Without messing with any sound effects the Sound Blaster E5 is a relatively cleaning sounding amp/dac with good detail and a relatively neutral tonality with a hint of bass warmth. The E5 does possess a more forward bass reproduction but doesn’t sound overpowering even with EDM genres. It does exhibit a slight glare in lower treble reproduction that gave a somewhat tizzy response on cymbal work that could at times feel overly distracting on some IEM’s or headphones that didn’t match well with this signature. The E5 tonally is no slouch though conveying decent speed right across the spectrum with above average articulation and a decent balance between attack and decay overall. This is a huge step up from the E1 and E3 audio performance in every respect.
Whilst the overall presentation is weighted to the bottom end I didn’t find the bass signature to be sluggish or boomy with relatively little bleeding into the mids. It is not an overly aggressive bass response but it does feel firmly planted when called upon. Bass texture and definition is about average for a portable amp. It doesn’t convey the same level of detail or texture of the Cayin C5 but slams a little harder and feels more planted than the FiiO E18’s bass performance.
Treble and Mids
The treble performance is where things got a bit uneven. I would not call the treble on the E5 to be bright by any means. It has good extension, doesn’t sound in any way rolled off and doesn’t lack air or headroom but it is slightly forward and slightly harsh with a definitive emphasis on cymbal work that drew my ear to it on a number of occasions. With more forgiving earphones like the W4 it is noticeable but acceptable but with the wrong match, say an IEM with a preponderance to take a treble glare and amplify it such as the IE800 it can sound a bit unnatural and overly digitized. Howard Jones” What is Love” is a tour de force of synths 80’s pomp and incredibly well mixed and mastered for a track of this age but combined with the IE800 and the E5 it felt thin and harsh which is what I am not used to. Switch over to the RHA T10i (treble filter) though and instantly Howard’s tour de force sounded richer and more balanced. That natural roll off in the treble of the T10i was a far better match for the E5’s treble sheen.
Vocal presence was more intimate than grand but tended to just drop back a tiny margin in relation to the bass performance. Sibilance control was impressive with very few instances. Used in the optical mode with the AK120 Diana Krall’s husky performance on “When or where” sounded smooth and controlled on the E5, even compared to the stock AK120 jack performance on the Westone W4. It did exhibit a little dryness and a touch more grain than the lusher and richer stock AK120 but nothing I would overly complain about given the price gap between the two devices.
Bluetooth has come a long way in the last few years and with aptX in both my Z Ultra and the Sound Blaster E5 I have to say the performance was really excellent if not quite on the same levels as the optical input used for the core review. There were a few differences I noticed using BT with the E5 and the Z Ultra. The first was the bass seems to be a bit boomier and more present. It didn’t quite have the same tightness or detail as the optical equivalent and vocals sounded a bit more recessed and lacking the same level of presence.
However, the treble glare was toned down considerably compared to the AK120 optical performance. For on the go listening I can see myself actually take the BT performance over the optical performance if I wasn’t aiming for any critical listening on account of the smoother, if less resolving, treble performance and lack of emphasis on cymbal work.
Power & Efficiency
The Sound Blaster E5 is rated up to 600ohms so in theory, it should be able to drive plenty of demanding headphones. To a certain extent that description is pretty accurate but does ultimately depend on the tonal matching and whether it is being driven properly or merely sounds loud enough. For efficient headphones such as a Sony MA900 or the Oppo PM-1, no such issues with the E5 and as an added bonus the PM-1 did an admirable job smoothing out the treble glare of the E5 (optical/Ak120). Much like the T10i IEM, rolled off treble in an earphone or headphone maybe the best match for the E5 for long-term listening without that glare.
The “loud enough” statement applied though to the Alpha Primes which the E5 had no issues getting enough volume out of it in either low or high gain but it sounded really thin, recessed and tinny. All that wow factor in imaging was lost and instead, you got a rather dull one-dimensional performance with plenty of treble glare. The Primes are not the easiest to drive so this might be a bit unfair given its need for plenty of voltage. The E5 did perform with much more authority with the Hifiman HE400i. Again the pattern felt pretty clear at this point as the HE400i is also a headphone with a laid back treble performance and also much more forgiving of treble glare than other cans. Paring the HE400i in BT mode with the Z Ultra further smoothed out the top end and gave presented no discernible efficiency issues but at the cost of a much boomier bass response that tended to dull out the rest of the presentation.
I ran the E5 though about 4 IEM’s of varying sensitivity just to see how it would handle noise on low gain. The results overall were good and not something I was expecting. I somehow got in my mind that this would be a pretty good “do it all” amp but the subtleties of an audiophile needs might get lost like it did on the E1 and E3 but not so on the E5. Using an AK120 Titan and the optical connection with the Sound Blaster E5 I detected very low noise or hiss issues on the quad BA Westone W4, the single dynamic T10i from RHA as well as the high-end Dita The Answer “The Truth” edition and Sennheiser’s flagship IE800. I cannot discount the possibility you have an uber sensitive IEM that won’t detect noise, I have read reports that the DUNO DN2000 is one such IEM that will present a bit of noise or hiss but again your mileage may vary.
The Creative Sound Blaster E5 is perhaps one of the most complex DAC/Amp’s under $199, heck even under $500 I would say the same thing. This is perhaps the ultimate convergence gadget for audiophiles and gamers who desire an upgrade on their audio experience this far. It has a wealth of features and a ton of connectivity options that would even give a 24/7 reviewer a nightmare to cover extensively and evenly without thinking they have missed something. You have Bluetooth, a DAC, an Amp, a mic (3 to be precise), you have optical in, optical out, line in and out, OTG, iOS and …goodness the list ain’t half long is it? I do not think the E5 right now can be beaten for feature value by any DAC/Amp anywhere for this price.
From an audio viewpoint, and this may be a little due to my personal preferences of a lusher liquid sound, the E5 is not the pinnacle of amping for $199. It is a huge improvement on the E1 and E3 but it still has a little bit of work for my money on besting the likes of the Cayin C5 and the FiiO E18 in terms of smoothness and maturity in the amp. Do not get me wrong, the E5’s clean, detailed and tuning with a bass bias will get many admirers but its treble tizzy performance and slight harshness might grate with some more used to a smoother delivery. Pair it well though with an earphone and headphone that has a rolled off treble and the E5 does indeed sound very good but pair it with a treble sensitive IEM or headphone and the mismatch can jar a little. There are some reports of noise though I personally did not experience any noise in the 4-5 I tested the E5 with.
And yet it will be the Sound Blaster E5 I will be using for on the go over the E18 or C5 in all but the most audio driven situations. This is really a case of the sum of the parts for me. My needs for mobility and connectivity while on the go or in the office are far more complex than at home. At home, I sit on a chair and I plug in, my audio needs are high and demanding but my connectivity issues are relatively simple and obvious – wired and more wired. Once I am out and about though wires and what device plugs into what does become an issue. The Sound Blaster E5’s BT performance is excellent and really is a key persuader. Match it with say an aptX compatible mobile phone you are talking above average quality and something I can happily listen to on the go.
Creative E5 Technical Specifications
- Output: Stereo
- Output: 56mW @ 600 ohms.
- Audio Processor: SB-Axx1™
- Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR): 120dB (DAC)
- Connectivity Options (Main)
- Line / Mic / Optical In: 1 x 3.5mm jack
- Headphone Out : 2 x 3.5mm jacks
- Line / Optical Out : 1 x 3.5mm jack
- USB Host Streaming: 1 x Type-A USB Port
- Max Channel Output: Stereo
- Audio Technologies: SBX Pro Studio, CrystalVoice