FiiO is a Chinese audio company that should need no introduction by now. Among all the headphone amp, soundcard, and cable manufacturers they are probably the one with the best bang-for-buck ratio, consistently delivering high quality products for a very fair price.
Their older tiny portable amp model – the E5 – is still quite popular among users, and seriously well performing for its $20 price tag. Let’s see if FiiO could up the ante a notch with the E5’s recently introduced successor, the E6.
- FiiO E6 Specs
- Output power: 150mW into 16 Ohm, 16mW into 300 Ohm
- Frequency response: 10Hz – 100kHz
- SNR: >95dBA
- THD: <0.0009% (10mW)
- Battery: Li-Ion, ~10h run time, 2h charging over USB (5V/500mA)
- Size: 41×40.2x9mm
- Weight: 16g
- Accessories: 2x 3.5mm-to-3.5mm cables (10cm with angled plugs, 80cm with straight plugs), USB charging cable, 2x removable clips, printed manual
Accessories, Design, Specs
The E6 comes with two 3.5mm interconnect cables and a standard Mini USB cable for charging. The audio cables appear to be of solid build quality, with sturdy molded connector housings and gold plated plugs. The longer 80cm cable has straight connectors, the shorter 10cm one has right angled ones.
There are also two shirt/pants clips in the box, made of transparent plastic. They don’t seem overly sturdy, so it’s probably good that FiiO packed a spare. Personally, I don’t intend to use the clips, so I’m grateful that FiiO made them removable. The non-removable clip on the older E5 always bothered me a bit, since it just adds to the size of the amp.
Housed in glossy plastic, the E6 doesn’t have quite the same haptic appeal as the metal-clad E5. The E6 is much lighter, though. Dropping it from a meter or two onto a hard floor shouldn’t damage it. It certainly feels quite solid and well built. Speaking of damage: the E6 scratches very easily. I wish the housing would be made of matte plastic instead of the ultra-glossy one FiiO chose. Not only would it look somewhat classier, it also wouldn’t show every tiny scratch. They also shouldn’t have painted the plastic buttons and the cut-out edge with chrome paint – it looks cheesy, faking a material it actually isn’t made of. That’s so 1990s. Maybe a fitting silicone case for the E6 would be a nice addition for persnickety folks.
However, these are just nitpicks, not detracting from the fact that the E6 is overall a quite fetching tiny monolith. I find its design certainly more appealing than the E5’s. The location of the power- and volume buttons is also better on the E6, since the in- and output jacks aren’t getting in the way of operation.
The volume control is excellent on the E6. It’s a 64 step digital control, with very smooth, linear step transitions – a definite improvement over the E5’s rough 32 step control. Contrary to many analog volume controls (as found in very expensive amps as well) there’s no dreaded channel imbalance or crackling to be noticed at any volume level.
Opposite the volume control is the multi-function slider that controls the rest of the E6’s functions. Holding the slider for three seconds turns the amp on or off; sliding it quickly toggles the various sound modes (personally I would prefer it the other way round – short on/off, long mode change). Those modes are called flat/default, EQ1, EQ2, and LO 2V.
EQ1 and EQ2 are bass booster settings. EQ1 gives about 8dB boost centered around 80Hz, EQ2 gives about 4.5dB. EQ1 is unfortunately very muddy and overwhelming sounding. I would not even use it with bass-light phones like the Phonak PFE 112, since it takes away much of the clarity and detail. EQ2 is more subtle sounding and usable in certain situations. However, I still prefer the old E5’s bass boost to the E6’s EQ2 by a bit. The E5 gives about 3.5dB boost centered around 50-60Hz. Although subtler, it sounds noticeably clearer and punchier than the E6’s two settings. Well, it’s simple – don’t get the E6 if clear, punchy bass boost is your main requirement. For this application I would strongly recommend the Digizoid ZO or the Headstage Arrow instead, although they are not in the same price range.
The other available option, LO 2V (Redbook standard line-out 2 Volts?), is probably meant for ‘hot’ sources with more powerful outputs than average MP3 players, I assume. Neither the manual that came with the E6 nor FiiO’s website give any real explanation for this setting. What it does is lowering the amp’s volume by a few decibel – presumably already on its input side, to prevent clipping. I don’t really use a source that would need this feature, but I’m sure there are some devices out there that could benefit from it.
The various settings are visually represented by two LEDs, visible on the back of the E6. No LED light means flat response, red means EQ1, blue means EQ2, and purple (mixed blue and red) means LO 2V. There’s a separate blue LED indicating when the E6 is turned on. It is located inside the cut-out corner triangle and reflects from the chromed plastic. That’s quite a nifty design idea, I like that.
A slight flaw with the multi-function slider implementation is the volume button lock function. Sliding into lock/hold mode is fine, but sliding back and releasing it almost inevitably changes the EQ setting. One would have to be very careful to slide it just so far as to not trigger function cycling. Personally, I find the button lock on this amp isn’t needed, so I never use it – and thus have no issues with it.
Powering an amp on and off seems to be something trivial, but it is actually faulty and possibly dangerous on many devices. Many amps start up or shut down with a loud audible click or pop. This means that a strong voltage spike is sent into the headphones drivers. Not only might this sudden induced movement damage the drives, it might also be painful to the listener’s ears. FiiO got that widespread issue perfectly right in the E6. Powering on and off is completely silent, not even the faintest click can be heard.
Battery life of the E6 is quite good, considering its diminutive size and rather respectable output power. FiiO claims about 10 hours of usage, but I get even more than that. The battery is charged via a standard Mini USB port, it takes about two hours for a full charge. It can be used while charging, but that depends somewhat on the quality of the USB port. Some improperly shielded circuits might add some background hiss or hum, while others don’t. The E6 however is less susceptible than many other USB-charging amps to such issues.
FiiO also took care of proper EMI/RFI shielding. The E6 doesn’t pick up any GSM or Wi-Fi signals, not even with a cellphone or router right next to the amp.
So what does the E6 sound like?
It’s simple – it doesn’t sound like anything. It’s a perfectly neutral, linear amp, with no ‘character’ of its own. It’s not ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ or ‘bright’ or ‘dark’ sounding. It delivers the input signal to its output without adding or subtracting anything. This is basically as good as it gets, no matter what price range we’re talking about (tube amps and their often pleasing harmonic distortions excluded). In volume-matched listening tests I could not distinguish the E6’s output from a Sansa Clip+, a Headstage Arrow, or an Echo AudioFire 4.
So if everything sounds the same, what’s the use of the E6?
Obviously, the E6 can make quiet sources louder, to drive headphones with higher impedance rating and/or lower sensitivity. My real-world example is the aforementioned Sansa Clip+. It’s not an overly loud player to start with, made quieter through the Rockbox firmware, and finally even quieter because I use Replaygain on my audio files. It’s an excellent performing player with that configuration, but one needs some fairly efficient phones to get acceptable sound levels out of that thing. Quieter IEMs like the Phonak PFE 112 or Hifiman/Head-Direct RE0 definitely need an amp to reach acceptable listening levels in this setup.
Of course, using a more powerful player such as a Cowon or similar, one doesn’t really need to worry about volume levels – unless one wants to drive some 300 Ohm phones or the likes. Then the E6 would certainly help a bit. Maybe it wouldn’t go to ear-shattering levels, since the amp is not über-powerful – but it should be perfectly acceptable for normal listening levels. Up to 150 Ohm or so, the E6 should handle virtually everything with ease.
Either way, it’s not really useful going by numbers and specs alone, since every phone handles differently. Overall, one does get about 8-10dB volume gain from the E6, which is about 2-3dB more than the older E5 delivered. To human ears, in general the E6 should go up to about twice to three times as loud, compared to an unamped source.
The less obvious – but quite important – issue a well designed amp can fix is flawed sources with high output impedance on their headphone jacks. Faulty devices like Realtek onboard sound cards, the Hifiman HM801, the Sony A840 series, or Archos Gen8 internet tablets have output impedances ranging somewhere between 10 and 30 Ohm. Those devices cannot drive multi-armature IEMs with crossovers properly. This flaw is more or less audible with most of them, making multi-armature IEMs generally sound muffled, veiled, and lacking treble.
Using the E6 with its less than 1 Ohm output impedance with those faulty sources can make a veritable ‘night and day’ difference in the way phones like the Earsonics SM3, Ultimate Ears UE11, or others sound. The E6 restores the original electrical signal and fixes these impedance issues for good. It doesn’t make the sound ‘better’; it simply makes it ‘as it’s supposed to be’. This is no issue with non-broken players like Cowons, AMS Sansas, or current generation iPods, so one wouldn’t need an extra amp for this specific fix regarding multi-armature IEMs. Also, dynamic driver IEMs don’t have this issue at all, no matter how high the output impedance of a player.
Another issue – also related to impedance and sensitivity, among other factors – is background hiss with combinations of certain sources and headphones. The E6 is on the very well behaved side and can fix this issue for most applications as well. Only with ridiculously sensitive IEMs of 120dB/mW and above (like the UE11 or Shure SE530) there is some faint background noise audible with the E6 – and then only at louder listening levels. With less sensitive phones at sane volume levels the E6 is generally dead silent.
Other variables – channel crosstalk, intermodulation and harmonic distortions, dynamic range, etc – are all fine and within specs. There’s really not much to say about any of them. Measuring instruments might show some pros or cons in graphs, but human ears generally can’t hear those things.
The Fiio E6 is a very high quality portable headphone amplifier. Of course there are always some ‘audiophile’ fractions which would never admit that a $30 amp can match and even surpass a $300 one, but that’s how it is. The E6 performs as well as the most expensive amps I’ve tried, and surpasses many of them in several performance aspects. If the E6’s circuitry would be put in a fancy brushed aluminum housing and it would be made in the USA or Germany, one could most definitely slap an upper three-digit price tag on it, and nobody would complain.
FiiO might not have built the loudest, most powerful amp – but they built one with all around excellent performance and no apparent technical flaws. I know quite a few portable amps that cost ten times the price of the E6, but can’t drive multi-armature IEMs properly, can’t adjust volume levels without crackling or channel imbalance, don’t have a flat frequency response, or can’t turn themselves on without almost blowing the attached phones’ drivers due to loud clicks and pops. The E6 has none of these all too often experienced flaws – and it’s also tinier and more lightweight than most other amps, making it quite bearable to carry additional bulk around.
If you do need an amp in your setup to fix any of the shortcomings I described above, the FiiO E6 should be your first choice. It would be silly to pay more while possibly getting less performance quality. If bass boost is your main requirement, there are better choices than the E6 (the Digizoid ZO for example), but as a standard headphone amp the E6 does everything by the books.
Congratulations, FiiO. Once again you have shown how to do things properly, for the right price.
- Flawless audio quality, neutral and linear, no distortions, good SNR
- Drives any low-to-medium impedance phone with ease (some high impedance ones, too)
- Very low output impedance; can handle any multi-armature IEMs properly
- Precise 64 step digital volume control, no channel imbalance or crackling
- Very little background hiss (only slightly audible with ultra-sensitive IEMs at louder volume levels)
- No clicks/pops at turning on/off
- Properly shielded, doesn’t pick up any cellphone signals
- Decent battery life considering the size
- Tiny and lightweight
- Removable clip
- Very inexpensive, considering its high quality performance
- EQ1 bass boost sounds muddy and overwhelming (EQ2 is more subtle)
- Button lock function poorly implemented, might change EQ setting when released
- Glossy plastic housing scratches easily
The FiiO E6 can be bought from MP4Nation, and probably a slew of other vendors.