I'm sure many are pondering about these two portable powerhouses. So this one is for you.
First off, some size comparisons: (taken directly out of camera without any adjustment whatsoever)
So, as you can see, E12 is almost roughly TWICE the size of C&C BH. Some people may say that E12 is still a portable amp, and... I'd agree. But seriously, it's still quite a big portable amp. It's noticeably thicker and larger than my iPhone 5. If memory serves, this means E12 is roughly twice the size of E11 as well.
In terms of build quality, both E12 and C&C BH are very solid. I'm confident that if I ever get shot, then either amp can take a bullet for me. E12 in particular is very solid and hefty.
And personally? I much prefer E12's design accent. Very professional, and almost too polite-looking. And no, it's not the black color. I think it's the monolithic uniform rectangular look.
But does size equal sound? Let's find out.
Here's the test chain:
Fiio D3 connected to my MacBook via optical cable, and then the output is connected via silver RCA cable to the amp.
Here's C&C BH:
And here is Fiio E12:
Both amps are connected to my two favorite headphones: Audio Technica ATH-ES10, and Audio Technica ATH-ES7. My dad's M50 gets a mention because I thought it might be interesting for those who are wondering about the bass-boosting capability of either amp.
Here are some individual song tests:
1) The Beatles - Here Comes The Sun: I'm handing this one to Fiio E12. No question. The sound out of E12 is not as articulated or airy as BH, but the midrange is very clean, concise, and warm. With crossfeed on, E12 gives an intimate, forward, but very layered presentation of the song, whereas BH is stuck portraying vocals to the far right side, and instruments to the far left side irregardless of what I do with the switches. In fact, SF on would make it worse as BH pushes the width of the song even further apart. It was like listening to the Beatles playing in a cave. Very weird feeling if you ask me. Meanwhile, it's emotional, intimate, and warm with E12. I think I get the gist of what Fiio is intending to do with E12 now. You throw E12 a pair of cans with lots of treble but slightly recessed midrange like the DT880, and I think you'll get quite a combo. Too bad I don't have a DT880 handy.
2) Michael Buble - Stuck In The Middle With You: and here's a prime example of how crossfeeding doesn't always work. This song is properly recorded for stereo listening, which means vocal is properly distributed between left and right channels, and instruments are well-spread between the channels to give a surround feel. Crossfeeding condenses everything into the middle in front, but... that makes this song feel too congested. Despite all that, I'm giving this one to E12. It's hard to explain, but while lacking the soundstage and details of C&C BH, E12 gives Michael's voice more warmth, more... magic. Something about E12's presentation of this song sounds too right for me to ignore.
3) Eric Clapton - Tears in Heaven: crossfeeding doesn't work here, either. But I'm still giving this one to E12. E12 somehow gives Eric's voice more weight and more "soul"... whereas BH gives a less convincing projection of his voice. Not that I have actually heard Eric live to compare, but I like E12's presentation of his voice here better. Crossfeeding or not. Oh, and note that at this point, I've pretty much given up on Crossfeeding for songs that were recorded after 1990.
4) Combichrist - Never Surrender: this one goes to E12 again. E12 seems to portray vocals really well. BH makes the vocal too thin. Also bass has more weight and heft in E12. Even without bass boost, E12 has fuller bass than C&C BH with LF switch set to on. BH has more soundstage, though. Significantly more. But I don't think soundstage alone makes the song.
5) The Glitch Mob - Fortune Days: oh God, my opinion is very split here. I absolutely love, love, LOVE the way E12 portrays bass here. It's just perfect. Even without bass boost. BH sounds like a hollow pit in comparison. But... BH has the massive soundstage and clarity advantage here. Funny... but the smaller BH sounds "larger" than the bigger E12. I would love to have BH's massive soundstage but with E12's bass with this song. But since I can't have it both ways (more on this later), I'm making this one a tie. On a side note, for those interested: E12 + bass boost gives quite a lot more vibration for this song, but... personally, I don't like how it sounds.
6) Two Steps From Hell - To Glory: okay, I'm being unfair here. This song sounds very epic. As such, massive soundstage + clarity is an automatic win. It's not even a contest, C&C BH takes this one by a good mile. Still, gotta love that bass texture of E12. I really mean it. Still can't have it both ways.
7) Black Sun Empire ft. SPL - Wasteland: okay, I'm being unfair again. This song has a lot of bass, so obviously whichever amp does bass better and clearer would win. Fiio E12 takes this one... by a mile. C&C BH would clip fairly early, and bass becomes a muddy static when that happens. E12 doesn't clip... at all. I turned the knob up past the point where my endurance could take, and the sound coming out of E12 is still absolutely clean. Bass hits with authority and control the kind of which seems almost impossible for a portable amp.
8) Skrillex - First Of The Year (Equinox): urgg... bass. I don't think I need to say more? Fiio E12 takes this one, too.
9) Owl City ft. Shawn Chrystopher - Alligator Sky: this song has a lot of treble energy. As such, I admit that it's not fair for E12, since BH boosts treble and clarity by quite a lot. Still... despite all of that odd, E12 wins again here. I really, really, really can't overstate just how well E12 does vocal compared to BH. Even with the advantage of soundstage and treble, BH just can't pull that midrange away from E12.
10) Hatsune Miku Append - Mr. Wonder: I'm throwing a bit of vocaloid here for the curious. It's obvious at this point which amp I prefer, so it's kind of pointless to keep adding songs. Rather than that, I'd like to throw a freebie to vocaloid fans (I'm a fan, too). If you want a portable amp that can seriously project a life-like voice, then... E12 it is.
Sorry if I missed any genre up there. I obviously concentrated on just the genres that I like... mainly EDM and pop/rock. The result may be different for other genres. But... I personally know which amp I'd use more now. Fiio E12 does so many things right that I simply can't find any way that I'd prefer C&C BH over it. It's funny, actually, because up until yesterday, I kept thinking that Fiio E12 wouldn't be able to beat C&C BH... but... the reality is, it did, and it did so with style. The soundstage advantage of BH over E12 is actually not that big, by the way. E12 probably has about 80-90% the soundstage of BH. It's just without the treble and clarity boost of BH.
On that note, my memory is hazy, but if I have to rank Fiio E12 and C&C BH against other headphone amps that I have/had, it would be like this:
1) Fiio E12
2) JDS Labs O2 (no longer have this, so take this with a grain of salt)
3) C&C BH
4) JDS Labs C421 (no longer have this, so take this with a grain of salt)
5) cmoyBB w/ OPA627 (no longer have this, so take this with a grain of salt)
6) Fiio E11
7) Fiio E17
8) Fiio E10
9) Fiio E7
So yes, I rate Fiio E12 even above O2. O2 is more transparent, and somewhat cleaner, but if I have to pick an amp that I'd power ANY headphone with, I'd pick E12.
Adding this for those interested: what about dual-amping from BH to E12? Best of both worlds?
Well, not really. The thing is that the LF and SF switch on BH seem to mess with the music enough that dual-amping to E12 sounds really... weird. It makes the presentation a lot warmer than it should be. It's even warmer than DAC -> E12.
What about the reverse? E12 to BH? Well, then the bass refinement is lost in the process, and midrange becomes congested rather than just... warm.
So no, not the best of both worlds.
Post-SF Bay meet edit:
I had some extensive comparison to O2, so the post is no longer between E12 and C&C BH. But because I don't want to clog the forum with yet another post of the very same topic, I'll edit this thread.
So, headphones that I plugged this combo into, with notes of which amp was the preferred one:
Audio Technica A900X - O2 (E12 adds too much warmth, and it makes the A900X sound congested, but note: A900X has a less open sound than my ES10...)
Audio Technica ES10 - E12 (more midrange body and bass texture with E12)
Beyerdynamic DT880 (250 Ohm?) - O2 (I personally prefer E12, but majority vote won out)
Beyerdynamic T5P (with custom cable and ? mods) - E12 (better bass control, and better midrange)
Ultrasone Edition 8 - E12
Hifiman HE-500 - O2
Audeze LCD-2 - O2
Sennheiser HD800 - O2
Grado GS1000 - O2
V-Moda M100 - E12
It seems like a close battle, but... the two amps are not even close.
O2 has a more even, balanced frequency response that doesn't favor any particular region. It's clean from top to bottom. Also soundstage is slightly bigger (width).
E12 has a warmer tilt to the midrange, and a bit more bass articulation (without bass boost), with less micro details. Also soundstage is slightly smaller (width).
Also I mistakenly thought E12 had more output power than O2. O2 has more output power than E12 in reality.
Personally, I'd still rate E12 higher than O2 because E12 fits well with my personal favorite (ES10). But if I had any of the other headphones, I'd go with O2 instead.
So... hope that helps. My only advice to potential owners of either of those amps is to look at what you're listening through and decide really hard whether you need more clarity, or more body to your sound.
Some more notes: O2 and E12 were plugged into either an ODAC, my MacBook, or my iPhone 5.
C421 comparison edit:
So... the story is, I traded my E12 for a C421 (AD8620) a few days ago.
And before my memory of the E12 completely fades away, here are some quick thoughts:
C421 w/ AD8620 is a lot cleaner than I remember. Maybe I had the OPA2227 version before. E12 sounds nowhere near as clean.
Instrument separation and soundstage are very good with C421. So much so that from what little I can remember of the O2 from... a few days ago at the meet, I'd say C421 "cleanly" beats O2. Yes, pun intended.
But does that mean C421 is better than E12 in every way? I don't think so.
For one, I still think E12 has more articulated and effortless midrange. There are times when C421 is just way too lush/smooth that details are lost. It's like listening underwater without the distortion. On overly gritty/grainy recordings, I think it's awesome, but on lush and smooth recordings, it does take away from the listening experience slightly. I think it may be dependent on the headphone, because I hear the smoothness more prominently with my ES10.
For another, I think C421's bass is flat. And by "flat", I mean... "someone kicking a cardboard box" kind of "flat". There is just no texture, no rumble, no weight, body, or anything to it. It has good impact, but I don't think it's anywhere near the level of E12. E12 does much better bass than this.
And last but not least, the bigger soundstage is not always appreciated. With my dad's vintage Pioneer SE-50, soundstage on C421 is so large that it's like listening to everything inside an opera house. With classical music, it's a treat, but it's a disaster with pop/rock/jazz music.
Other than those differences, it's pretty much the same as E12 vs O2. E12 is warmer, with less soundstage. C421 is cleaner, much more neutral, and has much larger soundstage.
I chose E12 over O2 because of personal preference, but this time? I'd say C421 and E12 are pretty evenly matched in almost every way. If I had a choice, I'd keep both amps, and use either when my mood hits. That's just how good C421 is to me.
On that note, I think C421 is superior to C&C BH in every way. And it's very "clearly" (yeah, pun intended again) a $189 value vs $100 value sort of superior.
So I'm revising my ranking up there:
1) Fiio E12 (that bass and midrange is too good for me to let go, I guess)
2) JDS Labs C421 (I'd say it's a tie with E12, so it's not truly 2nd place)
3) JDS Labs O2
4) C&C BH
5) Fiio E11
6) and the rest...
A very heartful thank you to SteveSatch for agreeing to the trade. Steve, I hope you are enjoying the E12 as much as I am enjoying your C421.
Edited by Bill-P - 2/21/13 at 8:12pm