Monday, May 20, 2013

It's On Amazon: FiiO E17 "Aspen" DAC (Digital Audio Converter) Portable Amp

When you get into higher-end headphones (such as the GtB-recommended V-MODA Crossfade M-100s - It's-On-Amazon review forthcoming), the purchase of a solid DAC is usually not far behind.  Many serve as amplifier for 'phones that require more juice than a smartphone, laptop, or PMP can provide, or as a portable external sound card with USB connectivity.

FiiO is a Chinese company that has gained a reputation  in audio enthusiast circles as a solid manufacturer of portable amps and DACs, and their E17 (nicknamed "Aspen") is a strong entry-level contender poised just over the $100 mark.  The E17 is my first portable amp / DAC, so the comparisons I'll be making are between it and the stock sound card on my budget-built PC's ASUS P5K-VM motherboard, and the standard audio from my Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus tablet.

Having never used a DAC before, I can say that the E17's interface is very intuitive.  Connect it via USB, and it begins to charge.  It only took me a few moments after powering it on to figure out how to navigate the menu system, which includes the usual adjustment attributes like treble, bass, etc.  The device proved to be plug-and-play on my Windows 7 and Windows 8 systems.  The most challenging part of getting it to work was realizing that I needed to right click on the Windows Sound icon, bring up the "Playback Devices" window, and set the E17 as the default playback device.  After that, it worked like a charm.

As for the sound quality, I noticed a considerable bump in clarity switching my M-100s between my motherboard soundcard and the E17.  Using my obsolete-but-awesome Yamaha NX-A01 desktop speaker cube with the motherboard sound often resulted in background humming when I punched the NX-A01's built-in amplifier toward the maximum.  No such humming occurs when it's plugged in to the E17.  I didn't test how loud the speaker could get with both its own amp and the E17's augmentation - I'm a big advocate of listening to audio at reasonable levels - but it was able to get it as loud as I'd ever want it to be without any signs of distortion or interference.

The E17 also eliminated another gain problem I'd experienced with the stock audio:  doubly loud humming feedback whenever I attempted to use a line splitter to connect a speaker and headphones at the same time. As a result, I currently have the longer M-100 cord connected directly to the E17, and use its built-in splitter to connect to the NX-A01 at the same time.  I've encountered no appreciable drop in sound quality with this setup, which allows me to avoid having to swap out the connection every time I want to switch between speakers and headphones.

While certainly entailing a sizable investment at a MSRP of $139, the E17 "Aspen" delivers on sound quality and power.  It's a solid upgrade for anyone with quality speakers or headphones - or looking to purchase them - that are more than your stock audio components can handle.

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