Creative Sound Blaster E5 Hi-Res USB DAC and Portable AMP Review

Introduction

After purchasing the Sennheiser HD600 and listening to them for a couple of days, I was on the hunt for an AMP to power it.

Initially I thought of getting the FiiO E17 (my previous setup was the original E17 + Sony MDR-1RBT). However, the FiiO E17’s max ohm rating was 300 ohms, and the recommended rating of the HD600s was 300 ohms, so I wanted something that could provide a bit more juice.

I trolled through a tonne of reviews and ultimately came to the Creative Sound Blaster E5.

All the reviews I read were positive. And I liked the sound signature of the flagship Cirrus Logic CS4398 chip. But more importantly, it included a best-in-class Texas Instrument TI6120A2 headphone amplifier with a rating of up to 600 ohms.

Benefits

I get asked a lot: why would one want a “better” DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) or need an AMP (amplifier)?

So before I get into the review for the Creative Sound Blaster E5 DAC and AMP, I’ll give a quick summary of the benefits/reasons why one would want one.

DAC

There are a couple of reasons why one would want an external DAC:

  1. obviously, if the device does not have an onboard DAC.
  2. we want a better performing DAC.

A better performing DAC could mean:

  • Support for playback of demanding formats such as DSD natively
  • Have a higher signal-to-noise ratio
  • Support higher sample rates
  • Provides a larger soundstage
  • Better reproduction of the sound source

The best way to think of this is a stock car radio with support for 2 speakers, FM/AM radio and CD playback vs an aftermarket stereo with a touchscreen and support for 5.1 surround sound speakers, FM/AM radio, CD/DVD playback and built-in GPS.

AMP

There are a couple of reasons why one would want an external AMP:

  1. obviously, if the device is not loud enough.
  2. the device is not providing enough power to power the speaker(s).

The best way to think of this is a USB 3.0 rated device running in a USB 2.0 port vs a USB 3.0 port. The device functions normally under both ports. But its performance differs greatly depending on the port it is connected to, 480Mbps for USB 2.0 and 5.0Gbps for USB 3.0.

Note: this may be a good time to point out. Your setup is only as good as its weakest link.

Now onto the review.

Connection Types

The E5 supports a myriad number of connection types, including line/optical in and out. But I don’t use either, so I won’t mention them beyond that they are supported.

microUSB

For optimal performance and to utilise the software package provided by Creative, you will need to connect the E5 to your PC/Laptop/Mac via the microUSB port.

USB Host

For optimal performance with an iOS or Android mobile device, you would want to connect to the E5 via the USB-A port.

Bluetooth with aptX (low latency) and NFC support

For convenience, you can connect to the E5 via Bluetooth. The sound quality is a notch down from the cable connection types. But the freedom to detach from your source is priceless.

Note: this is by far the best Bluetooth sound device I have used to date. Connection time is near instant, no drop outs and no intermittent sound issues like those I experienced with past Bluetooth headphones.

Build Quality

The E5 has a satisfactory build quality in my books. What this means is, when held, it does not feel cheap, nor does it feel like a premium product.

Having previously owned the FiiO E17, which costs around half the price of the E5. I was expecting something similar, if not better for a flagship product.

To reach the price point they are targeting, I guess there had to be some compromises.

Design

The E5 has a similar design as the rest of the portable DACs/AMPs offered by Creative under the Sound Blaster brand.

Though it is “designed” and marketed as portable DAC/AMP. I feel it is a bit too chunky to carry around and is more suited to be a desktop DAC/AMP. And the desktop holder included in the package works wonders for this.

Sound Quality

The E5 greatly increases the soundstage, separation of instruments and produces a cleaner, richer, and refined sound.

The improvement in sound quality the E5 provides over an entry-level DAC/AMP or onboard DAC/codec is quite noticeable, in particular, the increased soundstage.

It works great with all the headphones I have paired it with. It can easily power the Sennheiser HD600 with plenty of room to spare.

Software/Firmware

The software package is feature packed for those who love to tinker. It even includes a voice changer app.

I prefer a pure sound, so the only thing I do in the software is set the output to be direct, which means no filtering, no nothing done to the sound.

And on the odd occasion when I’m playing games I turn on scout mode or surround sound mode when watching videos.

Conclusion

The E5 is a jack-of-all-trades that is a master of all its trades. The sound quality is excellent, the variety of connection types is amongst the most available out there. It has the best Bluetooth audio implementation I have used to date.

I would happily recommend the E5 for anyone looking for a DAC/AMP around its price range. Nothing else comes close.

I would also recommend it as a desktop DAC/AMP over any other desktop DAC/AMP around its price range.

Product Photos

Figure 1. Top side of packaging.
Figure 2. Bottom side of packaging.
Figure 3. Sound Blaster E5 sitting inside packaging.
Figure 4. All the contents of the package.
Figure 5. Pppo PM-3 headphones connected to E5 sitting on top of MacBook Pro.

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