The Sound Blaster E5 by Creative
Tonality7
Build7.5
Features9.5
Matchability7
Value For Money9
8Our Score

In mid 2014 we first got wind of a new series of budget busting ‘do it all’ audio DAC/amps from Sound Blaster and luckily we were able to review the Sound Blaster E1 and E3. Whilst not being totally blown away by their sound signature we thought the price point and feature set of both the E3 and E1 were extremely competitive as gadget packages for gamers and casual listeners. Both Raoul and I still felt at the time that FiiO still had the edge when it came to pure sound performance in their own budget DAC/amp range but Creative had somehow pushed the envelope when it came to just pure ‘features per buck’ managing to throw in Bluetooth (aptX technology), mic, dual headphone outputs, an amp with a huge battery life, a DAC for the PC and a decent bit of software for both Mac and PC’s for using it all.

It was almost as if Creative was testing the waters for how both the technology and the position of the E range would be received because just before Christmas the big kahuna of the E series showed it’s rather handsome head in the shape of the Sound Blaster E5 and could be seen as a genuine crack at the audiophile market whilst at the same time holding, and adding onto, the full spectrum of features that we first caught a glimpse of in the Sound Blaster E3 and E1. Priced at $199 it is also incredibly competitive and positions the Sound Blaster E5 just above the FiiO range of the E12a and the feature rich E18 as well as power amps with added features such as the Cayin C5. Only the new Ibasso D Zero MK2 at around $129 comes in far cheaper in terms of price to features in my estimation.

What you get

Poignant words because what you get with the Sound Blaster E5 is rather decent in terms of package, accessories but ‘Tardis’ like in features. From the offset the external packaging is classic Creative with a ton of unique selling points all over the vividly colored carton exterior. However slide that carton off and you get a much more austere clean package presentation more reminiscent of the Astell & Kern experience; all toned down, plain black and simple.

BOX_SBE5_Right

Open it up and the Sound Blaster E5 itself is placed front and central straddling a faux suede contoured top layer and underneath that layer comes a pretty decent list of accessories including:

  • A microUSB Cable (in flashy red and black)
  • Desk Stand (this I like a lot)
  • 2x Elastic Band (with Creative’s branding)
  • Mini TOSLINK cable (thin but small form factor

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The USB cable and bands is pretty much standard for amp packages these days but kudos for giving the USB cable a splash of red and keeping the color scheme all Creative. The optical cable is a nice bonus. Not too many will throw in a decent optical cable. Currently the Aurender Flow came packaged with one which we are reviewing also and despite it being rather a bit more high end than the Creative one, the Creative cable is lighter and smaller and better for on the go. I still would love to see one more optical short cable around 5cm just for pure portability with say an AK series DAP but otherwise no complaints.

The funky little desktop stand though had me in raptures. Sad really that things like that can move a grown man but it occurred to me that most simply throw in a few blister pads for feet and call it a day but Creative actually came out with a rather useful little stand and holding device that is more than just ornamental. The stand itself is a fairly rigid and sturdy plastic with a gold plated metal threaded mount on the side.

Product_E5_with_Stand_Back

Not only does it negate the need to stick yet another set of 3M blister pads on the base and gum up the E5 rather well designed exterior but it does also come with a threaded mount for fastening onto various microphone stands. One of the key selling points of the E5 is the microphone capabilities combined with its customization potential on the software side and since most mic users (myself included) would prefer a stand mount the E5 threaded mount is spot on for using with a mic stand.

The E5’s build and form factor looks more like traditional portable amp rather than the slim type you see on FiiO and Cayin or Ibasso’s new D Zero MK2. It is roughly the same length and height as a Cypher Labs Solo -DB but not quite as wide. It is though much stubbier than the Cayin C5 and slightly less so by around 2cm than the FiiO E18. All 3 pale into comparison with the Ibasso D Zero MK2 which is 75% with the height of the E18 and Cayin C5 and 30% of the height of the Sound Blaster E5. The D Zero Mk2 is also shorter and thinner by around 15% over the Sound Blaster E5.

Build and Physical features

So the dimensions remind me more of a traditional portable amp but the design itself has some really neat touches. True it is made of hard plastics rather than aluminum such as the rather elegant Cypher Labs Piccolo AMP/DAC or even the sold chassis of the E18 but its sturdy, professionally finished and devoid of any imperfections. Rather than a box type finish Creative have adopted a sort of elongated bracket type curvature to the sides of the E5 making it almost ‘Tie Fighter-eque’ to the front and back. The volume pot at the front is slightly recessed offering it protection from unwanted sudden movements and either side of it is a flat panel on the front holding not one but two jack outputs similar to their E1 and E3 units. The volume pot can also be pressed inwards for instant mute of whatever it is you listening to at the time.

The left hand side of the E5 contains no physical features and the front right holds the power on and off button which also doubles up as the Bluetooth discoverable button when pressed for a slightly longer period of time (flashing blue). Hold it a bit longer and the unit will turn off again. The other two buttons/switches are for sound enhancements including Creative’s SBX sound enhancement activation and a low/high gain switch. The final set of 3 LED lights on the same side indicate battery cycle and length of time left.

DSC03260

The E5 is packed full of features on the rear panel with a micro USB input, a USB host input, a line/optical out and a line/optical/mic input. The line in allows for typical line level connection to most DAP’s, DAC’s and Smart Phones as well as microphones with a 3.5mm jack input. The optical input allows you to hook it up with players like the AK100/120/240 , CDP’s with spdif out and of course gaming consoles and PC’s with SPDIF also which after all is Creative’s home turf. Personally I went with the AK120 Titan optical out for a lot of this review to test the high resolution playback capability and tonality as well as using the USB host socket for OTG and iOS capabilities and found all to work out of the box with no issues. Sadly the E5 does not come with any lightening connectors or short OTG cables so you will have to source that yourself or use the one your iGadget or Android device came with. The smaller micro USB port to the far right is used for either charging the E5 or for interfacing as a DAC/AMP with your pc or laptop or mac of choice.

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Functionality

Dac

This is where the Sound Blaster E5 comes into own by packing in just about every communication and audio feature you can think of bar DSD. On the one hand it is a DAC fully compatible with Android via OTG, iGadget via lightning or 30 pin (not supplied sadly), Mac and PC. That pretty much runs the gamut of most digital audiophile needs and usage right there. Creative are packing in a really good Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC which is implemented in the E5 for up to 24/192 decoding though I have read that it can be re-implemented to decode DSD but not on this current incarnation. Perhaps there will be a V2 at a later stage that will give DSD and if pricing stays below $300 on the new Oppo DAC/portable amp which does indeed do DSD and a bunch of other features then the E5 will have some stiff competition on the codec front.

Amp

On the other hand is it is a fully legit portable headphone amplifier (Amp DAC combo) packing a Texas Instruments TI6120A2 the can handle on paper up to 600ohm cans as well as dual output to separate cans via the twin set of jack ports at the front. Impedance matching for that wide range of headphone homage is determined with a switchable external low and high gain switch with low handling 32o to 120ohm and high handling everything else up to 600ohms. For those also who wish to bypass the amping component Creative have supplied a line out function inside the E5 as well so you can hook it up to your amp of choice and simply use it as DAC to analog converter.

Bluetooth

For those who wish to take things wireless well Creative have that covered also with Bluetooth and NFC functionality built into the Sound Blaster E5. Bluetooth implementation on the E5 also utilizes APTX technology meaning you guys get much lower latency and a much better sound quality compared to regular compressed Bluetooth audio signal. Given Creative’s’ hard core audience are gamers, APTX is really the only choice for wireless gaming. Audio sync delays will sink any audio device used by games in a flash if there is a lack of accuracy. It also means audiophiles will benefit from increased bandwidth to ideally deliver a better quality audio experience than regular Bluetooth, RF or other similar wireless technologies. Bear in mind APTX will not offer 24/192 resolution, most likely topping out at 44.1 but for most this will be more than enough on the go. Bluetooth on the E5 goes beyond audio reproduction also with HFP and AVRCP profiles allowing for hands free and remote operation of compatible gaming and mobile devices. For those who are on the go, say connected OTG on Android using the E5 can also take and receive calls using Bluetooth and the built-in mic.

NFC

The E5 also has NFC technology for quick touch pairing with NFC compatible devices such as mobile phones. I gave it a quick test on a Blackberry Q10 and Z Ultra with NFC and the pairing was seamless enough with both recognizing each other quickly though with the Z Ultra I had to take it out of its silicon case before the E5 would connect and power up my automatic Bluetooth connection for streaming.

Mic

The mic feature on the E5 works via the line in option in the rear of the E5 and both amplifies and records. As mentioned you get the yummy desktop stand which doubles as a mic stand holder for positioning. The E5 also has 3 mics in total on the top panel that detects the orientation of the E5 during any mic recording and adjusts the pickup accordingly to keep sound quality relatively clearly. One two of the three mics are ever in operation at the same time but which two switch according to the orientation of the E5.

The Software

A big part of Creative’s strategy for the Sound Blaster E series is the integration with software interfacing on the PC, MAC and mobile devices. Creative software for gamers has always been a fairly essential tool to maximize their sound card experiences down through the years and the E5 is no different. The various platform control panels for desktops and laptops and the equivalent Sound Blaster Central app for Android and iOS you can start messing around with the sound and functionality of the E5 including an equalizer, SBX Audio settings, audio profiles (saved and imported), manage your Bluetooth connections, tweak your mic setup and even the sound of your recorded voice via their Crystal Voice tech, configure for either speakers or headphones as well as set up mixing options for individual channels of output. The list is huge and without the software you are only getting about 60-70% of what the E5 is really capable of feature wise.

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The E5 also comes equipped with on onboard SBX on or off button which comes from their SBX Pro Studio software suite and is designed to give you some further sound tweaking options that can be accessed on the go through a quick press of the SBX button on the side. Personally my preference is without it for most of my listening but there are times when it did give an interesting flavor and it was not altogether objectionable. When not in use the SBX button doubles up for answering or rejecting calls using Bluetooth. You can even adjust the SBX parameters and how it sounds via the software when plugged into your PC and store it on the E5 when on the go which to me is an excellent idea and keeps the E5 sounding fresh and interesting long beyond the initial “wow period”. Note 24/196 downgrades to 24/96 when SBX features are switched on.

Note at the time of writing and for those who are gamers the Sound Blaster E5 does not have Scout Mode activated in the software bundle. I know some gamers who might be pretty hot after that particular feature. I presume since it is available for the E3 that the E5 may at some point carry that feature but as of now it is not there. This could be a sticking point for the avid gamer in FPS type games that need that ability to “hear them before they hear you” but for those buying for general audio playback this will not be uppermost in their minds.

Battery life

The Sound Blaster E5 comes with a 3200mAH lithium-ion battery which is rated to run around 8 hours in total which is not out of this world considering the FiiO E18 is rated 12 to 25 hours depending on usage and the D-Zero MK2 is 12 hours when used as a DAC . It does sound better value though with Creative claiming the E5 can still give you that 8 hours when running wirelessly on Bluetooth. However given the E5 is a veritable Pandora’s box of yummy features such as NFC, those dual outputs and the built-in mic that time could shorten a little as you ‘giggity’ around each feature like a kid in a candy shop. It is fun but its progressively shorter fun the more you get into it.

This shortness is exacerbated in OTG mode due to the rather bizarre dual charge and playback function which cannot be switched off during playback. I am pretty sure this is the AOA (Android Open Accessory) protocol the E5 uses (as confirmed by Creative) and future firmware updates could address this but the battery time in OTG mode drops to maybe 1-2 hours at most due to the inability to turn that charge functionality off. No such issue exists though with iOS connections.

Page 2: Sound Impressions

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About The Author

Editor

Founder & Owner of headfonics.com. I first started reviewing in the late 80s (ouch!). Back then it was albums, rock concerts and interviews with a typewriter for the local rag. Now its desktop/portable and digital 2.1 audio on a rather nice laptop. How time flies.

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  • Excellent review. Extremely detailed and even with the extensive list of features for the E5, you didn’t miss a beat.. pun intended.

    • headfonics

      Thanks! 🙂 any more features and I think I could have outdone war and peace!

      • lol. I just received my unit from Creative for a Youtube review and I was getting dizzy with all the features. Reading through your review made it easier to put everything into perspective in a concise manner. I think I have a better grasp on things now as to how I should approach this device.

        • headfonics

          Glad I could help buddy and best of luck with the review! 🙂

          • JD

            Got my E5 a few weeks ago and still cant get the EQ or SBX to work!
            Playing music from my Mac into the E5 and have the SB software installed. But although I can move the EQ and SBX sliders about it makes no difference to the output!
            What am I missing?

          • headfonics

            I actually do not have a Mac to be able to anaswer that, have you tried with a PC with the software loaded to see if it will work to narrow down the issue?

          • JD

            I don’t have a PC, but ran some more tests, and this is what I got.

            2 alternative music sources, both using Spotify music.
            Source 1 – Mac PC running OS 10.10.2 Yosemite
            Source 2 -iphone 6 running IOS 8.1.3

            All results tested using Shure earphones. Phones
            connected to E5 for all tests.

            Connected by Bluetooth – Mac to E5 – SBX works on E5 button (but SB
            control panel on Mac not active as doesn’t see the E5). EQ not available.
            Connected by Bluetooth – iPhone to E5 – SBX and EQ work using SB app on
            iPhone
            Connected by Host USB – iphone to E5 – SBX and EQ work using SB app on
            iPhone
            Connected by mini USB – Mac to E5 – SBX and EQ not effective using SB
            control panel, or SBX button on E5

            Conclusion – SB control panel SBX and EQ controls do not work when
            connecting to E5 using mini USB.

          • JD

            Solved it!
            Contrary to Creative’s support desk advice, the only way that the SBX and EQ features will work when the E5 is connected to my Mac using the mini USB is to select the Bluetooth source as well!
            So Mac to E5 using BT AND mini USB. Everything then works as it should, which is bizarre.
            If I unplug the mini USB whilst BT is connected then the SB control panel closes itself, so the slider controls for SBX and EQ are not available, however SBX still works on the toggle button on the E5.

  • Shallow Then Halo

    Great review!Any chance you could test the analog line in quality? I am looking for something portable and inexpensive like this.Ideally for vinyl rips and low latency(asio) home multitrack recording. I know sites like this focus more on the dac than adc, but thought it might not hurt to ask. Hardly any reviews of this little multitool and to be honest,doubtful the recording musician sites will bother taking a look because of the brand. I am also interested in the h2 miyo and pairing it with a usb battery.

    • headfonics

      Thanks for the feedback, I can tinker with that at the weekend and let you know.

      How will you be recording? – straight from source or using the mic?

      • Shallow Then Halo

        I will be using a Marantz 2220b phono for vinyl rips and more importantly, a batttery operated mxb1002 mixer with various mics, guitars etc. Only occasionally will I utilize the onboard mics. All to a windows tablet or desktop for more critical applications and potentially a Galaxy Tab for simpler things like straight up stereo recording. Hoping the adc is low latency for 2496 multitrack with my desktop. Creative seems to have done nicely with the other features of the E5, so maybe…I currently have a Zoom h2, unused m-audio 24/96, and onboard Realtek . Which all seem to be a wee bit long in the tooth. Hoping for something a little,or a lot, closer to my friends Apogee Duo, but in a more portable format. Have we got there at this price point? H2 seems to make that claim and more with their Miyo kickstarter. Perhaps the E5 can do some heavier lifting with it’s asio driver. I do apreciate the extra portable features. Onboard battery, bluetooth,dual analog out. As far as I understand, they are not independantly adjustable but perhaps my attenuator thrown from my old Shure iem’s will help. Which reminds me, most monitoring will be done from two pairs of T50RP’s(one Mayflower modded,one not) ,T1E’s and Paradigm bookshelf’s .Thank you so much for your effort and interest in this little device. Very intriguing!

        • Shallow Then Halo

          Have you had a chance to look at the line in feature?

          • Not yet my apologies.. Will try my best by the weekend

          • headfonics

            Not yet my apologies.. Will try my best by the weekend

          • Shallow Then Halo

            Thank you kindly!

  • arcwindz

    Great review! There’re so little proper review on e5 out there.
    How does this pair with phillips fidelio x2/x1? Since to my ear they don’t have rolled off treble and i am pretty concerned with upper range harshness

    • headfonics

      Thanks! 🙂

      Sadly I do not have the X1 or X2 to test with the E5 so my X1 comments come from my archive of memories when I reviews it a year ago. I dont think it should be an issue especially if you are using bluetooth. I tended to get hyper critical when matched with cans or iem’s that do nothing but amplify the 5-7k range in a harsh way. I cant remember the X1 doing that in general even if it is not tapered or attenuated.

      Thats aural memory for you.

      The thing is though the impedance of the E5 currently is just over 2ohms output so I trust you have ditched that stock cable the X1 comes with? That might be the best way to negate any negative experience using the X1.

      • arcwindz

        Well, i got x2 which i believe doesn’t have that cable problem.
        Thx for answering 🙂

  • Great review and great site btw, making me want to buy everything! I’ve been looking for a device like this and your review did enough to suggest this was the right bit of kit. I have to say it’s a great little gadget, just probably not worth the price. Few things to mention, firstly the bluetooth connectivity (S5 to E5) isn’t as solid as I’d like it to be, on the tube for example it constantly drops out when in a tunnel. The other issue is that there is no software support for Linux. This is a massive shame as I’d pretty much bought this to act as an improved DAC for my laptop. I think it says a lot about the versitilty of the E5 that I’m not that bothered

    • headfonics

      Hi Toby!

      Sadly I do not have a tube on our city, thats is an interesting side effect though given BT is a proximity related tool and if your source is close it shouldnt do that, very interesting report.

      Linux.. ahhh.. had that, stopped it after a year due to driver complexities. Creative are always known for heavily modding their hardware with software so I am not surprised you had issues with it.

      That being said glad you like it for the billion other things it can do. I believe it can also walk the dog if so inclined 🙂

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