Active / Powered Speakers + USB DAC Vs Passive Speakers + Integrated Amp with built-in DAC: what's best? Discuss

Hello folks, quite the busy, boisterous, helpful and only occasionally bitchy community you (we) got here. Wondering if any of you might help out a total newbie (both in the Roon and the audiophile fields, if I’m honest) in his attempt to build a system from scratch. I say from scratch and I mean it almost literally: having walked away from a domestic situation where I had the relative good luck to listen to my records, stream my little mp3s and apple ALACs and play my CDs all in a high-end 7.1 system that, 15 years ago, cost about three times what my budget is now, these last few months I have been reduced to my iPhone/MacBook Pro streaming to a little UE Boom via Bluetooth!

If you ask what’s any of this got to do with the company hosting these fora and how does an admittedly high-end product like Roon figure in the calculations of a pauper like myself, well, it may be putting cart before horse, as it were, but ever since I experienced Roon second-hand at a friend’s place a year ago I’ve been smitten and have determined to make it my musical home - not least because I have had a horrific experience with iTunes in the past (laying waste to my metadata, losing already bought and even ripped music files, endless talks with various flustered minions and their confounded managers in seemingly every country in Europe for over a year, no compensation but plenty of apologies) and the one thing I need more than anything, even more than a decent sound, is a music library I can control and enjoy. Roon became the inevitable choice.

With that in mind, and after reading about the architecture, getting confused with the terms and frustrated with the always way-beyond-budget examples of Roon-friendly machines, I made the plunge and became the proud, if fearful, owner of a NUC (an 8i3BEK with the Roon-suggested memory and SSD) to serve a modest collection of no more than half a Terabyte happily housed in an external USB HDD (a swanky brand new LaCie 2TB specifically bought for the purpose). I wanted to go for a NAS initially, but this combo worked out a hell of a lot cheaper than the kind of NAS that could run Roon Core! And then there’s my c.1200 cherished pieces of vinyl, currently languishing in storage and waiting to be resurrected and played again on (I’m pretty sure) a Pro-ject T1 Phono SB, which I’m waiting to purchase alongside something through and by means of which to listen to it.

I mention these cos really, in a sense, they are the bits I am committed to so I guess ‘from scratch’ is perhaps not entirely accurate, for one, and for seconds I am trying to steer those of you kind enough to think about responding with suggestions away from complicating the picture by suggesting alternatives there (no doubt there are plenty!) and towards the missing bits, i.e.: DAC, amplifier and speakers.

I have to admit that here the unique architecture of Roon had me flummoxed for a long while, before it finally sank in that the NUC could be both core and output if USB-connected to a DAC, just as my friend uses his iMac. For a while I had my mind set on a solution comprising a pair of decent but decidedly low-budget (for audiophiles at least) speakers (eg: Dali Spektor 2; Elac 5.2 or 6.2; Monitor Audio Bronze 2 - this is the range I’m looking at) and a little amp I completely fell head over heels for just on looks and functionality, namely the PSAudio Sprout 100. But then another friend, someone with a healthy disregard for audiophile protocol but also with impeccable good taste, said ‘pah! Why on earth do you want an amp these days? get a pair of active speakers, like these’ pointing to a picture of KEF LS50s. Now, don’t get me wrong, I very much nodded in agreement, but, at over £1500 they’re way above my entire budget, even my budget minus the already bought NUC! Even their little siblings, the LSX, don’t give you much change from £1000.

But I decided to investigate, and, unsurprisingly, there are lots of interesting offers in the world of active or powered speakers, propositions that would do away with my newfound object of desire (the Sprout) and still allow me to connect both my USB-linked digital files and my turntable. The models in the Klipsch range, from the R-41 all the way up ‘The Sixes’ would do exactly the jobs I want them to do - and would cost less, or even significantly less, than the Sprout plus a pair of passives plus all the cables and interconnects. My friend (from the KEF appreciation society) says ‘end of story’, but I’m not so sure…

It’s not the amp function really, I have come to understand why active speakers are better, and I think I get the point about crossovers. But whether it’s via Bluetooth or wi-fi, an optical or a coaxial or a USB cable, the speakers get digital data raw, so they must contain a DAC. I am well aware of the latter’s cardinal role in the whole scheme of things and, having hesitated not a little over the Sprout and the idea that it ‘merely’ uses an internal DAC, until I discovered that it’s the same DAC (chip, that is) as that used by many a lionised box DAC including some of the RPi3 HATs, I now find it a bit disconcerting (quietly outraged disbelief may be nearer the mark) that, as per my research at least, not a single manufacturer of active speakers deems it important enough to divulge the kind of DAC technology used in their circuitry, despite making all those attractive claims about 24/192 or even native DSD decoding abilities and so on.

Can anyone shed any light over any of this? Specifically, does anyone know what the DAC components in speakers like the Klipsch or any others are and if they’re worth their salt? Or rather, if they’re worth their salt enough to outshine the solution I thought I had finally landed upon, with the Sprout and a nice pair of modest passives? Is it a case of buying a DAC to bridge the NUC and the active speakers (an RPi HAT would offer the most attractive solution then, no doubt) - or can I rely on the built-in promises of the speaker manufacturers? And let’s say the proposed ‘active’ solution comes to roughly the same money as a Sprout and a pair of Spektor 2s - which would you go for and why?

Thanks for your time and patience chaps.

I didn’t read all that, but I would go with a Nucleus, DAC, amp, and passive speakers.

As far as Roon is concerned, going active will save you money and box count. I would personally be recommending the Formation Flex, a small mono speaker that can be stereo paired. They’re £399 each and a great way to start adding music to each room without the hassle of building systems. Otherwise, KEF LSX at £999 a pair is a good alternative though I find the Flex better within Roon, but LSX if Roon is not being used with its line input.

It’s worth mentioning that you’re not able to use Roon to switch to an analogue input (such as on the LSX), so if you’re interested in integrating a turntable it may be worth having a passive ‘main’ system that allows for quality turntable listening and Roon as a supplementary source. Something like the Naim Atom (£2250) or the Bluesound Powernode 2i (£799) with Roon integrated and an analogue input would be a great choice. Add speakers to your listening preference and away you go, a house chock full of music without having to sell the car!

TL;DR, start small, outgrow the small, repurpose and buy slightly bigger. Repeat.

Another route would be to use speakers with full-range drivers.

For a long time I used passive speakers, ending up wit Monitor Audio floor-standers with 2 bass/midrange and gold dome tweeter. They cost around £1,000 back in 1995.

I then changed to active speakers and found a big improvement in clarity of midrange and quality of bass. Bass was less obvious but much more controlled and sounded more accurate. I ended up with a pair of active speakers which used expensive Skanspeak drivers. They cost around £3,500 in 20008.

At the time I thought that I couldn’t better them - well, not in my price range anyway. I then heard a friend’s speakers which used Jordan full-range drivers. The mid-range clarity was even better than my active speakers. Initially I tried a single full-range driver (Jordan Eikona) in a small cabinet and found that, when compared directly to my active speakers, the mid-range was indeed better.

I sold the active speakers and have now built speakers using 4 Eikonas per speaker (that’s a bit overkill, 2 is plenty really). Midrange is superb - and everyone who has heard them says that they can hear things in recordings they know that they have never heard before. Part of that is the DAC (Benchmark HGC3) but a lot of it is the speakers. Bass is extended but very well controlled and natural sounding.

I think that the reason that a good full-range driver system performs so well is that it completely eliminates the need for a crossover.

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It depends :slight_smile:
Separate DAC, amp and speakers allows upgrades as DACs are so much better than they were a few years ago.
If, as seems, your budget is tight I would go for raspberry pi and hat. A second hand amp and speakers, eBay is flooded with them.
Then you haven’t spent s fortune in the wrong path and can sell components at little loss.

I think @Rob_BrownGHF’s suggestion of KEF LSX powered speakers are a great economical choice. You can talk Roon to them via ethernet from your NUC and they provide additional inputs (TOSLink and 3.5m) to provide a path for input from your turntable. And you could probably pick up a pair inexpensively on ebay if you want. That’s about as cost effective you can go in a way that provide quality HD support (up to 192K 24 bit pcm) and works for both Roon and you’re turntable. The B&W Flex is also a great speaker but doesn’t give you additional inputs for your turntable.

I like the idea of powered/active speakers for remote/multi-room, but a separate dac - amp -speaker setup gives you more flexibility and better sound for a lower cost for your main system.

Suggest taking a look at the Topping D30 dac, an integrated amp like Yamaha A-S301, Marantz PM5005, or something like that, and maybe Klipsch RP-160M speakers. That would be a pretty decent setup on a budget to get you started.

Just to add, @Craig_Palmer, the KEF LSX can only do 24/96 when wired together, and any analogue input is digitised into 24/96. Can’t fault them though, for the money they do a stellar job. I wish there was starter systems like this when I was growing up!

The Formation Flex can take an analogue feed from the Formation Audio, but needing an extra box for this functionality is why for anything turntable, the LSX has the edge.

Thanks everyone for your suggestions and ideas. @Rob_BrownGHF and @Craig_Palmer , regarding the KEF LSX, their budget-exceeding price notwithstanding, I have to say I rather dislike the idea that the perfectly analogue signal from my turntable will be digitised by them, but if I’m not mistaken (and please disabuse me of errors!), this is a product-specific issue, is it not? It’s not the case, I mean to say, that other active/powered speakers (I’m thinking specifically of the Klipsch R41PM or R51PM or their ‘Sixes’), especially if they have a phono input (which the Klipsch do) will perform this perverted switch to an analogue signal, am I right? And I suppose, I mean I hope, that this also does away with the operational problem with switching to and from analogue and Roon that you mention Rob. If I want to use the turntable I just switch to the phono input, much as I would do on a conventional amp like the Sprout100. I’d far rather that than the alternative tbh…

@SKBubba, thank you very much indeed for some great suggestions that are well within budget. I had looked at the Yamaha and the one-up-the-scale Marantz PM6006 but my concern was that, with no USB input I would definitely need to look for an external DAC to bridge the server/NUC and the amp/output ends, whereas with the Sprout (and others like some great-sounding NAD models) the integrated DAC saves me the trouble. And I guess this is another question I can’t get my head round all that well: is it the case that integrated DACs, no matter the quality of their chip and circuitry etc, are not as advisable as a dedicated independent unit? If so why?

Thanks again folks!

Yes, that’s why I suggested the Topping D30 dac. Based on reviews it appears to be a nice dac for the money. With separate components you have the ability to upgrade as your needs/budget grow.

P.S. Those amps have dacs but they only take toslink/coax inputs. You can use a converter for that if you want to use the dac in the amp. A good budget converter is the Topping D10 for less than $100. It is a dac, but also has toslink passthrough. (And no, I don’t work for Topping even though it may sound like it. :slight_smile: )

With the KEF active speakers, it digitises everything, I’m afraid. As they’re ‘digital speakers’ there’s a DAC in both speakers in each driver, thus implying there is an ADC and no analogue passthrough. This is a frequent thing these days with active products that have streaming built in and its safe to assume if it does not disclose in its specification about analogue passthrough it will not have it. The Klipsch loudspeakers mentioned seem to be an analogue slave/master (pre/power amplifier is only in one of the two speakers) active loudspeaker system with a DAC for USB/Optical/Bluetooth. One speaker is completely passive, but that doesn’t mean the other speaker hasn’t digitised it already just to further add to the confusion! (Note, even Linn integrated systems digitise the turntable signal at 24/192, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its the right thing to do).

External DACs will always yield a higher performance point, unless you’re comparing a £10,000 Mark Levinson integrated amplifier against a £170 Audioquest Dragonfly. A little common sense can go a long way here!

It’s worth considering that an integrated DAC can (almost) always be bypassed at a later date when funds become available for the next toy. Convenience is a strong driving force in most purchases I deal with, across the board of budgets, especially for starter systems.

Starting with a Jack-Of-All-Trades system that can do everything, and slowly refining towards your preferred medium(s) is always a good idea. There’s plenty of people who were anti-streaming in principle “because it’s far too complicated” and became converted after trying it (especially with Roon!), and likewise people have gone from CDs back to vinyl after hearing it on an exceptional deck. People can change their minds, and the only way of finding your preferred methods of consuming audio is through experiencing it on a day-to-day basis.


Thank you very much for detailed, informative and considered responses. I’ll endeavour to find out about the Klipsch tomorrow when I have scheduled a demo/listening session at a London dealer’s (the point is to compare/contrast the Sprout integrated plus passive speaker vs the Klipsch active set-up - you are right about the master/slave config. too by the way), but I have to say if it really is the case that analog sound is digitised in such systems then I am already feeling my own prejudices exercising quite a pull away from the idea… And the notion that Linn would digitise the signal of (potentially) their own LP12 no matter what the resolution truly floored me! Riots were instigated for lesser crimes surely…

Since you’ve been so kind and thorough with your responses, can I tug at one more corner please? Does the common sense you refer to as going a long way involve the comparison between the Dragonfly (which, as I’m sure you know, has been a total life-saver for those of us using smart phones as digital players) and a Mark Levinson or a Macintosh and other such exalted but utterly unapproachable monsters? Or do you mean that it is common sense that an external DAC would be better than an integrated one? If the former then of course, and it would go without saying, but alas! I think that even by retirement a Levinson will be the equivalent of half or at best a third of my yearly salary so I just gawp at them through windows on Wigmore street when I get the chance… But to my mind, and if I am to compare for example the DAC that @SKBubba was referring to on the one hand, and the one built into the Sprout by a company that, at the end of the day, is mostly celebrated for its own very expensive DACs and shares some of their pedigree as far as I can tell, I would find it hard to dismiss the latter on principle. Am I missing or misunderstanding something?

Ultimately of course your advice about starting with a Jack-of-all-trades and editing and refining in years to come is sound, and reassuring to boot so I think I’ll take it - once again many thanks!

Thank you. Those Toppings do look good and their specs are impressive for their extremely modest price(!). Your suggestion of a converter actually brings another flashpoint I have acquired regarding the uses and abuses of DACs - namely that it appears entirely possible to have a system with components that pretty much all have their DACs installed - in fact, if you are a company like Pro-Ject, you make a point of suggesting combining components with different DACs. My initial response to this is that it is madness! But I thought of a possible uptake: is it possible to bypass, say, the amp’s DAC for the one in the Topping (I guess the Topping needs to have an analog out but if it serves as a DAC surely it must!), and then do the exact reverse, thus effectively comparing the two? In a way I can’t even believe I’m thinking this cos, intriguing as it may sound, it’s also just far too much hassle when there’s all sorts of other decisions to make, don’t you think? Sometimes I seriously yearn for the good old pre-digital days…

@SKBubba Another thing that struck me earlier but didn’t have the presence of mind to make anything out of it then so doing so now… In your original suggestion, you went for a very budget friendly combo of amp and DAC but then for a pair of speakers which seem to belong to at least one, if not two categories up, if you know what I mean… I am having a listen to Klipsch R-51s tomorrow but i was wondering why you plumped for their bigger siblings instead? Thanks

High quality speakers are the most important part of a good sound system.

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It really is a threefold relationship: convenience — sound quality — price. You can get highly integrated and thus highly convenient systems with great SQ (from T+A for example), but you need to pay for them. Interestingly however, especially in the high end, people often opt for individual devices rather than integrated ones for maximum SQ, thus deliberately sacrificing convenience. In the lower end, customers tend to hold convenience in higher regard and they are aware at the same time that maximum SQ is beyond their financial means anyway. So they buy integrated devices.

In terms of value for money, with value being a reasonable balance between convenience and SQ, I would agree that active speakers are not the way to go for the OP, but rather something passive from the used market. Same for the amp. Add a RPi with DAC hat to that and you have a good system.

As an aside, ELAC is currently the only manufacturer I know of building all-analog active speakers. So you get the convenience of not needing an amp, but you can still improve on SQ through adding new elements in your setup over time. It is their Navis Series.

Apologies for any misunderstanding, what I meant is that if you compare a £100 DAC to a £10,000 amplifier with an integrated DAC, the substantially more esoteric, albeit integrated DAC will perform better. This is not always the case, as the gap closes to, say, a Chord Mojo external DAC (£399) versus a Naim Nova’s internal DAC (£4,200) there’s no clear winner, you could have a preference either way.

If you’re going for a Project turntable, get something that is not bundled with unusual features. They’re not bad turntables for the money, but it’s a sliding scale of performance when they integrate the phono stage or a Bluetooth module, and astonishingly a couple of turntables even have amplification built-in. I can’t stress how terrible they perform against an equivalent Rega without the bells and the whistles for the same money. Then again, the jack-of-all-trades principle can apply if you’re prepared to buy a new turntable ‘further down the line’.

The digital domain is an interesting one. With the right budget, you can outperform a vinyl-based system, but it has to be carefully constructed. In analogue you have:

cartridge > tonearm > turntable > phono stage > pre-amp > power amp > speakers

In the digital world, it’s somewhat different. You can see four components there that are the whole turntable.In the digital world you have:

digital transport > clock > upsampler (not required but exists) > DAC > pre-amp > power amp > speakers

So, four parts can make a ‘streamer’, just like there are four parts that make a ‘turntable’. Without the upsampler, it’s very difficult to get a similar performance from a streamer without upsampling or a library of hi-res (particularly DSD) audio. I’m sure you can become far more granular if you go onto cables, but let’s not over-complicate things futher!

Rob, in my experience most standalone DACs have a preamp built into them. Is it really necessary to have another one, or can we just feed the output of the DAC/preamp into the power amp? I tend to think of the progression as

computer > DAC/preamp > power amp > speakers

This is true, but often it isn’t a true pre-amp that modulates voltage. Particularly on the cost-effective DACs it’s an input trim which can be devastating to dynamics. When there’s a line-level choice, I would always use that and run into a pre-amp. You’ll find on a lot of DACs out there, like the Chord Qutest, that have no volume control whatsoever. Useful for some, less useful for others. There’s plenty of ways to skin a cat, after all.

This is a really interesting observation. Perhaps there are several things going on here. First off, simple marketing. If you are selling a DAC, you have to go on and on in your marketing about what chip you’ve chosen, how good your analog state is, etc. For speakers, your marketing will focus on completely different attributes.

But secondly, DACs have been around since CDs came out in 1982, and 38 years is a long time in technology. So they are increasingly commodified. Chip-ified, if you will. These days you build a DAC by taking some chipset, and adding some digital engineering (often with another chipset) to the “D” side, and some analog engineering (including power supply management) to the “A” side. And with the latest chipsets, you need to do some software engineering, as well, as they are actually microcontroller-operated.

So I’d guess that speaker manufacturers just add in the cost-effective chipset, and don’t fuss a lot with it. They don’t talk about it because it’s not what they’re selling, not because their chipset is somehow less good. The only reason you know what chip is in a standalone DAC is because the manufacturer has to talk about something!