Desktop PC upgrade advice


I’m looking for advice and inspiration in what can be a bit of a confusing and complicated hobby!

In terms of kit, I currently have a Sennheiser PC38x and some Blon 3 IEMs via my pc motherboard. I listen to music, play games and also spend a lot of time on video calls whilst working from home. The blons aren’t used as a mic. And games are very mixed, with my desire for immersion rather than competitiveness. I’ve grown tired of wearing big headphones for work calls (it looks a bit unprofessional at times) so I’ve also bought a Rode shotgun microphone.

Long story over: I curious that there’s more to get out the headphones. I’m therefore curious about dac/amps, and have swayed toward the Schiit Hel2. But given my shotgun microphone purchase I wonder if there’s a different way given no need for a mic in. I’m also curious about different headphones as a replacement (I’ve looked at Beyer 990 or tgyr 300s). I like open backs and you can read into my budget based on the above.

I’m asking this forum for advice on potential system builds that consider my use cases above and present kit. Including whether a dac/amp would be worthwhile.

There seems so many options therefore some guidance based on people’s experience would be fabulous.

With thanks

Welcome to Hifiguides Forums! Don’t mind the crazy… we don’t clean it up, but you get used to it around here.

Seriously though, two years ago, I was in almost EXACTLY your shoes. The best advice I can give you? RUN! Take your money and run far and fast away from this demonic hole that will suck all of the money out of your bank while you learn to listen to finer and finer details that keep promising you that the /next/ purchase will finally put the last piece into the puzzle, and that golden perfect sound that your brain can now perfectly imagine will finally envelop your ears in audio bliss.

Alternatively, a Magni/Modi stack, a DT990 pro, and you’re off to the races! The trouble comes in a couple of months when the upgrade bug starts biting. You get this itch in your brain that’s all like “this sounds so much better than I used to listen to… how deep does that go?” The problem is the answer is “deeper than your pockets” pretty much no matter who you are.

How are you connecting your shotgun mic? If it’s an XLR mic, most interfaces have a dac and head amp in them for monitoring, which should be a bit of an upgrade from your motherboard’s unit.

Most modern gaming mobos have a decent enough dac on board, they’re just crammed into a noisy environment.

Enough ranting and venting - serious advice time. Two basic rules tend to be true more often than not:

1-Generally speaking, separate devices built to do one job tend to be better at that job than the devices which do multiple things. For example, a dedicated dac in the $100-$200 range will likely be a better dac than what you find in an all in one dac/amp even in the $200-$300 range

2-The old adage of “you get what you pay for” rings pretty true, so long as you stick into the mainstream of manufacturers and products that have established themselves enough that the community knows who they are. You’ll see a lot of reviews and comments about products that “punch above their weight class” or “compete with units costing twice as much”, etc. don’t you believe them! I know it’s a popular way to express just how damn nice something can be “for its price” but that’s just the problem- the people saying these things are /almost/ universally speaking hyperbolically from the frame of reference of that price.

You’re just not going to find a $200 dac that sounds as good as a $2,000 dac. The same is true of headphones, amps, etc.

My best advice would be to think long and hard about your budget and goals, and view any purchases through that lens. There are so many great options in the entry level that it’s pretty easy not to go wrong.

Thanks very much for the comprehensive reply.

I absolutely recognise the impending rabbit hole… Something I fell into with Custom Keyboards (so much so I decided to start an internet business selling to others in a desperate bid to fund my hobby)!

In terms of the mic, it’s a usb mic however I’m able to have no-latency monitoring via the microphone itself (I can plug my IEMs directly into the mic and use it to both monior my speech, but also as a pass-through for all computer sound!).

I recognise the noise created by the motherboard, which is certainly impacting things.

I’m based in the UK which slightly complicates obtaining certain products, however that’s my problem ;).

I’m comfortable that a £200 Dac/Amp combo won’t be equivalent to a £2k combo and after taking a look around I noted in addition to Schiit variants, the Topping DX-3 Pro seems to be popular (although not sure why the Bluetooth would be a thing of use to me)…

In terms of headphones, I’m trying to figure out if a DT 990, Tygr 300 or perhaps a Hifiman Sundara would be a worthy “upgrade” to the PC38X…?

Mostly, that part of my post was for humor’s sake. Sorry if it came off as a serious message to run. The money hole that is audio gear has some running jokes surrounding it, and I lean into those sorts of things sometimes.

So you already know what a dac amp combo can do in regards to bypassing the noise in your computer - that’s how the mic does sound pass through - it’s got its own dac internally, and either puts out enough juice natively to drive low impedance headphones, or has some amount of internal amplification. Good deal, but likely worthy of upgrade!

Yep, offerings from Topping, Schiit, JDS, Geshelli, SMSL, and many many more flood this market segment! Like I said, it’s pretty easy to not go wrong in this market segment. Whichever of these options you go with, the more I read, I am more and more convinced they have some different tunings to sound novel from one another, but roughly equivalent overall sound quality level. Often it seems a game of “I’ll give up this to get that”.

All three of those headphones have a pretty solid reputation around here - by which I mean I see each of them recommended fairly often in this sort of use case where someone is upgrading from a gaming headset to a hifi stereo headphone. I would venture to say that the outsider’s impression I am left with would be that Sundara would be an upgrade, sonically, over the other two - but that’s a third party impression, as I’ve not personally heard any of these three.

Any which way it goes, reading into your budget based on gear you’ve mentioned still leaves a pretty fuzzy impression. Would a $200 dac, a $200 amp, a pair of $200 headphones, and $50 of custom cables be within budget?

Also - what kind of music do you like to listen to? If you’re really into EDM then maybe you want something with big, powerful bass, or maybe acoustic folk, in which case upper midrange clarity will be very important? There are a number of members here with truly encyclopedic knowledge and experience who will be able to tailor more specific recommendations based on the sound you’re after.

No apology required. The irony being I run quite a bit so my legs probably couldn’t take more.
And again, thanks for the insight.

This is exactly what I’m finding slightly hard to gauge with all these offerings. Hence trying to give context with overly long descriptions :laughing:

I’d say closer to £200-£300 total for the dac / amp and £200 for the headphones.

Presumably if I was to build in stages, and buy separate dac and amp, you’d start the build with an amp before a dac?

A very big mixture between EDM, guitar based, blues, R&B and metal. Basically anything other than Jazz, symphony or folk.

Just to add that I’d no be averse to second hand!

So this thread was written by someone testing a couple of options to power his Sundaras.

I point you here so you can get an idea of both the sorts of trade offs he was juggling, while also giving you some exposure to two of the more popular product lines in this space (Zen and Atom).


Thank you sir.

I will have a “goosey”

For the record, I eventually decided the Atoms were actually too harsh and clinical, particularly with the Sundara. I eventually replaced the Atom stack with a RebelAmp and a Modi Multibit, and now I have it with a Bifrost 2/64.

If I was going to get something lower cost now, I’d probably go straight for an Asgard/Modi Multibit 2 stack. Your taste may vary though.

To close the loop, after a ton of reading I’ve made a few conclusions

  1. I want to use my usb shotgun mic for a week whilst working. That will out maybe 30 hours of use in it and help me conclude how suited it is
  2. If #1. proves successful, I’ll be more comfortable not having a mic in for any headphone dac/amp choice
  3. I will go with a separate dac/amp stack as I very much like the idea of an upgrade path and recognise that more often than not, a component will do one thing very well or multiple things “ok”
  4. Based on reading and UK availability, I will likely go for the atom + dac and amp with a view that the dac will last and I understand it’s a good suit for the Sundara, which is something I’ve my eye on
  5. I am very likely to start eyeing up upgrade amps after a little while. If Schiit can sort their uk distribution, that might be my next move :laughing:
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I think you’ve got the right idea(s). The only thing I would potentially caution would be the Atom stack/Sundara combo sounding to bright and/or thin as @Eric_Rosenfield found on his journey. Whether it sounds that way to you will obviously come down to your ears, but I have heard enough people come to that conclusion that I think it bears repeating. If it does you’d be left with a few options: 1) Keep the Sundaras if you dig them and change the stack to something warmer, 2) Keep the Atom stack and look for a different headphone that pairs better, or 3) EQ.

Point being, as you go through the process of getting to know the ins and outs of your setup, make sure you take note of things you like and dislike about each component, from the sound, to the form factor, to the features/usability, build quality, etc. That way even if the gear ends up not fitting you best, the time spent with it ends up providing valuable experience that will guide future decisions, helping to make them more accurate and more likely to work out. I know that may seem like obvious advice, but in this hobby I feel like I see an awful lot of people leapfrogging from one setup to the next without ever really taking stock of why the liked or didn’t like something and it ends up costing those people a lot of money and time spent with gear that doesn’t work with them. Not to mention the fact that it’s a quick way to get burnt out. Just making sure that each experience, good or bad, is a learning experience that helps future decisions is a great way to save yourself time and money and have your satisfaction with the hobby and your rig grow the most over time. This is advice I wish I was given sooner so I figured you might find it useful.

Also, make sure you come back and let us know how your rig works out so that your posts on that can help future folks in your shoes down the road. Happy hunting and happy listening! :+1::sunglasses:

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Thanks very much. Very sage words! I’ve grown up with a good ear for a wide range of pitches and do have sensitivity to high pitches/higher end of treble (which I assume is aligned to your point about “brightness”)?

Ironically, the above was posted just before a watched something Josh Valour did recently around headphone amps. He mentioned the SMSL SU/SH-6 stack, which appears to be of good quality (seemingly better than Atom) has more versatility and I’ve not read / heard anything relating to it producing an overly “bright” sound. As a result, it’s caused my eyes to wander toward it, and thus away from the Atom stack!!

For now, I’ll get used to the pros/shortcomings of the shotgun mic for work and then make my next move. Thankfully, I don’t particularly rush into these things, as I don’t need to…

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Sounds like you’ve got a good attitude towards this stuff. The SU-9/SH-9 isn’t known for being bright AFAIK, though I haven’t heard it myself. The Atom stack has a presentation that can make the treble come across a bit strident or overemphasized particularly with headphones that already have some emphasis in that area ti begin with like the Sundaras. That’s all I meant by bright. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, BTW, and can work really well with some headphones and for some people depending on preferences. It’s just something to consider.

It sounds to me like you’re going about this the right way, taking your time and doing the necessary due dilligence. If you have any other questions feel free to ask. :+1::sunglasses:


I’m using a SU-8s/SH-8s stack and I really like it. I got the amp on sale for $130 from Drop (not sure if sale is still on) and then followed it up with the DAC. Lots of power. Super clean and low distortion (objectively). Upgraded from a Fiio K7, which I really liked. I didn’t think I’d see much of a difference (in fact, I was hoping for there to be a difference that made one better for certain music), but I honestly think there’s a little improvement in the music that’s a little difficult to quantify… maybe greater note impact/better dynamics, if that makes any sense. Definitely not bright. I would describe it as audibly less so (even if the difference is relatively small) than the K7. Can’t say much about the other SMSL stacks other than most people seem to speak pretty highly of them

At any rate, it’s a really nice little stack for a PC. Amp has enough power to drive pretty much anything you want to throw at it, and nice clean look too. I might end up getting rid of the K7, honestly. I have a Zen DAC V2 for a little warmth/analog bass boost for a couple headphones that need it.

I don’t have the PC38X, but I do have the HD560S, which has some similarities, and I would take it over my DT990 Pro for the purposes you mentioned (I’m not saying “upgrade to the HD560S”). For immersive gaming and music, I recommend the Fiio FT3 at $300, which I think is about the best you can get in that price bracket. It’s a matter of preference, though.

I can say, if you’re looking in the <$400 range, you might consider the Zen DAC V2 if you want something to pair with a DT990 Pro (on a side note, they are a very comfy headphone). The Burr-Brown DAC chip in there really seems to play nice with the Beyerdynamic. Takes a bit of the edge off the highs, I thought. You probably would have to turn on the power match though. The low gain setting takes pretty much the entire dial with a 250 Ohm DT990. There are a bunch of them out there too, so finding a used or open box one that will save you some money shouldn’t be too difficult. Anyway, good luck finding something you really like!

Edit: You can probably ignore the FT3 recommendation, but I still recommend it highly if you ever decide to move to something in the $300 range that you won’t use for a “professional” look during calls.

And I just realized this was in April… I’m blind. Well, the sentiment remains. I hope you found something you really like. Curious to know what you settled on…

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