Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review of the FiiO E07K 'Andes' / Avinity USB DAC Mobile (& FiiO L7)


Edit 18.09.2013: As it appears, German distributor Hama has included the FiiO E07K into the portfolio of its own subsidiary company Avinity. It´s called USB DAC Mobile and is, as it appears, structurally identical. Therefore, the following text is valid not only for the FiiO E07K but also for the Avinity USB DAC Mobile.

1. Prologue

The postman delivered it, I kept it and it changed me. Sometimes, my dear Constant Reader, things can be as easy as that. The 'thing' I´m talking about caused me to re-evaluate my reviews, making them more earnest and truthful and it has been in use every singular one of the 180 days that passed since it arrived. I´m talking about a fabulous little amp, the FiiO E07K (or 'Andes'). It is the successor to the widely popular FiiO E7 which was reviewed by NwAvGuy in May 2011. That review concluded with the following recommendation: "The FiiO E7 seems like it should cost more from the moment you lay your eyes and hands on it. And that impression remains when evaluating the performance. The E7 is hard to beat for the price unless you have power hungry full size high impedance cans. It’s also makes a respectable battery powered amp. It’s well worth $99." NwAvGuy has all but disappeared and for that reason I´d like to offer a 'sequel' to his review. I´m not kidding myself, it´s close to impossible for me to arrive at the level of his objectiveness. For one thing, I myself am not an objectivist (no subjectivist either but that´s a story for different day) and for another thing I lack his professional measuring equipment. I have to be realistic about the latter: this blog is a hobby, a way of entertaining myself and others, equipment worth thousands of Euros would be utterly pointless. This article is separated into several chapters, that way you can scroll to the part that interests you the most. The biggest chapter (measurements) is an individual post:

  1. Prologue
  2. Overview & technical specs
  3. The ASIO driver & other peculiarities
  4. Listening test preparations & setup
  5. Listening test
  6. Conclusion
  7. Epilogue (tips to milk it as best as you can)
  8. Fancy graphs (measurements)

Fig. I. FiiO E07K 'Andes' front

Why do I want to review this unit when countless other reviews already exist? Because no one performed halfway decent measurements of the Andes yet. You´ve seen some? Yeah, on Head-Fi someone measured the EQ. Sorry, but that isn´t what I´m talking about. I don´t want to see how much the EQ of the Andes' boosts treble, I want to see distortions, amounts of jitter, behaviour with headphones, etc. Secondly, all the reviews I´ve read (here and here) performed sighted listening tests. That´s ok but there´s still a difference between good and better sighted tests and I believe that my unique approach is the best and most transparent, non-DBT listening test available. The most important reason however is that no one - I repeat: no one - has yet examined the ASIO driver FiiO offers on their website... Google tells me that most people don´t even know about it. As I´ve already mentionend in the prologue, the E07K forced me to re-evaluate my approach. Hence I was able to improve my method of reviewing audio units - especially headphone amps - to gain superior results. The first unit to profit from my enhanced testing methodology was the re-reviewed FiiO E6 whose article I´ve subsequently rewritten considerably.

Fig. II. Typical usage of the FiiO during the past half year

In the end I´ve had half a year to get to know the E07K; other reviewers (far less magazines) lack that luxury. But don´t think for one minute that those six months available to me have been voluntary: unexpected problems of our PC forced a dormancy upon my audio related activities, those were the true reason I´ve had time to evaluate and re-evaluate the Andes' qualities thoroughly, ending up analyzing it again and again. I´ve used it on almost all of the 180 days in combination with most of my MD recorders and portable CD players (see fig. II.) while I was reading books, as a DAC when I wanted to listen with my low-impedance Sennheiser HD-448 while surfing the net and with my big stereo system (combined with the FiiO L7 to gain a true line-out). The first comparison between my reference files and the Andes-derived files took place in January 2013 closely after purchasing it (the result blasted the FiiO E6 out of the sky). The second and third comparisons were done a week ago. All were realized with my self-developed system of comparing reference files to files that incorporate the sonic signature of the gadget I want to review... but I´m getting ahead of myself. So let´s continue with a general overview, yes?

2. Overview & technical specs

Fig. III. FiiO E07K 'Andes' accessories: felt-line rubber bag, USB cable, two plastic straps, rubber shell,
manual, 4-inch cable with 3.5 mm miniplugs, six rubber feets and two transparent screen protectors

On the photograph above (fig. III.) you can see that the Andes comes with a multitude of accessories. Regarding these consider the price for a moment, it costs just 90,- Euros (Avinity USB DAC Mobile: 180,- Euros (yes, it´s ridiculous considering you can buy the FiiO for half of it)). Then consider its abilities and you´ll see the amount of money spent is ridiculously small... I really wonder how FiiO is able to still make a cut and if they treat their labour force well. I avoid Apple products (others as well) for that reason, knowing that they are manufactured by Foxconn or Pegatron where people are treated like cattle for the benefit of us customers who only want the lowest prices. The connection to Apple I just made is not a coincidence: the design of the Andes (including the cardboard boxing) alludes to gadgets like iPhone or iPod; it shows similarities concerning appearance of solidity, tolerances and visual impression of workmanship. Of course, looks aren´t everything. The anodized aluminum of the Andes feels rather thin and lightweight, the aluminum bodies of many of my MD recorders are of higher grade. The metal buttons, although perfectly embedded, feel slightly rubbery at the touch. And then there is the OLED display of my E07K which is not perfectly aligned but tilted a bit to the right side. I´m complaining on an extremely high level here; general manufacturing quality of the Andes is fine (see figs. IV. & V.). The glass screen is high-grade, seems robust and it, along with everything else, fits very nicely with low tolerances. Even better: the FiiO E07K can be disassembled easily (no Torx screw heads) to for example replace the Li-ion battery (not so easy with an iPhone)... how cool is that? One thing however bugs me: the Andes collects dust like a magnet; I doubt that it´s static-related and although it is a minor nuisance it´s still unnerving 'cause I want to clean it all the time.

Fig. IV. FiiO E07K 'Andes' OLED display, slightly tilted to the right on my unit...
Fig. V. ... generally however build quality is excellent (blue LED signales 'power on')

The entrails of the FiiO are, like its outer appearance, budget conscious but comparably high-class. Many people say that the circuit design of the E07K is similar to that of my E6; if that is true or not I do not know. What I do know is that FiiO exchanged the opamp TI TPA6130 of the E6 to the MX97220 that increases power output on the headphone out considerably. The D/A-converter is the same as in the predecessor E7, a high quality Wolfson WM8740, also used in the more expensive FiiO E17 'Alpen'. In fact, the Alpen is very similar to the Anden: it only differs by having more power, boasting a built-in line-out and it is able to play back 24/192 through its S/PDIF input. USB connectivity on both the Andes and Alpen is provided by a Tenor TE7022L, an IC able to transport signals up to 24/96. Here is the rest of the technical specs (according to FiiO):


Input: USB and AUX
USB Support (max): 24bit / 96kHz
Channels balance: +/-10dB (5dB to either Left/Right)
Gain selection: 0dB, 6dB, 12dB
Digital Volume Control: 0 – 60 step
EQ: Treble - +/-10dB; Bass - +/-10dB (in 2dB step)
Line-out: Bypassable to pre-out (with FiiO L7 or E09K)
Output Power: 250mW (16Ω); 220mW (32Ω); 36mW (300Ω)
Headphone Impedance Range: 16 Ω ~ 150Ω
Frequency Range: 10Hz ~ 220kHz (amp); 10Hz ~ 20kHz (DAC)
Input Sensitivity (0/6/12dB gain): 2.75V/1.38V/690mV
MAX input Level: > 4.5 Vrms
MAX output voltage: > 7 Vp-p
Screen: 1 inch two tones OLED
Power Supply: Internal 1200mAH rechargeable Li-ion battery
Battery life: over 20 hours
Recharging: USB 5V, Less than 180mins to full
Size: 96mm x 55mm x 15.5mm
Weight: 102g


The most important changes to its predecessor are 24/96 support (E7: 16/48) and that it adds several gain levels (sort of like a built-in pre-amplifier). The digital volume control, which isn´t digital at all 'cause it only controls analogue resistors digitally, can be set from 0 to 60 though I would limit it to 50 via the menu since the Andes starts to distort when the maximum setting is approached (see the measurement section). Battery life of roughly 20 hours isn´t very much, I would have liked to see a longer running time but the new opamp probably draws more power - so a shorter battery life in exchange for more power and hopefully superior sound is a fair deal. Unlike others I don´t think that usability of the menu or the buttons is awkward, everything and every behaviour feels natural and logical to me and after a while it can be operated blindly.

Fig. VI. FiiO E07K 'Andes': two headphone outputs. Why?

But I don´t understand why the E07K has two headphone outputs, to me they are as useful as an illness (fig. VI.). If my boyfriend and I would listen to my favourite music at the same time he´d kill me soon afterwards. Instead FiiO could have equipped this amp with a line-out like they did on the E17. All right, this really isn´t any bother at all, I simply ignore the second headphone out. But the FiiO boasts another feature so brilliant that I feel the need to ask why other companies failed to think of it: it has female connectors suitable for a docking station. It´s rated for headphones from 16-150 Ohms, that excludes power hungry cans like my Sennheiser HD-600. To compensate for that FiiO offers the E09K 'Qogir' (109,- Euros), at first glance a simple desktop headphone amplifier able to drive high impedance headphones that at a closer look reveals the male docking counterparts. Thanks to this docking station ability you can place the Andes on top of the Qogir which will then establish USB connectivity, charge the E07K and passes along its DAC signal for the E09K to amplify. The combination of E07K and E09K creates something akin to a stationary high definition soundcard able to drive huge and power hungry headphones yet is still a portable amp (& DAC) at heart.

Fig. VII. FiiO E07K 'Andes' & FiiO L7
But the Qogir isn´t exactly something I´d need. I already have my Xonar Essence STX that contains the same IC used in the E09K, the TI TPA6120. Nevertheless I thought about purchasing it upon realizing in January that I couldn´t use my beloved Xonar Essence ST (PCI version of the STX) anymore. In the end I decided against it because the Andes isn´t 24/192 equipped, it also cannot record. Both are requisites for performing my reviews, I never use 24/192 for general playback but it´s important for measurements and listening tests. If you - like me - don´t need the Qogir you can also buy the FiiO L7 (see fig. VII.) for just 9,- Euros. It´ll add a line-out to the DAC function (use the LO BYPASS switch for it) and will pass USB signals through (including charging) - very handy indeed. To attain the digital input of the bigger E17 you could also buy the FiiO D03K (27,99 Euros). It´s a tiny DAC with optical and RCA digital inputs (to improve a vintage portable CD player for example) and from reviews I´ve read it´s able to beat external DACs ten times its price which - if true - would mean that it offers spectacular value for money. What? No, I don´t work for FiiO but I could end up with half of their product catalogue anyway, they just leave the impression that they cut the crap other boutique manufacturers attach to their products.

3. The ASIO driver & other peculiarities

Fig. VIII. FiiO E07K 'Andes', ASIO driver samplerate configuration

They aren´t always successful at cutting the crap, sometimes they end up creating it by means of an ASIO driver in an effort to offer some additional value to their customers. When you connect the Andes to a PC using a MS Windows OS (XP, Vista, 7, 8) a generic driver provided by Microsoft through their Universal Audio Architecture will be installed. This is possible because the FiiO is a USB device fully adhering to the USB Audio Class 1 standard for which this driver has been programmed. Therefore, if you don´t use ASIO it´s not necessary to install FiiO's driver, the Andes will work perfectly without it. In fact, I strongly advise against installation. The main problem of FiiO's ASIO driver is that it resamples without you being aware of it. Imagine that you configured it to 96 kHz in the ASIO control panel (see fig. VIII.). But what happens if you play back 44.1 kHz without changing anything? Under Windows 7 (presumably also on Vista & 8) it´ll resample the 44.1 kHz stream to the format you defined in the configuration panel, in our case 96 kHz, all the way using the Windows 7 audio stack which sucks at its job. The result is distorted audio (see measurement section), obscuring the Andes' qualities. I´ve also tested its performance on Windows XP (which uses a different audio architecture); I´ve found that it doesn´t resample but adds some distortions for which I'm unable to find any reason.

Fig. IX. FiiO E07K 'Andes', ASIO buffer size & bitdepth configuration

This is the first time I encountered an ASIO driver unable to switch samplerates by itself. My E-MU 0202 USB switched samplerates automatically and told me so, while my ASUS Xonar Essence STX doesn´t remind me it changes samplerates anyhow. Both were and are following exactly what an ASIO capable program told or tells them to do (-> direct control of hardware). Equally peculiar: when playing ASIO streams other sounds NOT using the ASIO protocol are still audible. This doesn´t normally happen - unless the interface employs a hardware mixer which the FiiO of course lacks. I suspect that FiiO's driver isn´t a true ASIO driver at all, it´s possible that it´s only a 'wrapper' for a plain, not very well programmed WDM (Windows Driver Model) driver. It encapsulates (wraps) a plain, non-ASIO signal stream inside the ASIO protocol for appropriate software. WASAPI and Kernel Streaming react in unexpected ways using this driver too. With JRiver Media Center and foobar2000 alike Kernel Streaming on Windows XP produces errors like sped-up audio (corresponding to differing samplerates), drop-outs or complete silence. WASAPI on Windows 7 is worse, most of the time it doesn´t work at all, crashes foobar2000 and produces silence on JRiver Media Center. The possible reasons for these errors remain elusive, I was unable to establish a behavioural pattern.

Fig. X. ASIO4ALL: if you absolutely need ASIO, use this driver extension

Almost all of this can be avoided if the generic Microsoft driver is used: WASAPI now switches samplerates automatically, precisely following commands issued by foobar2000 or JRiver Media Center. On Windows XP it doesn´t look so rosy; Kernel Streaming doesn´t work at all, both programs stay silent. Direct Sound works of course but who wants to use that, eh? Don´t panic, there´s a solution for this problem, a solution that single handedly will also wipe away the fact that the generic MS driver doesn´t support ASIO. It´s called ASIO4ALL (see fig. X.) and it is, just like FiiO's driver, an ASIO wrapper, in this case one that works flawlessly. On Windows XP it wraps the ASIO protocol around a stream sent by any WDM driver, or more precisely, its kernel stream. Curious, isn´t it? As long as Kernel Streaming is embedded in the artificial ASIO protocol created by ASIO4ALL the Andes works perfectly, even changing samplerates correctly on the fly. But the moment a program starts to use Kernel Streaming directly, playback fails. Before ending this chapter I have to say something about ASIO4ALL: it is not a driver. It is a wrapper 'wrapping' the ASIO protocol around regular Kernel / WASAPI signal streams. It does not bring along its own driver, it attaches a small piece of software to any existing driver, making control of faked ASIO streams possible. People always get this wrong, most of the time they refer to it as a hardware driver which it simply isn´t nor wants to be.

4. Listening test preparations & setup

Fig. XI. FiiO E07K 'Andes' LO BYPASS switch and AUX IN were used a lot for the listening tests

Not long now and I´ll be finished. Promise. As you may or may not know I use a special testing methodology to obtain the most neutral, sighted listening test results anywhere. Basically, I compare anything that plays music directly to the files it plays. Many magazines, forum members or website owners compare the sound of some gadget to the sound of another gadget. In almost all cases the latter gadget is something extremely expensive, luxurious, whatever. But there´s an important question no one asks: what if this exotic gadget isn´t neutral? What if it adds more bass, treble, dynamics or euphonic colourization? Can we really trust the manufacturer of this gadget to say the truth about this "most advanced and best sounding ................ on the market"? The answer is a simple "NO". Most high end hardware is designed to put on a fun show with certain musical styles or genres. One DAC might sound especially well with classical music, another DAC with Rock'n Roll... now guess which one will suck at Rock'n Roll. Customers buying this 'sounded' hardware are not aware of this... and why should they? In my experience people who listen to one genre rarely listen to another, in case they (against all expectations) paradoxically should do so, they´re fucked. "This cannot be true!" you´re exclaiming now... well, it is. I´ve found budget hardware to be capable of almost exquisitely neutral music playback. And if cheap BluRay players almost sound like the reference how can some high end apparatus be superior?


Above I have pictured my method for capturing the sound of the FiiO E07K when using its DAC function exclusively. It is linked to my laptop and configured to 24/96. At the same time it´s connected with an RCA cable to the line-in of my ASUS Xonar Essence STX inside my desktop PC. I then play back five reference files with the FiiO (using foobar2000), its output recorded in 24/192 (using ASIO) by the Xonar Essence STX. After the files now containing the sonic signature of the Andes have been recorded to the PC I synchronize and level-correct them so that they have precisely the same starting point & gain as the reference files (gain differences = sonic differences). Finally, the recorded files are resampled to 24/96 with the result that they have the same properties as the reference files, are exactly as loud yet still contain the FiiO's signature. I then proceed to compare the recorded files to the reference files in a listening test (in this case I repeated the whole procedure two times, for the line-out (using FiiO L7) and the headphone out respectively).



To find out of if the analogue input of the FiiO changes the sound I have to work a bit differently. The Andes is a headphone amp and amplifies any audio signal it is fed. Therefore I need it to amplify something and this something is my Creative Labs Soundblaster X-Fi HD USB. Which also means I´ll require new reference files, I cannot use my original files anymore since the recorded files then would include the combined sound signature of two units. Because of that, new reference files are created by playing back my original files and recording the line-out of the Soundblaster the same way the DAC of the FiiO was captured above. The rest of the procedure is the same (synching, level matching, resampling) but the listening test is obviously skipped. Remember: so far I have produced new reference files only.



To create files containing the sound signature of the Andes I simply loop it into the signal chain where it then amplifies the signal coming out of the line-outs of the Soundblaster X-Fi HD USB. The rest is similar to the two examples above.


All of this is quite elaborate but I don´t know any other, less time-consuming way to obtain neutral results. My whole procedure can only work of course if I assume the input of the ASUS Xonar Essence STX being able to capture with perfect transparency. If that is or isn´t the case I don´t know, I just know that my Xonar Essence STX is the best I´ve got. I daresay only this: the best analogue recordings I´ve ever performed were made with the analogue input of the Xonar Essence STX. The rest of the setup is as follows: the Andes and the X-Fi HD USB were linked to the respective computers with my Audioquest Forest USB cable, the RCA interconnect cable was the Audioquest King Cobra. The 3.5 mm to 3.5 mm interconnect between the FiiO's output and the Xonar Essence STX was the FiiO L8, manufactured for them by Japanese company Oyaide. Gain pre-amplification on the Andes was configured at +6 dB (for analogue in as well as USB), volume setting on its headphone out was 50. When used with the L7 adaptor line output level was fixed at approximately 1.35 Volts. Playback level of the X-Fi HD USB was set to 0 dBfs (maximum volume, both on headphone out & line-out), recording level for the Xonar Essence STX was set to 0 dBfs (maximum) too. Input impedance of the Xonar Essence STX is - according to Stereophile's measurements by John Atkinson - 4300 Ohms.

5. Listening test

Fig. XII. FiiO E07K 'Andes' close-up

AUX in (analogue line-in)

What people say about the circuit design of the Andes being similar to the E6 might be the truth; the sound of its line-in shares many traits. Lowest and highest frequencies are diminished, upper bass sounds as if increased, giving singers more chest and instruments more body (very apparent with the track from 'Ray of Light' & the Vierne organ recording). Dynamics are more timid compared to the reference files, the FiiO amplified results lack snap, punch and 'bite', the tracks sound univolving. Timing however is a close match over the whole frequency band. Resolution and rendering of details strongly resemble the references, slurring very little details or high frequency differentiation. But it´s especially evident around the mids where articulation is pristine. When it comes to the virtual stage the Andes makes it a tad more instable, marginally loosing focus and blurring position and dimension of instruments. The character of connected devices is retained well, the sound signatures of the X-Fi HD USB, my MD recorders or portable CD players are transported almost without flaw. The way I describe all these deficiencies might come across as if the FiiO wouldn´t be very good, yet they are, with the exception of sonic balance and dynamics, not readily audible. The sound signature of the FiiO's line-in is warm, friendly and calm, it´s not impeccable but good enough to beat the E6 effortlessly and it´s absolutely qualified for good music playback. I wouldn´t pair it with already laid-back sounding sources though, that might create too much of a good (or bad) thing. BTW, German AUDIO magazine rewarded its sister model Avinity USB DAC Mobile 80 points for sound quality (from their maximum of 100) in a review for their October 2013 edition.

Sonic Balance:
Dynamics:
Resolution:
Stage / Ambiance:
Character:



USB DAC

The very same AUDIO magazine awarded 85 points for sound to the Avinity for its DAC part... naturally they listened with the supplied USB cable. I on the other hand did all my listening tests with my Audioquest Forest. The editors of that magazine apparently heard a different sound signature in their listening sessions, either because of the cable or because they don´t use my method of comparing devices, both are likely candidates. I myself had a hard time hearing any differences at all. When I didn´t know what I was listening to, I regularly confused the reference files with the files derived from the Andes' DAC section and vice versa. I needed countless hours and many listening sessions, in some cases months apart, to arrive at a conclusive result. BTW, there were no differences between the L7-derived line-out and the headphone-out. On both outputs dynamics could still profit from a bit of 'oomph' but it´s barely detectable. Sonic balance continues to be a tad on the voluptuous side, still missing a now insignificant amount of deepest and highest frequencies. The impression of virtual stage is a match regarding size, dimension, focus and intelligibility, if there's something to complain about it´s a minor impairment of stability. But the difference is so small that I feel the need to introduce half points for my ratings. Everything else, resolution and characer, is extremely close to the references. All of the described shortcoming are faint, errors are so minuscule that it takes a long time to hear them, I cannot even preclude that I have experienced a prime example of a placebo effect. Because of this I assume that it´d be hard to improve the sound any further, at least not without some effort. Take the FiiO E17 'Alpen', maybe it is able to boost sound quality, but I doubt it; there simply isn´t much left to advance anyway. Articles reviewing the Alpen often emphasize that it sounds more engaging than the Andes... which can mean anything, from featuring more bass and treble to boasting superior dynamic capabilities. So for the time being let´s summarise the listening tests with the following sentence: the FiiO E07K is an excellent USB DAC.

Sonic Balance:
Dynamics:
Resolution:
Stage / Ambiance:
Character:



6. Conclusion

Fig. XIII. FiiO E07K 'Andes' in all its glory



The product finish of the Andes is very well done, it comes with a bunch of convenient accessories, is small enough to be portable, not big enough to be too clunky and can be handled blindly. Just attach it to the back of your smartphone or your portable player with the enclosed rubber straps and enjoy a sound quality you wouldn´t have expected coming from those devices. Just like every (well engineered) headphone amplifier it´ll get rid of impedance output mismatches, it will also achieve deafening volume levels if you so desire. But amplifying portable devices is not all the E07K can do. Do you own a laptop, desktop PC, a tablet, a Mac, subnotebook or netbook and do their headphone outputs / line-outs sound fucked up or simply lack enough gain? For all of them the Andes is the perfect solution. Just plug it in and enjoy. No additional driver installation, no hassle, just perfect sound (there are one or two things you can do to make sure extracting perfect sound quality; just continue reading). Basically, by buying this thing, you´ll get two things fused into a single, very nice and convenient package. Yes, I can recommend the FiiO E07K 'Andes' without reservations. Just stay clear of the ASIO driver FiiO offers and you´ll be rewarded with an audio unit that is able to amplify any audio output with good results. Use it as an USB DAC and you will listen to audio quality you won´t have ever expected from something as inexpensive, tiny and beautiful as this. Avoid the Avinity USB DAC Mobile - you can have the same sound for half the money when buying the FiiO. Speaking of which, they will soon release a digital, high definition audio player here in Europe, from what I hear this FiiO X3 is technically very similar to the E07K... I can´t wait to buy it. In the meantime: thank you, FiiO, for releasing this wonderful device and thank you too, my dear Constant Reader, to bear with me during thís very long and detailed article. I hope you are, like me, a bit smarter now regarding the FiiO E07K.


7. Epilogue (tips to milk it as best as you can)

Fig. XIV. FiiO E07K 'Andes' - extract everything you can

1. Avoid the ASIO driver provided by FiiO
It measures and sounds bad (by introducing errors to a normally perfectly clean signal), it is not one bit convenient and one doesn´t know what it´s doing, nothing about this driver is transparent. Use the Microsoft-provided, generic USB audio device driver (dated November 2010) instead, it´ll function almost without error. If you´re desperate for ASIO capability, use ASIO4ALL.

2. Make sure to configure the Windows sound properties correctly

Fig. XV. tick these SPDIF (MS name for the E07K) interface capabilities
Fig. XVI. Raise the sound level to its maximum
Fig. XVII. Make sure to tick those boxes, only then WASAPI
will be used at its maximum potential
I apologize for the German designations, I was too lazy to switch Windows to another language. You´ll get the picture anyway, it´ll look the same on your PC, wherever you´re coming from (except for Asian readers; sorry). To reach the settings pictured above right-click the loudspeaker symbol in the taskbar -> left-click 'playback devices' -> right-click 'SPDIF interface FiiO USB DAC E07K' -> left-click 'properties'Fig. XV. shows which boxes to tick, though it isn´t absolutely necessary if you remember to tick those two boxes shown in fig. XVII. Those are crucial if you want the WASAPI interface to work at its best (meaning: automated samplerate switching, retaining bit depth). Equally vital for bit perfect sound not impaired by the Windows audio engine is raising playback level to its maximum setting (fig. XVI.), otherwise you will inadvertently hamper resolution (by lowering bit depth). If you want to change the playback level, do it only on the FiiO, or when using the L7, on the amp downstream. I should mention that these recommendations do not apply to the FiiO alone, many interfaces using WASAPI exclusively can be lifted to their top performance if you heed this advice.

Experiment with different USB cables
I´m a part-time subjectivist, I told you so. My listening tests were done while using my Audioquest Forest USB cable. I was unable to find any measurable evidence for sonic differences between several USB cables, yet I heard them and was able to pinpoint two of them performing a DBT. In case of the FiiO Andes I also attempted a listening test using the enclosed USB cable and I can summarize that it changes the sonic signature of the E07K slightly but noticeable. The stage is widened and flattened, resolution improves, the slight voluptuousness of the sound disappears almost completely. On the other hand the Andes now sounds too analytical, a tad strident even. Dynamics are unchanged. For that reason use different USB cables to create synergy effects with attached headphones - but do so wisely. I wouldn´t recommend spending more than 40,- Euros for a single USB cable, too many people are punked by greedy and lying manufacturers.

Choose gain levels wisely
The Andes offers three gain levels, selectable via its menu. The first one (0 dB, 2.75 V sensitivity) should be used for stationary sources like CD players, network streamers or BluRay players, the second (+6 dB, 1.38 V sensitivity) for line-outs of portable players like MD recorders or very loud headphone outputs and the third one (+12 dB, 0.69 V sensitivity) applies to very weak headphone outputs. The factory preset of +6 dB works fine on many occasions. Attention: If you don´t select them appropriately you will overload the input, leading to distorted sound. You don´t want that, do you?

Don´t come too close to a volume setting of 60
I´ve shown in my measurement section that the Andes starts to distort the closer you approach the maximum volume setting its headphone amplifier allows. Thankfully, you can limit the volume through the menu to a value that is safe to use. I´d recommend a setting of 50.

Prolongue the lifetime of the built-in battery
Li-ion batteries are impervious to many flaws associated with batteries from 20 years prior. The memory effect (of Ni-cd for example) is a concept alien to them, you can charge them whatever their charge level is, they are small and can store lots of electrical energy. But they still have two major weaknesses: Li-ion accumulators don´t work that well when temperatures are below freezing, they also have a high discharge rate when not in use. Which means: if you are not planning to use your FiiO E07K for some time, store it in a cool, dry place with the battery at a charge level of 40%-50%. If you don´t follow this advice, the battery will age much faster, won´t hold the same amount of energy after charging and will be gone in two to three years. If you take care of it like I recommend you will enjoy it for years to come. BTW, this tip applies to all Li-ion batteries!


Last update: 18.09.2013

74 comments:

  1. this is truly a nice article.. i just get my hands on the andes and this is my 1st dac/amp for the record..

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi. What gain should i set for my 100 ohms etytomtic er4s?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That´s a good question. The answer depends on how loud your source is. The standard setting is 6 dB, if you connect a stationary source (like a standalone CD player) it should be set to 0 dB. If you connect a smartphone via its headphone output, 12 dB might be a good choice. A smartphone via its line-out (with an adapter) might be different -> 6 dB.

      I have sort of a 'rule of thumb' for myself: with my headphones (HD-448, 32 Ohms / HD-558, 50 Ohms) I never exceed a volume setting of 30-40. Try it out for yourself and choose the combination that´s the loudest WITHOUT distortions (gain too loud) or noise (gain too low).

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    2. Thanks for the answer. I use it connected To my pc with the USB cable. I don't feel anything weird when changing gains... With 0 gain I can still listen at 60 without being loud... With 6 gain I feel it comfortable at 35 and with 12 gain at 24...the er4 have good isolation so I don't use high levels of volume to listen

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    3. In this case I think it's best if you use the default gain of 6. A volume setting of 35 feels reasonable to me :)

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  3. Hi there. First of all big thanks for this wonderfull article!
    I was wondering if you knew any way to reduce latency when using the Fiio e17 with a DAW (Reaper) receiving information from a midi instrument? Asio4all doesn't a decent job but it's not quite there...

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    1. Hi! And thank you for your kind words.

      Sadly, I don´t know exactly how to help you since I´ve never used reaper or midi-based interfaces of any kind. But you could have a look at Cockos' Wiki: http://wiki.cockos.com/wiki/index.php/How_to_Compensate_for_Interface_Latency

      Have you tried it without Asio4All? It´s only an ASIO wrapper, wrapping an ASIO protocol around a WASAPI stream (on Windows Vista/7/8). So perhaps a direct WASAPI interface control (including tweaking Windows sound settings) might do a better job.

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  4. I love this blog; technical information presented in an easily comprehended manner...not that easy to achieve. Your profile photo bears and uncanny resemblance to a cool Irishman called Michael Fassbender.....!

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Thanks! That´s exactly what I want to achieve: present anything easily to understand... and I usually don´t receive enough feedback if I actually did that.

      I´m looking like Michael Fassbender on my profile photo?? Oh, I wish... :D

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  5. Hi Marlene, excellent article on the Fiio E07k. I mainly use a portable Sony CD player, and I noticed you mentioned the use of a portable CD player. Am I able to use both the Fiio's amp aswell as the DAC with my portable? If so could you please explain how to go about the connections with the portable as I am quite useless at these kind of things. Also you're the only one I have come across so far that has mentioned using a portable CD player in connection with an amp.
    Thanks in advance. Nico

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    1. Thank you for your kind words!

      Regarding your question: you can of course use any portable CD player with the FiiO E07K. But you cannot connect your portable CD player with a digital cable (-> optical glass fibre cable) to the FiiO E07K. This FiiO is a DAC for the USB port of your computer. So the DAC function can only be used on a USB port, not with a portable CD player or any other device equipped with a digital output.

      But you can connect the FiiO E07K using the enclosed analogue cable, that way the FiiO will act as an amp. This will probably sound very well.

      If you REALLY want to use the digital connection, you could buy the FiiO E17 instead. That one is equipped with an additional digital input with which it'd be able to act as a DAC for your portable CD player.

      http://www.fiio.com.cn/products/index.aspx?ID=100000014895351&MenuID=105026002

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    2. Thanks very much for the quick reply, and for being so clear! Should I decide on the E17, since the portable only has a headphones jack would I need to buy a special cable, or something, to connect it to the E17 in order for the fiio to act as a DAC? Thanks (again) in advance

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    3. Wait, your portable has only a headphones out? I assumed that your portable CD player has a digital out.

      Does it say anywhere on your machine 'Line out / optical out'? If not, the E07K will suffice. Because without a digital output you cannot use anything as a DAC.

      What portable Sony CD player are you using?

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    4. Mine is a Sony D-NF340 portable CD player and it only has a headphones output

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    5. This player doesn´t give out a digital signal which you could use with a DAC. You´d need a different player for that.

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    6. Ok. Thanks very much for your help; much appreciated.

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  6. Interesting that you find it not being able to power Sennheiser HD600. I have been considering Sennheiser Momentum "around ear" but the are too small for my ears (well, they fit just exactly but it feels too small) and ended up with HD650 or HD600 wich I found used for 110€. But it seems that I will have to look for something else than my Fidelo S2.

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  7. BTW I have a FiiO E07K... :)

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    1. Oh, the E07K is certainly able to power the HD-600/HD-650. But it sounds as if it doesn´t have enough electrical resources for impulses/transients. The HD-600 sounds thin in combination with the E07K - and it´s not a lack of gain.

      I´ve reviewed the Momentum too and - like you - I found that it´s even too small for my small earcups. But why aren´t you happy with the Fidelio S2? Do you want over-ear cans? What about the Fidelio L1? The cushions aren´t replaceable but they are pleather so they perhaps will last long enough without the need of replacing them.

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  8. I am perfectly happy with my Fidelio S2 as "in-ears" but I find over-ears more comfortable in the long run. What I really would like to buy but is above budget is Bower & Wilkins P7. A friend at work are using the P7 together with HRT MicroStreamer. I tried them out with the FiiO E07K with great result. But as I wrote before, I'll end up with the HD600. If I am not happy with them I'll take a look at the L1's.

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    1. Yeah, over-ears are indeed much more comfortable. The HD-600 might not be the ideal choice for you. It´s an extremely neutral headphone, the Bowers & Wilkins P7 tends to be on the warm and bassy side of the spectrum which might be what you like. The HD-600 will appear thin and strident in comparison and no one wants to listen to all the errors to be found in many recordings. The Fidelio L1 is quite cheap right now (at least here in Germany) and it sounds well (warm) for the money, that´s why I recommended it.

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  9. "there were no differences between the L7-derived line-out and the headphone-out"
    Does the two output comparison above done with LO BYPASS?
    Is this means with LO BYPASS, there is headphone-out still have signal?

    Thanks.

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    1. I think so. But right now I´m not at home so I can´t confirm. I will get back to you in a few days.

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    2. i m thinking to use e07k as a source to my amp without using L7 for 2 reason.
      1. looks cheap & 2. it cost 1/4 of the e07k here in my country.

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    3. 1/4? Boy, that is expensive. I paid 1/10 for it. But I can confirm that you can use the headphone out as a line-out too. You don´t need to switch the LO BYPASS on for that. Just use the headphone out and set its gain to your liking.

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  10. Hi there. Which way, up or down, should I set the LO Bypass when using this with an FiiO L7 to enhance/bypass the soundcard from my laptop? Thank you very much.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. You know what? I forgot this too. So I´ll say the same as above: I have to get back to you.

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  11. Well? I guess there are only two possibilities to try...

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Right, I forgot.

      To use the line-out of the E07K you have to switch the LO Bypass switch towards the description 'LO Bypass' ;) If you want to use the volume control, you´ll have to switch it towards where nothing is written.

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  12. But what if I'm going to use the line out from the L7?

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  13. P.S. -
    I think the volume control works with the switch either direction, and that's using the headphone line-out from the E07K going to my computer/powered speakers. I'm waiting for the L7 dock to arrive by mail...when it comes I will need to know if it matters which way the LO Bypass is set. Thanks again if you can ease my mind beforehand.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Once you attach the L7, switch the slider towards LO Bypass. That's all. The signal over the headphone out is always changeable but the L7 will create a true line-out (with roughly 1.3-1.5 V).

      And I know that it's confusing, I always forget it too. But I rarely use my E07K now since I got the X3 some months ago.

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  14. Thanks. And when I do that, how will I adjust the volume? From the computer? ( I already have that set at 100% based on a review of the E07K.)

    ReplyDelete
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    1. You are aware that the L7 will enable a true line out function? Meaning: a line out like on a stationary CD player? I´d suggest to treat it like that and to adjust the volume with the amp you connect the L7/E07K with instead of the computer.

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  15. Yes, that's clear. But when above you said --
    "To use the line-out of the E07K you have to switch the LO Bypass switch towards the description 'LO Bypass' ;) If you want to use the volume control, you´ll have to switch it towards where nothing is written."
    --I asked myself "How can I have the switch toward 'Lo Bypass' yet have to switch it back when I want to adjust volume?' I must be missing something, because of course I want to have both the correct position for the LO and the volume. Are you then saying to have the L7 with the E07K on "Lo Bypass," and that I can also use the E07K's volume control as I have been doing? That's the only amp I'm using...

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    1. For simplicity I will condense what I´ve written so far while also adding some new things.

      1. "LO Bypass" activated -> set it towards LO Bypass

      - the above setting activates USB charging while deactivating the volume control of the E07K on the line out
      - the above setting will change voltage and level so that the output on L7/E07K combination is suitable for line ins
      - volume control on the headphone outputs will be ALWAYS active
      - for the L7 to function, the L7/E07K combination has to be connected to USB

      2. "LO Bypass" deactivated -> towards where nothing is written

      - USB charging inactive
      - volume control also working on the line out

      Now a question: if the E07K is the only amp you´re using, why do you want to have the L7 anyway? What is it you want to connect it to? You cannot use the L7 to power a headphone, you know...

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  16. Right, I can do headphones with only the E07K, but mainly I listen to music through my laptop and its very good speakers. So: I heard the L7 should be attached to the E07K to give it a truer line-out signal. I just now tried it because it just arrived by post. It sounds somewhat better/truer on first comparison test, although I was happy before it came. Anyway, not being a tekkie at all, I couldn't figure out why you said I would not be able to use the E07k's volume control with the L7. But hey, I'm not complaining -- and I was right, I should just do the volume from the computer or the very programs like Windows Media Player, Foobar, Spotify... I suspected this whole dialogue had a slight misunderstanding, thus I tried to keep things simple. But I'm too word perhaps?...I dunno. But you have been a help, so thank you. I know I didn't HAVE to get the L7 after reading the statement above that the E07K headphone LO sounded just as good as with the L7. But I crave as much audio perfection as I am able to afford, or I simply don't want to miss something right under my nose. Now I have something new to play with. Best to you. --Noel

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Glad that you like it - and thanks for getting back to me.

      Delete
  17. Surely you're not saying I could just use the L7 by itself hooked up to the laptop? It's not an amp. And why have another amp besides the E07K, as it seems you implied I would naturally have? The way this started was I was trying not only to have headphone amp power, but mainly to bypass the soundcard of my old laptop. So I got the E07K. Then someone said I should also get the L7. Anyway, by placing the switch to "LO Bypass," I guess that means it is bypassing the E07K in favor of the L7 or whatever attached LO... I've been thinking that, "Why would you want to bypass the very LO that people are saying you should have attached to it?" Whole thing has been confusing, but at least I have ways of attaining good sound.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Setting LO BYPASS with an attached L7 only changes voltages of the built-in, third output of the E07K (the output in the socket). You´re not bypassing anything on the E07K, nor do you change something on the L7.

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  18. It's strange to me why one is "bypassing," or leaving behind, the volume control of the E07K just because it's not the headphones you wish to listen through.

    So I hope my setup is fine, namely--
    Laptop > E07K thru USB > L7 > computer speakers.

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  19. HI, very informative analysis! ? my archos mp3 player plus andes or fiiox3 ?. one YTt-video says not much quality-gain on normal mp3. by fiiox3 I m an electronic caveman; FLAC WAVE etc unknown. I only would like to buy something to be able to listen to a better sound.. please can you help me with an advise? THANKS and greatings CC

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Simple answer: FiiO X3. Replace your Archos with it and enjoy mp3s in a quality you´ve never heard on a portable device.

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    2. Thank you very much, I LL DO SO, very nice way of helping! CC

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  20. Hello, I will buy a pair of HD 558's and wonder if this will be a good fit with them or is there a better alternative. I will mainly be using it on my computer.

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    1. It will be a good fit, don´t worry about it.

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  21. hi? you seem to be a great fan of fiio. do you intend to do same research/test on f.e. cowon i audio 9? could bvecome an interesting blog ... thanks and greatings...connie

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    1. Actually, I used to be a fan of Sony products (which has toned down a lot during the past years). And I won´t do a review for a Cowon, sorry.

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  22. thanks for the review forget my text too complicatet text for a no-robot, these calligraphs...

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  23. WOW! Excellent article/review, really! You went all the way down more than any blog/site in the sector has ever done, and you did it flawlessly! Plus it was really enjoyable to read, so thank you so much for sharing this review!
    I really like my E07K, i use it every day coupled via USB to my Nexus5 (and to my pc at work) to drive my Aurvana Live!2, to me it's simply amazing the sound quality that this little piece of hardware can deliver!

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    1. Thank you very much! I still use it to this day, even now, where I also own the X3. The E07K is a fabulous device.

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  24. Can the E07K outputs actually be adjusted independently?

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    1. The two headphone outputs can be adjusted (but not independently from each other), the line-out (with L7) cannot.

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  25. I'm thinking about upgrading to the E07K from my budget sound card (Xonar DG)
    This would be my first external USB DAC/AMP and I'm not sure if I should expect a noticeable difference in sound quality between my card and this device. My DG sounds kind of sterile, cold, and It can crackle a lot. Well, at least it sounds better than my onboard.
    I also read some reviews about the E17 and it said that the AMP in it is more neutral and generally sounds "better", I'm not sure if it' worth the extra cash just for the "neutral" sounding amp (as I don't need a huge amp, I'm using a HD439)
    Long story short: Do you think It's worth to upgrade to the E07K/E17 for PC use?

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Sorry for taking so long to reply. In my personal opinion, I think that the Xonar DG would be on par with the E07K or the E17. My Xonar Essence STX isn´t THAT different to my E07K. Though one could say, that the Xonar is the more 'correct' DAC, less colouring... people might call it 'cold'.

      I would think that if your Xonar DG sounds cold, that it´s not the card but the music that sounds that way. Do you have the PCI or the PCI-Express version? In case of the former, try to use another PCI-slot, that might avoid the crackling.

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    2. Thank you, that's very interesting. My old (now dead) motherboard had the Realtek ALC889A codec and I'm sure I got too used to that sound, that's why I might think that the DG is cold, and also it's very revealing, I can hear every artifact / crackle in a bad recording. It hit me like a truck when I first heard all these previously hidden details.

      It's PCI, but sadly I have only one PCI slot on my new mobo, also my PSU is very old so I know my PC is not very optimal for the soundcard. That's why I'm thinking about trying out an external solution, like a fiio (E10K just came out recently). I think I can return it in 7 days and they pay back the money if I'm not satisfied with it so I shouldn't loose much by trying it.

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    3. My mainboard does have the ALC892 - it does a fairly decent job considering it´s onboard sound. Those codecs itself are actually not that bad, their sound depends on how they are implemented on the board. And if I extrapolate the sound of my solution to yours, you probably had a slightly muffled and 'cozy' sound.

      But before you start thinking about replacing your internal soundcard with a USB dac, I suggest you first buy a new PSU. An external solution would depend on your PSU exactly like your internal ASUS, so you might encounter the same problems (if the USB isn´t powered by an external power supply). Not even the best USB DAC can ignore the advantages of a stable power supply. So buy a new PSU - and don´t take the cheapest and strongest you can find. You need to have a modern, efficient PSU, I suggest an Enermax Triathlor ECO 550 Watts or the Enermax NAXN ADV 550 Watts. Unless you´re not planning on using the most demanding graphic card or plan to overclock, 550 Watts are more than enough. I recommend Enermax because I´ve made only the best of experiences with their products.

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  26. Thank you for the review :D

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  27. Thank you for this information - very useful... the bit I understood ! Greetings from UK.

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  28. Amazing review, very helpful. Thank you very much for your work! Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  29. What does the LO Bypass bypass?

    I should not use it when I'm just using the headphones thru the headphone jack, right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The LO Bypass switch should only be used when you connect the L7. In any other case, for example, when connecting headphones, don´t use it :)

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  30. Thanks so much for the methodical review! Good to see!

    I have a quick question regarding switching between the DAC mode and the Line in mode in the E07k. Is the switching automatic? i.e. if there's signal coming from the line in socket, the DAC mode stops? Could you please describe how this happens? I want to use the E07k as a USB DAC for my nexus 7 car install, but also want a line in to the DAC for a bluetooth audio receiver (for handsfree calls). I really hope that the switching is transparent and automatic, so when a call comes in (line in signal) when music is playing to the DAC, it switches to the line in. Thanks in advance for your help!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The E07K cannot do automated toggling betwen DAC mode and Line-in mode. For the Line-in to work, you´d need to disconnect the USB cable first.

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    2. Oh that's disappointing, guess I'll keep searching! Thanks anyways.

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  31. How much is improved the bass with the bass control ??
    thanks

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    1. I have no idea, I don´t use the bass boost.

      Delete
  32. Just wanted to get back here and say thank you for your review. I bought FiiO E17 a couple of years ago based on your review, and use it with my PC ever since.

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  33. hi Jörn Thank you for the artical about fiio E07K DAC it was useful for me because I bought it for using with my laptop and cellphone

    ReplyDelete
  34. Hello, Jorn.
    I bought a second FiiO 'Andes' amp, but the FiiO L7 LOD is now unavailable. What can I buy to perform the same function instead of the L7? That's all I need...I don't do iPhone, etc., just want to play music from laptop. I need a basic LOD like the L7.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, but I don't know of anything. I would just run it through one of the headphone outputs, that's all I can suggest.

      Delete
  35. Hello! Could you, please, make something clear for me?

    I use modded E07K (AD8066 opamp and Wolfson WM8741), which is docked in E09K (not-modded).

    1. If I have LO Bypass set up, so I can change volume on both E07K and E09K, then will lowering volume and/or gain on E07K make AD8066 less affecting the sound?
    2. If I set LO Bypass down, so only E07K volume changes, is AD8066 the only one opamp that affect sound or OPA2134+TPA6120 from E09K also "work"?

    And I don't mean the volume level, but how AD8066 changes how music sounds.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 1. When the line-out function is active, the output level is set and non-configurable.
      2. If you can change the volume on the E07K, it means that it isn't using the line-out.

      But I think that all amps inside the E07K are always active. In case number 1. applies, the amps seem to be set to a distinct level. But I don't really know, you should ask FiiO about this as they know the mainboard and what is active when.

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