Headphone amps are still considered the preserve of audio nutters by many, the music equivalent of people willing to spend hundreds of pounds on HDMI cables and special power plugs that remove midichloreans from the signal. Or something. Fiio is here to change all that with products like the Fiio E17. It's a portable headphone amp and Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC) that can also act as a computer sound card. And it costs less than a hundred pounds.
Although fairly low-cost, the Fiio E17 is built to last. Its bod is made up of three main metal sections - a slab each for the front and back and a single strip that curves all the way round the edges. All decked out in the same black, brushed finish, the E17 looks and feels great.
It's extremely solid - and while the finish won't look so impressive if it gets scratched, we can't see it biting the dust unless you treat it with real harshness. A little bit smaller and thicker than an iPod Classic, people are bound to assume it's an MP3 player - it's much smaller than virtually all desktop amps.
It isn't an MP3 player, though. While there's a menu layer and some sound customisation on offer, the Fiio E17 wouldn't know what to do with an MP3 file - and has no place to put them anyway, with no accessible internal memory.
The Fiio E17 accepts four types of input. There's a miniUSB port on its bottom, letting you connect to a computer and effectively use the little metal box as a sound card, a 3.5mm jack for standard stereo analogue input and an SPDIF jack up top for optical/coaxial digital entry. On its underside the E17 also features a Fiio dock socket, which plugs into the E9 - a Fiio desktop amp. Doing so blocks the USB socket, but the E9 has its own, making this potentially the perfect pairing.
To make full use of the E17, you'll need to use the digital inputs, but the flexibility of the device makes it worthwhile when used with a portable media player too. We hooked it up to an iPod Classic using Fiio's LOD cable, which bypasses the Classic's own headphone circuitry, and found it works well as a portable headphone amp - if not quite as convenient as something like the lesser Fiio E6. The E17 has an internal 1500mAh battery, letting you take it out and about with you.
This isn't Fiio's first take on the portable DAC-plus-amp combo, though. The E17 is remarkably similar in most respects to last year's E7. They're of similar size, claim to be able to take on headphones of 16-300Ohm impedance and have similar screens. However, the E17 is much more powerful.
The positive aspect of this is much-improved output. At 300Ohm impedance, the E17 outputs 30 mW, where the E7 manages just 16mW. Fiio also says that overall performance is much better. The price is battery life.
The E7 has a 1050mAh battery that lasts up to 80 hours off a charge. The E17 has a larger 1500mAh battery that lasts just 15 hours, max. In normal use, you can expect to get around 6-8 hours out of it - significantly less than the claimed figure. This makes the new model much less convenient, but if sound quality is all you care about, maybe that won’t be a problem.
Used with an SPDIF connection, the Fiio E17 can accept a true high-end signal - up to 24-bit, 192k. Rarely do we have to crack out such high-end files in our testing. With a USB connection, the limit is 96K/24-bit - but if you're honestly noticing all that much difference between the two, there's a good chance it's in your head. If you're not so obsessed with bits and kHz, the E17 is also more than happy to take on "standard" 48K 16-bit signals. The quality of the signal being piped through it is displayed on the dinky screen on the front.
It's a simple, two-tone display, but is very clear and more-than up to the task of displaying the basic info involved - there's no need for album art here, folks. The screen is of the OLED type, which provides excellent contrast and viewing angles.
The Fiio E17 comes with everything you need to get going. There's a short stereo jack connector, letting you plug in an MP3 player easily, a little miniUSB cable and a felt carry case. You'll ideally want to get hold of a digital cable too, but we can understand why Fiio hasn't included one. Other than the costs involved, the length of digital cable needed is likely to vary much more - if, say, you want to plug it into a Hi-Fi separate halfway across the room.
Other little bits bundled include some thick rubber bands, to let you attach he E17 to your media player in lo-fi fashion, and optical/coaxial converters.