Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Amplifier Review

Creative Logo

Creative products always induce a little nostalgia with me as the Creative Sound Blaster Pro was the first ever upgrade that I bought for my PC. Looking back from today and the state of digital audio, it’s hard to imagine that most PCs only went “beep” back in the late 1980s and early 90s. Once I’d installed the SB Pro, I had glorious multichannel stereo sound, and incredibly, Wing Commander II had speech. Look it up kids.

Creative E1 Box

Returning to the 21st century, on review here is the Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Headphone Amplifier, a battery-powered amplifier supporting high impedance headphones, combined with a USB DAC sound card. In other words the E1 lets you used studio-quality 600 ohm headphones with smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktops. Pretty much anything with a 3.5 mm socket or a USB port and it works fine with lower impedance headphones, so let’s take a look.

What’s in the box? Simply, everything that you need to get going in the scenarios outlined above. There’s the E1 amplifier itself plus two bright red cables; a 4 pole (TRRS) 3.5 mm jack audio lead and a USB to micro-USB cable. The first cable is needed for tablets and smartphone listening and the second when using the E1 as a sound card (DAC). Bring your own headphones though.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

There’s a hint of red detailing on the E1 too but you have to look pretty hard to see it. Of course, there’s assorted instructions, warranty and disposal leaflets too.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

Glancing over the amplifier itself, the E1 is a lightweight plastic unit with a clothing or belt clip on the back. One end takes the music audio inputs, either digital via micro-USB or analogue through a 3.5 mm audio socket. The other end has the two 3.5 mm audio sockets, one for a set of headphones and one for a microphone or second set of ‘phones. On the side, there’s a power switch, a volume slider, a multi-function button and a small LED.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

Enough of what it looks like….what does it sound like? Pretty good actually. I used the E1 in both configurations, first taking an input from a smartphone or tablet and in this instance I was using a Nexus 9 tablet and a OnePlus One smartphone, both with high bit rate mp3s and Spotify. I’m not a total audio geek, so I don’t actually have any high impedance headphones so the testing was done using Sennheiser earbuds and recent edition 414 headphones (the ones with the yellow earpads).

Listening to the E1, there’s no dramatic difference from the source but it does tend to ameliorate the worst aspects of compressed digital audio, reducing the high frequency tinniness and giving it a slightly warmer feel. It particularly worked well with Spotify and other low-bit music sources, smoothing out the treble.

If worn conveniently, the E1 has a built-in microphone to enable hands-free calling. Call comes in, press the multi-function button, take the call. Callers reported that they could hear me well as long as the E1 was close. Clipped to my shirt was fine.

Using the E1 as a sound card is simply a case of plugging in the E1 to a spare USB port via the red cable. I tested with a Windows 8.1 Toshiba laptop, an 8.1 HP tablet via a dock and a Samsung Chromebook, and in all cases it worked out of the box. In this configuration, the presentation of the sound was good and generally superior to the audio provided by the laptop or tablet, especially when listening to Spotify.

Generally, background hiss was kept to a minimum and was only noticeable in the earbuds when I went looking for it, e.g. by putting the source volume down low and increasing the volume on the E1. With the source volume at a normal level there’s no problem and is unlikely to be noticeable with on-ear headphones.

In case anyone is wondering, it’s not possible to use the E1 as a mixer with two sources. Plugging in a 3.5 mm audio jack disconnects the micro-USB input. Sorry.

The E1 works well out of the box, but where it delivers in spades is with the full driver and app package which is downloaded from Creative’s web site. Once installed the software gives tons of extra controls over the E1, in particular allowing the audio response to be customised.

SB Studio

One of the best features is the equaliser which adjusts the frequency response. There are a bunch of presets with the usual suspects from classical to pop and rock, and its also customisable to personal preference. I liked this.

SB Studio

Overall, the E1 portable amplifier does what sets out to do, making compressed audio sound better, whether from an analogue 3.5 mm source or a digital USB connection. The extensive range of features from hands-free calling to audio equalisation is impressive and for those people who live in their headphones, it’s worth considering. The RRP is £39.95 in the UK or $49.99 in the USA.

Thanks to Creative for the loan of the review unit.

Sennheiser Momentum Wireless Headphones

Sennheiser LogoSennheiser have always been one of my preferred headphone brands and I previously reviewed the Momentum On-Ears for GNC. Consequently, I was very interested to hear that a second generation of Momentum headphones were on their way with both Bluetooth wireless and noise-cancellation features. Marlo chats to Scott Houston from Sennheiser about the Momentum Wireless.

The new Sennheiser Momentum Wireless takes the original Momentum and updates it for listening on the move. No tangled wires with Bluetooth wireless; environmental sound kept to a minimum with active noise cancellation; integrated microphone to take calls without removing the headphones, improved padding for extended listening and folding arms to pack the headphones away neatly. Overall, it looks like a tidy package.

Of course, this doesn’t come cheap with the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless costing US$499 or GB£379 from Sennheiser’s web store.

Interview by Marlo Anderson of The Tech Ranch for the TechPodcast Network.

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HearNotes Wirefree Earbuds Come to CES

HearNotesAudiophile wireless headphones are rare and audiophile wireless earbuds even rarer. There are a couple of reasons for this but the main one is that Bluetooth isn’t really very good for music streaming, even with newer codecs like AptX. HearNotes reckon they have the answer to this problem. Patrick Donohue explains what HearNotes can offer the audiophile.

HearNotes wirefree earbuds are special for three cool features. First the earbuds are genuinely wirefree with no wires even between the earbuds. Second the earbuds charge wirelessly in a matching case – there’s no plugging in to charge up – giving about 4 hours of listening between charges. Finally the wireless transmission uses a high quality wireless audio technology called Kleer. It goes without saying that the audio components are top notch too.

A small transmitter plugs into the 3.5mm audio port to support the Kleer technology so the HearNotes can be used in any situation where an audio jack is available. This is undoubtedly a benefit but the audio output from most DACs in portable equipment leaves a great deal to be desired.

The HearNotes will be available in Q1 for a fairly pricey $349 from retailers nationwide.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central and Todd Aune of The Elder Divide for the TechPodcast Network.
Disclosure – HearNotes is currently an advertiser at Geek News Central.

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Ion Audio Gets The Party Going at CES 2015

Ion Sound Experience

The great thing about Ion Audio is that they concentrate on fun audio products: seriously, who else puts a speaker in plant pot? At CES, Ion has continued in the tradition of fun with two products for two very different environments. Todd listens in with Wendy Fortin, Ion Product Manager.

First up is the Block Party Live, a 50W PA speaker on luggage wheels complete with light show. No really, there’s a light dome on top that projects coloured lights. Music can be streamed via Bluetooth and there’s an Apple and Android app to control the lights. Available now for $199.

Coming inside, the Sound Shine are wireless stereo speakers with built-in LED lighting. Screwed into a standard lamp holder the two speakers can either work as independent mono speakers or can be paired up for stereo sound. As with the Block Party, music is streamed via Bluetooth and both the music and light output can be controlled via an app for both Android and Apple devices. Available in Q1, $69 buys a single lamp and $129 gets a pair.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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OnePlus Partners with JBL for E1+ Earphones

OnePlus LogoOnePlus today announced a partnership with audio specialists JBL for exclusive earphones to complement the audio capabilities of the OnePlus One smartphone. The new JBL E1+ earbuds are bright red with flat tangle-resistant cable and comes with an in-line three button remote. The built-in microphone means that there’s no need to unplug when a call comes in, and it’s a standard 3.5mm jack on the end.

JBL E1+ Earphones

 

These earbuds look great and I love the knurled endcaps. I’m usually pretty understated with black Sennheisers but I could like these red E1+ earphones and I hope the audio is up-to-scratch too. It’s great to see all these moves in the audio space and it’s not just the iPhone that has all the fun, too.

Available in October for US $39.99 or GB £29.99 from the OnePlus Store. Video below ticks all the expected boxes.

Auro 3D Immersive Sound

Auro 3DDon and Todd get a demo of Auro 3D‘s immersive sound experience which until recently was only available in movie theatres. The newly launched consumer version of the Auro 3D audio system adds a height component into the sound mix, giving the equivalent of 9.1 sound. Coming from a digital cinema background with over 150 theatres already using the system, Auro 3D is being introduced into home theater, gaming, mobile and automotive markets.

Especially watch this video if you want to see Don and Todd looking like smurfs while discussing the merits of smooth jazz and alcoholic beverages….

Interview by Don Baine, the Gadget Professor and Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Philips Golden Ears Challenge

Philips Golden EarsThe mp3 digital music format has liberated music in a way that would be totally unthinkable to a previous generation. The Walkman made music portable and the CD digitised music but the revolution came as the mp3 format compressed music to fit into a fraction of its true size. Instead of music collections stretching from floor to ceiling, they could fit into a small box. However, audiophiles claim that this freedom has come at the price of sound quality, gradually eroding in the transition from vinyl to CD and finally to compressed digital, with serious deficiences in the sound output from mp3 music.

Are you one of the audiophiles or do you think that mp3 sounds just as good as vinyl? (C’mon, seriously?!) Do you want to put your hi-fi hearing to the test? If you do, the Philips Golden Ears Challenge is right up your street.

Philips has created a self-testing website that lets you find out “how good your ears are”. The Golden Ears sites educates you in everything anyone could ever need to know about sound, and helps to deepen the everyday listening experience, defining your own superior audio experience and understanding in what goes into creating quality sound equipment.

Golden Ears Legacy

The site takes the listener (you) through a number of challenges starting at basic then working up through bronze and silver before achieving Golden Ears!

Golden Ears Challenge

Each step explains the terminology and related effect before letting you hear the differences. For example, “Spectral Balance is the relative balance between the low and the high frequencies. A bright sound has more high frequency content, whereas a dark sound contains more of the low frequencies.

Timbre Training

After training, you then take a test to see if you can pick out the modified audio track from the original. The changes get progressively smaller over six samples to see how good you really are. It gets pretty tricky when there are only a few dB differences. It really helps if you have decent headphones or speakers on your PC – I wouldn’t recommend doing the tests with a Bluetooth headset!

It does take a little while to work through the exercises but it is educational and rewarding to understand the complexity of audio reproduction. You could easily spend a couple of hours going through it to get “Golden Ears” but the site remembers your progress so you can leave and return as you have time. It’s very satisfying too when you correctly select all the distorted tracks in a test. The Basic Level will take about an hour.

If you think that mp3 sounds as good as a CD or that bundled headphones sound as good as those costing $100, then take the Golden Ears Challenge and you’ll be both educated and surprised!

Minimalist Momentum Headphones from Sennheiser at CES

Sennheiser LogoSennheiser are usually my headphone manufacturer of choice when it comes to music, so I’m always interested in the latest news from the German team. To be honest, it’s not massive news but when the headphones look as good as these, who cares?

For CES, Sennheiser have updated their “minimalist urban” headphones, the Momentum On-Ear with three new colours; high-gloss black, classic brown and intense red. Nice. The ear pads and headband have been finished in Alcantara, a high-tech soft-touch material produced in Italy. Alcantara provides a combination of suppleness, durability and breathability that makes it popular in the fashion, interior design, and automotive industries, and the use of the material by Sennheiser makes the headphones very comfortable for long listening sessions. The headband is made of brushed stainless steel. All round, they look great.

Momentum On-Ear

Audio-wise, the On-Ear is driven by Sennheiser’s proprietary 18-ohm transducers, delivering the usual Sennheiser experience of incredible clarity and detail with a slight bass emphasis. The closed, on-ear design ensures reliable isolation from external noise for a great listening experience on the move, even in noisy urban environments.

The Momentum On-Ear headphones feature a single-sided detachable cable with in-line remote and microphone for Apple devices to control music playback, and to make and receive calls on the go.

With the three new colour versions, Sennheiser has reimagined this essential, cool design in richer, more subtle tones,” said Charles Cha, Product Manager at Sennheiser. “Where the Momentum On-Ear headphones first showed their playful and extroverted character, the new versions are a more discrete revelation of luxury that hints at their superb performance.

The MSRP seems to be US$299 but they currently seem to be on-sale in the Sennheiser store for $199.

I want.

Logitech z50 Multimedia Speaker Review

Logitech LogoWith a few notable exceptions, the speakers on most mobile devices aren’t up to much, limiting any chance of an impromptu party rocking out to Spotify’s top 100. An external speaker is needed for bigger sound and the Logitech z50 Multimedia Speaker might be the answer. Coming in hot pink, sky blue and, err, boring grey, the z50 is intended to be fun without costing a fortune. Let’s take a look and a listen.

The Logitech z50 is shaped a little like a flower pot, with the speaker driver facing upwards rather than horizontally towards the listener. The picture doesn’t really show it, but the speaker is tilted at a slight angle and isn’t pointing straight up. On the more colourful versions, the grey band at the bottom is pink or blue.

Logitech z50 speaker

The z50 connects to the sound source via a stereo 3.5 mm jack rather than any wireless technology and is powered via DC jack. There’s no option for batteries which is slightly surprising to me.

Logitech z50 Speaker.jpg

Enough of how it looks, how does it sound? I wasn’t expecting much from the z50 but it definitely exceeded my expectations. It’s quite loud when cranked up to full volume and the sound quality is good in the mid-range. Songs similar to Lianne La Havas’ Au Cinema still captivate, but Adele’s Skyfall sounds flat, failing to project the fuller range. It’s not unexpected with a speaker of this size and weight, but the bottom line is that the z50 sounds better than all the smartphones, tablets and laptops that I’ve ever heard.

Overall, I think that the z50 sounds good for the price but I feel that not having a battery-powered option restricts its appeal. The z50 would be perfect for moving round the house, taking on holiday or camping but needing a power adaptor limits its usefulness. The ideal solution would be a battery unit that took a couple of C cells and clipped to the bottom of the z50, giving power and sound on the go. This gripe aside, it’s a fun speaker.

The Logitech z50 Multimedia Speaker is available from Logitech and other retailers for GB £17.99 or US $19.99. Thanks to Logitech for the loan of the z50.

Sennheiser Momentum Headphones

Sennheiser

Sennheiser has been producing headphones for over 50 years and has created some classics along the way (HD414s anyone?). Each year, Sennheiser brings something new to the table and this year was no different. Todd chats to Ivan, Sennheiser’s Head of Product Development to find out what’s hot.

On show is a new addition to the Momentum range: the Momentum Black open headphones in a stylish black leather, accented in red with a red cord. Cleverly, the headphone jack converts between both straight and 90 degree configuration to suit the owner’s preferences, and there is a interchangeable remote for use with digital music players and smartphones.

Undoubtedly high-end phones with a price of $349, but if you are interested, they’ll be in the stores real soon.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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