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FiiO E17 Alpen Portable Headphone Amplifier USB DAC
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- Standard mini USB interface: Connect to your PC for digital audio transfer and/or charge of the 1500 mAh internal battery
- 3.5 mm stereo headphone output: Suitable for 16-150 ohm headphones; MAX output current > 80 mA; THD <0.003%@1KHz
- 3.5mm SPDIF input (optical, coaxial) digital connector to receive PCM signals up to 24-bit/192kHz
- 3.5mm Analog Line-In for use with other audio sources, 18-Pin multi-functional interface to connect FiiO's L7 and E9 docks
- Digital Bass, Treble, Gain, Volume Controls
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|Item Dimensions||2.18 x 3.78 x 0.6 in||2.2 x 3.58 x 0.51 in||2.6 x 4.88 x 0.59 in||2.2 x 3.82 x 0.51 in||2.6 x 4.88 x 0.59 in||2.6 x 4.88 x 0.59 in|
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- 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.
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.
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.
Sound: I own the Sennheiser Hd598 and the Denon ADH2000. I hooked both to my laptop directly and they give loose bass and not very clear sound. When I hook my e17 up, the sound comes alive. The e17 makes the sound tigher, clearer, and very smooth. The mid and vocal are especially smooth and sweet. Bass is tighter and hit harder. Treble is clearer. There is nothing to complain.
Is it a worthy purchase? I would say YES. So buy this if you love music and listen to music daily. At this price, there is nothing on the market that can beat it.
The first thing to understand is how to hook the E17 up to your computer.
Your best bet is to connect the E17 to the SPDIF optical output jack on your Mac. The what? As it turns out, Steve Jobs was an audiophile and wanted to make sure that Macs could be an integral part of a hifi system. (I've repurposed my MacBook Pro 17" as a media server.) So all Macs have an optical output jack. On the Mac, digital audio is output through the headphone jack. You just plug in an SPDIF optical cable (included with the E17) and a little red light comes out. Connect to the E17 SPDIF input. If you have a PC, you have my condolences, but you can use the USB input to the E17.
I suspect one reason some reviews have been less than favorable is that people just use the E17's AUX analog input with a 3.5mm headphone cable. If you do, you are only using the headphone preamplifier and not the DAC, so it won't sound any better than just turning up the volume on your headphones.
Also it makes a difference what you output to the E17. Don't start up iTunes and start playing aac or mp3 files. These lossy compression formats are not digital versions of your music. You want to use ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) format. To do this, rip your CDs using the ALAC CD import setting under preferences. ALAC files are digital audio files that preserve the full 44.1kHz/16 bit audio information from your CD. ALAC files are about 4X bigger that AAC files as a result, so hard disk space may become a factor. You can now use iTunes to play these ALAC files and what comes out of the SPDIF optical output is digital data. Now the E17 DAC has something it can actually work with.
If your entire music collection was downloaded, you can stop reading right here. The E17 is not for you unless you are willing to invest in high quality digital downloads (see HDtracks.com). Fortunately, I have most of the music I care about on CD.
So now plug your headphones into the E17. Provided you have good headphones you will notice a definite improvement. You should notice that your stereo headphones now have a defined spatial sound stage (as opposed to the flat sound that comes out of your car stereo or through analog headphone input). It's sort of like putting a standard DVD in your player and getting a 3D picture on your TV. The E17 has volume control as well as an amplifier that provides 0/6/12 db gain. One thing you can notice is that if you push the DAC volume too high, the sound stage becomes flat, but only noticeable just before the headphone volume becomes deafening. Don't try this at home.
You will need a good set of headphones or earbuds to really appreciate the E17. I am fortunate to have Ultimate Ear Triple-Fi Pro earbuds. I also have used the E17 with my Bose QC3 headphones and they sound better. Sorry, but the E17 won't do much with your iPhone earbuds or likely any other headphone or earbud that costs less than the E17 itself.
The next thing you definitely want to do, if you've gotten this far, is to download the Audirvana Plus DAC media player. (audirvana.com - download the trial!) Even without the E17, it will greatly improve your sound. One of the reasons is that Audirvana bypasses Apple's core audio and instead uses the iZotope 64-bit SRC driver. This is the same driver that iZotope uses in their digital audio workstation software. (See iZotope's website) What makes Audirvana really special is that it has digital signal processing algorithms that will upsample your music to a higher sample rate/bit depth. So convert your 44.1kHz/16 bit ALAC to 98kHz/24 bit format before sending to DAC. (You can go higher but even Audirvana says there's not much value in that.) Now before we get started on why this can't work because you can't create more information than was originally present on the CD, it does in fact work. It has something to do with the psychoacoustics of how your brain processes sound. (So if you can't hear a difference, it might be worth checking out the troubleshooting section in your brain's owners manual). Go to Wikipedia to read up on why/how. And let's not EVEN go down the path of "it won't help because we can only hear frequencies up to 22 kHz." Anyway, Audirvana Plus is a good deal at $74.
Audirvana Plus also senses when you have a DAC plugged and turns digital audio conversion over to the DAC after it resamples. You could build hardware upsamplers, but computers are fast enough and can use better sampling algorithms than you can easily (or inexpensively) build on a chip. The E17 also supports integer-mode frequency conversion and Audirvana will sense that as well. That's good but I won't spend time going into why. Audirvana Plus will also integrate with iTunes and output to Airplay, but I am now using Audirvana Plus itself as my preferred media player.
So now comes the real surprise: I output the analog signal from the E17 to my AVR and got an improvement as well (vs playing AAC files). The enhanced spatiatiality was very noticeable. I have a nice system to start with, so that's saying something. Last year FIIO demonstrated the E17 at their booth at a consumer audio show with a $30,000 system and blew people away. Getting a DAC for $129 that reviewers compare favorably to DAC costing a couple of thousand dollars, I think is a good deal.
One reason the E17 sounds so good is that it uses the Wolfson WM8740 chipset - one of the higher performance DAC chipsets out there that's used to build those expensive DAC's.
One last note: While you can use USB input to the E17 (cable included) if your system doesn't have SPDIF output (i.e., not a Mac), the USB board has to convert the digital output to the USB digital format. If you use SPDIF you are getting you audio straight from the audio driver without further processing. If you a playing ALAC or another lossless format, all the Mac has to do is just take the digital data and hand it over (digital to digital optical conversion being no big deal: 1 => turn light on, 0 => turn light off).
Bottom Line: Buying the FIIO Alpen E17 DAC/Amplifier for $129 is one of the best and cheapest investments I've ever made in my system.
The device does have some nice features, but the orientation doesn't allow it to pair well with an ipod. You have to band them together both facing out which doesn't work very well. A traditional amp makes much more sense than this.
Overall, my opinion is that this thing is WAY overhyped. I honestly couldn't pick up any obvious improvement in the sound through my ipod/HE400's.
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