It seems like every time I write about a USB digital-to-analog converter or portable headphone amplifier I get a slew of reader e-mails requesting a review of one of Fiio's low-cost/high-performance audio components.
Pricing may be solidly in the affordable range, but don't for a second conclude Fiio's components aren't beautifully designed little gems. I requested two recently introduced USB DAC/headphone amps to review, the $80 E10 and the $140 E17, and they did not disappoint. Fiio is a Chinese company and has retail sales networks in North America, Europe, and Asia. Amazon.com sells Fiio products here in the U.S.
The E10 is a tiny thing, just 0.8 inch by 1.9 inches by 3.2 inches, and the solid, machined metal chassis feels extremely well-made. The front panel has a volume control, a bass-boost toggle switch, and a 3.5mm headphone jack; the rear has a USB input and RCA coaxial digital and 3.5mm analog outputs. The E10 is a USB-powered device, so there are no batteries or power supplies; just hook up a USB cable to a computer, plug in your headphones, and you're good to go (it doesn't work with iPods, iPhones, and so on). The E10's DAC supports up to 96KHz sample rates.
I listened to the E10 with two headphones, Sony's new XBA-4 in-ears and my full-size Audio Technica ATH-WS55 headphones.
The E10 sounded seriously potent; the little thing fully communicated the hard-hitting dynamics on drummer Max Roach's "M'Boom" all-percussion albums. The bass boost switch added more kick, but the E10 didn't lack gravitas with the boost turned off. Compared with the Audioengine D1 DAC/headphone amp ($160), the E10 sounded clearer, bigger, and better when I cranked the volume way up. Funny, the E10 was half the size of the D1, and when I switched on the bass boost the E10 stomped all over the D1. I started to see why the Fiio fanboys really love these amplifiers! The E10 rocks!
The E17 has a very different form factor than the E10; it's bigger--0.6 inch by 2.2 inches by 3.75 inches--so it's a little smaller than my iPod Classic. The E17's DAC runs up to 96KHz over the USB input, but goes to 192KHz over its optical digital input. The easy-to-read display lets you keep track of the DAC's settings. The E17 is also USB-powered, but can run off its battery supply for up to 15 hours. It has a 3.5mm analog input you can hook up to an iPod, iPhone, or any portable music player. I can't think of another portable amp with bass and treble controls, but the E17 has 'em, so you can dial in the tonal balance to taste. Fit and finish are superb: the all-metal E17 looks and feels like a high-end product.
The E17 sounded even better than the E10. I could hear "deeper" into my recordings, so the quieter sounds of reverberation and ambience were newly evident. Bass was just as deep, but the tactile feel of bass drums was remarkable. Well-recorded female vocals, like those on Gillian Welch's "The Harrow & the Harvest" album, had a more believable human presence. That's what high-end audio is all about, it gets you closer to being there, and the E17 succeeds beyond what I thought a $140 product could achieve with the Audio Technica headphones, so I tried harder-to-drive headphones, my Sennheiser HD 580 pair, which made the E17's limitations obvious. The 300-ohm headphones' resolution of quiet details, dynamics, and bass potency was reined in, compared with what I hear from my CEntrance DACport DAC/headphone amplifier ($400).
The E17 wasn't totally embarrassed by the comparison, but high-impedance headphones like the HD 580s wouldn't be my first choice with the E17. That's not a big problem, as most headphones, from in-ears to full-size models, are low-impedance (60 ohms or less) designs.
The E17 is an awesome performer, and will radically improve the sound of your headphones. You have to hear this thing! It's temporarily out of stock, but Fiio will soon have more in the pipeline.