Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster E5 has spoiled me to a point where I can’t imagine listening to music or playing games without it. The moment I paired the E5 with my Draco HS880, I was shocked by the increased sound clarity and depth. When it comes to first impressions, the E5 certainly knows how to wow. Whether you’re using a professional high-end headset or cheap five-dollar earbuds, the Sound Blaster E5 delivers transformative sound across the board.
The Sound Blaster E5 is a 24-bit/192kHz high-resolution USB DAC (digital to analog converter) and portable headphone amp. Unlike the luxurious Sound Blaster X7, the E5 is a portable device designed for on-the-go usage. Even though it’s a fraction of the size and price of the X7, the E5’s 600 ohm amplifier provides remarkable results and can even be used with active speakers via AUX and Optical Out.
The E5 retails at two hundred bucks, and while that’s still not cheap by any means, the device boasts superb features that other DACs in the same price range don’t offer. The E5 comes packaged with a Micro-USB 2.0 cable, a 3.5 mm (⅛”) Mini-TOSLINK cable, a desk stand that also attaches to a microphone stand and Sound Blaster’s fantastic SBX Pro Studio software. (Note: It’s imperative to download the latest firmware in addition to the latest drivers, otherwise you’ll run into major sound issues, like screeching audio.)
"Whether you’re using a professional high-end headset or cheap five-dollar earbuds, the Sound Blaster E5 delivers transformative sound across the board."
The E5 is notably larger than its E1 predecessor. The unit is slickly designed, and I have to applaud Creative Labs for avoiding high-gloss materials. The E5 is enveloped with a sleek matte plastic-like material with hints of brushed metal running down the center. The red highlights serve as a nice aesthetic touch.
The Sound Blaster E5 is equipped with plenty of input/output jacks, including two stereo headphone connectors in the front (designed for 3.50 mm, ⅛ inch plugs). The back includes a Line/Mic/Optical In jack, a Line/Optical Out jack, a USB host that connects to iPhone/iPad devices and a Micro-USB port for connecting to a PC/Mac. The large volume knob in the front has an endless roll, although the E5 resets the audio intensity each time the unit is turned on.
On the right side of the E5 are the power/bluetooth button, SBX switch, L<Gain>H switch and battery life indicator. The power on/off function and bluetooth pairing are a bit finicky. You’re required to hold the button for 1 sec to power on the E5, 2 seconds to pair a bluetooth device, and 4 seconds to power off the entire unit. It’s not the smoothest procedure, but it saves space. The E5 also offers seamless one-touch NFC pairing for applicable device.
Battery life is average, letting you play music or games nonstop for eight hours before recharging. Compared to the FiiO E18, which can push anywhere from 12 to 25 hours, the E5 doesn’t last that long considering its portable design. However, the Sound Blaster E5 makes up for the brief battery life with stunning audio and tweaking options. The E5 also comes with built-in stereo microphones. A vertical and horizontal orientation sensor makes recording very practical, especially when connected to a mic-stand via the included base.
"If you’re in the market for a high-end DAC and don’t want to be tied to your desk or home entertainment system, the Sound Blaster E5 is likely to offer everything you’re looking for."
The E5 lets you toggle between low gain (impedance of 32~120 ohms with a gain of up to 5dB, and High Gain (impedance of 120~600 ohms with a gain of up to 15dB). Low is designed for low-end to mid high-end headsets, while High Gain is exclusively for luxury studio headphones. It’s an excellent feature that’s sure to please audiophiles, just make sure you set the correct gain for your headset to avoid damaging the drivers.
All tests are conducted using the following products: Creative Lab’s Draco HS880, SteelSeries’ Siberia Elite Prism, Edifier’s new G2 gaming headset, Beyerdynamic’s MMX300, generic $5 earbuds, as well as a pair of Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers. No matter which headset is used, the Sound Blaster E5 does a fantastic job of enhancing details, and making music and games sound richer and crisper.
Where the E5 supersedes other DAC units is in the diverse tweaking options available through Creative Labs’ SBX Pro Studio. Many complementary programs that come with audio devices tend to offer useless gimmicks than rarely provide substantial improvements, but the SBX has always stood out amongst the competition. The Crystalize option in particular has a tremendous impact on audio clarity. The feature is so effective it’s impossible to use the E5 without it enabled. The surround and bass options work well too, although they provide too much of a low frequency push in most media, especially music.
Smart Volume is another fantastic feature that helps balance sudden volume jumps in movies and music. It intelligently balances the gain during sudden tonal shifts, like loud action scenes that tend to muffle the dialogue of actors in film. It’s particularly useful when using the night mode during the late evening hours as you’re able to keep the volume relatively low while maintaining crisp and clear dialogue. The latest firmware update also includes the Scout Mode which allows gamers to hear minute details like footsteps and gun reloads during competitive gaming. It works surprisingly well when playing multiplayer, although it impacts overall audio quality by almost entirely eliminating bass.
There are more than a handful of audiophile-grade quality DACs for under $200, like JDSLab ODAC, Nuforce uDAC3 or the super small Audioquest Dragonfly v1.2. But, none of them come even close to offering as many useful features as the E5. The new Sound Blaster DAC may be less portable than its E1 predecessor, but the increased quality makes up for the bulkier body. If you’re in the market for a high-end DAC and don’t want to be tied to your desk or home entertainment system, the Sound Blaster E5 is likely to offer everything you’re looking for.
Review by: Tin Salamunic