Review of FiiO E18 portable USB (OTG) DAC and Headphone Amp w/lots of pics!!!


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  1. twister6

    twister6 Guides Guide

    This is a review of FiiO Portable USB (OTG) DAC and Headphone Amp for Android Phones. FiiO

    Getting my Galaxy Note 2 almost a year ago played a significant role in how I changed my home entertainment system. It became my go-to music player, my preferred movie player, my game console, and just in general my pocket entertainment system. Delivery of sound is the key element of such system, and that's how my journey begin to find decent headphones. I'm still on that journey and have found a lot of great choices in different price categories. But this journey took a slightly different direction when I started to visit audiophile communities to learn more about proper setup to achieve a great sound. One thing I found mentioned over and over again - to complete the equation of sound perfection you need audio source + quality DAC / headphone amplifier + headphones. Considering I wanted to stick with my Note 2 as audio source and already have a selection of preferred IEM, at first I got a little discouraged looking at different DAC and headphone amp bricks because I didn't want to loose my portability. But at the end I found the best solution with the most flexible setup - FiiO E18. As someone who hasn't been previously exposed to the audiophile world, I couldn't even believe my eyes that something like this even existed. That is why I'm very excited to share with you my Note 2 best new companion - E18.

    I always start with a packaging of the product since it sets the tone before the review. The product was packaged in a very sturdy hard carton box with a modest design. It's actually very environmentally conscious without any unnecessary plastic. But once you open it up and start taking E18 out along with all the accessories, it becomes almost like a magic trick how much they packed inside of this little box. In my pictures below the only extra thing was a second set of usb/micro-usb cable included inside of packing envelope while the product box only had one of these cables. E18 itself was inside of a form fitting soft storage pouch, intended for DAC/amp only, no extra room for cables. Once you take E18 you can't help but notice how light weight it is. With dimensions of only 130mm x 66.2mm and thickness of 14.6mm and a weight of 162g, it's super compact and fits nicely in the palm of your hand. The brushed metal finish of the case takes it to the next level of quality and appeal. Every element, every port, and every control on E18 screams high quality. All 3.5mm ports are gold plated and precisely aligned with the edge of the enclosure. Micro-usb ports are also aligned and slightly recessed so that mating cable doesn't stick out too much. Gain, Bass, and DAC/CHG switches have a precise click action, and Playback (next, prev, play/pause) Controls have a nice tactile response. Speaking of playback controls, the left/right arrows actually point to next/prev instead of typical prev/next like everywhere else, but you get used to it really quickly especially since play/pause button is not in the middle. Of course, the big star of the controls is Volume analog knob, ALPS potentiometer with a symmetrical placement for easy access and very precise smooth rotation movement. The volume knob also works as power on switch when you turn it from "0" position where you get red led power indicator. The feel of turning analog knob to control your volume is priceless, puts you in full control, and makes you feel like you are dealing with a real audiophile equipment.

    In addition, you also get a large selection of high quality accessories. You get usb/micro-usb charging cable which can also be used to connect to your laptop/computer, a short right angle 3.5mm male to male adapter for headphone amp connection between smartphone headphone jack and E18 line in, you get a very rare pair of micro-usb to micro-usb OTG cables to connect DAC to your smartphone/host for external audio processing, you also get 3.5mm to S/PDIF adapter for coaxial output to give you an option of outboard connection, you get 2 sets of rubber bands in standard and large sizes to attach E18 to your smartphone or music player, you get a set of stick-on rubber feet if you choose to attach it to a device like a smartphone without a case and want to prevent scratching, you get a very nice Quick Guide with explanation of every port and control, and a warranty card with step by step explanation how to check authenticity of your product.

    As you have seen from description of accessories, this little portable device is a swiss army knife of multiple functionality. First of all, it has it's own built in battery with 3500 mAh capacity to power up internal components AND also to work as external battery charger. Believe it or not but you can actually juice up your smartphone or wireless headphones/speakers/accessories using E18. With a battery full charged, confirmed by 3 leds indicators corresponding to low/medium/high capacity, you get 25hr of continuous AMP use or 12hr of continuous USB DAC use. Keep in mind, when used as USB DAC through OTG cable where your smartphone becomes a Host - E18 will not drain your phones battery because it uses it's own built in power supply. This USB DAC functionality is the most useful and sound rewarding in my opinion. Also, in that configuration you no longer need to rely on transport control of your audio player and instead can use remote Playback controls on E18 to play/pause and skip next/prev. Of course, your smartphone need to support USB OTG. If it doesn't, no worries since you can use E18 as headphone amp by connecting 3.5mm output from headphone jack of your smart device or tablet to E18 input and plugging your headphones of choice to headphone output of E18. And if you want more, just connect E18 to your laptop as an external USB sound card where in addition to higher quality sound output you can use the same remote Playback buttons to control your Windows Media player.

    It's great to know how well E18 operates in different modes and it's compatibility with smart devices through OTG USB, but without rewarding sound performance all this will be negligible. I'm not going to pretend to be an experienced audiophile, and for a more detailed analysis of this USB DAC/AMP I would suggest taking a look at this review on head-fi by one of their highly reputable reviewers: [Preview] FiiO E18 Kunlun . But I still would like to add my impression from a perspective of audiophile in training. For my test I used Logitech UE900 and Etymotic HF2 headphones, and did a number of a/b comparison using both through headphone amp only path and USB DAC path. Using 3.5mm audio jumper between my Note 2 headphone output and E18 input with headphones connected to E18, I found the sound to be relative transparent to my ears, exactly what headphone amp supposed to do - to amplify the sound without coloring with distortion or it's own built in EQ. USB DAC config is my main use for this device. Note 2 recognized E18 as peripheral device attached to a host without any problems. I also found that while playing music both Note 2 headphone output and E18 headphone outputs were active which helped with a/b comparison. Basically Note 2 recognized E18 being connected to the phone so sound wasn't playing through speaker of my smartphone. Even with a Gain set to low and Bass boost turned off, you can hear right away a significant difference in sound delivery where everything sounded tighter, with more headroom and improved dynamics especially as you raise the volume, and the sound itself felt a bit smoother and warmer. Gain switch added a significant boost in volume (supposed to be a little over 6dB) and Bass boost was a pure delight especially with UE900 which have a more balanced sound. That Bass boost added a nice warm low frequency punch and made sound more "fun". I was very pleasantly surprised how clean that boost was applied, not like a low frequency shelf EQ boost but rather a precisely tuned parametric EQ boost of sub bass frequencies. Btw for my test I was using stock Android audio player since my favorite Neutron MP turned out to have some incompatibility issue with E18 processing (added distortion and roll off of high frequencies). UPDATE: seems after the latest v1.7.53 update of Neutron everything works great and developer (Neutron) mentioned it could have been due to my own setting of auto-gain which needed a reset.

    Overall, I know this is the first time I used USB DAC/AMP but in my opinion FiiO E18 set a VERY HIGH bar for any future comparison. I think the combination of portable size, the build quality with all the precision controls, the enhanced sound quality and well executed Bass boost, and other bonuses such as playback control and external battery functionality - ALL make this portable device as a must have item for anybody who appreciates the high-fidelity sound and wants to enhance their listening experience with a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop/PC. Since I received this E18 model as a review unit, I've been told that price will be set closer to $160, and we will find out very soon once it gets listed on amazon. In my opinion - this is one fantastic value!!!

    Here are the pictures in order of unboxing, walkthrough, and setup and use with my Note 2.

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  2. OldManBill

    OldManBill Member

    I'm a fan of FiiO's products as well, but I'd like to give some perspective to folks not familiar with what value external amps or converters provide. The internal DAC in some handsets, such as the GN3, is outstanding. I've shelved my FiiO E17 / QOGIR-E09K solution when using low impedance earphones (Shure SE535 currently). If I'm pushing higher impedance cans (I like the Sennheiser HD650), than an external amp alone is recommended and sufficient. I'm fully behind using the E18 or similar solution for laptops or handsets with a less desirable internal DAC. With that said, the E18 looks very nice and the value is certainly there. I admit I'm tempted to get it just to give it a listen. Personally I'm saving for the Woo Audio WA7 as desktop DAC/Amp.

    I also believe that when I'm not using lossless formats, that the benefits of this better sound equipment is questionable/limited.
  3. twister6

    twister6 Guides Guide

    I do agree with a lot of your points. You can't polish a t*rd if you have low bit rate encoded audio and using the best dac/amp/IEM. I draw a line at 320kbps mp3, and considering I'm mostly into EDM scene - FLAC is not very common with that ;)

    Regarding higher impedance cans, absolutely, DAC/amp is a must. But as you know more and more people switching to multi-driver IEMs such as your preference for SE535 or my preference of UE900. Btw, have you ever compared these? I haven't found too many comparisons, and Shure wants credit card with a deposit just to send a loaner for testing. Btw, I was promised by Westone guys to get W40 loaner, their upcoming replacement of 4R model. My personal preference is for a balance sound with a bump in low frequency. UE900 doesn't quite cut it for me in low boost, so E18 Bass Boost was a godsend!

    You also brought up a good point about Note 2 vs Note 3. I can't comment on that because I only have Note 2 as my point of reference, and the sound difference is REALLY noticeable with and without E18. In theory Note 3 should have better DAC because it supports higher bit rate audio. But here is a thing, and I'm speaking from EE perspective since it's my job by trade. Quality of the component plays an important role, but you also have to consider printed circuit board (pcb) layout. Smartphones squeeze a lot of components next to each other without proper isolation. There simply no room for that inside of the phone. All of your analog opamp and DAC components need power and ground, and on a smartphone it will be shared and adjacent next to other "noisy" components. Plus, there is absolutely NO room for bigger capacitors to filter out noise ripple. E18 takes these components outside of the phone where you have digital signal going outside to your DAC, and all of your components inside are isolated and properly filtered to keep your power as clean and undistorted as possible. Higher quality components inside of the phone will make a difference in resolution of processing, but they will never be able to perform in isolated "clean" environment like they do inside of external DAC/amp box.

    With that said, I'm sure the sound difference will be more significant with E18 + Note 2 than with E18 + Note 3, but there will be difference for sure in using Note 3 by itself vs together with E18.

    As a value of universal USB DAC for a smartphone supporting OTG USB and with your laptop, or headphone amp for high impedance headpones (E18 can drive up to 150 ohms), and having its own internal battery which can be used as external battery - that is one damn good little gadget.
  4. OldManBill

    OldManBill Member

    Your comments are on point. Thanks for the reply! I considered the UE900 but decided to wait for the SE846 instead based on familiarity with the manufacturer. Different price point but I'm obsessed.

    Yup, noise sucks. I think it's a value proposition. The PCs I build for myself always get a discrete sound card because the subjective ROI for me is there. But not in the systems I give my kids. Same with a mobile solution. A subset of users will find value in it. I worry that folks may spend money on these "nice to have" items and realize that their needs and expectations didn't justify the purchase. Anyway, for audiophiles, go for it! We all have a basement full of new and old equipment, don't we? The quest for perfect sound continues thankfully for the businesses we support.
  5. twister6

    twister6 Guides Guide

    Not to insult anybody, but you are absolutely right - for the average user or those who thinks Beats are the best sounding "studio" headphones, it will not make a difference. I might not even use it every day either. BUT, I heard from FiiO guys they are working on some cool clip to attach E18 to your phone without a need of any permanent 3M tape or rubber bands, which obviously obstruct touch screen a bit :) So, I'm looking forward to that! I was even thinking about using it with this cheap clamp (one of my reviews: http://androidforums.com/samsung-ga...-one-hand-grip-stand-car-mount-under-3-a.html), but it doesn't have enough room in the back for E18.

    Regarding SE846, that one is one pricey toy!!! Make sure to post your review once you get it! Is that supposed to be their first quad-driver IEM?

    Btw, I'm waiting to receive this replacement UE900 cable which obviously also works with your SE535: 1 2M Handmade Cable Remote for Shure SE535 SE846 UE900 Earphone iPhone Samsung | eBay

    It can be used with wire down and has in-line remote to work with Samsung Note 2 and 3, even Volume up and down!!! Which means they used specific resistors inside for compatibility to match Samsung controls. I should get it in about a week, and will post my review here or will update my UE900 review with it. Not sure if the sound quality will be same as twisted pair on my UE900, but convenience of wire down and fully functioning remote with volume control - I might live with that, even considering it's "beats" red color lol!!!
  6. twister6

    twister6 Guides Guide

    Just got an update from FiiO. For those in US interested to buy E18 it will be available on Amazon very soon. 200 pieces has been shipped to a distributor (TekFX, Micca Store) and will be on sale for $159.99. I will post Amazon link as soon as I have it.
  7. twister6

    twister6 Guides Guide

    As much as I was excited about E18 portable usb DAC/amp, there was one thing I wish could have been improved. When you are dealing with a portable external DAC or amp, you need a way to attach it to your audio source. If you have a dedicated mp3/audio player using velcro or rubber band is the most logical option. The same idea could be applied when using with a smartphone, especially in a setup with E18 where it's intended to be connected to your smartphone through USB/otg cable. FiiO included two sets of rubber bands for that purpose, and I have read how others use a velcro tape as an alternative attachment option. Using a velcro tape is secure but it will leave a sticky residue if you decide to remove it. It also takes away from brushed metal look of the case when you use it standalone. Plus, assuming you would not stick the other side of velcro on the back of your phone but rather to some temporary case, it's no longer a universal attachment. On the other hand, using rubber band is a clean solution that should work with any case and without a need for any sticky velcro tape, but you will have parts of your smartphone touchscreen covered with a rubber band. It interferes with touch screen control and obstructs the view of the screen if you choose to use your DAC/amp for a premium sound delivery when watching movies/videos. Not too mention rubber band will not work with a tablet if you use E18 as headphone amp. The solution? The almighty Arkon Slim Grip Ultra mount!!!

    First of all, out of every car mount I have reviewed in the past (and I have reviewed them all) Slim Grip Ultra has been my favorite go-to car mount that works with any size smartphone as well as 7"/8" tablets. I have reviewed it in the past here: http://androidforums.com/samsung-galaxy-note-2/694925-arkon-slim-grip-ultra-mount-car-home.html and later followed it with Intelligrip version here: http://androidforums.com/6077084-post12.html . What's unique about it is that mount grip can easily be removed from the mounting arm leaving only a slim backplate which is 10mm thin with about 60mm in width and 110mm in length expandable to 160mm in length through a spring-loaded mechanism. In addition it comes with 2 sets of removable support legs of different length with a soft inner rubber padding and ability to extend the backplate with end grips to hold your smartphone or tablet. What is very important, those support legs could be shifted anywhere along the edges to accommodate for different port openings on your smartphone or tablet. Therefore you no longer need to attach E18 to the phone but rather use your rubber bands (smaller size pair worked great) to attach E18 to Arkon Slim Grip Ultra as I have demonstrated in the pictures. Once it's attached, you just insert your smartphone or tablet of choice inside of the grip and you're DONE!!!

    Now your display will be open for a full touch control. You no longer need to use any sticky velcro. You can prop up your setup as a kickstand to put it up on the table to watch movies or videos or get access to your audio player without any obstructions. It also enhances the grip of the phone to hold it securely in your hand, and doesn't add too much bulk since Slim Grip Ultra is very lightweight and you only increasing thickness of your overall setup by 10mm. If you choose to you can still attach E18 with a velcro tape to Slim Grip Ultra, but in my opinion it's no longer necessary since you get a very sturdy grip, and can still use it later in the car to mount your smartphone or tablet. You can purchase Slim Grip Ultra for about $20 which is a fantastic value considering how many uses you can get out of it. Furthermore, you can choose Intelligrip version of Slim Grip Ultra which has a replaceable NFC tag. If your phone supports NFC, you can program it to trigger any action when phone is inserted into the E18 piggyback grip.

    Here are the pictures:

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  8. shaolin95

    shaolin95 Well-Known Member

    Nobody replied to this..sad but I will be getting the E18 and E17 to compare this week.
    Thanks for the report!
  9. twister6

    twister6 Guides Guide

    Well, as you know my friend, AF doesn't get as much traffic as XDA in Accessories Section. But I'm still being very consistent with my reviews by mirroring each one in both communities!!!

    Head-fi.org is where you get an answer to this right away; that one is pure audiophile world ;)
  10. joecole05

    joecole05 New Member

    i dunno why ppl never mentioned this?

    e18 kunlun doesnt use wolfson chip. i wonder how the quality will be compared to e17 and e07k
  11. twister6

    twister6 Guides Guide

    FiiO has been around the block for a long time and these guys put a lot of thought into the design. It's not driven by a hyped chip or a cost to cut corners. Wolfson is not the only player in high quality audio signal processing, their selection in E18 is equally as impressive. Btw, I compared E18 to Beyer's A200p (uses Wolfson) and the sound in E18 is a bit warmer. So perhaps that was the idea behind selection of their hardware?

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