It is not all about the DAPs with FiiO you know. Lest we forget FiiO cut their teeth in the audiophile with cracking little budget amps and DACs such as the original E7 and the revised E17 AMP/DAC.
These starter units garnered quite a following and came out at a time when FiiO heavily invested in their dual roadmap of prefixing D to their consumer end units and E to their audiophile units.
Of course, now we have the X for the DAPS which also doubles up as excellent budget DAC’s but there is still room in the stable for improvement further down the food chain and the new E17 Alpen 2 is just such a product that keeps FiiO close to their roots and keeps everything up to speed and fresh for those guys not wishing to spend too much but want good sound.
The E17 Alpen 2 portable DAC/AMP is priced at $139.99 as we speak and sits somewhere in the middle of their current “E” range with the E12a and the E18 priced marginally higher but still under $200.
Below it sits the cheaper E07k, E10k, and the E11k amps and DAC’s which are essentially your first-time upgrades in FiiO’s eyes. The Alpen 2 was released at the tail end of 2014 and the start of 2015 in some countries so it has been out for a few months now and has been overshadowed somewhat with the higher-profile X1, X3 Gen 2 and X5 Gen 2 releases this year.
Nevertheless, you are getting bang for buck here and a few new options that keep the whole E17 line relatively fresh and a good entry-level DAP/Amp for pairing with mobile phones, low-end DAPs or older DAP’s and of course the PC or MAC. It also squares off with the new Ibasso D Zero MK2 DAC/AMP (another tardy review!) which retails slightly cheaper at $120 or thereabouts.
What You Get
By now FiiO has pretty much got this packaging and accessory patter down to a fine art and it is symbolic also of how far they have come since their initial huge box and plastic wrap concoctions from a few years ago.
You could argue that the more they look the same the more boring they get but at least you know what you get and there is a lot of interchangeability about the FiiO accessory kit inside the box. As always it’s small and petite with everything neatly packed inside including:
The padded pouch with a velcro strap (these are largely interchangeable with the likes of the one the E18 Kunlun came with by the way)
A right-angled 3.5mm to 3.5mm shot IC cable in black for analog duties
A 1.5m USB A to micro USB cable (11-pin) for charging and DAC duties
Their standard short coaxial cable
A strip of blister feet for attaching to the base of the unit to cushion against shocks and scrapes when placing on the table
Manual, warranty guides
Two extra screen protectors and one already semi applied on the LCD screen of the Alpen 2 ready to just peel away and use (hurrah!)
There is really nothing unusual about that list of accessories except maybe a lack of connectors for mobile devices such as mobile phones such as an OTG cable. It will not work with iOS as of this moment in time via lightning
Size-wise the E17 Alpen 2 is slightly bigger than the older E17. It measures in at 104.1 x 62.2 x 12.8 mm compared to the 96mm x 55mm x 15.2mm of the E17.
Side by side that is a noticeable increase in size but otherwise, the Alpen 2 retains its familiar look and feel in the hand. The main changes are on the front panel itself with the majority of the controls we once found there now largely gone in favor of a jog wheel on the left side panel.
Those who remember my review of the Shanling M3 and the Cayin N6 DAP or own one of these will understand right off what this jog wheel is for and what it can do. It can control volume, menu options navigation and selection through scrolling and clicking (pressing inwards).
The remaining two buttons on the front panel include a power on and off button which doubles as a return button in the UI and an input button which allows you to select the source to use with the Alpen 2. It’s made out of plastic as opposed to metal and there is a tiny bit of vertical play in the wheel though not a huge issue.
The wheel doubles up as a digital volume control with the same 60 steps as the previous E17 and pressing until you hear a soft click will give you control over the menu system. It’s a darn sight easier to use than the old button system of the E17 but not quite as accurate as the Shanling command dial or the similar jog wheel on the N6 though bear in mind both of these units are 3-5 times the price of the Alpen 2.
The bottom panel is largely clean except for the 11-pin micro USB connection which you can use for charging and for DAC duties with either a PC, OTG Android were compatible and MACs.
The top panel, however, has a few changes that have proved rather controversial. You still have the 3.5mm headphone jack with its reassuringly tight and solid connection but over to the right, you now have a coaxial connection instead of optical much like the newer X DAP series for digital out duties and an analog line-out also in 3.5mm.
Where da optical dude?
I once remarked that a poor man’s digital heaven was the old iRiver H120 optical out to the E17 and those who couldn’t afford the more expensive optical loaded amp/DACs such as the Cypher Labs SOLO and the Fostex Hp-P1 would be more than happy with the stellar performance that the iRiver and E17 could offer.
I think I managed to get both for around $200 all in as some poor schmuck was offloading an H120 for around $50 – good for me. DAPs such as the AK120 mk1, gadgets such as the PlayStation 3 suddenly had a portable DAC to carry digital signal loads right to headphones.
f you had a good optical cable you were good to go. Not anymore as Coaxial is now the way forward ruling out usage with the old iRiver units and the PS3 and creating a slight groan in the process form avid E17 users.
Give and take
FiiO has been stating in return you get DSD playback and the coaxial of course which will stack nicely with the X series daps sporting the Coaxial connector for playback via the Alpen 2. Essentially if you want the same digital system you now have to go FiiO for your DAP using an Alpen 2.
You can, of course, stick it in the back of just about any desktop DAC with a coaxial connection and use it in the traditional DAC mode. I am in two minds about this move.
Personally, it really doesn’t affect me. My H120 has long since died and my AK120 MK2 is hooked up the CEntrance Glove A1 which is a far more fitting “glove” than the Alpen 2 but I get the sadness and the concerns.
I do not see FiiO revising it in a generation 3 and putting it back in, Coaxial is their weapon of choice these days. Note also those using an E9k cannot use the Alpen 2 in combination as a DAC controller as the E9k will not accept the micro USB socket on the newer model. Perhaps this will come in the 3rd gen E9s but for now, if you love this amp then stick with original E17.
The DAC has moved from the older WM8740 favored by FiiO up until recently, to the newer PCM5102 DAC chip from Texas Instruments. FiiO is pretty much a TI house sound right now and most of their gear is using a TI setup in one shape or another.
The Tenor TE7022 USB receiver has also been upgraded to a Savi Audio SA9027 USB Receiver supporting 32/96. If they had implemented the newer Savi Audio SA9226 this would have been killer at 32/192 sampling rates but remembering the price point I guess this might have been a stretch too far.
As expected FiiO has wisely decided to upgrade some key areas to keep with modern trends including widening the choice of codec resolution and codec formats that can be decoded by the Alpen 2.
Previously the E17 topped out at 96K/24bit [USB] and 192K/24bit [SPDIF]. The Alpen 2 has kept the 24/196 via the coaxial output but increased the USB capability to 32/96 and added DSD decoding on top of the usual lossy and lossless formats.
The Screen and UI
FiiO still uses a pretty outdated screen though by offering one at all they are light years ahead of a lot of other companies offering similar priced DAC’s. They have though cleaned up the interface a bit making it somewhat easier to read and navigate as well as putting in a larger screen than the older E17.
The most important aspect now is the navigation is through the jog wheel and front buttons to enter and return. It’s much faster and more intuitive to my slowish hands and the slightly larger font and cleaner spacious background make reading the menus that bit easier than before on the smaller E17 screen.
Most of the favorites from the original E17 are carried through to the Alpen 2 with channel balance, treble, bass and gain with an additional display, sleep, and USB charge controls. It is all on a single menu with only one drill down at most to adjust the setting parameter within each function. Clicking the exit button the face panel confirms and comes back out of the menu. There is not much to it really and to be perfectly frank at this price range you shouldn’t expect too much more. It’s snappy, simple and bug-free.
Those who remember the progression from the E7 to the E17 will remember the steady switch from warm and lush to something a little more precise or accurate yet still retaining an accented WM8740 warmth that was perhaps favored musicality over detail, laid back lushness over accuracy and generally a non-offensive sound. It had its fans but those days are gone and whilst the E17k has a hint of warmth its more in vogue with the house sound of FiiO today which is largely neutral.
I wouldn’t class the Alpen 2 as sterile and analytical though as it still retains a high degree of musicality but this time there is a greater sense of articulation and details especially in the mids, an easy-going treble, and a tighter pacier bass signature.
It hasn’t got a critical eye on the reproduction values but it does sound more natural and accurate than the old E17 and still has a forgiving spirit to most tracks you can throw at it both lossy and lossless.
Without any EQ fiddling the E17k struck a more balanced and linear groove than the E17 did which makes it a far more flexible DAC/Amp for pairing with IEMs and headphones than previously possible.
However, with dead neutral IEMs such as the Noble 4 Classic, I found the Alpen to just a bit too thin sounding and bit lacking in body in stock mode. Do not fear the EQ on this little unit, yes it adds a bit of color but sometimes that’s a good thing and I have always played around with the EQ on the E series DAC’s since the E7 to great effect. A setting of 6 on the bass bring some welcome low end body using the Noble 4.
Laid Back Treble
The laid back treble performance doesn’t really require any tinkering to be fair and I quite enjoyed the smoother if somewhat less hi res performance of the upper mids and lower treble than even the old X5 Gen 1. My ears are getting sensitive these days and I hate a transition that is spikey and disjointed. Thankfully the E17k, though not possessing the greatest upper extension, has none of that harsh metallic flavor or overt sibilance to make you want to tone it down.
Dynamics and sound stage also got a bit of a lift too with some decent separation, a relatively wide and deep stage and decent space between the instruments.
The vocal presence is slightly elevated over the rest of the mid-stage pushing instruments back behind the vocal stage but I can live with that personally as vocals fan. Whilst not etched in detail vocals on the E17k felt relatively natural and easy on the ear.
That smoothness and superior clarity of the treble over the older E17 should please those considering an upgrade.
With an impressively low noise floor and a lack of hiss, the FiiO E17k is quite well adapted to stacking and use with IEM’s and low impedance headphones up to around 150ohms.
Things get a bit tinny and stretched once you throw in something a bit more power-hungry but that should not be terribly surprising given both its price point and power rating of up to 150ohms.
The additional digital channel balance control retained from the last generation should also help those with slightly skewed left/right hearing though it hardly suffers from any inherent channel imbalance from its digital volume control at low volume levels, unlike some more expensive analog pot based units.
Gain settings do come in handy if you want a touch more volume to fill out bigger cans with IEM’s having plenty of play between low gain and mid-gain depending on IEM you match with.
The E17k Alpen 2’s DAC was a very simple plug and play affair with no added drivers for the PC also and is on par with the new E10k which we reviewed last year (no surprise given it uses the same DAC).
It doesn’t fare quite as well as the X5 Gen 1 DAP capabilities but it is only slightly behind its performance with a more restricted smaller sound stage and a softer less resolving presentation especially in the treble performance.
I didn’t find it as full-bodied and tube-like as the analog-sounding AudioEngine D3 which retails around the same price but on the flip side it did have a slightly more nimble and speedier signature than the D3 and the treble came off as ever so slightly smoother or relaxing.
Alpen 2 versus E18 Kunlun
Of course given what the E17k does and its pricing the main topic of conversation I had with a few around the table is what is the preferred FiiO product in this bracket – the E18 Kunlun or the Alpen 2?
The E18 physically is bigger and heavy than the Alpen 2 but with a form factor more in line with stacking with mobile phones. In its favor, the E17k Alpen 2’s screen-based UI and channel balance might suit those who like to nitpick a bit more and play around with settings as well as DSD playback which many might consider a huge plus on PC/MAC setups.
If you prefer a cleaner more expansive sound then the E18 is going to edge it over the Alpen 2 but you are kind of stuck with that whereas the Alpen 2 offers a bit more flexibility with treble and bass EQ settings which can help with more unforgiving or neutral setups such as the Sony XBA-A3, the Noble 4 Classic, and the IE800.
If you want a pure stock sound with better detail then go with the E18. Go with the E18 if you prefer an official Android hook up that doesn’t drain the battery. The Alpen 2 though can work with Android with little or no loss of power or power drain but that’s not official so results will be largely second-hand user experience.
Stacking the E17k Alpen 2 though might be a harder choice these days given the convergence gadgets out there and even FiiO’s own very capable X1 DAP. If anything the E17 plays a bit more to the fun and brighter side than the darker bassier X1 but stacking this up with an X1 places the price beyond the more capable X3 Gen 2 and Ibasso DX50.
Given both have DAC functionality and the X3 Gen 2 has native DSD playback also the E17k Alpen starts to feel a bit squished in-between all these excellent options. Every time I think ok this is a solid start for DAC functionality with a PC and a MAC as well as pairing with a smartphone I start to think oh wait there is the E18 also.
If anything I would say it’s really a straight shootout sound wise between the E18 and the Alpen 2. What type of flavor of sound you prefer and if you have a few DSDs in the bank also that might tilt you to the E17k Alpen 2. If you have neither or just a desktop grab that FiiO X3 Gen 2 instead.
The E17k Alpen 2 is more of an evolution than a revolution on the original E17 in terms of technical prowess. I am very pleased to see DSD now being achievable though at this price point. $130 is not a lot to ask for hi-res playback though if you are using DSD as commonly as I am then you might also be looking at more resolving DACs such as the Oppo HA-2 as part of your system setup. Otherwise, the E17k is likely to be your first credible upgrade in the audiophile world from your soundcard to get a feel for what DSD might be all about.
Sound-wise it brings the last of the E series into line with the more neutral house sound that FiiO now prefers but thankfully the natural musicality of the original E17 is not lost, it’s just a bit more accurate and believable. I enjoyed it more than the X1 and felt it to be on par with the E10k and not too far behind the X5 in terms of enjoyment if not quite on the level of detail.
The X3 Gen 2 though takes a bit of the oomph out of the Alpen 2 and some of the relevance also. If this is the last version of the E17 then it is a decent way to sign off and frankly I hope it is because the entry point for hi res is getting so low now and modern DAPs continuing to grow and grow in quality at lower price points that FiiO might find a gen 3 a very tough sell indeed without a serious overhaul.
FiiO E17k Technical Specifications
104.1 mm×62.2 mm×12.8 mm
Micro USB/Coaxial/3.5 mm jack（COAXIAL adapter attached）