EarMen Sparrow - Reviews
EarMen Sparrow – a marvel of miniaturisation
Pros: Best-in-class sound quality from balanced output
Excellent build quality
Enough power for most headphones and all IEMs
Good value for money
Cons: Single-ended output is good but not remarkable
Could use a volume control
4.4 Pentaconn would be killer
This is an abridged review. The full review can be found here.

The EarMen Sparrow does not do wireless. It’s also smaller than most other ‘proper’ dongles (unless you consider Apple’s or Samsung’s headphone adapters proper dongles). So what makes this tiny device so enticing to make you pick it over the many other options available at or around its $199 price point?

Sparrow_06.jpg

What you get

The Sparrow houses a new all-in-one flagship SoC from ESS, the SABRE ES9281PRO, the first combination DAC/amp chip to offer built-in hardware MQA decoding. Made from high-quality parts, including a gold-plated PCB, the DAC section supports all PCM formats up to 32/384kHz and DSD128 (including DoP 128 for Mac), and the amp delivers up to 4.0 vRMS of voltage from its 2.5mm balanced headphone output.

The face of the Sparrow features a LED indicator light that illuminates an EarMen logo in different colours based on its active mode: white when powered, green when receiving a USB audio signal, and magenta when decoding an MQA stream. It connects to your smartphone or laptop through a USB-C port on one end (EarMen supplies both a USB-C to C and USB-C to A cable in the box, but alas not a USB to Lightning cable for iPhones), and to wired headphones via single-ended 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm ports on the other.

Sparrow_07.jpg

Sound quality

The story of the Sparrow, at least when it comes to sound quality and power, is a story of two outputs: single-ended and balanced.

Single-ended

Does the Sparrow, by virtue of its audio smarts, make your headphones sound better than a device that already has a built-in headphone jack?

The short answer is yes. Playing a well-recorded and multi-layered track like Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Story’ through my phone has always been a good experience. The LG’s superpower is its SABRE DAC, and I chose it specifically for this feature. But plugging the same IEMs into the Sparrow yields an even better one: Brandi’s vocals are notably more distinct, better separated from the melee of instruments around her, and the sense of space is better defined too.

Switching tracks (and genres), the classic ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles is a staple demo track for most audiophiles because of how well it’s been recorded, and to hear it from the Sparrow takes an already pleasant experience on the phone (and even directly through the MacBook) to new heights. The version I like to use was recorded live and features on the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album, and from the very start of the track, as the noise of the crowd fades in and the guitars start to play, you’re treated to what I can only describe in layman’s terms as really excellent sound.

Sparrow_09.jpg

Balanced

If using the Sparrow single-ended is an improvement, using it balanced is a revelation. I can pick up the basic character of an audio chain from the opening chords of BEYRIES ‘Alone’, a simple vocal set against sparse instrumentation that on really good gear feels like Amélie Beyries is sitting right next you, singing in your ear. With the Sparrow connected balanced to a pair of 64 Audio IEMs, I could almost feel her holding my hand, a tear slowly parsing her cheek.

Where the quality gap was easily more obvious in the single-ended sessions, switching to balanced really blurred the lines between what I’d become accustomed to from my higher-end gear, and what I was hearing from the Sparrow. This was especially true with more complex music, like the busier passages in Daft Punk’s ‘Giorgio By Moroder’ and the collision effects in ‘Contact’ from the same, sublime Random Access Memories album, where the sound was more even, more controlled, less congested and better defined using the balanced output.

Often I’ve said I hear a wider stage and better separation of instruments with balanced headphones, no matter the source, which is not always obvious and always seems to be up for debate on the popular audio gear forums. Listening to the Sparrow, this point at least is not up for debate.

Sparrow_12.jpg

Other thoughts

By and large, the EarMen Sparrow has a very natural, neutral tuning that prioritises details but not at the expense of musicality. The sound can best be described as transparent, giving vocals and instruments just enough body so they don’t sound thin, without unnecessarily colouring the sound. It’s a fairly linear response, not too bright or too warm, with no unsightly peaks or troughs to worry the measurebators.

I’ve already established the Sparrow’s advantages when used balanced, so I’ll only add here that if you find the sound too intimate single-ended, it really opens up in all directions with a good balanced headphone. Not to mention, balanced is significantly more powerful, which brings me to one possible quibble: volume.

This is more a warning than a design flaw, but because the Sparrow doesn’t have its own volume control, I suggest you turn down the volume on your connected device before hitting play. Let’s just say I failed to do so first time, and have never in my life yanked earphones out of my ears so quickly. I can still hear the ringing…

Sparrow_10.jpg

Closing thoughts

That I’m finding a similar emotional connection to my music with a $200 dongle as I would be with a high-powered DAP is testament to how well this little bird can sing. While I won’t go as far as to say the Sparrow renders higher-end music players redundant, it definitely skews the value proposition downward, far further down than I anticipated was possible.

Is it the right device for you? That depends. Do you use wired headphones but don’t want or need a dedicated music player? Are you a Tidal subscriber with a playlist full of hi-res MQA tracks? Do you regularly use your laptop or tablet to play music? If you answered yes to any of these questions, the Sparrow is a shoe-in. In fact, if you are someone who prioritises sound quality above all else and want to take it with you wherever you go, the Sparrow should be near or at top of your list.

Sparrow_08.jpg
capetownwatches
capetownwatches
My R2.00 worth?
Excellent review, as always!
:beerchug:
  • Like
Reactions: gLer
Matpar
Matpar
I regularly use "Alone" as my reference Song to understand how my Gear works :) It Is One of my Fav and the details in there are very interesting. Also "wondering" btw Is a great Song.
  • Like
Reactions: gLer
zolom
zolom
Amazing sound
Hawk or Sparrow?
Pros: Enormous sound quality by balanced output.
- Tiny size.
- Power for your size.
- Very attractive external design and construction.
- Internal construction and components chosen to maximise sound Quality
Cons: It is not compatible with versions of Windows prior to Windows 10.
- It does not have ASIO drivers.
- The high power that the device can develop implies a consequent higher power consumption, in the devices to which it is connected.
- It does not have a Lightning to USB Type C cable.
- Absence of silicone cover for protection.
- The connectors are not gold-plated
Introduction

Earmen is a very curious brand, which never ceases to surprise me. When you enter its website, you can see its design, how it is built, its photos and, of course, its products. And they are the true soul of their philosophy: "Enjoy Music Without Limitations", "Simply Is The Best", "Portable High Performance Audio Devices for All", "Portable Audio Freedom For All"... These are some of the phrases that one can find, browsing their site. After reading its "About" section, several things strike me: It is not only a "new" brand, but its staff has "decades of experience in developing high-end audio amplification and processing equipment". The products have been "designed and engineered by Milomir "Miki" Trosic, founder of sister company Auris Audio". It is based in the United States, specifically in Chicago, IL. But they are manufactured in Europe, specifically in Serbia, as you can read on the box. Finally, Earmen's motivation is based on satisfying those audiophiles who run away from Bluetooth technology and are looking for the best listening experience. We (of course, I include myself in them), don't care about cables, we care about quality. But size does matter and so does ease of use. And don't forget about design and elegance. In this sense, Earmen has hit the nail on the head, providing products of the highest quality, impressive and simple in design, trying to reduce the size and operation to the maximum. This is why Earmen is a very serious company, but also one with a great sense of humour: from Chicago to Europe, including the name of its products: Donald DAC, TR-Amp, Eagle, Sparrow... (Clear allusions to politicians, cartoon characters, predators that eat dragonflies, etc...), Earmen, never ceases to surprise me.

On this occasion, the product that I am going to review fulfils all the features of Earmen's philosophy: Sparrow is tiny, beautiful, powerful, simple and sounds... Well, I will explain that below, along with other things, of course.

I want to thank EarMen for giving me this great opportunity to enjoy their products in exchange for my humble opinion.

EarMen Sparrow 01_resize.jpgEarMen Sparrow 02_resize.jpg

Specifications

  • DAC: ES9281PRO
  • Dynamic Range: 124 dB
  • THD+N: -112 dB
  • Input: USB Type C female
  • Output: 3.5mm Audio, 2.5mm Balanced
  • Power: 2.5mm à 2.0 V RMS at 32 Ω. 4.0 V RMS at 600 Ω. 2.5mm à 1.4 V RMS at 32 Ω. 2.0V RMS at 600 Ω.
  • Audio formats: DSD 64/120 DOP. DXD 384/352.5 kHz. PCM up to 32 bits 384 kHz. MQA Rendering up to 384 kHz.
  • Weight: 12 gr.

EarMen Sparrow 03_resize.jpgEarMen Sparrow 04_resize.jpg

Packaging

The Earmen Sparrow comes in a relatively large box for its size. Its dimensions are 204x124x23mm. It is black with white letters. On the main side is the logo, brand and model, on the top. In the centre there is a realistic photo, at real size, of the main face of the product and its top and bottom views, where the connections are located. Below, in smaller letters, you can read the description of the product. The box is sealed in cellophane and has a tamper evident on each opening. On the back side are the product characteristics, the different logos of the supported audio formats, a QR Code and an EAN13, as well as the origin, place of manufacture and the brand's WEB address.

On the inside of the box, there is little: a large soft foam mould, which contains two USB cables (Type C to Type C, both cores and Type C to Standard-A). The size of both cables, not counting the connectors, ranges from approximately 76mm of Type C to Type C to 84mm of PC cable. As a curiosity, it is recommended that the connector that has the inscription in white letters, of the brand, be connected to the DAC/Amp. Finally, there is also a guarantee sheet and instructions with the specifications.

The presentation is sober, elegant and the accessories are the minimum required. Some silicone or plastic cover, would not have been bad, to avoid scratching the product and protect it from possible falls.

EarMen Sparrow 05_resize.jpgEarMen Sparrow 06_resize.jpg

Construction and Design

The Sparrow is a tiny, lightweight but sturdy aluminium tablet, whose structure has been manufactured using CNC technology. The size is 42x22x8mm. Both sides are protected by glass. All its edges are rounded. On the upper side you can read EarMen above and Sparrow below, in almost silvery letters. In the centre is the white logo of the brand. Below it there is an LED that lights up in different colours, to indicate its status. On the back side, at the top is the MQA logo, in the middle is the Hi-Res logo and below is the logo of the brand, model, CE certificate, where the headquarters is (Chicago) and where it has been manufactured (Europe). On the upper edge is the USB Type C female connection and on the lower edge, the two headphone sockets, the 3.5mm on the left and the 2.5mm on the right. Neither connector is gold-plated. Neither are the cable connectors. Their sleeves are made of black aluminium. Its cables are covered with a braided textile fabric.

The interior is protected from interference, thanks to its aluminium construction. Its PCB is made up of 4 gold-plated layers, with the intention of avoiding losses in sound quality. They also use Super LOW ESR tantalum capacitors, to reduce noise to a minimum. But the star product inside is the Sabre ES9281PRO chip, top of the range of the ESS series. This DAC is the first USB product to have integrated hardware to reproduce MQA, as well as reaching 124 dB in dynamic range and having a THD+N of -112 dB.

As a particularity, many components have been manufactured in companies close to its centre, except the components Made In China.

After all this information about the Sparrow, it is worth mentioning the fantastic and delicate finish of its chassis, its small size and its insignificant weight. It is hard to believe that something so small has so much power, in addition to the two headphone outputs. It is clear that in that body it has not been possible to include volume buttons, nor any other extra functionality, other than that of decoding and amplifying the sound in the best possible way.

EarMen Sparrow 07_resize.jpgEarMen Sparrow 08_resize.jpg

Connectivity

Earmen Sparrow is a DAC/Amp with USB connection. Connected to a personal computer or laptop, either Windows 10 or Apple macOS, it does not need drivers and becomes a powerful sound card. On the other hand, it is not compatible with Windows 7 or Windows 8. It also does not have ASIO drivers. It can also be connected to an Android or Apple iOS smartphone. Some Androids may require a USB OTG cable. In my case, with my Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 Pro, I have only needed the Type C to Type C USB cable, which comes as standard. Similarly, with the iPhone, the Lightning To USB Adapter cable may be necessary.

It can also be connected to a compatible DAP. Of the ones I have, it is compatible with the Tempotec V1-A and with the HiBy R3 Pro, this being the source with which I have obtained the best sound. Connected to my laptop with W10, using Foobar2000, I had to configure it as WASAPI (event) to work properly. With my Smartphone and the APP HiBy music it works deluxe, being able to choose the volume in the most appropriate way.

The conclusion in this section is that the ease of use has predominated, compared to a more optimal sound quality, connected to a PC. The absence of drivers allows for such ease of use and installation, but it is clear that the ASIO drivers provide a superior exclusivity of use than WASAPI. On the other hand, as a user (still) of W7 for its stability, ease of use and other personal issues as a code programmer... I have to criticize the impossibility of using the Sparrow on my main computer.

EarMen Sparrow 09_resize.jpgEarMen Sparrow 10_resize.jpg

Operativity

The Sparrow continues its philosophy of ease of use: it has no buttons, no battery and there is only a multicolour LED on the top. It lights up white when connected, green when playing PCM/DXD/DSD, magenta with MQA and stays red to indicate it is not connected.

According to my tests, the Sparrow has two modes of automatic gain. It seems that if it is connected to the source device with no load connected, it is put in high gain mode, being able to obtain the maximum possible voltage. If, on the contrary, you first connect a headphone and then connect it to the source, the Sparrow calibrates the connected impedance, setting itself in the corresponding mode. In any case, and due to the high power that Sparrow is capable of developing, I recommend that the volume of the source is low so as not to damage the connected headphones.

The absence of volume buttons can be an advantage or a disadvantage. Such absence benefits a unique volume control from the source. If you have a volume control, my advice is that you should turn the source to maximum (provided this does not cause a negative influence or decrease in quality) and control the volume through the device. If it had volume control, it would have been compatible with the DAP xDuoo X3II as well, since it detects it but sets its output via USB always to maximum volume, as if it were a fixed line output. In this case, the absence of volume controls on the Sparrow implies a disadvantage. In all other cases, for me, it's an advantage.

EarMen Sparrow 11_resize.jpgEarMen Sparrow 12_resize.jpg

Measures

It is a pleasure to be able to say that Sparrow's measurements are those specified, at least what can be seen with my humble system of measurements. For the 3.5mm output, you can see that at 32Ω, the Sparrow delivers that 1.4V RMS without any saturation in the signal, during all the frequency spectrum. With 100Ω connected, 1.8V RMS is reached from 150Ω at the specified 2V RMS.

Measures to 32Ω (Audio output 3.5mm):

In the first image, saturation at maximum volume is observed to 32Ω, but, after lowering the volume slightly, a clean signal can be observed at 1.4V RMS.




Measurements to 100Ω (Audio output 3.5mm):

Something similar to 100Ω. The first capture shows a slight saturation at maximum volume and after lowering it a little, it is observed that the measurements are precise at 1.8V.




Measurements at 300Ω (Audio output 3.5mm):

No problem to 300Ω.



Measurements at 620Ω (Audio output 3.5mm):

Also not to 620Ω.



Measurements without load (Audio output 3.5mm):



Measures to 32Ω (Balanced Output 2.5mm):

The same applies to the 2.5mm balanced output. In the specifications, it says that 2V RMS is delivered to 32Ω and so it can be seen. The first picture shows saturation at maximum volume and after adjusting it, you can see a clean signal at 2V RMS.




Measures to 100Ω (Balanced Output 2.5mm):

The same applies to 100Ω. With the maximum volume, it is saturated and after lowering it, it reaches those 3.3V specified.




Measures to 300Ω (Balanced Output 2.5mm):

No problem to 300Ω to assume the 4V RMS.



Measures to 620Ω (Balanced Output 2.5mm):

4V RMS also to 620Ω.



Measurements without load (balanced output 2.5mm):

Of course, the measurements without load are the same.



The frequency response is flat, with a very slight drop at both ends.



Comparative frequency responses with other devices, whether dynamic drivers or pure BA drivers, per SE or per balanced output, show no alteration in their frequency response.



Note: during the measuring process I have brought the Sparrow to its maximum power during all the time I have been testing. I have been able to observe that the device has heated up in a bearable way, without its temperature being high, just warm and never dangerous.

Sound

Earmen Sparrow demonstrates excellence in sound by its balanced output, which unfairly dwarfs the quality of the 3.5mm output. The sound from the SE output seems excellent to me, but from the balanced output it is superior. In addition, the Sparrow scales in quality, the better the source. The difference, in this respect, is clearly audible, between the Tempotec V1-A and the HiBy R3 Pro. The bad thing is that I can't count on better sources to check how far the quality of this tiny DAC/Amp can go. Even so, I can't complain about the sound offered either. With my Smartphone the sound is at the doorstep of the one obtained with the HiBy R3 Pro, which is a great achievement. Those who want to use their mobile device as a source can enjoy the enormous sound quality. Having tried all these options, including the connection to my Windows 10 laptop, I prefer to make the sound considerations with the HiBy R3 Pro.

As a personal advice, I prefer the sound that is achieved by connecting the headphones to the Sparrow first and then to the source. In this way, the gain adjusts to the connected impedance, achieving a better volume range, a more adequate, linear and somewhat less bright sound, such as warmer and more natural volume influences? It is possible, but I find that the Sparrow fits very well with IEMS, by means of this method.

The sound profile of the Sparrow is almost neutral, although I think I find a slight warmth in its overall staging, even though SABRE is behind it all. And I find that the combination of this warmth and the analytical character of this DAC, gives it a different personality, which gives it a plus in its appeal. Above all, the sound is distinguished by its superior cleanliness, spaciousness, airiness, vast width and very good definition. This mix of warmth and analytical character is emphasised in the 3.5mm output, while the balanced output, on the other hand, has a more analytical profile offering the highest resolution and definition, as well as a more ethereal, volatile and separate sound. The result is a sound that sticks to me like sand in Vaseline. A quick switch between the 3.5mm output of the Sparrow + HiBy R3 Pro vs HiBy R3 Pro by SE, makes me realise how good this little thing is. In these intangible terms of definition, resolution, separation and spatiality, the Earmen Sparrow takes the R3 Pro to a much higher level. What a great match!

The lower SE zone is slightly warm, very well defined, compact and tight, quite rich and with an ideal texture, a mixture of descriptive roughness and definition in its curves. The layers are remarkably explicit and the evolution of the bass can be followed from its beginning to its final decay, in great detail and separately. The Sparrow's spatiality and separation allows it to isolate the bass, independently of the headphones connected, and to follow it in its complete path.

The balanced output increases the level of spatiality, recreating a greater sense of depth and even gaining in speed of generation. Hits are executed with greater precision, being even more compact and contained, achieving a mix of viscerality and surprising finesse, improving the level of enjoyment with respect to the SE output. The lamination of the different bass layers is represented in a way that can be seen individually, in a staggered and sequential way, in a kind of slow motion, surpassing the similar sensation produced by SE, adding even more nuances and details, both in its texture and in its body.

The mid-range by SE still shows the initial character: slight warmth, moderately analytical sound, high clarity and cleanliness of sound. The voices are drawn very precisely and very sharply, with ample detail and nuances throughout. The resolution is very high, but despite all this cleanliness, the scene is perceived as wider than three-dimensional. The tonality is vivid, without any hint of darkness. The sound is quite dynamic, with body, but open and clear. The great sensation of separation allows to give a space for each instrument, voices and other details, without sounding congested at any moment.

When you switch to the balanced output, the definition increases, achieving a more analytical and precise sound. It is also more powerful and has more punch. The mids have a more concise body, are more impressive, with a closer presence and in the foreground, making the details splash with immediacy and enhanced realism. It seemed that it was difficult to improve the means offered by SE, but fortunately this is the case. The voices sound more spatial, their recreation has a more three-dimensional body and greater height. Their edges are polished and their definition reaches a higher level. The increase in analytical capacity is clearly felt. But the sound is not simply surgical or flat, it is definitely more complete, complex and large, occupying a larger space in which more edges, borders, profiles, roughness, texture and, above all, air can be accommodated.

The treble at the SE output is quite controlled, despite being explicit and well-defined, but it lacks edges with higher resolution and a little more air. The control I'm talking about prevents the crunching from being complete and the feeling that they could go a little further but they don't, staying a little flatter and producing less space.

This feeling disappears when connected to the balanced output, as if removing a delicate and invisible filter. Now, the treble appears in its ultra-clear version, with ideal separation and no limit to its projection. It is as if the notes have been sharpened, separated and cleaned with a triple layer of shiny wax. The result is a bright, luxurious, airy sound with a very dark background and absolute silence in it. But the best part of it is still its control: having tried the most critical headphones in this respect, there is no hint of harshness in the recreation of the treble, but the Sparrow manages to get the best out of each one, without losing energy, nor overcoming the barrier of natural and delicate fidelity.

After these considerations, it is almost not worth talking about scene and separation, because I have already commented that both parameters are outstanding by SE, superior by balanced output. But, especially, I want to emphasize the sensation that is produced in the lower area, when the balanced output is used: the first sensation that can be observed is that the bass is reproduced with greater depth. But, in addition, this deep zone seems to widen and become more spherical, expanding as if it were a funnel. The distance, separation and lamination of the different bass layers can be noticed. In the mid zone, the representation of the voices acquires a realism that manages to recreate them with a more complete body, as well as a closer, almost tangible, height and presence. In the high zone, the increase in the amount of air influences the perceived separation and better definition of the treble, its more optimal and realistic brilliance and its better projection.

EarMen Sparrow 13_resize.jpgEarMen Sparrow 14_resize.jpg

Comparisons

Qudelix 5K


It may seem a bit of an unfavourable comparison, considering that the 5K is worth half as much, but performance is really very high and that is why I have such a fondness and predilection for it, also because of its enormous versatility. In that aspect, the Sparrow cannot compete with the Qudelix (Bluetooth connection, volume controls, simultaneous sources, exclusive control APP...). Even in power both devices measure very similar, giving, in my measurements, slightly higher values in the 5K, when using impedances lower than 100Ω.

But in sound the price difference, this time, justifies the Sparrow. I could start at the end, stating that the balanced output of the 5K is close to the level of the Sparrow's SE output, but still with reservations. Qudelix could present the end of the road for most average listeners. But Sparrow brings a higher level, both in definition, resolution, scene, amount of air, space and silence. The differences between the two arise in these parameters, as the sound profile is similar, it should be remembered that both have Sabre DACs. But the performance in the Sparrow, is simply better. A quick change between balanced outputs with the same headphones and the same source (HiBy R3 Pro), allows to verify that the cleanliness of the sound is greater in the Sparrow. Also its spatiality and depth, something that can be seen in how the lower zone is able to expand in a way that is unattainable for 5K. In that sense, the Sparrow demonstrates its power to recreate a very wide and enormously airy scene, with a lot of depth and that width that is demonstrated, even in the distance and the remoteness. And also the height plays a fundamental role in this aspect. Sparrow's enveloping feeling makes the voices appear closer, wider, present, complete and complex, with greater resolution. In the same way, the bass takes advantage of the Sparrow's depth and level of resolution, to be recreated with a power, restraint, compactness and texture that the Qudelix fails to draw. In the upper zone, the amount of air provides the Sparrow with an ideal space for the reproduction of its precise, sharp, delicate, energetic, high and transparent highs. In the 5K there is less air and the sound is more compact and cohesive. This means that the treble has that entrapment that prevents it from expanding completely, something similar to what happens with the Sparrow because of its SE output.

Finally, in defense of my dear Qudelix 5K, I want to stress again that the better the source, the better the Sparrow scales, which is not the case with the 5K. However, when both are used as DACs connected to the PC, the sound quality is quite equal, being slightly superior the Sparrow. Not bad for the price of both devices.

EarMen Sparrow 15_resize.jpg

Conclusion

With the Earmen Sparrow I have managed to hear the sound I have been looking for many times, the one that has made my critical sense fade away and I only pay attention to the music. And for this alone the Sparrow already costs every penny of its price. On the other hand this DAC/Amp is insultingly tiny, defying all logic in terms of power and sound quality. So much so, that if I lose it, I'm disgusted...

Earmen has created a device that is totally oriented towards the portable Hi-End: practical, simple, tremendously effective and, above all, spectacular in sound. A product that could perfectly be the paradigm of what I try to look for in my humble blog: absolute quality in sound, at the best price. At first sight, its value seems high. But once it has been fully tested, one only has to surrender to the evidence and even acknowledge that the sound is above its price. Bravo Earmen! Thank you very much for creating devices like this!

EarMen Sparrow 16_resize.jpg

Earphones and Sources Used During Analysis

  • HiBy R3 Pro
  • Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 Pro
  • Tempotec Variations V1-A
  • OurArt QJ21
  • Ikko OH10
  • NF AUDIO NM2
  • NF AUDIO NM2+
  • BGVP ArtMagic VG4
  • ISN H40
  • NS Audio NS5 MKII Extra Bass
  • Tin HiFi T4
  • Tin HiFi T2 Plus
  • Takstar Pro 80
  • SoundMagic HP150

EarMen Sparrow 17_resize.jpg

Ratings

  • Construction and Design: 95
  • Packaging and Accessories: 70
  • Connectivity: 75
  • Sound: 95
  • Quality/Price: 92

Purchase Link

You can read the full review in Spanish here
Last edited:
Superpong
Superpong
Thank you for very informative review. When using with ios devices (i.e. iPhone) or andriod phones, the Sparrow draws power from the device it connects to. Am I right? How heavy or how much is the power consumption?

Also may I ask how noisy or hiss when using with phone and sensitive IEM?
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)
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


...

My video review:
Last edited:
T
toradek
OK. I think I have found the explanation on another forum where an ifi Audio employee wrote THIS. To summarize this is related to the fact that some smartphone brands (such as my Samsung Galaxy S8) do not send a bitperfect stream via USB but always up-sample it. On such phones a solution is to use UAPP which bypasses that.
Kal El
Kal El
Yes, I had ifi hip dac and I was told the same thing from support.
D
dbhaisota
if we dont talk aount MQA is Sparrow dounds better than E1DA Gen 3 dac/amp?
Top