Tiny gizmo jacks up the sound

The Baltimore Sun

Beware of earphones and an iPod living a seemingly idyllic musical life. No relationship is perfect.

The FiiO E3 headphone amplifier is the best type of therapy for any digital music player: effective and ridiculously cheap. The E3 gives your earphones a shot of courage, with bigger, bolder sound and brawnier bass. To most ears, it also boosts the perceived volume, eliminating the urge to dial up the iPod's master volume and burn precious battery power.

To do this, the E3 requires nothing more than a single AA battery and $8.50 - and that includes shipping from China. How the FiiO business model works is something I'll probably never understand, but I do know that the E3 is a valuable accessory for almost any iPod-toter.

The E3 is only about twice the size of the AA battery, with no on-off switch and some peculiar, lost-in-translation warnings in its instruction booklet. An example: "Please don't put this machine or close to the exposed flame source, such as lighting candle.

"And avoid putting in high temperature, moist environment for a long time, avoid tanning by the sun, caught in the rain, the water droplet, otherwise influence the normal service life of the products or cause the trouble of the products seriously."

Understood? Yes, the iPod is a universal language. Fortunately, the E3 isn't complicated. One end connects to an iPod - or any non-Apple player - with the included minijack cable. The other end connects to your earphones, illuminating a nearby red light. To turn off the E3, remove the earphones connector.

I ordered two E3s for $17.01, fearing that one might get damaged in shipping, from DealExtreme.com of Hong Kong. After almost three weeks, the E3 twins arrived safely. Despite the price, these are not little gum-machine trinkets.

They don't work magic with every set of earphones, though - FiiO suggests high-impedance and low-sensitivity models. I tried the E3 with two music players, a Nano and Sansa e250, and two earphones, Comply's $80 NR-10 in-ear model and the $49 over-the-ear iGrado. (Expect the AA battery to last about 20 hours.)

It made the Sansa's lower quality MP3 files sound better and the Nano's high-quality Apple Lossless files sound great: more upfront, more dynamic, improved bass and more "inside the head."

Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez's "All the Rain" almost blew up my head, in fact, because it was so much louder than I anticipated. The FiiO amplifies everything, including noise. I heard some slight hiss between songs with the Comply earphones - the NR-10's 16 ohms is the lowest recommended impedance for the E3 - but the iGrado remained silent. So experiment a bit.

Your iPod and earphones will never be happier. This is the cheapo accessory of the year.

A DVD statement

Toshiba, which acknowledged defeat to Blu-ray and dropped its HD DVD players earlier this year, has returned with a fresh twist on an old technology, the upconverting DVD player.

The $150 XD-E500, like every upconverting player, makes standard 480p DVDs look more like the resolution of an HDTV (720p or 1080p). Its XDE technology, for "eXtended Detail Enhancement," takes the unconversion another step with modes that sharpen the picture, enhance the color and improve contrast in dark scenes.

This is the first moderately priced big-name upconverter I've seen that compares with those made by Oppo Digital (oppodigi tal.com). The XD-E500's video was at least as good as the $229 Oppo DV-981HD at a much lower price. The Oppo, however, has superior audio, especially for those still invested in hi-def formats SACD and DVD-Audio.

I'm not sure the average DVD user will wade through the Sharp-Color-Contrast modes before each movie, but die-hards will love the XD-E500. Like high-definition Blu-ray (and before that, HD DVD) players, the XD-E500 can deliver a film in its original 24-frames-per-second rate instead of converting it to 60-frames-per-rate video. Match it with one of the new HDTVs that can accept a direct 1080p24 signal, and you'll see some near hi-def pictures.

This is a good investment, however, for anyone with an HDTV and an extensive DVD collection who is not ready to upgrade to Blu-ray.

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