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Schiit Audio Hel High-Power Gaming DAC/Amp Review: Game On

By Christopher Coke on October 30, 2019 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Schiit Audio Hel High-Power Gaming DAC/Amp Review: Game On

We’ve been exploring Schiit Audio’s line of DACs and headphone amps over the last two weeks all in the pursuit of today: Schiit Audio’s first gaming product. What happens when you take audio experts like the folks at Schiit and task them with creating something custom-designed for gamers? Hel happens. This is our review of the Hel High-Power Gaming DAC/Amp from Schiit Audio, if you’re looking to take your audio-game to the next level without breaking the bank, this is a review you won’t want to miss.

Specifications

  • Current Price: $189
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz-20Khz, +/-0.3db
  • Maximum Power, 16 Ohms: 1200mW RMS
  • Maximum Power, 32 ohms: 1000mW RMS
  • Maximum Power, 50 ohms: 650mW RMS
  • Maximum Power, 300 ohms: 200mW RMS
  • THD: <0.0015%, 20Hz-20KHz, at 1V RMS
  • IMD: <0.0015%, CCIR
  • SNR: >108db, A-weighted, referenced to 1V RMS
  • Crosstalk: >-80dB, 20Hz-20KHz
  • Output Impedance (headphones): 0.25 ohms
  • Output Impedance (line out): 75 ohms
  • Input Impedance (rear 1/8" jack): 10k ohms
  • Gain: 1 (0dB) or 5 (14dB)
  • USB Receiver: C-Media CM6631A
  • DAC: AKM AK4490 with TI OPA1662-based filter stage
  • Sample Rates and Bit Depths: 16/44.1 to 24/192 supported without drivers on Windows 10, Mac, Linux, Android (UAC 2 device)
  • Output Stage: TI OPA1688 (4 amp stages per channel)
  • Power Supply: Via USB, with +/- 12V rails via high-current dual-polarity switching regulator, with inductor filtering and local regulation
  • Power Consumption: 2.5W typical
  • Size: 5 x 3.5 x 1

Welcome to Hel: Schiit’s First Gaming Amp/DAC

Over the last two articles, I’ve answered the question of whether your need a dedicated headphone amp and DAC setup.  The short answer is no, but if you try one you’re almost sure to like it. Replacing your onboard audio with a dedicated DAC and the extra power of a good amp can immediately make your audio sound much better. Thus far, we’ve looked at the Asgard 3 and the Magni/Modi, which are both amazing options, but what if you’re a gamer that also needs to connect a microphone? Enter the Hel.

Hel is Schiit’s latest product line, a brand new amp/DAC combo targeted squarely at gamers. It includes both a headphone and mic input (which is shockingly good), two gain stages for every kind of headphone, a preamp for driving speakers, and a brand new design to allow it to blend seamlessly into a gaming setup without taking up too much space.

It’s also an absolute power plant. The headphone amplifier is able to deliver 1000mW into 32-ohms, roughly 40x the average PC headphone output. Ohms, for the uninitiated, are a rating of electrical resistance. Your average gaming headset will land somewhere around the 32-ohm mark, give or take 20-ohms or so. Higher-end headphones often have higher impedances. The Sennheiser HD6XX, for example, has a nominal impedance of 300-ohms and is widely considered one of the best value premium headphones money can buy. Ninja’s chosen Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pros have a 250-ohm impedance. Driving these headphones requires a powerful amplifier like the Hel, otherwise they simply won’t loud enough or respond the way that they’re intended.

No matter what I threw at it, the Hel was able to drive it and sound incredible. The HD6XXs, the DT-990s, the HD58Xs, the AKG K7XXs, my new pair of Meze’s, the Audeze Mobius, any of my many gaming headsets; all of them were able to get and exceed a comfortable listening volume. Because the Hel had such headroom, I was able to game in confidence. My headphones sounded as good as they possibly could thanks to Schiit and their innovative little amp. Thanks to the low/high gain stage switch, you can easily adjust for more sensitive headphones, too, which makes this little amp quite versatile.

The other half of the equation is the built-in AK4490 DAC. Do you need a DAC? Not explicitly, though like a headphone amp, you’re better off with one. Moving the audio processing off the motherboard and out of the PC into its own dedicated system is good all on its own, but the AK4490 is also able to deliver 24-bit/192kHz audio without any drivers on Windows. This level of fidelity, and the premium components used to achieve it, are absolutely audiophile-grade so even if you’re outside of a game, must enjoying a live track from your favorite band, you can rest assured that you’re hearing every ounce of fidelity the artist intended.

When it comes to sound, the Hel sounds similar to the Magni and Asgard 3. The same widening and crystallization effect occurs, more or less depending on the headphone you’re using. I did sense a bit of extra warmth that founder, Jason Stoddard, suggested may be a result of the new topology they’re using, developed with feedback from a dedicated crew of gamers.

Making Your Mic Sound Awesome

The understated all-star of the Hel is the microphone jack. Like the Fulla, pictured above in our size comparison photo, the Hel is intended to be an all-in-one solution for great desktop audio, including mic inputs. The mic has its own 24-bit analog-to-digital converter, which allows for a pristine, high-resolution capture. It also has a gain knob for precise gain adjustments to your signal.

Most importantly, it’s quiet. I mean, game-changingly quiet. I tested it with my Audio-Technica ATH-PG1 gaming headset which we reviewed last year. Plugged directly into the PC, the mic had a very audible hiss, which is very common to 3.5mm mic inputs on even expensive gaming PCs. Plugged into the Hel, that white noise was gone. In fact, the PG1 went from being a pretty good headset mic to sounding like one of the best I’ve ever used. You could easily hop on a stream or podcast with it.

Have a listen:

Audio-Technica ATH-PG1 Gaming Headset Connected Directly to PC:

Audio-Technica ATH-PG1 Gaming Headset Connected to the Hel:

Astounding. On top of that, it’s able to remain quiet while also delivering extra gain, so you can position the mic farther away from your mouth, reducing plosives.

Between the improved clarity and quality of the 24-bit capture, the added volume for your recording, and the dramatically reduced noise, I can say this with confidence: If you’re a streamer or content creator that  uses a headset, you need the Hel. It really is that good.

That said, I am left with an important question: how many gamers or streamers in the market for a $189 gaming amp/DAC are still using a 3.5mm gaming headset? Certainly, many will have moved on to USB for virtual surround sound or standalone USB or XLR mics. That isn’t to say those gamers wouldn’t benefit from something like this, especially since many USB mics can connect to the Hel through the headphone-out port and experience the same improvements - at the expense of realtime monitoring. For these players, I would love to see some kind of sidetone functionality built in to actively monitor levels.

No matter how you cut it, the current design leads me to believe the Hel is designed for audio-lovers who also happen to be gamers and streamers, not the other way arround.

Final Thoughts

At $189, the Hel from Schiit Audio is still very much an enthusiast item. Yet, at the same time, it offers a full amp/DAC solution with an outstanding microphone input at ten-dollars less than the mass-hit Magni/Modi combo. Whether you’re a gamer or streamer, this is just one heck of a tool that will fit right in with your gaming setup. Even if you’re neither of those things and just want a great DAC and amp that will bring your headphones to life and allow you to sound great on calls under $200, this is it and it leaves me excited to see what other gaming products Schiit may offer in the future.

Pros

  • Outstanding power for the size, easily drove 250- and 300-ohm test headphones
  • One of the best mic interfaces we’ve ever heard, transformed out headset mic
  • Looks great, love the black and red aesthetic
  • High-quality DAC immediately elevates audio
  • Versatile with multiple inputs, dual gain stages, and preamp out

Cons

  • Still feels a bit expensive when compared to the Fulla (though is clearly much more powerful and improved).
  • Mic input will be lost on USB headset/mic gamers
  • No sidetone for mic monitoring (but will still be possible when built into the headset)

The product described in this review was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.


Christopher Coke / Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight