People spend quite a bit of time and money filling their need to satisfy their music cravings. Many people will buy the latest headphones to hit the market only to find out that once they receive the prized set of mini-speakers that their audio source is underpowered and thus the listening experience isn’t what they had hoped. That, amongst other reason, are a good reason to take a look at a quality headphone amplifier. If you’ve found that you’re in that same situation or you’re looking to get a little more bass out of your existing headphones, the Fiio E11 may be just the ticket.
I picked up the Fiio E11 for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted to be able to send a bit more power to my Hippo VB’s, and with the multiple levels of bass boost available on the unit, I thought it might be able to sure up some of the other headphones I have that are a bit light in that department. Let’s not forget that I also wanted to be able to bring you a review of what is one of the more affordable, mass produced, headphone amplifiers on the market. So without further ado, let’s dig on in.
I’m not huge on packaging mainly because I’m interested in the product itself and not the wrapper it came in. But, just to be thorough, the Fiio E11 came packaged rather decently. It arrived in your standard cardboard box, but once opened, you find a nice aluminum carrying case. Everything was in good order and I am very pleased with the care that was taken in ensuring the amplifier arrived in good shape.
Design/Build Quality – 7.5
The very first thing I noticed about the E11 was how incredibly light the unit is. I was almost afraid they’d sent me the case without any of the electronics! Seriously though, the amplifier is a nice looking unit. It has a matte black finish on the front and back and a metal casing around the edges. The layout is fairly simple, as it should be. The E11 comes with a rechargeable lithium ion battery that is rated for about ten hours of play time. On the top of the unit, there are there elements: a 3.5mm line in, a 3.5mm line out, and the volume wheel.
On the right side, there’s a mini USB port used for charging the E11 and two additional switches. There’s an EQ switch which is really just a bass boost with three levels: off, 1 and 2. Additionally, there’s a gain switch for low and high amplification. Headphones that just need a slight boost will provide the most control if set to low gain. The high gain is best used for headphones that really need a lot of juice to drive them. There’s no harm in turning on the high gain even for more sensitive headphones, but what you lose is the ability to really control the volume. You’ll basically end up going from very quiet to very loud with little in-between. On the front there’s an LED indicator that lights blue when in use and lights red while being charged. There are two things here worth mentioning that keep it from getting a higher score. One, you cannot charge the unit and use it as an amplifier at the same time. While this isn’t a huge deal, it’s definitely an annoyance. Second, I feel like the line in and the line out positions should either be reversed, or better yet, they should be on opposite sides of the device. The primary reason I feel this way is I purchased the Fiio L9 Line Out Dock (LOD) to use with my iPhone so I could bypass the amplification of the headphone jack and use the pure audio signal from the dock port.
The way the L9 is designed with the wire coming out to the right of the dock port, it overlaps where the headphone jack is. It just seems odd that Fiio would create two items that should seemingly work hand in hand but end up crossing each other up, literally. It’s not a deal breaker as I can flip the E11 over on it’s back, but the only problem with this is I occasionally forget that it’s on because the LED indicator is face down on the desk. So, these are minor annoyances, but neither of these are even close to deal breakers for the E11.
Performance – 9
The first thing that I noticed after plugging the unit into my iPhone was the total lack of hiss or noise of any sort. I’ve used other lower cost amplifiers in the past and they would typically introduce some noise into the audio. You can turn up the unit quite a ways and the silence will persist. This is surprising in an amplifier that was right at $65. When it came to the amplification, this thing did not disappoint.
I have a couple sets of headphones that are a bit on the demanding side when it comes to power. First up where the Hippo VB headphones. These are one of my favorite sets of in ear headphones, especially when you consider the price. Jump over to the Hippo VB review to get my full take on those. Back to what I was saying – I plugged my iPhone up to the E11 using the L9 cable, and plugged the Hippos in and I was blown away.
Transparent. If there’s one word I can use to sum up the overall sound characteristics of the E11, it would have to be transparent. Setting the EQ level at 0, and just turning the volume up provides more of what I was hoping to hear from the Hippos – pure, clean, powerful sound. As noted in my review, I keep the two-dotted bass tip on the Hippo VB’s. With that in mind, I set the gain to low and I didn’t really need the EQ option on the Fiio E11 as the Hippos provide plenty in the bass department. Where I noticed the biggest difference was when you start turning the sound up. With the Hippos plugged straight into the iPhone, once I got past about the 80% volume, things started to get distorted and unpleasant. I always thought this was the sign that the amplification was straining rather than the headphones, and the E11’s proved that to be true. I was able to turn the E11 up to a volume that was near unbearable, and the Hippos were absolutely stunning. As far as I could tell, there was no coloring to the sound. Everything was true to the sound signature I’d grown to love in the Hippos. The bass was accurate, fast, and resounding. The mids were smooth as glass, one of my favorite traits of the Hippos.
The highs were crisp, full and non-fatiguing. The E11 took the best parts of the VB’s and just made them louder and cleaner at all volumes. There was no sign of that strained sound present with just the iPhone. Needless to say, nobody should listen at the levels I was testing out unless they have a real wish to be def within a few short years. A quick note on that – make sure you start at very low volumes when using an amplifier such as the E11. This thing can go LOUD. You could seriously damage your ears if you were to turn up past 4 or 5 and just hit play. You’ve been warned.
The second pair of headphones I was extremely excited to try out was my Grado SR-80’s. Price/Performance, these are currently my favorite pair of headphones I’ve ever heard. If you’d like, check out the Grado SR80 review. The Grado’s aren’t the most efficient headphones so they could definitely use a bit of amplification, but that’s not the real reason I was excited to pair the E11 with them. The one thing that has always bugged me about the Grado’s is they just needed a slight bass boost to make them a true love of mine. So in these went with an EQ setting of 1. Wow. These opened up and turned into a mobile concert venue. Paired with the E11, I almost forgot I was trying them out so I could write a review. I started finding some of my favorite tracks just so I could experience them all over again. I bumped the EQ up to 2 at one point just to see how they would react to the extra boost, and while it wasn’t bad, it did tend to muddy some of the music on the Grado’s. So, I dropped it back down to 1 and got lost in the music. The Grado SR-80’s paired with the E11 is an experience I am thrilled to have In the right environment (nobody around to disturb), this would be one of my top choices any time.
The last set of headphones I really wanted to run through the E11 were the A151’s by MeElectronics. I received these at the same time I got the E11’s and I ran them through a series of auditions before I decided to hook them up to the amplifier. I was both extremely excited and disheartened with the A151’s. The mids and highs were so alive, but the bass was literally missing. It was like watching a lightning storm a mile away without the cracks of thunder. Beautiful, but lacking. EQ level one was the first shot. This actually did a tremendous job shaping up the sound of the A151’s. Level 1 only seems to touch the true bass regions of the soundwave which is all they needed. This combination actually turned the A151’s into an incredible sounding pair of in ear monitors. Bumping the EQ to level 2 actually didn’t hurt these like they did the Grado’s. While I feel level 2 was still a bit of overkill, somewhere inbetween 1 and 2 would have been ideal. Nevertheless, the E11 succeeded perfectly on both fronts – amplification and bass boost.
Value – 9
I may have to come back and revise the score on the value portion. The only reason I’m not giving this a 10 right off the bat is because I’ve not tried their other, less expensive offerings like the E5. Rest assured I will give those an audition and let you know my thoughts there as well. Even without those to compare against, the E11’s at $65 street price are an absolute steal. If you are passionate about your personal audio experience and you have some quality sets of headphones, these can really open them up. With the number of high priced amplifiers on the market, these are bargain at their current street prices.
Conclusion/Overall – 9
There are products that you come across once in a great while that you would absolutely purchase again – this is unquestionably one of them. If you happen to have headphones that are a little underpowered these are a no-brainer. For the price, I think you’d have a hard time beating their value for performance. These fall into the category of diminishing returns – you could buy an amplifier for hundreds more, but you’re not going to get 2 or 3 times the sound quality out of them. If you are happy with the sound signature of your headphones in the mids and highs (or even the lows un-EQ’d) and you need a little more power – go buy these now and thank me when you do.