Hello, all. Apos Audio generously sent me a Topping E30 for review. I have enrolled in Apos’s affiliate program but Apos has not offered me any additional compensation or made any other attempt to influence my opinion. The opinions expressed in this review are my own.
The TL;DR version of this review is that the Topping E30 is an excellent choice for anyone who is curious about moving up from basic earbuds or Bluetooth headphones and wanting to get more serious about audio. It offers a compelling package of performance, features, and build quality, and does it for $130. If your goal is to get a solid starter DAC so you can start exploring the world of higher-quality headphones or even start building a basic 2.0/2.1 channel speaker system, it’s hard to go wrong with this DAC. But since I’m WaveTheory and you’re a HiFiGuides Forum reader, you of course want more details. Well, let’s get on with it…
KNOW YOUR REVIEWER (skip this if you’re familiar with my posts on this forum)
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My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like their forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Readers should keep these hearing quirks in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.
How does the above paragraph apply to a DAC review? To my ears, entry-level DACs at times sound sharp or harsh in the treble, sometimes sound a bit thin in the bass or mid-bass, and don’t always have great timbre. They can also struggle with soundstaging and imaging. Some of those characteristics will disagree with my hearing quirks described in the previous paragraph. However, all these characteristics are relative statements and don’t mean that entry-level DACs are bad at these things. In fact, even entry-level DACs in 2020 are quite good at all these things from a historical perspective. It is in comparison to higher quality DACs where these differences become noticeable. I list my personal preferences and previous observations here so that readers can properly contextualize my opinions of gear and weight them accordingly.
FEATURES & BUILD
The Topping E30 is an entry-level DAC that’s arguably about one-half step above the true “entry-level.” At 130USD it includes some features not found at the $100 price point such as a remote control, pre-out (as opposed to only a line-level output), and a handful of digital filters. The E30 is built around an AKM AK4493EQ delta-sigma DAC chip, has USB, Toslink optical, and coaxial digital audio inputs, and supports PCM decoding up to 32 bit and 768KHz and native DSD decoding up to DSD512. Not present in this feature set is MQA decoding. Keep that in mind if you’re a Tidal HiFi user. Also, in a playlist that mixes and matches several different filetypes (PCM or DSD) and sampling rates, the E30 recognizes files and switches between its decoding modes quickly and near-seamlessly.
The E30 is a simple but handsome brick of aluminum with a rather large LED display on the front panel. This LCD display provides info about the input selected, signal type (PCM or DSD), and output level in mostly amber colored lettering/numbering. The display also has 3 levels of illumination. Overall, the unit is built well. All of the connectors are solid. The E30 can be USB powered right from your computer if it’s connected via USB. However, if you prefer to use the SPDIF connections there is a 5V DC input on the back panel as well. Topping is generous enough to provide a USB-A to 5V DC power cord that’s somewhere around a yard or meter long as well. There is no power brick, but basically any cell-phone charger brick should be sufficient. The provided USB signal cable is also long enough to comfortably reach between most desktops and floor-residing desktop computer cases.
The remote control is rather simple with few buttons that will look very familiar to anyone who has experience with Topping or SMSL style remote controls. The remote controls power on/off, mute, volume, input selection, digital filter, and display dimming. There are other buttons that don’t seem to control anything that I can discern but do make a red LED on the remote blink, which is more satisfying than it should be. There are no included batteries so have a pair of fresh AAA batteries on hand if you buy this unit. You will want to use the remote control because I can only find one front panel button on the unit itself and all it does is cycle inputs and power on/off. Also, on this review unit I found my aim with the remote had to be pretty good. The range of angles with which the unit responds to the remote was rather narrow.
Finally, there are 6 digital filter settings in the E30 that change the sound some. I’ll do my best to run through what those do in the section where I talk about…
The gear that I used to listen to E30 were a Schiit Asgard 3, Lake People G111, and Monolith Liquid Platinum for headphone amplifiers driving HiFiMan Edition X V2, Audeze LCD-2 (rev 2.1 prefazor), Audeze LCD-X, and Beyerdynamic DT880 600 ohm headphones. I did briefly use a desktop speaker setup with a Nobsound/Doak tube buffer with Voshkod tubes, an old Onkyo AVR in stereo direct mode, and Definitive Technology SM45 speakers with a Polk PSW505 subwoofer.
Best I can tell, the digital filter setting F – 1 is the ‘no filter’ setting, just pure dac. With this setting the E30 is clean, detailed, and seems to pretty much get out of the way as far as adding/subtracting color to the sound. Spatial recreation is solid. The soundstage is fairly wide and the imaging is reasonably convincing. Instrument separation also solid. Timbre is similar. More or less, voices sound like voices, pianos sound like pianos, drums sound like drums, etc. That’s a list of things that are good, without a whole lot of additional explanation. The reason for the lack of explanation is that there really isn’t much to say here. The Topping E30 does its job and does it well. It’s a sonically no-frills DAC that gets the job done. Are there dacs out there with better timbre, soundstaging, more slam, etc.? Of course. Are there any better for $130? Um, no, probably not. And that, IMO, is a good compliment to give a piece of gear. Sonically, this DAC is a more-than-competent source component for an entry-level HiFi system.
What do the digital filters do? In short, they move away from the rather neutral, uncolored sound, but do so rather subtly. Here’s what my ears tell me they do:
- F – 2: This filter adds a bit more of everything in the frequency range. The bass and treble come forward more than the mids providing a gentle V signature to the sound but everything seems to be elevated just a bit. It’s more ‘fun’ but also adds a bit of lower treble grain.
- F – 3: This filter seems take F – 2 and boost the mids just a little bit more. At times this introduced a bit of shout. This shout could at times break mid timbre and cause some vocals and instruments to sound more homogenous, although for some acoustic music like classical there are times it could also help with instrument separation. For me use of this filter was highly genre and track specific.
- F – 4: Confession: I can’t tell what this one does. There’s a soft click when I flip to it but I have yet to figure out what it’s doing sonically, and believe me I’ve tried.
- F – 5: This filter seems to smooth things out a bit. It returns to a more neutral frequency response than filters 2 or 3 but introduces an overall softer, less dynamic sound. Maybe call this a “chill out” filter.
- F – 6: This one is also really tough to hear. Best I can tell is it has a more mid-forward presentation. Picture the mid-range description of F – 3 but with the bass and treble scaled back to the unfiltered F – 1 setting.
An ergonomic note on switching filters: you have to cycle through them. You can’t select any individual filter right away. This makes my reviewing job harder because I can’t A/B from the no-filter setting, and it also makes it more cumbersome to flip around if you find you like F – 6 for classical music and F – 2 for rock. Still, this is a $130 DAC that has filter settings that provide some level of EQ.
COMPARISONS WITH OTHER DACS
For most of these comparisons I skipped the $1K and up headphones mentioned earlier and pretty much stuck with the Asgard 3 for an amp and DT880, figuring that most users who potentially buy an E30 are going to have gear that is more price appropriate to it. The Asgard 3 is 199USD and the Beyerdynamic DT880 600 is the same. I did switch it up a little and use the Liquid Platinum and G111 some as amps when trying to compare best-cased on best-case. That will be explained more below when relevant.
First question a starting HiFi enthusiast might be asking is something like “Why should I buy the E30 for $130 when the SMSL M100 is only $80?” The M100 has the same connection and decoding options. The M100 has no remote and no EQ filters. The E30 is more detailed, sounds a touch cleaner, and has overall better definition. The M100 sounds just a touch veiled or even slurred by comparison. The M100 also has a less defined soundstage and less sharp imaging, with the sonic image seemingly further than the E30’s soundstage and imaging. I noticed this with both speakers and headphones. The M100 sounds great for $80. The E30 sounds great for $130. The extra $50 for the E30 buys not only more features, but overall better sound, IMO.
Still available for around $250 new but floating around used for <$200 is the SMSL SU-8. The SU-8 offers balanced outputs and more digital filters and is built around an ESS dac chip. From its SE output, the SU-8 and the E30 are really, really close in performance. If you push me on it, I might tell you the SU-8 has a tad sharper center image and slightly better spatial performance at the expense of just a touch less cleanliness. Then, I’m gonna tell you to stop pushing me because the difference isn’t worth it and pushing people is rude. If you want to compare “A-game on A-game” and run the SU-8 balanced through a higher end amp like the Liquid Platinum or G111 and connect the E30 to either of those amps’ SE input, then the SU-8 does edge ahead slightly. The SU-8 sounds a hair wider with sharper imaging, equally-if-not-more-clean, and even has a bit more bass punch and control. Are these sonic differences due to the DACs themselves or due to the differences in quality between the balanced and SE inputs of the amps? Well, I know Alex Cavalli would tell you there is no sonic difference between the Liquid Plat’s SE and balanced inputs, and in my testing of just those two they are really close. Still, I can’t fully discount that the different connection type may have some impact here. Yet, having the option of balanced with the SU-8 means getting more of out a balanced amp.
Arguably the most direct competitor to the E30 is the also $130 iFi Zen Dac. The Zen uses a Burr-Brown dac chip, has a balanced output, offers MQA decoding, has only a USB input, has a bass boost EQ circuit, and also has a headphone amplifier section [read my full review of the Zen here]. Using SE connections and the Asgard + DT880, the E30’s sound has a little more definition and instrument/vocal separation with a bit sharper imaging. The Zen sounds wider and smoother with a little more low-end fullness. The E30 has a touch more refinement in the treble, too; a consequence of an occasional and sneaky sharpness from the Zen. The E30’s EQ filters don’t have the impact that the Zen’s bass boost offers, though. If you’re a basshead and want some serious bass impact and rumble, the Zen is the clear choice. Switching back to the Liquid Platinum amp so the Zen can run balanced and the E30 still runs SE (also into the LP), a bigger difference shows up. While the Zen’s treble sharpness still remains, the Zen’s spatial capabilities start to outclass the E30 in a noticeable way. The Zen is wider and fills the sonic space quite convincingly. Once again, we must allow for the possibility that the Liquid Platinum just sounds better from its balanced input, but then we must also remember that being able to connect to that input is an advantage the Zen has over the E30. I can’t say with certainty, but it is a reasonable hypothesis that a similar sonic difference will show up on more price appropriate balanced amps too, but possibly with less magnitude. The Schiit Magnius, Geshelli Erish, and the iFi Zen CAN amp are all headphone amps priced under 200USD. IMO, there is no clear ‘winner’ between the E30 and the Zen. They both have feature sets that are quite different and both better suited to different situations. The sound quality of each is very close from a technical standpoint but also different enough for each to stand on its own and offer something different.
It bears repeating: the E30 is a rock-solid entry point into exploring the world of HiFi. Its sound is clean, detailed, and relatively uncolored. It’s well built. It has a feature set that is unique at the price point. For the most part, it just does its job well and is easy on the budget. If your goal is to explore headphones under $500 and you want the clearest, most honest assessment of those headphones, you’re not going to do better than the E30 right now. If you have an entry-level speaker setup and won’t be sitting a desk with your DAC, the fact the E30 has a remote and can function as a preamp can also be really handy – and sound pretty good. For $130, the Topping E30 is easy to recommend.