The FiiO E7 portable DAC/Amp unit is a highly-anticipated device from this relatively new budget audio manufacturer. Following the popularity of their E3 and particularly their E5 mini amplifier, FiiO is looking to move into higher performance portable amp territory. Coupled with an internal Digital to Analogue Converter, it is not the first device of its kind, but it is slated to retail for half the price of some of the more popular portable DAC/Amps currently available, making it an interesting proposition for those more money-conscious.
First physical impressions of the E7 are that it is very light. It weighs 85 g compared to the 140 g of the iPod Video it was paired with, but it is still fairly large. The body is constructed of brushed black aluminium while the front is glossy plastic. The back is embossed with the letters "E7". There are four buttons down the left-hand side of the unit for Up, Down, Menu/Enter and Power/Back. The buttons themselves are metallic silver in colour and feel quite solid to press. As well as this, the device does not react to your first keypress, in an attempt to reduce accidental clicks when in a pocket or bag. Over all it feels quite solid and held up well to the couple of weeks of use it went through.
Included in the box :
Thick rubber band for holding the unit to your player
Velvet pouch (may be replaced by silicone sleeve below)
Mini-B USB cable
3.5mm male-to-male interconnect
The final production model is to include a silicone sleeve allowing operation of the amplifier while being protected.
In use :
Due to its combined DAC and Amp internals, the E7 is quite a versatile device. An appreciable amount of care seems to have been taken with the design in terms of inclusion of features, such as a low-power OLED screen, long battery life and USB charging. A particular favourite is is the provision of a second headphone-out jack, which is a very basic yet useful addition. This allows you to demo the amplifier to a friend without breaking your music-listening stride, burn-in a pair of new 'phones while using your current pair or to share sound when watching a movie on your laptop. On the other hand, there has been some consternation about the omission of line-out level output from the E7, meaning it is currently not possible to use solely the DAC component. FiiO's explanation is that users would get confused between the standard headphone-out and and the line-out jack, resulting in possible hearing damage. This reasoning is understandable given the "beginner audiophile" demographic implied by the E7's price. However, it does limit the upgrade path of buyers insofar as they will have to layout for both a DAC and an amp should they wish to step up from this combined unit. The E7 has a proprietary docking port at the bottom which may be used for a line-out in the future, but there is no conformation of such at this stage. Currently this port is to be used to dock the E7 into FiiO's upcoming E9 desktop amp, which seems like a nice tie-in by FiiO from one angle, or a "lock-in" from another.
As a first exposure to amplifiers, the sound of the E7 was certainly impressive. Compared to the headphone-out jack of an iPod Video and Eee PC 1000H netbook, clarity was noticeably improved when used either as solely an amplifier (with the iPod and a Line Out) or as a USB DAC and amp. Of particular note was the effect the E7 had on vocals, giving them greater definition and making sense of muttered verses that had previously been unintelligible. To finally understand a lyric after several years of listening to a track was very pleasing and is probably the characteristic of the E7 to which it is most easy to relate. On a more basic level, the unit supplies plenty of driving power for more demanding portable 'phones. By way of comparison, the Sansa Clip+ required full-volume to drive the 55 Ω Audio-Technica ATH-CK10s to sufficient volume in a busy room, whereas the E7 needed approximately level 12 of 60 to achieve an equivalent volume. Using the E7 with Etymotic ER-4Ps, instrument separation was increased along with a widening of the soundstage. The larger soundstage may well be a side-effect of the sharpening of the ER-4Ps sound, allowing for faint, fading-out sounds to be heard for longer. On the other hand, while granular detail was improved on the Audio-Technica AD700s, soundstage was not greatly affected. Another general positive of the amplifier was the "filling in" effect it had on faint background rhythms. What might have before sounded like one note repeated cyclically, the intervening tune between the prominent note was heard thanks to the E7. Most commonly this occurred with a background guitar where one particular strum is played with greater emphasis and the noodling in between was previously indiscernible.
Part of the allure of the E7 is its build-in Digital to Analog Converter circuitry. While the iPod Video's Wolfson DAC is said to be of relatively good quality, the DAC of the E7 (also Wolfson) surpassed it. Comparing the two, the improvements are not so dramatic as from the iPod headphone-out to E7 headphone-out, but there was a boost in clarity perceived. The purpose of the DAC is to let the E7 be used essentially as a "sound card" with a computer. Compared to the headphone jack of an Eee PC 1000H, the E7 improved the experience much in the same way it did with the iPod - greater clarity of vocals, increased detail, wider sound. The E7 also reduced the hiss of the headphone out quite noticeably. Compared to the iPod, the E7's hiss is about a third as loud, and perhaps half as loud as the Eee PC. Hiss is roughly the same volume as the FiiO E5. The volume levels themselves go between 0-60. There is plenty of volume left at the upper end of the scale, with the E7 being set somewhere between 10-15 most of the time. However the lowest volume setting is still a little loud, and may not be quiet enough for those wishing to use the E7 to fall asleep with.
As far as sound equalizing goes, the E7 offers a single modifier - Bass Boost, ranging between 0 and 3. At 0, the E7 sounds quite cold and analytical. Level 1 increases the bass, to a more natural or perhaps slightly warm level. It is probably least noticeable of the settings in terms of colouring the sound. The subsequent levels 2 and 3 are quite curious. Rather than increase the bass level, it seems that they simply "bloat" the lower frequencies without increasing their volume greatly. Effectively the low end sounds less controlled. This is a demo E7 unit and other reviewers have commented on the E7's rather lacklustre Bass Boost option, so hopefully it is an issue that will be addressed before the final production units are released. In any case, Level 1 was used for this review. Care must be taken when discussing Bass Boost, and its potency should not be overplayed; the E7 can not turn a pair of 'phones into something they are not. The AD700s, for instance, gain a welcome impact in the bass department, but this was more a case of concentration of the bass already available rather than any dramatic change in the sound signature. An additional caveat to consider is that the increased clarity provided can be detrimental when paired with poor quality recordings. The sharpness and clarity that was appreciated with high-bitrate source files conversely worked against some lower bitrate songs by making distortion painfully apparent. To draw an analogy, it's like using the Sharpen tool in Photoshop on a noisy photograph; rather than improve the appearance it instead draws attention to artifacting and compression in the picture.
While the E7 is a relatively inexpensive amplifier, its price tag expected in the region of $85 should give those using cheaper earphones some pause for thought. As stated earlier, the E7 can not turn your headphones or earphones into something they are not. The E7 should improve most 'phones noticeably but if there is not a solid foundation for it to improve on, your money may be better spent investing in a better pair. With the exception of heavily-discounted earphones like the Head-Direct RE0, at this end of the budget spectrum a more dramatic improvement would probably be noticed with an upgrade in 'phones than insertion of an amplifier into your audio setup. Compared to its younger and smaller brethren, the FiiO E5, the E7 is a much more serious device. Price and size are both increased considerably. But, to its credit, the E7 does perform quite a bit better. After spending some time with the E7, the E5 sounded rather congested and lacked the sharp clarity that the E7 brought, as well as having a reduced soundstage.
The E7 was a pleasing improvement over the headphone-out of the devices it was tested with. It brought nice clarity and separation to the sound save for those times when lower bitrates began to sound a bit hollow. The DAC was an added bonus but is hampered by the current lack of line-out options. The included accessories were nice and the unit seems well made (especially considering this particular unit was assembled by hand). For its price and general handiness, it is a compelling device.
Note : This review was done with a unit from a sample production run. The final appearance may be different (See ClieOS's Impressions) and menu bugs should be fixed.
Testing Tracks :
Bat for Lashes - Glass, Daniel
White Hinterland - Icarus
Mos Def - Hip Hop
Shinichi Osawa - Star Guitar
Radiohead - Reckoner, Harry Patch (In Memory Of)
The Sound Providers - Dope Transmission, Old Times Sake (Ft. Asheru)
Great thanks to Shane @ LambayRules.ie for the loan of the E7 and the opportunity to do my first ever review. Thanks to |joker| for some writing advice, too
Thanks for reading!
Edited by bcpk - 5/8/10 at 9:39pm