It's safe to say that the FiiO E3 produced a bit of a stir amongst headphone enthusiasts when it emerged last summer. While there were headphone amps designed specifically for DAPs and PMPs, like the awesome Graham Slee Voyager, the E3 was a tiny, AAA battery powered marvel that you could pick up for under £10, and one which has a noticeable, positive effect on many combinations of DAP and headphone or earphone. Sure, you could get better quality from a home-built Cmoy amplifier (see A Fire in the Head for details), the E3 was smaller, lighter, cheaper and consistently good (the quality of a Cmoy, of course, being dependent on the expertise of its builder). The facts all won the tiny amp a tidy cult following all of its own.
Now the small Chinese company is back with what you might call the E3's bigger brother. It's more expensive, but also more polished - every inch a more grown up little amp.
Let's start with the physical design. To say that the E5 looks a lot like the last-generation iPod Shuffle is an understatement; it's a bit squarer, but boasts a similar metallic construction, very familiar curves and the same metallic sprung clip. It's light, but also tough. The overall feel is much more solid than the rather plasticky E3, and weight-wise there's little in it once you take the E3's AAA battery into account.
What's more, where the E3 had an 3.5mm mini-jack input, a 3.5mm output and that was it, the E5 comes with actual, honest to goodness features, namely a power button, digital volume controls and a switch to flick between a flat, 'clean' sound and one with the bass taken up a notch. On top of this, the E5 has one other strong improvement: a built-in Lithium Ion battery, good for up to 20 hours of use.
On the negative side, there is one area where FiiO could still pay a little more attention. The headphone output on your iPod, Walkman or alternative has to connect to the E5 through a 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect, and while it's good to see two supplied this time around - one 15cm, one 80cm - the actual cable is thin, lightweight stuff, even if the plugs are now gold-plated. When you consider that the product's being marketed to people who care about audio quality (albeit at the budget end) this is a minor embarrassment - but a forgiveable one given the low, low £20 asking price.
Still, in most respects this is one of the most practical and easily portable headphone amps around. Using the longer cable you can happily stuff your player in a pocket or your bag and clip on the E5, using it almost like a remote to control volume or mute the sound, and unlike most of the competition it's so unobtrusive that you needn't know it's there. My one complaint? Unlike the E3, it doesn't switch off when you remove your phones. If you don't want to drain your battery while not in use, you need to remember to turn this little baby off.