An ongoing review.
I’ve long been curious about digital-analogue converters (DAC) and whether they’re really necessary these days, or whether they’re another piece of kit aimed at duping so-called audiophiles into thinking such devices do produce better sound than, say, an iPod, a Walkman, or sound cards in computers and laptops.
FiiO is a Chinese brand which manufactures high-res audio players and related items. It seems to be a well-regarded brand among the people who know about such things, and I now have three of their devices – this one, a FiiO K1 (mini DAC), and an X5 (2nd gen.) DAP (with DAC mode).
The audio products shop on the ground floor of buynow, which is called BSB (slogan: “continue forever”; no, I don’t know what it means) was refurbished in 2016 to cover a range of high-quality sound kit (drop the usual names and some less well-known ones here).
I went in and asked about a DAC converter, which meant being directed to, I assume, the most expensive model in the shop, but I was after something small, and got pointed at the FiiO E17K, which cost ¥849. (02.01.17. I should note that this device cost about a tenth of the Shure SHA900. When I bought the E17K, it was £92; at the current rate of exchange it’s £99)
The converter is about 10x5x1cm. The on/off switch is on the front on the left-hand side, and the input button, which switches the unit between USB, aux, and coaxial is on the right. There’s a wheel on the side which functions as volume control and the switch between the main screen and the options such as base, treble, gain, and so on. On the bottom edge is the micro-USB socket, and at the top, 3.5mm sockets for external speakers, input from an iPod or Walkman, and a connection to a coaxial source (DVD player?).
The volume wheel is deeply contrary, and the only solution seems to be patience. My practice has been to hold it down, turn it anticlockwise as far as I can (probably about quarter of a turn) and release it. But even with care, the volume sometimes rises or vacillates. The issue here is my Sennheiser Momentum headphones, which have an external volume control, but only for use with some Apple device. The default volume of the E17K is fine for the most part, but too high with these headphones. It was this that drove me to buy my Sony MDR-1aDAC headphones (although that’s another story).
When I did a comparison between the E17K+K5 and the HA2-SE+K5, the latter produced mellower sound, although quieter might be more accurate (or an alternative measure). This is the reason why I bought the K5, but even through that, even though I can control the volume far more precisely, the sound from the E17K emerges as louder and harsher; perhaps it can be described as a bit tinny or treble.
What about the actual performance of the device? I have no complaints. Admittedly my musical diet is principally Baroque with a good deal of Renaissance music besides, which doesn’t demand much in the way of a bass line (which seems to be a sad obsession among some people). And whether it’s MP3, AAC, FLAC or m4a, the music sounds as good as the file and recording allow it to be.
The remaining question is whether this is merely an indulgence. It’s possible to find plenty of articles on line which make snooty declarations about low quality of laptop sound cards, but I’m inclined to be sceptical. The Realtek card in my Acer 571G runs from 16-bit 44.1 KHz (CD quality) to 24-bit 192 KHz (studio quality). It would make no sense for Realtek to produce components that offer inferior sound reproduction. In USB mode, the E17K runs from 16-bit 32 KHz to 16-bit 96 KHz, and then from 32-bit 44.1 KHz to 32-bit 96 KHz, but doesn’t offer a 24-bit mode (except, if I understand the details correctly, when using a coaxial cable, which goes right up to 192 KHz).
Using the E17K as an external sound card probably doesn’t make much sense except for one small physical issue. The cable from my RAR P3 speakers is too short to reach the socket on the side of the laptop. Without the DAC and the USB cable to bridge the gap, I’d have to move my entire setup sideways so that I could shift the laptop to the left-hand side of the desk. (As it turns out, such a switch would lead to my undersized desk being even more crowded than it already is with my USB and its cables denying me much-needed space.)
However, of late, I’ve had the laptop (Acer 592G Black Edition) connected directly to the laptop with an extension cable. I was listening to music straight off the machine through my headphones and then through the E17K. My impression was that the sound via the latter was decidedly superior to that through the laptop even if the margin of difference was fairly slight. Basically, nice vs. a bit nicer.
But what about using the E17K with portable DAPs such as iPods or Walkmans or the FiiO X5? On reflection, the E17K is really an external sound card which is best connected to some other device through the USB cable. It obviously works with the laptop, and it will work with the iPod Touch provided USB charging is switched off. I don’t know whether it really has anything to offer the FiiO X5II because it can only be connected to that via an analogue or RCA cable, and because the specs of the X5 are sufficiently good for it to be unnecessary to connect is to any DAC.
I assume (but can only assume) that the E17K may have something to offer to an iPod Nano rather than to a high-res player such as my Sony NW-A25 or my FiiO X5. It would seem a little odd if these devices produced noticeably inferior sound.
Perhaps the point is to make more effective use of the specs of a decent pair of headphones than anything else. It’s a matter which requires further investigation.
I remain uncertain overall. I don’t regret buying the E17K or the K1 or the Sony PHA-1a, but I continue to wonder just what they have to offer.