Creative Sound Blaster E3 Headphone Amplifier

General Information

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1000+ Head-Fier
Pros: Price, performance, features
Cons: No ANC? (would have made the E3 perfect)
    When it comes to the world of PC audio, Creative Labs is a brand well known. For nearly 35 years Creative has been an industry leader in digital multimedia technology and innovation. With a user base of over 400 million, one would be hard pressed to find a PC with upgraded audio that did not bare the name Creative.  
    In 1989 Creative Labs released the popular and hugely successful SoundBlaster PC digital audio card. In the following years Creative expanded the Sound Blaster line to include multi-media speakers and headphones, and eventually WiFi and Bluetooth audio streaming devices. Over the past few years top end manufacturers of computer motherboards such as MSI and Gigabyte have even replaced their standard onboard Realtek audio solution with that of Creative SoundBlaster. It would seem like Creative had covered the bases in regards to upgraded audio solutions, except one; The on-the-go mobile headphone amplifier and DAC. Enter the E-Series of SoundBlaster! 
    In 2014 Creative announced three new portable SoundBlaster devices; The E1, E3, and E5. The entry level E1 is a stand alone headphone amp, the mid tiered E3 is a combination headphone amp and 24-bit/96KHz DAC with Bluetooth, and the flagship model E5 expands upon the E3 with full 192KHz playback, higher SNR, better Bluetooth, and the ability to make use of the SBX Pro studio for iOS and Android. This review will be focusing on the middle model E3.
  1. SBX Pro Studio: PC / MAC
  2. Max playback quality USB 2.0 (PC / Mac): up to 24-bit / 96KHz
  3. Streaming Audio via USB (mobile): up to 24-bit / 48KHz
  4. Max recording quality: 24-bit / 48KHz
  5. Bluetooth Battery life: up to 8 hours
  6. Analog Audio playback: up to 17 hours
Main features
  1. DAC: PCM5122 from Texas Instruments (S/N ratio: 112dB)
  2. Audio quality: up to 24-bit / 96KHz
  3. Headphone Amp: 600 ohms MAX97220 from Maxim Integrated (S/N ratio: 112dB)
  4. Codec audio: AAC, SBC, aptX
  5. Bluetooth 2.1 EDR (Enhanced Data Rate)
  6. Bluetooth profiles: A2DP (Wireless stereo Bluetooth), AVRCP (Bluetooth remote control), HFP (hands-free profile)
  7. Operating Range: Up to 10 m
  8. Near Field Communication (NFC)
  9. Connector: microUSB (PIC32MX)
  10. Headphone Output: 1x 3.5mm jack
  11. Headphone Output / Microphone Input: 1 x 3.5mm jack
  12. Line Input: 1 x 3.5mm jack (4-pin)
  13. Built-in microphone
*Not listed is the Total Harmonic Distortion (THD). Given the specifications of the components used, I would safely guesstimate THD to be at around 0.005%.
Software compatibility
  1. Supported operating systems: Mac OS X v10.6.8 or later, Windows Vista or later
  2. Compatible connections: USB 1.1, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, Bluetooth
Size and Weight
  1. Dimensions: 60.5 x 45 x 23 mm
  2. Weight: 44 grams
    •    3.5mm AUX cable
    •    Micro USB - USB cable
    •    MicroUSB OTG (On-The-Go) connector
    •    Instruction and warranty booklet
    Ergonomically speaking, the E3 does everything right. Made of a very durable plastic, the body is seamless and screw-less and feels very solid in my hand. Measuring just over 2.5” long and less than 1” thick the E3 is small enough for it to not be cumbersome, yet large enough that the controls don’t feel cramped. The buttons are easy to press yet stiff enough that one can’t accidentally press which may be an issue for users with larger fingers. On the plus side, only one button can operate at a time as well. At 44 grams, the E3 is so light that regardless if you have the device in your hand, or clipped on to your person, it feels virtually weightless.
Packaging and accessories; E3, MicroUSB cable, OTG cable, 3.5mm interconnect​
light.jpg Power Button: Hold 1 sec power, 3 sec Bluetooth, 4 sec off
LED: White = power, Blue = Bluetooth / flashing = Bluetooth find, Red = charge
Top view with mic​
Volume +/-, Previous track/Next Track​
Line-in 3.5mm jack, MicroUSB jack​
Headphone/Mic-in Jack, Headphone jack​
    It wouldn’t be a SoundBlaster without the inclusion of a (downloadable) software suite. The E3 includes SBX Pro Studio for both Windows and OS X! This is literally the first time a full system-sound software suite has been available for OS X that mirrors it’s Windows counterpart; A super big awesome fantastic kudos to Creative for making the E3’s capabilities and functionality, both hardware and software, identical on both platforms.
SBX Pro Studio main tab​
Crystal Voice tab​
Scout Mode tab​
Speakers/Headphones tab​
Mixer tab​
Equalizer tab​
Advanced tab​
Profile tab​
    The E3 has all the bases covered when it comes to how you want to connect the device. Line in, microUSB, USB OTG, Dual headphone out, and Bluetooth. Here is the breakdown: 
3.5mm line-in - For devices with only a 3.5mm headphone or line out jack. The E3 acts as an amplifier. For optimum results, the sound of the source device should be set to 80-90% to avoid potential clipping. Alternatively, if the player supports the feature, decreasing the pre-amp by -3dB will suffice.
USB OTG - For use with (most) Android and iOS devices (iOS 7 or better). The E3 acts as both an amplifier and DAC, delivering full uncompressed 112dB SNR audio at 24-bit/48KHz. Volume (exclusive) and controls are handled through the E3. Because this method bypasses the source device’s amp/DAC, there is no need to adjust the output volume (or gain). In fact, changing the volume on the source does nothing.
Micro USB - For use with a PC via USB. The E3 acts as both an amplifier and DAC supporting up to 96KHz at 24-bit. The volume is controlled by the system or application. As well, the E3’s built in microphone can be used by the system capable of delivering 24-bit/48KHz quality.
Bluetooth - For use with any Bluetooth 2.1 EDR capable device such as a laptop, game console, or smart device. Pairing is very simple and can be handled one of two ways; Discovery or Near Field Communication (NFC). For Discovery mode, go into the device’s Bluetooth options and click on SoundBlaster E3. Once the device is paired it will be forever remembered which makes it easy to simply turn on the E3 and press play for instant music. For devices with NFC it could not be made more simple; Place the device next to the E3 and presto, you are good to go! When using the E3 via Bluetooth, the sound is truncated to 16-bit/44KHz CD quality.
Dual Headphones - Perhaps one of the most underrated features, and incredibly handy. Want to share your music with a friend, no problem! Sync the E3 via Bluetooth and have the kids share a Tablet with headphones. How about easily being able to A/B two pairs of headphones!? Unlike other devices with dual headphone outputs, there is no reduced quality or power when two headphones are plugged in.
Bluetooth Receiver - This feature is not specifically listed, but I thought I would include it because it is so very useful. Hook the E3 up to a Home Theatre receiver, car stereo AUX in, or self-powered speakers and you instantly have a Bluetooth streaming system controlled through your smart device or PC!
First Impressions - When I initially connected my 6th Gen iPod Touch via the OTG cable paired with my Sennheiser HD598, I was blown away with the enhanced sound quality. No iDevice can properly power anything higher than 32Ohms, but paired with the E3 the 50Ohm HD598 came alive! Bass was tight, mids were smooth, and treble was detailed. Whether it was pounding electronica or a classic Telarc recording, nothing was lacking. Compared to my iPod, or onboard Realtek 898 (110dB SNR, 600Ohm), the E3 has not only loads of power, but a significant gain in sound quality. Having owned virtually every top-mid tiered sound card by Creative and ASUS, I must say the USB E3 easily is on par with it’s PCI counterpart. While the E3 can’t touch my Teac UD-H01 in terms of overall resolve, it certainly powered my beyerdynamic T 70 250Ohm quite a bit better.
Bass - Tight, fast, powerful, robust, the bass is almost a show stealer. For such a small IC driven cap-less device the bass, both quality and quantity, simply put is impressive. The bass is not boosted, however the sound is so clean and bloat free that one can easily make the mistake. Extension is perfectly flat with no premature roll-off, although I do suspect there is a low-pass filter at around 20Hz. 
Midrange - Smooth and full bodied like a perfectly brewed java. Male and female vocals have great body and extension, never sounding peaky or distant. Instruments have wonderful timbre, sounding energetic and life-like. Overall, the midrange is perfectly flat, being neither forward nor recessed.
Treble - Sweet with fantastic extension yet never fatiguing! The micro-details are easily discernible, yet there is absolutely zero accentuation of the sibilance. Vocals are given subtle breath, brass has vigorous bite, bells ring with sparkle and shine while cymbals crash and splash in an explosion of crisp sound. While I do detect a slight high-shelf boost at around 11KHz, it is small (maybe +0.5dB) and does not add any harshness.
Sound Stage -  Decent and slightly above average. Instrument separation is great with nothing sounding congested; Individual notes and vocals came across with great clarity and detail. 3D space is pretty even; left/right (X), top/bottom (Y), and front/behind (Z) are all equal distance from the centre focal point. Overall, the soundstage is more focused rather than expansive. It’s as if the E3’s sound favours more of a (slight) cross-feed effect rather a surround effect. 
One thing to note: When using the E3 in Bluetooth mode vs USB or line-in, the soundstage does diminish slightly making the music sound a touch warm. Depending on your headphones, you may not even notice. 
Transients - One word; Impressive! The MAX97220 amplifier does not use capacitor filters, yet the chip is able to handle the most dynamic of passages with ease, free of any distortion. Whether a percussion heavy track, an action scene from a Hollywood Blockbuster, or an intense match in Call of Duty, the sound is fast, powerful, and dynamic, never struggling or sounding dull!
Transparency - As clear and clean as a freshly washed pane of glass. Vocals and instruments alike are rendered with great precision and well textured with no hint of grain. 112dB SNR is quite accurate and apparent as the E3’s transparency is on part with higher end DAC/amps I have heard.
EMI/RFI/Jitter - None, zip, zilch, zero, just a perfect black background. While the E3 is only a USB 1.1 device with no async, the PIC32MX USB controller is 32-bit RISC based and can handle anything that is thrown at it. When connected to a PC’s USB port, any port, I detected no internal interference; No hum, no clicks or pops, no jitter or stuttering, just a silent black background. As someone who has owned many USB audio dongles/sticks that are bus powered, I can say from experience that virtually all of them (despite some that feature USB EMI shielding) had some sort of issue; Not so with the E3!
Bluetooth - Performance is perfect! I had no trouble walking around my house and regardless of how many walls or levels separated the E3 from my iPod, the connection was constant and the sound quality was crystal clear. No matter how close I got to the power outlets, the microwave, the WiFi router, or cordless phone I detected absolutely no interference or hick-ups.
Power Output - The E3 is rated to a max 600 Ohm, far beyond the 250 Ohm I can test up to. I can tell you that the E3 had no problems in regards to volume for my beyerdynamic T 70 250 Ohm, enabling the headphones to reach deafening levels. The lowest impedance headphones in my inventory are the Sennheiser Momentums at 16 Ohms. Needless to say the E3 had more than enough power with a perfect black background. The stock Apple EarPods definitely sounded great when paired with the E3, again with a perfect black background and no audible hiss.
Microphone -  Very good sound quality regardless of USB or Bluetooth. Calls made via WiFi came across very clear and natural. I will note though, the mic is very sensitive so if you are using it in a noisy environment, it may pick up distant sounds.
Battery Life - Very close to what is listed. Approximately 7-8 hours Bluetooth, 15-17 hours amp.
Closing Comments
    The term ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ perfectly describes the functionality of the SoundBlaster E3. For a first attempt into the fast growing portable headphone DAC/amp market, Creative managed to out-do the competition with a powerful, great sounding, feature rich on-the-go device at a price of $130. Performance wise based on sound alone, the E3 hold it’s own in the sub $200 category. With the inclusion of Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, dual headphone output, built in microphone, Windows/OS X compatibility, OTG USB connectivity, small size and light weight, and an impressive 112dB SNR, the SoundBlaster E3 is a large cut above the competition. While there are portable DAC/amps that offer greater resolve and performance (i.e. SoundBlaster E5,Teac HA-P50), it is not by much and nowhere near the price point of the E3. My only complaint is that Creative forgot to add an active noise cancellation (ANC), which would have made the E3 perfect!
    Overall I am quite happy with my purchase of the SoundBlaster E3. Those who know me here at Head-fi know that I am the type who always voices my open and honest opinion, yet out of all the gear I own I only have done two other reviews. The reason for this is simple; Two criteria need to be met. The first being the product has to be an absolute incredible value for the performance. The second is that the product needs far greater attention. The SoundBlaster E3 fits both criteria to the letter. Simply put, you will not find such a high quality sounding and performing device as feature rich and low price as you will with the E3. If the current E-series is an indication of the direction Creative is heading in the future, their next offerings will be a sight (sound?) to behold!
One important detail that nobody bothered to mention (or I missed some obvious driver installation step):

The E3 DOES NOT SUPPORT 44.1/16 on Windows 10.

The smallest sample rate it does is 48.
@kumaiti Yes, good point. It is the same on OS X and iOS.
Hi Bansaku, thanks for the great review. I have a question about the Bluetooth you mention, being able to use is with a bluetooth receiver / vehicle. Do you mean that the E3 can pair with both the received and my phone simultaneously, meaning the phone can stream to the E3 and the E3 then passes it on to the amp / receiver. This would be most useful. Thanks for the help, Jim. 


IEM Reviewer Extraordinaire
Pros: Features Packed, reasonably Priced
Cons: Hiss as pure amp, Too high a gain for PC use..
Over the recent months, Creative has been bursting out some pretty nice portable gears aiming from the basic casual user all the way up to serious audiophiles. Most importantly, they are pricing them in a way that almost makes all other major brands look greedy. Usually that’s the strategy reserved for new start-ups or lesser known companies, but I have no complaint. If anyway, I am glad to see Creative getting, well, creative again. Two of the major factors for any tech companies to success are innovation and addition of extra value to the user – that’s what Creative is doing now, finally coming out of the shadow of other big tech brands and remaking a name of their own in era of the smart devices.

Analog Output: Stereo
SNR: 112dB
Headphone Out: 1 x 3.5mm jack
Headphone Out / Mic In: 1 x 3.5mm jack
Line In: 1 x 3.5mm jack (4-pole)
Headphone Impedance: Up to 600 Ohms
Audio Technologies Supported: SBX Pro Studio, CrystalVoice, Scout Mode
Max. Playback Quality
USB 2.0 (PC/Mac): Stereo - up to 24-bit / 96kHz
            USB (mobile): Stereo - up to 24-bit / 48kHz
Max. Recording Quality: 24-bit / 48kHz
Battery Life
Bluetooth - Up to 8 hours
Analog Audio Playback - Up to 17 hours
Bluetooth Audio Codec: AAC, SBC and aptX
Bluetooth 2.1 EDR with Multipoint, A2DP and AVRCP, HFP support
NFC supported
Built-in Mono Microphone
Dimensions: 60.5 x 45 x 23 mm (2.38 x 1.77 x 0.90 inches)
Weight: 44 grams


Accessories and Build Quality
Like E1 I have reviewed, E3 is also packed in a pretty decent looking box. Accessories are similar as well – you will still get a USB cable for charging / connection to PC and a fairly long TRRS 3.5mm stereo cable to connect to your smartphone’s headphone jack. The one extra accessory is a (male)microUSB-to-(female)USB OTG cable that will be required if you want to use E5 as an USB DAC with your smartphone (*plus another male-to-male USB OTG cable of your own supply that connects the smartphone to the E5’s OTG cable).
Though the construction is all plastic, E3 doesn’t feel cheaply made. For the purpose of being a clip-on portable devices, it is probably more sensible to use plastic anyway. The design is similar to E1, but with more bottom to support for digital volume and next/previous control. The extra features also make E3 a thicker device, and the non-removable back clip isn’t helping. Besides having just about every features found on E1 (i.e, built-in mic, dual headphone-out, line-in, software package for PC gamer, etc), E3 also spots USB OTG function that allows it to be used as USB DAC with some Apple and Android smart devices. Another welcoming features is Bluetooth with aptX support. All of these are making E3 one of the most versatile accessories for smartphone user that doesn’t cost an arm or a leg.


Gain, Hiss, EMI and Battery Life
As an USB DAC+amp, E3 can pump out a max voltage of roughly 2.1Vrms, which is pretty high. As a pure amp, it has a gain of about 10dB. In fact, the gain might be a bit too high for most fairly sensitive headphone in the market. I’ll have to keep the Windows volume setting down to around and often under 10/100 to make sure I am not going to blast myself into early deafness. With very sensitive IEM, I even find 2/100 can be plenty loud – and this is not only just a simple volume issue. As E3 uses Windows internal digital volume control, it is definitely going to lose some bit depth when pushing the volume so low. The only consolation is that I didn’t hear any obvious degradation of sound quality, likely thanks to its 24bit support. But truth being told, E3’s gain is simply too high to be practical as a PC soundcard, though it might be just right for smartphones’ weak output. This is probably my only real complaint about E3. It would have been great if it has a gain switch for a lower gain setting.
On the other hand, hiss performance is great when it is connected to PC via USB cable or a Bluetooth source as it is pretty much silence even with my most sensitive IEM. But once disconnected from PC and acting as a pure amp, there is some background hiss that is noticeable when no music is playing. EMI is basically a non-issue as E3 is dead silent even next to a cell phone receiving call.
Creative is quoting a battery life of 8 hours with Bluetooth and 17 hours as pure amp. Of course, the actual battery life does vary depend on how you are using it. I never really use E3 as a pure amp but as far as Bluetooth goes, Creative’s number seems to be about right.


Sound Quality
RMAA measurement doesn’t reveal any major problem when E3 is used as either a pure amp or as an USB DAC+amp. The only thing to take note is the bass roll-off under 100Hz. It drops down to -2.3dB when used as a pure amp, or -1dB when used as a USB DAC+amp. The bass roll-off has nothing to do with load so I’ll guess there might be some coupling caps on the input of the amp section for DC protection. There is also very minor increase in treble, but small enough that it can be completely ignored. E3 uses the same headphone driver chip as E1, so the output impedance is very similar, just under 2.5ohm. Output current is similar as well, decent in amount and should be fine except for the more demanding load.

Judging from the measurement data as well as knowing both are using the same chip, I’ll make a guess that the amp section of E3 should be quite similar to that of E1 in topology. So do they sound the same as pure amp? Well, not identically. For the most part, E3 carries the same warmish sound signature as E1. But the difference is that E3 doesn’t have the problem of lacking air and depth. That makes E3 slightly less textured and sweet but more balanced with better perception of layer and detail. When used as USB DAC, the difference only makes clearer where E1 is more musical in presentation where E3 is more neutral. To put it short, E3 is ‘E1 with clarity’ with sound quality that is comparable to many sub-$100 portable amps.
While it is good that E3 is better than E1 overall, the killer feature that you are getting your money worthwhile is really on the aptX supported Bluetooth. Pairing with aptX capable smartphone, it is almost as good as wired, except you will be bypassing your smartphone internal DAC but instead using E3’s DAC, the very decent TI’s PCM5122, and a more powerful amp section. Of course, you can also opt for E3’s USB OTG function as well, and E3 will actually also charge your smartphone at the same time (though I don’t think it have enough juice to really replace a power bank). The sound quality actually isn’t too far off on either Bluetooth with aptX or USB OTG, it is really down to your own preference. Both will cure a weak smartphone’s headphone-out and gives you a mic and remote. Personally, I think this is more useful as a Bluetooth setup. Do however note that E3 only supports 16/44.1 on either connection, not the full 24/96 on PC.

Size comparison (from left): E3, iPod nano 7G, E1

E3 in action, fed by a Sony Xperia Z2 via USB OTG.
In Sum
Built on the unique set of features found in E1, Creative further squeeze in almost every imaginable feature into E3. While you can find a USB DAC or a portable amp in the same price range that is better sounding than E3, you probably won’t find another one like E3 that can do them all, yet do them well enough and doesn’t shatter the bank account. It is a multi-tool of an audio accessory for the smart age, designed for those who demand better sound quality than their smartphone yet doesn’t want to lump around a stack of gears.
A thank to Creative for the review sample.
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In most case, I do think the signal quality gets degraded faster with analog than digital volume.
I like the concept. Some of the specs; not so much. But I had not thought of a USB/DAC with APT/X bluetooth before.

Now add 24/192 and make it smaller.... Or maybe add in Apple's version of proprietary wireless hifi also.
One important detail that nobody bothered to mention (or I missed some obvious driver installation step):

The E3 DOES NOT SUPPORT 44.1/16 on Windows 10.

The smallest sample rate it does on the PC is 48, which makes it very strange that they say it can do 44.1 on Android/iOS.


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