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Customer Review

209 of 264 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad, but you may not need it, May 9, 2012
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This review is from: FiiO E17 Alpen Portable Headphone Amplifier USB DAC (Electronics)
This little DAC / amp is well built, looks good, and has some nice features. But depending on your equipment, it may or may not improve your sound quality. Using my MacBook Pro and two styles of high-end headphones I could not tell any difference in sound, even after several hours of careful comparisons. Using my very-sensitive Shure SE535 in-ear monitors, there was a slight decrease in background hiss, but it was only apparent during complete silence.

Evaluation equipment:
- MacBook Pro hooked up via USB (or straight from headphone jack for comparison)
- iPhone via headphone jack (for comparison)
- Apple Lossless and 256kbps AAC files
- Denon AH-D5000 over-the-ear headphones
- Shure SE535 in-ear monitors

There are really only a couple specific situations where you may benefit from a device like this DAC / amp:

- You have a low-quality music player right now. (Apple's products actually have very good DACs and amps, and I couldn't notice any difference comparing this E17 to my MacBook Pro or my iPhone.)
- You have very high-impedence headphones that are difficult to drive for mass-market devices. My Denons don't have this characteristic, so maybe that's why I'm not hearing any difference.
- You have extremely sensitive In-Ear Monitors that can pick up even a very low amount of background noise during silent passages. My Shure 535s pick up some slight hiss from my MacBook Pro during silence. There is still a hiss on this amp, but it's reduced somewhat.

- Nice black metal finish. Build quality seems solid.
- Bright screen with controls for bass/treble, gain, sleep timer, etc. Most headphone amps in this price range have few options and no screen.
- Bass and treble adjustments are actually pretty good. Way better than the iTunes equalizer, for example.
- For high-impedence headphones or unusually bad sound cards you may hear a sound quality increase (I didn't).
- Slight reduction in background hiss ("noise floor") for very sensitive in-ear monitors.

- Screen stays on until you shut the device off, unless you put it in "hold" mode and then none of the buttons work. I wish the screen would just go to sleep after a minute or two.
- If you dock it with an E9 amp, you have to turn both devices on and off independently, which is a hassle. Also, the relationship between the volume controls on the E9 and E17 is unclear -- both still work. If the E9 is supposed to be bypassing the amp in the E17, why are both volume controls available?

Overall, an external DAC/amp is another device that sits on your desk and it has to prove it's worth. This didn't do it for me and I'm sending it back. It seems a little unfair to knock a product based on my needs and not just it's performance, but there ya go. There are a lot of reviews and comments that claim that a headphone amp & DAC is required to get the most out of your music. That may be true in some situations, but as a general rule it's just not true.

If you do decide to buy this (or any other DAC/headphone amp), do yourself the favor of honestly evaluating whether it has improved your music experience. There is a lot of "expectation bias" around high-end audio components that leads people to believe there should be a difference even when there's not.

EDIT 7/15/2012
Wow, this review has prompted a lot of comments, many of them critical. That's ok, audio equipment is pretty personal, so of course there are going to be strong opinions. All I can say is that I did several hours of careful comparisons, and I honestly could not hear a difference. Maybe it's because Apple gear is pretty good as far as consumer audio goes. Maybe the Denon and Shure headphones I own are easy to drive and therefore don't really benefit from an amp. Who knows. I'm just saying, it's worth evaluating for yourself whether this is a piece of equipment you want to spend money on.

EDIT 1/8/2013
This review continues to get a lot of comments. I returned the E17 so I can't really update the review other than to reaffirm my opinion that any potential buyer should carefully evaluate whether this is a good product for them. Several people have pointed out that the headphones I happen to own don't benefit much from an amp. That's exactly my point: I'm not saying this is a bad product, although I did have a few minor quibbles. I'm just saying you may not need one, even with high-end headphones. Don't believe the hype that you *must* have an amp to get good performance.
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Tracked by 12 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 54 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 11, 2012 5:08:38 PM PDT
fleonard says:
Thanks for the honest review. I tried this too and psyched myself into thinking it improved my audio from my laptop and other devices. I gave it several careful listens on a couple different setups. Result: no diff--save your money!

Posted on May 30, 2012 2:08:56 PM PDT
Is the reason why you rate it three stars because you don't need it? I'm not sure that warrants a poor rating.

Posted on May 30, 2012 4:28:52 PM PDT
Agreed Chris.

If your macbook pro is enough to drive your Shure 535's, great, but my Sager NP9150 can't drive a pair of standard apple iPod buds. For me, it's apparently obvious that it can't because of lack of definition, clarity, and most noticable, no bass (using Westone 4R's btw). This device is required for me to enjoy my music.

Posted on Jun 1, 2012 3:06:57 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 1, 2012 3:09:48 PM PDT
Sean says:
I think Henry has got the point of headphone amp. most headphone jacks from laptops, mp3 players, usually not powerful enough to drive high impedence device like some high end over-ear head phone, A/V receiver line inputs, PA system inputs... the portable audio devices' headphone output jack simply provides low voltage and only match low impedence device(most in-ear headphone). so when I connect the headphone jack of a cellphone, mp3 player or a laptop, to a receiver or a PA system etc., I really need thsi headphone amplifier as a pre-amp. otherwise, for my in-ear headphone, I dont use this FiiO amp.
But, on my own opion, the 3 stars is kind of unfair for this product. coz it simply does not fit Henry's needs, not the products itself issue.

Posted on Jun 15, 2012 9:13:53 AM PDT
J.S. says:
Thanks for the review, Henry. A year ago, I tried a Nuforce uDAC HP for my Grado SR80 headphones (32 ohm) and found no difference compared to my stock Dell sound card. Your review gives me the impression that this Fiio would be no better with these headphones. There are a lot of great high impedance headphones out there, but folks could save a lot of money by buying low impedance headphones that sound good without having to spend hundreds more on an amp.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 15, 2012 9:20:58 AM PDT
I think 3/5 stars is hardly a "poor" rating, and I do think there are some quirks with the interface that make it less than perfect.

But you're right, mostly I rated it badly because I think it's an expensive and largely unnecessary product. It's the same with premium HDMI cables that cost a lot because they're triple gold plated with oxygen-free solid copper conductors or whatever: people spend lots of money thinking they're getting a better product when actually it makes no difference. When I tested this Fiio amp / DAC with 2 very different headphones and multiple devices, I couldn't hear any difference at all. In my mind that makes it a bad buy, and I rated it accordingly.

Posted on Jun 18, 2012 1:31:49 AM PDT
Ryan Bolyard says:
The E17 has a bypass switch on the side for when you're using it with the E9. You MUST switch that on to bypass the E17 amp (and also gain/EQ). With the E9 and the bypass switch on, things get much cleaner, especially at higher volumes. With low impedance headphones, I agree that the amp section is not needed but the DAC will still be an improvement, depending on the quality of the DAC you're comparing it to, of course. It's always good to question if you really need something and depending on your situation you may not need it... or you may not be able to live without it.

Posted on Jun 18, 2012 10:56:40 AM PDT
R. Ding says:

3 stars is a totally fair rating. From personal experience I know that a single DAC/Amp will not make too much of a difference, especially with sensitive IEMs playing standard bit-rate music. I wonder how many out of those 12 five-star reviews were actual audiophiles who know what they are talking about.

Posted on Jun 20, 2012 2:43:22 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 20, 2012 2:43:49 PM PDT
David Kavic says:
I'm surprised that nobody pointed out that the Macbook Pro comes with pretty good sound hardware, since a lot of proessionals purchase it. I would try a cheap laptop or an older audio sound card to compare the difference to. Macbook Pro's have always come with quality output.

Posted on Jun 22, 2012 6:33:09 AM PDT
Fabien C. says:
"If you do decide to buy this (or any other DAC/headphone amp), do yourself the favor of honestly evaluating whether it has improved your music experience. There is a lot of "expectation bias" around high-end audio components that leads people to believe there should be a difference even when there's not."
Man, you must be kidding! Change your pc or headphones, the problem may be there...
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