Fiio E11 – Portable Amplifier

I recently “upgraded” my portable music player from the 5.5G iPod Video 80Gb to the 7G iPod Classic 160Gb. The decision was purely one of storage capacity because the 5.5G iPod is widely considered the best sounding of Apple’s offerings. From the moment I tested my new Classic I clearly understood the love people hold for the 5.5G. The Classic has decent sound, but it’s a bit restricted at the extremities of both the bass and treble, and the sound is overall a bit 2-dimensional. To my ears, there is also a harshness to the sound at somewhere between 8kHz and 16kHz, but that could be an individual bias or preference towards a certain style of sound.

You can read more about my portable player experiences and testing here.

So, I quickly decided to explore external amplification and ended up playing with the Fiio E11.

The Fiio E11 retails for a very reasonable $70-80 and is available from most headphone outlets. It’s affordable, compact, light, flexible and powerful (for its size).

Overview

  • Maximum output power: 300mW @ 16ohm – 35mW @ 300 ohm
  • Size:¬†92.5x 54.2x 13.4mm
  • Signal-to-noise: 98dB
  • Battery life: >10 hours playback (reported, not personally tested)

As you can see from the picture, the E11 is very simple: an input socket, output socket, volume knob, and 2 switches (gain and bass boost). To me, simplicity is a good thing in an amp – I just want quality circuitry that takes a line out and increases its volume without messing with it and that’s exactly how the E11 works.

The E11 is a simple, in-line amplifier designed to have a 3.5mm headphone or line-out coming in and a pair of headphone coming out. That said, I personally wouldn’t bother using it from a headphone output most cases (unless I really needed more volume than my portable device could provide). The reason for this is that the E11, or any in-line amplifier, is only as good as the input signal and amplifying a crappy signal just results in loud, crappy sound.

So, I paired the E11 with a Fiio E9 line-out plug for the iPod and tested it using some 320kbps MP3 tracks.

Sound Quality

The sound quality of the E11 is very good. It’s not elite, but very good. It’s also got the potential to be very loud which is great because it means you can enjoy your music at a good volume while the E11 is just idling at maybe 30%, not straining itself at 95% power.

The soundstage from the E11 is open and 3-dimensional. It’s not as open and spacious as the sound from the Cowon X7, but it’s so far ahead of the stock iPod Classic output. Instrument placement is well defined and the undefinable sense of space is broad even if it’s not huge. Of course, there’s a chance that the iPod Classic’s DAC doesn’t process the sound as effectively as the Cowon’s so it’s possible the E11 is actually better than I’m crediting it. Either way, it’s a good amplifier and a major upgrade over most players’ headphone out quality.

The signature from the E11 is a little warm, but in no way soft or flabby. It’s detailed and clean, but has a nice smoothness to it. The bass is solid, but not forward and the top-end detail is still well-intact. All-in-all it’s a very enjoyable listen.

Note: Since posting this review, I have purchased the Shure SE535 LE in-ear monitors. Their extreme sensitivity has revealed some background hum from the E11. The E11 has a 98dB signal to noise ratio so be careful if buying this amp to use with earphones or headphones that have a sensitivity of more than 100dB SPL/mW.

Features

There are really only 2 features on the E11: a gain switch and an EQ switch (which is actually just a bass boost).

The gain switch changes the circuitry to suit high or low impedance (or high or low sensitivity) headphones. The sound isn’t massively louder on the high gain setting, but has extra energy to overcome the resistance of more difficult-to-drive headphones. I’m not an electronics expert, but I imagine it’s an adjustment to the output impedance to better complement the impedance of high impedance headphones. Suffice to say, it works effectively.

The EQ switch is interesting. According to the booklet, it’s a bass boost only, but the label on the E11 casing says “EQ”. It really is just a bass boost as far as I can hear. On setting 1 there is a very subtle increase in the mass of the bass (i.e. it just sounds fuller, not louder). On setting 2 it’s more obvious and starts to get a little bloated and flabby.

I’d read good things about the E11 bass boost setting and I have to agree that it’s very effective, but only on level 1 in my opinion. There are 3 settings: off, 1 and 2.

Other Stuff

The E11 comes in a small metal tin and is provided with:

  • A USB cable for charging (using a standard mini USB connection on the E11)
  • A 3.5mm to 3.5mm with right-angle plugs at each end for connection to a headphone out or line out
  • A Fiio rubber band that’s just the right size to go around an iPod and the E11 together

I had read about the volume knob being a bit fiddly to use and I tend to agree. When strapped to the back of an iPod, it’s basically impossible to move the volume control without sliding the E11 down so it protrudes past the bottom of the iPod (and line out plug if you’re using one). If you’re using a line out connection, the E11’s volume control will most likely be your only volume option because most line outs are fixed volume and can’t be changed on the player. This means that you might have to adjust the E11 volume regularly and will therefore need to keep the volume knob clear to access with 2 fingers. It’s a slight issue, but not a deal breaker.

Summary

Overall, the Fiio E11 is an amazing option as an affordable and highly portable headphone amp. Its sound quality is very good for its size and price, but remember that it can only be as good as the input quality. If you run the E11 from the headphone out of your player it will only ever sound like a louder version of your player. Run from a line out though, the E11 is great and definitely makes the iPod Classic a much more enjoyable player. It will do the same for any of the other iPods and iPhones too. It’s even a slight improvement over the very good iPod Video 5.5G.

Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB

This little beast is the Creative Digital Music Premium HD (in Australia). It’s also known as the X-Fi HD in other parts of the world. I’m going to call it the X-Fi HD for the rest of this post because it’s quicker and easier.

Creative designed this to match up with medium-high impedance audiophile headphones and I bought it to drive a set of Ultrasone HFI 680 headphones which are moderate impedance at 75 ohm and stretched the capabilities of my laptop.

My laptop is a Sony Vaio C-series with a Realtek HD onboard soundcard – not bad, but also not highly amplified. It drives my 35 ohm Audio-Technica AD900s quite well and is reasonable with my 64 ohm HiFi-Man Re0s, but it struggles mightily with the 680s.

Generally, the most obvious issue with high impedance headphones is a lack of volume, but that wasn’t where had trouble. My problems came in the form of sound quality. When auditioning the 680s I found the sound really flat and dull compared to other lower impedance headphones, but only when driven direct from the laptop. Adding an amplifier brought the 680s to life, but didn’t involve any increase in volume.

Adding the X-FI HD definitely had the desired effect. Most noticeably, the soundstage grew dramatically. Music sounds open and lively and all of the subtle details are beautifully present and clear. Basically, the only differences it makes are subtle. It doesn’t colour the sound or change it in any way, it just opens it up and lets it live.

The X-Fi HD is small and light – about 6″ x 4″ (at a guess – I haven’t measured it) and about 1 inch thick. The front has just two 6mm jacks (headphone and microphone) and a volume control. There’s a blue LED on the top at the front which shows when the X-FI is connected and when it’s muted (flashes). On the back is a mini USB socket for the data connection to your computer as well as optical in and out sockets as well as analogue lines out and in. There’s also an earth connection for turntable connections.

The software supplied with the X-Fi HD is comprehensive, but I can’t comment on its use because I’m not a fan of sound altering effects like stadium mode and jazz club mode, etc. They sound fairly convincing, but I prefer the sound to be reproduced exactly as it was recorded.

How it Performs

The X-Fi HD instantly transformed my listening experience subtly, but significantly. The soundstage got wider and the separation of sounds got better. That’s really it though. If you are using low bit rate audio (i.e. 256 kbps or less) then there’s probably not much point in buying this device, but if you’re listening to high quality audio with all of the original recording quality intact (i.e. original CDs, DVDs, or lossless audio) then the X-Fi HD could transform your computer into a top-notch source.

As a portable option for excellent, detailed and natural sound, the X-Fi HD is an awesome option for a little over $100 (in Australia). I’m not suggesting that it out-performs more expensive DACs and amplifiers, but for a low cost, portable option it will be hard to beat given that it also gives you the option to input other sources for high quality digital recording of vinyl, etc.

Some Specs

  • The X-Fi HD supports 24-bit 96Hz sound for both recording and playback.
  • Signal to noise ratio is 114dB (through headphone output)