Itunes ALAC > [insert DAC / amp here] > HiFi Man He-400
Recently, I've been trying out some entry level DAC's and amps (mostly combo units). I've had the chance to demo the Audioengine D1 along with several FiiO products. The amps I have spent the most time with, though I've used others in the past, are the Audioengine D1, the FiiO E17, and the FiiO E9K. I was able to try the FiiO amps both together and separately.
A quick note about FiiO: They seem to have a serious problem with counterfeit products. Unfortunately, the first E17 I got from Amazon was bogus. Apparently there are quite a few sketchy FiiO dealers on Amazon, so be careful... or order from somewhere else.
Setting aside the counterfeit issues, the best word I could use to describe the FiiO E17 is "okay". While it is versatile, rechargeable, and portable, it just doesn't perform all that well when it comes to audio quality. In my opinion, the E17's DAC is probably its biggest shortcoming. Don't get me wrong, it sounds alright considering what the E17 is intended for. It definitely works well as a portable amp. If I needed a device just for that (as opposed to something for a desktop rig), I wouldn't think twice about going for the FiiO.
The FiiO E9K amp performed decently, with the E17 plugged in and alone. It has a wide range of inputs and outputs, but lacks a 1/4" jack for some reason. Unless you already have the E17, I wouldn't bother with it. There are a lot better stand alone amps if that's what you're looking for.
During the tryout process, I eventually came across the Audioengine D1. It is what I'm currently using in my desktop rig. The D1, as a DAC, sounds pretty good to my ears. It has an AKM 4396, which I'm pretty sure is the same chip used in the Schitt Modi that everyone here seems to like so much. It is a serviceable amplifier, but you would probably want something better for more expensive / difficult to drive headphones. Overall, I prefer it to the FiiO combo for use as a desktop DAC / amp.
I know there are other entry level options out there that might be better than the D1. I like what I've heard about both the Schitt Magni / Modi combo and the JDS Labs Objective combo. The problem I'm having is that I need a DAC with line out so I can use it with my computer speakers. The Schitt and JDS offerings don't have that, otherwise I'd be all over them. The Audioengine D1 is the best entry level solution I've found so far.
Does anybody have any other recommendations?
Edited by aschnickelfritz - 1/23/13 at 7:23pm