAC will sound just as good as a separate DAC unit at the same price point. Obviously, a separate DAC which is more expensive, say > $10K, will sound better.

And then there is the advantage of less boxes and cables.  This is a reprise of the integrated amp vs separate pre and power amp issue.  When the high end companies such as ARC started making really good integrated amps that sounded basically indistinguishable from separates by the same manufacturer, the theoretical arguments for separates were more justifiable at a lower price point

“Ignoring the flexibility argument for a minute, which route provides better SQ?”

I often hear folks saying integrated got me close to 85-90% performance of separates. For many that’s good enough considering the entry price for separates, cabling and added complexities. I believe you know the path too well, separates for ultimate performance and flexibility or a great performing Integrated with fewer compromises.

Those seeking that top tier 5-10% performance will always find themselves going the separates route. The laws of diminishing returns in this arena does not apply as you’re in that rarified air of pursuing and extracting every last ounce of performance from your gear.


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I know some folks might feel that paying an extra $5-7k for a built-in DAC module on some of these higher end integrated amps might seem like a lot. But when you factor in the cost of a good power cord and interconnects, it doesn’t sound like a bad deal.



When you consider how hard it will be to upgrade that DAC (unless the manufacturer offers a plug in), then using a separate DAC will be less expensive, in the long run.

And, if you find a killer deal on a Meitner 3 or Brinkmann Nyquist 2, all you need to do is switch out the DAC.



I'm with Bob, 100%.  Digital changes more rapidly than anything else in audio right now.  I have so many obsolete digital products that are mostly worthless.(I did have to use my Krell Stealth DAC a few years ago after selling my Ayre and before the Brinkmann Nyquist showed up).  There are some great DAC's in all price ranges right now.  Plenty of great 2k options if you want to save money. JMHO

I have an Oppo BDP-95. My question is will 
I hear a great improvement by adding an external DAC.

@lalitk Agreed. Although, I think the gap between separates and integrateds has shrunk a bit in recent years. This is especially true for amps in the $15K plus range for sure. I think your Accuphase is a good example of what I'm talking about ... it will run circles around many separates in the same price range. Just my opinion.

@lafavetl I think it is a difficult question to answer without knowing the rest of your system and your budget. I have never owned an Oppo, but from what I hear a number of people who tried an external dac with Oppo were reasonably happy. 

DAC’s make my head explode, too many choices, too many hirez formats, then you have the power cord, interconnects. vibration management. I quit DAC’s and instead reduced jitter at the source, iFi SPDIF iPurifier into my HT processor. No box needed, just a very nice upgrade for not a lot of scratch. Is there better? Sure, I just can’t deal with tradeoffs for what you get.

I am a 2 channel guy and yes, I have run through the gambit of DACs over the years.  No more, no more. narrowed down to 2 of them Moon 680D in the game room and LessLoss Echos End with Firewire 640X downstairs. 

HT is for TV what little I watch, sports and science shows. 

Out in the shop I have a Cyrus One Class D that I stream via BT. 

I have had several Simaudio and Bel Canto integrated's with DACs built in and found the soundstage, separation and clarity was better with external Dac's.

For what it's worth. 

For those who buy combo DAC/Streamers I wish you luck upgrading as each of these technologies progress at a rapid pace.  Why?  Just for the convenience of having one box and one less interconnect?  To each his/her own, but I’ll take the flexibility of a separate DAC and streamer every time.  But that’s just me. 

I have found that separates are better. I have a combined HT and 2 channel system. I’m using my Anthem AVM70 as my preamp. I have an ifi Zen stream. I was using it via transparent coax cable to the avm70 dac. It sounds very nice. I just got the ifi dac one signature which is only $350. With the $2 cables in the box the ifi immediately had a larger soundstage. The Anthem had maybe slightly better midrange body. Then I plugged in the ifi ipower elite and it took a massive dump on the Anthem. Then I used my Transparent cables instead of the stock ones in the box and it was game over. Tremendously wider soundstage. 

Definitely need to check out a good R2R dac IMO before plunking thousands down on a built in. I was surprised as the sound signature difference for sure! Maybe better maybe worse for you but different I would say. Better for me although I have not heard a 3k D/S. 

Things are progressing quickly I believe for DACs. Competition forces this and there is plenty out there.