3,975 word post, approx. 12-13 min. read
- 12/26/19. Published.
- 12/27/19. Added some games.
- 5/14/20. Added G6 to console gaming.
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
Before we get into The Best Headphone Amps & Soundcards for Gaming, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
I’m Here to Help!!
Table of Contents
Click to navigate the article!
Things to Consider
Amps, DACs, & Soundcards
Games Played & Sound Impressions
Video Discussion (Coming Soon!)
Recommendation & Final Word
Gaming has always held a special place in my heart. I was first exposed to it circa 1988-89 at just 2-3 years old.
My dad had an original Nintendo with the venerable Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt combo. I remember being so fascinated by the gameplay (seems silly to think about now).
Even so, that game sparked a run of titles that still continue to churn out almost yearly. Personally I think it’s far exceeded the point of overkill, but that’s just my opinion, man.
I also vividly remember Christmas of 1991; my mom and dad bought me a Super Nintendo and it came with the timeless “Super Mario World”. It’s crazy to think about the fact that the game is still playable, and hasn’t really become outdated or stale over the years.
My sister and I would play the game for hours and hours at a time, also enjoying such classics as Donkey Kong Country 1 & 2 in 1994-1995, The Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse, Turtles in Time, among-st many other more obscure titles that I can’t even think of at the moment.
After the Super Nintendo, I delved into the world of PlayStation, while my best friend Ryan Smith got a Nintendo 64. I’m not entirely sure why I deviated, but I can’t say it was a disappointment in the slightest. Because he lived next door, I could play the 64 whenever and he could hop on the Playstation with me as well. At his house, there was lots of Zelda, and at my house we played Metal Gear Solid non-stop. Around 2000, the Sims came out for the PC and to make a long story short, I had no life from that point on. XDTo this day, I’ve had every system from PS1 to PS4, and will probably invest in a PS5 when it eventually comes out.
I love the feeling of kicking back on the couch and firing up a game, whereas some of my other friends and followers swear by PC gaming.
Back in the early years, it wasn’t really possible to hook up a Headphone Amp to a console and geek out with your favorite headphones.
Now? It most certainly is. You can even hook up a dual shock 4 to your PC via USB and play that way! I’ve been doing just that with my PS4 controller and a $6 download of Fallout: New Vegas.
With that, let’s take a look at some of my favorite set ups, and ones that you should be really thinking about first and foremost. Finding a great Gaming amp doesn’t have to be complicated or stressful. Don’t think about it too much. I would say finding The Best Headphones For Gaming is a bit more of an excursion, but I digress.
For this article, we’ll take a look at some great desktop solutions for PC gaming, and then delve into some fantastic console set ups. Part 2 will cover a few good internal Soundcards. What is a Soundcard?
All of the same recommendations for console gaming will also apply to PC gaming, so sit back and chill the f out homie!
This is the #1 priority as far as I’m concerned. There’s a reason I generally don’t use or recommend Soundcards a lot – it’s because they are often times more of a pain to install than simply buying an external one (Headphone Amp) and calling it a day. If you’re building your own PC, a Soundcard is probably the better option, and definitely convenient. You’ll basically just slide it into the PCI slot and have yourself an afternoon delight.
If you’re like me and have a laptop, not only is the process more arduous, but in some cases it’s not even possible. My Lenovo X1 Extreme doesn’t even have an option to install a separate card, but I don’t really care because I prefer a separate Amp/DAC. Related: What is a USB DAC? It just makes more sense for me as I like being able to mess with volume knobs, gain switches, etc. Who doesn’t like a volume knob? It’s an overlooked feature that should be taken seriously when considering any Headphone Gaming Amp.
If you’re Gaming at your PC, you’re not going to want to have to recharge an internal battery. So all Amps & DACs with batteries I have omitted (The Mojo can be charged at the same time you’re listening). Some of you nerds tend to play for days on end without sleeping, eating, or even taking regular dumps. For that I applaud you, but let’s not turn into Cartman playing World of Warcraft, okay? XD
A Gaming Amp DAC should have enough power for the headphone in question. This list will take a look at wide variety of power outputs. Generally, you should have enough juice from all of these for most headphones. The only real exception is the K3: it’s a bit under powered, but still does work with an HD600. Anything more demanding than that and I wouldn’t bother.
The fact that I can use my K5 Pro with a console or on my desktop makes it extremely valuable to me. Some of the other options we’ll go over can also easily be transported in a laptop bag or even your pocket! Surely a Soundcard is portable since it will be installed into the PC or laptop, but outside of that you can’t really do much else with it. Most of the Amps & DACs I’m about to discuss can be used in many different ways.
Things to Consider
Before you purchase an internal Soundcard, make sure:
- Your PC/Laptop has enough room for it to fit inside.
- Your PC can support it.
- Your speakers/headphones can handle it.
Gaming Scan did a nice write up on the matter:
As for the hardware, you should make sure that your motherboard has the required PCIe slots (for internal cards) or the required USB ports (for external cards). While a regular ATX motherboard might have all the PCIe slots you could ever need, the same could not be said for microATX and miniATX ones. Furthermore, be sure to check if your graphics card is blocking the PCIe slot and/or if there is sufficient space to fit the sound card comfortably next to it.
As for the USB ports, that should not be a problem. Every modern motherboard has enough USB 2.0 ports to go around, and USB 3.0+ is backwards compatible. Unless you’re still using dated hardware, a lack of USB ports shouldn’t be a problem. Moreover, keep in mind that plugging your external sound card into the back panel is preferable, since a front-panel connection could lead to lower quality audio.Gaming Scan
First up on the docket is the fantastic FiiO K3, an upgrade in most regards over the original E10K. If you’re interested, I’m doing a giveaway of the FiiO K3! Just head on over to this FiiO K3 vs. K5 video and follow the instructions in the pinned comment. 🙂
The K3 is built well and would make a perfect desktop PC gaming choice. You’ve got a bass boost and gain switch on the front in case you’re feeling frisky, and it’s ADC volume pot ensures there are no channel imbalance issues. Like the E10K, it has line out, but this time FiiO added a 2.5mm balanced jack and an optical out on the back if you wanted to output the sound to something else (anything you may have that has optical input). Add to that it’s Type-C jack and cable is more rugged this time around than the original E10K’s micro USB cable.
It does great for music when you’re NOT gaming, supporting PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz as well as DSD. Put simply, any music in game is going to sound nice and crisp, giving off the sense of phenomenal clarity and detail retrieval.
I got a chance to demo this bad boy thanks to my good buddy In To It reviews, and it’s a gem. This is a simple as pie plug and play Amp/DAC combo that sounds phenomenal with Gaming as well as general music listening.
Why is that? Because I said so! Just kidding. Part of the reason is because it utilizes Asynchronous USB (more on that in the official review linked below).
Maybe it was just my imagination, but I plugged in the K702’s and fired up Fallout New Vegas, and it seemed like I was hearing a bit more micro detail out of the CEntrance than I was with the K5 Pro. It could also be due to the fact that the K5 Pro does have a bit of a warmer character. Hard to tell.
It’s got a micro USB port for your PC, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a gain switch on the side. The volume dial is conveniently placed on the right hand side near the top, and the DAC is curved for easy adjustment with your thumb.
The DACport actually resembles a BIC lighter in both size and aesthetic, so you can imagine how sweet it is to drop in your pocket and go! Super convenient, super portable, fantastic sound.
Audioquest DragonFly Red
If the CEntrance was plug and play, the DF Red takes that to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL (no pun intended, ya know, because like.. gaming or something). Just plug it into a USB port and shut up. 😛
The DragonFly Red also works for both music and Gaming on your PC, adding a nice amount of extra detail and texture to the songs and environments. I noticed the Soundstage out of the DF Red is also improved. What is Soundstage? It seems like every time I go back to it I get that same sense; stuff is spaced out a bit better, there’s more cohesiveness to the sound, and just makes me feel good.
There isn’t much in the way of features on the Red. The little DragonFly on the top lights up different colors according to source file though, and it is MQA supported should you want to listen to some music after those intense gaming sessions. 🙂
iFi Zen Amp/DAC
This bad boy weighs just over a pound at 1.08, and feels extremely rugged and solid in your hand. It’s got a power match button (gain), and a true bass button, as well as RCA outputs and a 4.4mm balanced out. If you want to output sound to some external speakers or monitors while you’re gaming, you can do so with this puppy.
Sound quality is phenomenal, with the Amp giving off a nice mix of detail and warmth – iFi’s signature house sound.
For gaming and music? Fantastic. Like the DF Red, the Zen is also MQA supported but does support higher quality source files like DSD and 32-bit/384kHz PCM files. More on that in the review below!
Creative SoundBlasterX G6
The K5 Pro was my previous go to for console gaming, but I think the G6 is a little better from a pure gaming standpoint, meaning: It’s better suited for people who strictly game on PC or console with a mic or single player, watch movies, etc. It’s also got a bunch of cool features like SBX, Scout Mode, and heaps of power for basically any headphone. I absolutely love it for music as well so it’s very versatile in that way.
Some people might tell you that the G6 sounds “awful” in comparison to some of these others, but they have no idea what they’re talking about. That’s purely asinine and likely stems from a bias or something equally as ridiculous. I compared 6 dacs side by side with the G6 recently and found there to be very little difference from dac to dac. What you ultimately go with has way more to do with your intended purpose than anything else, what you listen to music with (Tidal, Spotify, your phone, etc.) and way less to do with sound differences between them. Before I go off on a rant:
The G6 is a bit more convenient than the K5 Pro as well. All you have to do is plug and play via USB into your PS4. For Xbox users, you will have to use the line/optical in on the back, but it’s still not really a big deal as the unit is bus powered and doesn’t require a brick. I find that it’s much easier to move the G6 around, whether I’m gaming in the living room or listening to music at my desk. Because I have 2 USB-C cables, I just keep one in both areas. When I want to switch, it’s as easy as unplugging the G6 and re-connecting it. Nothing more needs to be done.
With the K5 Pro, you’ll have to unplug the optical cable and the power cable, and then brick. When you get to your desk, you also have to plug it in via USB. A bit more of a hassle although I still enjoy the sound of the K5 and don’t plan on getting rid of it.
The G6 also edges the K5 Pro out because of SoundBlaster Connect, an app that allows you to do a multitude of different things with it. It’s really fun, but also can be extremely valuable if you need to quickly EQ a headphone. Interested in learning all about the G6 and the shootout with other dacs I have here at the pad?
Ready to make it yours?
FiiO K5 Pro
The K5 Pro is one of the most versatile pieces of equipment I have used so far in my “audiophile” journey. Let’s look at what it has/can do:
- 2 pairs of RCA Jacks. One pair of Inputs, and one pair of Outputs. This essentially means you can output the sound to separate speakers/monitors, or use the inputs with a separate DAC.
- Optical/Coaxial In. The optical input is the main draw here, as you can hook up an optical cable from the back of your PS4 into the input on the back of the K5. This Amp is my mainstay console rig and should probably be yours as well. With the coax, you can also output audio from anything in your home theater that supports optical out, and listen to it through the K5.
- USB Type-B. This jack will run from the back of the K5 Pro into the front of the PS4’s USB slot. Obviously you will also use this same jack for hook up to your PC while gaming there as well.
Aside from that, it’s got a 3-gain stage (0, 6, and 12dB boost), and a 3-input switch depending on what you’re using it with. Like the K3, it’s got an ADC volume pot and supports DSD, but this time plays PCM files of 32-bit and up to 768kHz.
The sound in comparison to the K3 is a bit warmer, lusher, and very inviting. While the K3 sounded a little snappier, crisper, and more sterile, the K5 is definitely more laid back by comparison.
This combo Amp/DAC also comes with an optical input on the back for gaming. I was enjoying the heck out of it with Fallout 4.
It’s got a bit of a warmer tilt and less power, but makes a great combo with something like a Sennheiser HD 650. The 650’s Soundstage is actually better than the 600’s, as I felt more immersed in the gaming environment and didn’t feel so closed in. It gives off a better sense of depth and width, and while it’s not a monumental difference, it still becomes noticeable, especially with movies like Garden State.
The D1 also utilizes Type-B USB, and you can also output the sound to separate speakers/monitors in case you wanted to listen to music that way.
Yeah, the Chord Mojo is absolutely phenomenal for both music and gaming, with it’s warm, smooth, buttery sound and absolutely mind blowing clarity and detail. It really does sound the best to my ears in all facets as far as pure sound goes.
I also demoed this bad boy playing Fallout 4 and Uncharted, and boy howdy did it deliver. It does run hot and can be fairly finicky, but one of the coolest features is it’s dual 3.5mm jacks on the front.
If you’re into multi-player, you can share the sound with a friend or watch movies with that special someone. <3
Out of the 25+ Amps & DACs that I’ve personally demoed or owned, the Mojo is surely the best sounding.
What about just Amps?
Amps, DACs, and Soundcards
JDS Labs Atom or Objective 2
One of the first “ah ha” moments I had in console gaming with a dedicated rig was the Objective 2 + Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100. It was pure bliss.
Everything sounded so crystal clear, and with a headphone like Craig Boyles’ modified DT770, it was truly a match made in heaven for Gaming.
The set up of separate Amp + separate DAC is a tad more complicated, but still isn’t really a big deal. Here’s a cool info-graphic I did explaining the set up!
Please share if you found it helpful!!
Like the K5 Pro, the Atom also has 2 pairs of RCA Jacks (Ins and Outs), so it can be used in the same way. The Objective 2 is a little more caveman in it’s approach, but there are lots of customization options at your disposal here. I will link you to the Amp on JDS Labs’ website.
You Need A DAC mate!
If you were to go the Amp + DAC route, obviously you’ll be buying them separate. Really any DAC that has RCA outputs or a 3.5mm line out will work.
For instance, you could pair up the K3 (discussed above) with the Atom or Objective 2 and use it as just a DAC. Pretty neat!!
Two DACs I would recommend are the JDS Labs OL DAC or Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100. The Magic is a bit more expensive but definitely sounds heavenly paired up to the Objective 2.
With the OL DAC, you can add an optical input for an additional $40.
As mentioned in the open, you may or may not opt for a Soundcard. In my mind, it depends mostly on how convenient it is to install such a card, and whether or not you’re building a PC or have a laptop.
Soundcards also tend to have more driver issues than some of the external ones we’ve mentioned today. None of the above Amps & DACs that I have used have had any. In fact, the Audioengine D1 doesn’t even require them at all. You plug it in and it’s ready to go. No fuss, no muss.
Instead of acting like I have a lot of experience here, I will link you to a couple of great articles from some others who know what they’re talking about with regard to some of the better cards out there.
Per my research, the Creative Sound Blaster Z came up most often:
Games Played & Sound Impressions
More coming soon
Video Discussion (Coming Soon!)
Recommendation & Final Word
I would personally go with an external Soundcard (i.e. Headphone Amp/DAC). It’s more convenient in the fact that you can plug and play without having to worry about installing anything or making sure it’s compatible with your OS.
Add to that, often times it can be used in more than one way, as in the case of the FiiO K5 Pro.
In fact, that’s my overall recommendation today.
Right now I’m using the K5 Pro at my desktop with a PC version of Fallout New Vegas, but later on tonight I will most likely hook it up to my PS4 and play some Outer Worlds. It’s just really versatile. Add to that it supports up to 32-bit/768kHz for music, can play DSD files, can output to speakers or monitors if you choose to game that way, and can be paired with a separate DAC if you’re feeling experimental.
The K5 Pro even has a special feature that enables hand jobs if you ask nicely enough. Just press the button on the side which opens th.. just kidding.
Okay that’s enough talk. It’s time for the final exercise:
Well that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on the Best Headphone Amps & Soundcards for Gaming.
Which of these sounds like it would suit you best? What’s your favorite video game/system? Be sure to let me know!!
If you have any other questions, or feel I’ve missed the mark on something, leave a comment down below or Contact me!
I very much look forward to speaking with you..
All the best and God bless,