The Upgrade: Fiio E17 “Alpen”

fiio_e17_10

As me and Lieven were talking at the end of 2011, we both agreed that the Fiio E10 was the biggest surprise of the year. Everybody was busy making USB DACs with built in headphone amps, and all of a sudden the E10 came out seemingly out of nowhere and gave us a price/sound combination that we haven’t seen in a very long time. It was somehow akin to the Grado SR60 of the old days. The E10 was such a big hit, not only because it was loved by everyone, but it happened to be very affordable at the same time. The success of the E10 was so phenomenal, the first thing I thought of when I heard about the E17 “Alpen” was, “can they beat the E10′s success”?

The Alpen was built to be a much more complete product than the E10. The most significant addition was the ability for it to serve as a portable headphone amplifier. With batteries built into the Alpen, you can unplug it from USB and take it for a spin together with your Ipod. The E10 was limited to the USB DAC/Amp functions, and the E11 amplifier only to amplification purposes. The Fiio E17 Alpen does them both, and obviously this is a good thing. In addition to that they also added features such as coaxial and and toslink digital inputs, making it one of the most affordable DAC with complete digital inputs.

A lot of features for the money, but I didn’t want to be distracted with the features. To me, it all comes down to the sound. They can make a 10-in-1 device, and the bottom line is still about the sound. Heck it can be $50 and still I’m not going to recommend it to my readers if the sound is not right. Because after all the initial hype and enthusiasm are gone, and there are newer products in the market with bigger and better numbers, all that’s left is the sound, the way it does music.

Enough crap, let’s get down to the meat. If you are an E10 owner, I need to apologize because the next paragraph is gonna hurt.

 

Now I’m really sorry to say this because I know a lot of you just bought the E10 and it would be nice to be able to sit down and chill for a while without having to worry that there are better things out in the market already. In this aspect, I think you really should blame Fiio, not me. My job as a reviewer is to tell you guys how a certain box sounds, and in the case of the Alpen, it’s clearly better than the E10. Awwww, sorry guys.

Not better in this or that, good in certain aspects but less so in others. It’s better, no matter how you look at it, even ignoring all the added features. The reality is that if you think the E10 sounds good, then the E17 is going to be a clear upgrade. Identical tonality and sound signature means that if you like the E10′s sound, the E17 does bass/mid/treble exactly the same way. The bonus is that with the Alpen, the bass is punchier (awesome!), tighter (awesome x2), soundstage is wider, and the midrange is clearer. What is there not to like?

Along with the release of the Alpen comes in a few questions that begs for a comparison between the it and other products in this price segment. I will try to do the comparison but if I miss anything, feel free to ask on the comments section.

E17 versus E7

Not even close. Aside from the improved features and specs, the E17 also blows the E9 out of the water. There is no comparison here. Tonally, the E7 sounds thin on the mids and lows, and the soundstage is not that impressive. If I can add something, also put congested mids into the list of the E7 features. The E17 on the other hand has a much bigger soundstage, and a more likeable tonality. Good full mids, good bass, spacious sound, all around musical.

E17 and E9 pairing

Pairing with the E9 desktop amp unit, you get a bigger sound with better dynamics and dynamic range. However, I don’t think the sound signature works out to be that good. It robs the E17 of the sweet full midrange and in return gives you a somewhat unpleasant and recessed mids. Yes, bigger sound and more power, but sorry I’d rather have my midrange back. In my opinion, the E9 better left paired with the E7, while the E17 better be left on its own (at least until Fiio comes out with a newer version of the E9).

E17 versus Audinst HUD MX1

Tonally they are a bit similar with their dark and warm sound signature. Technically the E17 is very good, but the Audinst is still better, though the difference is now closer than it was compared to the E10. The Audinst has been a long time favorite of mine, due to its simple design, affordable price, and overall good sound quality. However, this time the E17 again shines due to the way it does midrange: full, clear and sweet (don’t we all love full, clear and sweet sounding midrange?). The Audinst’s midrange is not as bad as the E7 and the E9 (or both of them combined), but it’s still not as good as the E17 or the E10′s midrange.

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001829423021 Bocheng Gu

    Hi Mike,
    Between Audinst HUD-MX1 & FiiO E17, which would you say is a better fit for SRH840? Thanks!

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      How do you find the 840 to sound?

      If you want a more laid back sound, then Audinst. If you want a more forward, dynamic sound, the Fiio

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001829423021 Bocheng Gu

        I’m looking for a wider sound stage, better separation of the instruments, better treble extension, better defined bass, and all in all a less muffled sound with more refinement and details. So does that mean I should go with the Audinst? Thanks again!

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          You want a super do it all DAC?

          Can’t get it at this price range sorry.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001829423021 Bocheng Gu

            No, of course not. Let me rephrase my question then: if i want an overall brighter sound, which DAC in your opinion would better achieve this goal? Audinst or Fiio?

            (I actually find SRH840s forward enough already, also a tad darker for my taste)

            • http://www.facebook.com/dave.ulrich.7 Dave Ulrich

              Both are on the darker side. If you just need a dac, the dacport lx might get you close, although it isn’t fantastic when it comes to width. It is fairly neutral. If you don’t have a mac, the yulong sounds like it might be an option.

              • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001829423021 Bocheng Gu

                Well, considering the availability from where I live and budget reasons I have to narrow down my options to these two (Audinst & Fiio). But thanks anyway for the suggestions Dave! :)

                • http://www.facebook.com/dave.ulrich.7 Dave Ulrich

                  Well, the Fiio has treble control, so you could add more if you so choose.

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              If you want something brighter then the Fiio. A better choice for that is the Dacport Lx

  • Dean Lu

    I have a pair of shure srh 440s and I was wondering as an amp/dac combo, would this be the best possible on to buy? I don’t want to spend any more money than $140, but if there is any better ones for less, could you tell me?

    • dalethorn

      I think you can check the review of the E07K here (just the E07K and ignore the E09 parts), and see if you think it has enough power to drive the Shure 440. I’ve been using the E07K with headphones that are medium-efficient, and I think it’s a good match.

  • Garry

    So the E17 is better than the E10, but is it “double the price” better?
    The E10 goes for $70, whereas the E17 is $140.
    Is the sound quality really worth the price difference? Is it worth spending twice the $$?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Garry,
      With audio the sound improvement is never equal to price increase. A $1000 DAC is not 10x better than a $100 DAC.
      Cheers

      • John123John

        just realized, well thought of something.
        I too am very fond of the price/performance ratio, especially since i am on a low budget.
        I wonder when the day will come when I can start contemplating on what $5000 tube amp to match with my $2000 headphones or even $40,000 speakers (WTF!)…..

        tell us mike :)

        • Dave Ulrich

          I still think there is a sanity cutoff at some point. The question is, “do you use headphones to listen to music, or do you use music to listen to headphones?” Focusing too much on technicalities, I think one tends to forget the music which, for me at least, is why I have the gear to begin with.

          • dalethorn

            It’s hard to know where the cutoff point is. I listen with the E07K and then the E17, and one sounds tighter on the low end and one sounds airier on the high end. But maybe the amp with the tighter bass becomes less airy because of the thing that makes the bass tighter. So the only control you have in these cases is to choose, unless you can swap opamps or something.

            • Dave Ulrich

              Off topic, but thanks for tip about using the piano EQ on the ipod with the DT 770 AE. I actually prefer the 770 straight out of my Ipod as opposed to LOD’ed to my cMoy or the National.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          What do you want me to tell you? ;)

    • John123John

      It may sound like a cop out but that is COMPLETELY up to you. How much is $70 dollars worth to you? for slightly better mids, soundstage, etc.
      also a thing to consider is that the E7 and E17 comparison was done side by side (i think?!) and sounds even more different when compared this way. The difference still exist but you probably wouldnt notice unless you could compare both.
      You should first note the features, obviously if you need SPDIF input, you would go for the E17. Then price, then sound (so you dont spend more than you want to, hopefully).

      Based on Mike’s review, seems like the E17 blows the E10 out of the water and I would probably get that which I did and had briefly. Also recall that the E10 did get a great review as well.

      • Dave Ulrich

        Could always give the e7k s spin. Cheaper than the e17 and suppose to be just as good

        • Garry

          Right, I forgot about the E07K. I will most likely end up getting either that or the E10. I read online that they all use the same WM8740 DAC, so only difference would be the amp and extra features?

          • Dave Ulrich

            Mike said he found the bass tighter on the e7k, and tight bass is a big deal for me.

    • Brandon Fulk

      Heads up: the E17 is going for $90 on MassDrop right now. It might be worth spending that $20 for the SQ difference.

      • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

        Thanks for the update

  • Adil Jain

    Q1 – Been researching DAC AMPs for a while now – wanted to ask what your expert opinion is on my short-list -
    Fiio E17
    iBasso D7
    Cambridge Audio DacMagic
    NuForce Icon2

    I don’t mind spending a little bit more to get a solid built product that will last, has more input and output options – and is not limiting in it’s technology – for eg – 24/96 !!

    Equipment – Grado SR60 + Axiom M3Ti bookshelf speakers + Sonic Impact T-amp Super + MacBook Pro (Vox/Cog for FLAC files)

    Q2 – What sort of cable will talk to the Digital I/O port on my Macbook Pro – - co-axial (is the same as TOSLINK, right?) or SPDIF?

    AJ

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I only have experience with the E17 and the DacMagic on that list. E17 is good, but DacMagic is better.
      I believe the MacBooks use TOSLINK not coaxial.

  • Michael Shin

    Would the E17 be a good pairing with AKG’s Q701s and could it be sustained as a stand alone (no addditional amp)? If not, should I consider tacking on the E09k for a stronger amp. Or should I look for a different DAC/AMP combo with a budget of ~$250 USD. I’ve been considering other alternatives after reading your article on the E07K/E09K and researching about a few other pairings like the Schiit Magni/Modi. Which do you think I should go with for the Q701s?

    Thanks in advance and the good read.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Michael,
      All of those amps mentioned should easily power the Q701. I would go for the E07K/E09K combo personally.

      • Michael Shin

        Thank you for the quick response :)

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          You’re welcome.

  • Ian Schwarzenegger

    Currently use an E7/E9 combo, ordered an E17 which I was planning to stick into the E9. But after this review I feel like it will lower my sound quality :(

    Any chance the E09K solves the issues you were having??

    The headphones i got last night as part of my Headphone/Sound upgrade are German Maestro GMP400.

    • Dave Ulrich
      • Ian Schwarzenegger

        Thanks! Seems I shall be getting an E09k to replace my E9 when I can justify spending anymore money! Spent enough so far on Headphones and the E17 :(

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Ian,
      Sorry what issues are you talking about? Old review and I don’t remember the details.

      • Ian Schwarzenegger

        The Pairing the E17 and E9 section of the above review. probably easier for you to just quickly reread the paragraph instead of me pasting all of that

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Yeah the E9K is definitely better. Sound signature is fuller on the K version, nothing like the original E9

  • STARSTERN

    had one tried A e11 plus e10 in compare to A alpen e17 ?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Still a different sound.

      E11 + E10 more relaxed, boomier bass. E17 faster pace, tighter bass, more forward.
      Not saying one is better than the other but just different taste.

  • STARSTERN

    in other words e17 more transparent ?

  • Berkhan Oğulcan Akçay

    Hey Mike.
    Can you compare E17 to a ESI Dr Dac Nano? I’m trying to decide between these two.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      It’s been a while and I don’t have the Nano around to compare but I think the E17 should be superior.

      • Berkhan Oğulcan Akçay

        Thanks for your reply. I’ll buy the E17 I think.

  • Niklas Hörnedal

    Hi Mike,
    Do you think E17 would fit well with the sennheiser 598, otherwise do you have any other suggestions for an amp with similar price range?

    • dalethorn

      What is your source player?

      • Niklas Hörnedal

        If I understood the question correctly, I most often use my macbook pro to play my music.

        • dalethorn

          For the price of the E17, you could add a few more dollars and get a Audioengine D3, the new v2 Dragonfly perhaps, or the HRT Microstreamer, any of which would be a big step up over the E17 in sound quality, but these would not work with portable music players like the E17 does, although the E17 would be an amp only for portable music players, not a DAC like it would with the computer.

          • Niklas Hörnedal

            Thanks for the reply!
            I have been trying to read some reviews but none of the DACs seems to stand out more than the other. whats your take on the three?

            • dalethorn

              I haven’t heard the revised Dragonfly, but given the quality of the other two, I’d pick the Microstreamer for durability. To make the Dragonfly more durable and less likely to damage a computer USB port (due to the headphone cable pulling on the little DAC), they sell a “Dragontail” cable. With the Microstreamer you use a cable anyway, but it runs much cooler than the other two.

              • Niklas Hörnedal

                I want to go with the Microstreamer but I have read that some people hear random loud pops and that there is a slight buzzing in the background when using the DAC.

                • dalethorn

                  Funny that you mention that. It seems to happen with every DAC, depending on the user’s gear and configuration. My Microstreamer never gave me a problem since my config on the PC and the Mac are set to 96 khz and 24 bits. So far what seems to make things work best is to set your config on the computer to the highest values for the DAC, but be aware that there are separate screens for those configs and they are not simple – check the documents for several DACs, not just the one you buy, so you get everything set right. Then it might help also to to turn off apps that try to take control, such as Skype. I’ve always ended up running my music players with 1000 ms buffering – if another setting helps one time, it doesn’t the next time.

                  • Niklas Hörnedal

                    Okej, thank you for the help!

  • Sergio Mejia

    Hello, what you recommend headphone amplifier

    Shure SRH1440 Professional? Could be a desktop or portable … Thanks

  • Sergio Mejia

    One more question, how do you think the this amp:

    Bravo Audio Ocean Valve Class A Tube Mini Headphone Amplifier?. Would I recommend it for 1440 Shure headphones?

    • dalethorn

      A valve amp should work better than a ss amp, since the 1440 is rather bright. The good thing about the 1440 is the brightness is not rough or peaky, so it doesn’t need smoothing, just a softer amplification.

      • Sergio Mejia

        thanks for your timely response.
        Sorry to ask again, but I find so many options that I’m a little confused. In the range of 0-500 USD, what would you recommend me amp for Shure 1440?

        • dalethorn

          HiFiMan EF5? Little Dot MK-IV?

      • Sergio Mejia

        Hi, Does Apex High Fi Audio Glacier, is appropriate (ideal) for Shure SRH1440 headphones?

  • Sergio Mejia

    Thanks Mike

  • Lifelearner1

    Thank you for the great review. I’m purchasing a pair of AD900x with the Fiio E17. I will be using them for music, and FPS gaming mainly. Would you recommend a different Amp/Dac for these headphones?

    • dalethorn

      Is the USB DAC feature of the E17 why you are buying it? What is FPS gaming?

      • Dave Ulrich

        It stands for first person shooter. Remember Lifelearner1, just because we are headphone geeks doesn’t mean we are video game geeks ;) I do like to consider myself a geek of all trades, though. I would say, since you have already ordered them, wait and hear what you think of the combo and go from there.

        • Lifelearner1

          I will remember. Lol! Thank you both for the reply. I’m really new to the geeker side of audio.

  • Miles Elzinga

    I use my Fiio E10 with my BeyerDynamic DT 880s. I find that sometiems the E10 isn’t quite enough to drive the 880s as loud as I’d like. Will the E17 be an upgrade and offer more power to push my 880s?

    • dalethorn

      The maximum power output doesn’t seem much different – maybe 50 percent which is less than 2 db. What is your source and the 880 ohms?

      • Miles Elzinga

        I’m typically just using iTunes, I have the 250 ohm version.

        • dalethorn

          The E17 should work OK, especially if you set it to high gain. But the dynamics might not be as clean as using a more powerful amp.

          • Miles Elzinga

            Well, what would you recommend then? If like to keep it about $100. I’ve always been quite a fan of Fiio products which is why I was thinking the E17.

            • dalethorn

              If you are using the E17 as both DAC and headphone amp from a computer, then the E17 is the best bet I think. But if you’re just needing the amp and not the DAC then the E12 has more power. If there are more questions then please provide more details, thanks.

  • RyAN

    Hi Mike, could you recommend portable amp for ak100mk2. i try to find DAC/AMP with optical input (connecting to mini optical out in AK100mk2) and so far i only found ibasso D12 and fiio E17. which one would be better? thx

  • meh

    quick answer, e17 vs e12?

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      dac vs amp

      • meh

        compare both of them as a whole? dac/amp vs amp? sound quality wise

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          check the comments, I seriously do not have time to repeat myself over and over, sorry. we’re trying to help everyone here but don’t abuse our good will, put some effort into it yourself. thanks!

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          Like L said, they are very different, so maybe you could be more specific about what you are looking for, how you will use it, so the performance of these amps can be described relative to your needs.