Creative Sound Blaster E5 USB DAC & Headphone Amp
- Street Date:
- August 22nd, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- March 13th, 2015
- Game Release Year:
Sound Blaster E5 reviewed using a variety of headphones and other equipment.
Recently, Creative Labs has gotten pretty hip when it comes to both personal audio and the gulf that some of us have between our various music devices. With that hipness comes the Sound Blaster E5, a portable USB DAC & headphone amp, and incidentally, Creative's top of the line for a portable product that augments both smartphones and PCs/Macs. If that sounds like a big load of functionality for one product, then hold on to your stuff, the E5 can handle Hi-Res Audio, high impedance headphones (two sets at a time, in fact), aptX-based Bluetooth (with NFC) and even has a triple mic set-up.
Trading Up for Better Sound
Every day, at any given moment, somewhere in the world, someone like me is lamenting the current state of personal audio. Whether it's the kind of music, the format, or the equipment, someone like me can find plenty of fault, and I'm not even the worst of us. I imagine it's been that way at least for a century or two, but during the past decade, more people have made their personal music choices a part of their day than ever before, cultivating and seeking out music, and just maybe, taking for granted that their most readily available phone, tablet or computer will be there to play it back.
For the more discerning listener, however, there comes a moment or series of moments where the different pieces of playback equipment available begin to distinguish themselves. That might be as simple as different earbuds, but once a user decides that it's time to enter the world of DACs and headphone amps, the die is likely cast.
That's the thing about the E5. Not that long ago, getting just a little serious about headphones meant getting a headphone amp that plugged into the wall. (Just like an old preamp.) Analog-to-analog through a wall-powered metal brick made nicer headphones worth owning and using with portable MP3 players and PCs alike. More recently, this product space has grown, with companies like FiiO and Cayin offering portable headphone amps, and even portable USB DAC/ headphone amp combos.
And it's here where Creative comes in.
The Sound Blaster E5
That massive feature list I mentioned in the Introduction can be appear to be a hot mess on paper. But in practice, you'll be hard pressed to find a more versatile portable DAC/headphone amp. What Creative has done with the E5, is made a device that though still portable, is an indispensable jack of all trades in the PC arena.
Sure, the 24-bit/192kHz playback is nice for those wanting to jump into High-Resolution audio, but what about those people who spend as much time devouring their favorite music as they do Skyping, gaming, and working? Well that's the E5's bailiwick. Using its asynchronous USB design, the E5 removes the burden of DAC work off the connected device and onto the Cirrus Logic CS4398.
For gaming, streaming, podcast, and what not, the E5 gives the whole experience solid ground to stand on. I tried all kinds of unadvisable tricks in Windows 7 to try to get the E5 to stutter or lag, but it never missed beat. The closest I could get was game slow-down, but it still didn't miss a sound.
The versatility that I keep hitting upon means that the E5 can one heck of an audio lynchpin. With Creative, the dual headphone jacks seem like a given (it certainly helps when testing multiple headsets), but the E5's backside can really load up. It makes hooking up a 2.0 or 2.1 PC speakers, multiple sources, as well as just about set of headphones around so simple. There's the USB connection to the computer, the USB connection for a smart device, the (Mini-TOSLINK) optical out to the PC speakers, and an (Mini-TOSLINK) optical in for another device. The leaves the two headphone jacks, the Bluetooth connection, and the on-board mic set-up.
I threw every decent passive headphone set I had around at the E5, often in pairs, while pouring all kinds of audio files, apps, and games though the little box (I do believe in audio burn-in). This included High-Res music. (Neil Young would be proud, but CD quality sampling is still the way of the world.) A stack of Fleetwood Mac albums were key (I attended a concert during my review time), and I can tell you that I relished getting to focus on familiar music with a new set of ears. (For example, James Taylor's 'Fire and Rain' yielded some new notes that made me gasp.) Watching the first season of 'Treme' with the E5 was a treat. I did 'Destiny,' 'Far Cry 4,' 'Hand of Fate,' and 'Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number,' just to name a few, and I did podcasts (both listening and recording). The toggleable SBX settings include a surround slider that works wonders with stereo, and that applies to all headphones connected to the E5.
Creative promises that the E5 can power everything from 22 Ω Sure Earphones to a 600 Ω beyerdynamic with high volumes with negligible distortion regardless of frequency response. In my use, I focused on the low Ω popular headphones like the Audio-Technica line and the Sennheiser Momentum, as well as the 300 Ω Sennheiser HD 650. Naturally, the E5 and HD 650 is a match made in sub $1000 audio heaven with the high gain switch being all that's needed to power the open can design. What users can expect on something like the Momentum is to be able to go loud without dropping lows, mids, or highs. That is, the E5 maintains its sound signature in a flat manner that other random headphone jacks can't muster.
Lynch pin or no, the E5 is equally as happy going on the move. It's got a nice shape and with the included elastic bands, it can be strapped to a portable device like a Moto X. The E5 can provide hours of playback from a single charge, but there is an annoying snag. The E5 uses the Android Open Accessory Protocol, and that means that it is forced to try to charge a USB attached Android device. (Not an issue on iOS, where the E5 is MFi certied.) Doing this will drain the battery in mere 2 hours or so, as the hungry Android device siphons of juice. Fortunately for us, (and for Creative), the E5 has another trick in its sleeve.
I had thought the Bluetooth capability to be some kind of joke, a tacked on feature complete with NFC. In practice, this is one the more capable Bluetooth devices available, with not only AAC and SBC backing the Bluetooth 4.1 standard, but the game-changing aptX as well. Paired with another aptX device, and the Bluetooth transmission pays big dividends (like 44,100). The NFC pairing just works, and the Bluetooth range goes well beyond my expectations.
Without a hungry Android phone to charge, the E5 easily manages (and surpasses) the eight hours of battery life promised by Creative.
The triple mic (but two at a time) set-up on the E5 is pretty amazing, but best when used with headphones. (There are digital tricks for using them with speakers, but the processed results aren't worth it if other options are available.) Using the mics with a Bluetooth device is another story. Suddenly, it's possible to take calls with Sennhesier HD 650s, which means they can stay on my head when I'm working (or relaxing). That means whatever the classic passive headphone set the user wants to pair with the E5 will not only have the power it needs, but through the Bluetooth and mic capabilities, can be used more practically and in-line with normal day-to-day activities.
When going with a DAC and amp combo (or separates) the idea is usually to get away from the need for software. Worse, in the past, there have been many Creative products that were undone by their bloatware or over reliance on software. Fortunately, whether it's was on PC, Mac, iOS, or Android, I managed to get the software working and behaving without so much as a groan. On the PC in particular it's great to be able to set either Direct of SPDIF-Direct on, while the many "enhancements" available for playback and recording can be configured just how the user likes and then easily toggled on or off with the SBX button, which doubles as a Bluetooth call button. During my many hours of use, I never had the SBX enable itself, which is how I like it, with me in control.
Sadly, the software stops short of gifting the E5 any kind of Dolby Digital support. It's a two channel system through and through, but Dolby Digital 2.0 and DTS 2.0 are non-starters. Multichannel signals of any kind are trouble, which is a shame as I would love it if the E5 could pass on a six channel signal meant for PC speakers one way or another. (The E7 can do this and more, but isn't self-powered.) As noted below, the E5 doesn't have a LCD display, but I do wish the software was better about reporting input and output.
Bundled Items & Controls
Bundled along with the small but solid E5 unit is nice array of key accessories. There's one slim Mini-TOSLINK to optical cable, one red micro USB cable, two elastic bands, one stand with mic mount, and some unfortunately brief product documentation. Both the stand and the unit have a large rubberized surface, which gives a nice, useful feel. The volume wheel can be pushed to mute and unmute. One side has three lights to show battery life, two buttons, and the Low/High gain toggle. One button is power/Bluetooth pairing, while the other toggles on or off the SBX features. There is no LCD display, which is mostly fine as most of what the user would want to know can be found in the apps. (I would love a software app update that added input/output characteristics.)
I've covered the connectivity for the E5 and various things it can do well, games, music, calls, streaming, but what I haven't explained is that it can really most of this stuff simultaneously. There's no source switching with the E5; it outputs all of it sources at the same time. That's why I can have my phone hooked up along with a Hi-Res Walkman, my PC, and a PS4 with all sources coming through to my headphones. Phone/Skype calls are the exception as they take priority, and an audible voice chimes in to lend a hand. Basically, the E5's bag of well-executed tricks are lent to any connected passive set of cans, and that means being able to have the right tool for the job/recreation at any moment.
Likewise, it's key to note that the asynchronous design means that the E5 doesn't drop out due to power fluctuations. It is always charging when connected by USB to a PC, Mac, or wall jack, but it draws steady power from the built-in battery. In this way, it clobbers all kinds of USB audio solutions that need that 5v to work.
Considering the audio quality, the price point, and the long feature set, only two issues hold the Sound Blaster E5 back from a perfect score, the Android charging issue and the lack of any king of multi-channel/Dolby Digital/DTS way for the E5 to work with an external receiver. For would-be audiophiles, the E5 is like a gateway drug. You get excellent audio performance for headphones great and small with capabilities that keep the user on the cutting edge of their devices. Plus
- Model Number: SB1590
- Dimensions (L x W x H): 110 x 74 x 22 mm
- Weight: 164g
- 2.2 ohm - 600 ohm
- 120dB SNR
- Stereo, up to 24-bit/192kHz
All disc reviews at High-Def Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More
about our gear.
Puzzled by the technical jargon in our reviews, or wondering how we assess and rate HD DVD and Blu-ray discs? Learn about our review methodology.