EarMen TR-Amp: A fantastic portable amp, worthy of a dekstop as well.

EarMen TR-Amp ($249):

EarMen

TR-Amp

A huge thank you to Miroslav from Auris Audio, the parent entity of EarMen for the review unit. After auditioning the Euterpe on a smaller tour, I greatly appreciate the support. The Euterpe was really good (in fact a peer picked one up as a result of the tour), and with the line-up Auris/EarMen has, my expectations are high.

It is understood that the unit may be asked back for at any time, but until then the TR-Amp is mine to keep, but not resell. That is really, really uncool.

*Due to COVID-19, the delivery was delayed a bit, but through the process, EarMen were a superb company with which to deal. Professional throughout the whole process, and I thank them for that.

Introit:

Founder Miki Trosic, of Auris Audio wanted to develop a more affordable, portable line of wares. Utilizing their ties to full sized amps the company had produced such wonders as the affordable $1500 Euterpe, to the Headonia 2A3 at $9900, to the Forte 150, a $17,000 tube amp. Seeing a need for affordable high-performing portable gear, EarMen was formed and tasked with making the best portable DAC’s and amps possible. In an ever increasingly crowded market, this would be a tough draw. But Auris is widely respected in Europe for quality craftmanship (the Euterpe was stellar) and sound, which is desired, the chances of success were good.

Auris

And their history:

Founded in 2013, Auris Audio’s mission was then and to this day remains, to fulfill the desires of the most demanding audiophiles and delight both listener’s ears and visual senses. We decided to invest long-term ideas, experience and resources in the unification of retro design and the future of audio sound quality.

Based on experience in designing amplifiers and other electronic devices, Auris Audio’s philosophy is rooted in Superior design, natural materials and skills of making, which give us the right to claim that our products are handcrafted with soul.

Following his dream, founder and CEO of Auris Audio, Mr. Milomir Trosic, had only one thing in mind, the end-user and his satisfaction.

His leading motivation has been to achieve constant fulfilling of desires and needs of audiophiles by giving them the full enjoyment in the smooth and detailed sound. Guided by this light motive, the team of dedicated engineers, audio designers and craftsmen are all committed to making Auris Audio dream come true.

From the TR-Amp page:

TR-Amp’s great characteristics are available by using the best components and materials.

  • NEW ES9038Q2MSABRE32Reference DAC Industry’s highest performance 32-bit mobile audio DAC with unprecedented dynamic range and ultra-low distortion
  • Super Low ESR tantal capacitors in power supply
  • Includes a high level EarMen shielded female USB-A to USB-C Adaptor
  • 3700mA battery with up to 10h of music enjoyment
  • Separate DATA and Charging USB type C ports allows you to use it all day long in your system
  • Analog volume control for Preamp and Headphone amp
  • Double Enjoyment with 2 pairs of headphones simultaneously
  • Analog switch for Direct DAC or PreAmp function
  • ALL METAL aluminum housing eliminates external noise sources

Specs:

PCM 32bit /384kHz

DoP DSD256

Native DSD128

MQA rendering

SNR of +128dB SNR A-Weighted,

-112,5dB THD+N,

400mW into 16 Ohm

350mW into 32 Ohm

*The TR-Amp supports both Tidal Masters (MQA) and Qobuz (losslessc 16-bit CD-resolution) streaming services, at the highest audio quality possible based upon subscription.

In The Box:

TR-Amp unit

Carrying bag

USB-A to USB-C charging cable

Instruction manual

Rubber band for stacking

Gear used/compared:

HEDD HEDDphone

Audeze LCD-3 w/WyWires Red 2.5bal

Verum Audio Verum 1

Dan Clark Aeon RT Closed

Vision Ears Erlkönig

Empire Ears Legend X

MacBook Pro

XDuoo x10t ii

ifi xDSD

Dethonray HA-2

ifi micro Black Label

Songs:

Dave Matthews-Come Tomorrow, Away From The World

Big Head Todd & The Monsters-Beautiful World, Midnight Radio

twenty one pilots-Blurryface, Trench, Regional at Best

Van Morrison-Three Chords & The Truth

Tedeschi Trucks Band

Ziggy Marley

Damien Marley

Bob Marley

Santana

Stevie Ray Vaughn

Whatever my fancy of the moment

Tidal Premium

From the TR-Amp page: “Three key features make current-feedback amplifiers outstanding for audio. The first feature is the high slew rate that prevents odd order distortion anomalies. The second feature is current-on-demand at the output that enables the amplifier to respond quickly and linearly when necessary without risk of output distortion. When large amounts of output power are suddenly needed, the amplifier can respond extremely quickly without raising the noise floor of the system and degrading the signal-to-noise ratio. The third feature is the gain-independent frequency response that allows the full bandwidth of the amplifier to be used over a wide range of gain settings.”

Build quality:

Coming in a fairly plain black box, the EarMen TR-Amp is highlighted by specs on the back and a picture of the unit on front, in white outline lettering. Tastefully simple, and a note of what might be coming. Simple in design, but worthy in listening.

An aluminum frame wraps around two Allen-keyed ends, much like you might find on a Burson amp/dac. With “lips” to help hold the critter, I never once felt the construction was weak or slippery. Fairly svelte in size, the TR-Amp has a volume knob on the front along with a 6.35mm and 3.5mm single-end jack each. Sitting in four rubber feet, the TR-Amp sits up enough where you need not worry about your headphone jack hitting the surface (think ifi Hip-DAC that does…). Unassuming again and piquing my interest. The back has two USB-C connections; one for charging and one for data. Separate discreet inputs allow one to listen and charge at the same time without the power port inhibiting audio quality.

To the right of the USB-C ports lies a toggle for “direct” or “pre-out,” since the TR-Amp can be run as a pre-amp as well. I will try this with a couple of my amps hopefully. Further right (as far as you can go on the back, lies the RCA L/R for Line Out, which is used for the pre-amp connectivity. Simple again, but I do wish for a few other connection source abilities. No digital connectivity puts this behind the ifi micro xDSD and XDuoo TA-30 desktop. Something to think about, but again this is market for portable AND desktop use so limitations should not really bother you. Plus, to me sometimes complexity gets in the way of sound or battery use. Here EarMen focus on the sound first and foremost. Can’t fault them for that.

Not included in the box are connectivity cables. Zero, zilch. My feeling is that EarMen are leaving it up to the users, since they will most likely have the necessary cables. I will admit a single USB-C to USB-C would have been appreciated for data use. No bother, as luckily, I have the excellent DDHiFi USB-C to USB-C cable as well as a couple of others. For this test, the DDHiFi was used exclusively. A separate “mini-review” will be forthcoming surrounding the DDHiFi.

Sound (based upon connectivity options listed above):

Since the TR-Amp is marketed as a portable/desktop/battery-powered amp/pre-amp I will try to cover all bases. Starting with my MacBook Pro was the easiest option, so I will start there.

Having the excellent HEDD HEDDphone in house at the same time allowed me to gauge how the TR-Amp works with a hard to drive headphone. Pushing the Tidal volume all the way up in app, I still had to run the TR-Amp at about 50% volume to achieve any semblance of good sound volume. I believe 1130 on the knob was a competent volume, which was loud enough to gauge qualities, but not too loud.

From my HEDD review: Sorry for the digression, but first the MBP/TR-Amp combination on the same song (Dave Matthews, Drunken Solider) gives a more “analytical” sound, without being antiseptic. Often when listening to less expensive equipment from a certain area, the sound is crisp and clean, but antiseptic. Not so here. Without the deep feeling of lushness though, the sound came across crisper, with a bit better separation of note. A thoroughly enjoyable sound nonetheless, but I preferred the warmer tone of the TA-30. That is more my preferred sound. But, the TR-Amp is a small marvel in itself, presenting the sound naturally without adding any tonality to it. Timbre is very, very good as a result. I could gladly listen to this set up at work, should the workstation be set for an open back headphone such as the HEDD is. Hearing Dave’s gravelly push mid-song is almost painful. But in a sympathetic way. You feel his consternating emotivism of the song and that is the point. Laid bare, you cannot separate yourself from the song. Maybe a bit less so than the TA-30, but seemingly more immersive due to the cleanliness of presentation.

Based upon that, the TR-Amp equated itself well with my MBP. It is more neutral, and “analytical” without being sterile. The DAC of ES9038Q2M SABRE Reference quality does indeed give “high-end dimension” as noted by EarMen on the product page. But this is done without the sterility of some. The acute nature of sound coming from the TR-Amp, is refreshing from this standpoint, but not the quality of more expensive DAC/amps. It is not meant to be though, since cost certainly plays an effect. I will state that this combination falls slightly behind the crisp natured sound of a comparable Burson. But the Burson is not portable, and it could be due to other inside characteristics. The TR-Amp is quite good here, and I thoroughly enjoy it in this combination.

Throwing the Vision Ears Erlkönig on signature-1 (most bass and added mid push) the warmer tonality is appreciated, and the TR-Amp comes across as quite competent. A good complimented signature comes from this trio. Full-sized headphones can also bring this personality out of the TR-Amp such as the LCD-3, which can be driven loud enough for my tastes when subbed into this. And yes, the quality of sound is good. Using the Sabre DAC allows the tone of source to come through, but “cleaned” up a bit, as the DAC is of a much higher quality than the MBP’s audio.

I was also able to get about four hours of dedicated listening out of this before the need to charge came about. I do not know at what level the battery was coming into this, so I hooked up my portable charger and kept playing. No problem whatsoever. I did note noise when turning the volume up at low levels, and a channel imbalance until both channels “kicked in.” This has happened in other units I own and has never bothered me, since the playing volume is above that sound. The ifi Black Label does the same thing.

Playing MQA from Tidal was competent and musical. Tidal Premium is one of my go to sources of music in tests, since many will use a streaming source while at work or home.

Hooking the TR-Amp to the XDuoo x10t ii turntable next, I was able to use the USB-C connectivity. With simple plug-and-play capabilities, I appreciated the connectivity. Listening to Clear from Twenty One Pilots excellent Regional At Best album, I immediately noted a darker tone to the music. The x10t ii is a turntable only, not changing the tunes at all. Still at 44.1kHz sampling, I found it a bit odd that the tone was darker than the warm signature of Tidal Premium. Running the TR-Amp volume up to 1130, I found the sound rich and vibrant at the same time. There was more background noise here between songs, but once the song started, the noise was gone. Moving on the Van Morrison’s Three Chords And The Truth album, the top end seemed to come back. Since it was FLAC at 96kHz, this could have something to do with it, as well as the album in general being on the brighter side. His voice can pierce a hole in a bomb shelter, and here I had to turn the volume down. Not a bad thing on March Winds In February, and I really enjoy the album. I simply could not take the voice at those same high-volume levels. The pair worked well together in their simplistic connection and playing. Here the xDSD can change the tone due to the 3D and xBass+ options. The pair as is was quite good, and I did not miss the ability to tailor. Sometimes simplicity does win out. Moving on to Car Radio, the sound was also vibrant, with a good holographic feeling due to the recording. This is a tune, which can vary so quickly, it is a good judge of character of source and playing unit (Erlkönig still). Quick tight bass, without bleed and thorough, rich vocals highlight the song as is, and the XDuoo/EarMen duo portrayed this accurately and without fuss. The duo could fairly easily drive the HEDD as well, and the LCD-3 even better, since it is an easier to drive unit. I appreciate that simple nature and the plug-and-play ability across many IEM’s and headphones.

Comparisons:

EarMen TR-Amp ($249) vs ifi Hip-DAC ($149):

This one will be quick. Even though the diminutive ifi is cheaper, and has a couple of tricks up its sleeve, it never really wowed me like previous ifi iterations. There is a reason I have many ifi units. I like them very much and spent my money on them after listening. This is one, I would skip and move right on to the TR-Amp, even if it does not have all of the capabilities. The TR-Amp fills a niche better in my line up than the ifi does. It would be somewhat superfluous if I added the Hip-DAC. The xDSD is better, and worth the extra cost to me.

EarMen TR-Amp ($249) vs ifi xDSD ($399):

Speaking of the xDSD, this was one of my first portable units. Compared to the xCAN, I appreciated the better DAC in the xDSD, even if it had “a bit less power.” It was and is plenty powerful, and I have not missed the 2.5bal connectivity at all. The comparison to the TR-Amp is a tough one, though. Both are portable. Both are battery powered. Both get my music loud enough to make my ears hurt. Both provide excellent to very, very good sound. I would consider the xDSD a step ahead of the Tr-Amp soundwise, though. A bit darker from the start, you can add bass and a near-holographic sound, which indeed raises the price. But, to me that along with the added capability of digital connectivity makes it worth it. But, ifi does not recommend charging and listening at the same time, while you can on the TR-Amp. That alone makes it a huge positive.

EarMen TR-Amp ($249) vs Dethonray HA-2 ($299):

This one will be based upon amp alone. The HA-2 is an affordable dream. Paired with the already excellent DTR1, it can easily drive the LCD-3 or HEDDphone. With a low/high gain as well you can add even more verve to the already loud sound. It also had no noise from the volume knob. If it were based upon amps only, the HA-2 would be a tough choice to beat. It is really, really good. With the ability to be used as a pre-amp and the excellent DAC, the TR-Amp makes up that difference.

EarMen TR-Amp ($249) vs ifi micro Black Label ($599):

My first “portable” amp purchase before the xDSD even, I called it “transportable.” Bigger and bulkier, the BL rides many characteristics that at the time had manufacturers scrambling just to keep up. I have yet to have a headphone in-house that makes the BL struggle. I’m sure there are some, but not even the harder to drive HEDD caused issues. There is a reason the highest mode is called “Turbo.” It means extra, and the BL obliges. That setting is not for the faint of heart, nor sensitive IEM’s/headphones. You will lose your hearing. Add in filters surrounding BitPerfect, and the ability to also be used as a pre-amp, and the BL is to me STILL hard to beat. A darker signature, and a bit of distortion at insanely high-volume levels are its only flaw. But one really, REALLY should not be listening at that level. I use mine in a stack with the ifi iTubes2 and iDAC2 making a very formidable stacked unit.

But glowing aside for the BL, the TR-Amp competes very well because it is about sound and costs less than ½ the price. That can be huge as well as the portability aspect. If EarMen was trying to knock the king off its perch, this would be considered a near-miss and one in which ifi better take note.

IEM’s/Headphones:

As mentioned earlier, I had no trouble driving pretty much anything in house right now. I did have to raise the volume pretty high in concert with the HEDD, but I expected that anyway. The LCD-3sounds quite good out of the TR-Amp, taming its somewhat darker tonality. This would be an excellent rotation with the aforementioned BL and xDSD (and will be). Since I have the Vision Ears Erlkönig for only a few more days, I used it the majority of the time. I had no issues whatsoever, and the noise between tracks did not bother me. Utilizing the changeable nature of the signatures allowed me to tailor to the music quickly, thus negating the one possible limitation of the TR-Amp; it cannot change the music, the source or do any EQ as well as the listening device in this instance. And that is OK in my book.

Finale:

I will admit this came across as a harder to write review. It really should not have been because of the (mentioned often) simplicity of the TR-Amp. It hooks up, it plays, and it works. Gauging sound across its competitors was a bit harder. Most that I included have more options. Kind of like a plain Subaru Forrester, versus the Limited Luxury version.They can both keep you from getting stuck in the snow or sand, but the “luxuries” that come along for the ride may be more beneficial to some.

I have always thought of myself as liking the simple nature of technology and gadgets. But I will admit that when new “toys” come out, I am a gadget-loving person. Seeing what that new filter can do gets me thinking. Seeing which chip works better is something of late I have tried to take note. But here, with the TR-Amp all of that melted away. I simply plugged it in and listened.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s