Chinese company FiiO have been selling well-rated bits of audio kit to connoisseurs for some time now, and have acquired something of a reputation for building nice features into units that retail for less than most competing brands. The company’s portable headphone amplifiers have been no exception, with many audiophiles swearing by the ability of the E5 to wring decent sound out of even modestly-specced setups.
Today, we’re looking at the follow-up, the E6. While the new unit is strikingly similar to the previous model, there have been a couple of obvious changes. First of all, the E6 is now swathed in black plastic, as opposed to the metal shell of the E5. While this has lessened the overall build quality. and means that the casing is theoretically more vulnerable to accidental damage, it does also make it a good deal lighter and more comfortable to dangle off your headphone cable.
The other major difference is in the clip attachment; the E5 used a large built-in clip attached vertically to the back panel, while the E6 relies on a diagonally-placed thin plastic attachment. The odd positioning makes wearing the E6 on your clothes a struggle, and we resorted to dumping the amp into a pocket alongside the player.
Aside from the belt clip, the unit comes with two 3.5mm jacks for input and output, a mini-USB slot for charging the internal battery, and a lanyard loop for attaching a cord to hang around your neck (should you choose to do such an odd thing). The controls are fairly basic: two rocker buttons, one of which controls volume, and the other of which pulls double duty as power/hold switch and toggle between the three EQ modes.
FiiO claims a ten hour battery life, which seems pretty accurate; in our testing we found that in normal use, we could count on around nine good hours of solid listening on a full charge.
The E6 is mainly sold as a portable piece of sound equipment, and so it was beholden on us to do most of our testing with devices that represent what most customers will be using; we fell back on the popular Android mobile the Samsung Galaxy S2 and our favoured miniature MP3 player, the Sansa Clip Zip. On both devices, the amplifier produced a large increase in the level of volume available, and especially on the Galaxy S2 seemed to fill out the rather weedily-reproduced bass range.
Hooked up to our test desktop PC and a pair of Sennheiser HD201 headphones, the volume boost was less immediately noticeable, but still a welcome thing indeed, allowing us to turn down the gain from our cheap motherboard sound card.
The E6 can definitely hold its own in the volume stakes, certainly enough to push past the disappointingly low limits set on personal music devices sold in Europe, but how do its musical reproduction chops stack up?
We’ve remarked on the unit’s low-end affinity already, and further testing with Foreign Beggar’s bass-heavy Contact bore out our initial impressions. The track’s synthy kicks were as punchy and defined as could be asked for, maintaining integrity even at very high volumes. The results may sound slightly too bright for some, although we prefer our top-end audible, thank you very much. The higher pitches were equally nice, apart from a small niggling distortion in the mid-range — a slight hiss added to the snare line.
The problem became more pronounced once we switched to the crescendo-rific Mogwai Fear Satan, with the splashy cymbals suffering the worst from the introduction of hiss in the mid-range. Lows and highs were much better, with the fuzzed-out feedback-drenched guitar especially well rendered.
Changing EQ settings did little to erase the distortion, although they did add a useful bit of warmth to the lower frequencies. We found the first EQ setting tended to wash out the balance in a muddy river of bass, but the second scaled up the higher tones to match, creating a decently dynamic stage. We tended to keep the sound on straight pass-through, although bass-heads may want to take note of the feature.
Despite the occasional burp in sound reproduction, the FiiO E6 is an impressive piece of kit. Small, light and with a fairly decent battery life, the company has managed to create a device that pumps out an excellent amount of gain while improving on the poor audio quality of many popular portable players. The fact you can readily pick one up for less than £20 makes this a steal if want to enjoy your music to the fullest on the move without having to lay out a fortune for an audiophile mobile player.