Despite all my hardware love (as seen in my last post) one thing I haven’t been for most of my life is a true audiophile.
When onboard sound became a thing, I still insisted on add-in sound cards in my PCs for the sake of speed – moving the processing away from the CPU and to a dedicated part. By the time I was really on that train, it was largely silly – having a Core 2 Quad Q6600 in 2007 meant I wasn’t really gaining meaningful power from such an upgrade, but I still held onto my Audigy 2 sound card.
When I built my new PC last summer, it was the first time I ever decided that onboard audio was sufficient. While I kept my weird superstition until the early 2010s, by that point, integrated audio was already pretty good – better quality components were sneaking their way into motherboards, but I also last bought a system in 2011 and it was a loaded weird board that made me still want to hold on to a sound card, even though finding a PCI-Express one was harder and for a while, I used a USB option from Creative Labs. My current motherboard, like nearly every board except the dirt-cheapest, has a dedicated sound section with isolated circuit traces, higher quality shielding, and a dedicated capacitor bank for delivering nice, clean sound.
I liked my motherboard audio for the most part, to be honest. Not in a “I’m a fan of this way” but in a “this is inoffensive and I’m glad I didn’t pay more” way.
So, naturally, I changed that this week!
For a while now, I’ve been seeing a growing sentiment that gaming audio can make use of good, properly-built audiophile equipment. That the best way to experience a game is not with the 11-year old surround sound speakers I bought from Logitech in 2008, but with a 3-step combo – a dedicated DAC (digital-to-analog converter), an amplifier, and a proper audiophile set of headphones. I was hearing these terms that are simple and make sense, but that I had never really heard before, like “open-backed” headphones and hearing people rave about the “soundstage.” It sounded kind of silly, but also like the kind of nerd shit minutiae that I love.
I also had to look at it more seriously because of a hardware change I made months ago – I got a vertical GPU mounting kit for my graphics card, which has been nice – it looks cool and it shaves a few degrees of my average temperatures for the card by allowing the bottom intake fans to flow around both sides of the card, hitting the metal backplate with some fresh airflow to remove a bit more heat. However, the cable needed to extend the PCIE slot to the bracket, while shielded, isn’t shielded enough to avoid a whining buzz of interference in graphically intense games – WoW triggers it slightly, but FFXIV will make it sound like a bee is in the mix constantly.
So, sitting on some extra change this holiday season, I decided to try an entry-level set of audiophile hardware with my PC to move outside of the case and away from the buzz. I ordered the Magni Heresy amplifier (Magni from Norse mythology, not the crystal WoW dwarf that tells us about wounds in a Scottish accent) and the Modi 3 DAC from a company called Schiit (pronounced exactly how you’d expect, snickers and all at the dad joke – it’s two pieces of hardware stacked, a Schiit stack!), and then identified a good headphone set – going with the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro at 250 Ohm impedance.
I had to research all of this, of course, because it was a heavily contemplated purchase I’ve thought about for a while, and I came away excited but anxious – was the impedance of the headphones not right for me? Some people talk about the Schiit hardware not “measuring” well but people still really like it – should I be worried?
So yesterday, when it showed up, I naturally tore right in and set everything up immediately to try.
Going to headphones exclusively on my PC was a big leap of faith in particular, because everytime I’ve gotten a high-end headset as my sole audio device, I’ve always defaulted back to my trusty old Z5500s from Logitech and just used those speakers. Even in raids lately – getting a proper microphone with good isolation meant I could use Discord on my speakers and not get cross-talk with people talking while my push-to-talk was engaged.
The main reason is that even as I’ve liked the sound signature of my various gaming headsets, they are still gaming headsets – made by companies with less audio experience, tuned for mainstream audiences (heavily bassy sound signatures, muddled highs), and with closed backs. Now that I’ve used a pair of each type, I have to say, I like open-backed headphones way more. I love bass, but closed-backs with bassy signatures are awful to me now in ways I never realized – they trap most of the air and sound in the cup, so your skull is being rattled by deep notes constantly with no escape and no ventilation. My ears would get sweaty locked in the cups and even over moderate session lengths (as little as 20 minutes of active use, in some cases) I’d have damp earcups and a sort of general fatigue from wearing them.
My first night with the open-backed Beyerdynamic headphones was worlds apart from that. They were lightweight, breathable, with a comfortable velour cup cradling my ear and a highly padded top bar that put minimal pressure on the crown of my head. I could feel air and never had weird ear sweat, I could carry on a conversation with my fiancee without taking them off or even stopping the music I was listening to, and the notes came out just right – the bass still felt warm and booming, but it didn’t bother me over time and even at higher levels of volume, it didn’t get to a point where I was begging to take them off.
Music was my first test, and I had fired up some FLAC songs on the speakers earlier in the week prior to the new kit showing up, then played the same songs on the headphones. My speaker set was already great, so there wasn’t an immediately obvious night-and-day improvement, to be perfectly clear – it sounds “warmer” would probably be the best way to put it, but not inherently better. It is better suited to my tastes, however – so I was happy.
However, gaming saw me feel something unexpected. A lot of the hype on forums and in places I talk about tech hypes up using a good audiophile equipment stack as a game-changer for playing games. There are a few reasons for that – a balanced and neutral tone that allows higher-end sounds to shine more than on mainstream equipment, stronger sound via amplified headphones, etc – but the one I kind of rolled my eyes at was that a standard set of open-backed stereo headphones with no surround emulation would do a better job of positional audio than the emulated surround of a gaming headset. Yeah sure, I thought – surely the difference isn’t really there.
But it is, it turns out! The open-backing creates a wider physical space as sound can escape, and with a properly-tuned pair of said headphones, your ability to hear that escaped sound creates an interesting effect of sonic proximity. When I ran around in FFXIV with them on, my immediate impression was that the game’s stellar soundtrack was raised up with cleaner, more balanced audio, but once I started playing with camera angles to check how the sound handled spatial presentation, it was even more excellent than I expected. I panned the camera fully around my character during a solo fight with Shiva EX and I could follow the combat sounds in a full circle around my head, despite only two drivers, no surround emulation in software or hardware, and a stack of basic enthusiast hardware. FFXIV allows you to also adjust the position of audio relative to the character or camera, which makes an excellent tool for testing such a thing – I played with it briefly and tried moving the “microphone” for the in-game audio to my character, and then to the camera, and the perceived proximity of sounds in-game followed the positioning I set with a degree of accuracy that was impressive!
When I get a chance tonight, I’ll probably play some Overwatch or another shooter of some sort just to see, but without properly reviewing the hardware I bought, here are my impressions summed up:
-I’m very glad to have purchased this stuff, because it both solves the underlying problem that pushed me in that direction (the PCIE riser cable interference) while also adding cleaner, higher-quality sound.
-The quality of recorded media (YouTube, Spotify, etc) is improved slightly but noticably to my ears through the way the DAC is tuned to handle these things (audiophile concerned with accuracy vs. mainstream audio wanting to use bass as a hiding place), although that is a personal preference and your experience will vary.
-The headphones are awesome and the best revelation of the whole thing – having clean, mostly-production grade sound without a lot of coloring added via the headphones is nice, but having what the open back offers (ventilation, ability to speak without trying hard to hear myself or my conversation partner, lightness) is even better.
-Schiit makes a lot of plain but nice silver boxes, but the cheaper hardware has a fun “gamer” color with the Magni Heresy being black and red and the Modi now offering a black and silver option that matches, and they look really good alongside my Scarlett Solo interface for my microphone.
-Having 3 different boxes on my desk for sound alone is weird and possibly bad, but they are small and they look nice as a clean stack, especially since the Schiit devices use understated styling on the front with minimal ports and switches (my Scarlett has two inputs, 1 output, 3 knobs, and two switches on the front, while the full stack of Schiit hardware has one knob, one switch, and one output.
-You gain some flexibility with the amplifier having external volume control – you can adjust your in-game volume, your Windows volume, and then finally the amp volume output to fine-tune exactly how you want to listen.
-On the negative side, not all cables are included – although in my case, I only needed to buy a set of RCA audio cables (and AmazonBasics makes a highly shielded, well-assembled set for under $10 with gold-plated connectors that do an outstanding job at the price), and since you are basically mixing and matching, you need to do the legwork to determine what you need to buy.
-The Schiit stack is basic, but not the most basic – they make more gamer-centric hardware in the Fulla and Hel units which are combination DAC/amps that are smaller, cheaper, but also less featured.
-Ultimately, while I love the new stuff, it was an expensive fix compared to just installing my graphics card directly to the motherboard like a normal person – each piece of Schiit was $99, and with the headphones on-sale at Amazon at $140 (!). Tax and shipping considered, it was nearly a $400 “solution” to a “problem” that I could have fixed for free. (Given that, though, I know at some point I was planning to upgrade to such a setup anyways, so I just gave in earlier than I initially planned).
-I don’t get the “headphone claustrophobia” I get with closed-back cans as bad, but I still get it – I was very jumpy once my fiancee went to bed last night and I was playing games alone at night. It might have been slightly amplified by the fact that I can still hear things outside the headphones, so I probably took random sounds heard more seriously than I would with closed-back headphones.
-I love the boldness of my DAC/amp manufacturer calling themselves “Schiit” and I make jokes about stacking Schiit on my desk too much.
-It’s only been a day and already I talk about audio like I’m smelling my own farts. “Soundstage,” “warmth,” and all the other various verbiage I keep stumbling on sounds pretentious and silly, even as I know now why people wax philosophical about their listening experience – ahh, another audiophile term!
Overall, I’ve rapidly become an evangelist for this mode of listening. I really like the changes and improvements it has brought, both the subtle (minor changes in EQ balancing and the like) and the major (positional audio presentation in-games, in-game sound quality and mixing in general). Having said that, though – it isn’t a purchase I would readily recommend. Firstly, I have nowhere near enough audio “experience” to say you should buy such a solution – or this hardware specifically. It is a costly investment, especially when you consider that it can be superfluous – if your onboard sound is working great with no noise or weird EQ issues and can drive whatever listening device you have attached to it, there’s no real reason to buy any of the hardware in question except maybe the headphones. It’s unclear to me how much of my improvement of experience is being driven by the headphones compared to either the DAC or amp, so I could maybe tepidly recommend the headphones as an option for most people. The reality is that chasing sound quality, clarity, and accuracy is a hobby pursuit all its own – if you don’t hate the sound out of your PC today, there’s literally no need to mess with it at all.
But, for me, it is a fun new hobby and a frontier of sorts that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and now that I have my first bit of proper audiophile listening hardware, it is likely to going to be a thing I invest more into in the future!