Seated on the top-of-the-line portable headphone amplifier from Creative packs a class leading Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC and chief amplifier Texas Instrument TI6120A2 is what fuels and sits behind the black chassis of the black machine.
The packaging is well thought out and laid with detailed features of the amp and accessories. The packaging looks and feels like a premium product that is set on targeting at audiophile’s vision.
Accessories that comes with it includes a standard USB cable, two amp rubber bands, amp stand as well as an optical cable. The accessories included are pretty standard with a nice inclusion of optical cable. The accessories can be more complete by adding in a 3.5mm to 3.5mm Line Out interconnect which gives users the ease of connecting it via the 3.5mm Line-out on most DAPs. A Toslink to 3.5mm adapter would be useful too.
Design and Built:
The amp is designed in a rather rectangular block with curves and cut edges that makes it look more of a “ferocious” product that is designed to impress. It has a rubber footing at the bottom of the amp which is a very well-thought out design to prevent slipping on table tops or surfaces. Built wise it is quite study although I would have preferred the unit to have a more “titanium” feel when held on hands as it is rather light-weight mixed with plastic and metal chassis. The amp comes with abundant handy features such as dual headphone out, gain switch, Bluetooth, Line/Optical In, Line/Optical Out and an easy volume turning knob.
Source and matching:
For this review, I will be running the E5 with DAPs such as Astell&Kern AK100ii as well as the Ipod Nano 7 pairing with IEMs like the FLC8 (hybrid), Shure 846 and JH Angie. This three mentioned IEMs sports different characteristics which I personally felt that the FLC8 being the easiest to drive and not choosy with source. The JH Angie is rather easy to drive and match too but it does require some power or juice for it to perform and sound its best. The SE846, being a low impedance phone, is rather picky with source and will result in hiss if not properly matched. Background noise and hiss, even with the most sensitive SE846 is not detectable without music playing in the background which definitely is an added advantage.
Without going into the various features of the amp and with SBX off, the E5 sounded balanced and pretty neutral with a tinge of warmth in the lower registers. The amp has a rather strong/powerful output even in the Low Gain settings. Matching the E5 with AK100ii using max volume on line-out and low gain settings on E5, I could detect slight clipping. When matched with a lower volume output, there is no such discernible clipping. Comparing and running head-to-head with Fiio’s budget amp E11K, the E5 easily exposes the weaknesses of E11K. The E5 packs more punch and driving power opposed to E11K with a cleaner and airier presentation of sound. Bass sounds tighter, more natural with better decay. Mids are not as prominent as E11K giving it a more expansive and airier sound with better imaging and wider soundstage. Treble here is a rather tricky situation. On E11K, I found the treble to sound more “subdued” probably due to its prominent presentation of mid range. The E5, though has a further reach and extension in the highs register, do feel slightly “scratchy” or unforgiving sounding in the lower treble region with instruments such as cymbals. If you are not driving it with relatively bright sounding earphones it isn’t much of an issue.
One would be expecting volcanic bass response judging from the specifications built on the amp and with its sheer driving power. But this is not the case. Bass response from the E5 hits with tactile delivering a tight, well-controlled with good decay bass punch. Bass depth wise, the E5 does not explore and dive deep into the sub bass region. It hovers around 20Hz region before rolling off at around 18Hz. The bass response does not creep into or tend to smear the lower mid region which is a task welcomed. Bass transient and speed is great as well and able to keep up with fast bass slams.
The mids strikes a well balance without being overly forward nor recessed. In my opinion, it is the limelight of the E5. Vocals are well positioned without sounding overly intimate nor losing the lushness of both male and female vocals. I would say the E5 goes out to give the vocals an alive feel with a live presentation. The E5 carries with it a touch of warmness in its mid-range to give it a fatigue-free listening session. Instruments placement is more of a horizontal and wide left-to-right positioning rather than a closed in with depth position which does not give it a large 3D sound. Instrument separation and details is superb as opposed to E11K probably down to the CS4398 chip driving force. Coupled with airiness and space, instruments can be detected and picked up easily without sounding forceful or strained.
Having mentioned the highs are in a tricky position, this is where the E5 hits a controversial front. The highs does extend beautifully without being glaringly bright nor treble-happy. However, at the lower treble registers, there seemed to be a slight glow making instruments like the cymbals to come off with a “metallic” sound breaking the natural decay of timbre. Unless you’re treble-sensitive, this shouldn’t pose as a serious issue with the amp. I have not tried bright sounding phones with this amp, hence YMMV.
Another cool feature packed along with easy operation is the SBX. With the SBX turned on, it sounded as though my IEMs were on steroids! The bass hits much harder than ever imagined with an enveloping soundstage with a 3D sound sphere. This SBX function I would say would be strictly for the bass-heads. Unless you’re looking for some excitement or fun in a short while, I would suggest keeping this feature turned off.
This little black machine does pack a punch for its price. With the abundant features and functions, it works more than just a portable amp. If you’re looking for a all-in solution to gaming, desktop gear, the E5 works just neat. If you’re looking for a real portable headphone amp on the go, personally I would prefer an amp with a smaller profile. Sound wise, it is in the ballpark of performance with its tactile bass response and well-positioned, balanced mid range. The E5 does a really good shout-out to its competitors. I would be exploring further with this black machine such as the optical out which may even bring this amp further notch up.