Sidenote: Thoughts on Two Years of Audiophile Hardware for Gaming

Two years ago now, I finally made a move away from gamer-focused sound cards, headsets, and the like, and made a fairly large move to audiophile/pro-grade audio hardware for my PC. In early 2019 I grabbed an XLR microphone interface and the Shure SM7B microphone, and in late 2019, I grabbed a Schiit stack – their Modi 3 and Magni Heresy DAC and amplifier along with some BeyerDynamic DT 990 Pro headphones, and then this time last year, I grabbed the upgraded BeyerDynamic DT 1990 Pro headphones.

With some time spent with the pro-grade setup, I have some thoughts and observations.

The Basics of PC Audio

Computer audio is a moderately interesting field built around a couple of basic ideas. In your PC, Windows takes whatever audio data needs processing and handles it, taking your game’s music, sound effects, voiceover, and any spatial sound effects like reverberation or echo and processes it together into a single digital stream. Most audio hardware functions on analog signal, however, so the output is handed to a Digital-to-Analog Converter (a DAC) to take that processed audio stream, turn it into an analog signal that can be acted on by speakers and headphones, and then it can be run through an amplifier to increase the volume prior to output.

All PC sound hardware works on this basic premise. Your motherboard audio is just a DAC chip (most likely from Realtek) and some power filtering and output circuits with amplification provided for the sound. That’s why most motherboard audio sections are full of capacitors – they are used to store the power needed to provide amplification for your audio outputs. Any USB or wireless headset uses the same principles, with the hardware needed built-in – both DAC and amp. Even digital audio output like from HDMI or the old-school optical SP/DIF connector uses the same principle, just pushing the analog conversion up the chain.

Why Get These Interfaces and Hardware?

For most of my PC enthusiasm, I’ve been a big fan of sound cards. First because they were required to get any sound out of a PC, but later because of dubious claims about hardware utilization and quality. To their credit, all the sound cards I owned sounded great and seemed like they were doing their job.

It was with my PC build in 2018, my first new build in 7 years, that I had thought about ditching sound cards altogether for onboard audio, and I did and kept it that way for around a year and a half.

Right now, and for much of the last decade really, onboard, motherboard audio has been more than enough for most gamers. Since Microsoft moved the audio stack to software with Windows Vista, in fact, sound cards themselves have been less used for processing and more for amplification and digital-to-analog conversion. Motherboard audio has found new life of its own as well – manufacturers have started using split planes and isolated trace sections on the board to push out as much interference as possible and have also started upping the quality of the amplification provided onboard with higher quality hardware and more power delivery being possible.

So that leads to my first point before diving in here – a standalone DAC and amplifier are not necessary for the vast majority of gamers or PC audio users, especially with modern motherboards. If you are happy with your current setup, changing to so-called “pro” hardware isn’t really necessary.

Where audio hardware like standalone external DACs and amps shine is in situations where you want to reduce noise in the signal. For me, in mid-2019, I got a vertical mount kit for my GPU, and when using it, because the PCI-Express connection was being carried via a thin ribbon cable over the sound sector of my motherboard, noise was introduced to the audio signal from it. There was audible hissing, popping, and cracking, which amplified further when using the GPU more – FFXIV drove the noise way up, and if I were still using that system, I’m sure the sound would be FM-radio quality while playing New World! This isn’t the fault of the motherboard, which used isolated sound circuitry and shielding to try and prevent it – but rather the lower quality of the vertical-mount PCIE extension riser, which used minimal shielding itself for a slot which has gigabytes per second of data and 75 watts of power flying across it.

Modern DAC/amps help this a lot by doing something very basic – they remove the audio hardware from the noise and signal interference of a modern PC. Your PC is a tightly integrated collection of signal wires and power wires packed densely together, and while modern PC motherboards do a fantastic job of trying to isolate sound hardware to minimize this, it can never fully be removed. The efficacy of your audio hardware providing a clean signal is called the “sound-to-noise ratio” and it is usually expressed in decibels of clean signal for every 1 decibel of noise. This is crucial because decibels scale logarithmically, not linearly, so having a signal with even 2 decibels of noise present is noticeably worse. Motherboard audio presents with pretty impressive specs on this side – my current motherboard has a rated signal-to-noise ratio of 120db, which is actually higher than my Schiit Modi 3’s 116db. However, this is subject to interference from other hardware, as happened to me with my PCIE riser cable, and in my current system, I have a dual-input HDMI capture card and a PCIE Gen 3 NVME SSD right near the audio section, alongside an RTX 3080 in the main PCIE slot. While the motherboard signal is clean in theory, these could interfere, especially at higher volumes (and I do tend to run my headphones hot!).

There is a second problem with integrated audio, or at least with some implementations of it. Most PC speakers and 3.5mm “gaming” headsets use basic 25 ohm impedance. To distill it down basically, the lower impedance a set of headphones is, the less power they need to reach full volume. 25 ohm is pretty standard, with a lot of mid-range and “DJ” headphones going to 70 ohm, before you get to audiophile stuff which tends to come in around 250-600 ohms. Because a lot of people have low impedance hardware, onboard sound in the past didn’t provide amplifier circuitry ample enough to tackle anything past that. You could plug in a set of 250 ohm enthusiast headphones, sure, but they’d probably be pretty quiet even at max volume. My current motherboard has a 600 ohm-capable headphone output, but only for the front headphone jack. If you keep your headphones plugged in full time and want the cable out of the way, that is a complication. The other thing this presents is max volume capability. Volume is derived from power, and the more power you can drive to your headphones, the louder they can be. My motherboard spec sheet does not list how much power headphones can get from it, but the Magni Heresy amp I have does, and it is a rather impressively high amount of power per channel that it can drive.

So I get noise-free signal due to the DAC and amp both being their own shielded, nothing-else boxes, and I get a measured, high quality power delivery to my headphones (and the speakers I have to use when I don’t want to wear headphones). Lastly, I can also upgrade the DAC and amp later if I so desire, which is great since while both Schiit boxes are great, they are the low end of their hardware and they offer some insane hardware higher up the chain!

Headphones, or How I Learned I Love Open Backs

The second and probably more exciting part of audiophile hardware is headphones. Headphones are always fun to discuss, because there’s so much you can tie up in them – the look, the style, the finishes and fit, the comfort for long wear, the audio quality, and more.

For ages, I only knew closed-back headphones, ear buds, and standard gamer headsets, all of which were, in that time, closed-back. Most lower end headphones and speakers are tuned to a bassy experience, because it sounds good to most people and a high punch of bass conveys power even if the audio device is less-than.

Getting into the world of audiophile hardware introduced me to a new concept – an open-backed headphone. To help illustrate, here is a photo of my Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro headphones, which are open-backed:

Those little peeks of silver grill are not for show, or at least not explicitly so. They are actually open to inside, around the drivers packed in, so audio can escape through them (and be heard externally) and air and external audio comes in through them to the listener’s ears.

Generally, closed back headphones are very good and they present excellent bass and are very capable of delivering strong, balanced sound. However, one thing that always got me with closed back headphones and gamer headsets with them is that I would get fatigued after a while of listening – my ears would get sweaty in the earcups, the rattle of noise against my head with nowhere to escape would start to wear on me, and so I found personally that I just could not use closed back headphones for long sessions.

Open-backed headphones change the game on that in a few ways. Because my ears are still getting air from outside the headphone cups, I rarely get sweat inside them, because the sound has a place to escape, I have noticeably less fatigue from long listening sessions, and they sound great. When you hear audiophiles talk about the difference, one of the big things they mention a lot is the concept of “soundstage” – that the headphones present audio that sounds like it comes from a larger or smaller space. Closed back headphones tend to have a smaller soundstage – the reverb and handling of audio that can’t easily escape makes the soundstage feel smaller, where open backed headphones tend to sound larger because there is an openness to it. I also find that a larger soundstage feel helps for simulated surround sound effects – because there is room for things to breathe, I’ve generally found that positional audio cues in games are much easier to get into with open-backed headphones.

That leaves one last listening question…

Why The Headphone Change?

I spent the first year of my grand audiophile experiment using the little brother to my current headphones, before upgrading to the DT1990 Pros in 2020. Is there a benefit?

Well…yes, and no.

Audio hardware discussions, like all of this post, are so difficult to have because they’re ultimately subjective. Each of us has ears that are attenuated to like different things in our audio, without even mentioning differences in application. For entertainment, a lot of people like punchy bass and will seek that out. Home entertainment systems might favor both bass and vocal ranges to make movie dialogue sound good and audible regardless of the mixing. If you use audio to make money (music production, voice over, podcasting, etc) – you might want a “neutral” set of headphones or speakers with no sweetening anywhere in the chain. Some of us even have hearing disorders – damaged ears, tinnitus, or the like, all of which change our listening experiences in different ways. Thus, headphone reviews are so much harder than normal PC hardware, because I can tell you what a difference from 32 FPS to 80 FPS on a graphics card upgrade means in objective terms, but the only truly objective way to measure headphones is a frequency response chart which may not even mesh with your audio stack or hearing capabilities!

So, firstly – I’ll admit that the style upgrade, fit and finish were a big part for me. Going from the DT990’s plastic outer shell and basic grill to the DT1990’s polished silver grills and metal cup and casing felt like a massive upgrade. Just look:

Sure, they’re for home listening so no one else really sees me with them except for when I’m streaming, but I like the statement piece aspect of the build quality of the DT 1990s. The other nice thing about that side of things is that you get more options with the DT 1990 Pros – the DT 990 is set as is with a single pair of velour ear foam and a fixed, non-removable coiled cable for connection. The DT 1990 Pro, on the other hand, includes two sets of ear cups (with different ventilation that changes the audio experience), two cables that are interchangeable via a Mini-XLR connector (a coiled cable and a straight cable), and they come with a nice carrying case that protects the headphones very well and has space for all the accessories.

The next nice thing I wanted with the 1990s is the slightly improved frequency response – on objective measurements, they are slightly more capable than the 990s and theoretically solid for audio production (although most pros use closed-back headphones for that work to avoid outside sound filtering in). Lastly, I wasn’t quite ready or sure about making the leap to a higher-end DAC/amp stack with Balanced output capabilities, so these headphones felt pretty top line for a standard stereo output and would be nice until I decided to go balanced (if I do, because I haven’t yet and I’m not sure I see the need).

However, the price difference is interesting, in that the DT 990s were around $150 while the DT 1990s were around $600. Are they four times better? No. Unambiguously, no. They’re great headphones and I like them a lot, and the comfort and style over the 990s were worth it to me, but even those are not 4x improvements!

Overall Impressions

In the end, was this upgrade worth it for me?

I think it was, yes. A part of having an audiophile hardware stack has meant taking more time to listen for details, to pick up on the finer things in my audio and to find better ways to listen, like lossless audio tracks directly from bands and using high quality settings in games to get as much detail and spatial processing in as possible to really immerse myself in games. All of this would be possible with motherboard audio, albeit at slightly lower quality.

And that really is the key – slightly lower quality. Today, motherboard audio and the DAC/amps in most modern gaming headsets are good at their job. Not even just “good enough” in that sort of basic, it’ll-do way – just outright good. Some are even great. A lot of motherboard manufacturers have taken to making audio quality a new differentiator, especially since the modern era of computing presents precious few opportunities for your motherboard to have a measurable performance difference on your system as a whole. For most people, a gaming headset or a decent set of headphones plugged into your motherboard will be fine. If you want to take the step into audiophile hardware, I highly recommend Schiit and Beyerdynamic stuff from my personal experience – the quality of the hardware is great and, exempting the DT1990s, the pricing is also pretty reasonable to get started with. Below, I’ve included some affiliate links to Amazon to purchase these products if you so desire. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (For the DAC and amplifier, Schiit sells directly and I would recommend buying the stack from them directly.)

beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open Studio Headphones

beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro 250 ohm Over-Ear Studio Headphones For Mixing, Mastering, and Editing

Schiit Modi 3+ D/A Converter – Delta-Sigma DAC (Black)

Schiit Magni Heresy 100% Op-Amp-Based Headphone Amp and Preamp

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