PC gamers have been after aural nirvana dating all the way back to the days of the original AdLib, Creative Labs, and Yamaha add-in boards from 30+ years ago. Modern trends have seen headphones and headsets dominate the PC gaming market and millennials have helped grow the audiophile headphone market to unseen heights. All sorts of devices and add-ons have hit the market in recent years, promising audiophile-quality audio, surround sound or any number of other buzzwords. Most of these devices failed to cater to customers who prefer to use their music headphones with their devices for gaming, often failing to provide enough juice for power-hungry headphones. The Schiit Hel is one of the first all-in-one input/output devices that marries a serious headphone amp with a DAC and high-quality analog microphone input.
What is this Schiit?
The Schiit company was founded nearly a decade ago with the intention of providing high-quality audio performance for a fair price with American-built equipment. They initially catered to the high-end headphone amplification market then later expanding into conventional power amps, preamps, and even vinyl playback solutions. All of their products have traditionally been housed in silver chassis, but the new Schiit Hel marks the first product made with gamers in mind and sports a charcoal enclosure with bright red sides. Gamers love them some red stuff, so it certainly makes sense from a marketing perspective.
For the price of $189, buyers get an op-amp-based headphone amplifier capable of driving all but the most insanely demanding headphones (think Hifiman HE-6) to ear-piercing levels with no audible distortion. Additionally, the Hel includes a DAC that makes use of the AKM 4490 chip, allowing PC gamers to eliminate EMI noise from their motherboard audio solutions and potentially feed a clean signal to other equipment. The Hel offers preamp outputs on the rear for folks who would like to send that clean audio out to a set of powered studio monitors (check our guide to using powered monitors with your PC here) or conventional computer speakers. The output is variable and is controlled by the wonderful volume knob affixed to the top of the Hel’s chassis. This oversized knob also acts as a volume control for the headphone output. I should note that the preamp output is muted when you plug in headphones and goes out once they are unplugged. A switch for this functionality would have been nice but is no deal-breaker.
What makes Hel different from the countless DAC/amp combos on the market is the inclusion of an analog microphone input. If you have an analog gaming headset, desktop mic, or lapel mic, the Hel lets you communicate clearly while you still reap the benefits of an outstanding headphone amplifier. The mic input has its own dedicated gain knob mounted to the front of the chassis. The input is paired with an AKM analog to digital converter, Texas Instruments OPA1662 amp and Alps potentiometer to ensure a clean sound and reliable, noise-free gain adjustment.
The mic audio is sent back to your PC or device through the same micro-USB cable that brings audio from your device to the Hel’s DAC. Rounding out the package is an analog input jack on the rear of the chassis should you want to make use of the headphone amplifier or variable preamp outs when using another source's line out functionality. This makes it easy to use a mobile phone, CD player, Chromecast Audio, or other line-level sources with the Hel. The line-in, preamp output, and mic input all make use of 3.5mm jacks. A 4-pole, 3.5mm TRS adapter is included in the box for connecting devices that use a single 3.5mm jack for both audio and microphone, like some gaming headsets or earbuds with built-in microphones. The headphone output on the front of the Hel is in the form of a 6.5mm (¼”) jack and the box includes a 6.5mm adapter if your headphones only have a 3.5mm plug. A pair of toggles on the front of the Hel allow input switching between USB and line-level input and the amount of gain for the headphone output (Hi/Low). A third toggle switch on the rear acts as a power switch and when powered up, the unit has a soft red light that can be seen from its ventilation slots.
What’s this Schiit sound like?
With all the features and spec mumbo jumbo out of the way — How does the Schiit Hel sound? It sounds really good. During my time with the Hel, I tried a number of different headphones, including the Sennheiser HD650, Sennheiser HD598, Audio Technica ATH-A900X. Audio Technica ATH-AD900X, Audio Technica ATH-AD700, Audio Technica ATH-M50X, Monoprice Monolith M1060, Philips SHP9500S, Philips Fidelio X2HR, HyperX Cloud Flight, Audeze Mobius, and a few different IEMs.
The Hel got the job done with every set of cans I plugged into it, even the 300-ohm HD650s and temperamental Monolith planar magnetics. I’ve tried these particular headphones with other gaming-centric devices and “premium” motherboard sound solutions without much luck, so I was ecstatic from hearing the amount of clean power the Hel provided in high-gain mode. The built-in DAC offered clean output and worked in 24-bit/192KHz mode using the WASAPI plugin for foobar2000 for playback of high-resolution recordings, all without the need for driver installation (on Windows 10 machines). I found the DAC to be noticeably better than my first-generation Schiit Modi or FiiO E10K when I ran it through my Schiit Magni 3 headphone amp. Where the signal was distorting at a certain threshold with my Modi, the Hel DAC was cleaner than a preacher’s sheets (likely due to better design and higher output voltage).
I spend a lot of time gaming on my PC and talking with friends via Teamspeak and Discord, but I refused to give up my dedicated amp/DAC stack for music listening, so my microphone situation has always been a bit of a mess as I had to use USB desktop mics or lapel mics with cords running to the rear of my PC instead of into the same devices I used for listening. With the Schiit Hel, my mic and headphones end up in the same spot, allowing me to combine cables and keep my setup clean. The mic preamp offers clear, loud output when needed that is a noticeable step up from my motherboard mic input (which left me at the mercy of the Windows level setting and a simple 10db boost). The gain knob allows for easy mic adjustment in all situations and is a godsend when paired with the outstanding headphone amp.
Do I need this kind of Schiit in my life?
The Schiit Hel is powerful enough for all but the most ridiculously inefficient headphones. It makes 200mW of power at 300 ohms. For comparison, the Sound Blaster Omni only offers 14mW at 300 ohms and the ASUS Xonar U7 manages 5mW. Those devices are cheaper but are effectively worthless for anyone who needs a real headphone amp. At the time of this writing, the only comparable product is the Mayflower ARC, which offers an optical input, but comes in at a higher price (and with a less lovely volume knob).
Should you open your checkbook for the Schiit Hel? It depends on how much you value the time you spend listening to music and if you own serious headphones (or plan to in the future). It will not make you a better gamer and anyone who claims it makes footsteps easier to hear is blowing smoke. If you have the need for clean amplification on the desktop with a good mic input, this is the device for you. It takes up minimal desk space and the volume knob is really nice. If you run a set of powered monitors, the Hel makes a wonderful volume controller. I would have preferred an option without the red paint job, but this thing is good enough to earn permanent residence on my desktop. This Schiit is no turd. 9/10 horrible poop puns
- Most powerful headphone amp available in gaming-centric product
- Top-shelf components
- Stellar mic input with variable gain
- Excellent knob feel :)
- Preamp out and line-in makes it versatile
- The color scheme is less than classy
- A physical switch for preamp/headphone out swapping would be preferred
Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Schiit Hel review: This is the Schiit I'm talking about
awesome. Cool looking product and good to see this sort of stuff on my most precious of shacks.
If you love that volume knob so much, why don't you marry it?
Good Schiit, Chris.