Sound Blaster E5 review: This portable DAC and headphone amp is an audio powerhouse
By Michael Brown
TechHiveOct 7, 2014 3:30 am PDT
At a Glance
Amazing audio performance for the price
High-end headphone amplifier
Can’t decode Dolby or DTS encoding
Some cheesy audio effects
Creative’s Sound Blaster E5 pulls off the trick of being a jack of all trades with nary a significant compromise.
Sound Blaster: the 20-year-old brand is a fond memory for some, an unknown quantity for others. How it resonates with you likely depends on how long you’ve on the gaming scene. But brand-owner Creative Labs has always been an audio company first and a gaming company second. And its passion for delivering great audio experiences at reasonable prices is manifest in the Sound Blaster E5.
The E5 is a portable, battery-powered DAC (digital-to-analog converter), USB audio device, headphone amp, and more bundled into a relatively compact package. But don’t let its small size, 1/8-inch jacks, and Bluetooth connectivity fool you into thinking this is a low-fidelity box. The E5 is loaded with high-quality silicon, plus Creative’s own SB Axx1 audio processor and the software that goes with it.
The E5 isn’t limited to use with headphones, either. It can convert an analog audio signal to digital via its line-level input, its stereo mic input, or its integrated mics. It’s outfitted with three mics, but only two are active at once. A gyroscope detects the E5’s orientation—portrait or landscape—as you record and activates them accordingly.
The E5 can also convert a digital signal to analog (via its optical input, USB port, or Bluetooth connection). Finally, it can send a bit stream to an outboard DAC via an optical output. And it can do all that at bit rates, sampling frequencies, and signal-to-noise ratios that promise the highest fidelity to the source material: Up to 24-bit/192kHz with 120dB SNR.
Creative selected well-known components that make significant contributions to the E5’s excellent performance: Digital-to-analog conversions are handled by a Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC, while a Cirrus Logic CS5361 handles conversions in the other direction. A Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 headphone amp drives two 1/8-inch headphone outputs. Creative says the E5 will drive headphones that present up to 600 ohms of impedance (although you need to flip a gain-boost switch to drive headphones that present more than 330 ohms of impedance). I don’t own any cans that are that hard to drive, but I did evaluate the amp with three of my favorite pairs (see “Listening tests” below for details).
Creative’s SB Axx1 is the fourth leg of the E5’s stool. It’s a digital signal processor that runs a number of software programs that have been associated with Sound Blaster products for years. A button on the side of the E5 toggles these on and off. But before you flip that switch, download and install Creative’s Sound Blaster Central app on your Android or iOS device (Windows and Mac software is also available).
You can use the software to fine tune the E5’s many audio effects. You can also configure its line/mic/optical input (and adjust the mic input’s gain if you’re using it that way). Creative says you can expect to get up to eight hours from its 3200mAh lithium-polymer battery, but I didn’t perform a battery-rundown test to verify that.
Sound Blaster Central
You’ll need to pair the E5 with a device via Bluetooth before you can use Sound Blaster Central. This can be accomplished by pushing a button or using near-field communication if your device supports it. SBX Pro Studio is the most important element in the suite. By adjusting a series of sliders, you can defeat, boost, or cut the following DSP effects: SBX Surround, a faux surround-sound effect; SBX Crystalizer, an EQ effect ostensibly designed to restore life to lossy-compressed audio tracks (such as MP3s); and SBX Bass, a bass booster.
I consider myself an audio purist and generally regard such DSP trickery with disdain. But I actually like SBX Crystalizer—in moderate doses, at least—because of the way it increases frequency separation. I find it to be a pleasant effect that makes it easier for my ears to pick out individual instruments and voices.
I loathe SBX Surround, on the other hand, because it seems to simply boost reverb so so the musicians sound as though they’re playing in a cave. And if you’re listening with good headphones, you probably won’t want to enable the bass booster, either. I found that it just muddies things up, although the software has a slider that lets you adjust the crossover frequency at which the bass boost cuts in (thresholds range from 10 to 300Hz).
Two other effects are designed more for video than music. SBX Smart Volume automatically flattens abrupt changes in volume levels, defeating that annoying technique advertisers use to catch your attention during commercial breaks. And SBX Dialog Plus is similar to SBX Bass, except that it boosts the frequencies in which voices reside. And if you find even those specialized effects to be still too blunt, there’s a 10-band equalizer at your disposal. You can even save your EQ settings for different types of music and recall them for your different listening sessions. If you buy an E5, get your money’s worth and at least check out the tools in Creative’s kitbag. Try it, you’ll like it! (Or not.)
Sound for games
It wouldn’t be a Sound Blaster product without consideration for gaming. The E5 is compatible with OpenAL and EAX 5.0, and the Control Panel software for the PC and Mac adds a CrystalVoice feature that isn’t included in the Android and iOS apps.
CrystalVoice FX lets you choose from 18 real-time effects that you can apply to your voice as you speak into the onboard mics (or the mic input, as the case may be). Tapping the Axx1 processor, CrystalVoice will modulate your voice so you can sound like a robot, a demon, or even someone of the opposite sex. You probably won’t use it much, but it’s good for a few laughs until the novelty wears off.
The PC software also has a Scout Mode setting that can amplify certain in-game sounds, such as footsteps, to tip you off when an enemy is trying to sneak up on you. You can bind this command to a key so you can enable and disable it on the fly, but the hot-key binding won’t be limited to games; unless you turn it off, it will be active in every other application, too.
Asus uses the same TI headphone amplifier in its $400 Xonar Essence STU DAC, but Asus pairs it with a higher-end DAC (a TI PCM1792A). Does that make the Xonar $200 better? The differences are extremely subtle, so I would say no. The Xonar Essence is also strictly a desktop device that can’t act as a host to a smartphone or digital media player, either. Still, if money was no object, I’d buy the STU. Heck, if money really was no barrier, I’d probably buy Benchmark Audio’s DAC2 HGC. But now we’re in the realm of fantasy on an editor’s budget.
Anyway, I listened to a number of tracks on the E5 using Ultrasone’s open-back HFI-2400 headphones, Bowers & Wilkins’ compact P5 headphones, and a pair of custom-fit JH Audio JH13 Pro earbuds (28 ohms). I first used a laptop PC as my transport, using Foobar2000 to play Bowers & Wilkins’ Accidental Powercut series of acoustic binaural recordings.
These are among favorite sources for evaluating headphones and DACs. The collections feature various artists performing live at an English chapel, and the production team recorded them using a dummy head to capture the nuances of the acoustics of the room and of the performances themselves. In binaural recording sessions, microphones are placed inside a model of a human head in order to emulate the way sound waves reflect off and are absorbed by a real human head. You need to listen on headphones to get the full effect, but it can be remarkable when done well.
Binaural recordings are the next best thing to being in the front row of the audience, and the tracks sounded magical through the E5 no matter which headphones I was using. Listening to Sound of Rum’s “Cannibal Kids,” I could hear each string in the soft strum of Archie Marsh’s guitar as it delivered an oddly dissonant counterpoint to singer Kate Tempest’s urgent poetry. (A rapper who claims Bob Dylan, Wu-Tang Clan, and James Joyce as influences? Whatever you think of the art form, you owe it to yourself to give Tempest a listen.)
For my next test, I used Bluetooth to stream Peter Gabriel’s cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” (from his Scratch My Back album) from my HTC One smartphone to the Sound Blaster E5. Both devices support CSR’s aptX audio codec, so the track sounded pretty good. But when I did A/B comparisons using a wired connection directly to the phone, I found the wireless version a wee bit flat in comparison. It just didn’t have the same energy.
Then again, the track I was listening to was encoded in FLAC with 24-bit resolution and a 48kHz sampling rate. Few wireless technologies can deliver that kind of throughput. Given that the E5 can almost as easily serve as a wired host to my phone, I think I’d probably just plug a cable in anyway. If you’re a Bluetooth maven, you’ll want to know that the E5 can connect two Bluetooth sources at once and toggle between them.
A worthy purchase?
Audio snobs will look down their noses the Sound Blaster E5, but I see—and hear—a ton of value in this little box. I’ll probably never use some of its features—the integrated mics, the CrystalVoice effects, and Scout Mode among them—but the E5’s price-to-performance ratio is off the hook even if you only ever use it as a USB DAC and headphone amp.