FiiO E17K Review
The release of the new E17K Alpen 2 sparks the continuation of a legacy starting back in 2011 with the Alpen 1. It was a great time for headphone audio fans everywhere when FiiO announced a swiss army knife unit to the masses. It could pretty much do everything and anthing at a great price point. In 2015, I’m happy to announce that its back. The Alpen 2 has landed.
Price MSRP: $140-$160
(all pictures and graphs were taken from FiiO.net and belong to FiiO)
The Alpen 2 features a metal and plastic casing with similarities to the original Alpen. The entire build is made of a thin piece of aluminum with the addition of a plastic scroll wheel on the side along with the plastic LCD bezel and protector. It’s pretty much like the E17 exccept with the addition of the plastic scrollwheel and the lack of face buttons.
FiiO has had metal scrollwheels in past devices, this makes the plastic wheel an anomaly. The wedge protector going around it, and the scrollwheel itself was made of decent plastic. It doesn’t look like it will fall apart or crack, but its by no means as strong as the metal ones FiiO has used in the past. I would have preferred a tighter wheel and a metal build for this part; its a bit loose and doesn't warrant much confidence.
FiiO has gotten much better at designing efficient enclosures, but this means it no longer has the feeling of Thor's hammer. The original Alpen had a very bulky feel to it due to the enclosure. The Alpen 2 has a body that feels thinner than that of the original. This is most likely due to FiiO's ability to design and use space more efficiently and to cut down on costs. I don’t mind it, but it doesn't command the same weighty authority as the E17. This is weird as the E17K is only 2g lighter than the E17, but it’s what I feel about the device. It just doesn't feel as 'built' as the original.
The buttons and inputs on the Alpen 2 have the latest in FiiO’s engineering abilities. FiiO has, for the past few years, experimenting with types of 3.5mm plugs, buttons and combos that work for it. Their own Olympus has undergone revisions and seen the fruits of their labor. The E17K pretty much has a great median between a tight fitting plug and one that you can easily use without too much or too little force. The device pretty much just works and its great. To those that have used FiiO devices during 2011 and post, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I put emphasis on this point; the plugs were just so stiff back then.
I like what FiiO has done with the build. It's been heavilly streamlined, easier to use, and still like a stealthy obelisk. This allows the user to access and utilize the device quicker so that they can enjoy it more. They just need to 'metalfy' the volume control department and you'll have a happy panda.
The FiiO E17K has a weird but quite usable UI system. You rely soley on the scrollwheel to access the menus and scroll through them. Pressing it once while on the main menu will access a sub menu and pressing it again will bring you back to the main menu. To go back to the main user screen, you need to press the power button. The only exception with this rule is with the System settings menu. You need to use the power button to go back to the main menu as this option one features more than one sub menu. This system grows on you and actually works quite well once you get past the first learning day (aka break in period).
There are graphical glitches with the UI on the E17K. Sometimes the top status bar will not show up for a few seconds and other times, the battery charge indicator will freeze in place. Nothing major and it quickly resolves itself though.
*Clicks song* Lock...... *sighs* | You will get this repeatedly. Anytime you change the song, or when you restart audio playback (say you have nothing playing on the E17K for a while and then click on a youtube video), you will get the 'Lock' symbol on the screen of the E17K as it 'locks' onto the signal. Many people like to change the volume the moment they change the song. The good thing is that if there is already an audiostream playing into the E17K, it won't display the lock if you say start watching a Youtube video while listening to a song through your music player. It's only when changing songs in a dedicated music program or when restarting playback. I timed the Lock display symbol to be 3 seconds long, you can not change the volume with the device while this is happening. There is one exception to the lock rule though. If your audio file is stored in close proximity to each other on the computer drive, it will tend to not display this. This means I can typically go through an album without this problem, but switching between albums will give me the menace.
The scrollwheel needs some massive fixes. Its looseness and how it physically operates leads to many problems. I believe that the scrollwheel works by it physically hitting a switch on the inside. The problem then is that scrolling the wheel too fast registers only as a single scroll as opposed to about 2/3 when you do it slowly. Imagine trying to raise the volume quickly by just quickly hitting the small wheel. Out of 60 levels, the screen will only go up or down by 1 if you are flicking the wheel quickly. This was absolutely annoying and infuriated me to no ends. It shouldn't take me this long to change the volume quickly.
The E17K loses the ability to do Optical Toslink input (while it still has coaxial input). This to many, is a massive issue for using the E17K with their media centers. I’ve had many moments in the past where having a DAC with optical input would have helped lots and I can see why many are sad at the news. The Alpen 2 loses out on some of its swiss army capabilities for a more streamlined unit.
The FiiO E17K features a much better button and volume layout compared to the E17. Rather than volume buttons on the front of the device that made it a bit awkard at times, its now on the side with a safety wedge. The front only features two buttons that are self explanatory and everything else on the device is pretty much streamlined in terms of the amount of plugs there are.
FiiO in Chinese is Fei Ao, which roughly translates to "the ability/will to fly" or a more literal one of "I believe I can fly". And Holy Tyll Hertsens, they did it. The E17K flies guys. No seriously, it does. One of the biggest usability qualms I had with the E17 is back on the E17K. Due to how popular it is as a desktop amp/DAC multi tool and the heavy devices, input cables, and headphone coils that are attached to this thing, this thing flies like a rocket. It has launched off my desk 5 times tonight alone. With so many heavy cables attached to it, a simple headphone cable falling from the table to the ground can take the Alpen 2 flying with it. This was a known (hilarious) issue with users of the original Alpen, and its back guys. FiiO has given us a very expensive table rocket. Oh goodness, my hardwood floor is getting dents in it.
The E17K likes to cross streams. Any person worth their salt should know that this is a big no no;it violates a pre-determined social contract. When the FiiO E17K receives an AUX stream that is still 'playing music', then switching to USB or COAX input will still allow the user to hear that stream. The volume is extremely low on USB input and even lower on COAX input, but you can still hear the music lightly in the background. While the E17K and computer were connected and the unit set to USB input, I had a live AUX stream playing to the E17K through the input above. Even while playing music through USB and having it set there, you could still hear the AUX stream (albeit lightly). This only happens with a live AUX and not a live USB as changing the E17Ks input from USB to anything else disconnects it from the computer automatically. It's a bit sad that the E17K has this problem. A lot of people like to use the E17/K and leave stuff connected to it and just switch between inputs. Just a notice that for those people doing this, don't leave a live AUX stream when you go to other inputs.
FiiO has made great strides in improving the functionality of the device in the physical realm. The E17K is one of the easiest devices to use compared to others with comparable feature sets. It's only downfall is the finicky scrollwheel for volume changing and the lack of Toslink input. I can ignore the lack of Toslink as the majority of devices with Toslink output also feature digital coaxial output. But a scrollwheel that only changes by +-1 when you scroll too fast is unacceptable. Now where's my bamboo? I'm getting a bit angry with the volume wheel.
The E17K can be used as an independent amp through the line-in auxiliary jack on the top and as a dedicated DAC with the line out. This, along with its new DSD support give it some serious firepower additions to compete with the big boys. Whereas FiiO has traditionally relied on Wolfson DACs and Analog Devices operational amplifiers, they have since transitioned to using just Texas Instruments/Burr Brown for both the DAC and various op amps on the new E17K and their other units.
The loss of the optical input may be a weird thing for people as it is still S/PDIF like Coaxial input. This is due to coaxial input being something that the DAC can directly use whereas Toslink S/PDIF requires a signal converter addition that FiiO was not able to add.
The E17K no longer has the proprietary dock connector on the bottom as the E09K has not been updated since the E17 first launched. FiiO is planning, in the future, to just use the standard USB connector for a new dock. It is believed to be called the E09S. I guess S for SuperDuperCaliFrag (ok I'll stop)?
The E17K can work as an Android USB DAC with an USB OTG cable. This cable is not included with the E17Ks accessory pack. Surprising right!? Considering everything they 'do' include. But alas, the E17K does not OFFICIALLY support Android. It just so happens to be that FiiO was able to make it so that the E17K draws little to no (James said it now draws none) power when USB CHG is turned off. I was able to get it working with my OnePlus One right out of the box.
For those wondering why they should get the E18 at all now that the E17K has the ability to work out of the box. The answer is that the E18 officially supports Android by being compliant in not drawing any power at all from the device. It also has buttons and a build style that fits stacking it to the big screened Android devices. The E17Ks side volume control and bulky box design makes it awkard to strap to a thin and much wider Android device. Comapre this to the slender E18 and a flat front facing volume control. You get the picture now. Also the E18 comes with all the accessories you may need and can function as a portable battery pack for your Android device.
There are a lot of people that are still sad about the Toslink situation, but hey, turn that frown upside down. The E17K actually comes with new features the E17 never had and they are pretty awesome. It comes with an analog style digital potentiometer on the side, it is decked out in Texas Instruments/Burr Brown components, DSD support (let the nirvana happen), unofficial out of the box support as Android DAC (awesome right?), and a no longer proprietary dock for the new E09S. I guess I could have included cookies as something in that list, but hey, every toy that we audiophiles buy comes with free cookies that we bake in anticipation of its arrival!
Click on the image below to enlarge
The E17K has a warm sound mixed with a good soundstage and a fleding transparency (more on this later).
The mid-range of the E17K has a lot of timbre. It pretty much takes instruments and makes them sound fuller. Listening to U2’s “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Moment of Surrender” gave some of the warmest instrumentals I have heard yet. The instruments were slightly dulled off and weren’t as sharp as can be, but in exchange, they expressed much more flavor. In essence, I found the E17K more mellow than dynamically active. It’s a give and take situation.
There is a dark background to the E17K and it gives it a bit too much colour at times. Comparing the E17K to a few other devices and it was pretty obvious. The E17K had some more ‘oomph’ in vibrancy throughout the entire spectrum. Most call this added vibrancy that gives a feeling of a ‘deep well’ a dark background. I don’t have any opinions towards devices having this or not, but I prefer it on the more passive devices. It takes away from the transparency but it makes it easier to listen to more genres on.
The soundstage gives the mids a great boost in lifelikeness. FiiO’s devices rarely give as much soundstage as the E17K does which put it at a surprise to me. Listening to “Stairway to Heaven” was one of the best moments with the new Alpen. The vocals were right in front of me while the instruments were dancing across the stage.
The bass of the E17K is not especially tight, but it gives a very fun representation of the music when need be. I tried tracks of Country, Rock, Classical, and Hip Hop on the Alpen 2 and they all were done quite well. I like my bass to be fun and plentiful and thankfully the E17K delivers without going overboard.
The E17K doesn’t have a balanced sound signature. Balanced meaning that most of the frequency ranges are given near equal opportunity and potency. The E17 has almost a more sickle shaped balance of the ranges (although not nearly as extreme as the curve of a sickle) where the mids are given a slight regression while retaining a powerful bass. If you wanted a relatively equitable output, the E17K may not fit that.
The E17K sports a fledging transparency that I can only describe as a low-tech addition of a higher end toolbox. Amps in the approx $150+ segment generally start introducing elements to their sound design that make them sound so much better than $70 units. This higher end toolbox includes elements of sonic design that caters to get more neutrality, a vibrancy that is just enough to keep transparency, and very fluid and seperate frequency ranges. The E17K has a low-end feature set of this higher end idea (another device that has this is the DacMagic XS). It essentially has the barebones idea that these dedicated amps have, but in a form that isn't as good as theres. Due to this, the E17K has a very colored take on music which reduces its ability to be transparent while using ideas that are found in very transparent devices.
Everybody probably is looking forward to this section so here it is! :D I have the majority of FiiO devices, however I no longer own the FiiO E17. The last time I did was over two years ago and so I do not trust my memory on it.
PLEASE NOTE that many of these devices are in completely different price ranges. It’s no act of God that the FiiO E17K($150) beats the FiiO E11K($60) on sound quality for example. These are just sonic comparisons without a need for price.
vs FiiO X5 ($350)
vs FiiO E18 ($160)
The E18 is similar to the X5 in that it goes for a clean sound. It is much more transparent than the X5 and E17K in that it has many ‘pure’ elements to it that make it feel as if you aren’t listening to the device while retaining a clear mid range and a pumpy low end. The problem(or not) then with the E18 is that it is a bit airy in the upper mids. Many people love the airiness of the upper mid here, but to me it gets a bit too harsh at times. Purists will prefer the E18 more as it features no EQ options, and has a more transparent and clean sound whereas the E17K is more like a kid in the candy shop.
vs FiiO E12 ($130)
The FiiO E12 is one of the most transparent devices FiiO has. People may disagree and say the E18 is, but like I said earlier, the E18 has a problem maintaining transparency across the board and thus receives a lower score on it from me. The E12 is not overly clean, clear, or boomy in any regards. It’s rather just a balanced amp that is the pinnacle of what FiiO has. The E12s balanced sound (compared to other FiiOs) puts it at one of my favorite units in terms of sound as its so decent across the board. The problem here is when you look at it from afar. Once you do, you’ll realize that the E12 are devoid of imaging, fullness and the neutrality that better amps are in the $150 amp-only price range. The E17K packs a lower end toolbox of sonic features generally found on those higher end amps with the neutralty and vibrancy I mentioned earlier. And it being a lower end toolbox is also the problem with the E17K compared to the E12. The E12 has the transparency the E17K doesn’t have, but the E12 misses out on the higher end featured toolbox that the E17K has (but with a lower quality variant of compared to other amps). Pick your poison.
vs FiiO E11K ($60)
The E11K is like the little brother to the FiiO E17K in terms of sound. I found that while the E11K has a more clear sound than the old (very) boomy E11, it still had a problem with over vibrancy. Guess what this sounds like? Yep, the E17K. The comparison between the two would be that the E11K has a much more regressed mid range and a boomier low end. This contributes to a low score in transparency for the E11K compared to the much better E17K’s take on transparency by making the music fun to listen to. These are in completely different price points so keep that in mind that its pretty obvious the E17K is going to win.
The FiiO E17K retains the ability to be a great multi-tooled unit like its predecessor. A few new usability qualms and the missing Toslink input however do put a damper on what it can do and what I would use it for. The E17K is without a doubt better than the old E17, but the problem is inherently that they belong in different timeframes. The E17 was so good because there was really nothing like it at the time, but now in 2015, there is plenty of competition. FiiO hasn’t really done any drastic improvements past DSD support and so they are relegated to just field the ‘common area’ of units that are coming out; it would have required FiiO to pull some serious magic to get the same hype power as in 2011.
Despite this, the E17K is one of the treats for the new year and I believe that it holds a great price to performance ratio for most people looking to get it.
Edited by bowei006 - 12/24/15 at 6:09pm