As usual, errors, spelling, etc I'll likely find AFTERWARDS. I'll fix them as I see them.
Let me know if you guys see all the images. I can never tell with Headfi. There's a bunch.
Schiit Hel 2
Hel 2: $199 as of April 2021
Where to buy: Hel 2 at Schiit.com
Disclaimer: A special thanks to Schiit's Jason Stoddard for sending out the Hel 2 for my impressions. As always, whether products are sent to me or not, I do my best in being 100% honest with my views and opinions. If I don't like a product, I will refuse to write a review of it, or at the very least mention what I don't like about them, though I like to focus on products that people would like or at the very least are interested in. The only bias I have is to my readers. No one, Schiit, Jason, or otherwise, paid or asked me for anything other than for my honest impressions. That's it.
Here is an excerpt from my 2019 Fulla 3 and Hel review (edited for Hel 2 specificity), which still applies here:
"As I'm someone who doesn't feel comfortable with dac/amp reviews, this particular "review" will be a bit more freestyle, with a more relaxed, thoughts on paper approach to writing, as opposed to my typical review process of trying to make it as professional as I possibly can. I think it's better for it, as I don't feel right about trying to condense my thoughts into my common review style for headphones for amp/dacs. It's why you haven't seen any full on review of anything outside of the gaming dac/amps that were easier to write about due to the software features. As Schiit's dac/amps are more simplistic, without any software, it wouldn't work quite the same. This entry will not be as long as those reviews, but I'll do my best in trying to make it legible to a degree. Thanks for your understanding.
I also know those in my small corner of the audiophile community like and use virtual surround devices, which the Hel 2 is not. So this isn't aimed at them, and here I'm writing this 'review' for everyone else who doesn't need or use stuff like that, and just want the raw, untouched, stereo sound. Besides, the Hel 2 makes an excellent amp/dac outside of gaming as well, so they may still be interested in it."
The Hel 2 does have a few, but meaningful additions over the original Hel, which should absolutely appeal to a much larger crowd of gamers and audio enthusiasts alike.
It feels like I reviewed the original Schiit Hel only a few short months ago. That review was done on December 2019, barely reaching a year and a few months. Schiit's been quite busy, it seems. There were aspects of the Hel that I felt could have easily have been improved in its next iteration, and I'm happy to report that the Hel 2 has rectified nearly if not all of the original Hel's shortcomings. What we have now if a dac/amp that caters to a considerably larger demographic. While the original Hel was limited to mainly being most useful on PC, the Hel 2 has broadened its scope to reach consoles as well as Televisions. This is where the vast majority of gamers play, so this was the correct move by Schiit.
So what has changed, and is the Hel 2 worth it if you already own the original Hel? The answer to that depends on what it is you want from the Hel. If you're coming in fresh, the Hel 2 is an absolute and clear upgrade.
(Note: A lot of what I write here will be what was already said of the original Hel, so I will be pasting a lot of what was said in that review, as it still holds true here. There will be additions and changes based for the Hel 2.)
The Hel 2 upon first inspection looks and feels exactly like the original Hel. In fact, unless I look at the rear where the inputs/outputs are, there is absolutely nothing to differentiate it from the original Hel. It is 100% identical. It is more or less the size of a Magni or Modi, just slightly shorter in height, with the inputs/outputs placed on the short sides as opposed to them being on the longer sides on the Magni/Modi. This means that the Hel 2 will take up less horizontal space, but will need more clearance in the back in terms of depth. It's not particularly big in any case, and should fit most desks.
Front (left to right):
Mic gain knob - allows you to manually adjust the mic output level. This is something many other gaming dac/amps tend to somehow miss. The inclusion here alone puts the Hel 2 well above the others for me in terms of microphone practicality. I'll take a manual knob over software controls each and every time. Thank you, Schiit. Never get rid of this. In fact, maybe include it on more products. Or may like as an add in board for the Asgard sized gear? I dunno how that'd work, but a man can dream.
3.5mm mic input - self explanatory. You can attach any mic here. This is ONLY for the mic, so if you have a headset with both audio and mic channels placed in one 3.5mm plug, make sure to use the included audio/mic splitter.
USB/Digital Input switch - Select from the USB input or Optical digital input. (note: Make sure the source that is outputting to the optical digital input is set to 2ch PCM/Stereo, not Dolby Digital/DTS, or anything past 2ch. For us gamers, any device that is outputting virtual surround will work, as virtual surround has already been converted to 2ch, like in a Creative G6 outputting SBX via the optical output.)
Low/High Gain switch - choose between low and high gain (not certain on db rating). You should have plenty of volume travel with the right gain selected on most headphones.
1/4" (6.3mm) headphone jack - I don't think one can ever go wrong with a 1/4" input. Much better than 3.5mm, personally. If you have a headphone that only has 3.5mm plug, that's what the included adapter is for. You probably have a million 1/4" adapters laying about anyways.
Rear (left to right):
This is where the Hel 2 differs from the original Hel on the outside.
3.5mm variable analog output - Has volume control, but if you want to use the Hel as a DAC only, set it to low gain, and raise volume all the way to the max. It will effectively become a line out this way.
Toslink/SPDIF/Optical digital input - Gone is the analog input of the original Hel, replaced with an optical input. I mean, if you're going to buy a small dac/amp of this nature, were you TRULY going to use the analog input? I find it doubtful, and apparently so did Schiit. I feel this is the correct choice. Much more digital input versatility, rather than having an amp only mode which very few people would use. Sure, using something like a Modius as a DAC to the Hel as the amp would be super silly and cool, but come on, let's be real. Most of us will use the Hel 2 as a dac first and foremost. My only gripe here is that they opted for a traditional optical input with the dreaded door that can and break under some stress (don't ask me how many of these inputs I have broken, I'll just say a lot). I would've preferred one without the door, or even better, a 3.5mm optical input. Much more durable, in my opinion. Ah well, not a huge deal, but something Schiit can note for the future. You've done away with ancient, horrible micro usb ports, you can also do away with fragile optical inputs with plastic door tabs.
Power Type C USB input - Hallelujah! There is a god. The horrible, technological curse that was Micro USB is almost entirely behind us! In its place, the Hel has gone with the miraculous, wonderful, reversible Type C input. It seems Schiit had some...issues during the transition, but let's all of us thank Schiit for stepping towards the new millennium, if a little late to the party. What matters is that they're finally here. This specific port is necessary to power the Hel 2 with the included 2.1a wall wart. Make sure it's this wall wart being used, as other wall warts may not supply enough power to the Hel 2.
Type C USB Data input - This one is necessary for USB DAC use. The Hel 2 will not draw any power from this input. On PC, the Hel can go up to 32bit/384khz. The original Hel capped out at 32bit/192khz.
Power Switch - Schiit uses some of the most satisfying switches for their power (as well as on source selection and gain settings). An audible clunk when switching up or down. The Hel 2 must be on for your source to pick it up as a device.
Apparently on the original review of the Hel, I forgot to mention anything about the top portion of the unit. Yikes. My bad. The only things to note on top are the large volume wheel and ventilation holes.
Ventilation - Allows you to peek inside the unit, and like the original Hel, has a nice red LED shining through when the unit is on. This is far, FAR superior to the front facing white LEDs that Schiit uses on their other dac and amps. Those things are obnoxiously bright. Schiit, red or amber LEDs for all your future products, please? No more white. Also internal LED placement like on the Hel 2 is just perfect. I do understand why there's a front facing LED on the bigger units that are stackable, but any way to keep from using front LED is a good thing.
Volume knob - This massive knob is actually bigger than the ones used on the Asgard sized devices. The top mounting makes it ideal for a smaller sized device like the Hel as well. It isn't particularly weighty feeling, but has a nice smooth travel, and a much better volume indicator than the nearly invisible dot on my Jotunheim 2. I had to put a sticker on my Jot 2's knob just so I can see where my volume was set. The biggest benefit of the Hel 2's knob over the original Hel is that I no longer get audible scratchy noise coming through my headphones. The original Hel would make an unpleasant fuzzy noise when adjusting volume, like so many other analog volume pots. Only an annoyance when adjusting volume, but an annoyance nevertheless. The Hel 2 is 100% dead silent. Perfect. This makes it a much more enjoyable experience.
Sides and Bottom:
The left and right sides in lined with circular holes for ventilation. You can also see inside. The main things to note on the bottom are the sticker with the unit number, as well as the 4 rubber feet. That's pretty much it.
Final Build Quality Impressions:
The Hel 2 is incredibly well designed overall. In terms of physical improvements that can be made for the Hel 2, there's not much I'd change here. The optical input could be changed to one without the plastic flap/door of doom, or even better, a 3.5mm optical input. I would've like to have a full sized rca output instead of a 3.5mm analog out, but I understand the limitation in space on the back. Otherwise, the Hel 2 feels like a solid chunk of metal. It's aesthetically pleasing with the red and black scheme, and has some heft to it. It certainly doesn't feel cheap. A thing I'm very happy with. Despite the gamer-centric color scheme, I think the Hel 2 would fit in with any type of decor. One of the better looking pieces of Schiit. Pardon the pun.
The Hel comes with two 3ft type C USB cables, a 2.1a wall wart for power, a 3.5mm to 1/4" adapter, and a headset audio/mic splitter (not pictured above). All the essentials are covered. Funnily enough, the unit sent to me had one Type C and one micro usb cable. I made sure to let Jason know so that this didn't happen with other retail units. Not a big deal as I already had spare type C cables laying about.
Ease of Use
The Hel 2 is a wonderful product in that there is no software required, and in most current age setups don't require driver downloads. You simply plug it into your main device, and select it as your audio device. You should be good to go. If for some reason you're using something a bit older without UAC2 support, Schiit has a driver download page with instructions, HERE (https://www.schiit.com/guides/gaming
As a gaming dac/amp, the Hel is a bit more limited in comparison to something like the Creative G6 or X7 due to lack of typical features found on other devices like software, equalizers, presets, etc. That being said, there are reasons to go for the Hel 2 over the more specialized gaming dac/amps, one being the much, much easier to use functionality. You really can't mess up the usability here, while stuff like the G6 and X7 can at times be hampered by its software and driver issues. With the Hel 2, you plug it in, and it just works. Select it as the audio and/or mic device, and you're good to go. No fiddling with drivers, software, and confusing options. What you see, is what you get. That to me, is perfect. Outside of my love for virtual surround processing options, I tend not to bother with all other features on those types of dac/amps. So if and when I'm not worried about virtual surround applications, I find the Hel 2 to be a more ideal choice. Now that there are easily available virtual surround programs like Redscape and Waves NX, you don't even need an external device. The Hel 2 would work perfectly with those programs.
In terms of non-PC use, it's almost as if Schiit listened to me directly, as they did EXACTLY what I asked of them to do, on the original Hel review. Here's what I said (edited for specificity):
"...the analog input takes care of (the) times when you need just an amplifier, though I believe as a gaming dac/amp, a digital toslink/spdif optical input would've greatly added to the Hel's functionality where it counts."
"I'd happily give up the analog input on (the Hel) for this, personally. For the Hel, I'm sure something can be done to add an optical input in the future, which would allow the Hel to compete in the console space."
That is exactly what Schiit has done, allowing the Hel 2 to easily function for PC or PS5, as well as any device with an optical output, like a smart TV. You can plug everything to your TV through HDMI, and just have the TV send out a digital signal to the Hel 2. That would take care of multiple devices, even an Xbox Series X (sans the microphone function).
Going back to the volume knobs, I just find them so much better in practicality over front mounted knobs, for devices as small as the Hel 2. You can essentially just rest your hands near the unit and adjust with your fingers, while front mounted knobs require a bit more effort. I don't know, I'm sure it's purely based on preference, but if Schiit placed volume knobs on top of all their mini solid state amps like the Magni, I'd be all over that. Yes, it means they'll have to sit on the top of whatever Schiit stack you have going on, but that's an easy choice to make. Even off center, I think a Magni with a top mounted knob on the right side with ventilation on the left would be wonderful. Maybe for a Magni 4. The Hel and Fulla are already covered.
The Hel has automatic switches when headphones are plugged in that mutes the rear outputs. While this is absolutely helpful and fine overall, I still think a manual switch would be better, if mainly because there may be some times when you use high gain for a headphone, and low gain on your speakers or other external devices. You may end up unplugging your headphones and find that your speakers are blaring way past your comfort level. I'm sure most people will exercise some caution and lower the volume before unplugging headphones. Just needed to bring that up.
On Windows, all you have to do is plug it in, and select the Hel 2 as your output device (as well as input device for the Microphone), and that's it. You can go to the sound control panel in windows sound settings, right click on the Hel 2, click on Properties, go to the Advanced tab, and change the default format to anything between 16bit/44khz, and oversampling up to 32bit/384khz.
As far as optical input goes, make sure whatever device you have connected to the Hel 2 is outputting 2ch PCM/Stereo. Not Dolby Digital or DTS, or more than 2ch. I said this earlier, but if you're sending a digital signal that has been converted to virtual surround (like Creative's SBX from the G6's optical out), the process of converting 7.1 down to 2ch was done before being sent to the Hel 2, so it's totally fine.
Keep in mind that many TV's or other devices may send Dolby Digital or DTS by default, so you MUST change, or you'll get unpleasant digital noise from the Hel 2.
You simply plug the Hel 2's data usb port to any of the PS5's usb ports. I recommend using one of the rear usb ports on the PS5. The Type C input in front was dropping the signal every few seconds. Had zero issues on the rear ports. Not an issue with the Hel, but the PS5. Once connected, go to the sound settings. 3D Audio will work perfectly as well through the USB (not through HDMI currently).
The PS5 will also read the Hel 2 as a microphone device.
I no longer have a Nintendo Switch, but I was able to get it work through a USB dongle, and I'm sure the Switch would also pick up the Hel 2 when connected to the USB port. If I get a chance to update with an image in the future, I will.
Unfortunately, Microsoft uses proprietary codecs, which the Hel 2 doesn't support. Schiit would have to specifically pay for the license and make an Xbox only version of the Hel 2, which is probably not the best use of Schiit's time and money. At the very least, you can still rely on getting main audio from a TV which the Xbox console would likely be hooked up to. You won't be able to utilize the Hel 2 for voice chat through an Xbox.
Schiit has stated that the Hel 2 has received a 20% power increase over the original Hel, but that the rating is somewhat conservative and may hit closer to 50%. Considering the original Hel already had a pretty good amount of power for most headphones, this can only be seen as fantastic news, which will allow for even more headroom, and open up the possibility of driving a few more headphones.
I have no doubt you can drive even 600ohm headphones to ear shattering levels, though that doesn't account for synergy and quality of driving such a load. Still, I personally feel fine using the Hel 2 for any headphone I could think of except some harder to drive planars like the HE-4, HE6SE, and 600ohm Beyerdynamics.
Amusingly, with the units I have on hand, the original Hel has a slightly higher volume output relative to the Hel 2 at the same volume knob position. I'm sure it's an external factor, and not indicative of anything.
Below is a few tests being done comparing the Schiit Hel 2's mic input vs the original Hel, Creative G6, and Razer Blackshark V2's included USB dongle. As you will hear, they all sound great, so you shouldn't have any issues with microphones on the Hel 2.
These recordings were done through Audacity, and without any enhancements. No noise suppression, no voice morphs, nothing but raw mic input performance. The volume may be a bit low, as I had to compensate for the lowest volume output, and didn't realize I could raise mic volume through windows until after. So I apologize in advance if volume is low for you. Try to disregard the low volume output, and focus more on the quality of the mic recordings themselves. I tried my best to have them all at a similar volume range so as not to destroy your ears with wild fluctuations in volume.
All tests were done on the same day, same conditions, back to back, one after another.
Blackshark V2 usb dongle^
Outside of the instance where I found a noticeable difference between the original Modi and the Objective DAC (ODAC), I have never been someone to truly hear a meaningful difference out of all the DACs I have owned (this is why I tend to decline or stay away from doing DAC reviews). This does not change with the Hel 2. I don't have a reliable way to do quick and blind comparisons, so all I can say is that subjectively, the DAC sounds like I expect a good DAC to sound like, which is a silent noise floor, super clean, and without artifacting or errors due to the digital to analog conversion.
On the amplification side, as the Hel 2 is a solid state amp, I also don't expect to hear a drastic difference between the Hel 2 and the original Hel in terms of sonic characteristics. As such, I don't wanna make things up and write them down in a section full of hyperbole. I never had a problem with the original Hel's sound, and I certainly don't have a problem here.
I'm not one of those people that buys amps wanting them to impart anything to the sound (at least not solid state amps). I mainly just want an amp to do what is required, and that is to provide sufficient, clean power to the headphones attached to them. The Hel 2 has lower distortion and more power than the Hel. That is an easy win, as far as I'm concerned. If you want some majestic difference, consider a tube amp where you can somewhat tailor the sound to your liking. Even next to the Jotunheim 2 (which has more tactility, impact, and control, though the difference is still subtle), I don't feel like I'm missing anything (within reason) by using the Hel 2's amplifier with properly powered headphones.
If you want some hyperbolic statements on how this sounds smoother, richer, more precise, faster, more detailed, incisive, more open, or whatever buzzword you'd like to hear as it pertains to an amp or DAC you WON'T find it here. The Hel 2 as either a DAC to another amplifier or as a standalone DAC/AMP sounds great. Plain and simple.
If you have $200, (and in terms of Schiit products), you have a choice between a Hel 2, or a current gen Modi and Magni, or a Fulla for half the price. My recommendation lies purely on your exact needs. The Hel 2's major benefit over the Modi/Magni stack is the ability to use it with the Playstation 5 directly. Yes, you can use the Modi with the PS5 via HDMI to a TV and then optical out from the TV to the Modi, but you lose the Tempest 3D audio capabilities of the PS5 (which I feel is absolutely essential, and a fantastic addition to virtual surround processing technology).
The other large benefit over the mini stack is the analog microphone input. The Hel 2 will read as an audio device where both main audio and microphone capabilities will work at the same time. You can't do this with a Modi. Sure you can hear main audio, but you'll have to rely on either using the controller input for the mic (which is actually more of a hassle to set up, or use another microphone device). All I'll say is that you will definitely want the Hel 2 over the mini stack if voice chat is of any importance to you, period.
The final benefit the Hel 2 has over the mini stack is that it's an all in one unit. Much easier to lug around, and less cables required as well.
I definitely see the Hel 2 as a perfect device for home or office use. Considering it also has a manual mic gain adjustability, I'd keep it around even if you have better amps or dacs. It makes life so much simpler if you ever use microphones or headsets.
I currently have a Modius as my main DAC and a Jotunheim 2 as my main amplifier at home. I'd still keep a Hel below my monitor, which I would use to plug in my headsets when needed. It's convenience in a small package. Then when I'm not voice chatting, I'll go back to my Modius/Jotunheim with my normal headphones. Sure, it's overkill, but for someone like me, I find the Hel 2 being more essential compared to the much bigger Modius/Jotunheim 2 stack. Maybe a Helius in the future, Schiit? A bigger amp/dac with a mic input. Hmm...the possibilities.
I'd recommend the Modi/Magni over the Hel 2 if you have no use for the microphone input, or if you don't plan on playing on a PS5, particularly with Tempest 3D Audio. You can still use the Modi/Magni connected to a TV. They just won't be natively supported on the PS5.
If you mainly want something for a laptop and need it to be completely portable, I think going with the Schiit Fulla wouldn't be a bad idea over the Hel 2, though only if you don't plan on using harder to drive headphones. The Fulla packs plenty of power for many headphones, just don't go trying to press your luck. The Fulla has the benefit of only needing one cable to a laptop, while the Hel needs a separate power adapter. It also has a mic input, though mic gain will have to be adjusted by your source.
Likes and Dislikes
- Build, Color
- Mic gain knob
- Type C Inputs and physical switches
- Red power indicator inside chassis
- Top mounted volume knob, no scratchy noise on headphone when adjusting volume
- Clean sound, no noise floor
- Simple/easy to use
- UAC1/UAC2 auto switching, meaning PS5 support (Tempest 3D Audio included)
- Optical input, meaning much more device options (like Televisions) compared to original Hel
- Unlike the Fulla, still requires external power
Schiit has done it again. The Hel 2 is a dramatic improvement over the original Hel, and absolutely worth the upgrade. This can even go so far as being the only dac/amp you'd realistically ever need for most headphones.
When I reviewed the original Hel, I said:
"I believe once Schiit revises (the Hel) and adds an optical input, it will be a serious contender as my most recommended dac/amp for unprocessed stereo gamers, as it will greatly expand its connectivity. Even us virtual surround users will be able to pipe audio digitally to the Hel."
Well, that time is now. The Hel 2 has addressed exactly what I felt was lacking in the original, and went a few steps further. The Hel 2 has more power, less distortion, more versatility and is reasonably all you'd ever need as an all in one desktop audio solution. Sure, it's not 'feature-rich'. You won't find accompanying software that hosts an equalizer, chat options, or sound presets. No. It eschews all that to give you the basics. Plug it in, and you get excellent sound for your PC, console, and other devices like televisions. No fiddling with software, no confusing options, nothing to detract from the simplicity of it all. Everything that'd you'd need to adjust is on the unit itself. Nothing more, nothing less. That's it, and that's perfectly fine.