In recent times we’ve seen a truckload of TWS and Bluetooth headphones, along with endless Bluetooth headphone amplifiers. Another product that has been bombarding the portable audio scene is USB dongle DAC/amps for laptops and smartphones. In today’s review, I’m checking out the EarMen Sparrow USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp.
For those that don’t know, EarMen is a subsidiary of Auris Audio, which is a high-end amplifier manufacturer. EarMen was created to target the portable audio market while leveraging the expertise and experience of Auris Audio.
This sample was provided for the purpose of an honest review. All observations and opinions here are my own based on my experience with the product.
Small form factor
Works with phones, laptops, tablets
Doesn’t get hot like some alternative devices
MQA file support
No onboard playback/volume controls
No lightning to USB adapter included
Package and Accessories
The EarMen Sparrow comes in a rather large black box that has an image of the DAC on the front and a list of specifications on the rear. Inside the box, you get the EarMen Sparrow, a USB-A to USB-C cable and a USB-C to USB-C cable. Unfortunately, there is no lightning to USB cable included for iOS users, so you need to buy an additional cable unless you have a spare lying around.
Design and Functionality
In my opinion, I think the Sparrow is a gorgeous looking device. It has a matte black aluminium chassis with 2.5D glass on the front and back. On one end is a USB Type-C port and on the other end is a 3.5mm single-ended output along with a 2.5mm balanced output.
This thing is pretty small, measuring just 42 x 8 x 22 mm. To put that into perspective, it’s about the size of a modern, small USB thumb drive. On the front side is an EarMen logo which actually lights up in different colours depending on the signal input. The light colours are as follows:
White – Connected
Green – PCM/DXD/DSD
Magenta – MQA
Red – Not Connected
Internally, the Sparrow has an ESS ES9281Pro DAC chip and a gold-plated PCB which according to the EarMen website “guarantees the minimal loss of sound quality”. The ES9281Pro supports up to 32/384 PCM, DSD128 and even native MQA unfolding. All of the internals of the Sparrow have been designed to reduce any electrical noise to the bare minimum in order to provide a pitch-black background and provide the cleanest, most detailed sound possible.
In terms of output power, the 3.5mm output does 1.4 Vrms @ 32 Ohm or 2.0 Vrms @ 600 Ohm. The 2.5mm balanced output does 2.0 Vrms @ 32 Ohm or 4.0 Vrms @ 600 Ohm. Those are some impressive numbers, meaning the Sparrow can potentially drive a wide range of earphones and headphones.
I would have loved to see some physical playback and volume controls on the Sparrow. However, that is coming from the perspective of someone who only uses dongle DACs with a laptop. It’s obviously not an issue if you’re using the Sparrow on your phone.
When plugging the Sparrow into a Windows or iOS device, it gets automatically detected and is good to go right away without needing any additional driver installation. The LED lights up right away and gives off a subtle but pleasant glow
*Testing was done using the latest firmware at the time of writing (ver. 7982).
Gear used for testing:
iPhone via lightning connector
Windows 10 PC via USB Type-C
Windows 10 laptop via USB Type-C
Before we go any further, I just want to state that I am not a fan of using dongle DACs with my phone. I have dedicated DAPs (Digital Audio Players) and Bluetooth DACs (like the Shanling UP4) for that. However, I really like using dongle DACs with my laptop as it’s convenient, improves the audio quality and at the same time, doesn’t drain the battery (I only use my laptop plugged in). So while I did do some testing with my phone, most of it was done on my laptop.
Like its namesake, the EarMen Sparrow has a colourful repertoire of songs. According to Wikipedia: Sparrow songs “are very crisp, clear, and precise, making them easily distinguishable by human ears. A particular song is determined not only by pitch and rhythm but also by the timbre of the trills.” From my experience with EarMen’s Sparrow, that rings very true!
The first thing I noticed when using Sparrow with my PC was that there is abundant output power, at least for in-ear monitors. Indeed, when using the Sparrow with my Windows PC and one set of sensitive IEMs, I had the volume set to just 2/100! With the iBasso SR2 headphones, I was up to around 10-25/100. But with the equally excellent Tin Hifi P2, I was anywhere between 30-50/100 and that was using the 2.5mm balanced output. Still, that leaves plenty of headroom in terms of raw power.
Using the single-ended 3.5mm output, the Sparrow sings a great song. But, in my opinion, the balanced 2.5mm output sounds truly glorious. I tested the difference using the iBasso SR2 headphones, first with the stock unbalanced cable and then with the Meze Audio 99 series balanced 2.5mm SPC cable and the difference to my ears was palpable.
The EarMen Sparrow sounds neutral with great extension at both ends. Bass notes are full but super clean with fast transient attacks. If soundstage is important for your listening pleasure, I highly recommend using Sparrow’s balanced output because that is one area where the 2.5mm output made a particularly big difference. Transparency is increased and the left and right separation is top-notch.
Kicking back to some Bootsy Collins’ “I’m Leavin’ U”, Sparrow produced a controlled, full-bodied bass, rich, articulate vocals and crisp, airy treble. All the small details were present and accounted for and Sparrow displayed a good sense of rhythm and pace.
Switching things up with Manu Katché’s “Keep On Trippin'”, the stage really opened up and each note of the guitar and saxophone sounded as though I was sitting in the audience and listening to a live performance. I especially enjoyed the percussion on this one which has elements on both the left and right sides and surrounds the guitar, sax and piano in the center.
The EarMen Sparrow is a premium USB dongle DAC. If you want the best of the current options, this is the one (in my opinion). This is especially true if you stream MQA (hello Tidal and Qobuz users) and use 2.5mm balanced cables. It does 32 bit, 384 kHz, it’s tiny and it’s built like a premium smartphone. What more could you need?
Yes, there are cheaper alternatives and each has its own pros and cons. But for the absolute best audio quality packed into a tiny form factor, I think that right now Sparrow is the one to beat. EarMen are doing great things in the portable audio space and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.