The BEST Gaming Headphone Amps/DACs Right Now!
Table of contents
Today we are taking a look at the best gaming DAC/amps that I have collected over time. These external sound cards give you the convenience of physical volume control, interesting audio features, and a microphone input. I have always said that gaming audio is just as important as having proper aim, so if you are looking for an external DAC/amp solution you have come to the right place. We have a wide range of products that vary in complexity, price, and size. I have even gone ahead and played only the games with the best audio in my entire library.
I am going to use both the generic gaming headset like the Razer BlackShark V2 X from Razer and my favorite headphone the HD 58X from Sennheiser x Drop just to see how each amp keeps up with each headphone. I will keep things simple since I don’t understand the half the specs anyway, but I will keep this analysis subjective based on my different sized ears. The contestants will include the funny named Schiit Fulla 3 and the Schiit Hel, the Mayflower ARC mk2, the SoundBlaster X3, both the GSX 300 and GSX 1000 units from EPOS, and of course some best selling Amazon items like the Syba Sonic gaming amplifier, plus this really interesting Fosi Audio DAC-Q4. I have covered some of these in detail before, but this is going to be a great comparison of all these DAC/amps.
Schiit Fulla 3
First of all, let’s begin with the most basic unit here, the Schiit Fulla 3. It is a driverless plug-and-play compact solution with a really cool industrial frame, no gaming bling whatsoever, and a large volume wheel that has been blacked out so you can actually see the volume level tick mark. It is a bit scratchy during rotation, and that’s the only con of the build. It’s powered through the micro-USB at the back, so it’s perfect for notebook setups as it doesn’t need additional power. There is an analog input at the back if you want to use this as an amplifier, plus a second micro-USB port for power from like a battery bank if you want to use this while on the go with mobile.
The headphone and mic inputs are at the front, almost discretely labeled, and for both my headphone choices it has plenty of power to drive either beyond the volumes I’m comfortable with. Overall, the sound signature is leaning towards that neutral and flat response. The bass is well controlled, nice smooth high-end as well, so no harsh treble even with loud volumes. This is an easy recommendation for me if you are looking for a really simple solution this thing should satisfy with any gaming headset. My 2 warnings here include the scratchy volume wheel, which was not present on my previous copy, but which had a defective microphone input that died after several days of use. I will be performing the microphone test in the end so you can hear how the sound versus each other.
Fosi Audio DAC-Q4
Moving onto this next interesting device, we have the Fosi Audio DAC-Q4. The only reason it’s in this roundup is because of the 2 additional knobs at the front that add over remove bass and treble. I normally never play around with EQ because I prefer my headphones to give me the desired sound signature, but having these knobs actually benefited me with the BlackShark V2 X headset. I was able to lower the bass and increase the treble for a sharper and brighter sound from the headset without having to worry about downloading any of the drivers or doing anything in game.
The knobs have tactile steps while the main volume wheel is really nice and smooth. The headphone jack is at the front with 3 input selections of USB, optical, and RCA inputs, which is quite nice at this price point. There is a 5V DC input that is required for operation, even when you have the PC USB plugged in. From an audio perspective this thing is impressive, it has a lot of power to drive my HD 58X and beyond headphones with slightly lower sensitivity and high impedance, and being able to control the treble and bass is actually quite intuitive. Yes you can easily add bass and destroy the entire lower end, but because we have that fine adjustment you can just add a little bit or remove a little bit in either the high-end or the low-end of the spectrum. That basically gives you a really cool way to personalize your open headphones to sound a bit more bass-y and slightly sharper or remove some of that bass and treble from your closed headphones depending on what type of sound signature you prefer.
Overall for the price point the sound is absolutely impressive. The only “downside” for a gaming roundup is that it’s quite forward, so you don’t get that massive soundstage expansion like you do with other amplifiers that deliver that by default. For competitive gaming, even with an open-style headset, it is absolutely not an issue for me personally, and to be honest there are other qualities that are a bit more important to me than the really open soundstage. My 2 warning points for this unit is that the front I/O is a bit crowded and also the tactile power-on switch/volume wheel can cause issues. If you go just below the tactile point when the thing is powered on, it will lower the volume, and then if you do crank that back up it will take a moment to catch up to that desired volume again, so careful not to blow your eardrums when you lower the volume and when you crank it back up. Also, this is the only unit that does not have a mic input, otherwise it would be a fantastic killer combo for gaming, but if you are looking just for audio this is an easy recommendation.
EPOS GSX 300
Next up is the EPOS GSX 300, which is a small plastic unit. It is powered with micro-USB at the back with separate audio jacks here as well. It’s the only device with an angled body, so the volume wheel is easy to handle. Blue illumination indicates stereo mode, while red means surround. You activate it with a button at the front that does a really good job with audio expansion while not totally destroying the sound quality. For games where a larger soundstage is beneficial for the environment it really helps to bring an extra level of satisfaction since it helps to simulate a larger speaker setup instead of headphones. You get really big sound while wearing headphones, and that is a really cool feeling, especially when it comes to open-style headphones.
I would categorize sound as a bit more full, especially on the low-end compared to the 2 sound cards we just talked about. The only thing it lacks is power, I had to run both the HD 58X and BlackShark V2 X’s at 100% volume to give me the desired volume, so this isn’t for your audiophile grade headphones, but for gaming headsets it should satisfy. Since the unit is super light pressing the front button requires you to actually hold it because otherwise it just slides around, and my only warning here is about the software because I have experienced plenty of bugs like it not recognizing my surround sound and plenty of the other sliders not working
The next sound card is one that really surprised me from a performance and feature standpoint. It is the Syba Sonic gaming amplifier at around $40 USD. It is driverless, powered with mini-USB, has both digital and RCA out at the back, while at the front we have a line in, mike in, headphone out, and even a full-size 6.3mm headphone out as well. The toggle on the left changes between the 3 hardware EQ modes with bass boost, default, and treble boost. I would normally advise against it, but I’m sure many gamers would appreciate this feature adding more bass or adding treble for a slightly brighter sound extension.
In my experience with the BlackShark V2 X adding bass was a bit too much, it made everything too muddy on the low-end, while adding the treble just became too harsh, so I appreciate the finer adjustment on the DAC-Q4. Nevertheless, in default mode it was perfectly fine. Now the volume wheel on my unit was kind of all over the place for the first 50% of it had this weird resistance, then it got smooth to about 80%, and then again it gets scratchy. This is kind of a perfect example where features outweigh the build quality and the sound quality, because out of this entire roundup I like the sound quality of this thing the least.
On a positive note it has plenty of power to drive my HD 58X and beyond, so that’s good, but it just kind of has no life to it in terms of audio. You might want to add treble or bass to your headset to give this thing a bit more character. It has a rather boring audio representation, but it is kind of ideal for competitive stuff where you just need to hear audio cues and with the V2 X it was very easy to locate enemies and their incoming bullets. Honestly, for a gaming sound card around $40 it is excellent value, just don’t expect perfection.
Now let’s move on to the more high-end sound cards starting with the SoundBlaster X3. This is the most feature rich gaming focused unit, and the one that I’ve used the longest. For under $150 USD, this is an easy recommendation, almost like an instant recommendation because the amplifier is beautiful with lots of warmth behind it and also a lot of power too.
It is the only sound card with a Type-C connection, a ton of line out ports, a line in, and optical out. The headphone and mic jacks at the front are kind of weirdly separated, but the volume wheel has tactile rotation steps. There is also a button for mute. The 3 buttons at the front control your mic volume, mode for direct audio, plus a SXFI button for surround sound. The X3 has an entire gaming software suite with EQ profiles, custom surround modes based on pictures of your ear and face, and lots of microphone options in here as well. It is honestly a little bit overwhelming when it comes to software, so I removed it and I just run the X3 in its default configuration. The stock stereo imaging is fantastic with beautiful layering and it has really nice natural soundstage that doesn’t go beyond what I’m comfortable with in terms of gaming and movies.
When it comes to surround sound I honestly cannot tell the difference between the surround modes on the X3 versus the GSX 300, because of all the added reverb they use to grow the environment. I would recommend trying it if you have the X3, because for games that don’t require really precise audio it’s a nice fun factor that does expand your audio environment. It doesn’t sound super natural, but it does expand your environment and makes things more distant. It doesn’t feel like you are wearing headphones, but it feels like you are listening to massive speakers beside you. Probably the only con with the X3 would be the USB issues I’m experiencing on my AMD systems, where the sound control panel would just crash and would require me to unplug the sound card from the computer for it to work again. This is something I have experienced from one AMD machine to the other.
EPOS GSX 1000
Next we have the legendary GSX 1000, it is a very cool driverless unit with a touch screen, and this is still the only device I would recommend for surround sound. The binaural expansion engine that is built in just sounds absolutely fantastic to expand your environment without totally destroying it. It has a really interesting and unique way of removing headphones from your head, where it sounds like you are listening to the room and not to the headphones. That is a fantastic feeling for open world games where do you just want to feel like you are in this massive audio space. There are multiple settings for reverb and you can even save profiles on each corner. It has similar warm tones as the GSX 300, but with a slightly wider soundstage. It is also a bit more powerful in terms of the amplifier.
Really the only downside of the GSX 300 and the GSX 1000 is power output, especially compared to like basically all the sound cards in this roundup. They don’t have enough power to drive anything beyond a standard gaming headset. As soon as you try a slightly more sensitive headphone they never had the power to reach the volume I want.
The need for more power is where we get units like the Schiit Hel. This is a legit powerhouse of an amplifier targeted towards gamers with good tastes in headphones. This one requires wall power, and it sucks that it is still using a micro-USB, but It is absolutely gorgeous with that metal casing and red accents, both on the sides and the power LED. Since it’s powered from the wall it has 4 times the power of the Fulla 3 with smoother volume wheel, a gain switch beside the full 6.3mm headphone jack, and stereo mic input with a gain knob to control your level.
This is one of those devices you get if you want performance, no bling, no BS whatsoever. It is also driverless, so that is awesome. It has incredible layering, fantastic bass, but I prefer the slightly warmer representation that Sennheiser offers. Basically, this is what you get if you want to go beyond the traditional gaming headset and want to plug in more premium headphones into this later on.
Mayflower ARC mk2
And finally we have the fancy Mayflower ARC mk2. I have used the previous ones for years before switching to something else to try out different features, especially for surround sound, but the mk2 is on a whole different level. First it is the only unit in my collection that has a 4-pole headset jack, aside from that mic input, meaning you don’t need separate headphones and mic cables, and this is a huge thing for a gaming product since most gaming headsets today have the 4-pole connection and you are given a splitter cable, but here you just plug in the 4-pole into the headset jack without needing to use the splitter cable.
The volume wheel is beautifully smooth with rubber rings for better finger control. At the back we have RCA jacks with a switch at the front, auxiliary in, mic out, and optical in. For most setups you don’t need a power supply, so just connect with the USB, but you can get a power supply as an optional accessory. To my ears this unit sound more pleasant and more defined the versus the Schiit Hel. Vocals in particular sound more forward and slightly closer with much better layering, which is impressive because the soundstage is really beautiful and absolutely detailed environment that you get submerged in with the ARC mk2. The Hel still sounds fantastic, but with slightly wider representation, so you don’t hear everything like right in front of you, everything is slightly more pushed back, but you don’t really realize it until you hear something like the ARC mk2.
Overall, this is a very impressive amplifier and almost in a league of its own in how beautiful everything in-game sounds. It has a bass boost DPS switch at the front, illuminated in blue when active, that would turn any open-style headphone into bass heaven with lots of warmth introduced into the bass that bleeds into the mid-range. It’s not something that I prefer, especially with the BlackShark V2 X nor the HD 58X, but I’m sure some people would appreciate that if you have a really bright headphone or a headset that is really sharp. Boost DPS introduced a lot of warmth onto the lower range, but for me this is something I would keep off. The only time I found DSP switch to benefit my listening style is if I’m listening at lower volumes, that way everything sounds a bit warm and more full body, but if I’m playing a game or listen to something quite loud I prefer it off.
Now that’s out of the way let’s talk microphone quality. Starting with the Fulla 3, and this one is incredibly sensitive so be careful not to blow your teammates eardrums when speaking into the microphone. It has some noise cancellation properties applied and some compression too. Moving on to the GSX 300, this one sounds slightly better than the Fulla 3, it’s not as sensitive and the tones are a bit more natural without too much compression. The Syba Sonic gaming DAC is impressive because it’s much cheaper than the GSX 300, but in terms of microphone quality they sound almost identical. To my ears I couldn’t tell a difference, so that is very impressive mic pickup on this $40 Syba Sonic.
Next up is a SoundBlaster X3, this is my favorite out of the bunch. I would say it’s like one of the best on the market right now with beautiful tones and very natural sounding, with just the right amount of compression so you don’t like hear all the echo in this environment. It compresses almost like a condenser microphone capsule, but it’s coming from a $59 headset so that’s really, really good. Moving onto the Sennheiser GSX 1000, this one is just as sensitive as the Fulla 3, but with more aggressive noise cancellation and compression. I don’t particularly like how this sounds.
Next is the Schiit Hel, the only sound card that allows you to actually control the level of the microphone, which is great, but you have to know what level you are in since there is no passthrough into the headphones. Ideally you need some sort of audio recording program where you can see the level and adjust the level accordingly. I also will say it is an upgrade over the Fulla 3 because this is a stereo mic recording instead of mono on the Fulla 3. And finally we have the Mayflower ARC mk2, it has upgraded preamps for the microphone versus the previous during generation, which is great, and the reason why I’m using the BlackShark V2 X headset is because at $59 you can hear how fantastic the microphone sounds across this range of sound cards. I’m actually quite surprised with how low the level is for the mk2 given it’s the most expensive sound card in this roundup, but in terms of the vocal character it’s fantastic. I think it’s right up there along the SoundBlaster X3, but still I would choose the SoundBlaster X3 because it has just better volume across the range and I wouldn’t have to boost this in the software.
I want to conclude with a few surprises along the way. The best sounding DAC/amp external gaming sound card is the Fosi Audio DAC-Q4, which has a lot of power and beautiful front forward character. It is very similar to what the ARC mk2 does, but without that smooth highlight control. Here the controls on the treble is a bit harsh, but that is why we have the little dial so I can reduce it and I’m not blasting the music anyway. If this had a mic input it would be a fantastic combo for our around $50 USD.
The Mayflower ARC mk2 was easily the second best choice in terms of audio quality, which is the best in this roundup, but just a little bit on the expensive side. The bass boost for me is a bit too much, but I would say it would compliment many V-shaped EQ lovers. I still love my SoundBlaster X3 for communications because to my ears it has the best, most natural, and really neutral noise canceling microphone input without needing to enable any additional noise cancellation. The Schiit offerings are pretty unique because of their simplicity and neutral sound. If you want surround sound for gaming the GSX 1000 will not disappoint while the little brother is okay in terms of surround sound, but just keep in mind that it’s not very powerful. For gaming headsets it will be fine, but for anything beyond that forget about it.
Lastly, the Syba Sonic gaming DAC is feature packed, but at $40 it sounds like it too. If you are in the market for a new external sound card hope this article helped you out, and we have done plenty of other articles about audio quality, which you can check out the right over here.