Audio is often a forgotten element in many gamer’s setups. We tend to spend a lot of time and money buying nice monitors or TV’s for a beautiful picture and a corresponding graphics card or the latest generation of gaming console to make our games look as good as possible.
If you’re looking to upgrade your audio setup then you have a few options, but today we will be talking about the top 3 DAC and Amplifiers for gaming. A dedicated DAC and headphone amplifier should be a necessity for any serious audiophile.
What is the benefit of a DAC and why do I need one?
Our laptops and phones come preloaded with a less than desirable internal DAC.
A DAC takes the digital information of 1s and 0s from your audio device and turns it into an analog one (music) so that you can enjoy it with your favorite headphones or speakers.
Using an external DAC allows for a much more desirable conversion.
A DAC is a necessary component in the audio chain, so whether it is being handled by an onboard motherboard driver, dedicated sound card or an external DAC; the audio of your games, music and movies is being converted to analogue.
Your electronic's onboard sound drivers tend to be somewhat lacking and are a less desirable albeit more convenient option. You can really think of a DAC/Amp as an external soundcard meant specifically for headphones. The amplifier is also a key component as some headphones require additional gain to be able to power them. Something like the Beyerdynamic DT990’s is one prime example as they offer 250 and 600-ohm impedance variants. The higher the impedance value relates to how much resistance your amplifier will have to compensate for.
Fiio E10K – Best Value DAC/Amp under $100
The Fiio E10K has actually enjoyed a six-month stay on my desk for powering my headphones. It is without a doubt one of the most popular DAC/Amps out there today. At around $75 on Amazon, as of the time writing this, it gives excellent clarity at the price point and can drive some of your higher impedance headphones. It may struggle with something as high as 600 ohms, but will perform nicely on a wide variety of different impedance headphones.
Additional features on the Fiio E10K include gain and bass switches if you need some additional drive or jaw shaking bass. The brushed aluminum small form factor body leaves a tiny footprint on your desk; being that it’s roughly the size of a matchbox. The rear of the Fiio also has options for coaxial or line out, beyond the standard 3.5mm headphone jack in the front.
If you want something that is a nice step up from your motherboard’s onboard audio drivers without breaking the bank than the Fiio E10K is an easy recommendation from. For under $100 you owe it to yourself to pick one up just to see what you’ve been missing out on by not owning a good DAC/Amp.
Portable DAC Options For Your Phone and PC
Want something that does a good job for your gaming PC but that you can also take with you to use with your smartphone on the go? The DragonFly Black (1.2 volts), for around $100, and higher-quality DragonFly Red (2.1 volts) for around $200 are a great option.
Some of these come with a compatible cord to allow you to connect to your smartphone. If you're using an Apple device, look for a bundle that includes lightning to USB 3 adapter and if you're using Android find one that converts to Mini USB or USB C or purchase it separately.
Another great option is the NextDrive Spectra Portable USB Dac. It's even smaller than the options above. Similarly to the DragonFly options it has a USB option on one side (A and C options are available) and 3.5mm on the other. It gives you 32 bit audio support with the convenience of portability.
If you're looking for something to throw in your pocket, this is a good option; however, keep in mind that if you want it to last, I'd recommend some additional protection.
Fosi Audio Q5
Just because a DAC is more expensive doesn't mean that it's always effective. One of my personal favorites costs just around $70. While it's inexpensive it definitely doesn't feel or look cheap.
The Fosi Audio Q5 Silver is good for any 16-250Ohm headphones and gives you an affordable solution for any of your audio systems.
It processes audio at bit dept up to 24 bits and sample rate up to 192Khz. This gives it that higher-end feel when compared to other DACs in its same price range.
Overall, this is a great Dac and if this is your first one, it's a good one to start with. I hear no buzzing or hissing from it with an optical cable and it's surprisingly good.
Audio Engine D1
At the around $150 price point, the Audio Engine D1 is one of the most popular options.
It's housed in a robust metal casing with rear plates. It's a clean design that looks good in any office environment.
It's a 24bit 96Hz DAC that requires USB power. This Dac also includes analog outputs ideal for your speakers and an optical input.
For the headphones, there's a 3.5mm jack rather than a 1/4". We'd prefer the 1/4" but keep in mind this is a portable device.
The D1 includes a built-in amp and should power anything you've got up to around 150Ohms. In other words, you can power some pretty sweet headphones with it.
When I used this the high-end was more noticeable, the treble was crisper, and I noticed a lot more detail overall. You probably won't get a lot more on the lows other than the detail, but that definitely makes it worth having.
Overall, this is a great option for audiophiles; however, those who simply want to power their high-end headphones may prefer to go with something less expensive.
Mayflower Electronics Objective 2 Amplifier + ODAC – Review
Simply the best from soup to nuts:
If the only thing you are concerned with in life is owning the best then pull out your credit card and order an Objective 2 amplifier and ODAC from Mayflower. Of the DAC’s I tested nothing else came close to giving as clean a sound signature as what the Mayflower DAC/Amp has to offer.
My listening experience on the Mayflower was superb on multiple types of headphones that were geared towards different ways of listening. And that’s exactly what you want in a good DAC/Amp. No coloration from the source to mess with what you’re listening to.
This DAC/Amp can also drive high impedance headphones without breaking a sweat. It was also fully enjoyable on 32-ohm pair of headphones that didn’t need any additional drive. I’ve noticed on some amps that I could hear audible hissing with the volume turned up. This was not the case with the Objective 2. Every volume level was clean and unadulterated.
The Mayflower Objective 2 offers 3.5mm line in/out as well as an additional gain switch for high impedance headphones. The black housing on this unit is also one of my personal favorites. Combining looks with clear audio and solid amplification is the reason that the Mayflower Objective 2 is the reigning king on my desk today and should be for a very long time.
For more information about the Mayflower Electronics Objective 2 headphone amplifier and ODAC as well as their line of custom audiophile headphones, go here.
Sound Blaster E5 by Creative – Not your Typical DAC
I had the pleasure of reviewing the E5 by Creative and was very impressed with what it was able to do outside of its standard operation as a DAC and headphone amplifier. The E5 really walks the line of being an external sound card, rather than just a simple DAC thanks to its rich set of drivers.
You can fine-tune your audio levels, use a custom voice changer, enable Dolby effects like simulated surround sound and have custom profiles for whatever you’re listening to.
The DAC/Amp quality is also excellent and capable of driving 24-bit/192khz high-resolution audio. The amplifier is also no slouch as it is capable of driving a single pair of 600-ohm impedance headphones or two 300 ohm impedance sets of a headphone. That is thanks to the fact that you can connect two different pairs of headphones at the same time.
The E5 by Creative is a little on the higher end at $199, but it’s also easy to see why when it has so many additional features outside of delivering a clean analogue signal to the user. If you want to read more about this DAC/Amp we have a review for the E5 here.
If you're looking to power your headphones or just want an improvement in sound over what your motherboard already gives you, it's hard not to recommend something simple like the Fiio E10K.
It's the least expensive option on the list here and will definitely get the job done for most consumers.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Chris on August 27, 2020:
Yeah, no mic support is a wierd recommendation for a "gaming" dac. Of course in gaming we are talking about gaming headsets so we need two 3.5mm jacks...
Andrew on May 27, 2020:
As I see only the Creative support mic. I think it is a very important feature in gaming.
UnexpectedkAs on August 02, 2018:
Are all this DACs compatible with xbox one x?