Not too long ago I reviewed FiiO E18 usb DAC/Amp with OTG connection to Smartphone. It was a jack of all trades, including being able to connect to laptop/PC usb port to function as an external sound card. I actually found myself reaching out quite often to use it with my laptop when watching movies or doing some music production. That made me wish for something more portable and lighter with an easier access to a volume knob. When I got A200p, I also ended up using it more as an external laptop sound card rather than smartphone DAC/amp since it's footprint was a bit awkward for pair up with my Note 2, where I actually find E18 to be more convenient. With A200p, I had an easy access to a large volume knob but proprietary cable with a finicky connector that often gets loose and Windows system volume jumping every time I have to replug it again, was a turn off. Finally, my prayers have been answered, and I got exactly what I've been looking for - E10k. Let me tell you more about it.
Arrived in a compact square flat box with an approximate size of a double-stack CD case (remember those?), I liked how the focus of the art on the cover and the back was around a circle, perhaps with a significance of analog volume dial?. Out of the box, very typical for all FiiO products, you'll find a neat packaging with a form fitting cutout holding E10k securely in place and accessories box which contained usb to micro usb cable and 6-rubber stick on feet. Also included was a warranty card and users guide. While picking it up, you can't help but to notice how small and lightweight this gadget is. With dimensions of only 79mm x 49mm x 21mm and weight of about 78g, it fits in a palm of your hand. With all brushed metal body design, it felt very solid. The front side of E10k has headphone output, on/off bass boost switch, and a large volume dial with numbering of 0 to 8. The volume dial movement has a nice tight precision and felt truly analog. On the back of E10k, you have a standard micro-usb port, L/H gain switch, and digital Coaxial and Analog Line out ports. These ports are very convenient if you want to connect E10k output for external processing with other audio equipment, basically to bypass E10k output amp.
I know a lot of people are very particular about DAC and OpAmp chipsets used in a design which usually contributes to a sound characteristics. As you can see from FiiO webpage, new E10k has been updated with a number of improvements in comparison to the original E10, and that included new DAC chip, optimization of low pass filter and bass boost, and new OpAmp selection. Since I don't have the original E10, it's a bit irrelevant for me because I can't compare these. Instead, I will use E18 and A200p as a point of reference for comparison. But to begin, in comparison to using my headphones (doesn't matter which one) from headphones jack of my laptop and with E10k - its a Night and Day difference. The change is so drastic that it's impossible to go back using any of my headphones connected directly to laptop where the sound is noisy, dull, veiled, and has very limited extension in both low and high ends of the spectrum.
Connecting E10k, which got recognized by my laptop within a minute with Windows drivers installed right away, opened up a new dimension to the sound like going between $20 mp3 player and $350 DAP The sound gets brighter, more dynamic, you get bass extended down to a sub-bass frequencies with rumble and texture, vocals comes alive with clarity, and treble gets crispy and detailed. Of course, the overall sound signature will depend on the drivers of your headphones, but relatively speaking while using the same pair of quality headphones (for example, ATH-IM03 used in my testing) - the change was drastic. I didn't require a high gain boost, and was comfortable at low gain without pushing a volume. But if you need to drive more demanding higher power phones (E10k can drive up to 150 ohm impedance), you have plenty of headroom. And if basshead inside of you wants to come out, bass boost switch will be a precise adjustment of well controlled boost without spilling into the rest of the frequency spectrum.
So how does it stacks up against E18 and A200p? Each of these DAC/amps is great on it's own, and this is just a comparison relative to E10k. In comparison to E18, E10k sounds brighter and more detailed. Between E18 and E10k, I actually found E18 to be warmer and a little bit bloated in low end, not as tight and well controlled as E10k. Also, I felt that E10k extended further in treble. A200p was a closer match, but still E10k had an advantage in being a bit more detailed and brighter. Also, A200p doesn't have low/high gain switch and no bass boost or line out output. The disadvantage, E10k has no internal battery and it's not recognized when connected to smartphone.
Overall, if you are looking for a flexible external sound card solution for your laptop or PC, and don't want to compromise on sound quality or build quality - E10k usd DAC/amp will be hard to beat at $75. With a convenience of standard usb to micro-usb cable connection, selection of high/low gain and bass boost, headphone output and Coaxial and Line out outputs, and a very solid build quality with an excellent sound quality, I would highly recommend E10k as an effective solution to update your laptop to Hi-Fi sound!
Here are the pictures.