The world of Amps & DACs is a crazy world indeed my friend. I think the Law of Diminishing Returns is even more prevalent here than in the case of headphones.
With headphones, sound signatures do vary quite a bit and there are some clear distinctions to be made when considering which headphone is appropriate for your specific need.
With Amps & DACs it’s a bit different.
Outside of a select few (that I’ve had experience with), the sound differences from amp to amp are very marginal.
Anyone who tries to tell you that you need to pair Amp A with Headphone B is LYING!
Okay let’s not get too carried away.
There are subtle differences between them, but it’s really not worth getting your panties in a twist about. Just the other day one of my regular readers emailed me and he was very sad and disappointed. He told me he spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 on a semi-prestigious amp and couldn’t tell the difference in sound vs. the 3.5mm output on his laptop.
This is the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Sure, there are certain amps that are going to sound absolutely mind blowing, but they are few and far between.
Two that immediately come to mind are the Bryston BHA-1 and the Chord Mojo.
With the Bryston, I was using a HIFIMAN HE400i and listening to a FLAC recording of “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin. I describe it more in depth in the review, but it was like hearing music for the first time. It’s almost as if I got a glimpse into the soul of Robert Plant. Everything sounded different. I had heard the song a thousand times before (and drove people to want to drink, learning how to play it on guitar), but I never remembered it sounding so distinctly clear and articulate like I did that day. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, anticipating the drums and bass come in, with Plant belting “Many times I’ve loved, many times been bitten, many times I’ve gazed, along the open road.” The experience was sublime in every aspect.
The other mind blowing experience was the first time I heard a Chord Mojo paired with a MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Closed Back. I innocently put the headphones on and pressed play (not prepared for what was about to happen), and almost instantaneously my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe how intimate the vocals sounded, as if the girl was almost singing for me specifically. It was as if she was in front of me almost. It felt so real and organic, almost like a live performance or something.
The important thing to keep in mind is that those are outliers. I’ve heard over 25 different Amps and DACs and those 2 by far represented the most difference with regard to sound. The others, while good, mostly sound the same with some slight variations in tonal quality, etc. We’ll get into that here today, because there are a couple of marked differences between these, specifically the Q1 and E10K.
The Q1 MK II’s build is pretty fantastic to be honest. For a roughly $100 piece, it feels great in your hand and not too light like some other cheaper models.
It’s sleek and sexy, with a great form factor and elegant style.
On the front panel we’ve got a 3.5mm headphone jack, 2.5mm balanced jack, line out function with DSD support, and the volume pot.
Quick note about DSD
DSD (Direct Stream Digital) is simply a different way of reproducing the audio signal. Instead of sampling many bits of information as in the case of 24-bit thousands of times per second, DSD samples 1 single bit at millions of times per second. For comparison’s sake, 24-bit only samples a maximum of 96,000 times per second.
Does this result in a sound that’s markedly better? Audio purists/snobs would say yes, the average person may say no. For example, a DSD format of 1 bit sampled 5.6 million times/second is that same 24-bit/172kHz PCM file. This is especially fun when you consider that the average DSD file (DSD64) is about as good as a high quality 24-bit/88kHz file.
So what’s the conclusion? It’s that all this sh*t is vastly overrated. Lol. Cambridge Audio explained it nicely:
There are some important details worth knowing when making a comparison between DSD and a FLAC file, for example. The first is that DSD is not magically better than its rivals. A ‘standard’ DSD file- often referred to as DSD64 is roughly equivalent to a sample rate of 24/88.2kHz. ‘Double DSD’ or DSD128 samples that single bit of information 5.6 million times a second to give you a signal equivalent to 24/176.2kHz. Again, this is a sample rate that can be reproduced by formats that are not DSD. Higher rates exist but they are very, very rare. If anyone says that DSD is ‘better’ than other formats, the numbers don’t necessarily support that. Cambridge Audio
Back to the Q1
The potentiometer here feels excellent and reminds me of the Oppo HA-2‘s pot. I think this is pretty cool considering the HA-2’s retailed at around $350. While it is heavier than a Q1, I think the Q1’s knob gives it a run for it’s money.
On the back of the Q1, we’ve got a bass boost, gain switch, and micro USB input.
All in all, I feel like I could drop this unit quite a few times and it would be just fine.
With the Q1 you can do a few different things. It has:
Lightning cable for use with your Apple products/iPhone, etc.
3.5mm interconnect cable for use with your Android phone.
Micro USB cable for use with your Laptop/PC.
It’s versatility is pretty impressive, and I have to admit I really like using it with my phone as well as on my desktop.
The E10K by contrast is quite a bit lighter than the Q1, but is also less than $100 and can only be used via bus power through a PC/Laptop. The Q1 is mostly meant for portable use but can also work on your desktop.
On the front of the E10K we’ve got a 3.5mm headphone jack, bass boost switch, and Volume Pot. The pot here is considerably larger than a Q1’s, and much easier to turn without worrying about the actual unit moving.
Even utilizing the rubber foot that comes with the Q1, I still find it moving around when I reach over and simply adjust the volume. The pot is much smaller, so it becomes harder when you’re in the heat of a listening session.
By contrast, I’ve got a great protocol for adjusting the E10K’s volume. Using your strong hand, put 2 fingers on top, and then use your thumb to adjust.
This is much easier and I find that the rubber feet that attach to the bottom of the E10K are much more effective in preventing movement. This becomes even more astonishing when you consider that the E10K is a lot lighter. It simply does not move when it’s on my desk.
However, if you do try to turn the knob without my finger trick, the unit simply raises from off of your desk. No good. It isvery light.
On the back panel, there’s a micro USB input, coaxial out, line out, as well as the gain switch.
I find that both the gain switch and bass boost on the E10K feel a lot easier to adjust with your finger. Because both switches stick out, you can easily flick it with your finger without even having to turn the unit around or be looking at it. This is especially useful in the dark for those late night sessions.
By contrast, the Q1’s switches are both round, circular, and flat as a pancake. In other words, they’re a bit harder to adjust, and may require you to turn the unit around and use your finger nail. It is possible to reach around and adjust, but it takes a bit more elbow grease and is sort of a hassle in my opinion.
You can use it as a standalone DAC using the line output, as a USB headphone Amp, and also as a USB to coax converter.
With the Objective 2
Basically, I can use a separate Amp like the JDS Labs 02 with the E10K. I would take a 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect cable such as this one, and plug it into the line out on the back of the E10K. The other end plugs into the front of the Objective 2 and voila! It’s a stand alone DAC.
With the Magni 2 or 3
I can also use the E10K as a DAC and hook it up to my Magni 2 or 3. You would simply use an RCA to mini cable such as this one. Plug the 3.5mm cable into the E10K like before, and plug the RCA males into the back of the Magni.
As a Converter
Also, some DACs only have coax and Toslink capabilities. If your computer doesn’t have those, you can use the E10K to convert the signal from USB to coax and then connect the other DAC to the E10K.
Another option you have is to run a Toslink cable from a receiver/TV into a converter. Then run a cable from the other end of the converter into the E10K. Now you can use it with your TV!
I also came across an amazon review that claimed you could plug this right into a PS4 and use it for Gaming. I was surprised to find out that it is indeed instantly recognized and you can plug your headphones right in.
The only issue is that the volume isn’t loud enough even turned all the way up with the gain switch ticked (I’m using high sensitivity headphones as well). I imagine this is because it’s not receiving a dedicated power source. The solution to this would perhaps be to use one of these coax to optical converters, but I have yet to try it out.
Given how versatile and valuable the E10K is, I think it’s definitely worth trying it with a converter and I will update this article once I have done so. Even adding the cost of the converter, you’re getting a potentially great gaming rig for under $100. Stay tuned for future updates (Bookmark the article!)
All in all, pretty impressive for such a small and inexpensive unit!
The DragonFly Red is much different than either of the other two because it’s basically a USB flash drive with no other features.
You may be off put by this at first, but trust me, don’t be.
This is an amazing unit and we’ll get into why in a bit.
The only real “features” on the DragonFly Red are the changing LED colors, which signify different sample rates based on your source file.
If you’re running Tidal or Spotify Premium, in most cases the light is going to be on either Green (Lossless/FLAC) or Magenta (24-bit Masters).
Let’s take a look:
Green = 44.1 kHz
Blue = 48 kHz
Amber = 88.2 kHz
Magenta = 96 kHz
Aside from that, when you plug the Fly into your PC/Laptop, it immediately syncs with the volume buttons on said laptop. So wherever those are, that’s what you’ll use to adjust the volume with the DragonFly.
There’s not much more to say about build of the Fly. It’s going to look, feel, and function exactly as a typical thumb drive would. 🙂
The only issue with the Q1 in my mind is that it doesn’t have enough power. Out of the 3.5mm jack, you’re only getting 7mW into 300 Ohm. I’ve talked a lot about why I don’t like this, and it boils down to the fact that it just doesn’t make sense. The average person doesn’t have balanced headphones or is willing to mod a headphone with balanced cables. If you go that route, the Q1 will provide 220mW into 32 Ohms, but that’s only a tad more than an E10K.
I personally think a DAC like this should provide enough power out of the standard jack. Related:What is a USB DAC? The problem is that the average bloke turns it on and goes, “I can’t even hear anything.”
The newer model E10K uses the PCM-5102 DAC chip vs. the warmer WM8740 Chip used in a lot of their older models, according to Marcus at HeadFonics. Check out his great review of the FiiO E10K Olympus 2!
I did notice a crisp sense of sterility in the new chip vs. the likes of a FiiO Q1 MK II, which utilizes the AK4452 Chip. I can’t say one is better than the other. They both just have a different feel. The E10K wants you to know how detailed it is, while the Q1 is trying to make you relax. Anyways, enough about that; we’re off topic!
As mentioned above, the E10K doesn’t suffer from the issue of power, and provides 200mW into 32 Ohm; which is enough for most headphones (even the HD 600 and HD 650 will sound pretty good out of this unit).
I’ve used this DAC with quite a few headphones, even the original Austrian made 600 Ohm AKG K240M. I was surprised to find out that I was able to drive it, but just barely. I wouldn’t rely on it full time, but it would work in a pinch.
The DragonFly Red has 2.1V of power and will effectively drive nearly anything you pair with it. This is astounding to me considering how small it is.
Looks can be deceiving!
It powers an HD 600 and 650 without breaking a sweat, and I’d feel comfortable pairing it with the K240 from above. I haven’t tried it yet as I don’t actually own that headphone, but I plan on picking one up at some point and will update this article when the time comes.
So the DragonFly Red is small, compact, can power anything, sounds fantastic, and is easily the most convenient piece of kit I’ve come across.
The interesting part about this comparison is that there is a difference in sound between the E10K and FiiO Q1, however subtle it may be.
The Q1 sounds a lot more smoothed over, refined, lush, neutral, and warm. It’s an elegant, buttery response and does make your headphones sound fantastic.
The E10K by contrast sounds a bit grainier, less refined, a little sloppier, and maybe a tad more abrasive. The E10K I would say is more rough around the edges, and this manifests in nearly every comparison I’ve done of this Amp/DAC vs. others. It’s subtle, but becomes the difference in a $75 DAC vs. a $100 one, or a $200 one, or a $350 one.
Instead of writing the entire comparison down, I’m just going to attach my notes 🙂
Comparison to the DragonFly
FiiO Q1 vs. DragonFly Red
The DragonFly sounds a bit more similar to the Q1 than it does to the E10K.
It’s also very smooth and buttery, and really opens up headphones and enables them to achieve peak performance.
I would say there really isn’t too much of a huge difference between these 2. The DragonFly sounded a bit more crisp, but it was almost negligible. They both sound very refined and musical. The biggest difference you’ll notice with a good DAC like this, plus good headphones, plus good sources (Tidal, Spotify Premium) is that it fills in those missing gaps with information you may not have heard before without a DAC.
And it truly is a delight! You’ll get excited about music again, going back and listening to some of your old favorites only to find there was subtlety you were missing out on!
An Amazon Reviewer said it best: If you’re listening to headphones and imagine the sound as a hair comb, the Amp/DAC (specifically the DragonFly Red) is filling in those tiny spaces in between the comb that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to hear. What a brilliant analogy!
But, which you go with depends more on other factors like features, convenience, etc.
Deciding between the 3 of these really depends on your unique situation and needs.
If you only need a budget desktop solution, I would definitely go with the E10K. What’s even better is that you could use it as a DAC later if you wanted to upgrade Amps or something. The JDS Labs Objective 2 is great for that.
If you’re looking for a portable option with some added flexibility and features, the Q1 certainly delivers, even despite the power issue. I’ve been learning to just deal with it. I own the unit now, and I’m really enjoying it! It also supports DSD, but as we’ve discussed above, it’s not as big of a deal as people make it seem. If you plan to use balanced headphones, I would certainly go with this hands down. It will provide plenty of power for those more demanding audiophile cans.
If you’re looking for a bare bones solution with tons of convenience and portability, I really really like the DragonFly. It’s one of the most recommended products here at Home Studio Basics because it’s super simple to use and sounds amazing. You can also use it with your phone. Just snag the adapter we discussed above. I would recommend the Anker one.
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.