So, did EarMen shoehorned his Sparrow in the Eagle? Yes and no.
Straight out of the box, I plugged the Eagle to my Sennheiser HD-800S, to see how well the amp behave with a (very) demanding headphone. If I used the LCD-3 to test-proof the Hi-mDAC, my previous impressions with EarMen lead me to the Sennheiser this time.
Obviously, the Eagle couldn’t reach the same level of accuracy I found with the Sparrow or the TR-AMP. But, even with its sole single-ended output, the DAC was able to push the headphone moderately loud. Nothing deafening for sure, yet enough to hear a good level of details and some low tones.
I tried More of Just the Same from Infected Mushroom, my usual test-track, and if the Senn felt a little cramped with the NuPrime, the Eagle was much more potent in this regard.
Once paired with the Meze 99 Classics, this is where the Eagle really came to life. Commanding bass, wide soundstage, excellent layering, the DAC sounded much more at ease. In fact, out of all the headphones I tried, this was one of the best blends with the EarMen. With my CIEM, I could hear a very faint noise, but nothing that would allow me to define the Eagle as noisy. On my S8F, FA9, or ME700, nothing occurred and, again, I had to use iFi IEMatch to dampen that hiss with my Onkyo.
Pan effects are delightful, dynamic is superb and if you think an IEM cannot match a headphone in terms of spaciousness, in 2020, I think you should put this one to the test. Of course, if you can up your game an get a Sparrow with a balanced cable, that’s even better! Like every Sabre based solution, highs can be a tad too sharp, almost uncanny, where Cirrus Logic or AKM feels more natural. But, I like that sound, and the Eagle extracted more details that I could ever ask, for a device this small.
It fits right between the Chord and the NuPrime in this aspect(like AudioQuest), and EarMen tuned it just right for me. Long story short, if not as good as the Sparrow, for the price it’s definitely one of the top choices at the moment
Highs : clean and fast. The EarMen achieves a good job there, with a good amount of air. Trebles are fast and Sabre’s signature can be felt right from the beginning. I paired the Eagle with my FiiO FA9 and it never felt dry, nor aggressive, even if the DAC feels pretty close to the limit with those ears.
Mids : great layering and good spaciousness. The mids blends perfectly with the rest of the spectrum. The soundstage is excellent even at high volume, or with high-demanding headphones. Compared to its competitor, the Eagle was able to overcome many limitations even when I pushed the volume to the max. Pretty impressive.
Lows : tight and powerful. Bass is impressive and the Eagle was able to reach deep notes with ease. Usually, this is where small DAC falls short, but this is never the case with this one. It’s fast, powerful and with a good headphone, you’ll be rewarded by deep, tight, toe-tapping bass. It’s on-par with the Hi-mDAC on this aspect, so it’s a tough choice.
Audioquest Dragonfly Red: by far, the most popular DAC on the market since it came out. Head to head, the Red and Eagle are pretty close in terms of sound quality. The EarMen model gives more headroom and feels mode confident with high-impedance headphones. On the other hand, I’m still fond of AudioQuest mids, more akin to my ears in 99% of the time. Again, it’s a question of apple vs pears, if you don’t take account of the price.
NuPrime Hi-mDAC: same price, same form factor, different chip. The Hi-mDAC is one of my favorite DAC, even if I own better devices, with its neat design and great render overall. Obviously, the Eagle is much more keener to the eye and if you were shown both devices, you’d always choose the EarMen. Sound-wise, the Eagle feels more refined, but both devices are equally good overall. Tough choice.
iBasso DC01 : this is, the tiniest of the tiny USB DAC. It’s less powerful, less refined than the Eagle, even though the brands gave him a balanced output. I still find the DC01 to be an amazing one for the price, but honestly, the Eagle is a league above.
Build quality is superb, performances are on-par with AudioQuest and NuPrime, with MQA support and very clever design. Out of the three (Hi-mDAC/Dragonfly RED/Eagle), this one feels like the sweet spot and if you were to choose one all-rounder, this would be it.
Paired with a good pair of IEM’s, like the FiiO FH3 or the new iBasso IT00 and you’ll be good for quite some time, on a tight budget. A great bang for a buck, that goes straight into my recommendation list.