You’ve decided to buy an integrated amp. Smart move! Integrated amps provide the best electronics bargain in a two channel music system. But you’re not sure if you should get a DAC built in your integrated amp. There are pros and cons. If you start reading forum posts you’ll get a headache from all the LOUSY ADVICE on them. So here’s the answer.
If you’re buying an integrated amp at $2000 plus, you’re in the price range of Hegel from Oslo. With this in mind you most definitely SHOULD get a DAC on board your integrated amp. Hegels have them.
You don’t make this decision because you “need a DAC.” You make this decision because of Hegel in particular. Their inclusion of a DAC goes well beyond generic standards. They call their implementation “SynchroDAC.” Hegel re-clocks and eliminates jitter. The sonic benefit is a distinct upgrade.
If you listen to a nice CD player for $500-1k, like the Emotiva ERC-3, with the analog outs feeding a Hegel integrated, it will sound good. It will be full, robust, you’ll think, “pretty good!”
Then when I twist your arm to run digital out of that same CD player into the same Hegel integrated, you’ll agree with my perception. The Hegel cleans up the sound noticeably!
The Hegel will provide more air and space around the music. You’ll get better transient attack on plucked strings and piano runs. You’ll hear more breathing around voices. Everything is more intimate through the Hegel DAC than through the CD player’s DAC. But the a fore mentioned benefits aren’t the biggest reason to buy a Hegel.
The biggest sonic advantage to the Hegel DAC is that the BASS gets cleaned up. Ohmygosh, you’ll be surprised at the improvement in detail in the bass! The CD player itself will actually sound fat and murky compared to the Hegel. What Hegel has accomplished in the DAC section alone, is quite remarkable.
When you consider the Hegel is a great integrated amp regardless of whether you use the DAC, it’s impossible to beat the value. Hegel’s damping factor and control are untouched for the money. The amp section is AB. The preamp section is discrete. The signal paths are short and comprised of great quality parts. You get Hegel’s patented SoundEngine and DualAmp designs. What’s not to love?!
If you appreciate a piano with a clear bass register in particular (I do!), you should treat yourself to a Hegel. If you like a stand up bass fiddle to sound real instead of thumpy, you should treat yourself to a Hegel. If you like to hear the nuance of a very skilled acoustic guitarist, you should treat yourself to a Hegel. If you like a singer with a pure voice, you definitely should treat yourself to a Hegel!
Hegel H-80 $2000, 80×2
Hegel H-160 $3500, 150×2
Hegel H-360 $5700, 250×2
If you’re buying an integrated amp at $1500 or less, you shouldn’t get a DAC on board. Why? It’s because the implementation of that DAC will NOT be better than a DAC you can buy out board for $500. THAT DAC would be the Emotiva DC-1, a fine value but not equal to Hegel.
At NAD integrated price points, the money is rationed very well to give you the best power amp, and a fine preamp. NAD integrated amps run AB in the amp section, have loads of headroom and are stable into any impedance. There is not enough $$ left to provide a DAC competitive with the Emo DC-1, much less what Hegel is doing.
For $550 you can get C-326BEE. It’s 50×2 with great headroom and low impedance stability. It’s a fine value and untouched at its price point.
But for $800 you can get the C-356BEE (80×2) which destroys the sub $1k competition. The amp section of C-356 is a tank, and will do an excellent job with challenging speakers- even Maggies. To be able to get so much COURAGE for $800 is remarkable. If they shoe horned in a cheap DAC, that would have to COME OUT OF the amplifier. It wouldn’t be worthwhile.
NAD offers C-375BEE ($1500, 150×2) which is a beast of an amp! It doesn’t have Hegel’s intimacy and delicacy, but it can throw barbells around the room. With your music and your speakers… you’ll have to decide if Hegel’s H-80 or NAD’s C-375BEE is the better choice.
DAC or Not To DAC?
In short for $2k on up, yes, get a Hegel integrated amp with DAC on board. For less than $2k, don’t get a unit with a DAC on board. Because that unit… will have made concessions to include the DAC- that will leave you WANTING in the amplifier section.
While class D doesn’t always denote a lower tier of performance, keep in mind that you invariably need a boatload more power of a D design to sound competitive with an AB design.