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Amp/DACs item created by Bugattikid2012, Nov 25, 2014
Pros - DAC performance, connect options
Cons - Amplifier quality questionable
Prize: 189 Euro.
DAC performance is less good as you can read in many other reviews. Personally I find the DAC good enough. But then again, I do not have another to compare.
Connectivity is just good. Able to power 600 ohm DT880 without problems.
Bluetooth connectivity is not recommended, it raises the noise a lot. Bluetooth operates around the same frequencies as WIFI , Microwave, etc, etc.
But USB connectivity is very good. There is hardly any noise then.
The amplifier itself. First I thought it was medium good quality. But after comparing the same setup with my new Schiit Valhalla 2 I can only say that the E5 does not amplify the sounds good enough
to justify this premium prize of 189 euro. Voices sound airy, Bass less present, High sounds less sharp, Guitar strings sound if they are not tightened well. And I hear an echo in some cases.
Overall it's not worth the prize and purchase. Really an disappointment as I have bought Soundblaster since I used a 386 computer sound-card. But then sound quality was not an issue for me. Nowadays I focus more on quality
What is the reason to buy this DAC if the improvement is little? Not recommended.
Pros - Amazing mic quality and mic effects, Wide variety of I/O, Ability to be used as a wireless mixer
Cons - Terrible software, Inconsistent to lackluser performance as headphone amp / source
This is less of a review and more of a collection of thoughts I've had after owning the E5 for about a year. I won't go into sound quality in any detail as I don't think it's particularity noteworthy for a device of this caliber.
1. The amplifier stage is crap for the price. It’s noisy enough to be noticeable with moderate to high sensitivity headphones and it produces varying amounts of distortion depending on the settings, but distortion is definitely high enough to be noticeable even at minimum.
2. DAC section is actually very good but do note that the line out is not fixed and can output more than the 1-2V rms that most consumer and audiophile devices expect as a line input (i.e. be careful of clipping with external amplifiers).
3. The DSP and crap ton of inputs are super useful for people who often work with multiple inputs and outputs. I actually work as a sound engineer and use this guy as a pocket mixer, interface, and test bench. However, it takes quite a while to get used to all the idiosyncrasies and nuances of this device. If you don't know what you're doing in settings you can easily get inconsistent or incorrect results.
4. The software... Holy crap the software… It’s terrible. Highly confusing. Prone to screwing up inputs and outputs and distorting signals without you noticing. Very difficult to save and recall settings, and it can change settings depending on what you’re plugged in to (or if you’re using it stand alone) which gets quite confusing. I find myself resetting to factory default quite often, usually to fix distortion coming from some random setting I forgot. However, the settings are SUPER comprehensive and allow you to manipulate the I/O in almost any way you can imagine, once you get used to using them.
5. THD+noise measurements of this device can change dramatically based on the settings of the software, strength of the I/O, battery charge, whether it’s plugged in or not, what it's plugged into, temperature, weather, orientation, alignments of the stars, how many human sacrifices you preformed earlier that day, and any other form of voodoo magic. Factory default settings get you fairly close to optimal measurements, however. just be careful when managing the mixer settings.
6. Effects are meh. EQ is half decent, but is far from linear (I can do much better with a decent software plugin). Surround sound is good, but adds distortion. Any other sound output effects are garbage.
7. Bluetooth connectivity is a great feature, and is very reliable even at longer distances. I often find myself using this to watch videos on my tablet in the kitchen. It basically allows me to Bluetooth enable any pair of headphones, and is great for general semi-portable home use.
8. As a music professional, this device is a godsend. I can setup simple PA performances entirely using a device I can fit in my pocket and take anywhere. The inbuilt mixer can take inputs from the analog/mic/optical input and mix them with both the USB and Bluetooth inputs without any external software (all firmware). The USB input not only functions as a way to record or play music but also as a digital interface and pass-through, allowing me to use additional software effects on my computer. Possibly the best feature is the ability to change any firmware settings over Bluetooth, allowing me to mix inputs on the fly from anywhere on the stage, even while the E5 is buried in a rats nest of stage cables and equipment.
9. Mic input is where this guy really shines. The 3 internal mics sound crystal clear. Stereo effect is great. The noise and echo rejection are wonderful. Built in mic effects work well. External mic and inputs work well (assuming you have a mic preamp) and are easily integrated. This is a streamer's dream device.
-If you’re a gamer who does streaming and is looking for an all in one solution, this is an AMAZING value for your money
-If you’re a musician or audio professional who’s willing to learn a somewhat confusing interface, this will surprise and reward you with a great multi-purpose tool
-If you’re an audiophile looking for a portable DAC/Amp, this is ok, but far from the best value
-If you’re an audiophile looking for an all in one desktop setup, look elsewhere.
Pros - e5 for features, tinkering; Oppo HA-2 for sound quality with Oppo PM-3
Cons - HA-2 has no Bluetooth or phone-talk capabilities; Soundblaster e5 without its DSP is sonically congested by comparison to HA-2.
My recent audio hunt has been about getting the best possible sound out of my iPhone 5s (or 3s for 30 pin use). Being very much in the Mac world with all kinds of devices, I’m eager to use my iPhone(s) as transports for music, rather than buy a dedicated player.
I’m rushing to post these impressions because Massdrop is featuring the portable DAC/amp/bluetooth-capable Soundblaster e5 on a drop as of today’s email (6/8/16). The Oppo HA-2 is similarly Apple MFi certified, portable DAC/amp. The iPure-20 is a (now old) desktop DAC/pre-amp providing 30-pin Apple to line-out. The e5 and HA-2 can optical out the iPhone’s digital, so you could choose to use any of them on the desktop as simply the “chain” from iPhone to your own desktop DAC/amp setup (since the iPure has coaxial digital out). All have other features, the e5 a ton, but let’s focus on sound.
Topline: There’s no losers among the three options. On the desktop as line-out, the iPure-20 offers the most spacious, uncongested sound, followed closely by the HA-2, more distantly by the e5. As a portable rig, the HA-2 clearly bests the e5 when the e5 DSP is not engaged.
The HA-2 is my most recent, month-old acquisition. The other two DAC/amps I’ve owned for many months. The e5 has been my walk-about portable and, based on mood and need, I’ve used its Bluetooth (too flabby in the bass for reference but better than lower-cost portable bluetooth DAC/amps I’ve owned) and its iPhone-lightning-e5 configurations.
DESKTOP USE: I was considering letting go of the iPure-20-Schiit Magni-2 desktop setup in favor of using the line-out capability of the e5. I tested all three DAC/amp/line-out capabilities with Al Jarreau’s Churchyheart (Backyard Ritual) (feat. Marcus Miller) because the soundstage ought to be huge, the Miller bass runs deep, there’s a low woodwind and tinkling cymbals all at once. For this line-out to Adam Audio Artist 3 & Velodyne subwoofer setup, all three DACs sent their line-out to the Schiit Magni acting as preamp. If time were not of the essence I’d listen to more tunes back-to-back, but I wouldn’t expect my impressions to change much. The iPure-20 earns its keep with a wide, spacious and precise soundstage while clearly distinguishing among the bass rumbles of a variety of bass-heavy instruments. Without DSP help, the e5 could not keep up. (Dang! So much for down-sizing.) Interestingly, the HA-2 was close to the iPure but its “line out” was much lower in volume and I had to compensate by ear as best I could.
OK, since my goal was to justify letting go of the iPure/iphone 3s combo, could I “cheat” with the e5 DSP engaged in order to increase the sense of spaciousness? Mostly, yes. The equalizer and “spaciousness” sliders really do work and have a pleasing range from subtle to bold, so finding a sweet spot is possible. In the time I had, I didn’t find a “match” to the iPure, but the early indication is that I should try more.
PORTABLE USE: I bought the HA-2 because I 99% love my fairly new Oppo PM-3 planar headphones, but to achieve the sound I like I often want to boost the treble at about 4k Hz a couple of decibels. Yet people here on Head-Fi and over a InnerFidelity owning the PM-3 and HA-2 didn’t seem to need such a boost.
Well, I was immediately impressed and pleased with the HA-2 & PM-3 combo out of my iPhone 5s. The treble’s “presence” was now in appropriate proportion, without becoming sibilant or harsh. (I tried going immediately to HA-2 & Grado RS-1 and it was a mistaken pairing. The Grado tends towards brightness and sounded harsh, rather than my more usual impression, which is one of clarity and detail. I’ll have to try again without such a direct comparison, and by engaging the bass boost on the HA-2 when using the Grado.)
With the PM-3, the HA-2 to unvarnished e5 is no contest, the HA-2 wins. It provides more authority up and down the frequency spectrum, all sounds in their place, properly proportioned and uncongested.
RECCOMENDATIONS: If your budget-conscious side sees the difference between the $199 e5 (and even better MassDrop pricing) and the $299 HA-2 as huge, then the Soundblaster e5 provides worthy improvement over an unadorned iPhone even before you tinker with EQ and sound space settings. If you enjoy tinkering with such settings, the e5 will please you. If you worry that the next generation of iPhones will dispense with a headphone jack, the e5 MFi certification and state-of-the-art Bluetooth connectivity will do right by you, allowing any of your headphones and earphones to be future-proofed.
However, if you’re a purist/minimalist and/or you are exacting in sound quality requirements, I’d recommend the Oppo HA-2 above the e5, even if, like me, it required waiting to save up. Like the alternative, the HA-2 future-proofs all your current headphones against a next generation iPhone which may have no headphone out, since the HA-2 will take directly from the lighting connector (but not Bluetooth). The sound the HA-2 provides my Oppo PM-3 takes me from gold card to platinum card level of sonic luxury.
There’s more to learn about the features of both these portable DAC/amps, so read other Head-fi reviews, which have been very helpful to me. Happy listening!
EARLIER COMPARISON LATE 2015
Creative SoundBlaster e5 vs Schiit Asgard 2 + Modi Optical
Topline: the e5 is distinguishable from the desktop system but is emotionally satisfying, delivering great value for its intended purposes.
Having recently acquired the Creative SoundBlaster e6 portable dac/amp/eq/effects processor, I wanted to see whether & how much I'd be giving up versus my desktop Schist Asgard 2 coupled to the Schiit Modi optical dac (from an iMac 2008). I jumped on a Massdrop deal on the e5 instead of continuing to save towards the Oppo HA-2. Should I be restless or content with that impulsive buy?
The e5 analog line-in would allow me to compare amp to amp, but that's not my goal. I'm interested in one system versus another.
I used my AKG Quincy Jones 701 over-ear headphones because of all my 'phones they are the hardest to drive (although not truly "hard" at 62 ohms) and also the most neutral - and consequently, I tend to turn up the juice to get the full effect of my tunes. (Whereas my Grado RS-1 and, in a different way, my Sennheiser Momentum On-ear both tend to lend their own distinctive sparkle & rumble even at lower gain.)
The good part of this test is that I could level match, because the optical out to the Modi is fixed, with volume controlled solely by the Asgard 2. So by ear I could level-match to the USB-volume-controlled e5. Admittedly, "by ear" assumes a lot but I did my best, folks.
I kept all the "fancy" Soundblaster EQ/processing software off (but will affirm that it is capable of very subtle adjustments that have helped my NAD Viso HP50 respond in just the way I would like in portable use).
Treble "sparkle" - The e5 offered a bit more snap to percussive stings compared to a smoother presentation from the Schiit system. The opening phrases of Jazz Crusaders/Joe Sample's "Soul Shadows" and the horns in the Telarc recording of Joe Williams "Alright, OK, You Win" suggested this. But the slightly lower tone of the metallic item (a key?) dropped on the floor at the start of The Who's "Music Must Change" with its accompanying mid-treble guitar strum seems livelier on the Schiit system, perhaps due to a more true presentation of the slight echo surrounding the drop's bouncing waveform..
Bass rumble and thump - On Stanley Clarke's growling opening to "I Wanna Tell You 'Bout That" the difference is subtle, but a sense of depth and, for lack of a better term, "authority" definitely went to the Schiit system. Ditto on Ahmad Jamal's "Poinciana" from "Digital Works" where Larry Ball's bass goes crazy low. But the Frederic Fennel hi-rez of Movement 3 of "Suite for Military Band #1 in E-flat" features a bass drum window-rattler with an immediate follow-up low rumble that thumps and murmurs more convincingly on the e5. So I feel I'm hearing very subtle shifts from one system to another in frequency presentation and hang time between the systems.
Vocals, Male - Couldn't tell any difference on Bill Withers soul, Joe Walsh's whine, Joe Williams' growl.
Vocals, Female - Mike Manieri produced Carly Simon's "Torch" with a great deal of echo on "I've Got it Bad..." and when she levitates her voice that treble snap on the e5 gives it more presence than the Schiit system - not to its advantage, IMHO. Diana Krall's voice on "Willow Weep for Me" is produced to be more forward and intimate, and the differences between the systems fade.
Clarity vs Congestion & Soundstage - To me, this was the most telling distinction. The Schiit system effortlessly maintained a clear presentation of all instruments/vocals when the electric guitars layered over drums/bass and background "oooh" vocals on Joe Walsh/Barnstorm's "I'll Tell the World About You"; and again at the 30-second mark on Chicago's "Question 67 & 68" when guitar rips over horns that are already blaring. Most tellingly, the Eric Kunzel/Telarc recording of Albeniz's "Fete Dieu A Seville" goes from sleepy streets to riotous celebration starting at 1:06, and it seems every orchestral instrument ever played is weighing in. The e5 wasn't jarring or disappointing, just a bit less able to keep every tone clear and in its place. The soundstage seemed wider with the Schiit system as well.
Soundblaster Creative has nothing to apologize for in its e5, but I wouldn't call it a "reference" system. I'm happy to own it for exactly my intended purposes - a nighttime EQ-able companion to my NAD that, IMHO, needs a bit more treble; and as a very portable, high-quality dac/amp.
At under $200, the e5 was compared to my roughly $350 Schiit desktop system and, unsurprisingly, does not match it. But 200/350 = 57% the budget and the Soundblaster Creative e5 surely gets the budget-conscious consumer more than three-quarters of the way up my best-yet personal audio ladder.
Furthermore, in terms of convenience, space-saving, sonic flexibility, combined line-out pre-amp and more, the e5 is probably an ideal for many a listener. I sure as heck would have loved it in my dorm room back in the day (not that we knew what an "audio file" was back then). Here's a clue: listening to "Poinciana" again as I'm focused on writing this, and I had to glance down to remember which system was producing this pleasing sound - the e5.
Pros - SBX makes anything sound great instantly, very configurable. Lots of well implemented features & thoughful design.
Cons - Unusable Windows drivers, garbage headphone amp holds back DAC, only enough power for IEMs, DSP is always on to some degree and affects sound
The E5 is so close to being a giant killer but it has a few major flaws in my opinion. This is a technically oriented review.
I like neutral sound signatures and bit perfect playback. I don't like to EQ. Is this for me?
Heck no get away fast. This is a device for people who always like to EQ and are more concerned with good/fun sound than bit perfect or accurate playback. In fact, even if you're an EQ head who loves to boost your bass, you're going to want to turn off your EQ and let the E5 handle it, because it doesn't expect an EQ'd input and things get really messy really fast when you do.
How is it as a headphone amp by itself?
Not too great. I measured with a multimeter and couldn't get it to push more than 190mW @ 32 ohms. It gets worse when you plug in a second pair of headphones: the two outputs are linked to the same power starved amp, so with both headphone outs in use, it can't push much over 120 to each. Imagine you take one of those headphone splitters and plugged it into your amp - that's what's going on here.
My Xduoo X3 supposedly puts out more power than this and I can verify that because with certain high gain headphones, I had the volume turned up all the way to the max on low gain, and was still too quiet. When I switched to high gain, everything sounded too distorted, and I knew it wasn't actually boosting the power.
The gain switch simply boosts the output signal. It does not have any effect on the amount of current the amp is actually capable of putting out. The configurable output levels, which are stock at 40%, don't affect this power output either.
It doubles as a Bluetooth aptX source, so I could do fun things like take my non-Bluetooth enabled DAP and still stream to my friends' Bluetooth stereos.
While I had issues with the stability of the 3.5mm combo output jack switching between digital and analog, I had no problems with the 3.5mm combo input jack when using it as an amp by itself. It never lost the signal. I'm not sure why the output was so fussy.
You'll have to keep in mind whatever settings you set with the configuration app will stay active even when using it as an amp by itself and won't turn off until you do it yourself with the configuration app again.
How is it as a DAC by itself?
Almost good enough to warrant the price... at least if you could actually turn off the DSP when you wanted to, and if the ASIO drivers worked. When SBX is activated, your audio is resampled to 48khz 24bit. There is a lot going on "behind the scenes", and you will almost certainly need to change the stock SBX settings, as if you have halfway decent headphones, you will realize you're hearing some weird distortion. This goes mostly away when you fix the bass boost's crossover frequency (unfortunately it doesn't go below 10hz) and shut off the "Surround" effect.
You will notice the DSP is always on when you start messing with the EQ. The EQ is always on or off and there is no way to control it from the unit. The only way to control it is with the PC or mobile phone app. I didn't save any of my test spectrogram results and have since sold the device but if I ever get my hands on it again, will post them. You will notice this if you use it only as a DAC. Even with SBX off and the EQ turned off, there is still a notable effect on the audio the DSP adds, and while it usually sounds good, it sometimes introduces unwanted distortion. This is more noticable when you use it via line out paired into an amp with more power.
Are its recording features any good?
Yes. The stereo mics were impressive, to be honest. I liked what I heard when I recorded with it briefly. I would use it to record a concert if my only other option was my phone's voice memos, but I wouldn't use it to record in the studio. However the broken ASIO drivers are pretty disappointing. Luckily OS X takes care of it with its CoreAudio support and Windows has ASIO4ALL which you should install instead of Creative's drivers.
Using ASIO4ALL and REAPER on a Windows 7 PC I had no problems recording with it.
I have a Windows PC.
I hope you weren't intending on using the ASIO drivers or Windows configuration utility. If you want to use ASIO, ASIO4ALL is your only hope. Also the Creative driver is unsigned and broken, so your E5 will stop working from the moment you install Creative's drivers until you uninstall it and force Windows to forget about it so it can re-recognize it with the generic USB audio driver. You have been warned. Once you get past that, the app to control the settings is fine though. Pretty ironic that Creative's own drivers can brick the device on your machine until you do this fix.
I have a Mac.
There are no audio drivers to f**** up your E5, so just plug it in and go. Didn't see or try the configuration software, just plugged it into a MacBook and it worked.
I have an iPhone or Android.
Great! It works fine and the app to control it isn't as horrible as its PC counterpart. You'll be a lot happier with your E5 if you only or mainly use it with your phone.
I got about 9-10 hours on a charge. I charged my E5 for 12 hours before using it for the first time or even turning it on to properly condition the battery.
I would like to hear you complain in detail. Please do so.
First, the DAC itself is great and very enjoyable. In fact, I had a great time using it as a DAC into a different headphone amp. SBX is Creative's DSP which they claim you can turn on or off, but it actually is always on to some degree. The combination 3.5mm optical and line out jack is great in practice, but in theory does not work too well. I tried many of my 3.5mm to RCA cables and with the slightest bump of the E5 or the cable, the E5 would get confused if it was optical or not, and blare digital static at maximum volume. Luckily, the optical connection is much more stable. You can shake it around with the optical line out connected and it will work fine. If the analog line out connection was more stable, I would be much happier using it as a DAC, but this is one of the reasons I eventually stopped using it.
Second, the dual headphone output is a trap. Only use one at a time, don't use both at once to A/B headphones. It is more noticeable when using power hungry headphone than IEMs, but you can hear a very distinct change in volume. I tested with a multimeter and found both outputs are shared to one power starved amp. I noticed even with bass turned off, with power hungry headphones like 600ohm DT990 there was some distortion on lower bass.
In my opinion, if this cost $50 more and had power output specs to compete against cheaper non all-in-one units like the Fiio E12 or Cayin C5, I would recommend it even over the Mojo. I honestly can't imagine why Creative would bottleneck such a good DAC with such a disappointing & power starved amp section. On top of that, I would like it if it gave you an option to bypass the DSP completely, because sometimes I want bit perfect output, but it's simply not possible with this unit.
With these complaints, I can not give it more than 3 stars in all honesty. I wish I could, because I honestly really liked using it as a DAC, but switching between this and my other DACs made it very obvious there's an always-on DSP, and that's not for everyone. If the headphone amp didn't split such an embarrasingly low amount of power, if it didn't screw up my Windows audio drivers, and if the DSP was a little more flexible and honest I would rate this 5 stars.
Enough words, let me see some dang pictures
Below are a couple different EQ settings I used with different headphones. I am very treble sensitive so I enjoyed the sound of cutting it at 16k a lot to be honest.
Here's a video picture of the bass paper test with the JVC SZ2000. I was really disappointed using the E5 with full size headphones. No bass impact, just lots of muddy distortion.
Here is a size comparison to a plain iPhone 6 (non plus)
Here's my E5 with my Aurisonics ASG 2.0, 2.5 and ASG-B. Since taking this picture I've sold the black 2.5's and the 2.0's.
A shot of the ports. Notice it has a full size USB host port so you can easily use it with a phone without an OTG cable. This was really really good in my opinion. I liked this feature a lot.
Here's another shot of my Xduoo X3 driving the E5 as an amp.
Here's my settings how I liked them. I eventually turned off bass boost completely because I needed the crossover to go lower than 10hz and it wouldn't let me.
Here's ASIO4ALL proving that when SBX is turned on, the DSP resamples.
Is it worth my $199?
That's up to you. If you like to EQ, only intend to use it for its DAC purposes or only use IEMs/don't mind the low power output of the headphone amp, it's got a lot of features for the price. Unfortunately, it would be able to pair better with higher end gear if the DSP was less restrictive and gave you a bit more control over the DSP. If you were hoping to use it just as a headphone amp and not a DAC, or don't care about the Bluetooth or stereo microphones, you'll probably be disappointed.
This is good for a budget all in one device, and musicians on a very tight budget might find it be very useful. Just keep its quirks and problems in mind before buying. This is not for people who just want an amp. It does everything but it doesn't do any one thing great. But it might suit your needs, and if it does you'll be very happy with it.
If Creative announced a new model that addressed my complaints (mainly DSP being too restrictive and the weak headphone amp and split power between the two outputs) I would get one again and pretty much guarantee a 5 star review from me. I can't give more than 3 stars considering the problems mentioned. That said, even though I sold it, it was a good piece of gear and was very convenient. I am just really let down by how lacking the headphone amp was.
Pros - Versatile. Comes with a huge variety of features, inputs and outputs. No EMI issues.
Cons - Can be troublesome to setup at first. Unable to be used as a DAC with my Samsung Note 3 except as a Bluetooth receiver and as an amp only.
A big thank you to @LucasCL of creative for organising this review tour and allowing me to take part in it! It’s my first ever review for a source, so also another big thank you for not rushing me!
Apologies for the delay here. I received the E5 quite sometime ago, but I just couldn’t seem to put things into perspective for this review. I ended writing this afew times before deciding to publish this. Any feedback would be extremely helpful, not to mention welcome!
I stumbled into the head-fi world when my itchy fingers picked up a Shure SE846 back in January’14. Since then, it has been a long journey, and I’m only just starting. Exploring the various IEMs and portable set-ups available, I’ve slowly learnt to appreciate good sounding gears at various price points, culminating in my decision to start writing reviews in order to contribute in my tiny way back to this community. I’m still looking to slowly develop a more consistent writing style as well. I’ll appreciate any feedback anyone has on any areas I could improve on!
I have varying music taste, so I can listen to/ appreciate most genres of music too, from classicals to pop/rock and almost anything in between, and choose my listening genre at a particular time based on mood, although I’m still building up my music collection.
Personally, I like my bass. It doesn’t have to be in huge, overwhelming quantities, but it has to be good, clean and deep base. I don’t like recessed mids, while I’m generally tolerant towards treble, and can appreciate both bright and rolled-off trebles.
As with all reviews, this review is purely subjective, based on my own experience, gear and preference, so YMMV!
The Creative E5 here is a review unit kindly provided to me by Creative. I am not affiliated to Creative in any way.
For once, I'll be starting with my conclusion first.
The E5 is really the most versatile audio kit I’ve seen so far. I have yet to try any device that offers such a wealth of features, including input and output options. It is a very capable device, with decent sound quality for its price, and can be used as a portable Dac/Amp, or just as an amp alone.
I felt that the overall tonality of the E5 to be pretty flat with a downwards slope, due to its large dose of bass! While its level of clarity is pretty decent, I do feel that it would be great with some additional transparency/detail and instrument separation. The E5 is not neutral sounding, and it didn’t felt like it was designed to be a detail monster. What it is, however, is to pump up your music and give you a sense of enjoyment, especially with music that NEEDs bass in rather substantial quantities (like EDM), and this it does very, very well.
It is a step up from the sound I got from my Note 3 (and pretty significant one at that), and I found myself reaching for it and using it as a Bluetooth receiver when I’m in the mood for Spotify whilst outside, instead of just listening directly from my phone. It is generally superior to my Note 3 and will be a good DAC/AMP for any smartphone user aspiring to upgrade their smartphone’s sound. Its DAC implementation is excellent, as seen when I used it as a DAC with my glacier acting as the amp. While I would love to try it via Hiby Player/Spotify>USB out from my phone, unfortunately it is incompatible with my Note 3, for the time being at least.
However, I felt that the amp section was what holding it back from a 5 star rating, and IMO if the amp section was further improved, Creative would have a winner on its hands. Still, for all that it offers, its a solid 4 star from me.
Creative is a Singaporean company that has been around for a very long time, and are mainly remembered for creating the Sound Blaster.
The Creative Sound Blaster E5 is Creative’s top portable DAC/AMP, packing a Cirrus Logic CS4398 Digital-Analogue Converter (DAC) and Texas Instrument TI6120A2 headphone amplifier and has a large number of features to suit a variety of usage scenarios.
The E5 comes with some standard accessories, including a standard USB cable, two amp rubber bands, amp stand as well as an optical cable. A desk stand is also included in the box. However, it would be nicer if they could include an interconnect cable for use as an amplifier as well.
The Creative E5 has a pretty well thought out design. Solidly built, it is much lighter than its appearance would suggest, due to it being made of polycarbonate with a strip metal across the middle at the top, instead of an all metal build. The bottom is coated with soft silicon/rubber for better grip on surface.
The volume knob is located between two protrusions containing the two headphone output jack, which acts as a shield for it. While it is a good idea, my only gripe would be that the volume knob should be slightly smaller. As it is, it sits flush with the top and bottom of the E5. I felt that it would have been even better should the volume knob be smaller, as there were occasions where the E5 when in my bag, had its volume adjusted due to movement.
The E5 features asynchronous USB input, bluetooth connectivity, Dual Headphone output, Dual gain switch (High/Low), Line & Optical input and output, Mic input, SBX Pro Studio and has built in mics, among the main features.
The power button, SBX button and Gain switch, together with 3 small LED lights that acts as the battery indicator, are located on one side of the device.
Located at the rear of the device are the multi-purpose input 3.5mm jack (Line/Mic/Optical In), and a multi-purpose output 3.5mm jack (Line/Optical Out), a female USB Host for use with smartphones, and a micro USB port for use with PCs and doubles as its charging point as well.
SBX Pro StudioYes
Max. Playback QualityStereo Direct playback/recording sampling rates:
24-bit / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192kHz
DSP playback/recording sampling rates: 24-bit / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz
Mic recording: 24-bit / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz
Optical In: 24-bit / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96kHz
USB Audio Streaming from Mobile Devices
iOS Playback: 24-bit / 96kHz
Android Playback: 16-bit / 44.1 kHz
Max. Recording Quality: 24-bit / 192 kHz
Max. Headphone Output:
High Gain - 300-600Ω (Gain: up to 15 dB)
Low Gain - 2.2-300Ω (Gain: up to 5 dB)
Battery Life: Up to 8 hours
Some (NOT all) of the tracks used for this review are:
Storms Are On The Ocean
Just A Fool (ft. Blake Shelton)
Cheek to Cheek
Lady Gaga / Tony Bennett
See You Again (ft. Charlie Puth)
The E5 was mainly used via USB with my PC, or via Bluetooth with my Samsung Galaxy Note 3, as I could not get it to work via USB from my phone after its upgrade to Android Lollipop, to my IEMs, namely my Shure SE846 (White filters) and 1964 A12.
For the purpose of this review, I will be using it with all sound adjustment options and software (including SBX) off.
I detected some very slight hiss when using the E5 with my IEMs, although it is not very audible.
The first thing that struck me about the E5 was the bass. The E5 delivers its bass with authority, slamming into me with excellent impact. The bass has a pretty natural decay and extension, with a slight tinge of warmth. However, the bass does suffers in detail and layering, a result of its quantity, and did felt like a “wall of bass” at times, perhaps also due to the slight emphasis on mid-bass coupled with less than stellar detail.
The E5’s mids comes across to me as leaning towards being dry. It is not forward, and neither is it recessed. Detail and instrument separation, while good, could be better improved, as there were times where I couldn’t make out the finer nuances of my music. Still, I wouldn’t say that it is veiled and at this price point, I feel like I’m nit-picking here. J
The E5’s treble is pretty smooth and extends well, with a slight roll-off at the top end, which made it enjoyable for long listening sessions as it didn’t felt fatiguing to me at all due to its lack of sibilance. Like the mids, it feels slightly dry though.
The soundstage of the E5 is rather wide, but suffers in depth, giving a slightly intimate feel. The soundstage also comes across as being more 2D instead of a 3D one. Imaging while pretty good, could be better as trying to pick up instruments on complex passages can be pretty daunting at times.
The Apex Glacier has a more linear sound signature. While the soundstage is pretty much similar, the Apex has better 3D imaging, due in part to its deeper soundstage, and better instrument separation as well. The Glacier also has a generally cleaner and more detailed sound, with better top end extension, but also without being bright. The Glacier also has the added advantage of a smaller (slimmer) form factor, which made it easier to stack with my Note 3. Despite this, the glacier is unable to hold a candle to the E5’s myriad of features, with its only digital input being USB, although it is also able to accept line in. Also, while stacked with my Note 3 (before its update), I never detected any EMI, even when using the phone. The same could not be said of the Glacier.
The Chord Hugo stands heads and shoulders above the E5 in almost all aspect of its sound signature, which is not a surprising fact given the extensive gulf in price (SGD $269 vs SGD $2800, which is 10X!). Only in terms of bass quantity does the E5 bests the Hugo, but the Hugo has the added advantage of a better and more defined bass.
However, I felt that the Bluetooth connection was much more stable on the E5 (I’m checking with Chord to see if it’s a problem with my unit), and the E5 has the option of analogue input (Line In) while the Hugo only accepts digital inputs (USB/Coaxial/Toslink). The E5 also has the advantage of its smaller and lighter form factor.
As a DAC only
I decided to try using the E5 as a DAC only and run it to the Apex Glacier, as the Glacier was the only other device I had which could work as a standalone amp. I maxed out the volume on my E5, and used a DIY-ed silver IC to link my E5 with the Glacier. And the result was a much better sound that still had a slight emphasis on bass, but which is very tight and well controlled, with excellent extension. The mids felt more engaging, and treble remained smooth, although extension was improved as well, without ever feeling fatiguing. Generally more detailed, with better soundstage depth, with better instrument separation and imaging. This was the stack I used the most, with the E5 acting as either a Bluetooth receiver from my Note 3, or as a DAC via USB from my PC, instead of the E5 alone.
Pros - Functions and features.
Cons - Battery life, Bulky, can sound better.
We all know creative as a brand that makes quality audio products and accessories. Mostly known for their speakers, audio cards and headphones, this time around they have introduced a few portable Headphone Amplifiers, 3 to be precise, E5, E3 and E1.
What I have here is The E5, a DAC cum amplifier. Works as a DAC with PC and mobile devices via USB, you can opt for optical input too, and is the best of these 3 portable amps from creative, priced at $199, Equipped with Bluetooth, 3 noise cancelling MICs and dual headphone out too, it has some awesome and unique features in its inventory which we will talk later.
Oh, you get 60 days of free Hi-Fi Streaming from TIDAL too!!
Let me tell you something about me, I literally begged for this amp when Creative were looking for reviewers, back then I didn’t had an okay type amp with me, I still don’t have anything else comparable to E5 but my old Fiio E11. I will mostly compare it with my J3 without an amp and J3 + E11.
I am not much into technical aspects, I am more into subjective assessment, I don’t care what chip you have used, what DAC you are using, and it’s nothing if it doesn’t sound good. So don’t expect technical explanation from me. I don’t have any High resolution player and don’t use much high res audio too, all I have is some 200 16bit Flac audio files on my J3. Most of my songs are 320kbps Audio files.
I don’t have many amplifiers, not even one desktop amp, 4 portable amps including this, others are Fiio E11, E5 and Brainwavz AP001 so I don’t have any worthy competitors for the E5, but I will tell you how this amp improves over my PMP.
Here is the product page.
You can buy the E5 from here.
BOX AND ACCESSORIES:-
The box is huge, I mean bigger than expected, bigger than a 7inch tablet carton, And the reason is, there is a booklet which reads like “product experience guide” that highlights all the features of this device.
You get a stand, an optical cable to connect to gaming consoles and TVs. Two rubber bands to pair with your DAP.
For those who are interested in technicalities, let me give you some Doses of Techno Talk!!
TECHNICAL ASPECTS, FEATURES and FUNCTIONS:-
This thing has a huge number of of features!! Do bear with me here.
Its primary DAC is a Cirrus Logic CS4398 with 120 db of signal to noise ratio and supports 24 bit/192khz resolution. It uses a Cirrus logic CS5361 analog to digital converter which supports 114db and 192 kHz stereo voice recording.
The amplifier is a TI6120A2 which has a total harmonic distortion of 0.0005%!! Nice.
E5 has a gain switch which helps while powering power hungry headphones, low is for earphone from 16-32 ohm and high for headphones with up to 600 ohm rating and as per my experience, it does fine with high impedance headphones. E5 features BT 4.0 and NFC too for one touch connection, supports APTX, AAC and SBC streaming too for best in class wireless audio quality. Has SBX Pro studio support, you can install its app on your device, connect your device through USB, and you will be able to use all of its features like surround sound and Crystallizer, bass and Crossover Frequency.
While using in BT mode and USB mode, you are entitled to use the Crystal voice Noise cancelling MICs, which has support for dual orientation, which helps while in noisy places, and a nice feature for calls and voice recrding.
Output impedance is as low as 2.2 ohm which is not low enough for highly sensitive earphone but when paired with a good source, it’s not bothering.
You can even use the optical cable which is provided out of the box with your Gaming console, HD media players, and even Latest gen TVs, when using with your pc or Laptop you can use the Desktop software to activate scout mode for your gaming needs. I don’t have a gaming console sadly. And when connected to your mobile through USB, E5’s huge 3200mah battery can charge your device too. All you have to do is to get the latest firmware and then you can chose not to charge in this mode by double tapping the power button. Not bad, is it?
Now this has a battery life of 8hrs which is enough for most of us. For hardcore gamers, there is a scout mode which lets you hear your enemy’s movement from far away (when used as a DAC with your MAC or PC/laptop and you have to use the Sound Blaster software for this).
There is a SB-AXX1 multi-core processor too, which helps in improving the whole audio experience with EQ settings and surround sound effects.
The neat looking rotating dial for volume has a press function too, a single tap will pause the song or call or whatever it is. Nice isn’t it? And the SBX button is used to pick or end calls.
Finally, the list is over!! I want a pat on my back for this, I do.
The only thing missing is that you can’t skip tracks from the E5. You have to reach out for your device and its bothering when in BT mode.
You have two type of software for this, one for Pc and one for mobile devices. Both doe the same thing, PC has more functions for sure, if allowed it replaces your Audio manager when E5 is connected. For mobile, you have install Sound blaster central app then a service app, after than a notification box opens up, you have to allow E5 to use UBS audio functionality, now you are good to go.
BUTTONS, PORTS ON THE DEVICE, BUILD AND BATTERY LIFE:-
If I were not precise enough, let me tell you how things are placed on the device and things it comes with. It comes with a stand, useful when you are using it with your desktop PC or Laptop. There are 3 mics on the front side. Only 2 are functional at a given time, depending on your orientation. It can be used in line in mode and can record too. On top you have two 3.5mm output and the volume knob, but there no indication on it. While playing pressing this knob will mute the music, press it again and you are good to go.
There is nothing on the back or the right hand side. On left you have 3 buttons, first one for on/off/BT 2[sup]nd[/sup] one is the sbx button and will receive calls if connected to a device. Last one is a switch for low or high gain.
If you don’t want any lag or anything you might like to go USB way, like an OTG thing. In this mode too you are entitled to use MICs, it will work with games, your SKYPE chats and even to record.
Build quality is not top of the class for sure, it’s made of plastic, back side has some padding so that it doesn’t get scratched when placed on a surface, sadly there are some joint problems. It feels sturdy but not strong. I won’t give it more than 6/10 for build quality.
Battery life from a 3200mah battery is bad!! 8hrs in line in is like E11 which can get 8hrs with 800mah battery. In BT mode its like 6-7 hours, when used as a DAC its close to 9hrs, When used with a mobile device in OTG mode battery life is like 2-3 hours as it will charge your mobile any way. There is a new FW to cure this but it doesn’t do much.
Back side with rubber protection.
Let’s get into SQ, should we?
E5’s general signature is neutral and sounds clean with a bit more bass, slightly forward. Sometimes some instruments can be splashy. It sounds good to me, has nice attack and spectrum wide decay. Better than my E11 for sure.
Now first thing first, this amp doesn’t have a totally dark back ground, there is some back ground noise even with ER-4p!! Leave out all the rest, by that I mean the back ground never gets totally dark until you use a Headphone with impedance of more than 40-50ohm. One that I found with least noise is Titan-1, doesn’t matter what, if you are using a BA earphone, you will experience some noise. Dynamic driver earphones are a bit more tolerant in the likes of AN16, Titan-1 and R3.
Now the biggest thing you will notice is that it helps with stage. It gets bigger overall. Better sense of space means you will have better separation and better layering.
Now if we get into the usual drill.
BASS:- With this amp bass gets slightly warmer, decay is good, slightly bleeds into Mids. It’s not sluggish or boomy by any way. Has a nice body and goes boom when called upon without going out of control. Texture and presentation is good, goes deep enough, doesn’t improve much when compared to J3 but it’s an improvement.
Go ahead, press that SBX button, come on, press it, yeah, press it.
What? You can’t what? Yes, bass loses all its control here and goes berserker here. It goes blow blow with a hint of bass and might please bass heads. Decay goes south, sounds muddy and wooly without any control and bleeds plenty into mid range. Not recommended to those who like balance.
MIDS:- Mids are slightly less emphasized and vocals are more intimate. Has plenty of details and clarity but has a tendency to sound a bit dry. Both male and female vocals sound nice, no drop in the spectrum, its held up nicely. I like its texture and depth of notes.
Doesn’t change much of what’s coming from your device just a bit more intimate.
HIGHS:- I like these highs, it’s a bit edgy or say splashy at lower portion but that I can live with. It has good extension and helps with earphones like XBA-H1 who tend to lack high end extension. Separation, layering and presentation are really nice, transparency and imaging is fantastic for me thanks to its ability to convet better sense of space when compared to E11 or J3+E11. There is an emphasis on some instruments like Violins and cymbals but its what I like. It never gets sibilant, unless you are playing some sibilant music like heavy metal.
I won’t call these highs perfect, but for one who likes sparky tingling instruments, it’s good, slightly dry but good.
BT MODE:- I don’t have a device with NFC but I have a few with APTX and I liked the way it sounds, BT has evolved enough but hasn’t evolved enough to take on in line or optical modes. But Zenfone 2 does sound better than J3.
In this mode you will have more forward and aggressive bass, it lacks decay and tightness, details and texture is missing too. Vocals too sound less detailed and clarity too is not up there. Highs do get lost in the transmission and this is why I don’t like the BT way of things, its okay but highs sound less resolved, less present and lacking depth.
Another thing is that you cant change SBX setting in this mode.
About connectivity, it was nice, and it wont lose connection if you don’t get too far from it, like 10 meters away or there is a thick wall between you and the device.
POWER AND EFFICIENCY:-
Now I am an earphone guy, I have loads of earphones and most of these are power efficient, which I find a bit less efficient are driven effortlessly by this device, I have a few headphones too but none of them are power hungry, HD 380 pro is less efficient but E5 drives it effortlessly in high gain mode. I just simply don’t listen to music loud. I remain in the range on 40-70 db, and mostly in the range of 45-55 db. E5 can get loud, plenty loud but.
Drivability and efficiency should not be a problem but match ability can be, if you give it something that already sounds splashy and slightly sibilant like Titan-1 or Jive or VSD5, you will have splashier highs and can get sibilant.
P.S.:- Sadly I don’t have an amp to compare here. I am literally broke. I don’t have a penny to spend on luxury products. After losing a family member, after suffering from fever and cold, being weak and sick for weeks, here I am trying to put my words out. I am really sorry for this inconvenience and inability.
I won’t call this an amp. It’s more than an amplifier or DAC or a audio accessory. I had never seen something with this many features and functionalities. BT, MIC, SBX enhancement, TV/PC/Laptop/gaming console compatibility, OTV connectivity, ask for it it’s there. There are two Outputs too. What else can an average buyer ask for? Most of us are not even going to use half of these features. I don’t. I just use it as an IN-line Amp.
It’s not the best when it comes to amp performance, slightly colored and a bit clumsy, I expected more for sure, but it does enough for me. I would like to suggest some improvements.
Battery life can improve a bit more, maybe like 15hrs? With 3200mah, just 8hrs is really low.
Maybe add a BT transmitter. Then one won’t have to carry this around.
Build can be better, even if plastic, it can be sturdier.
Better match ability and sound quality will do wonders.
Everything aside, this is an awesome device, seriously versatile and feature rich, but needs a bit better application of resources.
Thank you for your time guys, Have a nice Time!!
Pros - Good sound. Sturdy build. Feature-rich. SBX apps for computer and smartphone. No CCK required for iPhone. EQ streaming apps.
Cons - No indicator on volume knob. SBX settings can't be changed when connected via Bluetooth (NO LONGER VALID). A bit bulky.
EDIT: As of the October 8th, 2015 firmware update, you can now alter all of the SBX settings when connected to your iPhone via Bluetooth. Nice job, Creative!
Creative is well-known for their sound cards. I remember building a PC when I was younger. I specifically sought out a Creative sound card to make sure I had a good audio interface for listening to music from my computer. It was during the days of Napster and 128 kbps audio files, so it was probably overkill but at least it gave me the potential for good sound. The fact that my audio files couldn't keep up with my soundcard wasn't its fault. Skip forward to the present. Creative is still well-known for their sound cards, but has also started making headway in the Head-Fi space with their desktop and portable dac/amps, headphones, in ear monitors, and speakers.
When @LucasCL put out a call for reviewers for three of the newer Creative products, two of them immediately appealed to me - a portable dac/amp and an IEM. I'm a long-term IEM user, so this would've been a good fit for me. However I was chosen to review the Sound Blaster E5 portable dac/amp. This was actually a really good choice for me at the time, as I'd just come off a series of reviews looking at various portable dac/amps like the small battery-free Calyx PaT and Cozoy Aegis and the more conventional Cayin C5DAC and Shanling H3. I really don't see the small battery-free products as direct competitors to the E5, so I won't be discussing them in this review. However, the C5DAC and H3 can be viewed as direct competitors for the portable audio enthusiast. Unfortunately, I didn't have those available for direct comparison with the E5, so I'm going to refrain from making any detailed statements about audio quality. I will however provide some general comments about build and audio quality. If you're interested in reading my thoughts on the other portable dac/amps I've tested, the links above will take you to their respective reviews.
Why portable dac/amps? Quite simply, I want to level-up my iPhone's audio quality when using streaming services on the go. Portable dac/amps are one way of achieving this with varying degrees of success. Being able to use the device as an entry-level or secondary desktop dac/amp is icing on the cake. So what am I looking for? Well, it needs to sound better than my iPhone's headphone out. It needs to have good volume control for IEM yet able to drive my HE400 planars. A small, lightweight form factor is definitely preferable, but I usually carry my audio gear in a small shoulder bag so my idea of small might be on the large side for others - it's all a matter of perspective. Since it will get tossed in my bag, it should be durable and the volume knob, gain switch, etc. shouldn't be easy to adjust accidentally. It should also have reasonable battery life, but I have chargers everywhere so this isn't as much a make or break feature for me as it would be for some. Let's see how the E5 stacks up.
I was provided the Creative Sound Blaster E5 as a review sample as part of a worldwide call for reviewers. There is no financial incentive from Creative for writing this review. I am in no way affiliated with Creative, and this is my honest opinion of the E5. I would like to thank @LucasCL for giving me the opportunity to test the E5 and also for his patience. I hope my feedback proves useful for fellow Head-Fi members as well as for Creative.
I'm a 43 year old father who loves music. While I listen mostly to electronic and metal these days, I do listen to a wide variety of music - from electronic (Autechre, Boards of Canada) to modern/minimalist composition (John Cage, Philip Glass) to alternative rock (Flaming Lips, Radiohead) to jazz (John Coltrane and Miles Davis) to metal (Behemoth, King Diamond) to classic rock (Eagles, Rush).
I'm primarily a portable audio enthusiast. My portable music journey started with the venerable Sony Cassette Walkman and then progressed to portable CD players, minidisc recorders (still have my Sharp DR7), and finally on to DAPs like the Rio Karma, iRiver IHP-1xx, iPod 5.5, iPhones, and the newer crop of DAPs from Fiio and iBasso.
Being a portable audio enthusiast, I typically listen with IEMs but am enjoying listening with full-size headphones more and more and tend to like u-shaped sound signatures, although I break out v-shaped IEM & HP from time to time for fun.
As with a lot of people my age, I've got some hearing issues. I've got mild tinnitus and suffer from allergies, which can affect hearing in my right ear. I'll admit it, I'm not blessed with a pair of golden ears. That said, I've been listening to portable gear for a long time and feel confident in assessing audio gear - just wanted to be transparent up front.
2 x 2.2 Ohm Headphone Out capable of driving up to 600 Ohm Headphones
24-bit / 192kHz USB DAC
Analog and Optical Line In and Line Out
SBX apps for computer and smartphone
8 hour battery life
For more specs, please visit Creative's E5 product page
PACKAGING & ACCESSORIES
Compared with the very simple packaging I experienced with the other portable dac/amps I've tested out recently, the E5's packaging is very colorful and information-dense.
Open the box and you see the E5 on display.
Under the display tray is a black box filled with the E5's accessories. Here are most of the contents laid out for you. You get an optical cable, a USB cable, stacking bands, an angled stand, and of course the E5 itself.
You also get a user manual. It looks pretty normal in the following picture, but instead of being a booklet it's a poster-sized fold-out. While it does give you a lot of information at a glance, I found it cumbersome and would've preferred a more conventional booklet type user manual.
BUILD & ERGONOMICS
I like to let pictures do most of the talking, so I'll walk through the E5 in pictorial format below.
Let's start with an overhead view of the E5. It's mainly constructed of sturdy black plastic with a brushed metal accent strip down the middle. The other dac/amps I've tested in this price range were constructed mainly of aluminum, so this was a change. I honestly prefer the look and feel of the metal casings, however I do want to emphasize that the #5 feels very sturdy. There is a slight amount of flex if I press down very hard with both thumbs in the center of the top face - emphasis on slight. This picture didn't pick it up, but the Sound Blaster logo is laser engraved on the metal. It's not very apparent straight on but becomes highly visible when you hold the amp at an angle. Creative made sure to remind you of two of the E5's features: Crystal Voice (which is supposed to make your voice crystal clear when the E5 is used as an external mic during phone calls) and NFC (which allows you to pair an NFC-enable phone with the E5). These don't fit my use case, so I refrained from testing them.
To give you an idea of the E5's size, I snapped a picture with one of the most common portable amps - the Fiio E12A. Width is equivalent. The E12A is a bit longer. The E5 is roughly twice as thick as the E12A.
Moving on to the front of the E5, we see a nice, large recessed volume knob.
The volume knob turns smoothly with enough resistance to prevent accidentally pushing the volume too high too quickly, which is great when you're using IEMs. It also means that it's unlikely to accidentally turn in your bag. There are a couple things to point out about the volume knob. First, it's free-spinning, so it has no defined minimum and maximum volume positions. I'm not a fan of this. I much prefer a volume knob that has a hard stop at the minimum and maximum volume settings. Why? So I can quickly and easily set the volume to my preferred setting before pushing play on my iPhone. This is the way the other dac/amps I tested worked. With the E5, I had one instance where I pushed play with some IEMs in when the volume setting was to high. The ability to visibly set the E5's volume knob to a low setting would've prevented this. I learned my lesson pretty quickly, and this incident wasn't repeated.
Another thing I'd like to point out about the volume knob is that it acts as a Play/Pause button when pressed straight in. This is pretty handy for quickly stopping music to interact with people without having to activate your smartphone. Nice touch!
Finally, volume can be controlled either via the E5's volume knob or by your computer or smartphone. When using the E5's volume knob to control volume, it has 20 volume steps vs. the iPhone's regular 16 steps, which allows more fine-grained volume control - but admittedly not as fine-grained as the other dac/amps I've tested that feature analog volume potentiometers.
Wow, that was a lot just about the volume knob! Moving along to the other features on the front, we see dual headphone jacks. Headphones click in very solidly with no chance of accidental escape. I'm not sold on putting in two headphone jacks as a feature. This would require the two listeners to be using headphones with similar impedance and sensitivity ratings. Otherwise, it would be difficult to achieve the optimal volume for both listeners. I did however find a good sue for it while recently reviewing the HiFiMan HE400S. I was comparing the new, easy to drive HE400S with my old harder to drive HE400. I found that by coincidence I could volume match very well with HE400S on Low Gain and HE400 on High Gain. This made it really easy to A/B the two headphones. I'm sure this won't happen very often. Long story short, unless you've got a bunch of friends with the same headphones you listen to - I'm not sure how often the two headphone jacks will get used. Of course everyone's use case is different, so your mileage may vary.
On the back, we see the various inputs and outputs. The USB port allows a CCK-free (Camera Connection Kit) experience with iDevices. Hallelujah! Just plug in the cable you use to charge your iDevice, and you're ready to rock. The micro USB port is for charging and USB OTG (On The Go) with Android devices.
Here's a quick peek at the non-slip rubber base. This not only keeps it from sliding around on your desk but also provides a nice, soft surface for stacking with your smartphone.
The left side is feature-packed. First up is the Power/Bluetooth button. Push it for a couple seconds to turn the E5 on, push it for two more seconds to turn on Bluetooth, and push it for a couple more seconds to turn it off.
When Bluetooth is enabled, the LED turns blue.
The SBX button controls several sound enhancement features that I'll go over later in the review. The gain switch has enough resistance that it's not going to accidentally slide over to High Gain on accident. This is good because High Gain is +15dB, which would be quite a shock if you were using easy to drive IEM or headphones. Creative recommends using Low Gain for up to 150 Ohm headphones and High Gain for up to 600 Ohm headphones. Finally, there's the battery / charging indicator. I like that it has three LEDs. The left-most LED flashes when you're almost out of power to let you know you'd better find a power source soon. Nice!
COMPUTER & SMARTPHONE USAGE
Connecting to my MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPhone was plug & play via USB, which allows up to 24-bit / 192kHz playback. However without installing a Mac or iOS app, there's no way to control the SBX settings. Once you install Creative's Sound Blaster E-Series Control Panel for the Mac or Sound Blaster Central app for iDevices, you've got full control over the E5's numerous software features - but only if connected via USB. Once you connect via Bluetooth, you won't be able to change the SBX settings - just toggle them on/off. A Bluetooth connection also limits you to 16-bit / 44kHz playback. Not a problem if you're not a hi-res believer as the E5's Bluetooth connection is very strong.
EDIT: As of the October 8th, 2015 firmware update, you can now alter all of the SBX settings when connected to your iPhone via Bluetooth. Nice job, Creative!
Since the E5 is so feature-rich, I'm going to take a quick tour of the settings I used in the iOS app. The Mac app has the same features but is laid out differently, so I'm not going to go over both. Here we go...
This is the main page. It's similar to the main page of the Mac's Control Panel app. From here, it's one it's one tap to get into any of the settings pages or the tabs along the bottom. Out of these, I ended up using the SBX feature the most, so let take a look at that first.
Okay, here are all the settings you can tweak on the SBX page at their default settings. I found some of these useful - others not so much. Let's take a closer look.
Surround: I felt like this was okay at up to 25%. Pushing past that sounded unrealistic.
Crystalizer: Quite frankly, I didn't like this at all. Turning it on made the upper end sound brittle and harsh.
Bass: Depending on the mood I was in, the music I was listening to, and what I was listening with I used this up to 50%. I know, I'm a blasphemer.
Crossover Frequency: Okay, this is cool. Creative lets you customize the Crossover Frequency. Want to choose which frequencies are affected by the bass boost? No problem, there's an app for that!
Smart Volume: This evens out volume across tracks - best to leave it off.
Dialog Plus: Boosts frequencies associated with the human voice, so you get dialog pops more in movies or audiobooks. Turn it off for music, though.
You saw the Equalizer tab, right? Well, there's a 10-band EQ with pre-gain, so you can EQ all of your streaming music while using the E% on your iDevice. Nice!
Here's the Mixer, which is useful. It's like having a sound card mixer panel on your iDevice. Pretty cool!
Here's the rather sparse Settings page. If you're a high-res person, I'd highly suggest you toggle that grayed-out slider!
I haven't set any up yet, but you can save different configurations as profiles. Know what you like with your headphones for watching movies? Set up a profile. Like a touch of surround and extra sub-bass when listening to your EDM? Set up a profile? You get the picture!
Here's the Player. When coupled with all the other features the E5 + app provide, it's a pretty complete music app. Of course, it only works with music you've loaded into the stock Music app, but you can still use all of the DSP functionality with other music apps and streaming services.
Here's what the Main page looks like when connected via Bluetooth. There's really not much you can do. I don't know if this is a limitation of the Bluetooth connection, but if there's any way possible to enable all settings via Bluetooth I'm sure a lot of users would appreciate it!
As I mentioned above, I'm not going to go into depth regarding the Mac app. It's really just the same settings laid out differently. Here's a screen grab of what the app looks like when you open it.
Whew, that was a lot! And I didn't even go into the Crystal Voice or Scout Mode settings, which are gamer-specific. So as you can see, there's a lot to the E5. The other dac/amps I've used have been much simpler devices. I really enjoyed playing with the various music and movie related DSP effects. I know, these features aren't something an audio purist would seek out, but they actually did come in handy to breathe a bit of extra life into my music or enhance my movie watching experience.
I'm going to keep this simple, since I already covered a lot of the audio-related features packed into the E5 above. What I'm going to do here is simply describe how the sound compares to what I get out of my iPhone. Throughout my time, I used various listening gear with the E5 from earbuds (VE Monk, Asura, and Zen) to IEM (Torque t096z, Dunu Titan 3 & 5, Fiio EX1), and headphones (HiFiMan HE400S & HE400). This gave me a good range of driving power requirements with highly sensitive IEM vs. harder to drive 300 Ohm VE Zen and HiFiMan planars). I used the E5 solely as a dac/amp for listening to music on my iPhone or Mac and occasionally watching a TV show or movie. on my Mac What I found was that the E5 did sound better than either my iPhone or Mac's headphone outs. How? Bass sounded tighter, highs were smoother, and the soundstage was more expansive. I'm going to be straight with you and tell you right now that these were not major improvements, but they were noticeable and did improve my listening experience. Much more than the stock sound, I think the wide variety of DSP effects will be of value to most people looking into the E5.
Bluetooth vs. Wired
I couldn't tell a difference with the listening gear I used, which hasn't always been the case for Bluetooth implementations. Creative did a really good job here!
I used low gain to drive everything except my HE400 planars and 300 Ohm VE Zen. There's plenty of driving power here, so no worries for most people.
There was no noticeable channel imbalance or hiss, but I did occasionally get EMI when stacked with my iPhone. It was intermittent and seemed related to streaming apps caching songs.
My main criteria for success here was whether it would keep up with my iPhone, and it just pulled that off. That said, the battery life isn't stellar. I didn't time it, but I'd peg it at about 8 hours with a wired connection and a bit less via Bluetooth For me, this would mean I'd need to charge the E5 every day or two to keep it charged.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I had a few questions in mind when testing the E5.
Does it sound better than my iPhone? Yes, it does. I wouldn't call the stock sound miles ahead, but it is a noticeable improvement. And then there are those DSP setting for the tweakers out there...
Is volume control good with headphones I typically listen with? Yes, volume control was excellent, and accidental volume adjustments weren't an issue. Driving power kept up with my harder to drive gear.
Is it small and lightweight enough to pack in my go bag? Yes, but I wouldn't complain if it were thinner.
Is it durable? I didn't toss it down the stairs or anything, but I'd say it's tough enough to use as a daily driver in your go bag.
Is battery life reasonable? Yes, it lasts long enough that I'd just need to plug in and charge every couple days.
So yes, the E5 met my criteria for a dac/amp for enhancing my streaming listening experience. Whether I'd use it over some of the other dac/amps I've tested is a toss up. They all have their pros and cons and fit people's preferences to different degrees. I think the E5 definitely makes its case due to the numerous DSP options. That's its ace in the hole. If it didn't have those, in all honesty I'd choose a dac/amp with better stock sound and a smaller profile.
Thanks again to @LucasCL for providing me with the opportunity to review the E5. I look forward to seeing what Creative releases in the future!
Pros - Tons of features, excellent bluetooth, good sound quality, and very versatile
Cons - A little on the bulky side for portable use.
Creative Sound Blaster E5 Review
Disclaimer: This is a review unit I received from Creative Technology Ltd.
The Creative E5 is a portable DAC/AMP with tons of connectivity. I mainly used the device as a portable device with my iPad Air 2 connected via bluetooth, connected to my Lenovo Y50 laptop via USB or Bluetooth, or to my desktop connected via optical being used as a DAC for the Schiit Lyr 2. The device was mainly used with the Audioquest Nighthawk, but I also used the Beyerdynamic DT 150 and AKG K712 Pro extensively on the unit.
Features and Connectivity
This device has a crazy amount of features and connectivity, making it the most versatile portable audio device I've come across. It can be used as an USB DAC/AMP on a wide variety of devices from computers, phones, tablets, etc. It can connect to pretty much any device that has bluetooth. It can be used purely as a portable amp or a portable DAC. It can be used as an optical amp/dac, etc. The Creative Sound Blaster Control Panel has a lot of features such as EQ, various sound processing effects such as virtual surround, bass boost, crossover, crystallizer, etc. I mainly ended up using the virtual surround for gaming and the EQ for certain headphones. The mic sounds quite good in my testing and the various processing effects that change your voice have been quite fun to experiment with. The ability to connect two headphones at once has proved useful for comparisons of headphones. This is an excellent all-in-one device based on connectivity alone, so how does it sound?
In the review I will drawing comparisons of the E5's DAC with the HRT Music Streamer HD and comparisons of the amp compared to the FiiO E11 and the Schiit Lyr 2. I'm not really comparing them, but rather using them as references for drawing impressions and conclusions about the E5's sound. I will also be commenting on bluetooth performance as a AMP/DAC combo. Crisp, clean, snappy, and impactful is a good way to describe the devices overall sound.
Desktop DAC(optical/USB): Note with optical there is no use of the Sound Blaster Control Panel. The Optical and USB setting sounds quite similar to each other but optical sounds cleaner and smoother. I found the USB to sound a bit fuller and warmer but also a bit rougher in the treble. Though with the Schiit Wyrd and Audioquest Jitterbug USB may actually sound better. Compared to the more expensive HRT MS HD I find the two devices to sound a bit different as DACs. The E5 has a snappier and somewhat leaner presentation while the MS HD has a more tubey/thick sound and has more solidity to the sound, though the E5 becomes a bit more like the HRT HD sonically via USB. The imaging of the E5's DAC is good and I find it quite 3-dimensional but doesn't quite have the sense of scale and size of the HRT HD. I would say the Music Streamer HD is the better and more refined DAC overall but not necessarily worth near double the price. Connected to my iPad Air 2 through USB it doesn't seem to have the same amount of fullness and dynamics compared to my desktop computer likely due to USB power differences.
Amp: The amp has a lot of power for a portable amp, reminds me of the FiiO E12 in terms of power but doesn't have that slight abrasiveness the E12(and E11) has in the upper midrange. The amp on the E5 sounds notably better than that on the FiiO E11. The E11 sounds mushy, soft, lacking dynamics, and lacking accurate imaging in comparison to the Creative E5. I find the amp to sound quite linear and neutral, it has good imaging and a good amount of heft and impact, especially for a portable amp. The amp compared to my desktop amp the Lyr 2 the E5 shows a bit of a lack of soundscape and image size as well as fullness and solidity to the sound.
Bluetooth: I mainly used the bluetooth function with my iPad Air 2. The bluetooth sounds better than I thought it would. It takes on a slightly warmer, softer, and less defined sound than when connected via USB or optical. I got a whole lot more use out of the bluetooth than expected as it sounded better than I expected. I haven't really compared different bluetooth devices before but I am quite impressed by my experience with the E5.
The E5 is an extremely versatile device and can be used in numerous different applications. For $200 I find it sounds great and should satisfy most people looking for an all-in-one portable audiophile package. For gaming audiophiles, college students, audiophiles on the go, and audiophiles on a budget I would recommend this device without hesitation. I found while this device doesn't sound quite as good as my desktop setup it's convenience, good sound, and versatility took a lot of time from my main desktop setup. I used it heavily on my iPad Air 2 and my Lenovo Y50 gaming laptop on the go, being a college student I actually found this device much more useful than I even expected it to be. For the price I think people will be hard pressed to find something better sound quality wise let alone with even near the same amount of features.
Pros - All the inputs!!! Solid sound, clever design, app for any PC/Mobile system. Mic works with PS4!
Cons - Dolby or DTS decoding missing for full console gaming experience.
One device to hook up your headphones to... Basically anything.
In the 1980's, there was a Man. So manly was this Man, he could fix or fashion any tool from materials on hand, his name became a verb for finding unusual uses for paper clips, chewing gum, and battery acid, and earned a capital M in Man from me for being so clever and self-reliant. A combination of handyman and Sherlock. Most of you already know, I'm thinking about MacGyver. Now, Creative Labs have cooked up a pretty clever little portable product in the Sound Blaster E5 that is festooned with so many input and output options, and accomplished it in such a capable manner, that I can MacGyver myself into virtually any audio setup to complete the chain between audio and headphones, and I can feel just a little bit as cool as he.
Full disclosure, I knew about the E5 and wanted one, so I jumped at the opportunity when Creative posted on Head-Fi that they were looking for reviewers for this and a few of their other new items. I figured, I've tried so many other surround-processor devices and most of Creative's products of this type, I should apply and let you guys know how the E5 stacks up. Neither Creative or MacGyver have paid me for this review.
Before MacGyver could deactivate the laser beam grid blocking his progress, he had to understand the constituent parts and nature of the gear he had on him or around him, so let's start with what you get with the E5 and it's various features and connections.
In the box, you get the E5 itself, which is a DSP, DAC (Cirrus Logic CS4398), dual headphone amp (Texas Instruments TI6120A2), and mic (with ADC), but also you get a bold red micro USB cable (the new ones like on android smartphones and Playstation 4 controllers), a 1m optical cable (yeah I used metric, and it's a Toslink to Mini-Toslink connector cable), a stout 45° angle stand and screw mount, some attachment rubber bands, a map of various setup/cable wiring options and instructions, two warranty papers, and something in Singaporean which I also assume is a warranty/thank you card.
The power aspects of the E5 are kinda balanced between a portable and desktop amp. Battery on the E5 lasts up to about 8 hours, basically I can use it for two or three days if away from power. That's not as great efficiency as an amp specifically made for sensitive portables, but it does have enough power for my AKG K612 to sound linear and full... Which, by the way, requires a higher volume setting than the 600 ohm DT880 for the same apparent loudness. Output impedance on the headphone jacks is between 2.2 and 2.4 ohms, pretty ideal for most headphones except the most sensitive IEMs. Speaking of IEMs, my Custom Art CIEMs and entry-level RHA IEMs pick up a little background hiss that is easy to ignore once the audio starts, with no hiss for my 32 ohm Oppo PM-3 or V-MODA M-100.
The ports really help to define what you can do with this magic black box. Looking at the pictures, I'd just like to clarify what some of the ports are/do. There's two headphone jacks by the protected volume dial, the side to the right of that has the power button which also can be held to activate Bluetooth pairing, then the SBX activation button which can answer Bluetooth calls, a gain switch. Design wise, the two buttons and switch are contained in a trapezoid-shaped flat panel, which fits neatly with the shape of one side of the desk stand. Then there's three LEDs indicating battery level. The next face around the right is the wide picture above. The two ports on the left are combination 3.5mm and mini-Toslink ports, though the input is a TRRS 3.5mm port and the output is a TRS 3.5mm. Then, the USB host port is for connecting to a smartphone or tablet source... I can plug in my iPhone 5S with just the charging cable that came with it and get digital sound output. No CCK required! It doesn't charge my iPhone, but it charges Androids for a bit... Greatly sacrificing the E5's battery life. The furthest right micro-USB port is for charging the E5 and PC/Mac connection. The E5 is pretty fat for a portable, but I was surprised how well it fit into my cargo shorts pocket and strapped to my iPhone without being as tall as my FiiO E12. I'd call it a "full-sized portable."
I played some high-rez FLACs of music using VLC (and some fun stuff from iTunes), with SBX and any EQ off the sound is pretty good: it's overall pretty clean, though maybe a slight upper mids emphasis which makes vocals and guitars sound a tad more romantic. This is all so slight and close to flat, that you have to be really used to your headphone on another amp to hear the difference; without A/B testing this will sound like a nice flat amp. Plugging in my headphones to the E5 wired to my iPhone 5S was an immediate improvement compared to iPhone alone; every note more crisp, nuances revealed so the playing stage is more transparent (and thus relative depth of a great recording is easier to sense). My next description will be familiar to most people who have owned a nice amp: audio is a bit more engaging, like as if you can feel the artist's emotion or the music is "full of life" rather than dull or a soda-gone-flat. Compared to Creative's older Sound Blaster Z or Recon3D USB, I prefer this E5, and I prefer it over gaming DSPs such as the Turtle Beach DSS (crisper and more powerful) and Astro Mixamp (crisper, smoother, more powerful, and less hissy).
What Makes It Cool?
How have I MacGyvered the E5 to my uses? Weeeeell, of course I played Battlefield 3 and Starcraft II on PC, and SBX was particularly awesome with Borderlands 2 with the OpenAL "Hack" to enable true 3D surround. I can use the PC/Mac software suite or the mobile app to tweak SBX and EQ. My Fiancé and I were watching a TV show off my AppleTV which had really bad volume jumps between music and dialogue, and SBX's smart volume feature saved me from having to change the volume all the time (and save my sanity). I took the E5 with me to RMAF, where it became PARTICULARLY cool and useful beyond just a portable DAC/Amp. I could A/B headphones of nearly the same sensitivity rapidly using the two headphone jacks... I couldn't plug in the HiFiman HE-1000 at the same time as the HiFiman Edition X, but high gain did quite good with the HE-1000 (that headphone has marble-like solid bass!), and then a quick flick of the gains switch to low and I could listen to the Ed X with the same song file, DAC, and Amp. Doing that made it really easy to set a baseline for comparing ALL the variety of headphones at RMAF (except the Stax... Heh). And if I wanted to test out an amp, I could use the E5's line-out, if I wanted to use a DAC I could just use the E5 as a transport to bridge the songs on my phone to the optical input of a DAC!
Hifiman Edition X, Sound Blaster E5, and my iPhone, playing a Mirror's Edge video with surround processing baked in.
And I look COOOOOL!
The E5 is pretty complete, in the sense that it can be a part of pretty much any audio setup. The only glaring omission is that it can only connect to game consoles with stereo audio. To do that, the E5 would have to be able to decode at least Dolby, but ideally would be able to decode Dolby Atmos or DTS X for surround with height channels. This is no problem with PC games because the surround isn't encoded over USB and some games even support full 3D surround with above and below cues. C'mon, surround gaming is where Creative shines (in my opinion), and yet the E5 can only play stereo with the largest user base of gamers (console)! Let's make this happen, but keep the ability to take the processed audio and pass it along digitally to another DAC like the E5 currently can on PC. Ironically, the E5 has the best microphone integration and easiest setup I've ever had on PS4... Just unplug the USB charge cable from my controller, plug that into the E5, and Voilá! You get (stereo) sound, dual microphones with noise canceling (I had to turn up the gain, but this was Creative's best sounding mic I've heard yet), and your volume dial right there. With nearly full gain, I could talk with a keyboard behind the E5 and CrystalVoice to focus the direction of mic pickup (part of the SBX features) and the mic silenced the key clicks. If you like stereo gaming, it's a killer setup.
When Creative made the E5, they concentrated first on sound quality, then portable design with lots of connection options, and lastly tacked-on the existing SBX suite. The result is more audiophile than gamerphile. It has great sound, a thoughtful design that is very useful to the adroit, and full-featured for PC/Mac and mobile devices, but I really miss the accurate SBX surround while console gaming. If I really was MacGyver, I would kludge together Dolby or DTS decoding into the E5 to perfect it, but as-is I use the E5 everyday in all sorts of ways.
Pros - Multi-featured DAC/Amp with power; Bluetooth; direct iDevice Lightning connection (no CCK required); no noticeable EMI issues; dual headphone out jack
Cons - A bit bulky; no indication on volume pot of actual volume; Creative Central app has some issues
Back in July, Lucas (@LucasCL) of Creative put out a call on Head-Fi for reviewers for three Sound Blaster products: the Roar 2 portable wireless speaker, the Aurvana In-Ear3 Plus IEM, and the Sound Blaster E5 portable headphone amplifier. I was lucky to be selected to review the E5 amplifier.
Disclaimer: Creative sent me the E5 at no charge in exchange for an unbiased review and permission to use my feedback on their media channels, if Creative desires. I do not need to return the review unit, but was encouraged to allow other Head-Fi’ers to try it on completion of my review. This I intend to do.
The E5 is more than just a portable headphone amplifier. Much more. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife… nay, the McGyver… of portable headphone amplifiers. It is an amplifier. It is a 24-bit/192kHz high resolution USB DAC. It connects to music and smart devices by Bluetooth. It connects to iDevices directly, without need for the Camera Connection Kit. WITHOUT THE CCK! It connects to game consoles. It has its own App. It has dual headphone out jacks, for when you and your honey (or non-honey) want to listen together. It is rated to drive 600-ohm headphones. It has software (CrystalVoice) to enhance voice quality when used for phone calls or Skype sessions. In addition to the typical line-in of a portable amp, it has line out, and optical in and out for connecting to a variety of analogue and digital audio devices. All it needs is to slice, dice and make Julienne fries, and you could survive on a desert island with it.
Some Reviewer Context
I’m 50 verging on 51, and I have deficiencies in my hearing (in a recent, entirely non-scientific test I discovered I can’t really hear anything over about 15 kHz, with roll-of starting around 12 or 13 kHz, which I guess is pretty good for someone of my vintage but not perfect). My hearing sensitivity is pretty low, and so I listen at higher volume than the average bear. I listen to a variety of genres, in particular, Classical (mostly chamber), Jazz (‘50s to 70’s), ‘70s Rock, ‘80s New Wave/Electro, and Trip Hop/Acid Jazz (90’s into 00’s). I like good sub-bass presence, tight mid bass, relatively linear, detailed mids and highs, lush and rich with a good level of detail. I’m not a bass-head, and am not a fan of anything boomy. I’ve been a music lover for decades, but am relatively new to Head-Fi (bought my first over-ear headphones in November 2014). I am not an expert in electronics or musical terminology. I spend a lot of time on Head-Fi, know what has been useful to me in reviews, and try to give useful insights to help others make decisions about items they are thinking about trying or buying.
Build, Ergonomics and Accessories
Unboxing: The Sound Blaster E5 comes packaged with: Micro USB cable, desk stand, 2x rubber bands, and mini TOSLINK cable. There’s no Lightning to USB cable, but most people with iDevices will probably already have multiple cables; still, a short cable for on the go would be nice.
The E5 has about the same footprint as the Fiio X5ii, Hidizs AP100 and Cayin N5 DAPs, which makes it a suitable size for stacking. That said, it is quite thick, so any stack you end up with is definitely more “baggable” than “pocketable.” The E5 is extraordinarily light though (plastic casing), so weight will not be an issue, whether stacking or using on its own.
The top of the unit is uncluttered, with matte finish and brushed metal strip down the middle.
The front of the unit is also quite minimalist, with a recessed volume pot and two headphone out jacks. The Volume pot is smooth and stiff enough that inadvertent volume changes when pocketed or in a bag are unlikely, but smooth enough that it’s easy to turn and adjust volume when desired. When connected to PC or smart device, volume can be controlled from the E5 or from your device (whether connected remotely by Bluetooth or physically by cable) and pressing the volume pot pauses and starts music play.
The E5 is unusual in that there is no “0-point” or “max-volume” on the pot – it can be turned infinitely in either direction – but this makes sense when considering the ability to control an iPhone from the E5 and vice-versa.
The right side of the unit has all the remaining on-board controls, which are, from left to right: 1) Combination power/Bluetooth activation button, 2) SBX (bass enhancement) button, 3) Gain switch, and 4) 3-LED battery indicator.
One long press of the power button turns the unit on. A second long press turns on Bluetooth. Once Bluetooth is turned on, the unit is searchable from your device; just select the Sound Blaster, and you’re ready to go.
Bass enhancement is turned on with a long press of the SBX button. SBX can be adjusted almost infinitely using the Sound Blaster “Central” app. I’m not a big EQ or bass boost guy, so I didn’t really use this feature.
The gain switch is a simple Low-High selector. Low gain is suggested for IEMs and headphones rated at 32-150 ohms, and high gain for 150-600 ohms.
The back end of the unit has all the non-headphone jacks and plugs. From left to right one finds: 1) 3.5mm Line/Mic/Optical In jack, 2) 3.5mm Line/Optical Out jack, 3) USB Host (for charging and connecting portable smart devices) and 4) Micro USB (for connecting Mac/PC and other devices).
The left side (which becomes the base of the unit when using the supplied stand) has no controls, buttons, jacks or plugs.
One nice design feature is that the bottom of the unit is rubberized, making it convenient to stand on a desk, or stack your DAP directly without requiring rubberized or cloth feet or pads to protect either unit from scratches.
Features, Usage and Sound
On learning I’d be getting an E5 to try out, I had a few questions I wanted answered, and these formed the main basis for my listening and observations:
How will the E5 work with my iPhone? How easily will it connect? How much will it improve sound quality? Will there be issues with EMI?
How much will it improve the sound of my MacBook?
How well will it function as an external headphone amp with a DAP?
How capably will it drive power-hungry headphones and IEMs?
While I was impressed with the advertised versatility of the E5, there are a number of features I really won’t ever use. I’m not a gamer, don’t use headphones or amps when talking on the phone, rarely make use of EQ or bass boost, and don’t feel the need in the real world to chain together multiple-unit DAC/Amp combinations. Features I wouldn’t use I’ve thus left for other reviewers to assess in their coverage of the E5.
So, how about the answers to my questions coming in?
How will the E5 work with my iPhone? How easily will it connect? How much will it improve sound quality? Will there be issues with EMI?
I usually only use my iPhone for music when I head out for a run, at which point “audiophile” is not my main concern. I would probably use my phone as a music source more often (particularly when travelling) if I had an amp that could take over DAC functions from the phone, and that was easy and elegant connect. Oh, wait… now I do have such a device. It’s the E5!
Bluetooth: Hooking up an iDevice (in my case, iPhone 5S) and E5 is simple and quick. To connect via Bluetooth, turn on the E5 (LED surrounding the Power button turns white) and engage Bluetooth with a long push of the Power button (LED flashes, alternating between white and blue). In the Bluetooth settings on your phone, select Sound Blaster E5. Once the connection is established, the LED around the power button on the E5 turns blue.
Lightning: To connect physically via Lightning-USB cable, just plug the Lightning connector into your iDevice and the USB connector into the “USB Host” jack on the E5, and you’re good to go. I have a short (6-inch) cable for synching my iPhone and MacBook, which works perfectly as an interconnect with the E5, and is so much less cumbersome than using the Apple Camera Connection Kit (CCK) that most other DACs require.
EMI: While using the E5 together with my iPhone, I listened for interference and didn’t notice any. I browsed websites, checked apps, responded to emails and texts, and didn’t hear any crackles, static or other auditory break-ups.
One thing I like about using the E5 with the iPhone is that volume controls lock in between the two devices, so you can control volume from either one, and when controlling volume using the E5, the iPhone displays the change on screen. This feature is great when one of your devices is in a bag and the other in a pocket as you can change volume using whichever device is most easy to reach. I also like that the E5 volume pot can be used as a remote pause button.
For those wanting to use the bass (or sound) enhancing SBX features on the E5, there is an app (Creative Central) that allows you to manipulate various facets of sound output (almost like a combination bass boost and EQ). I didn’t really use this feature much (as mentioned), but the few times I did I found I lost the ability to control volume from my phone. This I’m guessing is a deficiency in the Central app, which I imagine will be remedied in future updates.
I know from previous experience with portable and desktop DACs that sound improves when bypassing the iPhone DAC, and the E5 is no exception. On its own, the iPhone 5S is dry with a lack of bass and body, a thunky, wooden feel, and some smearing of details. Soundstage is a bit closed in and boxy. With the E5 connected by Bluetooth, overall presentation is fuller, with better sub-bass, improved texture and definition, and enhanced snap to transients. Soundstage is more open and spacious. Substituting Lightning for Bluetooth, definition and detail improve further and music is more cohesive. So, definite advantages to be had using the E5 with a phone or tablet.
Spoiler: Listening note
St. Germain – Land Of… (from Tourist, 2000)
iPhone + Audio Technica ATH-MSR7: Volume at around 70-80% for adequate loudness. Overall sound a bit wooden and thunky. Bass recessed, transients lack edge, bass guitar notes appear and disappear without pluck. Sub-bass completely lacking. Mids also veiled, don’t really feel or hear the horns and organ. Piano sounds damped, no sparkle or plink. Highs forward, but lack body. High hat and snare dry and over-emphasized. Soundstage a bit closed in, boxy.
iPhone + E5 (Bluetooth, low gain) + Audio Technica ATH-MSR7: Volume at 40%. Fuller presentation. Bass guitar now has attack. Sub-bass appears, detailed and visceral, feel it in the stomach. Organ, sax, backing horns vibrant, textured. Reediness of sax satisfying. Piano brighter, dampers removed. High hat and snares less prominent, better body, less harsh. Some smearing and blending of sounds across frequency spectrum.
iPhone + E5 (Lightning, low gain) + Audio Technica ATH-MSR7: Volume at 60%. Quality of instruments and general balance similar to Bluetooth, but sound is less smeared, definition better, each instrument distinct, but good ambience and cohesion.
How much will the E5 improve the sound of my MacBook?
I don’t listen to my MacBook through headphones very much, and when I do it’s more often than not via a desktop set-up. When I’m on the road (which I am a fair bit for my job), I will occasionally use my MacBook as an audio source on inter-city buses, in coffee shops, and in my hotel room.
Connecting the E5 with MacBook is similar to the iPhone, using Bluetooth or USB-Micro USB cable. Volume can be controlled from either device, and there is a Creative app (or control panel) available for download from the Creative website. I did not use this app (I may download it in future) as connection and playback functionality were adequate for me with just iTunes.
As with the iPhone, the benefits of an external DAC were clearly illustrated with the E5. Without the E5, sound quality from the MacBook is good, but bass is rolled off and overall presentation is dry. Adding the E5 fills out sub- and mid-bass considerably, adds ambience and body to mids and highs, and gives more integrated musicality.
Spoiler: Listening note
Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris - Love And Happiness (from All The Roadrunning, 2006)
iTunes + MacBook Air + Audio Technica ATH-MSR7: Pleasant but dryish presentation. Mids and highs are very clear. Knopfler and Harris’ vocals both detailed and textured, guitar steely and sparkling. Bass rolled off, not completely absent but lacking impact and body. Absence of sub-bass.
iTunes + MacBook Air + E5 (low gain) + Audio Technica ATH-MSR7: Bass fills out considerably, including sub-bass. More impactful, less recessed. Mids and highs retain clarity and detail, but rounder, with lushness and ambience. Enveloping musicality, more integrated feel to sound palette (as opposed to disembodied notes).
How well will it function as an external headphone amp with a DAP?
Most of the time when running about town, I use IEMs with whichever DAP I’m using, and forego stacking with an external amp. While I may lose a smidgeon in sound quality (not enough to be noticeable), pocketability and convenience are my priorities. When travelling for work, an external amp becomes more desirable. Sat on an inter-city express bus for 3-4 hours, I want to maximize sound quality and am not worried about the bulk of a stack. If I’m away for several days, I’ll take along a pair of over-ear headphones for listening in my hotel room, and again an amp of some sort is handy.
A portable amp I reviewed recently was the Cayin C5DAC, which has some similarities to the E5: DAC and amp combined, compatible with laptops and smartphones, excellent sound quality whether used as DAC or straight amp, and good portable power. The main differences are that the C5DAC lacks Bluetooth, and requires the Apple CCK for connecting to an iPhone. For my travel needs (bus and hotel, and a possible movie viewed on my MacBook), the C5DAC is another good option though, so a comparison of sound quality here is not out of place.
In comparison to the E5, the C5DAC has punch and dynamics down low and oodles of detail in mids and highs. Soundstage is club like, with a welcoming, cozy room feel. E5 also sounds good, though the impression is more of a studio setting, with sound absorbed rather than reflected back to the listener. Overall sound is drier, less gut-busting in the bass, smoother in the mids and highs, and less prone to sibilance (though bass can be EQ’ed using the SBX features). I like both amps, and would go with the E5 for a long, fatigue-free listening session (bus trip?) and C5DAC for a single-album, detail focused sit-down (brief hotel-room respite?)
Spoiler: Listening note
Simply Red – Sad Old Red (from Picture Book, 1985)
Fiio X5ii (line out) + C5DAC (high gain) + K7XX: Nice, full, gutsy bass… feel sub-bass in pit of stomach. Crisp high hat. Hucknall’s vocal throaty and textured with soulful airy quality… just a hiiiint of harshness to his top notes when he belts it. Realistic, impactful thump to kick drum, crash to cymbal. Piano clear, bright. Great balance across instruments and vocal, with nice attack and realistic decay. For the most part, nothing dominates, nothing feels emphasized or veiled. Good definition of instruments, each distinct, can place instruments and vocals position-wise, feel of a small club performance with both depth and atmosphere. Lifelike presentation, really enjoyable. A lot going on, lots to keep ears and mind occupied… vivid… “Oh look, a shiny sound!” Warmth of C5DAC matches well with dry, clean SQ of K7XX… Like this combo!
Fiio X5ii (line out) + Soundblaster E5 (high gain) + K7XX: Drier presentation. Bass less impactful, lacking gut-thumping sub-bass but still present. Quicker decay at low end. Piano, guitar and high hat less bright, rounder, less forward, but still evident and not veiled. Hucknall’s vocal smoother, bit rolled off in the higher notes (no harshness). Less of the club feel, more like studio… not inside the head, but less atmospherics and space, lack of depth, more intimate. Less going on than with C5DAC, less detail and distraction, less busy, better for longer listening for pure relaxation/enjoyment?
How capably will it drive power-hungry headphones and IEMs?
In the C5DAC comparison, I used the AKG K7XX, which are known to require gobs of power, even though only rated at 62 ohms resistance. The E5 had no trouble driving these to very satisfying levels. Another hard driving headphone (IEM actually) is the Havi B3 Pro 1. Similar to the K7XX, many owners of the Havi complain of underwhelming bass presence; many newer DAPs have the power to drive these fairly well, but I’ve read in several threads and reviews that they scale up well with more powerful amps, and since the E5 is rated to drive cans up to 600 ohms, I thought I’d see how they fared with the B3P1s.
The Havi is known for detailed mids and highs, excellent vocals (male and female), and outstanding soundstage for an IEM, but relatively thin bass. Tip rolling can enhance the bass and really bring out the best in this IEM, and I recently discovered that the KZ eartips (available for next to nothing on AliExpress) do a wonderful job of this, similar to JVC Spiral Dots but with less seal issues. So that’s the set-up I used here.
Driving the B3P1 with the Fiio X5ii yields a very satisfying presentation, with tight sub- and mid-bass, detailed and snappy mids and highs, lovely vocals and accurate imaging; overall feel is a little dry and thin, however. Adding the E5 to the mix adds body and impact across the spectrum, with physicality to sub-bass and warmer, lush mids and highs. The added power from the E5 definitely helps drive the Havi to its full potential (so much so that this recently neglected IEM is now going to return to my in-ear rotation).
Spoiler: Listening note
Massive Attack feat. Nicolette – Sly (from Protection, 1994)
Fiio X5ii (high gain) + Havi B3 Pro 1: Drives the Havi well. Bass is tight, with presence of sub-bass (though not overpowering). Nicolette’s vocal forward and textured, airy and breathy. Toms and snare have snap and shimmer. Detail, definition and imaging excellent. Slightly dry presentation, with ambience lacking.
Fiio X5ii (line out) + E5 (low gain) + Havi B3 Pro 1: More body, both low down and in mids and highs. Lush, better reverb and ambient quality. Instrumental and vocal timbre more robust. Sub-bass more physical, and warms up overall presentation. Detail and imaging levels remain excellent.
As an Apple guy, the E5 does a lot and does it well, and I don’t consider it a “Swiss Army Knife” portable amp for nothing. The ability to connect the E5 seamlessly with Apple devices, particularly iPhone and iPad, and have two-way control is a big advantage over other portable DACs. While I had some niggles with the Creative Central app, these were minor as I found functionality excellent without it.
If you’re not in the Apple ecosystem, some of these connection advantages disappear as other DACs can also be connected directly by USB, but the E5 is still a very capable and versatile addition to your set-up. It drives both IEMs and power-hungry cans very well, has good sound quality, connects via Bluetooth, can be daisy-chained via coax in/out with other digital devices, and has dual headphone out jacks for shared listening. It would be nice if the E5 were a bit more compact, and the lack of volume indication on the pot is unusual, but these are minor foibles on an otherwise well thought out piece of kit.
Thanks to Creative and @LucasCL for the opportunity to try out the E5.