FiiO E18 Kunlun Review
FiiO has come a long way in recent years – quickly developing and releasing well-valued products – with its line of amps and DACs. Today, we have one of the newest additions to the FiiO family; the E18 Kunlun. FiiO’s Kunlun is designed as a computer and Android-device USB-DAC and portable-amplifier. At $160, can the E18 perform its duty?
There are a million ways to describe a FiiO – good sounding being a common one – but having a sexy build always is one of the first. The E18 uses the stealthy milled-aluminum look of the E12, in addition with a top control bar surrounded by a silver strip.
The silver strip, build-edges, and control-panel plate are plastic. It’s hard to tell on first look, because they blend in so well with the metal. It looks good, as the black plastic provides a matte complementing-gradient to the shiny metal. I would personally say that the plastic seems strong enough – albeit a tad lightweight for me – for the purposes of the E18.
The feel of all the buttons is impeccable. There is a satisfying ‘click’ followed by every push. It isn’t loud or hard to press, but neither is it squishy. They don’t have much wiggle-room and are machined out of aluminum; which is a standard FiiO trait.
The body of the E18 is probably the most eye-catching part. The stealthy black metal –silkscreened with FiiO’s legendary logo – and its control scheme intimidates and excites me. It looks busy at first – there seem to be so many buttons – but once you play with it for a bit, you’ll know that it isn’t nearly as domineering. But, what really takes the cake is in how well the metal is kept. The E18 has been traveling with me – surrounded by other sharp-metal amps – in a small pouch. Despite this, its metal body still looks as fantastic as the day I got it.
Overall, the build of the E18 is quite nice. The metal looks great and matches its cousin – the E12 Mont Blanc – while still having adequate space for the components inside. I would rather they have used metal for the plastic parts –despite plastic being a better ‘shock barrier’ – but it still works well without any problems.
The E18 comes with the accessories shown below. They include a 3.5mm to coaxial cable, rubber feet, micro USB OTG cables, a regular USB cable for charging, a 3.5mm interconnect cable, some silicon bands, and a pouch. This is pretty standard – for FiiO that is – with the units that they field.
The 3.5mm to RCA cable is used to output a signal from the E18 to an external DAC/Amp. This allows you to use another DAC –that has support for coaxial input – with the E18.
The various USB cables that FiiO provides are not the same. Two cables are of the micro USB OTG kind while one of them is the computer-to-device kind. You can tell the cable meant for use with the computer – besides being the USB cable that didn’t come in a pair – by the big USB Type A head that it uses.
Lastly, the 3.5mm interconnect cable is used as a medium to bridge the E18 with another device. This cable is meant to be plugged only in the headphone out –although not common to do so – and a line I/O.
How does the E18 work?:
The E18 looks extremely intimidating to use; I know, that’s a lot of buttons and ports. So let’s take it step by step from powering on, charging, headphone amp, USB computer mode, phone mode, and DAC output mode. Then, let’s take a look at the buttons.
To power on the E18, you only have to turn the volume-knob and the device will click and power on. There are four lights at the very bottom ;one with a star on top and three connected by a battery-indicator. The star will light up red when the device is powered on and used as a headphone amp. The star will shine red and blue when it is being used through its USB port (phone or computer).
To charge the E18(not your phone), plug the USB cable into the port on the bottom that says ‘power’. During charging when the device is off. The star icon will not be powered on – obviously as the device is off in this scenario – while the battery indicator lights will blink. The blinking of whichever of the three indicator lights will tell you have ‘full’ the battery is. When the blue light on the ‘H’ stops blinking with all three bars showing continuous lights, the charge is fully finished.
To charge your phone with the E18, plug the phone’s compatible USB cable into the port on the E18’s bottom that says ‘USB’. You will then need to flip the switch so that it is on the ‘CHG’ sign.
To use the E18 soley as a headphone amp – with a DAP – make sure nothing is plugged into the USB section. You will then need to plug your headphone into the ‘headphone out’ plug at the top and the 3.5mm cable into the port adjacent to it.
For using the Kunlun as a USB-DAC with your computer, get the regular USB Type A to micro B – already included in the package – and plug it into where it says ‘USB’ on the bottom. You will then need to set the switch to ‘DAC’.
To use the Kunlun with your Android-phone, use the USB OTG cables and set the E18 to ‘DAC’ mode on the bottom with the cable plugged into the ‘USB’ port.
To use the Coaxial out on the E18, you need to have a phone or computer plugged in and producing a signal to the E18. Once the E18 detects that a signal is being produced, the coaxial output will work. You can then use an external DAC with the E18.
There are three ‘playback’ buttons on the E18 Kunlun; they are play/pause, forward, and backwards. This function works on Android-phones, Windows computers, and Mac OSX computers through the USB DAC. There’s no skimming on Mac or Windows with the ‘forward and backwards’ buttons. This means that the song won’t move a bit into the ‘future’ the longer you hold the button.
Video on how to use:
The main gripe most will have with the Kunlun – besides its size – will be with how to use it. I get asked questions all the time on how to use only the DAC or amp. It’s just a typical part of using a new device.
The sheer amount of controls on the E18, do however create some confusion at times for me. I often forget – very quickly – the difference between the ‘USB’ and ‘Power’ ports on the bottom along with their switches. Juggling the rear controls with the main control switches up above get easier with time, but is a problem that newbies will have for sure.
As with any portable amplifier, the size, and I/O function of the device factors heavily into real world usability. The I/O and headphone out jack are in positions that are very awkward for some DAP’s. This depends on how you are orienting each device and what kind of cable you are using in between. While having these jacks – which use the amplifier – are useful when they are close together, they will pose a problem for DAP’s that are small in size or with weird I/O schemes.
Audiophile units – like this – have the innate quality of being extra baggage. Having a brick attached to your iPhone or Galaxy is obviously going to put a damper on the general usability. It’s pretty much already implied but I will remind you that this is pretty standard. My outlook on its usability is pretty positive – because it is quite smooth to attach – but do know that this obviously won’t feel like thin air.
Overall, I would say that it is pretty much expected – for the most part – what it is that you are buying into. It’s a large size device with lots of bells-and-whistles situated around a familiar I/O control scheme of where your wires plug. The usability of it is pretty much already guaranteed to be awkward on some degree.
Noise, Gain, and Bass Boost (General):
No noise was detected with a 32 ohm headphone while pushing the volume all the way up. The gain settings themselves, while no music is playing, displayed no noise production with the same setting. The bass boost is mainly targeted at the mid bass.
The FiiO E12 Mont Blanc was known for having a stiff volume pot when people first received it. The E18 rectified that issue by providing a more freely moving pot. There isn’t much chance of general accidental volume change with this new change however. My testing indicated that trying to change the volume with one finger sliding up and down the wheel – without pushing too hard on it – wasn’t enough to move the pot. IEM users should still be careful.
The sonic section of the E18 review will be a work in progress due to my lack of comparison materials at this time. The E18 was used and tested with the AKG Q701, Fischer Audio TBA-04, Brainwavz R3, RHA SA 950i, Logicform NV1, Project-H (Objective 2 w/ CS4398 DAC), Iona amp, and various other units.
The current sonic section was written – while on vacation – on a mobile station. I have limited resources right now so please hang with me.
The high frequency range on the E18 is excellent in both stability and clarity. It was able to produce very crips and clear highs while maintaining the note without problem. The highs are pretty much free from interference from the other ranges. They are a bit clearer than the X3, and possibly what most are accustomed to. This could lead to some brightness or fatigue later on for those who aren’t accustomed to it.
The vocals on the E18 are forward, separated, and spacially clear. They have a bigger space to themselves than the X3 without a doubt. They are not as encumbered by the lows leaking into them as other amps are which is quite nice. This allows the forward vocals, to really shine. This – yet again – does provide problems for those that generally listen to thick sounding music. The E18 hides less than the traditional amp and so can bring out less than positive elements in a song.
The general clarity of the mid vocals are a bit lacking. This refers to the detail of the voices themselves and not the space that it is in. Considering the general ‘sharp’ quality of this unit, I was expect vocals that were equally as demanding. Depending on how you see it, having less ‘spark’ to the vocals could be a blessing; this is especially true to users who have some bad recordings,
The mid instruments have the same feature-set as the vocals do. They are quite forward, and have their own unique space. The detail falls through quite a bit however. I preferred the detail of the instruments on the X3 over the E18 KunLun.
Strings and other instruments do not have the texture that I would expect from them. It is a bit disappointing, but the special quality of them may be more important to other users.
The lows of the E18 have quite a punch by default. By comparison with the X3, the X3 has a tad bit more impact, but loses out a tiny bit in quality.
The E18 Kunlun is a bassy amplifier with good punch and extension throughout the range. It is a bit more on the boomy side of things – as many FiiO amps are – so this isn’t exactly a quality master. I personally prefer amps that are like this due to my taste in mainstream music. The lack of an absolute texture or punch actually makes it more enjoyable for me.
The first thing people will notice about the E18 – without a doubt – is the wide soundstage of it. Everything is well separated and airy in feel. This works very well with classical genres.
Overall sound signature:
The sound signature of the E18 is mainly bassy but a tad cold. It is obviously a ‘warm’ amp, but the soundstage, separation between the frequencies, and slight problem in producing detail with the mids makes the E18 a bit more analytical than most would think.
The nature of this amp puts it at a weird spot. It is both good for classical, but also potentially not a very good fit; with the same being said for pop. If the amplifier had more detail in the mids, and was more tight-sounding with a bit less space between each frequency, I think it would have been a real winner in the sound category.
The E18 Kunlun is a good sounding amplifier/DAC combo for users who want to use it with an Android device. It is packed to the brim with features, and armed with an absolutely phenomenal-looing build. The E18 passes the sonic test without much problems, but does yield issues in producing a more well rounded sound. Overall, I would say that this device is priced very well and competitively – if there is even competition at all – for its target market. The E18 Kunlun seeks to wow, and it sure does at this price.
Ratings: (based on price)
Audio Sonic quality: 7.8/10