E11 to Arrow 4G, a comparison
To be honest, I really never believed in portable hi-fi as the bulk gets too fat and it’s hard to appreciate good music while constantly on the go. That’s why I never found interest in dedicated portable amplifiers until when I tried the JDSLabs C421 amp at my local shop. I was blown away by how good portable amps have progressed and I conducted my search for a Fiio E11 replacement. My priorities were overall size, battery life, and SQ; so practically everything. The Arrow 4G caught my eye and this happened…
Gear used: Ultrabook running Foobar2000 (FLAC) > Calyx Coffee DAC > DHC OCC Copper/rectangular Silver Hybrid Mini-Mini IC > Fiio E11/Headstage Arrow 12HE 4G > Etymotic ER-4S/Audeo PFE232
NOTE: I found that both amps benefited the IEMs compared to unamped and almost everything below is in comparison to each other.
For lazy readers, scroll down for a simplified comparison. For the non-lazy, enjoy!
Let’s use a detail monster to compare the two, the Etymotic ER-4S
Arrow 4G > Etymotic ER-4S: Surprisingly, the Arrow 4G and the ER-4S matches very nicely together and I find myself using the forgotten ER-4S a lot more often nowadays than when I had the E11 as my only portable Amp. As the ER-4S is a little hard to drive compared to a lot of other IEMs, they aren’t really recommended for use with weaker output devices like iPods and phones but once they are matched with a correct amp, they really stand out. Now with the Arrow 4G, you get best of both analytical and musical capabilities. With the bass and treble turned down to 0, it’s a very satisfying analytical sound; the most satisfying I’ve heard the ER-4S sound to date. It’s no longer downright cold, as the ER-4S is known for; instead, it’s a lot more neutral sounding. If I would have to honestly describe the ER-4S now, it would be pretty much neutral. My favorite setting would have to be treble at 1, bass at 1, gain at 1 (0 gain works as well, but I find that 1 sounds better as it has a bit more power), and Crossfeed at 1. With this setting, the ER-4S isn’t as hardcore analytic (doesn’t sacrifice any detail though) and makes it quite musical sounding. Sophie Milman’s jazz sounds phenomenal. The Arrow 4G has much better layering and focuses more on the soundstage in comparison to the E11. I found the level 2 treble to be a tad too forward and level 1 situates nicely with the midrange and level 1 bass. The treble is extremely detailed and well composed. Very clean and with the option to change the boost, this might be a winner for a lot of IEMs and Headphones. Acoustic Guitar just sounds fantastic! Zero hiss from the amp as the ER-4S has a moderate sensitivity rating and mildly high impedance.
E11 > Etymotic ER-4S: I always liked the ER-4S and E11 together as I found the mildly dark signature of the E11 to contrast nicely with the treble and mid happy ER-4S. The difference in bass between the Arrow and E11 is quite simple and easy to spot out. The E11 has a bit more punch and energy while the Arrow focuses more on texture and quality. I am told that the Arrow 3G has a more E11 like bass boost, but I have not yet tried the Arrow 3G. The bass boost really brings forth the lacking impact and rumble in the ER-4S so that is a huge plus for the E11. Level 2 is a little much for the ER-4S, but again it seems like level 1 is the sweet spot. With level 1, the ER-4S sound a lot more alive and lush. The bass is really good on the E11 but I wish it was the same for the other frequencies. In comparison, the Mids are a little on the grainy side and treble sounds a little metallic and unrealistic. Also, the E11 is significantly slower than the Arrow 4G and lacks soundstage depth and layering. After hearing the Arrow 4G, I began to realize the shortcomings of the E11 with the ER-4S. Of course you expect the Arrow 4G to be better. That doesn’t make the E11 a poor choice though. The E11 is still one of the best values available under $150. I cannot recommend this amp enough as it’s so affordable. It also has a lot grunt as well. I rarely need to change the gain setting on the E11.
Now let’s try something easier to amp and more musical sounding, the Audeo PFE232. (Grey filters)
Arrow 4G > PFE232: Let’s start with bass. “Bass boost”- (electronics) A circuit that emphasizes the lower audio frequencies, generally by attenuating higher audio frequencies. Yes and no. Yes, bass is emphasized. No, higher frequencies aren’t attenuated. Unamped, the PFE232 is considered to be a relatively bassy IEM that is mildly V or U shaped. Amped to the Arrow 4G, the bass is not only elevated, but better textured as well. With some dirty sounding Electro/Dubstep like Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites [Noisa Remix] by Skrillex, it has MORE than enough body and slam to fully satisfy my bass needs and it has enough control and detail from it sounding loose and poorly controlled. I especially like it in level 2 as bass is what the PFE232 does marvelously. No sign of overpowering or sloppiness. The PFE232 still has the mild grainy upper-mids, but that is compensated with excellent treble. Plenty of sparkle and shimmer on level 1 and a bit too much with level 2 so let’s just stick with level 1. Again, the quality is excellent and the level 1 setting brings it a bit more forward without it being offensive to the other frequencies. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to focus on one thing at a time. With the PFE232, the layering isn’t as good as with the ER-4S, but the soundstage has good depth and width. Nothing sounds out of place, but I could use a bit more mids (my main complaint with the PFE232). 0 level gain is more than enough for the PFE232 and again, crossfeed is at level 1. As a portable, it’s hard to squeeze this much enjoyment from something so robust. No need for big headphones!
E11 > PFE232: Right away, the first thing I notice is mild hiss with the E11. Hiss was non-existent with the Arrow 4G as it has 3 gain settings. Surprisingly, the PFE232 seemed to spot out the differences easier than the ER-4S. Bass is immense on the E11, so immense that I find that level 1 to be sufficient because of the lack of control and detail compared to the Arrow 4G. The E11 just doesn’t have the pace as the Arrow and falls behind when things get a bit rowdy. It starts to get a bit sloppy and really shows that quality > quantity in enjoyment. The upper-mids is a bit grainier than the Arrow and treble is somewhat metallic sounding yet again. The E11 sounds a bit flat in presentation as it again lacks the depth and width of the Arrow. The main thing is that it sounds like the E11 slows down the PFE232 in comparison to the Arrow. Other than that, as an entry-level amp paired with a high-end IEM, it’s quite satisfying. But with that said, the E11 improves the PFE232 in every way compared to it being unamped.
Phone pairing (when the amp is bundled together with the phone): The E11 is quite reactive with cell phones. The Arrow 4G is significantly better in this area, but still reacts minimally with cell phones.
Simplified review for the lazy readers (I don’t blame ya):
Arrow 4G VS E11 (with Etymotic ER-4S): The Arrow is much more detailed. The E11 sounds a bit more musical, but has grainy mids and somewhat unnatural sounding treble. Arrow has superb layering and soundstage while the E11 lacks it. The Arrow with level 1 bass, treble, and crossfeed with level 1 gain, the ER-4S blends detail and musicality perfectly. The E11 with low gain and level 1 bass sounds warmer and a bit more musical, but lacks quality in comparison.
Arrow 4G VS E11 (with Audeo PFE232): The Arrow is much, much more detailed. The quality of bass from the Arrow is on unmatched levels while the E11 has mildly loose bass lacking the texture. Excellent quality throughout the entire frequency range with the Arrow 4G while the E11 falls behind. The Arrow doesn’t have the fantastic layering as it did with the ER-4S, but the soundstage is still bang on. The E11 again lacks the soundstage the Arrow is able to reproduce. The E11 sounds slow while the Arrow has excellent pace.
Conclusion: Both are fantastic amps aimed at two different price targets. The E11 is just an absolute steal for the price as it has so much oomph and capabilities while the Arrow 4G will reward people who wants to further increase the technical quality of their IEMs. At this point, it may seem like the Arrow 4G is without flaws, but it does have a few nicks and rough patches here and there. For instance, the crossfeed seemed to be broken at first. The differences are VERY minor to almost insignificant with some tracks. I noticed that the crossfeed works best with older recordings with very demanding soundstage, like classical. Other than that, you won’t find a huge difference. Also, the physical structure of the amp is a bit… odd. For example, either the front or back interface will be upside down. Another is the bass switch. The bass switch is the only switch that goes (0,I,II) while all the other switches goes (I,0,II). The main thing that I dislike about the E11 is how you can’t use it while charging! It actually drives me nuts! If your price budget is under $150, I strongly recommend the E11. If your price budget is in between $200-$400, the Arrow 4G should be strongly considered as it’s incredibly thin and loaded with endless features like an 80 hour battery time on 0 gain (trust me, even 0 gain has a lot of power) and a very cool and nifty auto-power (no power switch! It detects audio signals) that works flawlessly. I am surprised at how much affordable portable amps progressed, and for that both of these amps deserves high praise.
Review of the ER-4S: http://www.head-fi.org/t/598267/review-etymotic-hf5-or-the-er-4s
Review of the PFE232: http://www.head-fi.org/t/635681/review-aud-o-pfe232-planx
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