Stick of All Trade

A Review On: Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Headphone Amplifier with Integrated Mic and Dual Headphone Jacks for PC and Smartphones

Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Headphone Amplifier with Integrated Mic and Dual Headphone Jacks for PC and Smartphones

Rated # 76 in Amp/DACs
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Review Details:
Audio Quality
Design
Quality
Value
ClieOS
Posted · Updated · 4150 Views · 23 Comments

Pros: Lots of features. Good price point.

Cons: Master of None.

With desktop PC sale declining and mobile devices on the rise, thumb drive sized USB DAC has become the quick fix for poor sound quality that is all too common in portable computer and smart devices. Creative’s answer to that demand is the new Sound Blaster E1 – a multipurpose USB DAC + headphone amp + mic that boosted with quite a few impressive features.

 

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Spec

SBX Pro Studio: Supported

CrystalVoice: Supported

Scout Mode: Supported

Max. Playback Quality: 24-bit / 44.1kHz (Stereo)

Max. Recording Quality: 16-bit / 44.1kHz

Output: Stereo

Battery Life: Up to 25 hours

SNR: 106dB

Headphone Out: 1 x 3.5mm jack
Headphone Out / Mic In: 1 x 3.5mm jack
Line In:  1 x 3.5mm jack (4-pole)

Headphone Amp: Up to 600 Ohms

Microphone Type: Built-in mono microphone

Dimensions: 35 x 19 x 66 mm (1.37 x 0.74 x 2.59 inches)

Weight: 25 grams

MSRP: USD$50

 

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Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality

E1 comes with a fairly typical paper box, well printed but nothing fancy. Besides the manual, the only two accessories are a USB cable and a 3.5mm TRRS-to-TRRS interconnecting cable that is roughly 85cm in length. One of the feature on the E1 is that it can act as a headphone amp for smartphone, where it has a single button remote to play / pause music or pick up call and the built-in mic that will serve as the mic for hand-free calling. In order to support those functions, obviously you will need to use the TRRS cable to connect the E1 to your smartphone.

 

Build quality is solid, if not a bit unremarkable. The whole device is made out of plastic though the overall finishing is decent. There is a shirt chip integrated on the back, making it looks a little like a slightly oversized Bluetooth headset unit. The only minor complaint I have is that I wish the volume slider can be a bit recessed just so it will minimize any chance of accidental volume adjustment. However, the volume slider does have some resistant built into it so it is not like it will just slide with minimum force.

 

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Gain, Hiss and Battery Life

As a USB DAC+amp, the max output is about 1.93V. As a pure headphone amp, E1 has a gain of 6dB. It can actually pump out higher volume as a pure headphone amp than as a USB DAC+amp, probably due to the limited volume coming out of the DAC section. That means that although Creative claims that the E1 can drive headphone up 600ohm, you might not get enough volume if the headphone sensitivity isn’t high enough. That is however still fairly reasonable consider the compact size of E1. It is of course not actually going to replace a full blown headphone amp anytime soon, but it should be more enough for the majority of headphones in the market that are barely over 32 ohm.

 

One feature that I particularly like about the E1 is its dual headphone-out. Now such implementation is actually nothing new but the cool thing about it is that the two headphone-out are independently driven by two headphone driver chips, the Maxim MAX97220 if I am not mistaken. That means connecting two headphones will not degrade the sound quality, as opposed to having them driven in parallel by just one chip.

 

Hiss performance is excellent on the E1 as I heard nothing even with the very hiss prone SE530. There is no click and pop noise during start up as well, which is also excellent.

 

Battery life is officially quoted at 25hours (as a pure headphone amp as I imagined, since it will be powered by USB port when it is used as USB DAC+amp). I never quite drained it dry to confirm the number, but it does seems to run very long without needing a recharge. In fact, I was still running off the initial charge after playing with it on and off for the first week. With the current fast rate of battery drainage on most smartphone, I’ll say there is a good chance the E1 will outlast your smartphone on most day easily.

 

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Sound Quality

As with most of my review on headphone amp and DAC, I started with a basic RMAA measurement. The result is mostly clean and without any noticeable issue. Frequency response is pretty much flat from 80Hz to 20kHz, with a less than -1dB roll off at 20Hz that should be near inaudible to most people. There is however a minor imbalance between the two channels, which I assume is likely caused by the volume slider in my review unit. It is however small enough that I never notice it during listening but only after the measurement. Output impedance is measured and calculated to be around 2~2.5ohm for both headphone-out, which is quite decent. Current output is okay for the most part. I’ll have like a bit more but it should be enough except for the very low impedance load.

 

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Subjectively, the E1’s sound is in the warm side when used as a standalone portable amp, with good texture and sweetness though a bit smooth and lack a good sense of air and depth. It is actually quite similar to FiiO E07K (which also uses the same headphone driver chip), but less grand on overall image. I’ll say for the most part the overall SQ is about the same level as FiiO E6, which is not bad at all for what is meant to be entry level gear. As an USD DAC however, the E1 opens up more. It still has a sense of warmth in its presentation, but more revealing and definitely better in the rendering of space. No doubt it benefits from Creative’s software bundle, enhancing the soundstage and detail while not being artificial sounding (*there are also a few EQ and gaming setting that should appeal to those who are more centred on movie and PC game). While it isn’t exactly audiophile’s sound quality, I don’t think anyone can expect more for its price tag

 

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Extra

Here are some of the features that don’t quite fit into the rest of the review but they are worth noting nonetheless.

  1. Though E1 only supports sampling rate up to 48kHz (*no HD there!), it does support bitdepth of 24bit. This means adjusting digital volume on your PC should not degrade the resolution of your music, if you decided to do so.
  2. One of the headphone-out can double as mic-in when it is in USB DAC mode. I assume this is designed for gaming headset which usually comes with two 3.5mm jack (one for sound and one for mic). You will however need to enable it within the Sound Blaster software setting.

 

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Size comparison (from left): Apple iPod Nano 7G, E1, digiZoid ZO2.

 

Sum-up

What sets E1 apart is really its unique set of features. Creative has managed to pack just about everything you want for an basic external PC soundcard for headphone into a really small body, while making it double as a standalone amp and still keeping it cheap yet competent. It is the stick of all trade and a relevant gadget that fits right into this post PC era.

 

A thank to Creative for the sample.

23 Comments:

Wonder how it compares to cheap ELE EL-D02 and what DAC chip it actually uses? 
Don't have the ELE, but I know it uses the most basic of all USB DAC chip, the PCM2704, which I do have in a few of my older USB DAC. Inside the E1 is a Conexant CX20562, which is a DSP with DAC and ADC functions (among other features) built-in. It is almost 'space age' compared to PCM2704., so to speak.
Any idea when the E3 is coming out?
Good review. At it's price-point, I think the E1 knocks off the Asus Xonar U3 as best bang for you buck.
Dunno when E3 will arrive, but I should be able to get one for review as well. Will report back when it is available.
Any idea of how good the EM shielding is?  If strapped to the back of a phone, do you hear interfence?
Great review ClieOS. I found the same results. Unfortunately since I run Android L, and it has usb dac related bugs, i get horrible sound from my phone if i usb dac it. But on a computer its great. I am thinking of getting a 2nd one for having on the road, or get that CEntrance DacPort on Massdrop
So what it comes down to is that for less than 50 euros you've got a basic amp that also works not bad at all as a DAC/usb sound card?
 
I can remember when the FiiO E6 cost almost as much and was snapped up by everyone.
nice looking. portable. cheap. going to grab one
@SpongeyOne EMI shielding is quite excellent as I can't heard any interference when it is right next to my Xperia Z2 during call.
 
@Daegalus I have no problem pairing it to my Z2 (Kitkat 4.4.2) with UAPP.
Hello everybody! My name is Ryan and I'm a Product Manager here at Creative Sound Blaster for the audio line (and a fellow enthusiast!). Thanks for the feedback so far (and the review ClieOS!). I'm here to grab the feedback as we're always looking to improve and advance the product lines. E3 is right around the corner and should be hitting the channel soon. I'll jump in here and give everyone a specific date when it will be available in regions. We had some fine tuning we wanted to make prior to release.  Wijnands - you hit it on the head. The idea was to take our USB audio line and make it more meaningful for the user of today. With more people consuming content on multiple devices, we saw the opportunity to take our USB / DAC side of things and marry it to a great AMP making it useful for more than just laptop / desktop audio. Definitely don't want to hijack the thread though with too much marketing speak! If there are questions I'll do my best to answer here as well. Appreciate the feedback and will continue to gather so we can continue to improve!
How does it compare with the Dragonfly v.2? 
Dunno, never listen to a Dragonfly before.
can i plug in this soundblaster amp  directly on my pc audio card and listen to music? my phones are on incredibly  6 ohms regime!!  hand made driver
i have  some older X-FI  music express audio card which is in very good shape and quality...and it does very good job on my 2 ohms hi fi speakers. so i need some portable head amp that can handle with 6 ohms hand made headphones.
That's okay, thank you for the reply. 
@ClieOS Ya, I will test it with my new phone that is running 4.4.2. My Nexus 5 was running Android L and had known broken audio subsystem, which is probably what broke the dac part. I will try it with my new phone.
I've ordered one to be able to get higher quality audio from my pc on the cheap. I currently have a Gigabyte G1 Sniper M3 motherboard which has some simplified Recon3D chip onboard. The E1 has a worse surround effec in games, the DAC is very noisy on both my HD600 and Hifiman RE272 and the sound quality was very flat and dull imho. When switching to the line in connected to my pc's output I did notice the sound quality to increase and the noise to drop significantly. It got more body and just a better timbre overall. So I would say the amp section of the E1 is pretty decent but the DAC is pretty bad, so since I used it as a motherboard audio replacement I will have to send it back. Too bad, I was hoping that the E1 would allow me to use my RE272's for gaming since it's the only creative audio product I know of which has a low enough impedance for my RE272's (20ohm). I don't want to invest into getting a Creative ZxR and connecting that to a external amp.
Oh and since I haven't found anything regarding the microphone's quality. It's pretty decent, not great but for the price it had a low noise output and decent clarity for voice communication.
@newmarko 6 ohm is really in the power amp territory. I am not sure whether E1 will handle it well or not. But if the headphone is sensitive enough, it just might.