Disclaimer: I received the E12 sample unit from Fiio.
With the Fiio E12 amplifier, it’s almost like the chinese company is making a statement that there is nothing they can’t make. From the smallest headphone amplifier (Fiio E2) to the beefiest amplifier from Fiio so far, the E12. They’ve got the hot entry level USB DAC/Amp segment covered with winners like the Fiio E10 and E17. They’ve got an Android portable DAC coming in June (E18). Nothing seems to be stopping Fiio.
The focus today is on the Fiio E12, the latest portable amplifier from Fiio. The last stand-alone headphone amplifier that they made was the E6, and I was expecting the E12 to be an update of the E11 except this time done in a nicer brushed aluminum packaging instead of the pure-plastic E11. Apparently the E12 turned out to be much bigger. The footprint alone is longer than an Ipod Classic and is wider than an Iphone 4/5. Why the change to the bigger form factor? While I can understand the trend for 5″ screens on smartphones, I really don’t want my headphone amplifier to be big unless it’s really necessary.
Turns out that a Hifiman HE-6 driving power is the reason for its size. Straight from its tiny 1/8″ single ended output, the E12 drives the Hifiman HE-6 with punch and authority. Not quite the refinement level of an ALO Rx Mk3B or Portaphile’s 627 amplifier, but they sell for multiple times the price of this Fiio. Bass is tight and punchy, and that alone is perhaps the hardest part to do considering the load that is the HE-6. Mid is full, PRaT is great. Soundstage feels a little narrow and depth is just decent, but again the ability of the Fiio to drive the HE-6 deserves big respect. Treble is a bit unpleasant with the E12 & HE-6 pairing, so I resorted back to the Hifiman HE-400 which I find to be a much more ideal pairing. I guess that extra power is just there for headroom as the HE-400 is easier than the HE-6.
Sound quality is definitely up from the E11, no confusion there. No more loose bass like on the E11, instead what you get is a tight, well controlled bass that hits hard. Midrange section is full and with a good sparkle. The sound signature is forward and full of PRaT. It’s almost like the Apex Glacier without the Apex’s spacious soundstage. The forward midrange can be a double edged sword though. Often it feels dry and unpleasant, and a smoother upper mid (if Fiio can pull one off in a future batch update — they definitely can, but would they?) would definitely make the E12 work better with a wider range of headphones.
While amplifiers like the CmoyBB and the JDSLabs C421 adds a good amount of space, the Fiio E12 is more about boosting punch and adding PRaT. It’s as if Burson had somehow entered the portable amp market. On another hand, it’s forward and punchy and though not exactly narrow or constricted, is not very spacious or airy. Though not the most transparent or revealing amp I’ve heard, the E12 is definitely the best yet from Fiio in terms of sound quality. From top to bottom everything is presented with good control and articulation.
Rough Amplifier Pairing
Where does Fiio’s E12 stand in the headphone amplifier comparison matrix? If we want to be specific, I would say somewhere roughly between the $150 to $250 bracket of amps. In terms of driving hard heavy headphones, the E12 does have a power output comparable to the ALO Rx Mk3B and Portaphile’s 627, though with a level of refinement that’s noticeably below the two higher end amps. It definitely outclasses the majority of sub $100 amps both in terms of power output and clean technicalities. Perhaps a good base of a comparison is with the popular JDSLabs C241 amp where the C421 outclasses the E12 in overall refinement and soundstage image, but the E12 definitely has the upper hand in power output. I’m still waiting for JDSLabs’ C5 to arrive and compare it to the E12.
Next page: Extra Features and Headphone Pairings…