EarMen Sparrow

General Information

DAC: Sabre ES9281PRO
Input: USB-C

Outputs:
3.5 mm (single-ended)
2.5 mm (balanced)

Signal level:
Single-ended: 1.4 V @ 32 Ohm , 2 V @ 600 Ohm
Balanced: 2 V @ 32 Ohm , 4 V @ 600 Ohm

Formats support:
PCM up to 384 kHz
DSD up to DSD128 DoP
MQA rendering up to 384 kHz

EarMEn-Sparrow-New-1_2000x.jpg

Latest reviews

Sparrows eat Dragonflies Right?
Pros: Premium build, exceptional sound quality in balanced mode, cabling options
Cons: Sound signature differences in balanced vs SE outputs.


disclaimer: The Sparrow was sent by Earmen for the purpose of this review. I have no financial interest in Earmen, nor have I received any remuneration for this review. If you have an interest in learning more about the Sparrow or Earmen, check out their website.

Packaging:
The packaging of the Sparrow is deceptive as the picture on the front of the box is actual size for the device and realistically you could have packed 20 of them in this size box. Packaging is fairly plain with a graphics on front and specs on reverse. Inside you have the manual, and a foam block with two cables one USB-A male to USB-C male and the other USB-C to USB-C male and the sparrow itself. The only thing lacking is a lightning to USB-C cable in the box but my apple made cable worked well for that purpose so while not included, it certainly is an option for those with i-phones.




Build:
The sparrow makes even the Hud100 look big. it is no larger than many of the dongles available. The unit is about the same dimensions as a USB drive in height and width and roughly a centimeter shorter than most of my thumb drives. Construction is glass and metal with a USB-C port on one end, an indicator LED on the main face (the Earmen logo), and 2.5mm balanced and 3.5mm single ended jacks on the other end. The unit has little heft, but looks and feels quite well made. It looks the part of a premium device.




Internals:
The Sparrow uses Ess Technology’s ES9281Pro to do most of its work. The 9281 is a system on chip that incorporates a USB 2.0 controller, i2s, stereo line input, microphone input, and a DAC supporting up to 32/384 PCM, DSD128, and hardware MQA unfolding on chip. What ESS has done is created a chip (They call it a codec) that can handle USB input, convert that input to analog, amplify it and output it with almost no supporting characters involved. We are increasingly seeing either the 9281 or 9270 used in dongle products for this reason as they are low-power devices with very small footprints required to support them. The biggest difference in the two ESS chips is MQA support with the 9281 having full hardware unfolding and the 9270 omitting it. Needless to say there is a price difference between the two chips so some vendors will opt to leave off MQA to save on cost, while others like Earmen choose to use the more expensive part and provide the end user greater functionality.

The trade off usually comes when we look at output power vs battery life as there is simply no way to increase output without increasing consumption commensurately. As such, there is always a target range of earphones and headphones products are designed to power, and it usually is those below 150Ω with fairly high sensitivities. The sparrow lists output as up to 4V into 600Ω balanced or 2V into the same via the single ended connector. I tested the sparrow using my 600Ω Beyer 990 and it was able to drive them to usable levels but not with a lot of headroom above that so I would say while possible, the sparrow is more at home with easier to drive models. When I kept my expectations to 300Ω and models with sensitivities in the high 90s or low 100s, all worked well.

Plugging the Sparrow into windows, mac, and android devices resulted in it being detected and working properly with no need of additional drivers. The LED indicator turned white as soon as power was applied and then green for file playback (PCM or DSD), Streaming Tidal Masters yields a Magenta indicator for MQA as well. Thankfully I never saw the red indicator which indicates power is present but no USB signal as in most cases that is indicative of a problem. I did find that when used with Hiby or UAPP, I did need to set the output to bit perfect in the software to get the MQA rendering to work correctly.

Sound:
I tried the sparrow with a bit of everything around the house. laptops, desktops, phones, tablets, even a couple DAPs and it worked admirably with all of them. One thing I will warn about up front is when you plug in the sparrow, turn the volume down to zero before turning on any playback as it is considerably louder than most (especially the balanced output) and if you just plug it in on 50% volume and hit play you are likely in for a shock, and ear damage. Notes below are divided into balanced and single ended as they sound slightly different and deserve separate coverage.

Single ended:

Bass is good with some rumble and good extension. The limited output power prevents the sub-bass from really feeling visceral, but I have yet to find a dongle with that kind of potency to it. Mid-bass is fast and clean with good slam and detail.

Mids flow from the mid-bass with no change in level and again very cleanly presented with good detail and textures. While I liked the mids here, those who love mids really need to use the Sparrow in balanced mode as it has much better dynamics and layering and the mids come much more to life.

Treble has good detail as well and is still on the same level with nothing particularly jumping forward in the signature. Air and sparkle are somewhat limited, but extension is good with roll-off being above my own personal ability to perceive it. Here again, the treble sounds good on SE until you use the balanced output and realize what you were missing.

Overall, very linear and clean, but slightly sterile and lacking a touch in dynamics.

Balanced:

Bass: The first thing I noticed was how much better the extension is in balanced mode with what was a bit dull in SE suddenly digging deep and giving good enough rumble to be used for theatrical explosions etc. Mid-bass is fuller and more detailed with much better dynamics as well. The one drawback, at least to my ear is the bass is now slightly above neutral and those looking for true neutrality may want to eq it just a bit to return it to linearity.

Mids: Here again, much better dynamics are on display than the single Ended version. The Mids now have space to breathe and live and timbre is better with vocals much more lifelike and naturals and string tonality greatly improved. I love good mids, and the balanced output on the Sparrow is very capable. So much so, that I think the next version should omit the Single-ended connector and just offer the balanced. Its that much better.

Treble: Air and sparkle are much improved with the balanced output as the dynamics open up the space and give the treble more life and energy. Details are very good with a transparency that was lacking in the single ended output.

So you’d be excused for thinking I don’t like the single ended output after reading the above. The fact is, having compared it to others in my collection, the Single Ended output on the Sparrow is somewhere between the Dragonfly Red and Cobalt in overall quality and is no slouch, its just that the balanced output is so much better that it just blows you away when you try it and I can’t imagine wanting to go back to single ended knowing that option is out there. Its a bit like test driving a McLaren only to return to your Ford Mustang, sure the Ford gets you from point A to point B, but not with the same pizazz and excitement of the McLaren.

Comparisons:

First off, you gotta love the sense of humor that Earmen have about their products. While the products themselves are all business, the naming is lighthearted and fun. The reason this device got named Sparrow? You guessed it, they eat Dragonflies. So does it live up to its billing as a Dragonfly killer?

Dragonfly Red – this is the price point equal of the Sparrow in the dragonfly line. Other than that, the two have little in common. Build quality is more premium on the Sparrow and the addition of balanced output is something no dragonfly can match. Sound quality wise, the sparrow is cleaner and more potent than the red in single ended mode and offers even more potency when using balanced output. While both support MQA, the Red supports PCM only to 24/96 while the Sparrow gives you the option of up to 32/384. With more and more music becoming available at 24/192, this may be a feature that tips the scales for the Sparrow if others don’t.

Dragonfly Cobalt – So does spending $100 more than Sparrow change the competition in favor of the Dragonfly? Nope, even on steroids the Cobalt still lacks the balanced output, is limited to 24/96 due to its USB section, and lacks the build quality of the Sparrow with the outer case on mine being barely attached to the internals. Both sound quite good and in single ended mode the sparrow is slightly more neutral while the Cobalt is bit fuller in the low end but both offer good detail and sound is nearly a wash for me. I find myself liking the sound of one a bit better for some tracks and the other for other material so this can come down to mood for me. With the addition of the balanced output to the fight though, the dragonfly quickly gets gobbled up by the Sparrow with improved dynamics as well as better output potency.

So yep, there you have it, the Sparrow does indeed eat dragonflies, or at the very least takes their lunch money and leaves them crying on the playground.

Conclusions:
With more and more people going to phones as their primary listening device, the dongle has become the hottest thing in portable audio with every maker trying to produce an offering that distinguishes itself from a now very crowded field of competitors. The Sparrow offers a very small package with interchangeable cables which I like as it means no need for an adapter like the dragonfly or others require. To me, requiring an adapter kind of kills the notion behind a dongle of effortless portability. The problem generally associated with tiny packages is they limit how much functionality one can reasonably expect. The Sparrow chooses to omit any form of volume controls and rely on the source device instead and concentrates its efforts on packing a flagship dac in the mix. I think we will probably see a flurry of ES9281Pro based dongles in the near future as ESS designed this chipset specifically for the portable market, but I have to think that some of the magic in the balanced output of the Sparrow is home grown and due to Earmen’s careful matching of other components inside the tiny device. With 32/384 PCM, DSD128, and MQA support all native, most wont have any problems with unsupported formats. With Roon Support, Tidal Masters, and Qubuz support, streaming options are well covered. (For the record spotify and Amazon music worked fine too). And to top it all off, the balanced output had enough potency to run even my HD800 well. At $199, the Sparrow may eat a lot more than Dragonflies. Like the TR-amp before it, I think Earmen got nearly everything right except the price point which could have easily been $100 higher. Let’s don’t tell their Accounting department and hope that trend continues shall we?

  • Packaging - 7/10

  • Accessories - 6.5/10

  • Build Quality - 8/10

  • Sound Quality - 8/10 (assuming balanced in use)

  • Output Power - 7.5/10 (assuming balanced in use)
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Reactions: vid1900
Kal El
Kal El
Are there any comparison with ifi hip dac? I can't find one.
MachinistNL
MachinistNL
I have found a solution for the lightning to usb c issue. A Meenova micro-usb to lightning cable and an Aukey micro usb to usb c adapter are confirmed to work by me.
MachinistNL
MachinistNL
Ok. After trying the Earmen Sparrow for some time I’m sending it back. It picks up data noise and ruins songs. First I thought it were the cables... but it’s the Sparrow.
A Tiny DAC With A Big Sound
Pros: Punchy and lively sound
Rhythmic and nimble presentation
Phenomenal soundstage and micro-details over Balanced out
Cons: Older Windows than W10 not supported
Sparrow is a portable DAC brought by EarMen – a quite fresh brand on the market, but I have to say they entered it with aplomb. While writing this article, one of the brand’s first products TR-Amp is sitting on my desk and juicing my headphones. It really says something about the product when you don’t want to stop using it after the review is done.

But today, it’s about finding out if EarMen can repeat its success with a truly portable and tiny device. Let’s dig in.

Build and Package
A lot of devices call themselves portable nowadays, but sticking a battery into something doesn’t really make it all that portable, does it? Well maybe to some degree, carrying mentioned TR-Amp or Chord Mojo with my laptop is quite OK, but carrying those slabs in my pockets is a completely different story – neither my pockets nor patience is that stretchy.

On the other hand, I find the Audioquest DragonFly family to be proper portable devices. EarMen Sparrow is even a bit more compact than that. It’s tiny and lightweight but the use of quality materials means it doesn’t feel cheap. On the contrary, it looks very slick and feels like a well-built product.

The Package is very simple, there’s the DAC itself and two USB cables. The USB-C one to connect it to your smartphone, and the USB-A one that’s standard on all our PCs. If you’re an Apple user, you’ll have to buy additional cable, or maybe nicely ask your favorite brand to start following industry standards for once.

EarMen Sparrow_3.jpgEarMen Sparrow_4.jpg

Features and Connectivity
EarMen Sparrow is based around Sabre’s ES9281PRO D/A converter that offers wide format support, including the increasingly more popular MQA decoding. Aside from that, it’ll take PCM and DXD up to 384 kHz, as well as DSD up to 128 DoP.

Being this small means there’s usually not much to talk about in this section, but Sparrow packs one important surprise. There’s one input in form of USB-C, but there are two outputs to choose from. One is your normal single-ended 3.5 mm stereo jack that offers up to 2.0 Vrms, while the other one is a balanced 2.5 mm output that’ll go up to 4.0 Vrms in 600 Ohms. This second one makes all the difference when talking about this unit, but more about it in a sound quality section.

Sparrow doesn’t have any controls, it’s powered automatically when connected while the volume is controlled via the player. It lights with four different colors signifying different states of operation, but I’ll not go into the details here – it’s in the user manual anyway.

EarMen Sparrow_5.jpg

Sound (Single-ended Out)
Firstly, I connected a great in-ear model Kinera Freya to the 3.5 mm socket and started browsing through my favorite songs. Sparrow treated me with a full-bodied and punchy sound. Its overall character was very neutral and no emphasis on any region could be detected. Bass depth and control were great, while the soundstage was adequate.

Moving to my bigger Hifimans I realized there’s enough power in the small Sparrow to drive them in a satisfying manner. Control over the baseline was good, vocals sounded full and present, and dynamics left nothing to complain about. If there’s one area I wished a bit more, it was the highest register. Even though Sparrow is capable of crisp detailing, I felt some air from the acoustic and live recordings missing. But overall, I was very happy with the presentation that proved to be better controlled, cleaner, and more dynamic than DragonFly Black. Unfortunately, I didn’t have DF Red on hand for a direct comparison, which would make more sense since they’re priced equally. Going solely by my memory, and using Black as an intermediate device I’ve heard next to both, I’ll go on a limb here and say that Sparrow wouldn’t have much problem taking on Red either.

EarMen Sparrow.jpg

Sound (Balanced Out)
I switched my cable then and moved to a balanced output. Oh my, that was an experience you don’t have every day. The soundstage opened with greater transparency being evident all over the frequency range. Bassline gained more grip and texture, transients became crisper and notes richer with micro-details. You remember how I said that air is lacking up top with SE output, well forget about that complaint cause it’s gone. The highest register just lit every recording with a fresh amount of air and allowed instruments to breathe.

Listening to the Every Morning by Keb’ Mo’ I immediately noticed how much wider and spacious the soundstage has gotten. Guitar strings plucked with more zest and intent making me nod my head along with this slow but soulful tune. Moving to a faster Madness by Muse confirmed the superior grip over bass notes, composure, and layering of balanced output. Keeping the rhythm and fast pace was made to look like an easy task by this small unit.

At this moment, I felt Sparrow is leaving both Red and Black Dragonflies in the mirror. In some areas, such as sheer transparency and pacing, it is even surpassing its older brother TR-Amp. Commendable achievement.

EarMen Sparrow_2.jpg

Conclusion
EarMen Sparrow is a truly portable device you can carry around in your pocket. Knowing this, we usually apply a lower set of standards the device has to measure up to. Over the single-ended output, Sparrow fulfills these with flying colors, matching and even surpassing the aging competition. Switch to its balanced output, however, and it surpasses the expected in the most spectacular way. While you still can’t expect physics to suddenly bend and this tiny unit to pour incredible amounts of power, the sheer sound quality to size ratio is just astonishing.

....

UPDATE: Some users reported hearing random clicking noise for a minute when Sparrow is connected to the phone. I had a similar experience with one of my players (HiBy Music) but couldn’t replicate it with the Tidal app and another phone (with its default player) so I assumed it was a HiBy player-specific issue. It seems however than this might be an issue with a wider selection of phones/players. Thanks to all who brought it to attention, I’ve already notified the manufacturer and will keep you updated if there’s any new info about it.

UPDATE 2: EarMen has released a firmware update that solved the clicking issue. Both firmware and tool needed to flash it onto your device are available for download on the official page: https://earmen-shop.com/products/sparrow


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My video review:
Last edited:
  • Like
Reactions: Kal El and ryanjsoo
Kal El
Kal El
Are there any comparison with ifi hip dac? I can't find one.
MachinistNL
MachinistNL
I have found a solution for the lightning to usb c issue. A Meenova micro-usb to lightning cable and an Aukey micro usb to usb c adapter are confirmed to work by me.
MachinistNL
MachinistNL
Ok. After trying the Earmen Sparrow for some time I’m sending it back. It picks up data noise and ruins songs. First I thought it were the cables... but it’s the Sparrow.

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