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

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!


Thank you very much for this! However, you seem to imply that what the chip is in a DAC is ultimately irrelevant to its performance, and only mentioned (always in glowing terms claiming it as the best in the business) by outboard DAC manufacturers as a marketing ploy. I can be cynical enough fully to accept that but you must admit it raises two sets of questions, namely: 1) In that case, what makes for the price difference between a £65 Dragonfly and a >£1500 DAC produced by the likes of dCS or PSAudio or whoever… the entire PiHAT adventure seems to prove that circuitry, in and of itself, isn’t it? Then what? And 2) Why would anyone then opt for the specialised, differentiated, entire-unto-itself DAC box over a more ‘integrated’ solution, be that housed in an amp or an active speaker?

One reason would be so you could switch DAC’s without switching out your entire sound system. I prefer independent devices versus combo devices.

Thank you again! I’m gonna forego asking questions about the equivalence you raised regarding the cartridge-tonearm-turntable system and the transport-clock-DAC system for now, and focus on what you say re|: Pro-Ject and their seemingly inexhaustible add-ons. The reason why I want a T1 Phono SB is definitely not the phono but just as definitely is the SB: as someone who was used, in my analogue days, to a cheap-but-efficient direct-drive SL1200 clone and is still in possession of almost as many 45rpm vinyl than 33rpm, the idea that I have to change the belt manually makes me feel almost as sick as that of the LP12 going through digital chicanery. That, to my great consternation, rules out any and all of the Regas. But, to push your comment further into practical considerations, am I to understand that I’d do well therefore to bypass the Pro-ject’s own phono stage and hook it via phono cables to the Sprout (or any other amp’s) phono input? I have always suspected as much but a confirmation would be handy… Thanks again.

I have always thought the same @Jim_F and still do if you want to squeeze the maximum flexibility and performance out of your setup. Having said this, after I added a pair of Dutch and Dutch 8Cs to my house (not my main listening room) I was blown away by what can be achieved in an integrated setup of this sort for sound quality (that punches way, way above its price), simplicity (2 speakers, vs 2 speakers, pre amp, amp etc, etc) and sound optimized for the room (the speaker have built in parametric equalizers and (supposedly) REW integration coming). The gap between the 2 approaches is getting much, much smaller.

That may be true, however, it’s easier to switch out individual components than an entire system. My next purchase, if I buy anything else, will be an amp and passive speakers to go with my Nucleus and Oppo 203. I’ll use my Bose system for TV only.

Of course that’s true and I noted it. My point however, is that the given the performance level of some of these integrated systems, the reason to change components frequently is diminishing as the upside in sound is getting harder to achieve as the gap narrows. Having said all this, I still have separates in my main listening room…:slight_smile:

I would always recommend individual components unless there is some integrated device that is totally superior in SQ.

I started a whole thread on that topic, last year.

But you know, there really are some reasons. USB-powered DACs can pick up whatever electrical noise might be on the USB cable, so devoting some engineering to signal isolation makes some sense. The filters necessary for proper shaping of the analog signal from the digital input can be compute-intensive, so some pre-processing with the equivalent of a GPU can improve the signal. And you need to do that for two channels. And many audio companies don’t sell a lot of units, so the built-in markup is phenomenal.

What James says is the general rationale (upgrade separately), but I agree with Craig on this: the pace of advancement in DAC technology has slowed enough that buying something with a built-in D/A is probably OK. If I recall correctly, the Dutch & Dutch system has some kind of pull-out tray with the DAC/preamp on it which theoretically can be upgraded separately from the speakers.

It certainly rules out the Planar 1 and Planar 2. The Planar 3 can be powered externally by a Rega Neo PSU (sold separately) which allows for 33/45 speed changes with a button press. Externalising the power supply also offers a small boost in performance. The Planar 6 and above are all now supplied with an external power supply which allows button-press speed change. This is because the more you change the belt, the more you stretch and fatigue it leading to less accurate rotations. Voltage regulated rotation isn’t just convenient, its much more accurate and preserves the belt.

I just checked the T1 Phono SB and you can certainly bypass its internal phono stage. Not all turntables allow you to do this, and you really don’t want to hear what it sounds like when you go through two phono stages. It’s good to see Pro-Ject adding flexibility to their product range as I’ve never heard an internal phono stage outperform an external phono stage, particularly in the Pro-Ject world. It’s a huge pain to have to buy a new turntable just because you get a better phono stage.

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I would find a friendly dealer and try out some variations and trust your own ears as I find the internet can be a swamp of opposing views. If everyone was the same there would be no variety in life. Find someone who offers all sorts though, powered speakers, DACs, all in ones etc even if it means a weekend away and an adventure. You could even try a valve (tube!) or two.

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