Best Headphone Systems for PC Gaming
For the best sound experience while gaming, a DAC and amp provide a huge level above a lone soundcard. It is possible to add better positionality in gaming through Dolby surround sound, achieved with a “Dolby Digital 5.1 Headphone” soundcard (Dolby is better than CMSS-3D from Titanium cards for music/game immersiveness, but is slightly behind in fps gaming ie positioning where your enemy is). For superior quality sound AND Dolby, a cheap internal soundcard such as the Asus Xonar DG/DGX can passthrough Dolby to a high-quality DAC (external soundcard) that will encode/process the sound (not the cheap soundcard), then to an Amp to power headphones (analog speakers don’t need amp). Note: headphones are good in that you can get amazing fidelity and surround sound within low cost/space, but they cannot best the richness and listening pleasure of speakers (listed below headphones).
See Also: Best IEM (In-Ear Headphones) and Portable Headphones
Super Budget, Digital Soundcard Only ~$15 + Headphones
[internal soundcard] Asus Xonar DG $15 (PCI Version) [Amazon] (don’t recommend DGX/PCI-X for this setup because it currently has front panel headphone jack power issues currently) –> –>
[headphone] Focal Elegia $450+ [MrSpeakers].
Best Value Audiophile Setup, (Soundcard optional for Dolby)+DAC+Amp ~$300 + Headphones
Either (1) USB connect PC directly to DAC or (2) Optical toslink connect internal soundcard to DAC (to achieve Dolby surround), need to have a Dolby soundcard
–> USB –>
[DAC + Amp] Either (1) JDSLABS Objective2 + ODAC Combo Headphone amp By NwAvGuy model $290 [Amazon] OR (2) Schiit Modi 2 $100 [Amazon, Schiit] + Schiit Magni 2 $100 [Amazon, Schiit]
–> –> [headphone]
- Optical Toslink [Most Recommended]
[internal soundcard] Asus Xonar DG $15 (PCI Version) [Amazon] or DGX $40 (PCI-X Version) [Amazon]
–> optical toslink –>
[DAC] Modi 2 Uber $150 (Modi is USB only, Modi Uber is USB and optical toslink) [Amazon, Schiit]
–> RCA –>
[amp] Schiit Magni 2 $100 [Amazon, Schiit]
–> –> [headphone]
These are unrivaled in their price ranges:
- $300 Wired: Audio-Technica ATH-R70X $300 – More fun and pleasing to listen to than Sennheiser HD 800. More bass than Beyerdynamic DT880 (600 ohm).
- $300 Wireless: For wireless, will take a drop in quality from the Audio-Technica. Audeze Mobius $400 [Amazon] (pure gaming with closed back) OR Hifiman Deva $300 [Amazon] (music/TV with open air, a worse Sundeva). Deva is more comfortable, Mobius has better mic. Mobius is slightly better than the SteelSeries Arctis Pro, which is a populary recommended gaming headphone.
- Hifiman Ananda $700 [Amazon] – Incredible. Great at everything, albeit expensive and not specialized (not specific to gaming or super reference or for super bassheads). Closed Headphones, better than MrSpeakers (Dan Clark Audio) Aeon 2 / Ether 2, Focal Elegia (and Elex/Elear, all similar, Elegia is closed back version and Elear is a slightly bassier Elex), Denon D2000, Denon D5000 and Sennheiser 820, and Audeze LCD 2. Basically a budget Sennheiser 800. Known for not great build quality, however. There is a bluetooth option, $1000 ($800 used) [Amazon], however, more expensive, don’t have flexibility of changing the DAC and amp, and is more of a niche item (Why does one need bluetooth in your home? It is too big of a headphone to be portable and it is open back so needs a quiet room). Better than Sennheiser HD 800S – Sennheiser is slightly more open-sounding, slightly better durability, but a tad brighter, and the Ananda has a bit more bass and better value, more “fun”. Better than Koss ESP95X or ESP950.
- Focal Clear $1000+ [Amazon]. Absolute best but might not be worth the price of admission, price boost over the Ananda. Ananda is warmer, bigger sound stage (airy), larger bass, even more comfortable and lightweight. The Clear has better low bass and better detail – slightly better for mids and vocals but Ananda is much less pricey. Some find it too bright compared to Ananda.
Note: Open Air Headphones – Bigger Soundstage, Better sound fidelity, but Leaks some sound to outside and allows sound to enter (e.g air conditioning)
Waiting for – A $500-$1000 bluetooth audiophile set of headphones that are closed back, possibly noise cancelling, and stands out as much better quality audio than the Sony WH-1000XM4 (reigning budget champion for closed back noise cancelling $200)
With – Brainwavz Sheepskin Earpads
Audiophile Setup, Expensive DAC and Tube Amp ~$900 + Headphones
- [internal soundcard] Asus Xonar DG $15 [PCI Version Amazon] or DGX $40 [PCI-X Version Amazon]
–> optical –>
- [DAC] Schiit Bifrost $350 [Amazon or Schiit] -> (RCA Cables)
–> RCA –>
- [amp] Schiit Lyr 2 $500 (Tube/SS Hybrid) [Amazon or Schiit]
- [headphone] Hifiman Ananda $700 [Amazon]
**For replacement tubes that are better than stock go for Tesla E88CC Gold $50/pair, Amperex USN-CEP 6DJ8, Amperex Bugle Boy D Getter 6DJ8, or Matsushita [TubeMonger], (also try to get matched pairs). To save $150 on Amp but little less quality/”tube fun” substitute the Lyr for Asgard 2 $290 (Solid State) [Amazon, Schiit]. To save $300 on DAC, instead of the Bifrost get the ODAC $150 from [Audio Poutine]
The audiophile setups are better than Fiio Systems (D3 to E7, E9, or E11), Little Dot mkii or chinese tubes like Qinpu Q-2, Monoprice ODAC + amp, Schiit Vali is bad (downsides of tube amps but none of the upsides)
Ohm rating on your headphones should be 10 times or more higher than the output impedance (Ohm) of the sound card.
Hook up: To use an Asus Xonar DG/DGX with a DAC, enable Dolby Headphone and then enable SPDIFF (be sure EAX/GX disabled). Instead of using Asus drivers for DG/DGX, use the Unified Xonar. Also, if you’re experiencing errors, disable the onboard audio in the BIOS (deleting on-board sound’s audio driver/software may help also). Cables – Depending on the DAC, it will connect to the PC via USB or SPDIFF (optical) or both. USB won’t be able to connect to an internal soundcard for Dolby surround sound (but still great for non-gaming). Optical/spdiff is better quality but USB input is nice for laptop usage. To connect DAC to Amp, you will need a simple 2x RCA -> 2x RCA cable. (monoprice cables off Amazon are good quality, inexpensive $6-$20, varying lengths but more choice at monoprice.com).
For Portable Headphones, IEM, Noise-Canceling, and Bluetooth – see “Best IEM (Earbuds) and Portable Headphones“
Sources: Head-Fi Forum research and MalVeauX, Mad Lust Envy Guide to Headphones, Shootout Portable Headphones, Crinacle’s Rankings
Best Cheap Gaming Microphone (Gaming Mic) For Skype or TeamSpeak or Vent, Only ~$5:
[dealextreme link] (unbranded). I know that one is good, but alternative amazon links for clip on mics that look the same: [Amazon 5x Pack Neewer Brand, Amazon 3x Pack Neewer Brand, Amazon 1 Pack HDE Brand]
Best Podcasting / Streaming Microphone:
See: “LoL Pro Mouses and Keyboards“
Best Speaker System
For speakers, you can use the DAC, with its set of L/R RCA outputs, to output to any system (directly to a 2.0 system, receiver, preamp, amp, etc). A good 2.0 or 2.1 system (2 speakers, subwoofer optional) is great, even for imaging, immersion, and surround. A quality 2.0 speaker system is always better than a cheap 5 or 7 speaker system. Headphones are good in that you can get amazing fidelity for a low cost, but the richness and sheer listening pleasure of speakers cannot be bested by a headphone.
(All-In-One Solution without big bass)
- Value 2.0: Swan D300 $400 [Swan] (these are more the level of high-level computer speakers, wireless)
- Great 2.0: Swan M200mkiii+ Bluetooth $500 [Swan] (these are more the level of studio monitors)
- The 2.0 choices are better if you aren’t a basshead or if your headphones cover your bass/gaming needs. The lack of sub/bass means they’re great for most types of music, but a little lacking in “fun” for movies/gaming (albeit still good).
Receiver + Passive Speakers + Bass
- Better quality sound for cheaper price, and better for mixing and matching components (ie add Bass)
- Best Value Mid-Range (this setup is better than M200mkiii above): Stereo amp + Yamaha NS-6490 Speakers $128 [Amazon] (substitute Pioneer SP-BS22-LR $100 or Micca MB42), HSU STF-2 Subwoofer $329 [HSU] (better than the substitutes Outlaw Audio M8 $300 or BIC America F12 $220)
- Best Value High-Range: Receiver ie a Denon AVR + SUB Better quality SVS PB2000 or SB2000 $800 [SVSound] (PB is ported & larger for bigger rooms and higher ceilings as opposed to the SB which is sealed and smaller) or better value Rythmik LV12R $600 [Rythmik Audio] (new version of FV120), KEF T305 (5 speakers) $2k – Super slim profile that can be put on the wall (Note: The stands are nice but expensive. Get the different sub because the KEF T305 sub is weak)
- Absolute Best: SUB – SVS Ultra (beats any sub at any price) $2k [SVSound], Speakers and Receiver?
Don’t get: Dayton B652 – horrible, Sony SS-B1000 (these are best selling bookshelf speaker on Amazon, but just decent), AudioEngines A5 or A2 or M-Audios