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Saturday, October 3, 2009

[Pictorial Review] FiiO E1

This just come in this afternoon, one of the very first final production FiiO E1. In case you have no idea what E1 is, it is an [all-in-one] line-out dock + headphone amp + remote control for iPod and iPhone. In case you still wonder: No, you can't use it with any other DAP.

FiiO E1 next to my hardcase'd Nano 4G. Remember, this is still a sampling package so there is no retail box what-so-ever. You can expect a more updated look by the time E1 hits the market (which ETA is mid October).

●Output power: 80 mW (32 ohms Loaded) / 16 mW (300 ohms Loaded)
●Signal to Noise Ratio: >= 95 dB (A Weight)
●Distortion: < 0.009% (10 mW) ●Frequency Response: 10 Hz - 60 kHz ●Suitable Headphone Impedance: 16 ohms - 300 ohms ●Power Supply: use iPod / iPhone power ●Dimensions: Line control 48mmx14mmx10.7 mm ●End-to-End: 845mm ●Cable length: 780mm

Here are from an IM conversation I have with James @ FiiO (as I quote him):
1, E1 is design for audiophile, but we hope more people will like to use it, that is why we add in-line remote function, we hope more and more people can enjoy the music by a quality setup.

2, the SQ is almost the same with E5, but without any EQ, cause it will suitable for any kind of music.

3, E1 is powered by the power output from the dock of iPod/iPhone, at the one hand , if you need more power to drive the earphone, it will decrease the play time of iPod/iPhone, but at the other hand, because the amp build inside the iPod/iPhone will not output any energy, so it will not affect so much.

As you can see, the dock connector itself is slightly bigger than just a pure LOD as most of the amp's hardware is built inside the connector. As you can see on the connector, there is not release button on the connector. Just pull the connector out when you want to disconnect E1 from your iPod.

My hardcase is actually stopping the dock connector from full insertion, but it still goes in deep enough to work. It is actually still secure enough that I can put in my pocket and walk around the house w/o the dock disconnecting.

The back clip is rather shallow and actually a bit difficult to press on. You can mis-press the front buttons when trying to open the clip (especially on one hand). While it is a bit inconvenience to use at the beginning, eventually I figure out a few ways to use the clip w/o pressing on the front panel. Well, practice makes perfection.

Build Quality
I think FiiO as both a company and a builder has grown by quite a lot. The build quality of E1 is simply superb, consider this is the same company that makes the E3 just 2 years ago.

As mentioned above, the dock connector housing is a bit bigger than your average LOD in order to fit the PCB and most of the chips inside. The cable used is fairly soft though it is thinker (for the extra wires needed for the remote, I presume). The length of the cable is a little bit over 2 feet, enough to reach out from the pocket or backpack but not too long to tangle around. The remote is well made and all the buttons are responsive. The volume control buttons are individually marked by a rising bar and a ditching bar so you won't confuse over them and can change the volume without seeing.

There are a total of five buttons on the remote. The center round button is for Play/Pause. The two silver buttons (square rocker) surround the center buttons are for volume control. The outer two buttons are for Next /Previous song in a single press and for Forward/Backward in long press. The only downside about the buttons design is there is not 'hold' key, so you can accidentally press on the next/previous keys (as they are the largest and on the side).

Learn from the mistake on early E5 (which either not enough on one step and too loud on the next), E1 volume incrementation of each step is much smaller. From what I counted, there are a total of 62 steps with the last step as mute. Once connected, the volume will automatically set to 15/62. This can be a bit loud (but not very loud) if you are using very efficient headphone. The volume will reset back upon disconnect/connect or else it will stay at the last position when your iPod coming back from sleep. If you find 15/62 too loud, I'll suggest you turn the volume down first each time you plug the connector in. Note that the volume is digitally controlled by an independent controller on the amp circuit so the setting on your iPod will have no effect on E1.

More interesting note on my Nano 4G: assuming you select an album to listen, if you are on the first or last song of the album but not playing the music, a press of Previous (first song) or Next (last song) will bring you back to the menu selecting 'cover flow', If you press Play now, it will start the first album in 'cover flow'. Beside volume which works independently of iPod, the rest of the buttons are useless unless you are in the music interface. So you will still need to select an album or a playlist to play first, then use the buttons to Play / Pause / Next / Previous / Forward / Backward.

Sound Quality
While James has already stated that E1 has the same performance as E5, I do find improvement in E1's overall sound. First of, if you are using an easy-to-drive headphone or something not really resolving, the improvement might not seen to be very drastic, but it should still be noticeable. I think those of you who own or tried an E5 probably can associate. For this part of the review, I am comparing E1 to HO (Headphone-Out) and E5 with LOD (no bass boost) on Nano 4G with my trusty, very resolving RE0.

One thing about RE0 and Nano's HO is the lack of synergy. While RE0 isn't particular difficultly to drive, it does tend to perform better with amp. However, RE0 sounds really struggling with Nano. Every note sounds underpowered and sloppy. An E5 + LOD has a much better synergy with RE0 but does color the sound a bit. After all, E5 has a warm and full mid/bottom and lacks very well defined upper end detail and airiness. However, it is in between the HO and E5 + LOD that I find E1 to be better.

E1 can handle RE0 with fairly good authority, not as much as T4 nor 3MOVE but still well controlled. Its mid is not as upfront as HO or E5, which renders a colder and just slightly recessed vocal. However, it is not thin either. In comparison, E1 has better extension on both ends. Bass might not have the same quantity as E5 but the quality is better. It is punchier with much better definition. Treble shows more sparkle and detail while soundstage is wider. In sum, I'll describe E1 as having a clean, very neutral and transparent sound.

The lack of additional warmness might seem to be a downside for some, but I really think E1 is more 'universal' and will be less picky on synergy. Again, I want to remind everyone that I am using a RE0 for most of the audition and it is highly resolving. You might not be able tell as much difference on some other gears. So take this with a grain of salt.

In all, I am happy with the new E1. While I would really like a Hold key and an easier access backclip, they are all minor issues. As I expected E1 to sound similar to E5, I am actually surprised that I find E1 to be better even though it is nothing ground breaking. Still, a sonic improvement is always a good thing regardless how small it is. For those who want an all-in-one solution and don't demand high-end performance, E1 will be a option worthy of your attention.

ETA is expected to be mid October (after China National Holidays) , price is unknown yet but like E5, it won't be expensive. Most likely $30 or less.

I also got these two iPod LOD samples from FiiO. The black slim version is under FiiO's own brand and the white one is called HPC-D3.5, OEM'ed by FiiO under Oyaide's spec as part of the company's low-end entry to the LOD market. For those who don't know Oyaide, it is a Japanese company well known for its cables and power related components.

These are just the sample packaging.

The cable on Oyaide's LOD is thick yet remains very soft and bendable. I believe it uses some sort of special formulated cable. Well, you can go to the Japanese site linked above and find out more detail yourself.

The last pictures are the comparison of the dock connectors b/w Oyaide's LOD and E1, just to give you an idea of their relative sizes.

Nano 4G - FiiO's slim LOD - E5

Nano 4G - Oyaide's LOD - E5

These are both very well made LOD.

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Important: All postings are my own personal opinion only and should not be treated as absolute truth. I do get things wrong just like everyone else. Always do your own research!

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