EarMen Sparrow - Reviews
EarMen Sparrow: Seasonal changes, but the sound remains.
Pros: Superb sound
Superb build
Portability
Cross-platform usage
Adds clarity to pretty much all devices attached
Cons: Large packaging
Slippery little bugger
No dedicated volume itself?
Too bright for some, possibly
Much competition
EarMen Sparrow ($199): Seasonal changes, but the sound remains.

Sparrow



Introit: Following on the heels of the TR-Amp, the Sparrow is oriented towards Smartphone use, and includes a 2.5bal headphone jack. “Dongles” such as these are becoming more in vogue, but one would be remiss if you did not mention the history here. Giving yet another option that is cost effective while allowing the user to bring their balance headphones along and hook into their smartphone, this market gets ever crowded. Knowing the quality offering in the TR-Amp (one of my favorite portable amps), Miroslav offered the Sparrow. I humbly accepted and afford him gracious thanks for the continued support.

It takes something “different” to separate one of these dongles from another and here the Sparrow is a very fine DAC/Pre-amp/Headphone amp. Using an excellent Sabre DAC, the Sparrow comes with MQA capabilities. You can even run two sets of headphones from the unit at once, which affords you the ability to share your music.

One would also be remiss in not mentioning those that came before such as the Audiodirect Beam. My first foray into the portable dongle/DAC it was good. Since then many have come along including the Sparrow, and the Beam has also been updated as well. The volume control was interesting, especially on a smartphone, but it worked. Todays “dongles” are much more refined, showing those that have a smartphone what can be done at the affordable price. Options are good...

The Sparrow is mine to keep but may be asked back for at any time. Until then, the unit is mine to use and keep, but not resell. That’s uncool.



Specs:

InputUSB C Female
Output3.5 mm
2.5 mm Balanced
Power2.5 mm Balanced3.5 mm
2.0 Vrms into 32 Ohm1.4 Vrms into 32 Ohm
4.0 Vrms into 600 Ohm2.0 Vrms into 600 Ohm
Audio formats
DSD64 / 128 DoP
DXD384/352.5 kHz
PCMUp to 384 kHz
MQA RenderingUp to 384 kHz

Dimension LxHxW (mm)42 x 8 x 22


Gear Used/Compared:

Noble Sultan
Dunu SA-6
Noble Savant II

MBP
iPhone XS Max

Earmen TR-Amp
iFi Zen CAN
iFi Hip-DAC


Songlist:

Joey Alexander-Warna album and others
Mark Knopfler-Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes
Santana w/ Mana- Corazon Espinado
twenty one pilots album, Trench
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Big Head Todd & The Monsters-Beautiful World
Mark Knopfler-Down The Road Wherever
Elton John-yep, still good, still cool
Tidal MQA




Unboxing:

Coming in a fairly plain black box, EarMen continue their subdued ways of presenting the product. Nothing wrong with that. One only need look at Burson and how their products are presented to appreciate starkness in presentation.

Opening the flat box yields a gray semi-hard (semi-soft?) foam insert, which cradle the Sparrow and two provided cables nicely. Also included are spec and warranty cards. Nothing fancy, nothing extraneous needed.


Build/Finish/Functionality:

Moving drastically away from the TR-Amp’s industrial look, the Sparrow presents itself as a black monolith, not unlike the one found in a 2001, A Space Odyssey. There is as much hype surrounding it as there was the peculiar monolith. But that hype is due to the accolades and accords given the other EarMen (and Auris) products. Having heard the Euterpe (and enjoyed it immensely), I value the TR-Amp as my go to portable amp due to its ability to work through a USB-C while being charged. A nicety when it comes to portables.

Since the Sparrow is driven by the source in which it hooks, you need not worry. Coming with both a 3.5se and 2.5bal headphone jack, you can utilize the plethora of headphone choices we seem to have. Currently enjoying the crispness of the Noble Sultan through my MBP and listening to Jesse Cook, I enjoy the trio. Vibrant would be an apt description. Back to finish, the Sparrow is clean with its curvaceous lines and seemingly completely smooth, including the markings on the back and lighted logo on the front, which glows in differing colors depending upon the source frequency. Small and a bit slippery, but oh so portable. Simple plug and play at its best.

A note about connectivity, though. Upon first getting the Sparrow, I had no problem hooking it directly to my MBP with the provided cable (USB-C to USB-C). After about two weeks, that connection stopped, and I had to utilize the USB-A to USB-C cable and a dongle. I did note a slight drop in quality, and attribute this to the dongle. Why you ask? Well, when using the excellent DDHiFi “upgraded” TC05, the sound was excellent. I will add that I used the DDHiFi TC28i for my iPhone XS Max without issue as well. My suspected problem is that if I do not restart my MBP after a long time, the audio portion gets a bit finicky, sometimes when an update of something is needed. This has happened across a few devices, and I really hate restarting my MBP, so that should tell you that the issue is most likely due to the MBP. I have multiple tabs and about 20 reviews in queue open, so this is quite the hassle. That said, every single time I have “restarted” the MBP, audio function (including all cables with the Sparrow) work flawlessly.


To sum: The Sparrow worked flawlessly across multiple platforms, as I expected.


Insides:

The ESS 9281 Pro Sabre chip runs clean and clear, with a good vibrant tonality to it. I have come to appreciate the Sabre chipsets as being on the more energetic side of life. With the ability to run MQA through Tidal, which is becoming the norm, you still get very good value out of the diversity of the chipset. Powering up to 32/384 PCM and DSD128 in addition to the MQA, the Sparrow provides all the necessities for a small portable dongle. Some may balk at the price, but when you consider the other options at this price are not portable, there is a sense that not only is the market moving higher, but the demand appreciates this upscale movement. Spending this could be considered not only a good first step, but to many, it may be all they need as Smartphone sources get better and better, closing that gap to quality mid-fi DAP’s. Whether the industry likes it or not, Smartphone sound is getting better (some erroneously argue it has surpassed mid-fi DAP’s), so the smartly modify to meet the demand. This can also afford those same manufacturers to move to an even higher scale with their sources. Look at the plethora of $2k DAP’s currently sprinkled across the market and you understand. So in that perspective, what one is willing to pay for the increase seems to be moving higher and can thus be justified.

Back on task, the 2.5bal and 3.5se work flawlessly as mentioned by the Sultan, which runs the “normal” Noble cable (really friggin nice, it is) and my BQEYZ Spring 2 2.5bal cable works as well. In fact, it is advertised that both jacks and be utilized simultaneously. I have tried it, and there is no perceivable loss of sound/volume to me.



Sound:

Single-end:

With items such as this, I have the hardest time. DAP’s can be quite easy in comparison due to the various architectural presences and innards, but here the differences can be enough to not give me confidence. Thankfully, the difference between the TR-Amp and Sparrow are immediately noticeable. The TR-Amp runs on the warmer side of life. The Sparrow adds that springlike vibrancy to your sound. There is not hiding that the mids to me are elevated to the point of a crisp, cleanliness that is of very good quality. There is a good vibrant detail to the Sparrow, which to me results in good texture. By this I mean that I can discern the finer points of layering, and when a bass-heavy song such as Jesse Cook’s Azul comes on, I can discern a pretty decent reach down low through the Sultan, even if the sound is detailed. Sometimes that is not the case, as the bass texture can overrun a good mid of guitar work. Not so here, and I am pleasantly satisfied with the result.

Treble is neither biting nor sibilant. A certain amount of restrained sparkle comes through as a result. I appreciate the tenacity of the treble not to become biting nor overly sparkly. Tamed would even be too strong a word, but a certain subdued-ness is present, which I appreciate. I am not dissatisfied with the se sound and appreciate that many people will still have only 3.5se headphones, and they shant worry about any perceived lack of sound quality.


Balanced:

Switching to the Dunu SA-6 for the balanced portion, you immediately notice the difference. While the vibrancy of se is still there, you get more. Kind of like going to 11 on that proverbial Spinal Tap amp. Bass reaches lower (yes, I know two different IEM’s...), with more punch and detail. Almost like the clarity level has gone up as well with the added punch.

Dynamically, through the song Gravity you get the staccato of a vibrant punctual sound. Succinct to a point, the Sparrow on balanced is a quick little critter in its transitions. There is no hesitancy, but it never came across as urgent. Always flowing with a syncopation that belied that urgency, with an attitude of subtle laidback nature to it. Fall At Your Feet promotes this flowing, syncopated nature very well. The vocals come across with that sense if vibrant, clear & concise nature providing a path to a certain serenity. Maybe that is too gushing, but the difference makes you not want to go back to 3.5se again. Not that the 3.5se is dull or lifeless, but the difference is a wonderful fruition in the Sparrow, and to me certainly justifies having both, and the increased price.

I do note a certain push up top, which can become a bit too much when the volume rises, but that is just me. That clarity pushes the level of which I can tolerate, not a discrepancy of song or combination source/Sparrow. No, it is down to my tolerances. I suffer in pleasure. @Wiljen likens the difference to between driving a McLaren and a Mustang. The Mustang seems almost pedestrian after the McLaren. That is until you realize that even a V6 Mustang is capable of a low to mid-6 second 0-60mph time...so take that as you may. Pretty darn quick versus OMG!-quick.



Comparisons:

I could compare to an older dongle I received, in fact it is purported to be the first, the original Beam, but that would not be really fair. Priced at the then price of $99, I touted the Beam as possibly the only dongle you would ever need. As mentioned above though, times have changed, and the market has moved upscale as technology increased as well. The Beam was good for its time. The Sparrow is better, as expected.


Earmen Sparrow ($199) v Earmen TR-Amp ($249):

Pretty much the next level up, the TR-Amp can be used as a pre-amp out as well. Running only single-ended headphones through either the 6.35 or 3.5, there is a distinct disadvantage here, leaning towards the Sparrow. But, the TR-Amp is so good, you do not miss it one bit. At the time I was coming off a string of balanced IEM’s and devices, so the TR-Amp was held with a bit of consternation. That is until I heard it. To say that it could easily sub into a desktop set-up in an executive’s office would be laughable, were it not true. Those other execs who laugh at the site, pardon themselves after hearing the TR-Amp so that they may purchase one for their office, and slyly slide their lesser systems off the shelf behind their desk until their very own TR-Amp arrives. It is good. It is powerful. And it is and excellent option at the next level. My current go-to portable amp, it is.

But here is where that misses the point. The Sparrow is the dongle that can make you appreciate the TR-Amp for what it does on the home front, while the Sparrow would be the one that gets used on the airplane between London and Delhi on those long flights. So small, you only need disconnect and put in the laptop bag to appreciate its portability. As you land, you switch to your Smartphone, not missing a beat, and with a sound that can nearly rival the TR-Amp quality-wise if not power-wise.


Earmen Sparrow ($199) v iFi Zen CAN ($149):

Coming in for a long-term review over the last week, the iFi arrives on the heels of the pretty darn good Hip-DAC, which is another direct competitor to both the Sparrow and TR-Amp. Running $50 cheaper, the Zen comes with more features, including the time and tested bass-boost and 3D sound enhancement. I pull no punches. I am an iFi fan and own much gear of theirs from my Black Label/iDAC2/Tubes2 stack to the fantastic iDSD Pro. So, I like ifi...a lot. That said, the Hip-DAC did not wow me like others, nor on the same level as my owned iFi gear.

Through initial listening, the Zen CAN is changing that. From the off, I prefer it to the Hip-DAC, and would easily choose the former over the latter. But here if we look strictly at portability and playability, the Sparrow is a plug-n-play forget. You get what you get. And it is good. The Zen provides more functionality, which is quickly becoming a hallmark for iFi products. Great readers of the current AND upcoming markets, iFi never fails to impress; and with the Zen CAN so far, they have another hit. If you want a dedicated desktop DAC/amp, the Zen CAN is a worthy choice, with plenty of power. If you value that portability and ease of use between your desktop/laptop/Smartphone, then the Sparrow is the easy choice, even for the extra green.

Earmen Sparrow ($199) v iFi Hip-DAC ($149):

I mentioned in my review, how I was not that enamored with the Hip-DAC. That is not a knock on the device itself, but more of what other iFi products I have in my stable. I would gladly take the xDSD or xCAN over the Hip-DAC, even with the portability issues. And to be frank, the size difference is not that much. For what it is though, the Hip-DAC works and works well, plus you add in the near-trademark iFi 3D and xBass and it is one to consider.

But, if you want to simply add purity to your sound, and have an ultra-portable device, the Sparrow is a no brainer here as well. I like the sound presentation more as well, which is weird coming from someone who prefers the darker sounds of products I have on hand. Both a good. Both are worth a look, but it is the Sparrow that accompanies me to school everyday and on trips.

Finale:

As the market moves ever higher in function and quality, the accompanying price does so as well. Knowing this, one still may be loathe to fork over two Ben’s for such a small artifact as the Sparrow. But to think that way would be antithesis of not only the process involved but the very reason such a device exists: so, you can have your music quickly and across many platforms. Plug the unit into your laptop at work for the day. Pull it, and plug it into your DAP, or easier yet your Smartphone for the commute home. The Sparrow fits into your pocket, or easily attaches to your Smartphone via Velcro or hangs loose if you prefer not to dim the unit up.

Simplicity now comes with a higher cost, but that cost can now be justified across multi-platforms with the accompanying USB-C cable. Top that off with excellent sound, especially with the 2.5bal jack and you have what is to me a pretty much no brainer. There is a reason the Sparrow is named such...for eating Dragonfly’s and this one certainly does in my mind.

I again thank Miroslav and EarMen for the unit and support, it is very much appreciated. I now carry the Sparrow with me every day to school, and use it when I can, between my queue. A worthy addition to my rotation and regular set up.

B9Scrambler
B9Scrambler
Vunderbar!!
ngoshawk
ngoshawk
Much obliged, sir. :)
EarMen Sparrow: Staying Power
Pros: Audio performance - Clean design and better build than it looks - Very clean sound from both balanced and single ended outputs - File support - Plenty of power for more demanding gear
Cons: No plastic insulating layer between the aluminum frame and glass panels (potential durability concern re. drops) - Unnecessarily large packaging
Greetings!

Today we're checking out the Sparrow from EarMen, a new USB dongle-DAC.

EarMen clearly has a sense of humour, and it shows in the clever naming of their products. With models like the Donald Dac and TR-Amp in their lineup drawing a chuckle, it is no surprise that the Sparrow is a jab at a popular series of DragonFly DACs from AudioQuest. Sparrows are known to snack on the occasional dragonfly which for most avian species is notoriously wily and difficult to catch thanks to their speed and uncanny agility. The attention of consumers is much the same when there are piles of similar products on the market.

The Sparrow has been with me for five months now and has powered everything from budget friendly earphones like the KZ EDX and Moondrop SSR to full-sized planar and closed back headphones like the HiFiMAN Deva and Campfire Audio Cascade. Did it do a good job of it? Let's find out.

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Packaging and Accessories The Sparrow arrives in a surprisingly large, flat box with a mostly smooth, matte black texture. On the front is the usual branding and model info, along with a glossy, embossed image of the Sparrow set between wire frame images of the front and rear panels. What's neat about these images is they are 1:1 and accurately reflect the Sparrow's compact dimension. Flipping to the rear are some basic specifications along with logos for PCM, Hi-Res Audio, DXD, DSD, and MQA.

Cutting the QA seals and lifting the slender top flap reveals a sheet of soft foam taking up the entirely of the interior. Set within shaped inserts are the Sparrow and two cables; USB Type A to C, and USB Type C to C. Also inside is a warranty card and a much more in depth specifications sheet.

Overall a very simple but effective unboxing experience. I appreciate that EarMen included a Type C to C cable in the box, as that has been a main criticism of mine as of late for a couple other products that fill a similar niche, such as the Radsone Earstudio HUD100 and EarMen's own TR-Amp, although the latter is notably less portable than the Sparrow or HUD100.

Build Quality Initial images of the Sparrow had me thinking it would be a compact, plastic affair, but wow was I ever surprised once it showed up. A lot like the FiiO BTR3K, the Sparrow takes cues from modern smartphone design with front and rear glass panels and a painted black aluminum surround. It feels amazing in the hand for such a small device, with a weight and density I would attribute to something larger and more visually substantial.

On top top end of the device is a USB type-C input, while the opposite end housing the standard 3.5mm output, along with a balanced 2.5mm output. The type-C and 3.5mm ports are neatly integrated, while the 2.5mm port is flattened along the top and bottom, shaving off some of the plastic surround. It doesn't effect anything and I haven't experienced any issues with durability, it just looks odd given they didn't do the same thing with the larger 3.5mm port.

The front glass panel houses the EarMen logo, brand name, and model information. The brand and model names are decked in a reflective silver that looks better in person than in pics, while the logo is a soft white. Flipping to the rear panel you find the MQA logo, model and brand names, again in that sexy reflective silver. A small Hi-Res Audio logo sits dead centre. Further adding to the premium feel of the Sparrow is that all of this branding/writing is under the glass panels, ensuring they won't wear off over time.

A neat touch that went unnoticed until the device had powered up was the EarMen logo doubling as an LED. It indicates a number of things; white means the device is connected, with red indicating the opposite. Green says you're using PCM, DXD, or DSD audio formats, while Magenta indicates MQA is in use. The colour indicators are more limited than some of the competition, such as the aforementioned BTR3K and Earstudio HUD100, both of which indicate 5 or more formats with various colours. I never refer to this feature, but if you're one who does, you might be underwhelmed by the lack of precision in format indication.

Overall, the Sparrow looks classy and feels excellent in the hand. The build quality is fantastic, but I would like to see either EarMen or a third part like DDHiFi develop a case for it because glass is glass, and glass breaks when dropped. The Sparrow lacks a plastic insulating layer between the aluminum frame and glass panels. If it somehow finds its way from your pocket to the ground the shock will transmit straight through to the glass, increasing the likelihood of cracks or chipping. It's such a good looking device, I would hate to see that happen to anyone.

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Sound Quality and Device Pairing The Sparrow utilizes the Sabre ES9281Pro, a flagship in their ESS lineup of DACs. As I explained in my TR-Amp review, I’m casual scum when it comes to explaining and/or understanding the tech behind DACs and amps. As such, EarMen can take over in describing why the above matters. This next bit has been borrowed from the Sparrow’s product page.

Sparrow is powered by ES9281PRO, the flagship of the ESS line, which can provide best-in-class audio performance at 124 dB DNR and -112 Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise (THD+N). The ES9281PRO is the first USB product that offers an integrated hardware MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) renderer that makes MQA playback easy and cost-efficient. The encoding process folds extra information into the signal that can be recovered later. The ES9281PRO automatically detects the MQA stream and engage the rendering. The entire process requires no additional design work.”

That out of the way, what I've found is the Sparrow follows the experience I had with the TR-Amp. Through both the 3.5mm single-ended output and 2.5mm balanced output, the sound of the Sparrow is extremely clean. The 2019 Campfire Audio Solaris and original Polaris are some of the pickiest products I've come across, revealing noise from the vast majority of sources I've tested. Even through balanced out on the Sparrow, the background is dead silent and hiss free. Impressively, the Sparrow bests the Radsone Earstudio HUD100. While the HUD100 is dead silent through its standard output, the high output option introduces a hint of background hiss on sensitive earphones like the aforementioned Campfire Audio gear. Compared to another similarly sized DAC/Amp, the Periodic Audio Nickel, there is no comparison. The Sparrow is significantly cleaner sounding, most especially with sensitive gear that is basically unusable with the Nickel.

Also impressive is the Sparrows ability to drive headphones of various requirements. We already know it handles extremely sensitive stuff with ease, but what about something a bit more challenging? Well, HiFiMAN's affordable orthodynamics, the Sundara and DEVA, are easily brought up to volume with plenty of headroom and no distortion. Same with the notably more demanding Alara from Brainwavz. When listening to the demanding Astrotec Phoenix, the Sparrow's basic 3.5mm output produces more volume than the Radsone HUD100 and its high output port under the same settings. When comparing the Periodic Audio Nickel to the Sparrow, I was expecting the Nickel to be the better of thw two in terms of raw volume output but that's simply not the case. What about the ridiculous HiFiMAN Susvara, a device that makes full-size desktop amps weep? Like the HUD100 and to a lesser extent, the Nickel, the Sparrow can run it though it understandably isn't ideal. The sound produced lacks the nuanced dynamics and soundstage the Susvara is capable off. I suspect the two would work better together if I had an appropriate cable to use the Susvara through the more powerful balanced out. Still, the Sparrow isn't being knocked for this. Expecting such a small DAC intended for use with portable devices to run a full-sized flagship planar is absurd and completely unreasonable. What is impressive is that the Sparrow will do it as well as it does, while still running extremely sensitive products with a perfectly clean background.

When it comes to sound quality the Sparrow continues to follow in the footsteps of the TR-Amp with a coloured signature that adds warmth and low end to the presentation. That said, it's not an overbearing amount of heat or bass leaving it fine to just pair with products that already have these qualities in aplomb, such as the new Vega 2020 from Campfire Audio. Adding to those qualities does not leave it lacking in upper end air or emphasis either, meaning it still pairs well with bright earphones like the ADV GT3. For a portable device this tune is ideal since bass is the first thing to lose impact when outside of the home in a noisy environment, where ever that may be for those of us in Covid-current environments. Extension deep into sub-bass regions or well into the brilliance region is excellent with no roll off that I can detect. The Astrotec Phoenix provides the deep, physical rumble I expect, while the soaring highs of EarNiNE's EN2J are there in full force. Notes are presentation pretty much the same as I felt with the TR-Amp. Everything is quick and snappy and as a result I never found anything to be held back in those regards when paired with the Sparrow. Where I found the TR-Amp to slightly compress the sound stage, no such flaw can be heard in the Sparrow. The Campfire Audio Andromeda sounds just as open and spacious here as it does through my TEAC HA-501 desktop amp (but without the background hiss) and other products like the ZiShan DSD or FiiO BTR3K. It also does a good job of displaying the imaging, instrument separation, and layering qualities already inherent to anything you plug into it. The Brainwavz B400 can still envelope me in a busy track without congestion, just as the original Campfire Audio Polaris' wall-of-sound is retained. Flaws already inherent to the staging qualities of your headphone or earphone will still be present, but nothing new will be added

When listening to it next to some competition, the Sparrow comes out on top. I wasn't expecting to find another portable DAC I liked as much, or more, than Radsone's HUD100 this year, but the Sparrow comes out on top in terms of sound quality. While they are both tuned very similarly, particularly when you start using the tuning switch on the HUD100, the Sparrow has better micro detail and a more dynamic feel to it thanks to more apparent depth and height to it's extremes. This along with a more rapid feel to notes when they hit and decay, it just sounds like a more lively, crisp version of the sound offered up by the HUD100. Pitting it against the Periodic Audio Nickel, a device that pretty much stays glued to my Shanling M0, shows just how hard hitting the 199 USD Sparrow is. At 299 USD, the Nickel is completely shamed when it comes to build quality, but more importantly, can't really hold up to the Sparrow when it comes to sound. In the Nickel's favour it does present itself with a more balanced, less warm signature. It also provides a hint more space and seems to image slightly better. These positives come at the expense of the smooth, natural sound provided by the Sparrow. The Nickel adds a harsh, almost metallic edge to some products and as a result it lacks the pairing versatility of EarMen's smaller, more feature rich and affordable option. My M0 might have a new best friend...

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Final Thoughts The last five months with the Sparrow have been an absolute joy. The small size and outstanding build quality as well as the powerful output via both single-ended and balanced outputs have made it a near perfect companion to use at all times. Whether I'm at work on my laptop or desktop, typing up a review or answering emails from a client, lying back in my recliner for some rare casual listening time, out for an evening walk, or analyzing a product for my next review, the Sparrow has integrated itself seamlessly into whatever task I need it for. This little device is outstanding, and well worth the attention of anyone in the market for a compact type-C DAC/Amp/Pre-Amp.

Thanks for reading!

- B9

Disclaimer A huge thanks to Miroslav for reaching out to see if I'd be interested in reviewing the Sparrow and for arranging a sample for the purposes of this review. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on five months of regular use. They do not represent EarMen or any other entity. Please note that the first sample provided was dead on arrival and was replaced by EarMen. Hopefully they were able to determine why as it was returned for examination. At the time of writing the Sparrow was retailing for 199.00 USD. You can check it out here: https://earmen-shop.com/products/sparrow

Specifications

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zolom
zolom
Thanks.
ngoshawk
ngoshawk
Excellent review, as always!
EarMen Sparrow DAC

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Website –
EarMen

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Specifications

InputUSB C Female
Output3.5 mm
2.5 mm Balanced
Power2.5 mm Balanced3.5 mm
2.0 Vrms into 32 Ohm1.4 Vrms into 32 Ohm
4.0 Vrms into 600 Ohm2.0 Vrms into 600 Ohm
Dimensions (L x W x H) 42 x 8 x 22 mm
Audio formats
DSD64 / 128 DoP
DXD384/352.5 kHz
PCMUp to 384 kHz
MQA RenderingUp to 384 kHz

Price: U$ 199 / € 219.

Official Sparrow page

The Sparrow unit was kindly provided by EarMen company for the review.

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The Sparrow device arrives in a simple and compact black cardboard box. The unit inside is protected by soft foam material as well as the two USB cables, one for Type-C connections and the other for Type-A. The cable quality seems good enough and the Type-C plugs connect strongly on the Sparrow side. A iOS lightning cable and a small case would have made it a perfect package.

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Design

The EarMen Sparrow is one of the smallest USB audio devices. The design is super minimalistic, and its tiny size is about the same as a compact USB flash drive. Build quality is still really good with a whole CNC aluminum main chassis in a smooth matte black finish and 2.5D glass panels on both sides. Not sure if there is a technical reason for the use of glass panels for this type of device, because as much as it gives a nicer look, it can also require a little more care than a full metal structure. A simple case would have been good to be included, especially if meant for daily portable use.

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The layout is pretty simple. On one side is the USB Type-C connection for digital input and on the other side the two audio analog outputs, single 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm. The upper panel has the company logo printed on it and features a small LED light that indicates the status and files audio quality with different colors – green for PCM, DXD and DSD, and magenta for MQA quality; white if the device is just connected and red if it is not. The Sparrow has no dedicated volume controls and it is limited to the connected source volume, which can be considered its main disadvantage for its price as a small Amp/DAC.

For the Inner hardware components the Sparrow features a very competitive Sabre ESS ES9281 Pro DAC chip. It supports up to 32bit/384kHz for the higher formats: PCM, DoP, DSD64, DSD128 and MQA, and 24-bit/192kHz for FLAC files. Output voltage can reach up to 4 Vrms from the 2.5mm balanced side, at 600 Ohm, and 2 Vrms at 32 Ohm; 3.5mm reaches 2 Vrms and 1.4 Vrms, respectively.

Worth noting that the Sparrow DAC drains the source battery faster than several audio DACs with this kind of design.

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Sound Quality

First of all, there are noticeable differences in sound quality and presentation between the single and balanced outputs. With most of the gears used, from IEMs to large over-ear headphones, the sound balanced output was clearly better, with a certain few exceptions where the single output proved a very positive synergy.

The Sparrow DAC may be a super small and minimalistic device, but it packs a high amount of driving power that none of other small DACs or compact DAPs are capable of. It can get really loud at very low volumes, especially when using sensitive earphones (i.e. IEMs) or easy to drive headphones. With most IEMs, 5 or 6 out of 100 steps are enough from the single-ended output, and 3~4 from the balanced. A single step more and they already get too loud, so on occasions getting the right volume won’t be easy with the Sparrow. With the final B1 and B3, and Hifiman RE2000 it can be raised to ~10 due to their higher impedance / lower sensitivity, so easier to match a more proper listening volume. For the iBasso SR2 a 20/100 level is already loud enough, and for more demanding planars like the Aiva and Sundara, ~30/100 were sufficient from single mode. (No balanced cables for these headphones yet)

From the single-ended output, the sound is more colored with a dark and a bit warm tonality. The low-end is elevated with some more bias on the mid-bass region that continues up to the lower midrange. The whole bass has more energy and greater impact, giving a good boost to more neutral headphones, though a bit too much with bassier/warmer sets. Bass notes have more weight and thickness but still remain controlled. In spite of the greater quantity, there is an improvement in quality with better dynamics, layering, texture and depth. Sub-bass is not as present and a little limited in extension. The midrange is fuller with thicker texture on the low midrange region – not as elevated as the low-end but with similar weight. Transparency is kind of missing here; instead, it has a smoother, more mellow tuning. Separation is decent but overall sounds more intimate. Lower instruments and male vocals sound particularly better here in the single output, while upper instruments and female vocals are more reserved and lacking some energy. That said, some sibilance can be noticed with the corresponding earphones and/or music tracks. The treble feels smoother and laid-back. Not dull, but instruments are missing some sparkle, texture and air. The detail is still very good, just less forward. Soundstage is average with a more intimate presentation.

Now, switching to the balanced output is when this little Sparrow DAC starts to shine. The sound is technically better, more refined and, more importantly, much better balanced. The improvements may not be as drastic as day-and-night, but are immediately perceived. First of all, there is a change in the overall tonality from the warm/dark single output to a more even, less colored and more transparent sound. It doesn’t turn to a flat neutral response as there is still proper weight. The bass is still above neutral but more even from sub-bass through mid-bass regions. The pronounced mid-bass lift is not present and so it sounds tighter, cleaner and better layered. The transition to the lower mids is clean. They maintain good weight and fullness but not thick as on the single-ended out. The whole midrange is more linear where the upper midrange gets the needed position and greater clarity. Dynamics are very good and instruments are well separated. I still find the midrange a little bit dry, though. Sibilance is still hearable, not much improved from the single out. Treble is now pretty good; more natural, energetic, sparkly and extended, yet well controlled. The micro details are easy to perceive, and overall everything sounds more accurate. The balanced output is not just more clean sounding but also more powerful, suited for more demanding headphones. Still does not impress in imaging, but overall the sound is more open with wider soundstage, improved extension on both ends and clearer notes.
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zolom
zolom
Thanks
Dionietzscheus
Dionietzscheus
Thanks for your review. I agree with the sound impressions you have shared - the Sparrow's balanced output is significantly better than SE, for sure.
Zelda
Zelda
Thanks!. Glad we share the same opinion
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.

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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.

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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:
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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?
onedvt
onedvt
Such an entertaining, persuasive read. As a Qudelix 5k owner looking for a fully wired portable solution this may well be the review that decides where my money will go this Christmas :beerchug:
cqtek
cqtek
The Qudelix 5k is one of the products of the year for me because of its versatility, audio quality and price/performance ratio. Earmen Sparrow goes a bit further in sound quality, if that's possible for that price. Both are great devices.
Christmas .
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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:
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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?
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