EarMen Sparrow Portable DAC/Headphone Amp Review
Sparrow DAC / Headphone Amplifier
AUD $400 RRP
EarMen might not be quite the household name just yet, but some audiophiles may be familiar with the highly-respected Serbian Auris Audio brand. Indeed, I am currently putting one of its Eutrupe valve headphone amplifiers through its paces. However, instead of using Auris Audio for its portable hi-fi offerings, founder, engineer and designer Milomir 'Miki' Trosic decided that he needed a separate brand, so EarMen was born. The name may be registered in Chicago, USA, but all of its products are built and assembled in Europe.
The EarMen Sparrow is the company's latest portable hi-res audio product and comes in the shape of a wonderfully slick CNC'd aluminium pebble with glass front and rear. The aluminium chassis not only keeps the weight down but also mitigates interference, claims the manufacturer. Beneath this smooth exterior lies a four-layer gold-plated PCB which, according to EarMen, “guarantees the minimal loss of sound quality”. The beating heart is its ESS Sabre ES9281PRO chip, flagship of the line.
Claiming best-in-class audio performance, it also has bragging rights for being the first USB product to offer an integrated hardware MQA renderer. This unit automatically detects any MQA stream and entirely unfolds it when streamed from the likes of TIDAL's Master Quality Authenticated library. Naturally, other high-resolution audio sources can be enjoyed through the EarMen dongle, as it supports 32-bit/384kHz PCM including DoP, plus DSD64 and DSD128.
Measuring a mere 42x22x8mm, there's little space with which to do anything fancy, but I think credit is due to the designer having the EarMen logo double up as the light indicator for the Sparrow's playback status. Depending on what's being played, the logo lights up green when connected to a PCM/DXD/DSD stream or magenta for MQA. White simply indicates that the Sparrow is connected and ready, whereas red means that it isn't yet connected to a stream. On the top edge of the device is a USB-C port, while at the other end you find both a 3.5mm stereo and 2.5mm balanced output good for a claimed 4V RMS into 600 ohms.
As anyone who's come in contact with Auris Audio products would expect, the EarMen Sparrow is both attractive and well-made. It comes bundled with an EarMen-logo USB-C cable, and while it might not be as compact as the Zorloo Ztella, it does offer balanced output. I must say that, at this point, things aren't looking good for the EarMen Sparrow's obvious rival, the AudioQuest DragonFly range which tops out at 24-bit/ 96kHz and only has the one 3.5mm output. Yet as we all know in hi-fi, it's not always the spec sheet that wins the battle…
For the audition period, I used the Sparrow plugged into my Huawei P30 Pro smartphone using the USB Audio PRO app that gives bit-perfect playback. Headphones included the Ultrasone Edition 15 Veritas, Oppo PM-1, and Ezertich Thalia for single-ended listening and my trusty Noble Savanna IEMs that are tricked out with ORB Clear Force Custom balanced cabling.
Additionally – and I've not seen this mentioned on the EarMen site – I discovered that when I plugged the Sparrow into my Surface Go, the EarMen dongle is detected by Roon and can be used as a renderer that unpacks MQA. So this is a very clever, feature-filled dongle indeed. Oddly, I found that the supplied USB-C cable would only work with the EarMen logo on the cable closest to the dongle. That might be more to do with my phone's foibles, but I thought it worth mentioning just in case you believed that the Sparrow wasn't working for you.
Through all my headphones, the EarMen Sparrow displayed a detailed with a fairly neutral sound. Driven by the closed-backed Ultrasone cans, bass was taut, fast and punchy with an airy and robust midband that helped illuminate vocalists such as Ann Wilson as she sang the title track Little Queen from Heart's second album. Even with its distinctly nineteen seventies production, the upper mids and treble were energetic without becoming sibilant and had suitably satisfying soundstaging. With the open-backed Oppo PM-1, the Led Zeppelin-esque Sylvan Song from the same album had a wider recorded acoustic which wasn't that far from what I get from Chord's Mojo, in fact.
Amazingly, plugging in the Noble in-ear monitors to the Sparrow's balanced output was tantamount to using a completely different device. The soundstage was now very much outside my head. Whatever magic dust Miki and the team have sprinkled on this, certainly seems to be working. In single-ended mode, the Sparrow is already impressive, but via the balanced out you can taste this little widget's true potential. Replaying Sylvan Song had me sat amongst the band transfixed, rather than as a spectator distant from all the action.
The Sparrow also unleashed to the total beauty of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All The Rest (Deluxe Edition) from TIDAL in Master quality. I got a highly natural sound via the balanced output – instrumentation had a more realistic and tangible quality to the extension and decay of the notes. Where this dongle's frequencies seemed perfectly matched through the single-ended port, the balanced out was able to pick out those crucial peaks whilst never losing the neutrality that drew me in, in the first place.
Midband through the balanced output steps forward, and vocalists enjoy a brighter spotlight that draws the listener closer to that singer's characteristics and inflexions. Furthermore, this leads to an increased clarity and musicality through tracks which could sound a little flat, if not given the love that they need. Led Zepplin's Trampled Under Foot suffered no such trouble as Plant and company bounced along with John Paul Jones' bass pulses seeming directly attached to my tapping foot. On the subject of bass, this too feels more vibrant and manages to plumb further depths than through the single-ended out.
The extremely danceable Flesh Without Blood by Grimes drove irresistibly forwards through the Savannas, and I couldn't help but imagine just how good the low end would be through some dynamic drivers rather than the BAs in these Nobles. The same went for Billie Eilish's You Should See Me in a Crown. Here there was a much more defined bass rumble compared with the same track and in-ear monitors going through the single-ended out. Thankfully, this low-end expansion doesn't come to the detriment of the Sparrow being able to produce higher frequencies that keep things in equilibrium. That said, flicking between outputs, I actually preferred the tighter, more controlled bass over the balanced output's offering. Here it is down to personal taste, as the balanced output does seem to improve dynamics a little, too.
The extra texture in the bass frequencies also reaches to the lower midband, meaning that well-fettled releases such as Sebrina, Paste and Plato from Jellyfish reward you with an incredible 'out of head' experience, especially with the crystalline clarity of the treble. The EarMen Sparrow's upper midband and treble in balanced work together to help the listener follow intricate lines and interwoven passages. Whereas through the single-ended output, it's more about musical flow, through the balanced output, the Sparrow becomes more analytical.
As any soccer pundit would say, EarMen's Sparrow is 'a game of two halves'. Through the single-ended output, this perfectly-formed pebble-like device is able to produce a performance that ought to get most USB dongles on the market looking over their shoulder. Whereas some of its big-name competitors might give more bass or insight, the Sparrow conducts itself incredibly well at its price, thanks in no small part to that top-flight ESS Sabre Pro DAC chip fitted inside. Factor in the MQA functionality and Roon compatibility, and that's a lot for your money.
Typically, this would be the end of the story, but grab yourself some ear-pleasers fitted with a balanced cable and the Sparrow not only flies straight past its price rivals but then challenges those asking at least a few hundred pounds more. And last but not least is the sheer power available from the EarMen Sparrow, meaning it can drive pretty much any in-ear monitors or even full-sized headphones direct from your mobile device. Overall then, this is a most impressive portable hi-fi product – and those looking for a competent USB dongle DAC/ headphone amp should pay it serious attention.