I’ve already stated my disdain for internal sound cards for PC users and what better way to follow that up by testing out an external DAC/Amp for myself. So for the past couple of weeks I’ve been putting the FiiO Alpen 2 through its paces and have finally formed a good opinion about how it performs and should you buy one.
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Build and Design
So, before we even begin, let me add here that the name of the model is E17K and this unit is sold in tandem with the E17. If you’ve never heard of FiiO before, then it’s probably because you’re either not an audiophile or the Chinese brand hasn’t quite made its way to your location. It is widely available in most major countries, however and the Alpen 2 (or E 17K) is an external amplifier that connects via USB to your PC or works standalone with your phone.
It is made up of a combination of metal and plastic, giving it a very premium feel but at the cost of some weight. It’s still surprisingly light without any cables attached to it and should be easy to carry around as well. It’s a sturdy device with nicely rounded edges and corners, with the volume wheel on the right panel, the connection ports on the top and a micro USB port at the bottom.
The front has a pretty decent display with a Power/Exit button on the left and a lock/Input selection button on the right.
Ease Of Use
Connecting the FiiO Alpen 2 to a PC is easy. The micro USB cable goes to the bottom port, you power on the Alpen 2 and connect your headphone in the audio jack. The drivers get auto-detected and there is no need to figure out anything here. If you want to tweak the output in any way, you only need to use the scroll wheel.
Pressing it gives access to the Menu screen and scrolling it up and down and pressing again is how you can navigate. There are plenty of options here, like increasing/decreasing bass/treble and other frequencies, but if you like your output clean, you can leave these at default. There are some graphical glitches with the UI on this device, however, but you can overlook these if you’re the kinds who needs to set up the DAC only once and let it be. But, if you want to keep tweaking it, you might find it a bit frustrating to use.
Connecting it to a smartphone is also pretty easy, with a supplied cable which will fit in the line-in auxiliary jack. Unfortunately the device does not charge when you connect it to an Android device, so if it’s used as a portable device like this, you will have to keep in mind that it’s discharging all the while.
The E17K has a warm sound mixed with a good soundstage and a fading transparency. It takes instruments and makes them sound fuller. The instruments were slightly dulled off and weren’t as sharp as can be, but in exchange, they expressed much more flavor. In essence, I found the E17K more mellow than dynamically active. It’s a give and take situation.
There is a dark background to the E17K and it gives it a bit too much color at times. Comparing the E17K to a few other devices and it was pretty obvious. The E17K had some more ‘oomph’ in vibrancy throughout the entire spectrum. Most call this added vibrancy that gives a feeling of a ‘deep well’ a dark background. I don’t have any opinions towards devices having this or not, but I prefer it on the more passive devices. It takes away from the transparency but it makes it easier to listen to more genres on.
The bass of the E17K is not especially tight, but it gives a very fun representation of the music when need be. I tried tracks of Country, Rock, Classical, and Hip Hop on the Alpen 2 and they all were done quite well. I like my bass to be fun and plentiful and thankfully the E17K delivers without going overboard.
It does have a few cons, but for the asking price you get a product that delivers a bigger punch than you’d expect. Whether you listen to your music on headphones or on speakers is irrelevant, because the Alpen 2 from FiiO is remarkable at doing what it is made for. And for that, it is perhaps the best DAC out there. If you can live without optical input, especially.