Comparison to the Nuforce uDAC 2
I was able to get an uDAC 2 from a friend (thanks, Niko!) and so I think it’ll be good to add this in to the review. Build quality wise, while the Fiio is pretty good looking, I’ve always have a soft spot for the uDAC’s classy matte finishing, the volume knob, the size and dimension. I think it’s also good that the uDAC’s analog out comes in the form of RCA since that’s more ideal for pairing to bigger desktop amps. The Fiio E10’s 3.5mm mini jack analog out however is more practical for pairing with portable amps. Both DACs do driverless 24/96, so in that sense they are equal. Technicalities wise, the E10 is significantly more spacious and deeper, and indeed this is the biggest improvement I felt when moving to the E10 after listening to the uDAC 2. The uDAC 2 also sound congested on the midrange section, in comparison the E10 is more open on the mids, but a trade off is that I feel the bass section to be looser on the E10. Give and take. Sound signature wise, the E10 is warmer, fuller, and darker. More relaxed treble, smoother, fuller mids and lows. The uDAC 2 is slightly thinner and dryer and pushes the treble out a little, though on some recording this helps with adding a sensation of better air, on other recordings it also pushes the treble to be more agressive. Driving power wise, the uDAC 2 and the Fiio E10 are pretty much equal. I tested them with both the Audez’e LCD-2 and the Beyerdynamic T1. With the JH5 IEM, I was able to get more sensitive control over the volume with the Fiio E10 due to the availability of the LO/HI gain switch.
Comparison with the Fiio E7-E9 combo
Most noticeable is how the sound on the E10 is very clean and grainless, which also results in a blacker background of the soundstage. Soundstage, however is more spacious and more open on the E7-E9 combo, though the soundstage depth is better on the E10. With full size headphones like the T1, you also get more voltage swing with the E9 amplifier which enables you to go to louder volume levels. The E7-E9 sounds less liquid, thinner on the mids, slightly dryer and has a more prominent upper treble presence which agains helps to add air to the sound. The E10 on the other hand is a warmer, smoother, fuller mids and lows sound.
I was never too enthusiastic about the E7-E9 combo, while my impression of the E10 is 120% positive and this comparison again reminds me to why I was not too enthusiastic to the E7-E9 combo. I begin the comparison with the JH5 IEM, which is a high sensitivity, low impedance IEM. With the E10 the JH5 sounds very good and I also get a very sensitive volume control with very low noise level. The E7-E9 on the other hand has an added resistor on the 3.5mm jack that’s installed to lower the effective gain/loudness level. Well, it sure does a good job in lowering the loudness level, but at the same time, and I’ve said this many times, that adding a resistor on the output path (between the amplifier to the headphones) shifts the entire frequency response, killing the top treble and making things sound bassier and muddier. Indeed this was the first impression I had when I plugged the JH5 on the E9’s 3.5 mm plug. Of course you can get better results if you use the standard 1/4″ output with a 1/4″ – 1/8″ converter.
Next, I move on to the Beyerdynamic T1 which is a relatively bright headphone. It pairs very well with the E10 due to the darker, warmer, fuller lows character of the E10, and better than if I had plugged it in to the E7-E9 combo. When I moved to the Audez’e LCD-2, which is a relatively dark headphone (it’s a stock revision 1 model), I was actually sort of surprised that I find the sound of the LCD-2 and E10 combo to sound better than the LCD-2 to the E7-E9 because previously I thought that the LCD-2 would benefit from the more open, more spacious sound of the E7-E9. This is why: even with a relatively full sounding headphone like the LCD-2, the dryer midrange of the E7 DAC still comes through on the final sound output and I don’t enjoy dry sounding midrange. Next, and I mentioned this above when I compared the E7 DAC to the E10, is where the E10 has a very engaging sound with punchy bass, the E7’s is flatter and the bass punch is weaker even through the E9 amplifier. The result is a sound that’s less fun, less engaging on the E7-E9, rather than the full mid, punchy bass, awesome PRaT of the E10’s.
Comparison with the Fiio E11 portable amp
The E11 doesn’t come with a DAC and so I’ll compare the amplifier section of both units. The set up is as follows: Macbook Air > Fiio E10 > Fiio E11 using a Fiio mini-mini cable from the E10’s analog out to the E11’s input. Clearly there is a loss of transparency and clarity, as the signal has to go through longer paths. The bass however is more punchy and slightly less loose than if I’m using the E10’s internal amp. For Electronic, Trance, Dubstep where bass is important I would probably choose the E10+E11 (though the E10 is also fine just by itself), but for Acoustic and Jazz it’s probably better to go with the built in headphone out of the E10 to maintain maximum transparency levels.