I left my finance job 6 years ago to work for my dream boss, myself. I’ve never looked back. I focus on tech, gaming, and hardware reviews.
Audio is often a forgotten element in many players’ setups. We tend to spend a lot of time and money buying good monitors or TVs to get a beautiful picture and a corresponding graphics card or the latest generation of game consoles to make our games look their best.
Reading: Best gaming headphone amp
If you’re looking to upgrade your audio setup, you have a few options, but today I’m going to talk about the top 3 best gaming dacs and amps. a dedicated dac and headphone amp should be a must 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 1’s and 0’s from your audio device and converts it to analog (music) so 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’s being driven by an onboard motherboard controller, a dedicated sound card, or an external dac; the audio from your games, music, and movies is being converted to analog.
the integrated sound drivers of your electronics tend to be a bit lacking and are a less desirable but more convenient option. you can really think of a dac/amplifier as an external sound card designed specifically for headphones. the amp is also a key component, as some headphones require additional gain in order to power them. something like the beyerdynamic dt990 is a great example, as they offer both 250 and 600 ohm impedance variants. the higher the impedance value, it relates to the amount of resistance your amplifier will have to compensate for.
fiio e10k: best value for money dac/amp under $100
fiio e10k has enjoyed a six month stay on my desk to power my headphones. it is without a doubt one of the most popular dac/amps out there today. At around $75 on Amazon, as of this writing, it provides excellent clarity at the price point and can drive some of your higher impedance headphones. you may have trouble with anything as high as 600 ohms, but it will work well in a wide variety of different impedance headphones.
Additional features of the fiio e10k include gain and bass switches if you need a little extra power or punchy bass. brushed aluminum small form factor body leaves a small footprint on your desk; being that it is about the size of a matchbox. the rear of the fiio also has options for coax or line out, beyond the standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the front.
If you want something that’s a nice step up from your motherboard’s onboard audio drivers without breaking the bank, the fiio e10k is an easy recommendation. for under $100 you owe it to yourself to pick one up just to see what you’ve been missing by not having a good dac/amp.
portable dac options for your phone and pc
Want something that does a good job with your gaming pc but can also be taken with you for use with your smartphone on the go? Dragonfly Black (1.2 volts), for around $100, and higher quality Dragonfly Red (2.1 volts) for around $200 are great options.
some of these come with a compatible cable to allow you to connect to your smartphone. if you’re using an apple device, look for a bundle that includes a lightning to usb 3 adapter, and if you’re using android, look for one that converts to mini usb or usb c or buy it separately.
another great option is the nextdrive spectra portable usb dac. it is even smaller than the previous options. Similar to the Dragonfly options, it has a USB option on one side (A and C options are available) and 3.5mm on the other. gives you 32-bit audio support with the convenience of portability.
if you are looking for something to carry in your pocket, this is a good option; however, keep in mind that if you want it to last, I recommend some additional protection.
See also: Digital Audio 101: Using Headphone Amps & DACs for Computers & Laptops – Headphones.com
a good economic dac option
fosi audio q5
Just because a dac is more expensive doesn’t mean it’s always effective. one of my personal favorites is around $70. while it’s inexpensive, it definitely doesn’t feel or look cheap.
fosi audio q5 silver is good for any 16-250 ohm headphone and gives you an affordable solution for any of your audio systems.
processes audio with a bit department of up to 24 bits and a sample rate of up to 192 kHz. this gives it that high end feel compared to other dacs in its price range.
Overall this is a great dac and if it’s your first it’s a good one to start with. I don’t hear any buzzing or hissing with an optical cable and it’s surprisingly good.
audio engine d1
priced around $150, the d1 audio engine is one of the most popular options.
it is housed in a robust metal case with back plates. it’s a clean design that looks good in any office environment.
it is a 24bit 96hz dac that requires usb power. this dac also includes analog outputs ideal for your speakers and an optical input.
for headphones, there is a 3.5mm jack instead of a 1/4″ one. We would prefer the 1/4″ one, but keep in mind this is a portable device.
the d1 includes a built in amplifier and should power anything up to around 150 ohms. in other words, you can power some very good headphones with it.
When I used this, the treble was more noticeable, the treble was sharper, and I noticed a lot more detail overall. You probably won’t get much more on the lows other than details, 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 something less expensive.
mayflower electronics target amplifier 2 + odac – review
Simply the best, from soup to nuts:
if all you care about is having the best, whip out your credit card and order a mayflower objective 2 and odac amplifier. of the dacs i tried, nothing came close to giving as clean a sound signature as the mayflower dac/amp offers.
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my listening experience with the mayflower was excellent with various types of headphones that were geared towards different ways of listening. and that’s exactly what you want in a good dac/amp. no source coloration to interfere with what you’re listening to.
This dac/amp can also drive high impedance headphones without breaking a sweat. it was also completely enjoyable with a pair of 32 ohm headphones that didn’t need any additional drive. I have noticed on some amps that I could hear an audible hiss at high volume. this was not the case with target 2. every volume level was clean and unadulterated.
The Mayflower Objective 2 offers 3.5mm line input/output as well as an additional gain switch for high impedance headphones. the black casing of this unit is also one of my favorites. The combination of looks with clear audio and solid amplification is why Mayflower Objective 2 is the reigning king on my desk today and should be for a long time to come.
For more information on Mayflower Electronics’ Object 2 Headphone Amplifier and ODAC, as well as their line of custom audiophile headphones, be sure to visit their website.
creative sound blaster e5: not your typical dac
I had the pleasure of reviewing the e5 by creative and was very impressed with what it could do outside of its standard operation as a dac and headphone amp. the e5 really walks the line of being an external sound card, rather than a simple dac thanks to its rich set of drivers.
You can adjust 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 handling 24bit/192khz hi-res audio. the amp is no slouch either, being capable of driving a single pair of 600-ohm impedance headphones or two sets of 300-ohm impedance headphones. that’s thanks to the fact that you can connect two different pairs of headphones at the same time.
creative’s e5 is a bit on the higher end at $199, but it’s also easy to see why when it has so many extra features on top of providing a clean analog signal to the user.
If you’re looking to supercharge your headset or just want an upgrade in sound over what your motherboard already offers, 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. the content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and is not a substitute for personal advice or professional advice on business, financial, legal or technical matters.
chris on August 27, 2020:
yeah, the lack of mic support is an odd recommendation for a “gaming” dac. Of course, in games 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 microphone. I think it’s a very important feature in games.
unexpected kas on August 2, 2018:
are all these dacs compatible with xbox one x?
See also: // AB1266 Phi TC Audiophile Reference Headphone – ABYSS Headphones