Creative Sound Blaster E5: So many features, you'll probably never use them all!

A Review On: Sound Blaster E5 - 24-bit/192kHz High-Resolution USB DAC & Portable Headphone Amplifier

Sound Blaster E5 - 24-bit/192kHz High-Resolution USB DAC & Portable Headphone Amplifier

Rated # 33 in Amp/DACs
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nmatheis
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Pros: Good sound. Sturdy build. Feature-rich. SBX apps for computer and smartphone. No CCK required for iPhone. EQ streaming apps.

Cons: No indicator on volume knob. SBX settings can't be changed when connected via Bluetooth (NO LONGER VALID). A bit bulky.

EDIT: As of the October 8th, 2015 firmware update, you can now alter all of the SBX settings when connected to your iPhone via Bluetooth. Nice job, Creative!

 

INTRODUCTION

Creative is well-known for their sound cards. I remember building a PC when I was younger. I specifically sought out a Creative sound card to make sure I had a good audio interface for listening to music from my computer. It was during the days of Napster and 128 kbps audio files, so it was probably overkill but at least it gave me the potential for good sound. The fact that my audio files couldn't keep up with my soundcard wasn't its fault. Skip forward to the present. Creative is still well-known for their sound cards, but has also started making headway in the Head-Fi space with their desktop and portable dac/amps, headphones, in ear monitors, and speakers.

 

When @LucasCL put out a call for reviewers for three of the newer Creative products, two of them immediately appealed to me - a portable dac/amp and an IEM. I'm a long-term IEM user, so this would've been a good fit for me. However I was chosen to review the Sound Blaster E5 portable dac/amp. This was actually a really good choice for me at the time, as I'd just come off a series of reviews looking at various portable dac/amps like the small battery-free Calyx PaT and Cozoy Aegis and the more conventional Cayin C5DAC and Shanling H3. I really don't see the small battery-free products as direct competitors to the E5, so I won't be discussing them in this review. However, the C5DAC and H3 can be viewed as direct competitors for the portable audio enthusiast. Unfortunately, I didn't have those available for direct comparison with the E5, so I'm going to refrain from making any detailed statements about audio quality. I will however provide some general comments about build and audio quality. If you're interested in reading my thoughts on the other portable dac/amps I've tested, the links above will take you to their respective reviews.

 

Why portable dac/amps? Quite simply, I want to level-up my iPhone's audio quality when using streaming services on the go. Portable dac/amps are one way of achieving this with varying degrees of success. Being able to use the device as an entry-level or secondary desktop dac/amp is icing on the cake. So what am I looking for? Well, it needs to sound better than my iPhone's headphone out. It needs to have good volume control for IEM yet able to drive my HE400 planars. A small, lightweight form factor is definitely preferable, but I usually carry my audio gear in a small shoulder bag so my idea of small might be on the large side for others - it's all a matter of perspective. Since it will get tossed in my bag, it should be durable and the volume knob, gain switch, etc. shouldn't be easy to adjust accidentally. It should also have reasonable battery life, but I have chargers everywhere so this isn't as much a make or break feature for me as it would be for some. Let's see how the E5 stacks up.

 

DISCLAIMER
I was provided the Creative Sound Blaster E5 as a review sample as part of a worldwide call for reviewers.  There is no financial incentive from Creative for writing this review.  I am in no way affiliated with Creative, and this is my honest opinion of the E5.  I would like to thank @LucasCL for giving me the opportunity to test the E5 and also for his patience. I hope my feedback proves useful for fellow Head-Fi members as well as for Creative.
 
 
ABOUT ME
I'm a 43 year old father who loves music.  While I listen mostly to electronic and metal these days, I do listen to a wide variety of music - from electronic (Autechre, Boards of Canada) to modern/minimalist composition (John Cage, Philip Glass) to alternative rock (Flaming Lips, Radiohead) to jazz (John Coltrane and Miles Davis) to metal (Behemoth, King Diamond) to classic rock (Eagles, Rush).  
 
I'm primarily a portable audio enthusiast. My portable music journey started with the venerable Sony Cassette Walkman and then progressed to portable CD players, minidisc recorders (still have my Sharp DR7), and finally on to DAPs like the Rio Karma, iRiver IHP-1xx, iPod 5.5, iPhones, and the newer crop of DAPs from Fiio and iBasso.
 
Being a portable audio enthusiast, I typically listen with IEMs but am enjoying listening with full-size headphones more and more and tend to like u-shaped sound signatures, although I break out v-shaped IEM & HP from time to time for fun.
 
As with a lot of people my age, I've got some hearing issues.  I've got mild tinnitus and suffer from allergies, which can affect hearing in my right ear.  I'll admit it, I'm not blessed with a pair of golden ears.  That said, I've been listening to portable gear for a long time and feel confident in assessing audio gear - just wanted to be transparent up front.
 
 
SPECIFICATIONS

  • 2 x 2.2 Ohm Headphone Out capable of driving up to 600 Ohm Headphones
  • 24-bit / 192kHz USB DAC
  • Analog and Optical Line In and Line Out
  • aptX Bluetooth
  • SBX apps for computer and smartphone
  • 8 hour battery life
  • For more specs, please visit Creative's E5 product page

 
 
PACKAGING & ACCESSORIES
Compared with the very simple packaging I experienced with the other portable dac/amps I've tested out recently, the E5's packaging is very colorful and information-dense.

 


Open the box and you see the E5 on display.

 

Under the display tray is a black box filled with the E5's accessories. Here are most of the contents laid out for you. You get an optical cable, a USB cable, stacking bands, an angled stand, and of course the E5 itself.

 

You also get a user manual. It looks pretty normal in the following picture, but instead of being a booklet it's a poster-sized fold-out. While it does give you a lot of information at a glance, I found it cumbersome and would've preferred a more conventional booklet type user manual.


 
 
BUILD & ERGONOMICS
I like to let pictures do most of the talking, so I'll walk through the E5 in pictorial format below.

 

Let's start with an overhead view of the E5. It's mainly constructed of sturdy black plastic with a brushed metal accent strip down the middle. The other dac/amps I've tested in this price range were constructed mainly of aluminum, so this was a change. I honestly prefer the look and feel of the metal casings, however I do want to emphasize that the #5 feels very sturdy. There is a slight amount of flex if I press down very hard with both thumbs in the center of the top face - emphasis on slight. This picture didn't pick it up, but the Sound Blaster logo is laser engraved on the metal. It's not very apparent straight on but becomes highly visible when you hold the amp at an angle. Creative made sure to remind you of two of the E5's features: Crystal Voice (which is supposed to make your voice crystal clear when the E5 is used as an external mic during phone calls) and NFC (which allows you to pair an NFC-enable phone with the E5). These don't fit my use case, so I refrained from testing them.

 

To give you an idea of the E5's size, I snapped a picture with one of the most common portable amps - the Fiio E12A. Width is equivalent. The E12A is a bit longer. The E5 is roughly twice as thick as the E12A.

 

 

 

 
Moving on to the front of the E5, we see a nice, large recessed volume knob. 

 

The volume knob turns smoothly with enough resistance to prevent accidentally pushing the volume too high too quickly, which is great when you're using IEMs. It also means that it's unlikely to accidentally turn in your bag. There are a couple things to point out about the volume knob. First, it's free-spinning, so it has no defined minimum and maximum volume positions. I'm not a fan of this. I much prefer a volume knob that has a hard stop at the minimum and maximum volume settings. Why? So I can quickly and easily set the volume to my preferred setting before pushing play on my iPhone. This is the way the other dac/amps I tested worked. With the E5, I had one instance where I pushed play with some IEMs in when the volume setting was to high. The ability to visibly set the E5's volume knob to a low setting would've prevented this. I learned my lesson pretty quickly, and this incident wasn't repeated.

 

Another thing I'd like to point out about the volume knob is that it acts as a Play/Pause button when pressed straight in. This is pretty handy for quickly stopping music to interact with people without having to activate your smartphone. Nice touch!

 

Finally, volume can be controlled either via the E5's volume knob or by your computer or smartphone. When using the E5's volume knob to control volume, it has 20 volume steps vs. the iPhone's regular 16 steps, which allows more fine-grained volume control - but admittedly not as fine-grained as the other dac/amps I've tested that feature analog volume potentiometers.
 
Wow, that was a lot just about the volume knob! Moving along to the other features on the front, we see dual headphone jacks. Headphones click in very solidly with no chance of accidental escape. I'm not sold on putting in two headphone jacks as a feature. This would require the two listeners to be using headphones with similar impedance and sensitivity ratings. Otherwise, it would be difficult to achieve the optimal volume for both listeners. I did however find a good sue for it while recently reviewing the HiFiMan HE400S. I was comparing the new, easy to drive HE400S with my old harder to drive HE400. I found that by coincidence I could volume match very well with HE400S on Low Gain and HE400 on High Gain. This made it really easy to A/B the two headphones. I'm sure this won't happen very often. Long story short, unless you've got a bunch of friends with the same headphones you listen to - I'm not sure how often the two headphone jacks will get used. Of course everyone's use case is different, so your mileage may vary.
 
 
On the back, we see the various inputs and outputs. The USB port allows a CCK-free (Camera Connection Kit) experience with iDevices. Hallelujah! Just plug in the cable you use to charge your iDevice, and you're ready to rock. The micro USB port is for charging and USB OTG (On The Go) with Android devices.

 

 

Here's a quick peek at the non-slip rubber base. This not only keeps it from sliding around on your desk but also provides a nice, soft surface for stacking with your smartphone.

 


The left side is feature-packed. First up is the Power/Bluetooth button. Push it for a couple seconds to turn the E5 on, push it for two more seconds to turn on Bluetooth, and push it for a couple more seconds to turn it off.

 

When Bluetooth is enabled, the LED turns blue.

 

The SBX button controls several sound enhancement features that I'll go over later in the review. The gain switch has enough resistance that it's not going to accidentally slide over to High Gain on accident. This is good because High Gain is +15dB, which would be quite a shock if you were using easy to drive IEM or headphones. Creative recommends using Low Gain for up to 150 Ohm headphones and High Gain for up to 600 Ohm headphones. Finally, there's the battery / charging indicator. I like that it has three LEDs. The left-most LED flashes when you're almost out of power to let you know you'd better find a power source soon. Nice!

 

 

COMPUTER & SMARTPHONE USAGE

Connecting to my MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPhone was plug & play via USB, which allows up to 24-bit / 192kHz playback. However without installing a Mac or iOS app, there's no way to control the SBX settings. Once you install Creative's Sound Blaster E-Series Control Panel for the Mac or Sound Blaster Central app for iDevices, you've got full control over the E5's numerous software features - but only if connected via USB. Once you connect via Bluetooth, you won't be able to change the SBX settings - just toggle them on/off. A Bluetooth connection also limits you to 16-bit / 44kHz playback. Not a problem if you're not a hi-res believer as the E5's Bluetooth connection is very strong.

 

EDIT: As of the October 8th, 2015 firmware update, you can now alter all of the SBX settings when connected to your iPhone via Bluetooth. Nice job, Creative!

 

Since the E5 is so feature-rich, I'm going to take a quick tour of the settings I used in the iOS app. The Mac app has the same features but is laid out differently, so I'm not going to go over both. Here we go...

 

This is the main page. It's similar to the main page of the Mac's Control Panel app. From here, it's one it's one tap to get into any of the settings pages or the tabs along the bottom. Out of these, I ended up using the SBX feature the most, so let take a look at that first.

 

Okay, here are all the settings you can tweak on the SBX page at their default settings. I found some of these useful - others not so much. Let's take a closer look.

  • Surround: I felt like this was okay at up to 25%. Pushing past that sounded unrealistic.
  • Crystalizer: Quite frankly, I didn't like this at all. Turning it on made the upper end sound brittle and harsh.
  • Bass: Depending on the mood I was in, the music I was listening to, and what I was listening with I used this up to 50%. I know, I'm a blasphemer.
  • Crossover Frequency: Okay, this is cool. Creative lets you customize the Crossover Frequency. Want to choose which frequencies are affected by the bass boost? No problem, there's an app for that!
  • Smart Volume: This evens out volume across tracks - best to leave it off.
  • Dialog Plus: Boosts frequencies associated with the human voice, so you get dialog pops more in movies or audiobooks. Turn it off for music, though.

 

You saw the Equalizer tab, right? Well, there's a 10-band EQ with pre-gain, so you can EQ all of your streaming music while using the E% on your iDevice. Nice!

 

Here's the Mixer, which is useful. It's like having a sound card mixer panel on your iDevice. Pretty cool!

 

Here's the rather sparse Settings page. If you're a high-res person, I'd highly suggest you toggle that grayed-out slider!

 

I haven't set any up yet, but you can save different configurations as profiles. Know what you like with your headphones for watching movies? Set up a profile. Like a touch of surround and extra sub-bass when listening to your EDM? Set up a profile? You get the picture!

 

Here's the Player. When coupled with all the other features the E5 + app provide, it's a pretty complete music app. Of course, it only works with music you've loaded into the stock Music app, but you can still use all of the DSP functionality with other music apps and streaming services.

 

Here's what the Main page looks like when connected via Bluetooth. There's really not much you can do. I don't know if this is a limitation of the Bluetooth connection, but if there's any way possible to enable all settings via Bluetooth I'm sure a lot of users would appreciate it!

 

 

As I mentioned above, I'm not going to go into depth regarding the Mac app. It's really just the same settings laid out differently. Here's a screen grab of what the app looks like when you open it.

 

Whew, that was a lot! And I didn't even go into the Crystal Voice or Scout Mode settings, which are gamer-specific. So as you can see, there's a lot to the E5. The other dac/amps I've used have been much simpler devices. I really enjoyed playing with the various music and movie related DSP effects. I know, these features aren't something an audio purist would seek out, but they actually did come in handy to breathe a bit of extra life into my music or enhance my movie watching experience.

 


SOUND
I'm going to keep this simple, since I already covered a lot of the audio-related features packed into the E5 above. What I'm going to do here is simply describe how the sound compares to what I get out of my iPhone. Throughout my time, I used various listening gear with the E5 from earbuds (VE Monk, Asura, and Zen) to IEM (Torque t096z, Dunu Titan 3 & 5, Fiio EX1), and headphones (HiFiMan HE400S & HE400). This gave me a good range of driving power requirements with highly sensitive IEM vs. harder to drive 300 Ohm VE Zen and HiFiMan planars). I used the E5 solely as a dac/amp for listening to music on my iPhone or Mac and occasionally watching a TV show or movie. on my Mac What I found was that the E5 did sound better than either my iPhone or Mac's headphone outs. How? Bass sounded tighter, highs were smoother, and the soundstage was more expansive. I'm going to be straight with you and tell you right now that these were not major improvements, but they were noticeable and did improve my listening experience. Much more than the stock sound, I think the wide variety of DSP effects will be of value to most people looking into the E5.
 
Bluetooth vs. Wired
I couldn't tell a difference with the listening gear I used, which hasn't always been the case for Bluetooth implementations. Creative did a really good job here!
 
Driving Power
I used low gain to drive everything except my HE400 planars and 300 Ohm VE Zen. There's plenty of driving power here, so no worries for most people.
 
Miscellaneous
There was no noticeable channel imbalance or hiss, but I did occasionally get EMI when stacked with my iPhone. It was intermittent and seemed related to streaming apps caching songs.
 
 
BATTERY LIFE
My main criteria for success here was whether it would keep up with my iPhone, and it just pulled that off.  That said, the battery life isn't stellar. I didn't time it, but I'd peg it at about 8 hours with a wired connection and a bit less via Bluetooth  For me, this would mean I'd need to charge the E5 every day or two to keep it charged. 
 
 
SUMMARY
As I mentioned in the introduction, I had a few questions in mind when testing the E5.

 

  • Does it sound better than my iPhone? Yes, it does. I wouldn't call the stock sound miles ahead, but it is a noticeable improvement. And then there are those DSP setting for the tweakers out there...
  • Is volume control good with headphones I typically listen with? Yes, volume control was excellent, and accidental volume adjustments weren't an issue. Driving power kept up with my harder to drive gear.
  • Is it small and lightweight enough to pack in my go bag? Yes, but I wouldn't complain if it were thinner.
  • Is it durable? I didn't toss it down the stairs or anything, but I'd say it's tough enough to use as a daily driver in your go bag.
  • Is battery life reasonable? Yes, it lasts long enough that I'd just need to plug in and charge every couple days.

 
So yes, the E5 met my criteria for a dac/amp for enhancing my streaming listening experience. Whether I'd use it over some of the other dac/amps I've tested is a toss up. They all have their pros and cons and fit people's preferences to different degrees. I think the E5 definitely makes its case due to the numerous DSP options. That's its ace in the hole. If it didn't have those, in all honesty I'd choose a dac/amp with better stock sound and a smaller profile.
 
Thanks again to @LucasCL for providing me with the opportunity to review the E5. I look forward to seeing what Creative releases in the future!

2 Comments:

Good review Nic - and thanks for the explanation of the iDevice controls.
Great review nmatheis!
I admit, I missed checking to see if Bluetooth controls remained while Bluetooth streaming... I'll have to check that out, but good catch!

One reason that the Bluetooth wireless sounds particularly good: it supports AAC transmission, so basically if you bought or are streaming music from the iTunes Store, as I understand it the audio doesn't have to be compressed or re-encoded. Works for me! I kinda wish Apple supported AptX, but then again, on the go I only have AAC files presently anyway (USB FLACs or Apple Lossless sound great on my Mac).

Again, great article/review, you were quite thorough!