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Sound Blaster E5: This portable DAC and headphone amp is an audio powerhouse

Michael Brown | Oct. 8, 2014
Creative's Sound Blaster E5 pulls off the trick of being a jack of all trades with nary a significant compromise.

The PC software also has a Scout Mode setting that can amplify certain in-game sounds, such as footsteps, to tip you off when an enemy is trying to sneak up on you. You can bind this command to a key so you can enable and disable it on the fly, but the hot-key binding won't be limited to games; unless you turn it off, it will be active in every other application, too.

Listening tests
Asus uses the same TI headphone amplifier in its $400 Xonar Essence STU DAC, but Asus pairs it with a higher-end DAC (a TI PCM1792A). Does that make the Xonar $200 better? The differences are extremely subtle, so I would say no. The Xonar Essence is also strictly a desktop device that can't act as a host to a smartphone or digital media player, either. Still, if money was no object, I'd buy the STU. Heck, if money really was no barrier, I'd probably buy Benchmark Audio's DAC2 HGC. But now we're in the realm of fantasy on an editor's budget.

Anyway, I listened to a number of tracks on the E5 using Ultrasone's open-back HFI-2400 headphones, Bowers & Wilkins' compact P5 headphones, and a pair of custom-fit JH Audio JH13 Pro earbuds (28 ohms). I first used a laptop PC as my transport, using Foobar2000 to play Bowers & Wilkins' Accidental Powercut series of acoustic binaural recordings.

These are among favorite sources for evaluating headphones and DACs. The collections feature various artists performing live at an English chapel, and the production team recorded them using a dummy head to capture the nuances of the acoustics of the room and of the performances themselves. In binaural recording sessions, microphones are placed inside a model of a human head in order to emulate the way sound waves reflect off and are absorbed by a real human head. You need to listen on headphones to get the full effect, but it can be remarkable when done well. 

Binaural recordings are the next best thing to being in the front row of the audience, and the tracks sounded magical through the E5 no matter which headphones I was using. Listening to Sound of Rum's "Cannibal Kids," I could hear each string in the soft strum of Archie Marsh's guitar as it delivered an oddly dissonant counterpoint to singer Kate Tempest's urgent poetry. (A rapper who claims Bob Dylan, Wu-Tang Clan, and James Joyce as influences? Whatever you think of the art form, you owe it to yourself to give Tempest a listen.)

For my next test, I used Bluetooth to stream Peter Gabriel's cover of Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" (from his Scratch My Back album) from my HTC One smartphone to the Sound Blaster E5. Both devices support CSR's aptX audio codec, so the track sounded pretty good. But when I did A/B comparisons using a wired connection directly to the phone, I found the wireless version a wee bit flat in comparison. It just didn't have the same energy.

 

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