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Review of FiiO E12A portable headphone amplifier w/lots of pics!!!

Discussion in 'Android Accessories' started by twister6, Oct 27, 2014.

  1. twister6

    twister6 Android Expert
    Thread Starter

    This is a review of FiiO E12A portable headphone amplifier. FiiO

    Available for purchase on Amazon (Amazon.com: FiiO E12A Mont Blanc Portable Headphone Amplifier for IEM Special Edition: Electronics - from authorized FiiO retailers such as Tinbel and others) or directly from FiiO distributor Micca Store : $159.99 - FiiO E12A Mont Blanc IEM Edition Portable Headphone Amplifier as well as other global authorized resellers.

    I mentioned this already in a few of my latest reviews of various portable headphone amps: there is a big misunderstanding of headphone amplifier purpose. I'm not going to pretend to be a seasoned know-it-all audiophile since portable headphone amps is my new venture, but I can tell you with certainty it's not just about a boost of output power or being able to drive high impedance cans. Today a lot of headphone manufacturers, regardless of full size or in-ear, like to cater to portable audio sources such as smartphones which doesn't usually have too much of driving power. So it's not just about a driving power, but also about creating a new exciting synergy when paired up with different sources that take your sound to a whole new level. Here is what I found when I got a chance to test the latest portable amplifier from FiiO.

    Arrived in a small packaging box similar to other FiiO products, you get a basic picture of the amp on the cover and a brief spec listed in both English and Chinese on the back. Inside of the packaging box, they choose to include another more sturdy gift-box which always adds a premium feeling to a product. After taking the top of the box off, you are greeted with E12A in a titanium color finish displayed inside of a form fitting foam cutout. Beside included detailed manual, underneath of the amp you have a box with accessories including usb to micro-usb charging cable, 3.5mm right angle L8 line out short cable, two sets of rubber bands for mounting/attachment, and 6 stick-on rubber bumper dots. Also, a neoprene storage sleeve was included - a nice way to keep your amp protected from scratches while traveling and also to store LO and usb cables inside. And speaking of traveling, I always appreciate when manufacturer implements a standard micro-usb charging port which allows you to use any smartphone phone charger.

    Dressed in a full alloy metal shell, E12A feels very solid, no flexing or bending. The only minor detail I noticed in my sample was a bevel level of the amp body shell being a few mm shorter in comparison to the metal end caps. But overall it has a very durable aluminum alloy unibody chassis with a solid build and premium quality titanium color finish. The back of the amp has a pair of easily accessible screws to take the amp apart, if needed for troubleshooting (perhaps, access to a battery), though I wouldn't recommend it because you will void the warranty. The front has 3.5mm Line In and Headphone Out gold plated jacks, H/L gain toggle switch, and a meaty ALPS volume potentiometer with a solid grip. The unit turns on by twisting pot clockwise past Min marker where a dot indicator helps to keep a track of the dial position. Once you turn it on, you are greeted by a blue led power indicator on the top side of the amp. The remaining port/control are on the side where you have micro-usb connector for charging and Bass boost on/off toggle switch. The only comment here, when I was using FiiO HS6 stack up kit for X5, I had to be careful to position rubber band to keep bass boost switch clear from interference. Not a show stopper if you do it carefully or you can use an included rubber band for direct mounting without a kit.

    So what are the benefits and what kind of sound enhancement can you expect using this new E12A portable headphone amplifier? Keep in mind, this is just an amplifier and not a DAC converting your digital music content to analog. The purpose of this amp is to take analog signal in, process it, and output analog signal out. This is typically taken care of by using different combinations of op-amps and output buffers. Though you certainly can use this amplifier connected to headphone output (HO) of your source, you will be faced with a double amping effect where your analog input was already processed by another amp. In my opinion, unless you are using external amp to boost output signal where it's absolutely necessary, to appreciate a true beauty of such amplifier enhancement you need to drive it from LO of your original source. Therefore, for my testing I was using FiiO X5 dap and put E12A against X5 own built in amp as well as FiiO E11k and Cayin C5 external amps.

    In general, I found E12A to be a relatively neutral amp with a sound signature more toward a brighter side. Paired up with X5 from LO and in comparison to direct HO output of X5, the sound is more detailed, more textured, with a tighter bass, and a wider soundstage. This just speaks of a better quality of amp/buffer used in E12A in comparison to built in X5 amp. Don't get me wrong, X5 is a fantastic DAP with an excellent sound, but when you start comparing - you draw a conclusion based on your preference. A lot of people are impressed with E12A use of highly regarded MUSES02 op-amp and LME49600 buffer combo, and output power of 420mW/16ohm and being able to drive headphones with up to 150ohm impedance (recommended, though I'm sure it can drive higher impedance as well), a battery that can last over 20hrs, and extended list of other impressive specs. It's all very important, but at the end what counts to me is how it sounds. Using ATH-IM03 IEMs for my testing I was very impressed how sound was transformed between IM03 connected directly to HO and then connected to E12A from LO of X5. As I mentioned above, I was able to appreciate everything from enhancement in tighter and more textured bass, to a better layering and separation and a better retrieval of details.

    Curious how it compares to its smaller sibling, I also tested E12A next to E11k and found E11k to sound warmer, less detailed, narrower in soundstage, and with a slightly different bass texture (expected at half the price). Also, bass boost on E11k had less impact (a bit scaled down quantity in comparison to E12A). Of course, a more interesting comparison was done next to Cayin C5 amp I recently reviewed. I thought these will be competing against each other due to similarities, but instead found them complementing each other with a different sound sig. The most obvious difference is C5 soundstage being wider/deeper in comparison to E12A. Also, E12A sounds more neutral and natural while C5 sounds thicker with a slight sound coloration which I wouldn't even notice without this comparison. Both have a solid black background. Also, to my ears E12A has a slightly better separation and layering sounding a bit less congested in comparison to C5. Furthermore, C5 bass boost affects both sub-bass and mid-bass, while E12A mostly sub-bass. Also, E12A battery life is probably close to double of C5. In general, C5 is more universal and more powerful to drive any kind of headphones, while E12A is appropriate for more efficient headphones and longer extended listening.

    Overall, I was VERY impressed with FiiO E12A portable headphone amplifier and how well it paired up with various sources and headphones, though I preferred to use it in my ultimate setup with X5+E12A+IM03 with FiiO L16 LO cable and Lunashops silver-plated headphone cable for IM03. E12A has an excellent solid build, a very modern sleek design, a great battery endurance, and a fantastic sound quality due to a selection of highly regarded op-amp and buffer combo. I don't have E12 or E12DIY models for comparison, but I'm very pleased with performance of E12A and for now keeping it as a permanent companion for my X5. I have no doubt it will pair up great with other DAPs as well. After all, it's not about bad or good amplifier, but rather finding a perfect match when pairing it up with your audio source.

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