A digital audio converter, or DAC for short, is a piece of hardware that converts digital audio signals into analog ones to improve audio output quality.
The soundcards in our phones and PCs introduce noise into the audio output. On top of this, internal sound cards are often only able to produce a fraction of the possible bitrate in an audio file. External DACs eliminate the internal device noise and improve the bitrate of the audio output. The result is significantly improved, crystal clear sound quality.
DACs can be appealing to gamers for the same reason they are appealing to anyone—they straightforwardly improve audio quality. While the quality increase may not be noticeable on lower-end headphones, folks using high-quality gaming headsets will notice an immediate difference in the clarity and noise level of their audio.
Some DACs also function as headphone amplifiers. Headphone amplifiers add extra power to the audio output signal. When combined, DAC/amp combos can improve your audio even more by giving you extra gain on the output of the newly converted analog signal. In fact, some headphones actually require an amp to run them at full power.
With all of that in mind, these are the best DACs for gaming!
Best gaming-centric features
Schiit Hel Gaming DAC
Schiit has become known for its affordable yet high quality digital audio converters and amps. While most of their products are focused on reaching out to the audiophile community, they produced the Schiit Hel specifically with gamers in mind. The Hel is an audiophile-quality DAC and amp combo with a microphone input. This set up is perfect for gamers who want to instantly improve their game audio and microphone quality at the same time.
On the amp side of things, the Schiit Hel delivers 32 ohms of power and offers around 40 times the power of a standard headphone output. This is enough power to run any gaming headset. You can control your audio volume using the well-crafted knob situated on the very top of the device.
On the DAC side of things, this device features a top-shelf AKM Ak4490 D/A converter. This well-regarded converter works alongside the Alps RK09 potentiometer filters and Texas Instrument amplifiers to deliver marvelous audio performance, especially for the price.
The Schiit Hel’s most gaming-centric feature is its microphone input. This device features a 24-bit AKM ADC stereo-compatible electret mic input. So while you won’t be plugging any heavy-duty USB or XLR microphones into the Schiit Hel, you should be able to use any standard electret microphones, a type of mic commonly featured on high-end gaming headsets. As an added convenience, you can also adjust the microphones gain using the front-panel gain control.
Like all Schiit products, this device is built like a tank and should last for many years of daily use. If you do have any issues with it, Schiit includes a 5-year warranty with all of their products.
Best for streamers and content creators
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 third-generation USB audio interface is a high-quality DAC and interface designed to convert audio for headphones and microphones. This product is primarily used by podcasters, streamers, and musicians who use XLR input, analog microphones with their computers.
This is a great product for streamers and gamers who are looking to throw off the shackles of USB microphones and purchase an analog broadcast microphone with an XLR output. The Focusrite offers high-performance inputs capable of powering two microphones or two line instruments at the same time. Each of them has an independent gain control, and you can run phantom power to your microphone directly from this USB bus-powered interface.
As far as providing a listening experience, this device produces excellent, noise-free audio. It has built-in headphone preamps that boost the power of your headset and the product features a very convenient headphone volume knob next to the headphone output. You will need headphones that are compatible with a 6.35-millimeter headphone jack, but if your headphones feature a 3.5-millimeter jack, you can buy a 3.5-millimeter to 6.35-millimeter converter for next to nothing online.
Another advantage of the Focusrite Scarlett is its low latency monitoring. The Focusrite lets you hear everything coming through your input channels in real-time. This feature makes it easy to check and adjust your mic or instrument levels as needed.
This product is very well built. It features a red metal housing and high-grade components throughout. Focusrite is a highly respected brand in the audio community, so you can trust the company to provide great products. If something does go wrong, this product comes with an included 3-year warranty.
If you are looking for a USB audio interface that acts as both a DAC and a microphone interface, this is one of the best options available. This product is also very reasonably priced considering all of its features. If you want to save a few bucks, you can purchase the Focusrite Scarlett Solo. The Solo features only a single input, but costs a little less.
Best audio quality gaming DAC
Schiit Modi Multibit DAC
One of Schiit’s most popular products is the Schiit Modi Multibit Digital Audio Converter. The Schiit Modi Multibit DAC is the most affordable true multibit DACs on the retail market.
The audio produced by this DAC is absolutely incredible. Whether you are listening to Hi-Fi music, watching a movie, or playing a game, this product is going to maximize the clarity and accuracy of your audio. Be warned, once you use a high-quality DAC like this, your audio tastes might be spoiled for life.
The biggest thing that sets this DAC apart from the other DACs on this list is that it is multibit. Most USB powered DACs are single bit, which means they only use a single voltage output to produce the soundwave. While this can approximate the output well enough that most users may not even notice the difference, it is still approximating. As a result, you might lose some of the audio tone’s original flavor in the conversion process.
A multibit DAC uses multiple voltages to increase the bit depth of the output. As a result, multibit technology can reproduce audio in the most accurate way since there is far less estimation going on. The drawback of multibit devices is that they are often expensive. But the Schiit Modi Multibit broke the mold on that rule by offering the multibit functionality for far less than its competitors.
The Modi Multibit does not include an amp, so you can upgrade its sound quality further by adding a headphone amplifier like the Schiit Vali 2 to the mix. For most gaming headphones, the Modi Multibit should still be able to deliver a superior aural experience without adding the amplifier.
The build quality of the Modi is amazing. The outside casing is made of brushed aluminum, and the internal components are of the highest quality available. This device should run for many years without any issues.
While this product doesn’t have any gaming-specific features, it is still one of the best DACs for gaming because it is one of the best DACs period. If you are looking for a similar experience at a lower price point, you could also consider the Vali 3. The Vali 3 offers lesser specifications overall and is single bit, but its price is more reasonable.
Best budget DAC
Massdrop X Grace Design Standard DAC
The Massdrop x Grace Design Standard DAC is an entry-level DAC offering a professional audio experience for a very affordable price. This device packs a punch inside its small form factor and is the perfect starting DAC for any desktop gamer looking to upgrade their gaming audio.
This DAC sounds great, especially when paired with a good headphone amp. It provides a very clear and clean audio signal that is noticeably better than a PC’s standard audio. This DAC is fully plug-and-play and requires no drivers to work natively on Windows 10, which means it should also work with consoles.
The Massdrop x Grace Design DAC features very few frills. On the back, there is a Micro USB input, a 3.5-millimeter TRC output, and an RCA connection for an optional amplifier. The device measures only 3.9 inches by 4.1 inches, making this one of the smallest DACs on this list.
If you are looking for a highly respected, no-nonsense product that will give you cleaner audio and a better audio bitrate, the Massdrop X Grace Design Standard DAC is a good place to start. This is also a great option for anyone who is on a tight budget.
Best for laptops, phones, and tablets
AudioQuest DragonFly v1.5 USB DAC
The AudioQuest DragonFly is a USB-powered DAC that is the size of a standard USB drive. This ultra-compact device operates as a DAC, preamp, and headphone amp all at the same time. This device is absolutely perfect for taking your gaming on the road due to its small size and plug-and-play functionality.
The DragonFly is very simple to use. One end plugs into a device or into a converter connected to a device, while the other end has a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack. That’s it.
There are three versions of the AudioQuest DragonFly—red, blue, and cobalt. Each version features a different DAC chip, with the cobalt one being the best model and the black one being the weakest model. All of these chips include a digital audio converter, a preamp, and a headphone amplifier. So these devices provide a lot of bang for their buck when it comes to features.
The cobalt DragonFly comes with the ESS Es9038Q2M DAC chip designed with a slow roll-off filter for a more organic sound. The red and black DragonFly models include the ESS ES9016 chip and the ESS Es9010 chip, respectively. The red and black versions also come with less advanced filtering, though the audio still sounds very good.
Regardless of which model you choose, this tiny device can drastically improve the audio of your mobile gaming experience. While it won’t compete with a full DAC box and dedicated headphone amplifier regarding audio quality, this device is all about versatility and portability, and it delivers on both of those fronts.
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