EarMen Sparrow ($199): Seasonal changes, but the sound remains.

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.

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