If you want to level up your gaming audio experience, then one essential device that you must have in your setup is a proper source. This can be a better headphone amplifier and DAC stack, a DAC/Amp, or even premium onboard sound card solutions.
For this article, we will be focusing solely on the simpler option, the DAC/Amp. Different companies have different kinds of approaches when it comes to DAC/Amps.
Gaming-focused companies tend to put as many features as possible. They also put a lot of emphasis on chat mix and Virtual Surround sound.
However, the downside with these kinds of products is that the built-in amplifier is not optimized for high impedance headphones.
You can read more about impedance in our Headphone Impedance Guide. You can add a headphone amplifier and turn your gaming DAC/Amp into a stack, but that involves a separate purchase.
Traditional audiophile DAC/Amps, on the other hand, are quite straightforward. Most of the time, they are unoptimized for gaming consoles, and they do not have any fancy features, but they can power high impedance headphones and have excellent sound quality.
Both types of DAC/Amps have their pros and cons and marketed for different kinds of people. So for this article, we will be tackling both. Our best gaming-focused DAC/Amp is the Sennheiser GSX 1000. Our best budget Gaming DAC/Amp, on the other hand, is the Creative Sound Blaster X3.
On the more traditional side of the spectrum, DAC/Amps, our top picks are the Schiit Hel and the Mayflower Arc Mk2. We also have a high-end pick as well as many other excellent options. Keep on scrolling to learn more about these models.
Best DACs & Amps For Gaming
Schiit Hel – Best for Gaming/Audiophile
Schiit is a company that is often associated with two things, its quirky name and the excellent price to performance ratio on its products. And despite their focus on the audiophile community, they have also branched out and are now catering gamers who want to have the best gaming audio experience possible.
They have several products in their lineup that can be used for gaming. However, the Schiit Hel is the product that they are mainly advertising for this purpose. It is a no-nonsense device that is competing against other solutions such as the Mayflower Arc Mk2.
The concept here is simple. The Hel is a DAC/Amp that has a powerful headphone output to drive more demanding headphones. But it also has a microphone input for voice chat in games.
The quality of the microphone input on the Schiit Hel is decent. It has a dedicated gain knob on the unit, which is handy for quickly adjusting mic levels. It does not have the best sound quality and may sound thin at times, but it does its job.
However, one issue that plagues the microphone input is the noise level. Dialing the mic gain or tweaking the Windows setting does not seem to alleviate this problem. This issue is more prominent on some microphones, but it seems to always be there regardless of the microphone.
And also, there is no low latency hardware monitoring for the microphone input. This is a feature that is often used by streamers and closed-back headphone users. It would have been nice since other gaming-oriented products have this feature.
If you are solely using the microphone input for in-game chat, then these issues won’t be a problem. However, if you plan on doing voiceovers or streaming, then this may prove to be inadequate. However, you should take note that most 3.5mm microphones are inadequate for these kinds of applications, so most gaming DAC/Amps are not meant for these in the first place.
The Schiit Hel is amazing in terms of build quality. It is built well with its solid metal construction that is on par with other Schiit products and other audiophile-grade DAC/Amps. The volume wheel is smooth and does not have any audible static when adjusting the volume. Switches and connections also feel premium and will likely last for years.
One downside is that it is larger than other units like the Mayflower Arc Mk2.
It also requires more power and needs two USB connections. It is odd since it could have resorted to a power outlet instead, which is similar to more powerful headphone amplifiers and DAC/Amps.
Now in terms of sound quality, the Schiit Hel is utilizing the AKM 4490EQ. It is the same DAC chip used in their widely acclaimed Modi 3. The Magni and Modi 3 stack is one of the best entry-level headphone amplifier and DAC stack, so having the same DAC chip instantly makes it outperform similarly priced gaming DAC/Amps.
In terms of driving capability, the Schiit Hel has plenty of power to drive more demanding headphones. It can easily handle 250-300 ohm headphones such as the Drop X Sennheiser HD6XX and Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro. And, of course, gaming headsets won’t be a problem.
Compared to other gaming products, the Schiit Hel does not have many additional features or software solutions. It does not feature any kind of chat mix implementation. It also does not feature Virtual 7.1 Surround Sound. And of course, there are no custom EQ profiles.
And for most entry-level consumers, that may be a deal-breaker. However, what it does have is a solid implementation of the basic needs of every gamer. It provides a solid sound quality, which is ironically what most gaming products fail to provide.
Overall, if sound quality is your top priority and if you already own technically capable headphones, then the Schiit Hel will perfectly suit your gaming needs. However, if you require a more compact solution or a unit with more features, then there are more versatile solutions on this list.
The Schiit Hel is one of the best-sounding DAC/Amps for its price point. Its premium internal components and build quality easily outclass its gaming-oriented competitors.
The Schiit Hel lacks a lot of the features commonly found on other gaming DAC/Amps. The microphone input is also not as good as other available options.
Creative Sound Blaster X3 – Best Budget
The Creative Sound Blaster X3 packs a lot of features and manages to be an all-in-one solution for the price point. It may not be the best sounding nor the best DAC/Amp to drive high impedance headphones, but it is the most convenient option for those who are just getting into the audiophile realm.
In terms of the form factor, the Sound Blaster X3 takes a bit of a departure from previous Sound Blaster designs. Instead, it adapts the minimalistic design of DAC/Amps, such as the JDS Labs Element, with one big volume dial. Also, it adds a few buttons below the volume wheel, which we will be talking more about later.
However, looks aside, the build quality immediately reflects its price point when compared to other products on this list. The volume wheel, in particular, wobbles and does not feel as smooth as the other offerings. The button presses also feel hollow and lower quality compared to other DAC/Amps.
In terms of the output section of the X3, there is an optical output, a 3.5mm line-in, and a 3.5mm line-out. The line out is split out for a discrete 5.1 surround sound setup similar to the ones usually found on motherboards. This is rare for DAC/Amps at this price point, so that is a plus if you are going to be using the Sound Blaster X3 for more than gaming headsets/headphones.
In front of the unit, you have the 3.5mm headphone jack and 3.5mm microphone input. Since it is a gamer-focused device, you are limited to the 3.5mm input option for microphones, which are typically found on gaming headsets.
As for setting up the device, the X3 has a unique setup process that may not be for everyone. To summarize the steps, you basically have to go through a series of account registrations in order to activate the software enhancements of the device. You can, however, skip this if you only want to use the onboard effects. You can find more about this process on Sound Blaster’s official website.
The Sound Blaster X3 also has various EQ presets that optimizes gaming (FPS), movies, and music listening. You can also further customize these EQ to fit your headset better. These can be toggled with the eq button below the volume wheel.
In terms of the microphone processing, the Sound Blaster X3 features various DSP effects and a direct mic monitoring feature. There is a lot of flexibility here that can make your microphone sound better. Also, the noise floor is low, which creates a very clean signal.
Another feature that will be useful for gamers and streamers is the audio balance feature. This allows you to mix two different audio sources such as in-game audio and voice chat Softwares such as Discord and Skype, to your liking. This can be conveniently done using the volume wheel when this mode is selected.
Of course, a gaming-oriented product would not be complete without a virtual surround sound mode. The Sound Blaster X3 offers both the legacy surround sound option found on older devices as well as the newer X-Fi mode. This feature is a bit hit or miss as it does not sound convincing on certain games. Movies, on the other hand, work well, so you may have to experiment a bit if you are interested.
Luckily, if you are not convinced by the stock profiles, you can further make EQ profiles on the X-Fi mode that are separate from your other EQ profiles. You can also make individual presets for games that will be activated when you launch them.
You can also use the X3 on consoles except for the Xbox One. EQ profiles can be tweaked and fine-tuned using the smartphone app.
Those are a lot of features for its asking price. However, the catch here is that the amplifier section is not as strong as its competitors, and the DAC is not as resolving as other higher-end options. Gaming headsets and low impedance headphones will do just fine on this unit, but more demanding headphones will not sound great with this unit.
But overall, in terms of value, the X3 is hard to beat. If you are using gaming headsets such as the Drop X Sennheiser PC37X or lower impedance headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 58X and if you want the best feature set for the lowest price possible, then the X3 is a strong choice.
The Sound Blaster X3 has the best feature set on this list. The software implementation and the ability to use it with multiple devices make it a solid value-oriented product.
The Sound Blaster X3 is not the best unit in terms of sound quality. The amplifier section, in particular, is not as impressive as the rest of the competition.
Mayflower Arc Mk2
The Mayflower Arc Mk2 has the same concept as the Schiit Hel but adds some features and manages to pack everything into a smaller package. It is also designed to have a great DAC/Amp section while providing a solid microphone input.
Just like most audiophile-grade equipment, the Mayflower Arc Mk2 is driverless. It can work with most platforms as well as consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One. You will be missing out on sound-shaping options that are possible through software, but you are getting a bass boost option that can work well with some headphones.
The Mayflower Arc Mk2 is bus-powered, which makes it a portable and versatile solution. Take note, however, that if you are going to be using the optical and AUX input, you will need to use an AC adapter (which is not included in the packaging) or power it via USB.
The microphone input of the Mayflower Arc Mk2 is excellent. It sounds better than other options such as the Schiit Hel. It power output, which allows microphones to sound clearer and cleaner.
A low latency mic monitoring option is still, however, not present on the Arc Mk2. This is an important tool for streamers or closed-back users and is available for gaming and professional alternatives, so it would have been nice to see this feature.
In terms of sound quality, the Mayflower Arc Mk2 is exceptional for the price. It can power almost anything you throw at it from low impedance gaming headsets to high impedance audiophile headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX and Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro. It has a darker presentation than other DAC/Amps like the Magni and Modi combo, but it still has a clean and detailed presentation.
One unique feature that the Mayflower Arc Mk2 has its bass boost switch. It works well with tightening up the sound of open-back dynamic driver headphones or any headphone that has a weak bass response. It is nice to see a hardware bass boost, which sounds more natural compared to a software solution that tends to muddy up the sound and sounds artificial.
The downside to this switch is that you cannot tweak it. Adding more bass to closed-back headphones that already have a good amount of bass like the Beyerdynamic DT1770 Pro/Drop DT177X Go will result in an overkill bass. But again, when paired with the right headphones, the bass boost works really.
Overall, the Mayflower Arc Mk2 is a compelling value. It is well built, it has a lot of power output for headphones, it has an excellent sound quality, it has a clean and good sounding microphone input, it has a lot of output options, and it is one compact package.
There are very few DAC/Amps on this list that can combine all of those features into one small package. If those features are what you are looking for, then the Mayflower Arc Mk2 will be a good addition to your setup.
The Mayflower Arc Mk2 manages to combine portability, power, sound quality, output options, and a mic input all into one small package.
The DSP (bass boost) on the Mayflower Arc Mk2 is limited and non-customizable, so its effect will depend on your headphones. Also, it is a bit pricier compared to its competitors.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2/Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen – Best Option for Streamers
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and the Scarlett Solo may sound like odd choices due to Focusrite’s professional-oriented background; however, if you want the best microphone experience for more demanding gaming tasks such as live streaming, then a professional-grade audio interface is the way to go.
The headphone jack of the Scarlett 2i2 is decent. It can power headphones up to 150 ohms. It can also power almost all gaming headsets. The quality should be on par with some of the options on this list. However, it is not as good as more premium audiophile solutions such as the iFi Micro Black Label (or even the Nano BL).
When using gaming headsets or headphones under 200 USD, you will not notice the disadvantages of the Scarlett 2i2. However, if you have higher impedance and more demanding headphones such as the Drop HD6XX or Sennheiser HD800s, then the Scarlett 2i2 will lack in terms of power and sound quality. However, the same can be said for most of the options on this.
The sound signature of the headphone output of the Scarlett 2i2 is going to be relatively flat. It is, after all, designed for recording. It does a good job of translating what’s happening in the game, but there won’t be any excitement in the bass area or any coloration going on.
The real advantage of going with the Scarlett 2i2 is its microphone preamp. You can use higher-end microphones to achieve a cleaner signal. Its microphone input is, of course, the best one on this list and cannot be matched by 3.5 mm microphone inputs.
Additionally, there is a gain knob that has LED lights that indicate your volume level. It turns red when you are clipping. It also has 48 Volts phantom power for condenser microphones.
Additionally, the Scarlett 2i2 features a zero-latency mic monitoring option. This feature has been missing on a lot of gaming DAC/Amps like the Schiit Hel and Mayflower Arc Mk2, so it is nice to see it working flawlessly on the Scarlett 2i2.
The only real downside here is that microphones on gaming headsets are a no-go on this one unless you purchase a converter. This is part of a long-term investment, so if having the best microphone input is not a big deal, there are cheaper alternatives on this list. And also, it is worth noting that you can always get the lower-priced Scarlett Solo if you do not need the two XLR inputs.
Overall, the Scarlett 2i2/Solo’s class-leading mic preamp makes it the best option for streamers or gaming content creators. It may not have all the bells and whistles of gaming DAC/Amps, but it is arguably one of the best performers. If you need a DAC/Amp that has excellent microphone input quality and if you are willing to give up a bit of headphone output quality, then the Scarlett 2i2 and Solo are some of the best options in the market.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and Solo have the best microphone quality on this list. They are professional units, so everything is expected to work well.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 does not have the best headphone output on this list. More demanding/high impedance headphones may struggle with this unit.
Sennheiser GSX1000 – Best Virtual Surround Sound
It seems that there is a recurring theme on this list. A DAC/Amp is either designed by an audiophile-based company or by a gamer-based company. Gamer-focused DAC/Amps have lots of features but lack the level of sound fidelity that audiophile DAC/Amps. DAC/Amps, on the other hand, are the exact opposite where they often sound great but lack the versatility of gamer-focused DAC/Amps.
So what happens if an audiophile company decides to make a great-sounding DAC/Amp with features found on most gaming DAC/Amps? That is exactly what Sennheiser has done with the GSX1000. It is a DAC/Amp that nails the basic aspects and then adds features to make it a compelling purchase.
In terms of the form factor, it is reminiscent of the form factor of several DAC/Amps, such as the JDS Element and the Sound Blaster X3, which is also featured on this list. It lays flat on your desk and has all of the buttons conveniently placed around the volume wheel.
In terms of the build quality, the Sennheiser GSX 1000 uses plastic for the main body and aluminum around the volume wheel. It manages to still feel premium, but it would have been nice to see an all-metal build similar to its competitors.
The inputs and outputs of the GSX 1000 are not as strong as its competitors. There is a 3.5mm headphone jack, a 3.5 mm microphone input, a 3.5 mm line out, and micro USB for power. It is apparent that this unit is designed for headphone use as the options for speaker output is limited.
In terms of the GSX 1000’s power output, it, unfortunately, falls short compared to its competitors. It can only power lower impedance headphones, such as most gaming headsets. Higher impedance headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX and Sennheiser HD800s will not sound as loud and as good on this model.
However, the main appeal of the GSX 1000 is its sound quality. Sennheiser is using a driverless approach meaning all of the features and Virtual Surround Sound options are happening inside the unit. And everything can be accessed using the capacitive touch screen, which is something we have not seen from other manufacturers.
There are several options such as EQ presets, but the main attraction here is the Virtual 7.1 Surround Sound. Once it is toggled, several options, such as the amount of reverb, can be customized.
The Virtual Surround Sound on this unit is surprisingly well-executed. It manages to expand the soundstage without altering the sound signature of headphones. All the micro details are still preserved, and imaging is not affected.
Unlike other gaming DAC/Amps, the surround sound engine is not hit or miss. It works well with most games, especially open world, and competitive titles.
Of course, the GSX 1000 is not perfect. The EQ presets, for example, are not great and should mostly be turned off. And the other main downside is its driving power. It would have been nice to experience this excellent Surround Sound implementation on higher-end headphones.
However, the good thing is that the GSX 1000 can be stacked with a more powerful headphone amplifier to achieve better results.
The Monolith Liquid Spark are some great options that can be paired with the GSX1000.
Overall, if you are looking for the best gaming DAC/Amp with Virtual Surround Sound, then the Sennheiser GSX 1000 is the best performer. It may not be the most versatile, and it has its fair share of drawbacks, but its Surround Sound engine more than makes up for it.
The Sennheiser GSX 1000 has the best Virtual Surround Sound implementation on this list. It also has the best interface, thanks to its capacitive touch screen.
The Sennheiser GSX 1000 is not the best gaming DAC/Amp if you want speaker output support. Its power output is also weaker compared to its competitors.
iFi Micro Black Label – Premium Option
Premium DAC/Amps in the sub 600 USD price point is not very attractive for most gamers. However, for advanced users who are looking for the best performing DAC/Amp, the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label is undoubtedly one of the best DAC/Amps. It combines.
Of course, since this is not a gaming product, there is no Virtual Surround Sound support. However, it does have built-in effects that can help shape the sound signature. These features are the bass boost function and the 3D+ Holographic mode.
The bass boost is very well implemented and can tighten up the low end of most headphones. This works especially well with dynamic open-back headphones that are lacking in bass extension such as the Sennheiser HD6XX>
The 3D+ Holographic mode, on the other hand, is designed to simulate a “3D feel” by widening the soundstage. This has a similar effect to Virtual Surround Sound. It works well with headphones that have an intimate sound stage, but headphones that already have good soundstage will not benefit as much. Either way, it is a great feature to experiment with.
Both of these effects are hardware-based, so you will not be getting any weird digital effects or artifacts that are commonly experienced with Virtual Surround Sound. They are non-customizable, but they are already satisfactory, so you might not need to customize them anyway.
In terms of the sound quality and sound signature, the iFi Micro BL has a neutral and accurate sound. It is also extremely detailed, making it a good pair with headphones that have good image retrieval, such as the Beyerdynamic T1.
Also, unlike the other DAC/Amps on this list, the iFi Micro BL is transportable. It has a battery inside, which means you can use it in a portable setting with devices such as your smartphone. You can also pair the iFi Micro BL with your laptop so you can keep on gaming when you are away from your main battle station.
Of course, one downside that dedicated DAC/Amps have is that they do not have a microphone input. This DAC/Amp is not intended for use with gaming headsets, so if you value having a microphone input, then you may have to choose the other alternatives on this list.
It is also worth noting that iFi has other budget options. If you only wish to get a cleaner and better sound, you can opt for the iFi Nano BL and Zen DAC. These DAC/Amps are a significant downgrade from the iFi Micro’s sound quality but will surely outperform any gaming DAC/Amp in the same price range.
Overall, if you want the best-sounding and portable DAC/Amp for your setup, then the iFi Micro BL is hard to beat. Just make sure that you are pairing it with a higher-end headphone to get the most out of it.
The iFi Micro iDSD Black Label is one of the best-sounding models on this list. It also has the most powerful amplifier and is capable of powering high impedance headphones like the Beyerdynamic T1.
This DAC/Amps is for more advanced users as you need higher-end headphones to truly utilize its features.
FX Audio DAC X6
The FX Audio DAC X6 is a good alternative for those who are looking for a more affordable DAC/Amp that does not have a microphone input or any special Virtual Surround Sound options.
In terms of driving power, the FX Audio DAC X6 is more capable compared to other budget gaming options such as the Sound Blaster X3. High impedance headphones like the Drop HD6XX will still not perform as good compared to other DAC/Amps, but you will be getting a signal that is adequate for listening volumes.
In terms of the inputs, the FX Audio DAC X6 has a lot of options. It can connect via USB, optical, and coaxial. It also has a line out for speakers. These can be selected via the switch in front of the device. The DAC X6 also has a quarter-inch jack for headphones.
One thing to note is that unlike some of its more expensive counterparts, the FX Audio DAC X6 requires an AC adapter. It cannot work from USB alone, so you will be handling more cables.
In terms of the build quality, the FX Audio DAC X6 has a solid metal housing. It does not feel as high quality as more expensive DAC/Amps, but this should not matter as much since it will primarily be staying on your desk.
As for the sound signature, the FX Audio DAC X6 has a neutral sound signature. It does not add coloration to your headphones, so you will hear your in-game audio accurately. It does not bring out details as good as more expensive DAC/Amps, such as the iFi Micro BL, but it will outperform most onboard audio solutions.
Also, take note that since it does not add any coloration, the sound that you will get highly depends on what gaming headset you are using. Technically incompetent gaming headsets will not sound better even when paired with higher-end DAC/Amps.
Overall, if you are on a tighter budget and you just want an instant upgrade for your setup, then you cannot go wrong with the FX Audio DAC X6. It has enough power to drive higher-end headphones for future purchases.
The FX Audio DAC X6 has a wide selection for input and outputs. It also has a balanced sound signature that will help give in-game audio a realistic feel.
Despite having a more powerful amplifier, it still can’t driver higher-end headphones such as the Sennheiser HD6XX.
Stephen is a musician, cinematographer, and headphone enthusiast who is passionate about reviewing audio equipment. He has been playing guitar for at least a decade, which introduced him to professional recording equipment such as headphones and in-ear monitors. With the help of reviews and online content, he was able to learn the ins and outs of the hobby. His goal is to give back to the community by providing quality content to help others enjoy the beautiful (and expensive) world of audio.
Favorite Headphones: Sennheiser HD660s