If you are investing in an audio setup, two very important things are a DAC and an amp.
The question is, should you get an amp/DAC combo or a separate DAC and amp altogether?
Let’s take a closer look.
Will A Combined Amp/DAC Sound Better Than Separate?
A combined setup amp/DAC setup won’t sound better than a separate setup when comparing options at the same price, but a combined setup may provide better features with the sound.
For example, some amp/DAC combos have things like spatial sound, virtual surround sound, and more.
Also, many combined setups have support for EQs but it is a lot rare to find on an individual DAC that can be used in a stack.
Some combined solutions may have a bit of interference in the sound just because there are more components in a more compressed package and they are close to each other.
Most people won’t even be affected by this issue and if it is an issue it may be very minor. Overall it should not be one of the major factors in your decision between a combined or separate setup.
If you use IEMs often then a separate solution may be better for you. Combined solutions usually have a louder noise floor than with separate setups.
Sound quality for the most part is the same between combined and separate DAC/amp options.
Many audiophiles like different systems that allow them to experience sound differently. For those who may want a more immersive experience in games or want to hear songs differently, an amp/DAC combo.
On the other hand, if you use IEMs frequently then an amp and DAC stack will be best for you.
Overall a separate solution may have a bit better sound but a combined setup will often support other features with things to help you experience sound in a different way.
Which Is Cheaper?
One factor to take into consideration is what is cheaper.
Focusing on the budget end it is important to see what you should invest into so you are going the most for you are money.
The market under $100 has many options but the top options are mostly amp/DAC combos. These combos won’t provide the best sound experience but can be a step up from phone audio and maybe enough for people.
If you are driving more powerful headphones then you will need to spend more closer to the upper budget range at around $150 to $200. A lot of these options are all separate amp/DAC stacks.
Which is Better Value?
There isn’t necessarily a better value or cheaper option in general but depending on the price range there are some things and patterns to consider.
Depending on the price range there is a certain amount of performance you should be getting and features. This is dependent on the price range and both types of setups are good in different situations.
Budget Price Points
At the more budget end, there are plenty of options for combos and stacks. Until you get to the $200 price point, $100 for each component, combos are typically the better option.
The mid-range segment is the largest one with many features, great value, and plenty of options.
In the mid-range, this is where the best value options are especially in the lower mid-range. The mid-range brings a lot of power and many exciting features like spatial sound which can reproduce songs in a different way.
When comparing combined versus separate setups there isn’t one way to go if you are looking for value. If shopping at this price segment you should focus on the features you need and want as it isn’t bad to go with either a DAC and amp stack or combo.
On the very upper of the spectrum with price tags of $1000 and more, there are plenty of options for combined and separate setups. Neither solution is necessarily better but a separate solution may be a better value.
All the benefits that a combo may provide are not really a factor because there are no gaming amp/DAC options at this price point and you most likely will not be traveling with your setup.
There are few instances when getting a combo is actually better than a stack in this price range so a separate DAC and amp is better because it provides more flexibility and sounds better with IEMs.
A Combined DAC/Amp Is Better For Portability
One of the key reasons to get a DAC/amp combo is for the portability. The fact that they are very portable contributes to why they are so good for those who have less desk space.
A DAC/amp combo of the same caliber as a separate solution will usually be a bit smaller. This is good because not only will a combined solution take up less desk space but they are also better because they are easier to bring around.
Combined setups will take up less space in a backpack making them a preferred option for those who may want to bring around their amp/DAC sometimes for things like LAN parties.
A separate DAC/amp solution will not only be bigger for the same performance but also will be harder to carry because you only have one device that you need to hold.
Since there is only one device that you have to hold onto that makes it more portable because you only have to worry about one device when traveling. Also, it is easy to travel with a combo in your hand for example if you are going to another person’s house.
Also, all portable amp/DAC solutions are combos. A separate solution on the go would be complicated with wires running between both devices. If you travel a lot with desktop equipment or want a portable amp/DAC a combo setup is a way to go for you.
Which Is Better For Gaming?
You may be looking for an amp and DAC setup that will elevate the sound quality of your headphones and your microphone.
Some gaming amp/DAC solutions have virtual surround sound which may be important to you.
All gaming options for gaming amp/DACs are combos because they require both an amp and DAC to do their function.
Both the amp and DAC do their normal function but also do other things to provide additional features.
These features can include a mic input, virtual surround sound, and more. Many gaming amps provide is a mic input to improve the sound quality so your gaming headset sounds better for your teammates and you.
Things like virtual surround sound or spatial sound require a DAC to process this information and there is no standalone DAC that can do this function.
Since there are no standalone amps or DACs that provide these features, your only option is to get a combo. This may reduce the modularity of your setup but it enables you to get a lot of interesting and potentially useful features.
It isn’t really possible to have a stack to make a gaming setup because one of the main reasons to have a separate setup is that you have the freedom to use a different amp or DAC.
In this case, it is essential that the DAC is the right one for the amp so they can work together so these features work well.
A Separate Amp/DAC Setup Is More Modular
Although separate amp/DAC setups are less portable the fact that both components are split is one of the biggest reasons that people choose to get a separate setup.
For those who already have an amp or a DAC and may want to add a new component. Rather than buying a combined amp/DAC, you can just add the second part which ultimately will be cheaper.
In the case that there is an issue with either the DAC or amp you change the part out but if one breaks with a combined solution then there is no way to easily replace either part.
If you ever want to upgrade a part in the future you can always do it very easily. If you are upgrading to more powerful headphones instead of needing to get a totally new setup with a combined solution, you can just get a new amp.
Also with a combined solution, you are restricted to using the same parts from the same company but with a separate DAC/amp you can use amp and DACs from different companies. This allows you to get components that suit your needs so you are not restricted by anything.
In the situation that you do need to change either your amp or DAC, it is very simple with a separate setup. To change one of the components it isn’t complex.
You just need to remove and then reconnect the RCA cables that send information between the two devices after connecting power.
Overall a separate amp/DAC setup is more modular than a combined setup making it easier for upgrading or more customization.
Arguably the best amp/DAC solutions under $500, with a good value as well, is the Monoprice THX AAA Amp and DAC combo. It delivers some of the best sound performance, a lot of power, and some very nice features.
This combo can drive the majority of headphones with a very clean sound. There are plenty of outputs not just for headphones but also speakers.
On the front, there is a screen where you can edit EQ, change the dynamic range, see the current output, and more.
Editing the EQ is not as in-depth as the Peace software but it is very nice that you can edit the EQ and save it with the device. Changing the dynamic range can make you compress the highest or lowest parts of the sound so you can hear songs differently or have a greater focus on things like footsteps for video games.
One of their biggest features is the DIRAC setting which allows you to be more immersed in the music. The sound stage will be much wider and it will sound like you are immersed in the music but on the downside, you could lose some bass and there is a slight boost in the treble.
The THX AAA is great because not only does it deliver excellent performance but many features allow you to experience songs and games differently.
Schiit provides a great stack that provides comparable performance with the Monoprice THX AAA with their Magnius and Modius under $400.
This stack has slightly worse performance than Monoprice’s combo but is better for those who use IEMs often because there is a much quieter noise floor.
A Magnius and Modius stack won’t have any special features but it is also cheaper and for those who don’t care about any extra features this is has a pretty good value for what you are getting.
Recommended Value Pick
If you are getting into the audiophile or you are starting to invest in more powerful headphones that will need an amp and DAC then Schiit delivers another great option at around the $200 price range.
Again it is a stack with the Magni 3+ and the Modi 3. This is one of the most popular amp and DAC stacks and it is recommended for many because it delivers performance above its pricepoint.
There are no features but the sound performance is great and going with this stack can future proof until you start to invest in very high-end headphones.
You can easily change out the amp if you need more power in the future and keep the amp and visa versa.
Recommended Gaming Pick
If you want a gaming amp and DAC you are limited to combos. There are two great options to consider that are the Creative Labs G6 and the Sennheiser GSX 1000.
They both deliver phenomenal virtual 7.1 surround that can add to the level of immersion in games depending on what games you play. You can find out if you will benefit from surround sound here.
If you want to use a gaming headset with your amp and DAC the GSX 1000 is the best for you as it delivers the most features for mic input and also has a slightly better virtual surround experience.
For those who wish to drive more premium headphones but you still want surround sound and may use a mic then the G6 is the way to go.
There isn’t necessarily a better option for one single person because they are both good for a variety of different situations.
For example those who want a gaming solution are limited to combined amp/DACs. The main priority is that you get the amp/DAC and setup that gives you the performance that you want.
It is important to take into consideration that if you get a combo setup then you can’t upgrade a part of your setup but you must upgrade all of it at once which may result in you spending more of your own money if you need or want to upgrade more.