Tuesday, August 5, 2014

[Impression] Creative Sound Blaster E1 – Stick of All Trade

With desktop PC sale declining and mobile devices on the rise, thumb drive sized USB DAC has become the quick fix for poor sound quality that is all too common in portable computer and smart devices. Creative’s answer to that demand is the new Sound Blaster E1 – a multipurpose USB DAC + headphone amp + mic that boosted with quite a few impressive features.





Spec
SBX Pro Studio: Supported
CrystalVoice: Supported
Scout Mode: Supported
Max. Playback Quality: 24-bit / 44.1kHz (Stereo)
Max. Recording Quality: 16-bit / 44.1kHz
Output: Stereo
Battery Life: Up to 25 hours
SNR: 106dB
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 Amp: Up to 600 Ohms
Microphone Type: Built-in mono microphone
Dimensions: 35 x 19 x 66 mm (1.37 x 0.74 x 2.59 inches)
Weight: 25 grams
MSRP: USD$50





Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality
E1 comes with a fairly typical paper box, well printed but nothing fancy. Besides the manual, the only two accessories are a USB cable and a 3.5mm TRRS-to-TRRS interconnecting cable that is roughly 85cm in length. One of the feature on the E1 is that it can act as a headphone amp for smartphone, where it has a single button remote to play / pause music or pick up call and the built-in mic that will serve as the mic for hand-free calling. In order to support those functions, obviously you will need to use the TRRS cable to connect the E1 to your smartphone.

Build quality is solid, if not a bit unremarkable. The whole device is made out of plastic though the overall finishing is decent. There is a shirt chip integrated on the back, making it looks a little like a slightly oversized Bluetooth headset unit. The only minor complaint I have is that I wish the volume slider can be a bit recessed just so it will minimize any chance of accidental volume adjustment. However, the volume slider does have some resistant built into it so it is not like it will just slide with minimum force.


 

Gain, Hiss and Battery Life
As a USB DAC+amp, the max output is about 1.93V. As a pure headphone amp, E1 has a gain of 6dB. It can actually pump out higher volume as a pure headphone amp than as a USB DAC+amp, probably due to the limited volume coming out of the DAC section. That means that although Creative claims that the E1 can drive headphone up 600ohm, you might not get enough volume if the headphone sensitivity isn’t high enough. That is however still fairly reasonable consider the compact size of E1. It is of course not actually going to replace a full blown headphone amp anytime soon, but it should be more enough for the majority of headphones in the market that are barely over 32 ohm.

One feature that I particularly like about the E1 is its dual headphone-out. Now such implementation is actually nothing new but the cool thing about it is that the two headphone-out are independently driven by two headphone driver chips, the Maxim MAX97220 if I am not mistaken. That means connecting two headphones will not degrade the sound quality, as opposed to having them driven in parallel by just one chip.

Hiss performance is excellent on the E1 as I heard nothing even with the very hiss prone SE530. There is no click and pop noise during start up as well, which is also excellent.

Battery life is officially quoted at 25hours (as a pure headphone amp as I imagined, since it will be powered by USB port when it is used as USB DAC+amp). I never quite drained it dry to confirm the number, but it does seems to run very long without needing a recharge. In fact, I was still running off the initial charge after playing with it on and off for the first week. With the current fast rate of battery drainage on most smartphone, I’ll say there is a good chance the E1 will outlast your smartphone on most day easily.



Sound Quality
As with most of my review on headphone amp and DAC, I started with a basic RMAA measurement. The result is mostly clean and without any noticeable issue. Frequency response is pretty much flat from 80Hz to 20kHz, with a less than -1dB roll off at 20Hz that should be near inaudible to most people. There is however a minor imbalance between the two channels, which I assume is likely caused by the volume slider in my review unit. It is however small enough that I never notice it during listening but only after the measurement. Output impedance is measured and calculated to be around 2~2.5ohm for both headphone-out, which is quite decent. Current output is okay for the most part. I’ll have like a bit more but it should be enough except for the very low impedance load.



Subjectively, the E1’s sound is in the warm side when used as a standalone portable amp, with good texture and sweetness though a bit smooth and lack a good sense of air and depth. It is actually quite similar to FiiO E07K (which also uses the same headphone driver chip), but less grand on overall image. I’ll say for the most part the overall SQ is about the same level as FiiO E6, which is not bad at all for what is meant to be entry level gear. As an USD DAC however, the E1 opens up more. It still has a sense of warmth in its presentation, but more revealing and definitely better in the rendering of space. No doubt it benefits from Creative’s software bundle, enhancing the soundstage and detail while not being artificial sounding (*there are also a few EQ and gaming setting that should appeal to those who are more centered on movie and PC game). While it isn’t exactly audiophile’s sound quality, I don’t think anyone can expect more for its price tag



Extra
Here are some of the features that don’t quite fit into the rest of the review but they are worth noting nonetheless.
  • Though E1 only supports sampling rate up to 48kHz (*no HD there!), it does support bitdepth of 24bit. This means adjusting digital volume on your PC should not degrade the resolution of your music, if you decided to do so.
  • One of the headphone-out can double as mic-in when it is in USB DAC mode. I assume this is designed for gaming headset which usually comes with two 3.5mm jack (one for sound and one for mic). You will however need to enable it within the Sound Blaster software setting.


Size comparison (from left): Apple iPod Nano 7G, E1, digiZoid ZO2.

Sum-up
What sets E1 apart is really its unique set of features. Creative has managed to pack just about everything you want for an basic external PC soundcard for headphone into a really small body, while making it double as a standalone amp and still keeping it cheap yet competent. It is the stick of all trade and a relevant gadget that fits right into this post PC era.

A thank to Creative for the sample.

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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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