This article was written by Rezaul Laskar and first appeared in Hindustan Times here.
One of the fastest growing segments in personal audio is the portable DAC-cum-headphone amplifier and China’s FiiO has produced several outstanding reasonably priced products.
And one of the new additions to FiiO’s stable of DAC-cum-headphone amplifiers – basically devices that decode the digital audio files on your computers or portable players and amplify the signals to drive your earphones – is the Alpen 2.
The E17K Alpen 2, provided for this review by Headphone Zone, is the new version of the highly regarded E17 Alpen.
The design is very basic – nice black brushed aluminium casing with a small display that gives you all the information you need, including the chosen input, volume level and battery status.
A small multi-function wheel to the left of the screen allows the user to manoeuvre through the options on the menu by using a combination of scrolling and presses.
The Alpen 2 uses a Texas Instruments PCM5102 digital-to-analog converter chip, reputed for its low distortion. Other Texas Instruments chips handle amplification duties.
The Alpen 2’s abilities as a DAC, for its price of Rs 9,500, are above par. It accepts DSD files and sample rates of 32 bit/96 kHz via its USB input and 24 bit/192 kHz through its coaxial input – meaning this baby can decode all the hi-res audio files stored on your computer.
The amplifier section easily drove a wide variety of in-ear phones and over-ear headphones, from the new Xiaomi Pro dual driver in-ear phones to the old trusty Skullcandy Aviators.
Some nice touches are the controls for bass, treble and balance, and two levels of gain – 6dB and 12dB – that are handy for driving larger headphones.
The Alpen 2 has one more feature – the ability to switch off charging while using the USB input – that has reportedly allowed it to be used as a DAC with some smartphones. (I had no such luck with my smartphone though.)
Battery life was more than adequate, with a single charge lasting several days even after I used the Alpen for about two to three hours a day.
I’ve never been a big fan of using headphone amplifiers such as the Alpen 2 with smartphones – strapping it on with the two supplied bands makes it virtually impossible to use the phone’s touch screen. But the Alpen 2 added such oomph to the sound from my smartphone that it was hard to complain.
From the rock of Arc Angels to the electronica of Moby, everything benefited from the Alpen 2’s deft touch. The music was cleaner, clearer and more detailed.
Netflix’s “Daredevil” series has great music and sound effects, especially in the numerous action scenes, and it was a treat to watch the show with the sound routed from my laptop’s USB output to the Alpen 2. There was more dynamic realism to the gun shots and punches in the fights and the music and dialogue sounded much better after being handled by the Alpen’s DAC.
Bottom line? If you need a device smaller than an iPhone that can boost the sound of your smartphone and do double duty as a DAC for your home music and movie set-up, you can’t go wrong with the Alpen 2. If you’re a new convert to a digital music set-up, it’s a reasonably priced entry into the world of DACs.
Dimensions: 104.1mm x 62.2mm x 12.8mm
Weight: 110 g
Inputs: 1/8” auxiliary, 1/8” coaxial and micro USB
Supported sampling rate (coaxial): maximum 24bit/192 kHz
Supported sampling rate (USB): maximum 32bit/96 kHz
Frequency response: 20Hz to 20KHz at 32Ω
THD at 1V output: less than 0.003% at 1KHz
Headphone impedance range: 16 Ohms to 300 Ohms
Output impedance: less than 1.1 ohms
Signal-to-noise ratio: more than 113 dB