Many of you, myself included, love to play games with a headset on? Why? Because you want to be able to hear where the enemy is, what direction they’re coming from, and things like grenades or other sounds that make the difference between winning and losing.
You’ve done some research around headphones, perhaps even diving in audiophile forums and blogs. Thy keep mentioning things like amplifiers and DACs, which can be confusing. You soon begin to wonder… do I need to buy an amp or a DAC for my gaming headphones to improve the sound quality? Will that make a difference? Or is that just extra money spent?
Gaming headphones do not need to be connected to an amp or DAC to perform well. Plugging it straight into the motherboard will get you high-quality sounds. If you think your headset is too quiet, then it can benefit from a separate amplifier. A DAC can help make the sounds more clean and help with problems such as hissing and unwanted noise.
If the impedance of your headset is lower than 100 ohms, there is no need to buy any external device. If you’re headed on that audiophile road and want to listen to studio-quality sounds, then both can improve your listening experience.
For games though, they’re both added expenses.
What is an Amp?
Amp stands for amplifier.
Amps are used to bring low-level signals to higher-levels to transfer sound waves into your high-end drivers in your headsets or to large speakers on your desktop.
For example, if you’re using your phone to connect to really large speakers, the volume may not be very loud or crisp. With an amp in the middle, the signals can be amplified to work with larger sound devices.
The same goes for your headsets. Within each side of a headset are individual speakers (smaller than desktop speakers, but still speakers). The signal from your PC/phone needs to be at an appropriate level to sound decent out of your headset.
How Amps Help With Headphones
Amps do what is in their name, they amplify the low-voltage signals into higher voltage signals. This helps increase the volume range on your headset.
If you plug in a headset into your computer, crank it up to max volume, and find that the volume is still too low, then connecting an amp will help.
Can a Sound Card Replace an Amp?
Sound cards on your motherboard actually already have built-in DACs and amps within them. Without any of these things, you can’t just plug in headphones or earbuds and expect to hear sound out of your PC.
Some sound cards are high quality and can improve the quality of your higher-end gaming headphones. They may not suffice if you have high-end audiophile headphones that are meant for listening to high fidelity audio.
What is a DAC?
DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter. DACs change a digital signal to an analog signal that can then be amplified via an amp. Many DACs come with built-in amplifiers.
Digital devices, which are common nowadays, such as personal computers, cell phones, tablets, and the like produce digital audio signals. For a signal to be amplified, it needs to be a low-voltage analog signal. The DAC does the conversion.
Devices that already make analog signals themselves, such as old tape cassettes or record players, do not need a DAC.
Does My Phone/PC Need a DAC?
Many digital devices, such as phones and computers, have DACs built in. If not, then you cannot just plug in a pair of headphones and expect sound to come out.
Alongside this, they also have amps built in as well to amplify these signals into your earbuds or headphones.
The quality of these built-in DACs vary from product to product. For example, if you connect a nice pair of audiophile headphones into your phone, it may not sound as nice as connecting it into your PC with a built-in sound card dedicated for playing music.
The benefit of purchasing a separate DAC is that you control the quality of the sound.
However, if you have a budget or cheap pair of headphones or earbuds, it may not benefit all that much from a separate DAC and amp.
Because the sound quality of these headphones are already low and don’t have much room for improvement. The built-in DAC/Amp within your device is already good enough to produce sound from these headphones.
If you do decide to buy or have a nice pair of headphones, then a separate DAC and Amp will make a difference in your audio setup.
What DACs Can Help With
If you plug in your headset and you’re noticing hissing or extraneous noises, then a DAC may help you.
An external DAC could clean up that signal for you, getting rid of these extra noises.
DACs also do other things as well, but these are quite unrelated to gaming sounds. If you’re on the route to becoming a bonafide audiophile, there are many resources on the internet for high-end DACs on sites such as Headphonesty and the Sound Guys.
Important Terms, Explained
Impedance is a measure of resistance of an electrical signal. It’s measured in the unit of ohms, which you’ll see next to some higher end headphones or headsets. This number is not common to see in gaming headsets, however.
The higher the impedance number, the more likely you need an amplifier for the headphone to function properly.
Any headset with an impedance of higher than 32 ohms will need an amp to work properly when paired with a smartphone or tablet. Impedance on a headset can vary from as low as 8 ohms all the way up to 600 ohms.
|8 – 32||Low-impedance|
Headphones with higher than 100 + ohms are categorized as high-impedance devices and need an amplifier to work properly. These are usually used in a studio setting.
Low-impedance devices can connect to any battery-powered device, such as a smartphone or tablet, and work fine.
Impedance primarily affects the volume of the sound. Connecting high impedance headphones to a phone will result in extremely low volume, even if it’s cranked all the way up.
Connecting a pair of low impedance headphones to an amplifier will increase the sound a ton.
Sensitivity is a measurement of the volume of a pair of headphones at a specific power, usually per millivolt.
It is measured in the unit of decibels.
To be simply put, it’s the measure of how loud your headset will be when you power it at a specific power level.
Often, headsets will range from 50 to 80 dB. Anything higher than this is probably too loud.
Higher sensitivity or efficiency means that a headset can be very loud and sound good without giving it too much power.
For most, if not all, gaming headsets, plugging your headset into your computer sound card or motherboard will be enough to send out high-quality sound signals for gaming purposes, listening for grenades and footsteps, in-game music, etc.
If you do find that you’re having problems with low-volume on your headphones even at max volume, then an external amplifier could help with this issue.
If you find that your headsets are producing hissing or extra noise in the background, an external DAC could help with these issues.
Often times, a DAC will come with an amplifier and make the job easier with a single purchase.
Unless you’re using high-end audiophile headphones to play games with, you won’t need to buy anything extra (unless you want to, because it does look cool having an amp/DAC on your desk that you plug into).