Not everyone has the money for Hi-Fi headphones, but audiophiles can push their standard cans without breaking the bank with the overachieving E6 headphone amplifier.
Your typical iPod or smartphone only outputs a certain level of power to a pair of headphones, so even if the little speakers can take more, it's capped at the max volume (and even then begins to distort). A good headphone amplifier does the same as any other amplifier - it boosts the input to improve on sound quality. The E6 shines here by not just boosting bass or pumping volume but improving portable music sound across the sonic stage.
The E6 is an upgraded version of FiiO's previous E5 headphone amp. The refreshed unit features updated internal components for a clearer output and a few cosmetic changes that give it a sleeker design.
The weight has been dropped down to 16 grams with a plastic construction though it doesn't feel too cheap to the touch, though loses its fanciness up close. The previous model resembled a sixth generation iPod Nano, while the new E6 sits at around the same size but with squared-off edges, soft corners and a more unique design.
|FiiO E6 (left) and an iPod Nano (right)|
The minimalist structure features a volume/gain up and down button on one edge and an on/off and hold switch on the other. Holding the on button up for a few seconds powers up the amp, while flicking the switch up quickly cycles through the EQ presets (more on this special feature later).
The chrome-coloured corner notch serves as a placeholder for bundled plastic clips for users who want to clip the amp to their pocket or sleeve rather than pocket the device. This is potentially useful as you'll pick up a buzzing sound in your earphones from cell phone signals at times if you sit the amp next to your phone in your pocket. The E6 is bundled with two double-sided 3.5mm jacks to connect to music players - one long and one short - so freeing the amp from your pocket is still feasible.
But now onto the most important aspect: the sound. Tech specs and sound review over the page.
The E6 is limited to headphones and portable music players, with other FiiO models like the upcoming E10 supporting higher quality inputs like 24 bit tracks. It outputs power from 150mW under 16 ohms to 16mW under 300 ohms, so you're covered if you're trying to get the most out of your higher quality headphones from a music player.
Similar budget amplifiers tend to lean head-strong into the bass end of sound when they ramp out the output power and end up muddying up the sound and distorting at high volumes. The E6 maintains the budget price tag but throws in good quality amplification and a feature set that stands out next to the bigger names.
The EQ covers four modes: off, -3db, +3db and +6db. The higher you push the decibel count, the more bass-heavy the sound gets, though the E6 never really falls into the trap of drowning out the treble or flattening the mid-range sound. Vocals remain crisp and treble retains its sharpness until you push the highest setting to much higher volumes.
|The four EQ settings, indicated by a small light on the back end of the E6|
The step-down setting works well at cutting down on the overly-rounded bass-heavy sound of some earphones while also easing out some tracks that might need a tone-down. The higher decibel counts each have a satisfying boost across the frequencies without being overbearing on either end of the spectrum. With a volume control on the amp itself, you can avoid the ear-bleeding gain distortion of other amplifiers by toning down the electronic volume control while pushing up your own music player's volume.
With a built-in battery that is chargeable by mini-USB, battery life is set at a max of 10 hours. Depending on how the settings are, you should typically be able to push out somewhere between 7 and 10 hours on a single charge.
What the E6 delivers is a natural boost in sound quality that dynamically improves music output rather than giving an 'artificial-sounding' boost or falling into the bass-heavy trap. At the same time, sound isn't overly swamped by distortion from the amplifier's gain, delivering a clear sound even at high volumes.
For a sub-$50 price, the E6 will make cheaper earphones go the extra mile without pushing the budget or give better, meatier headsets the extra power you originally payed for that an mp3 player can't deliver on its own.