Product Review: Schiit Hel 2 External Headphone AMP/DAC

Schiit Hel 2 AMP/DAC

Dealing with Schiit Audio was not a pleasant experience. Perhaps some of my frustration can be chalked up to the alleged COVID-19 "plandemic" (yes, the spelling is intentional), but i'm not sure that accounts for all the trouble.

Second of all, i'm not very technically knowledgeable regarding digital audio, but i do have a basic understanding and i just wanted to share a potentially unique and early review of the Schiit Hel 2, "early" meaning i've only had the unit in my hands for a week or so.

The Hel 2 Gaming AMP/DAC is primarily aimed at headphone and headset users who also want to run their microphone through the unit, thus it suits gamers well. The $199 USD Hel is an upgrade to the $109 Fulla 4 (up from $99) for those who require more power and options. I no longer do much gaming, nor is that why i bought it. My reasons for wanting the Hel were because the Fulla 4 i was sent was DOA and i wanted to see if could gain a better listening experience verses my on-board sound system. Also i needed to clean up the noise floor on my cheap microphone.

While the Hel looks and feels great on the outside with its weighty steel and aluminum exterior and smooth, precise knobs and switches, there seems to be serious shortcomings with the internals. While most of the reviews i've read and watched were enthusiastically positive, others were quite critical. While i was writing this review and listening to music, my Hel started producing the same 'popping' every few seconds that quite a few other customers have mentioned. For example there are several people on Reddit that very recently have had problems similar to what i experienced, both with Schiit and its products. Here's a couple partial quotes from the beginning of the thread...

'HuskySlim' opened the thread with...

All i’ve seen so far are a lot of people with a lot of issues on their new Fulla 4 / Hel 2 units. Is this something that Schiit is aware of and actively correcting with the outgoing units? Seems like a lot of units are effected.

'b34tn1k' replied with...

I got my Hel 2 yesterday and it's cut out a bunch of times. I've emailed their support detailing the steps I've taken to trouble shoot and their reply was to ask if if I'd taken any of the steps that I already detailed.... It was like they didn't read my email beyond the subject line.

Another user replied...

Audio randomly cuts out/pops for a second and I have to unplug the power cord from the hel everytime I turn on my computer or my mic wont work

The 'popping' issues people are reporting, which i would characterize as a roughly 100 millisecond skipping in sound every second or two, as though the unit were turned off and back on again, is not exclusive to the Hel. I noticed the exact same issue with an ARC MK2 which causes me to wonder if the issue is due to a Linux kernel setting or a problem with USB on Linux.

As i mentioned, the Fulla i received was DOA which is one reason i went with the Hel. There's no excuse for this. Schiit is shipping products which i believe they know are faulty. In Schiit's defense, 'HuskySlim' apparently wasn't using the required power supply and this may have been an issue with 'b34tn1k' also, i don't know. What i do know is that many other customers are complaining, and have been for years, and that i completely agree with the statement, "It was like they didn't read my email beyond the subject line". I'm certain this is what happened in my case, no less than three times when my concern regarding the quality of their 1/4" to 1/8" headphone adapter, which others also complained about, went unanswered.

Another Reddit thread, this one from 2 years old, reveals more complaints. Here 'deepskypics' opens the thread with...

Why the hate for Schiit these days?

'verifitting' replied with...

Schiit got called out for their quality control, safety concerns, poor objective performance, and engineering pitfalls by an experienced audio engineer with an impressive résumé. Rather than own up to it, provide their own measurements, or their own review units, they attacked his character and credentials, along with many others from SBAF and Head-Fi. He then, in turn, reviewed all of their gear and pointed out all of the flaws, albeit using pretty biased language in his reviews.

It was a big controversy on headphone/audio forums (here, ASR, Head-Fi, SBAF), with many people taking sides. When it was all set and done, Schiit ended up buying their own audio analyzer and started measuring their equipment, so the desired end-result was met (i.e., audio manufacturers being more transparent in their objective performance/engineering).

Had i found these comments earlier i would not have bought from Schiit. If you're considering purchasing a product from them, i'd highly recommend finding plenty of the most recent reviews before you decide to pull the trigger.

Another problem i had with the Hel was latency. Listening to music or doing voice chats was fine, however watching videos resulted in roughly a ~300 ms delay between someones lips moving and the sound hitting my ears. I don't know whether Schiit could have done anything different regarding design since this seems to be an OS issue. In my case i run a Linux box (Manjaro) with PulseAudio and once i screwed around with the configuration file for PulseAudio, the latency issue seems to be resolved, or at least nearly so. Here's what i did...

  1. Make a pulse folder in the .conf directory of my home directory ( ~/.config/pulse ) and copy /etc/pulse/deamon.conf to ~/.config/pulse/deamon.conf
  2. In the daemon.conf file, change default-sample-format = s16le (the 'le' could be 'be) to default-sample-format = s24le
  3. After saving the file, open a terminal and restart PulseAudio: pulseaudio -k

If you want to double check that the default-sample-format setting matches the spec for the Hel 2, or if you're tweaking your config for another sound card, open a terminal and run pacmd list-sinks and look for the sample spec: line for the card you want to configure. For the Hel 2 the spec is: s24le 2ch 44100Hz , thus why i used the s24le setting.

Here's the resources that helped me:

PROS:

  • Made in the U.S.
  • All metal, solid build quality with silky smooth volume controls and quality toggle switches
  • Flexible in terms of input/output capability
  • Can drive most any headphones thanks to the hi/lo gain switch
  • Microphone volume knob
  • Unlike the Fulla, the Hel has a mechanical switch to toggle between the USB and optical inputs
  • Power switch

NIGGLES:

  • Requires a separate (included) power supply - the data USB cable alone won't cut it, but this is the price of a rather powerful amp.
  • Microphone gain is weak, but OK, at least for me.
  • The microphone gain knob is positioned on the front of the unit which makes it a bit difficult to adjust. I think they should have stuck it on top near the output volume.
  • Price may be an issue for a dedicated gamer who is not an audiophile or doesn't need the feature-set of the Hel 2.

CONS:

  • Long standing quality control issues make buying Schiit's products a roll of the dice. In my case they shipped me a Fulla 4 which was DOA and a Hel 2 that started having problems shortly after i received it. Many others are complaining as well.

Here's the specs for the Schiit Hel 2...

Frequency Response: 20Hz-20Khz, +/-0.3db
Maximum Power, 16 Ohms: 1350mW RMS
Maximum Power, 32 ohms: 1200mW RMS
Maximum Power, 50 ohms: 800mW RMS
Maximum Power, 300 ohms: 200mW RMS
THD: <0.0008%, 20Hz-20KHz, at 1V RMS
IMD: <0.0008%, CCIR
SNR: >110db, A-weighted, referenced to 1V RMS
Crosstalk: >-80dB, 20Hz-20KHz
Output Impedance (headphones): 0.25 ohms
Output Impedance (line out): 75 ohms
Gain: Low and High, selectable via front panel. Low has maximum output of 1.3V RMS, high has maximum output of 8VRMS.
USB Receiver: C-Media CM6635
DAC: AKM AK4490 with TI OPA1656-based filter stage
Sample Rates and Bit Depths: 
USB Playback: 16/44.1 to 32/384 supported without drivers on Windows 10, Mac, Linux, Android (any UAC 2 device) with autoswitching to UAC1 for PS4, PS5, and Switch consoles.
USB Input: 48kHz
Optical Input: 16/44.1 to 24/192
Output Stage: TI OPA1656 (4 amp stages per channel) 
Power Supply: Via USB, with +/- 12V rails via high-current dual-polarity switching regulator, with inductor filtering and local regulation
Power Consumption: 2.5W typical
Size: 5 x 3.5 x 1.375” (including knob)
Weight: 13oz
APx Report for Hel 2

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