Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Headphone Amplifier with Integrated Mic and Dual Headphone Jacks for PC and Smartphones

Average User Rating:
4/5,
  1. Evshrug
    4.0/5,
    "Creative E1: Audio Multitool"
    Pros - Small, light, clever design, clip this to your utility belt for a full gaming-audio setup. Cheap!
    Cons - Entry-level sound quality
    Creative's Sound Blaster E1

    If you want to cover your bases with a do-all headphone accessory, the E1 is a good start. Affordable, well featured, inexpensive, the E1 is Creative's entry-level portable DSP, DAC, and amp all-in-one. Forgive the "classic" analogy, but this piece of equipment is very much like a Swiss Army knife... Each tool may not be the very best for every task, but it's small enough to always have around and very handy in many areas.



    The E1 is built compact and thoughtfully, just like a Swiss Army Knife (SAK). Like a SAK's plastic side scales, the E1 is small and made of plastic. It has thoughtful design details that are obvious like a clip to attach to belts and clothes, and less obvious details like how the sides are angled and the clip is "just so" wide so that you can set the E1 down on a desk at a 45° angle so the mic points up at you (more on the Microphone later). The analogue input is TRRS, so on Android you can answer phone calls or pause music, and on iOS (or when plugged into a computer via USB) you can use all the buttons on the E1 to skip tracks and fast forward as well as everything you can do on Android. For volume control, they went with an analogue slider; At really low volumes this introduces some channel imbalances (different volume in each ear), but on the plus side it works with an analogue connection to Android and you can visually see what the volume is set at. The volume slider is also plastic so it's not the most precise thing to adjust, but it works.

    The E1 is also festooned with multiple Audio tools and features. Just like people debate that you don't really need scissors (two blades) on a knife tool, sometimes it's just handy to have two headphone outputs (each with their own independent OpAmp buffer, so plugging in two headphones doesn't result in less volume than one headphone). The headphone outputs also have very low output impedance, which means multi-driver in-ear monitor (IEM) headphones won't suffer from bass bloat or rough transitions at the crossover point between drivers. The second headphone jack can also act as a mic input if you have a computer headset with two plugs, but not a TRRS passthrough if your headphone has a mic built-in. There's a mic built-in to the body of the E1, and I can confirm that it works with a Playstation 4's controller input/output if you don't have another mic solution. I've gotta say, the 3.5mm jacks on this device were really tight, I had to really push extra hard to "click" any cable into any of the ports. The DAC connects to your computer via USB (bypassing your motherboard audio). The E1's PC software suite includes the excellent SBX processing suite for tweaking audio and mic settings, including virtual surround processing for regular stereo headphones. To top off all those features, the amp is rated for about 22 hours of operation between charges.




    Opinion on the design and features so far... With just one little little utility-belt contraption, the mobile audio-hero has all the parts needed for a full gaming-audio system. If you need portable audio often, the Creative E1 will set a higher baseline for audio quality than what you get built-in to a cheap laptop, very similar to the FiiO – brand E7 DAC/Amp combo that came out years ago (except Creative's products come with Virtual Surround, a key benefit to gamers and movie buffs). With such a buffet, it's hard to expect more, but I think it would've been awesome if the dual-headphone jacks had been configured to also make balanced-output possible like the Pono music player... crazy talk to the target market looking to buy an approximately $50 device. Crazy because a balanced headphone, conversion, or cable would be expensive, so why even write about it? 3 reasons: 1.) the power output of the E1 seems optimal for easy to drive headphones like IEMs, 2.) multi-driver IEMs recently became much more prevalent and the E1's output impedance seems optimal for those, and if you can easily make your IEM balanced then 3.) balanced amplification output ought to significantly improve the E1's sound quality, specifically soundstage and detail presentation.




    Sound quality of the E1 is solidly entry-level, appropriate for it's price point. The frequency response is slightly warm, intimate, and has a smooth treble. Probably a great match with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and music with sharp treble, or to balance out a light and bright headphone like the Audio Technica AD700, the E1 does a great job keeping audio from being fatiguing, but on the flipside the sound has less "air" and sense of soundstage depth. Interference from being close to a phone is also very low. This is on par with what I heard from the FiiO E5 amp and comparably priced and spec'd FiiO E7, but the Creative adds to this the advantage of SBX surround processing while PC gaming over USB... but the elephant in the room is that Creative's E1 doesn't add anything to the sound quality over plugging my headphones straight into my iPhone 5S. The iPhone and E1 sound very close in quality (and could get deafening loud) with my V-Moda M-100, Koss KSC75, and Audeo PFE-022 IEMs, but my mid-impedance and low-sensitivity AKG K612 require more current than the E1 has to offer and sound weak in the bass regions. For perspective, my iPhone 5S would be a $550-$650 device today versus the $50 E1 and comparable amps, and the iPhone beats the sound quality coming from my PC that cost about as much as the phone and my family member's cheaper Android devices have weaker amps. Those would benefit more from the E1; for example, my $120 motherboard makes a little noise through headphones when I move my mouse and has a "veil" in front of the music that the E1 cleans away.
    So, in total, what does the E1 offer, and who is it for? The E1 may not be a purpose built cheese knife or screwdriver, but it will save the day at a nice budget price. It has a very nice small physical enclosure with lots of features, it is well-suited for your average headphone and especially IEMs, and can "fix" bad audio from laptops, desktop motherboards, and cheap smartdevices, while also offering the bonus of headphone surround. If you have a flagship smartphone or nice DAP, all you should expect to gain is a mic, dual outputs, remote controls, and you can turn down the volume on your source and save battery life in that.
    Stillhart and trellus like this.
  2. ClieOS
    4.0/5,
    "Stick of All Trade"
    Pros - Lots of features. Good price point.
    Cons - Master of None.
    With desktop PC sale declining and mobile devices on the rise, thumb drive sized USB DAC has become the quick fix for poor sound quality that is all too common in portable computer and smart devices. Creative’s answer to that demand is the new Sound Blaster E1 – a multipurpose USB DAC + headphone amp + mic that boosted with quite a few impressive features.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Spec
    SBX Pro Studio: Supported
    CrystalVoice: Supported
    Scout Mode: Supported
    Max. Playback Quality: 24-bit / 44.1kHz (Stereo)
    Max. Recording Quality: 16-bit / 44.1kHz
    Output: Stereo
    Battery Life: Up to 25 hours
    SNR: 106dB
    Headphone Out: 1 x 3.5mm jack
    Headphone Out / Mic In: 1 x 3.5mm jack
    Line In:  1 x 3.5mm jack (4-pole)
    Headphone Amp: Up to 600 Ohms
    Microphone Type: Built-in mono microphone
    Dimensions: 35 x 19 x 66 mm (1.37 x 0.74 x 2.59 inches)
    Weight: 25 grams
    MSRP: USD$50
     
    [​IMG]
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality
    E1 comes with a fairly typical paper box, well printed but nothing fancy. Besides the manual, the only two accessories are a USB cable and a 3.5mm TRRS-to-TRRS interconnecting cable that is roughly 85cm in length. One of the feature on the E1 is that it can act as a headphone amp for smartphone, where it has a single button remote to play / pause music or pick up call and the built-in mic that will serve as the mic for hand-free calling. In order to support those functions, obviously you will need to use the TRRS cable to connect the E1 to your smartphone.
     
    Build quality is solid, if not a bit unremarkable. The whole device is made out of plastic though the overall finishing is decent. There is a shirt chip integrated on the back, making it looks a little like a slightly oversized Bluetooth headset unit. The only minor complaint I have is that I wish the volume slider can be a bit recessed just so it will minimize any chance of accidental volume adjustment. However, the volume slider does have some resistant built into it so it is not like it will just slide with minimum force.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Gain, Hiss and Battery Life
    As a USB DAC+amp, the max output is about 1.93V. As a pure headphone amp, E1 has a gain of 6dB. It can actually pump out higher volume as a pure headphone amp than as a USB DAC+amp, probably due to the limited volume coming out of the DAC section. That means that although Creative claims that the E1 can drive headphone up 600ohm, you might not get enough volume if the headphone sensitivity isn’t high enough. That is however still fairly reasonable consider the compact size of E1. It is of course not actually going to replace a full blown headphone amp anytime soon, but it should be more enough for the majority of headphones in the market that are barely over 32 ohm.
     
    One feature that I particularly like about the E1 is its dual headphone-out. Now such implementation is actually nothing new but the cool thing about it is that the two headphone-out are independently driven by two headphone driver chips, the Maxim MAX97220 if I am not mistaken. That means connecting two headphones will not degrade the sound quality, as opposed to having them driven in parallel by just one chip.
     
    Hiss performance is excellent on the E1 as I heard nothing even with the very hiss prone SE530. There is no click and pop noise during start up as well, which is also excellent.
     
    Battery life is officially quoted at 25hours (as a pure headphone amp as I imagined, since it will be powered by USB port when it is used as USB DAC+amp). I never quite drained it dry to confirm the number, but it does seems to run very long without needing a recharge. In fact, I was still running off the initial charge after playing with it on and off for the first week. With the current fast rate of battery drainage on most smartphone, I’ll say there is a good chance the E1 will outlast your smartphone on most day easily.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Sound Quality
    As with most of my review on headphone amp and DAC, I started with a basic RMAA measurement. The result is mostly clean and without any noticeable issue. Frequency response is pretty much flat from 80Hz to 20kHz, with a less than -1dB roll off at 20Hz that should be near inaudible to most people. There is however a minor imbalance between the two channels, which I assume is likely caused by the volume slider in my review unit. It is however small enough that I never notice it during listening but only after the measurement. Output impedance is measured and calculated to be around 2~2.5ohm for both headphone-out, which is quite decent. Current output is okay for the most part. I’ll have like a bit more but it should be enough except for the very low impedance load.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Subjectively, the E1’s sound is in the warm side when used as a standalone portable amp, with good texture and sweetness though a bit smooth and lack a good sense of air and depth. It is actually quite similar to FiiO E07K (which also uses the same headphone driver chip), but less grand on overall image. I’ll say for the most part the overall SQ is about the same level as FiiO E6, which is not bad at all for what is meant to be entry level gear. As an USD DAC however, the E1 opens up more. It still has a sense of warmth in its presentation, but more revealing and definitely better in the rendering of space. No doubt it benefits from Creative’s software bundle, enhancing the soundstage and detail while not being artificial sounding (*there are also a few EQ and gaming setting that should appeal to those who are more centred on movie and PC game). While it isn’t exactly audiophile’s sound quality, I don’t think anyone can expect more for its price tag
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Extra
    Here are some of the features that don’t quite fit into the rest of the review but they are worth noting nonetheless.
    • Though E1 only supports sampling rate up to 48kHz (*no HD there!), it does support bitdepth of 24bit. This means adjusting digital volume on your PC should not degrade the resolution of your music, if you decided to do so.
    • One of the headphone-out can double as mic-in when it is in USB DAC mode. I assume this is designed for gaming headset which usually comes with two 3.5mm jack (one for sound and one for mic). You will however need to enable it within the Sound Blaster software setting.
     
    [​IMG]
    Size comparison (from left): Apple iPod Nano 7G, E1, digiZoid ZO2.
     
    Sum-up
    What sets E1 apart is really its unique set of features. Creative has managed to pack just about everything you want for an basic external PC soundcard for headphone into a really small body, while making it double as a standalone amp and still keeping it cheap yet competent. It is the stick of all trade and a relevant gadget that fits right into this post PC era.
     
    A thank to Creative for the sample.