So, I got my hands on Burson Audio Playmate, a more mainstream-oriented headphone amp / DAC, and it actually also has a microphone input, which got me thinking – can a 50$ gaming headset like this Steelseries, or for that matter, any other self-proclaimed gaming headset with analog connection, benefit out of it?
I’m pointing out the analog type connection for a reason, because if you have a headset that has a USB only connection, or to say its own integrated DAC / sound card, this little experiment is not applicable to it, as you can’t connect to something like this amp / DAC from Playmate.
Some headphones do come with a separate USB dongle that then hooks up to the headset via its analog connection, and they are eligible for an amp / DAC “upgrade” like this one. On the other hand, If you have a combo 4-pin TRRS on your headset, it’s also important to have the appropriate splitter as rarely any of more audio oriented gear has a combo jack like that, except maybe a so-called gaming amp / DAC, which are slowly becoming a thing lately, offering more gamer-centric, like greater control and surround-sound. Anyhow, let’s check out the Playmate up close.
A closer look at Burson Audio Playmate
As with any other headphone oriented amp / DAC, the input layout is pretty simple, on the front we have a 6,3 mm TRS jack, next to it a 3,5 mm microphone in, an OLED screen with info, and some basic menus options, like choosing a low or high mode, digital filters like minimal faze, slow, fast, jitter suppression, emphasis feature, and so on. Navigating through it is done using this small button and this big knob right next to it, which, although made out of metal and feels sturdy, has some play to it. Oh yeah, the screen flicker is also noticeable in real life, it’s not only due to shutter speed difference. But what’s really cool is that we have a USB Type-C on the front, it acts for charging, and unfortunately, it’s not for data throughput too, since the DAC itself can be hooked up using a USB connection to the PC, that would be an awesome add-on. And this is where Playmate’s name comes in place, it’s sort of like a wordplay, I’m going to resist making any puns here, indicating that besides being your amp / DAC, it can also charge the device which actually plays the music, like your smartphone or laptop. They’ve actually released a new model, the Playmate 2, I’m not sure if this is a successor of this one, or they just expanding their offering a bit, so be sure to check it out too, they’ve actually moved the USB Type-C connection to the back.
Speaking of the connections, on the back we have a MOLEX 5V power connector and barrel plug DC option for powering the unit, and for that second one, you’ll get an AC to DC power brick. Most importantly optical and USB Type-B connection for inputs, and Pre-AMP RCA out. To finish this back portion fo There’s a big red switch for toggling devices on and off state.
Until now I only had Steinberg’s UR22MKII, but it’s just too week for my Audio Technica’s M50’s, yeah, I’m that old school, but once I plugged them into this, I got a whole another volume level at my disposal – which is the most common answer to the “can I benefit from an amp” question? Yes, you can, that’s why in a sense you go ahead and get something like this, a headphone amplifier, so you can literally power them to the edge of their capabilities, but before all and in relation to the DAC part of it, so you can give it that specific sound quality note, which differs from DAC to DAC, amp to amp, depending on the components which are being used inside it. Yes, some motherboards, for example, do have a strong enough amp, but they maybe lack fidelity and a certain type of sound signature that something like this Playmate can deliver. Segwaying into this topic, Burson Audio also offers an option to change its Op-Amps by pooping the top cover, so you can further form the sound stage just a tad bit more to your liking. They are hot-swappable thanks to dip8 sockets, meaning you can choose to put different ones from their own portfolio or others, completing changing the sound profile on the output.
Amp/dac for gaming headset?
Anyhow, it’s easy to plugin-in high-end headphones into this, buuuuut, and yes I know this would probably be a big no-no in general, stick with me for the sake of this pseudoscience, what about using a budget gaming headset for audio listening AND recording your microphone using something like this. Well, only one way to find out.
So, here’s the recording of the microphone on the $50 SteelSeries Artics 1 gaming headset. This audio recording was done through the microphone input of the Burson Audio Playmate itself, without any post-production work done to it, so just a clean audio file. And this one was done through the motherboards onboard sound card. Which one sounds better to you? Is it better at all or you couldn’t tell the difference, tell me in the comments down below, I really want to get your feedback on this, especially from those who have more experience under their belt.
As for the listening experience, Playmate uses ESS technologies mobile audio DAC ES9038Q2M, ELNA capacitors, Dale resistors and Toshiba’s transistors, and all of these builds, and I know this sounds like a cliche, a really warm sound with a higher level of clarity and details on both the headphones, especially in the mid’s and low’s, even with Audio Technica’s headphones which are known to be really flat. Of course, these are minor increments, as there’s so much that this DAC and amp can do in terms of bumping my listening experience with these more value-oriented segment of headphones, as their drivers become a limiting factor. In comparison to something like Realtek’s mainstream ALC1220 audio chipset solution accompanied by other audio components that are usually paired with it on mid to high-end PC motherboards, it just can’t keep up with Playmate, they’re just in a completely different league, even compared UR22MKII.
Take your time with your first amp/DAC
Of course, it doesn’t make sense to have a setup like this as a permanent solution, with a 400$ amp / DAC and a 50$ gaming headset, it doesn’t do it justice, but it’s interesting to make this comparison and see how much further can an average performing microphone and headphones go if connected to an amp / DAC with this type of higher-end audio hardware and performance in it.
So yes, you can have an amp and DAC for a gaming headset, but that requires a different approach in terms of what do you have to have in order to get the best out of it. I think it would be better that you went for a separate better performing standalone microphone or a headphone add-on, something like a mod-mic, together with a proper headphones model, so regular headphones, not a gaming one, something like a Grado SR80e or Shure SRH440, to then completely close to the loop and enjoy the audio reproduction quality on a different level.
With that said, the next question that imposes itself is, if you’re currently in between thinking of upgrading, should you, having in mind that you’re on a tight upgrade budget, for example, go for a decent amp and/or DAC first and stick with the headphones headset that you got at the moment, and then build upon it with more capable headphones, or would you go the other way around? Well, that’s an interesting dilemma. I would probably go for an amp or a DAC, or a combo solution like this Playmate, because remember, these are two separate things, as it can push your current headphones even further performance-wise, as well as the fact that it opens up different possibilities in terms of feature and rids you of all flaws that your motherboard’s onboard audio solution has.
That’s it for this time, thanks for checking this out, if you have any question feel free to hit me in the comments section of my YouTube video listed above, you can contact me via my social media channels!