Fiio e17K Review – Big Features, Bold Sound

Introduction –

The e17k is technically a higher model than the Q1 but it is also older.It actually uses the same DAC chip as the Q1 (PCM 5102) but the 17k has a better, more complex amp section. The USB receiver is also improved, allowing for higher bit depth file support. It is interesting to see the sound changes based purely upon the amp and the e17k provides performance that is superior to using the Q1 line-out through my JDS Labs Cmoy BB. It also provides some interesting features rarely seen outside Fiio`s range of AMP/DACs, improving upon the success of its predecessor the renowned e17.

 

About Me – Some background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases

I generally prefer a slight v-shape to my sound, but still closer to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity, but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound such as that on the X10`s. I prefer a more neutral midrange within a relatively tight tolerance, but I`m probably more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I`m not particularly treble sensitive and can tolerate large amounts without fatigue, though too much ruins the enjoyment. If I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review I will note that and describe the sound changes.

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Accessories –

The e17k is one of Fiio`s newer products, adopting a compact square box with easy on the eye record style front graphics.

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There are some brief specs on the back of the box, enough to compare the e17k to other Fiio models for instance. It is a pretty minimalist experience on the outside and the matching simplicity of Fiio`s line-up looks pretty neat in store.

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What isn`t minimalist however is the accessories that Fiio includes with the e17k, it`s a real step up from the Q1 in this regard. A slid out the protective internal tray reveals:

  • The e17k itself
  • A micro b cable
  • A 10cm 3.5mm interconnect
  • A coaxial to 3.5mm cable
  • Three screen protectors
  • Two mounting bands
  • A neoprene pouch
  • Authenticity and instructional paper

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It comes with about everything you could hope for and more, I really appreciate having the screen protectors for example. I would have like an OTG cable, but adapters are cheap and the e17k doesn`t technically support OTG much like the Q1. Despite that, it still worked fine with all devices I tested it with, HTC M8, LG G4 and Galaxy S6 Edge.

 

Design –

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Now onto the device itself, the e17k seems well thought out, the build is much more complex than the Q1 but it remains about the same size in all dimensions despite the added features. Fiio avoids cluttering the look by placing most of the functions, such as toggling charging over USB, within the software itself. This adds a few extra steps over the hardware switches of the Q1, but the menus are simple and frequently used features are easily accessible from the front buttons. The flat body of the e17k is much easier to stack than the flask-like Q1 and it is similarly well finished if not better.

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The front and rear faces have the typical Fiio dark brushed aluminium that feels very solid and scratch resistant, flexing only under excessive force. There is not a hint of plastic on the externals device apart from the scroll wheel enclosure, and it looks quite a bit more premium than the Q1, though the Q1 is still very sturdy in the hand. The jacks are all gold plated and don`t crackle when rotating the plug.

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There is a small chamfer that runs the perimeters of the front and back that is finished in gloss black, adding a bit of impact to the aesthetics, reminiscent of HTC`s styling. I bought my e17k used and the device had no wear on the faces which is a good sign, but the chamfers had some scuffing, revealing the underlying aluminium. If you`re more perfectionist, the chamfers are the main area of wear on this device, the faces are surprisingly hard wearing despite the intricate brushed finish.

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Of note, all of the writings are laser etched into the aluminium so they will resist fade.

On the front is a small OLED screen. It`s black and white and also relatively low res but works very well for what it`s intended. I much prefer this B&W colour scheme over the vivid stained screens on most Chinese DAPs, DACs such as the older e17. It looks more mature and refined.

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Of note, OLED screens are inherently very visible under strong light and I didn`t run into any problems using the e17k outdoors. The UI is polished and I experienced no bugs over a two week period. I noticed that there is a Fiio boot-up screen and a “bye bye” shut down screen which is a nice added touch from Fiio. You can adjust volume using the side mounted scroll wheel but it also clicks to open the settings menu and select the highlighted option.

UI

Within the menu you`ll find eQ settings, gain and toggles for screen timeout, usb charging, sleep and channel balance. The eQ`s are similar to that on the X3, you have 10 settings, 5 either way, for both bass and treble whilst mids stay flat in between. The bass boost works well and the adjustments intervals are spot on. The +-10 on each side is a bit elusive as it scrolls in intervals of 2. It would be good if you could save eQ profiles but the UI is probably too simple to allow for that. You can also use the front buttons to change the source between USB, AUX and COX. The screen displays the sample rate and bit depth at the top. Either it`s not accurate or my sources aren`t outputting properly, because it`s locked at 96khz 24bit on my laptop and 44.1khz 16bit on my phone regardless of the file, so I`m not too sure about this feature.

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I do wish that the scroll wheel was more sensitive, but it works well otherwise. The digital volume control has no channel imbalance over volumes 2 or 3 of 60, and I didn`t find myself accidentally pressing it, the feedback is nice and clicky. It looks in-line with the rest of the device, matching the buttons on the front, but I suspect it is actually made of plastic or at least a very light metal. The input/lock and power/back buttons are both well made with similarly receptive feedback and a nice concentric texture. They are easy feel for in your pocket, the power button is smaller so differentiating between the two is simple.

The power button has a clear rim with an underlying LED that displays status: blue when powered on, red when battery is low or the device is charging and purple when charging whilst in use. It is simple and looks neat, the small LED is not nearly as intrusive during night use as the front mount light on the Q1.

There is also no pop when plugging/unplugging headphones but there is a bit of crackle and also some crackle when turning the device on and off. Interestingly, the Q1 is actually silent at all times even when plugging/unplugging and turning the device on/off, though it might just have a weaker amp section. The noise is hardly distracting and much quieter than that experienced when using a smartphone for example. Other than that the e17k is as silent as the Q1 in low gain, which has close to a silent noise floor.

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Overall, the e17k looks advanced but not gaudy, sleek but not plain, it`s what we have come to expect from Fiio, a well built and attractive device with a balance between form and function.

 

Sound –

The e17k is a very good sounding DAC/AMP that sizes up well when compared to competition in its price range. It doesn`t strike the amazing value/performance ratio of the Q1, and the extra price is mainly for extra features rather than sound quality, but there are definite upgrades here and there that create a considerably stronger audio performance. Even for the $180 AUD RRP, the e17k can still be considered good value.

I`ll start with a comparison to the Q1, a device that I owned for a good 6 months before upgrading to the e17k. First off, there is plenty of volume, but you might struggle with very high impedance headphones such as home orientated planars. The e17k will get louder than the Q1 on its highest gain setting, it will also get quieter on its lowest without channel imbalance.

The e17k drives my Oppo PM3`s better with a stronger amp section. It is also slightly less noisy than the Q1, which is already very quiet. I found that the noise floor on the e17k does not increase too much with higher gains; whilst the Q1 goes from near silent to noticeable, the e17k goes from silent to near silent. This will be a nice improvement for those using higher gains with less sensitive earphones in particular, but headphones shouldn`t pick up hiss on either.

Bass is slightly fuller than the Q1 but also a bit more resolving, the mids are slightly more detailed and transparent but also slightly dryer. It retains the minimal warmth of the Q1 but still sounds very neutral.

The greatest improvement over the Q1 is in the highs where the e17k produces a smoother and more refined sound. In acoustic songs for example, listening back to back made the Q1 sound a little more rolled off and also a little coarser but both are much improved over my inbuilt laptop sound card. The soundstage is broader than the Q1, but the difference isn`t substantial, it`s a step or two more spacious and imaging/separation is also improved as a result. Timbre is slightly improved as well. Overall the e17k combines a few minor sound upgrades here and there with an immediately superior treble response and soundstage to create a coherent upgrade from the Q1.

I recently had the opportunity to test the Fiio e18 and sensational Chord Mojo, both for a few hours. For starters, the relation between the e18 and e17k is similar to that between the e17k and Q1 in that it is an older device but also a higher range one. Skipping the spec sheet, the real world performance of the e17k and e18 is surprisingly similar. I did notice a very slightly cleaner and detailed sound from the e18, perhaps ever so slightly more soundstage too.

The e18 was slightly noisier to my ears however which compromises low level listening in some circumstances. I also didn`t appreciate the more sterile presentation of the e18, it was a little thinner in the mids and a little brighter in the highs. So although the e18 is technically better, I prefer the tonality of the e17k. The e17k is smoother sounding and the high end was actually more refined and laid-back. This is mainly because my listening was done through the brighter sounding ie800`s and W30`s, both earphones that didn`t synergize with the e18`s rawer sound and higher noise floor, but the e18 may be worthwhile if you have a darker headphone, the re400`s and Oppo PM3`s for example sounded very clean through the e18. Despite that, the e17k also has extra features and is appreciably smaller, it will be easier to stack with small phones such as older iPhones.

The e17k doesn`t fare so well when compared to the Chord Mojo, but this is hardly surprising as the Mojo costs over five times as much. The mojo impresses with an amazingly clean sound that marries the smooth, organic sound of the e17k with the clarity and detail of the e18 and then adds some on top. The Mojo also has a particularly standout build, a full alloy enclosure with really surprising weight in the hand, it`s easily twice the weight of the e17k. The Mojo also has those mystical glowing buttons that really catch the eye and double as file bit depth/sample rate indicators. It`s a really neat device overall but you pay a premium for that proprietary tech. How much better is the Mojo? Not enough in my opinion, it was immediately superior to the e17k and e18, but not $800 superior. The Mojo is still a very impressive piece of equipment in itself and hopefully we`ll see this technology will filter down to the $200 price range in the future.

 

Verdict –

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The e17k is a sizeable upgrade from the Q1 sound wise, but add on the extra functionality, the easy OLED UI and the higher quality finish, and the e17k becomes a much more attractive product. In fact I would easily recommend the e17k over even the e18 any day, simply for this added functionality.

The e17k provides a solid sound quality improvement over any modern smartphone, even my HTC M8, but also makes your listening more consistent. You can have the exact same sound and the exact same eQ profiles on every device you listen to regardless of that device`s inbuilt features, you can bypass those the terrible iPOd eQ`s for example. Sometimes it becomes difficult to justify the price of DAC/AMPs, how much they affect your listening experience depends heavily on your current source, but the e17k offers genuine upgrades to your audio experience.

 

Accessories – 10/10, Comes with everything you could ever need to compliment the device. Could come with an OTG cable, but they are easily come by. Extras such as the case and screen protector are appreciated.

Design – 9.5/10, The build is very nice, the buttons are well marked and the device is easy to navigate. Every part of the e17k is well finished and well thought out. The scroll wheel could be a little more sensitive, but that might be because I`m used to an analogue pot.

Sound Quality – 8/10, Well integrated DAC mated to a well-designed amp section is good for portable use and some home use. Provides plenty of volume in high gain and black noise floor in all gains is optimal. Big improvement over stock DAC and pure amp, more convenient too.

Value – 9/10, The e17k does not provide a big upgrade over the Q1, but costs almost twice as much. There is disparity between the sound quality leap and the price leap, but the e17k is far more feature rich and the design is much improved. Fiio also provides more accessories. The e17k feels that extra bit more refined and premium.

Verdict – 9.5/10, While the e17k has specs insinuating strong audio performance on paper, the main attraction is the OLED screen and simple, user friendly UI that enables some features uncommon in this price range, or on portable DACs at all. That is not to say that audio is not the focus as the e17k also produces a very versatile sound that is the next step up from the Q1, just don`t expect an immediately superior sound.

 

Extra – 

 

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I found the QCY pleather pouch to be a great fit for both the e17k and Q1, since they are quite similar in size.

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The drawstring won`t close but it works fine as a pouch as opposed to a bag. The pleather is very supple with a  soft interior.

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The ad mentions that it is “shock resistant”, and there is a small amount of sponge to the material, but it won`t protect from any meaningful drop.

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They`re also very cheap, about $2 each and will help maintain that intricate brushed finish. Just search “QCY pouch” on either Aliexpress or Banggood and you will find a few sellers offering competitive pricing, just be prepared to wait up to a month for shipping.

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