Poisoned by a colleague, I purchased a FiiO E18 today. There has been many great reviews online but very few mentioned how it actually works when connecting to an Android phone digitally. I’m going to share my experience on that with anyone who’s interested.
So these are my gears. I have a ZenFone 5 from Asus running Android 4.3, a JVC HA-FX90, and a FiiO E18 Rev B. The phone works great but the audio quality is quite poor and the max volume is still a bit low. By moving the DAC and amplification work to an external device, I’m expecting a great improvement.
The E18 comes with 2x micro USB OTG cables. But none of them works. I tried both of them, connecting in either directions. I even tried it on a Sony Xperia Z. The stock cables simply don’t work.
[Update] The stock OTG cable works the next day. I have no idea why.
But if I connect an OTG cable (micro-B to standard A receptacle) to a straight cable (standard A to micro-B), it works. A quick way to tell if the cable works is to power on E18, put it into phone-in mode. The sun led should turn purple. If it’s red, then the cable is no good.
When the connection is good, the left led turns purple.
Before the stock OTG cable started to work again, this is what I used. It is a clumsy pack of gears. It doesn’t really matter what build quality is on the E18 or how sexy the brushed black metal chassis looks like when there is a chain of cables hanging around. My wife thought I’s picturing some explosive.
The next challenge is to install a player app which makes USB audio possible. ZenFone itself cannot stream audio data out to the FAC. It’s a standard feature on some Android phones and some say Android L is going to make this available system-wide. On such platform, you don’t need any special player. In fact, the walkman app on Xperia can do USB audio.
On ZenFone 5 however, I need to purchase USB Audio Player Pro from eXtream Software Development. I believe this app takes over the control of the USB port. This app plays mp3 and flac which is all that matters to me. Enable the hardware button option and I have no problem using the play / forward / rewind buttons.
Paired with my JVC IEM, the listening experience is greatly improved. Immediately, I feel the output power of an external amp. The JVC does require a juicy amp to produce its best. The sound stage is wide, instruments are well-positioned, giving an airy sound stage which is similar to listening to speakers.
The E18 is also heavy on bass. Even when bass level is set to low, it’s still producing punchy and deep bass. Switching to high is too much in my opinion but can be useful on headphones with less emphasis on bass. I like a good amount of bass.
The highs are a little on the harsh side. This feature however is good for covering environmental noise – after all this mobile set is meant for use on a street or bus.
I also tried to pair it with a headphone (AKG K550). It does drive the headphone even when gain is set to low. I only need to turn the volume to around 5-6 (max is 9). ON my JVC, I set it to around 3-4.
One more thing, E18 is also a 3500mAh battery pack. It can be used to charge a phone. Unfortunately, the chained OTG cables I have made this feature unusable. Yes I switch it to CHG OUT mode already.
Here is a picture of the working, stock OTG cable.