Before I begin, I’d like to thank the folks at Fiio for providing me with an E9 review sample.
Fiio has been in the business of making headphone amplifiers for a few years now and they have gathered quite a following in the audiophile community for the value their products offer to the consumer for the price. In fact, the Fiio E5 amp, an extremely small and portable amplifier is a favorite among users looking for an inexpensive option to power medium to high impedance portable headphones and IEMs above and beyond the capabilities of portable players. Fiio first stepped into the market for higher end amplifiers with their E7 DAC/Amp and once again, garnered a lot of praise.
Now, Fiio has made another bold step into the world of hi-fi with their newly released E9 desktop amplifier. Fiio has always been about offering buyers a great value for the money they’ve spent and this design philosophy hasn’t changed. I’ve been using my E9 review unit on a daily basis since I received it a few weeks back and I can say without reservation that we’ve got another winner on our hands.
Read on for further impressions of the Fiio E9 desktop amplifier.
Packaging and Accessories
If you’ve seen my unboxing video you’ll have a good idea of what to expect when you receive the E9 (and if you haven’t, click here) so I’ll keep this brief. The packaging is nice and simple, consisting of a black cardboard box, emblazoned with Fiio logos and E9 art and inside is a nice plastic cushion with cutouts for the E9 itself, the power adapter and a USB cable which you’ll only need if you have the Fiio E7 DAC but I’ll get into that discussion later. On top of those are a small instruction manual and an additional set of adhesive rubber feet for the E9, just in case your original set becomes damaged somehow.
And that’s it! Like I said in the unboxing video, this is a very nicely packaged amplifier that gets the job done and I’m glad that Fiio doesn’t mess around with the unnecessary BS that a lot of manufacturers tend to indulge in.
Design and Build Quality
In my experience, Fiio’s products have almost always been well designed and engineered, save for the E5, which I owned for a short period and suffered a broken volume switch and needed to be returned. The E9 is perhaps the best designed Fiio product to date. Clad entirely in brushed aluminum, the E9 is a very sturdy feeling and handsome amplifier. Taking it out of the packaging, the amp feels solid and heavy in the hand and feels as though it won’t be prone to breaking due to poor design and quality control. On the front of the amplifier are two headphone out jacks, one ¼ inch jack for full size headphones and one standard 3.5mm jack for IEMs and portable headphones which features a 5db reduction in volume output as not to harm the ears of those going from headphones to more sensitive IEMs. In between the two headphone outputs is a gigantic potentiometer that is perhaps a bit too big but features very smooth operation and volume attenuation.
The E9 features a relatively large selection of inputs and outputs ranging from the aforementioned dual headphone output jacks to a 3.5mm line in, RCA line output jacks, a 3.5mm pre-output jack which allows the E9 to act as a pre-amp for a pair of passive speakers and a USB input, which has no use unless you dock the E7 portable amplifier on top of the E9 (as I said before, more on this later).
Unfortunately, while the E9 includes a set of RCA outputs, there are no RCA inputs to be found on the device. In the realm of desktop amplifiers, this is a standard input that the E9 just doesn’t have and while not very disappointing to me personally, as I have appropriate RCA to 3.5mm adapters, I imagine this might be a problem for users looking to use the E9 as an amplifier for a CD player or another device that outputs via RCA.
What strikes me most about the E9 is its transparency. The E9 hardly offers any coloration of its own to the signal being amplified except a tiny bit of warmth in the midrange and low end and the tiniest bit of brightness up top. This level of transparency is, of course, a very good thing because it allows the quality of your source and your headphones to shine through. This means that a warm sounding source like the Sansa Fuze will still sound warm out of the E9. Colder sources like my second gen iPod Touch sound just the same to my ears. My ATH-M50s, a tonally neutral sounding headphone (maybe slightly warm) sound just as neutral used with the E9.
Neutrality is a very important quality in any good amplifier and this is something that the E9 does incredibly well. I honestly don’t think that you’ll be able to find a competing amplifier that offers the same sound quality and functionality for the price. The added power in amplification from the E9 will take high impedance or low sensitivity headphones and IEMs to another level than from straight out of a computer, portable CD player or iPod.
There’s a great deal of power behind the E9 and it seems like it can drive high impedance headphones like the upper end Beyerdynamics and Sennheisers effortlessly with plenty of power to spare, even with the gain switch set to low. The E9 drives my HD555s to earsplittingly high volumes, even with the potentiometer set at 12 o’clock.
Musings on the Fiio E7+E9 Combo
The E9 has a dock port for the Fiio E7 portable amplifier and USB DAC which bypasses the internal amp of the E7 while still allowing the use of the DAC functions of the E7 while docked. This combo is an excellent combo for those of us who have computers with large quantities of music (especially lossless) on their hard drives. Manufacturers rarely take measures to ensure that computer related noise isn’t audible through the headphone out ports and that electronic noise can be very annoying when trying to listen to music. Using a DAC such as the E7 eliminates that problem. The E7 sounds quite good by itself but using the E9’s superior amplification takes it to another level, surpassing onboard audio performance quite considerably.
Using the E7 with the E9 gives you the benefits of its DAC functions with the superior power output and amplification of the E9 but it also brings with it some drawbacks. One of the larger and more common complaints against using the E7 docked on the E9 is the fact that it renders the bass boost function of the E7 useless and this is a complaint that I have with the combo. The only way to use the DAC features of the E7 with the E9 alongside its EQ settings is to connect a 3.5mm cable to one of the E7’s headphone out ports and the E9’s line in and boost the volume to a high level (but not maxed out) but this doesn’t work too well in practice. In my experience, at medium to high volumes (over 35 or so) the sound distorts when using the bass boost which is a big no-no in my book.
Personally, I would prefer to have the ability to use the E7’s bass boost EQ settings while docked with the E9 but I don’t think this is a deal-breaker. This is a minor complaint for me but it’s something that I imagine some people might be disappointed with and thus, was worth mentioning.
As a whole, I was not disappointed by the E7+E9 combo as I think it performs very well and will offer many users a significant step up from the audio quality on offer from most integrated sound cards.
I’m extremely impressed with Fiio’s E9 desktop headphone amplifier as it powers all of my headphones sufficiently well enough to bring out the best in all of them. From my full-size ATH-M50s and HD555s to my HiFiMan RE0 IEMs, the E9 hasn’t failed to sufficiently power anything I’ve thrown at it and I’m confident that owners of higher impedance sets such as Sennheiser’s HD650 and HD800 headphones, Beyerdynamic high impedance DT series or AKG’s K701s.
Notice how I never mentioned the price of the E9 in this review? Well, there was a reason for that. The E9 amplifier by itself retails for only $129 and the E7+E9 combo will set you back only $199. While I’m sure this price may turn off many casual listeners, this is an exceptional value, all things considered. For someone new to hi-fi sound, the E9 alone is a great purchase and with the E7, it’s an absolute steal. The E9 by itself and even with the E7 isn’t perfect and have a few flaws but I can’t help but overlook these minor flaws when I consider that the combo is only $199.
Once again, Fiio has impressed me. Judging the E9 solely on its merits alone, independent of its price, the E9 is a very competent performer that should manage to surprise even the most jaded audiophile. When the price comes into consideration, it’s amazing that Fiio is offering such an amazing product for such a low price and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to just about anyone in the market for an inexpensive but still highly capable desktop amplifier.