Over the past several months, I’ve been using the HeadStreamer and E17 Alpen on my travels. At the $140 price point, both products are strong contenders so it’s worth comparing them head to head. You may wish to read my reviews of the HeadStreamer and the E17 Alpen if you haven’t already.
Although both products are portable headphone amp / DACs, that’s about all that share in common. The HeadStreamer is a US-built product that focuses on offering the maximum performance for the price by eschewing anything not absolutely necessary and focusing on the basics. The E17 comes from Chinese manufacturer FiiO and offers a much richer feature set at the same price point.
The HeadStreamer is an asynchronous DAC powered by the USB port. Other than LEDs indicating the sample rate and if muted, there are no controls or displays on the device. HRT cleverly uses the volume control of the computer without the usual loss of sound quality.
The E17 offers USB, SPDIF optical, HDMI and analog inputs. Unlike the HeadStreamer, the E17 has an internal battery that charges from the USB port. The front panel of the E17 features an OLED display and a number of buttons that drive its many features including bass and treble adjustments.
From the perspective of a portable product, the HeadStreamer’s simple, rugged construction appears to be better for the traveling audiophile. I suspect that most users won’t be constantly adjusting the E17′s many features once they have it adjusted to their liking. I traveled with both products and preferred the HeadStreamer. Its simplicity is an advantage when on the road. In addition, the extruded aluminium tubing used to house the HeadStreamer is much more rugged than the E17. I tried traveling with the E17 and using the SPDIF input, but using the USB input was more practical and easier. Simplicity trumps features in this case.
The entire point of carrying an external headphone amplifier / DAC is to take advantage of the sound it offers over the built-in headphone amplifier that a laptop or iPad offers. It’s all about the music. Here’s where the E17 won hands down. When I compared both products, I preferred what it did to the music over the HeadStreamer. Compared to the relatively warm sound of the E17, the HeadStreamer sounded cold and grainy. Neither product is going to turn the world on its side, but they both sound better than their built-in equivalents.
I took each device with me on 2 separate trips. In both cases, I found myself taking the time to use the device in my hotel room and in the airport. I really preferred the simplicity of the HeadStreamer in the airport; its super-simple operation made it more practical to use while waiting for a couple of hours to board a plane. Since the HeadStreamer’s volume was driven by my laptop’s volume, it made things especially convenient. When I used the E17, I found that I used precisely 2 features: the power button, and the volume buttons. The many capabilities of the device were simply too much trouble to use in a public setting like an airport.
After taking each device on 2 trips, my original plan was to take both devices on another trip with the intent of comparing both products together. Sadly, the shoulder pack that I use to carry my laptop only had room for one product. I put the E17 in my pack and it’s stayed there since. I really want to like the HeadStreamer better. It’s made here in the US and I like the way HRT does business. But, I prefer the E17′s sound. It just sounds better to my ears.