Sound Blaster E1 Portable DAC/Amp Review: “A Great Cheap Audio Device!”
I’ve owned and loved Creative’s Sound Blaster sound cards for most of my life.
In 2017, the audio world is a little different. External hardware that’s isolated completely from the motherboard and other electrical case noise is all the rage. Creative adapted, and they now produce a line of portable and desktop DAC (digital-to-analog converter)/Amp combos alongside their expansion cards.
They’re playing in a world dominated by companies like Schiit Audio and Fiio…and doing an excellent job. And they don’t even have two i’s in the middle of their brand name!
I own two Creative Sound Blaster DAC/Amp combos, and they represent the entirety of my DAC/Amp collection.
Let’s have a look at the $49 Sound Blaster E1 and see if it lives up to its long legacy.
The Sound Blaster E1 is a little portable DAC/Amp combo. There’s a micro USB port on the back for a digital connection to a PC or Mac. The DAC chip is basic. It doesn’t do hi-res audio, just time-tested 16-bit 44.1khz and 24-bit 44.1khz audio.
As a nice plus, the E1 has an internal battery included, rated at about 25 hours. The battery kicks in when you use the E1 as an amp only, with a 3.5mm analog connection from your source instead of USB. This is great when you want to use the E1 with your phone. Or you can go with the analog port on your laptop if you forgot your USB cable, or don’t want to live the dongle life.
All the cables you need are included in the box, and they’re not proprietary in any way, so you can replace them. That’s good, because Creative decided to go with bright red cables even though this product isn’t explicitly in their gaming lineup.
There’s a spring loaded clip on the back that you can use to hook it to your shirt or pants. The clip is a little annoying when you try to use the E1 on a desk, as it makes it slide around a bit.
On the top are some holes. Behind those holes rests a surprisingly good microphone, accessible either over USB or through the analog connection. I’ve used this mic to record voice over before. It’s better than most gaming headset and phone headset mics.
The E1 has a pleasant, neutral, just-so-slightly warm audio presentation. In back and forth testing against the embedded audio in my desktop PC and my Macbook, the E1 is a little bit more refined, and a touch more punchy in the bass. It’s not a huge leap over a good internal solution, but it’s noticeably cleaner.
General rule of thumb is that DACs and Amps contribute way less to the overall sound quality than your headphones, and that holds true for the E1. But if you’ve got a decent pair of headphones, you’ll be able to notice the slight quality bump it provides over cheaper components.
At one time Creative published which DAC and amp chips they were using inside this thing. I don’t know much about what chips are preferred and which aren’t, but I remember them being chips I’d read about before.
Headphone Impedance Capability
Creative says the E1 will drive 600 Ohm headphones. I don’t own any headphones with an impedance rating that high, but I do own some Beyerdynamic DT770s that are rated at 250 Ohms. The E1 powers those admirably to solidly loud levels. I’ve also tried it with 32 and 80 Ohm headphones and had no problems with either.
Thankfully, the gain on the E1 is not so boosted that it’ll just blow up your ears with easier-to-drive headphones. Also, the volume control is independent from your computer or source, so you’ll have two ways to adjust the volume.
It should be able to drive just about any consumer or pro headphone on the market, outside a few exotic models. If you’re buying those crazier things, you probably aren’t considering a $49 amp.
The included microphone is fantastic. It’s one of the best included mics I’ve used in all my time reviewing audio products. It blows away most gaming headsets I’ve tested, and sounds nearly as good as my standalone professional USB mic. If you get it positioned right, you could use it to record voice overs or a podcast, no problem!
I’ve used the mic on a few occasions to do some quick on-the-go audio work. It’s great and I love it. It works perfectly as a mic through the analog connection for modern game consoles, too.
On the front of the E1, there are two 3.5mm jacks for output to headphones. Or, you can use the free driver software to retask one of them as a dedicated mic port.
The free drivers are great, and work on both Windows and Mac. You can access Creative’s SBX surround sound as well as set up a custom EQ.
The only other features are a play/pause button, a power switch, and a volume slider. If the power is off and you plug in a USB cable that’s connected to a source, it’ll start charging the battery.
The volume slider is a little sensitive, so be careful when adjusting it. It has enough resistance to avoid accidental changes, but when you’re actively using it you don’t need to give it much gas, so-to-speak.
I think the play/pause button only works when connected over an analog connection. I tried it earlier today for the first time, even though I’ve owned the E1 for almost a year. It works fine.
You don’t get a bag or anything. I wish the clip was removable for easier desktop use.
The Sound Blaster E1 is a great-sounding little DAC/Amp that’s fairly priced. It has enough juice to power almost any pair of headphones. It’s versatile thanks to its included battery and excellent microphone. It has a neutral, detailed, rich sound signature that’s better than internal audio hardware.
You can’t ask for much more for $49. It’ll either be the last DAC/Amp you ever need…or your first step on a terrifying journey of buying more expensive DAC/amp gear upgrades. Don’t be surprised if none of those successive steps enthuse you quite the way the E1 did.
Soon, I’ll review Creative’s Sound BlasterX G5 DAC/amp. That thing has so much output power it’s kind of nuts!