In my transformation from audio curious to audiophile, I’ve been educating myself on a number of different headphone amps. Being on a budget, however, I have to be realistic in how much I spend on a headphone amp, portable or otherwise. The first amp I owned was a Fiio E5 that I had for a short time but had to send back because of a broken volume switch. From there I moved up to the JDS Labs Bass Boost CMoy v2.02 and it has since become my primary headphone amp.
But something about the Fiio E3 has always intrigued me. It was small, light and extremely cheap. So, on a whim, I ordered one off of eBay for about 6 bucks. I didn’t have very high expectations of its sound quality in relation to my other amps due to its extremely low price but I was willing to give it a fair shake.
Design and Build Quality
There’s not much to say about this that isn’t apparent from the pictures. Entirely constructed of plastic, the housing is very lightweight and, well, cheap feeling. However, this is cheap so I can excuse the entirely plastic build. The one thing that I was expecting to see that wasn’t there was a volume control dial but, as I said, it was nowhere to be found. So, unless you have an external volume attenuator such as those made by Shure or Koss, don’t plan on using this with the line out on your player and even then, it sort of defeats the purpose since the headphones themselves won’t be receiving the benefit of amplification.
Well, this is where the Fiio E3 meets my relatively low expectations. The E3 doesn’t sound like it actually amplifies your headphones; instead, it merely makes them louder, which sort of misses the point of amplification. A headphone amp isn’t supposed to merely make your headphones louder, but to drive them to reach their full potential. When I listen to my RE0s through the E3, I don’t get the feeling that their sound quality is actually being improved.
With that said, however, I’m not particularly disappointed with this amp. I paid $6 for it. I was not expecting it to compete with my $65 CMoy amp or even the $20 Fiio E5 or E1. It does drive my headphones to louder volume levels and even provides a decent bass boost to warm up the sound signature over the headphone out ports of my iPod Touch and Laptop. It’s worth noting that there is some noticeable background hiss on the E3 with low impedance or highly sensitive headphones.
Value and Conclusion
It goes without saying that the Fiio E3 is an extremely cheap little headphone amp and does a decent job of driving high impedance headphones to higher levels than the headphone out jacks of many DAPs. The bass boost is also worth noting, if you’re looking for that sort of thing.
What the E3 is to me is “Baby’s first amp”; a cheap little device to get for someone who just wants a boost in the volume their DAP is capable of putting out. This may sound negative but it truly isn’t meant to be. I wasn’t expecting the E3 to be more than that, considering how cheap it is and it performs reasonably well in the task of boosting volume.
With the E3, you get what you pay for. This is a sub $10 amp that sounds like a sub $10 amp and I don’t have a problem with that. I knew what I was getting into when I purchased it and, for the price, it performs decently enough to be worth a look.