Paul Strickland

Paul Strickland

A Promotion, a Week Off and a New Toy

In July I successfully applied for a promotion to Senior Engineer. As a reward to myself — not only for the promotion but also for recently working very hard and outside of my usual comfort zone — I purchased a portable digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier. I also had a week off work at the beginning of August that included two long train journeys to give the DAC a trial.

Buying a DAC

At the start of the year I was considering a new electronics project, and one of those was to build a headphone amplifier. I had valves in mind for it, as much for aesthetics as anything else, but over time the idea grew quieter. It is still something I’d like to do (both the headphone amplifier and other electronics projects) but for now I was content to buy a complete product.

Choosing the right one

One thing that concerned me about choosing a DAC was whether I would be able to use it as intended with my Nexus 5 phone. At the time of writing, the next release of Android should enable USB audio output, but presently I have to either use a headphone amplifier acting only on the phone’s analogue output, or use a third party app that provides a USB audio driver. USB Audio Player PRO is one such third party app.

Ever since building an Ergodox keyboard I have kept an eye on the new Massdrop group-buys, and often a variety of different DAC/amplifier combinations are offered. For my intended use and within my price range, something from the Fiio range seemed perfect, and in the end I settled for the Fiio E18. At £120, it was at the upper end of what I like to spend on things I don’t really need, but I managed to justify it to myself.

How I use it

I’ve used the Fiio’s DAC in three situations:

  • As an external soundcard at work
  • As an external soundcard at home
  • Plugged into my phone using the USB Audio Player app

At work using Windows 7, the Fiio E18 is detected as a USB soundcard automatically. Choosing to use it rather than another output and switching between them is a complicated affair. The easiest way I found was to select one output or the other as the default device. Surprisingly with Ubuntu at home the process was easier. The Fiio E18 was again detected automatically and I was able to simply select it or another output in Sound Settings. Each output is listed and a single click switches from one to the other.

Using the DAC with my phone at the moment is possible, but a bit awkward. The app must only be started after connecting the Fiio E18 and turning it on, otherwise it won’t work and the app will have to be stopped. The app itself will play music from the phone without any trouble. However, it doesn’t find podcasts I have downloaded, nor can I play music from Google Play. Since most of my music is stored locally and I am also experimenting with converting my music to the higher-quality FLAC format this doesn’t matter. It will be nice when USB audio is supported natively by Android though.

How it sounds

Reading reviews of headphones, speakers and other audio equipment causes me to feel quite confused. To me, it seems as subjective as wine, tea or coffee tasting, and the descriptions written seem just as ambiguous. With that in mind, here is what I find the Fiio E18 offers.

Volume

I listen to music with two pairs of headphones. At work, I have Shure SE215 in-ear monitors, and occasionally at home I will put on a pair of Grado SR80 headphones. My phone can drive the Shures reasonably well, but if I’m in a noisy environment I have to turn the volume up quite high and the level of hiss increases. Driving the Grados is not something that I used to try with the phone.

In both analogue and digital modes, the amplifier of the Fiio E18 provides plenty of power to drive both sets of headphones. On the train with the Shure headphones I was easily able to hear the quietest of my music without any strain on the amplifier. And I can get an amazing sound out of the Grado headphones too.

Clarity and… space?

There is much more clarity in the sound when listening using the Fiio E18 DAC. I could hear a lot more detail in the music, even at low volumes.

I don’t know if this is the right term to use, or just another way to write about clarity. However, I was quite surprised at the extent of the stereo sound when listening to music with the Fiio E18. If sound was vision, it seemed as though I went from looking through a couple of cardboard tubes to viewing an entire panorama. Whilst that might be overdoing it a bit, there was a noticeable change. I could listen to a familiar track and feel more immersed in the sound, picking out details from the extreme left and right that I didn’t notice before.

How it looks and feels

The most important aspect of buying a DAC/headphone amp is that I get a better listening experience, and in that regard the Fiio E18 works very well. But what about the hardware itself?

It’s big

This is a big product for something portable. It’s similar to carrying a second smartphone around, as seen below, alongside my Nexus 5.

Fiio E18 alongside Nexus 5
The Fiio E18 is comparable in size to a large smartphone.

Although it is big, the Fiio’s size isn’t a problem for me. For the majority of the time, it will be sat on a desk where I’m working. And when travelling I invariably have a bag it can live in. Its size also allows it to be stacked underneath my phone; and Fiio E18 in fact supply two sizes of rubber band that can hold the two together. (This does seem to provide only limited benefit, however, as the bands obscure parts of the phone screen.)

It’s quite well built

We are spoilt by the build quality of our electronics these days. I think there is an expectation that everything looks as if it is hewn from a single billet of metal and polished to perfection. Whilst the Fiio E18 doesn’t reach that level (not only are there seams visible but — heaven forbid — actual screws!), it is pretty well put together. The external case has a nice brushed finish, and I do like the minimalistic look.

The single gripe I have about the build quality of this device is that the volume knob, whilst providing a nice level of friction, is ever so slightly off centre on my device, and it “wobbles” as it is rotated. The amount of misalignment is very small, but it slightly spoils what would otherwise be a very nice product.

Button confusion

On the side of the device are Play/Pause, Previous and Next buttons. These don’t work with Android so far, but when plugged into my desktop PC and work laptop they function well. However, for some reason the Previous and Next buttons are the wrong way round. Once aware of this it isn’t too much of a problem, but it is quite annoying.

Other features

Besides being a headphone amplifier or DAC—amplifier combo, the Fiio E18 has another few features worth mentioning:

Phone charging

When not in use the battery of the Fiio E18 can be used to charge your phone. I haven’t seen how much it can supply, but it’s a useful backup battery to have with you.

External power input

With an external power source you can charge the Fiio E18 whilst it is in use.

A mode switch allows you to switch between phone and PC input. What this really means is that when connected to a PC it will draw current, but it won’t drain your phone’s battery. A second micro-USB socket is purely dedicated to charging the Fiio E18, regardless of what it is plugged into.

Conclusions

I’ve been listening to music with the Fiio E18 for about a month now, and overall I am very pleased with the purchase. As a headphone amplifier it delivers plenty of power for my current headphones whilst maintaining good quality sound. As a DAC it has exceeded my expectations, and I was very impressed by the increased detail in music I was already familiar with.

The overall quality of the Fiio is good, and despite a couple of negative points I think I got good value for money.

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