Nov 14, 2018322 views

Do I need to have a DAC AND an Amp, or only an Amp?

I'm really new to this audiophile stuff and I bought myself a pair of Sennheiser HD598s awhile back. However, I want to step up my game a bit and get an Amp, DAC, or Amp/DAC Combo, but the problem is that I have no idea what I'm doing or what is required. So what I'm really asking is whether or not a DAC and Amp are necessary to have together, or whether I can just buy an Amp, or once again whether it's recommended to get a DAC/Amp combo piece like the Schiit Fulla 2.
Silent85 and ltopper

You should start with an amp. The rule of thumb is: The closer to you in the chain the device is, the greater affect is has on your sound. Whatever device you're listening through already has a DAC and amp built in, or you wouldn't be able to listen to your music in the first place. Stand-alone units will invariably have better output specs and power supplies and will sound better in the end. If you're really looking for an upgrade, I would start with an amp.
Technically speaking, you already have both right there on your phone/laptop/desktop. Those components are already built onto the circuit boards. It's important to understand the components as individuals so that you can make a better judgment call. I'll briefly try to go for cliffnotes version. A digital-to-analogue converter, shortened to DAC, is a device that can take a digital signal (think a bunch of 1s and 0s) and turn it into an analogue signal (which looks like a wave). The better quality and better implemented a DAC chip is, the better your output signal. An amplifier does exactly what the name implies; it amplifies the signal by applying what is known as "gain." Now, there are nuances to both that really take more research to really understand. For example, an amp should, in theory, only amplify the signal, but tube amps in particular can add a little distortion to the sound (sometimes called color or colour) that some people find pleasing to the ears. To get back to your question, are they absolutely necessary to have together? Yes, you need both in order to hear a sound out of your headphones/speakers. The question really is, "what is more important to you?" There is no real "wrong" way to start in this hobby. I personally started out using my stone age laptop and my phone with an Audio Technica ATH-M40x, then added an amp, then added a DAC. In my experience, the medium of sound (headphones/speakers) make the single largest impact on sound quality, followed by the amp, then the DAC. Source quality also matters a lot, as it has progressively larger impact the better your system becomes. While the Schiit Fulla 2 is not a bad place to start, if you're planning on getting some harder to drive headphones later it will quickly become a weak link. If that's a concern start with just an amp like the Magni 3 (I personally own one of these and it pretty much had me clear house of amps under $1000). tl;dr, there is no "right" start, the Fulla 2 is a good choice, if you want the flexibility down the line get the Magni 3.
Just to clarify. All amplifiers add distortion to the signal. There is no such thing as a perfect amplifier. The amount may be ridiculously small depending on the design, but all amps add distortion, and to someone that doesn't know any better, the phrasing could be taken as saying only tube amps impart distortion. Tubes tend to have more, and a lot of SS amps don't have the second order harmonic focus that a lot of tube gear has, so it's a different sounding distortion, but that's probably more complex than anyone that needs that clarification is really interested in. As for the Magni 3. It's certainly a good place to look, and it should sufficiently power most things you throw at it, but - and this is why I said try things and find out what you like in my other comment - I don't really like Schiit's tonal choices. Good gear, but not for me.
More importantly, you need a GOOD amp and DAC. Look to the likes of Questyle and Mytek for good amp/dac combinations. Many options for good amps -- Burson, Auris, amp+sound, etc. Many many options for good DACs -- Matrix, Schiit, Denafrips, PS, Aurlic, etc and so on. Free recommendation, go get a Holo Cyan with headphone out. Then get a hi-fi headphone and enjoy the true beauty of headphone listening.
The HD 598 can definitely benefit from having an amp but I don't think you should spend a ton on it - a sub $200 one should suffice. As for the DAC, that would depend on your current setup. Modern gaming motherboards from Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, etc. do have great built in DAC's that is certainly comparable to most sub $100 DAC's, so to hear a difference in sound quality I'd say you'd need to go beyond that price range. Cheap laptops and most smartphones, on the other hand, can surely benefit from almost any external DAC. So in short, depending on you current setup, I would suggest you skip the Fulla 2 and get a dedicated amp in the $100-$200 range. For example, the Massdrop O2 Desktop amp is a great choice and a more powerful amp than the Fulla 2 if you plan to upgrade your 598's in the future:
Massdrop has some combination DAC/amp units. Probably can get one for $50. Should make a noticeable difference with your headphones. I haven't tried a DAC or amp over a few hundred dollars so I can't say if I would notice a difference. My Schiit Magni and Modi is plenty for me and my Ultrasone 900s but I am poor.
You have a DAC already in any digital source with an analog out. Is it good? Maybe, maybe not. Yes, you need a DAC for digital playback, but it's not like you need an outboard DAC for it. You want an amp first if you only get one. Getting enough power and good power are more important than upping DAC quality unless your source is garbage IMO, and if your source is that bad, I'd say get a better one anyway. The digital outs on something bad enough to know it's bad at this point in your journey are likely crap, so even a fantastic DAC isn't going to do all it is capable of. What you should buy is really dependent on your budget and your tastes though (as well as what sort of stuff you're planning on playing... MP3s, high res stuff, CD rips, DSD, etc.). Just starting out, it's hard to really do anything wrong if you stick to good "entry level" stuff. Most of it will show you something you like and something you don't. To really find "the best" gear you need to know what you want, and that's not going to happen until you've heard a decent amount of different gear. You certainly can go beyond "entry level" right off the bat if you can afford it, but there's something to be said about "training" your ears and finding out what you actually like before throwing lots of money at things.
I agree with you. I am also just picking up this hobby and not really sure which dac or amp to get. Finally I just chose the dac&amp combo to go with my HD6xx.
You would need an amp and dac. Since you're starting out, I would recommend a Amp/DAC combo. You could also buy them separately. Something like this.
I think the OP wants to know why does he need an Amp/DAC combo as opposed to just an Amp.
You're right. I was confused. OP, @ProfessorPat gave really good advice.