Dennis Burger is a native Alabamian whose passion for AV began sometime before the age of seven, when he dismantled his parents' brand new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV and exclaimed--to the amusement of no one except the delivery guy--that it was missing all of its vacuum tubes. He has since contributed to Home Theater Magazine, Wirecutter, Cineluxe, Electronic House, and more. His specialties include high-end audio, home theater receivers, advanced home automation, and video codecs.
I said in my quick review of the Schiit Fulla 3 gaming DAC/amp that I would probably be completely happy letting that little device handle all of my desktop audio needs (for gaming headsets, headphones, and desktop monitors alike) if not for the existence of the company's step-up model, the $189 Hel.
Truth be told, I wish I'd had the luxury of time to spend a few weeks with the Fulla 3 on its own, judging it by its own merits, before comparing it with its bigger brother, because my first experience with Hel spoiled me rotten. Simply put, this little desktop DAC and amp has features and functionality I didn't even know I needed, and I speak as someone who has owned too many dedicated soundcards, DAWs, and gaming DACs to count.
Compared with the Fulla 3, the Hel is a big bigger in every dimension, although it's still quite compact given its capabilities. The main chassis measures 5 by 3.5 by 1-1/16 inches, with the volume knob atop adding another 7/16 of an inch or so. Within those relatively snug confines, Hel packs in 1200mW RMS into 16 ohms, 1000mW RMS into 32 ohms, 650mW RMS into 50 ohms, and an impressive 200mW RMS into 300-ohm loads.
It also sports a distinctive black and red color scheme similar to what we've seen on Schiit's Magni Heresy Headphone Amp and Preamp, and features all of the I/O options of the Fulla 3 and then some. In addition to its USB audio input, it features an analog audio input (3.5mm), a preamp output (3.5mm), a source selection switch (analog or USB), a gain select switch, and a USB power input.
Unlike with the Fulla 3, the USB power input on the Hel isn't optional. The USB data input alone can't draw enough power from your PC or console to power the amp, so you'll have to make two USB connections – one of them attached to a supplied wall wart to feed the amp with juice.
Other than that, setup is simple and straightforward if you have a modern desktop or laptop that supports UAC2. With Windows 10, the Hel is literally plug and play. For older operating systems, Schiit provides drivers on the product page.
As was the case with the Fulla 3, I ran the preamp output of the Hel into the aux input of my Prime Wireless speakers, giving me easy access to tactile volume control of my main desktop audio system when I wasn't wearing a gaming headset or headphones. Plugging in the latter overrides the preamp output, and the only fiddling I ever needed to do was to switch between gain settings if I was testing a hard-to-drive headset or headphones at the time.
It's worth mentioning here that the headphone output of the Hel is quarter-inch variety, not 3.5mm, so you'll need an adapter for most gaming headsets. Schiit does provide one in the box, along with all the cables you'll need to hook up the Hel, but I ended up replacing the quarter-inch-to-3.5mm adapter after a few days of use, for reasons I'll dig into in a bit.
Keeping things consistent between reviews, I mostly relied on the same gaming headsets and headphones for the bulk of my testing, including Kingston's HyperX Cloud, my Sennheiser G4me One open-back headset, my beyerdynamic Custom One Pro Plus with Custom Headset Gear, along with Sennheiser's newer GSP 600, as well as my Westone ES50 custom IEMs and my Audeze LCD-2 planar magnetic cans.
I also started my with the same game: Civilization VI, relying on my Sennheiser G4me One headset to deliver game's amazing music with all the extra air and detail I could squeeze out of it, with the amp set to High Gain mode to compensate for the headset's power hungriness. This time around, I opted for Gilgamesh as my leader (mostly for the rewards when fighting barbarians), but I stuck around for the melancholic score, which sounded absolutely captivating via the Hel/G4me One combo. The attack and decay of the lone woodwind, as well as the strings, gave the score both an immediacy and a sense of space that frankly almost distracted me from the game itself. I swapped in couple other headsets, mostly my HyperX Cloud, and all proved richer, more percussive, and more controlled than they did through the Fulla 3, but the G4me One kept calling my name. It was simply intoxicating when paired with this amp. Unlike with the Fulla 3, I also found that I could drive the G4me One to wholly satisfying listening levels with plenty of overhead left on the volume knob.
The same was true when I switch over to DOOM Eternal. Even with power-hungry G4me One headset, I could barely tolerate a volume level above 50 percent or so. But at that level, the Sennheiser open-backed headset delivered all of the visceral, shotgun-cocking, chainsaw-screaming, spine-ripping, heavy-metal rocking action with utter authority, wonderful tonal balance, and the ability to position myself and the demons around me in space with pinpoint accuracy.
A switch to my HyperX Cloud headset added even more oomph and impact (although a little less verisimilitude in terms of space), while also dialing back on the volume knob even more.
Simply put, every gaming headset and headphone that I threw at the Hel sounded better, and the adjustable gain allowed me to tailor the performance to the needs of each personal audio device. What's more, the performance between headsets was more consistent via the Hel, mostly because the amp is less a slave to the impedance curves of the headsets themselves thanks to its low output impedance of 0.25 ohms (vs. 0.5 ohms for the Fulla 3 and 1 ohm for competitive products like the Sound BlasterX G6).
One other thing that I want to harp on a bit that doesn't really fall under the metric of "Performance," but nonetheless affects ergonomics and usability, is the Hel's separate microphone volume adjustment knob on its front façade. I've recently gotten back into playing Guild Wars 2 with some friends (HomeTheaterReview's John Higgins, along with colleague Geoffrey Morrison), and having that mic adjustment has been a godsend. With it, I can tweak the output of my voice perfectly without having to dig into the setup menus of Discord, or without making my guildmates do the same.
You'd think this would be a set-it-and-forget-it sort of thing, but it's not. When I'm playing Guild Wars 2, I need a little more volume to my voice comms than I do with, say, Civilization VI. And when I'm playing Diablo III cooperatively online, I need even more vocal punch to cut through the mix. Honestly, this is a feature I didn't even know I needed, but now that I've lived with it via the Hel, there's no going back for me. It's now an essential element of any good gaming amp and DAC in my book.
My biggest concern about the Schiit Hel is that the quarter-inch-to-3.5mm adapter that ships with the unit is pretty much useless. The female end of the adapter is too loose, and the spring inside doesn't grip a headphone or headset's 3.5mm connector firmly enough, resulting in constant dropouts and crackling. I replaced the adapter with a cheapo $10 adapter from Amazon, which fixed all of these problems, but I feel a $189 headset amp and DAC should ship with better accessories.
I also wish Schiit would label its switches and connections more clearly. It's pretty easy to remember that headphone plugs into the left and microphone into the right (especially given the need for an adapter), but if for some reason you can't remember that, you're gonna need a flashlight to figure out which connection is which, thanks to the low-contrast silk screening. What's more, Schiit's reliance on symbols instead of words does the unit no favors. Of the two switches on the front, I'm really only able to remember that the right one is for gain switching because I use it on a daily basis. And I had to consult the manual to remind me that the left one is for input switching.
I also have one wholly subjective criticism that you can feel free to ignore if you want. But I wish the volume knob atop the Hel were metallic like that of the Fulla 3. I can adjust the volume of the Fulla 3 without taking my eyes off the screen, because the high contrast of the volume knob stands out in my peripheral vision. The black knob of the Hel means that it blends right in, so if I need to tweak the loudness level, I have to either paw around for it or look down at my desk.
Competition and Comparisons
Right now, the biggest competition for the Schiit Hel is probably Creative's Sound BlasterX G6, which offers many of the same input and output options, just without the separate volume control for the mic input, but with the addition of a few features like surround sound processing and a feature called Scout Mode designed to help you more accurately local opponents in multiplayer games.
I haven't auditioned the G6 myself yet, although I have for years used Creative's Sound Blaster E5 as my headset amp and gaming DAC of choice. The one big advantage the Schiit has over the Creative offerings, in my opinion, is that it doesn't require drivers or ancillary software, which always seem to cause me problems with my setup. What's more, even without surround sound processing, I found myself always immersed wonderfully in the space around me via the Hel.
Of course, if you have no need for a microphone input – say, for instance, you use a USB mic for your gaming comms – you might instead consider Schiit's Magni/Modi stack, which will run you $198, but which provides more than twice the power and is rated to drive 600-ohm loads.
As tired a cliché as this may be, if Schiit asks me to pack up the Hel High-Power Gaming/Music/Communications DAC/Amp tomorrow, I'm going to ask for accommodation pricing. If that's not available, I'm buying one at retail. This wonderful little amp and DAC covers all of my desktop audio needs, both for gaming and music alike. Its bountiful output is enough to drive even the greediest headphones and gaming headsets in my collection, and its sound quality is simply delicious.
I honestly kinda thought its preamp capabilities would be wasted on me, since I tend to feed my powered desktop speakers an optical audio signal. But having the volume control right within reach in a little device that sits just below my monitor on my desktop has proven incredibly convenient. And being able to plug in my headset and get to playing without fiddling with output options in Windows 10 (as easy as that may be) has been an added convenience that I never knew I was looking for.
The functionality alone would be enough to sell me on Hel. But combine that with rich, punchy, detailed audio output, and I honestly think I've found my perfect desktop audio solution for gaming and music alike.
• Visit the Schiit website for more product information.
• Read Schiit Fulla 3 Gaming DAC/Amp Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Read What the AV Industry Could Learn from a Silly Bedding Company at HomeTheaterReview.com.