Have you ever had the experience where you thought you purchased a great set of headphones, only to be sorely disappointed when you plugged them into your smartphone for your morning jog? You might think that the headphones are to blame here, but that may not necessarily be the case. They just might need a little boost from a device like the Creative Sound Blaster E3, a Bluetooth-enabled headphone amplifier and USB DAC that unlocks the true audio potential of your chosen headset.
What Is the Sound Blaster E3?
The common assumption is that all 3.5mm stereo mini jacks are made alike. By extension, the assumption also goes that the same set of headphones will sound the same no matter where you plug them in. And that's simply not true. These audio ports put out a different amount of power, not to mention the kind of processing that happens behind the jack.
With the Sound Blaster E3, you address both of these possible concerns. It acts like a sound card, processing that audio in such a way to produce the best possible listening experience. It's also an HD headphone amplifier, supporting headphones up to 600ohm. What this means is that even the most power-hungry of cans will get the juice they need. More power and better processing equate to better audio.
Other key features include the dual 3.5mm output jacks (so you can connect two sets of headphones), Bluetooth and NFC support, USB audio streaming support, an integrated microphone for voice calls, 112dB (DAC) signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), up to eight hours of battery life over Bluetooth (17 hours via analog) and support for PCs and Macs too, all in a 44 gram lightweight package.
The Goldilocks DAC for Mobile Folk
There is certainly an argument to be made for either of these alternatives, but having tested all three with a few different headphones, I quickly gravitated to the Sound Blaster E3. Just as Goldilocks found one bowl of porridge to be too cold and another one to be too hot, I found the E3 to be the "just right" offering in the range.
As a portable DAC, having Bluetooth and NFC is a must, so the E1 does't quite fit. And the E5 feels a little like overkill, especially given the larger size that makes it less convenient for the gym or travel.
The Straightforward User Experience
You won't find too much in terms of surprises or customization here. The Sound Blaster E3 comes with a few different input options. There's a straight line-in audio, there's a USB connection to your smartphone, and there's a USB connection to your PC, the last of which can be optimized using the company's SBX Pro Studio software. For my part, in case it hasn't become abundantly clear already, the Bluetooth connection is the most convenient and likely the one that'd get the most use.
If your phone supports NFC, as my Nexus 5 does, then pairing is a cinch. Turn on the E3, tap your phone on its surface and confirm the connection. Otherwise, you can jump through the usual Bluetooth hoops. There is no passcode involved, so do bear that in mind if you are pairing in a public place. The Sound Blaster E3 has basic on-board controls for volume and tracks, as well as a play/pause button that doubles for answering voice calls.
Once you're all paired up, the headphones you connect to either of the 3.5mm outputs will work as if they were connected via Bluetooth to your phone.
Does It Really Make a Difference?
The short answer? Yes. A resounding yes.
Indeed, when we had the three Sound Blaster DACs out for demo at GottaCon 2015 in Victoria, at least one of the attendees was blown away by the performance of the E3. "Whoa, that bass!" was his reaction, I believe. This was using a regular set of earbuds and an iPhone.
The way that I describe the Sound Blaster E3 experience is thus: if you've ever taken a decent PC gaming headset and connected to your computer using the 3.5mm cable and then connected it via USB instead, then that's the difference you'll hear using the same headset directly connected to your smartphone versus connected through the E3. The audio profile is decidedly richer, the bass is much more pronounced, and the clarity is remarkably impressive. This little black box is no joke.
MEGATechie Blasting Sound or MEGATechie Bluetooth Enigma?
If you're the kind of person who can't be bothered to spend more than $20 on a set of generic earbuds for listening to your workout playlist at the gym, then the Creative Sound Blaster E3 is not the product for you. If having great audio is important to you, then it is something that you may consider adding to your arsenal, in addition to a set of good quality headphones or earphones.
The sticking point is that the E3 retails for $129.99. It's debatable whether that "extra" money could be better spent on getting a better set of headphones in the first place, but what I will tell you is that even if you get better headphones, they'll sound even better with the E3. It's the vicious cycle of delicious sound.