Today we have the EarMen Sparrow review, a USB-dongle sized DAC/AMP which is selling for $199 USD or €219.
If EarMen doesn’t ring a bell yet, then the Serbian “Auris Audio” just might. In fact, if you’ve been following Headfonia you will know that we’re quite the Auris tube amp fans here. Their amps have won multiple of our awards, and models like the Euterpe, HA2-SE and Nirvana get praised all over the world.
A while ago Auris Audio decided to enter the portable market and to do so they came up with new brand name: EarMen. EarMen is registered in the US but all of their products are built and assembled in Europe to ensure the highest standards in production quality.
EarMen is all about delivering the best possible value for money and their new product line-up consists out of 3 models:
- The Donald DAC – A USB-DAC only with an RCA output to hook up to your dedicated amplifier
- The TR-Amp – A portable DAC/AMP solution
- The Sparrow – A USB DAC/AMP dongle and DragonFly Cobalt competitor.
In this article we look at the (for now) last unit of the line-up: The Sparrow!
The EarMen Sparrow is a USB dongle-like, high quality DAC and AMP like the AudioQuest DragonFly and the Lotoo PAW S1 just to name two. According to EarMen the Sparrow was designed to process digital sound of up to High-Resolution Audio quality into analog for greater detail, clarity, and precision, Sparrow delivers audio close to the original studio recording.
These type of small and very portable DAC/AMP modules are extremely popular as you probably know and the reasons are simple:
- small and pocketable,
- can be used in combination with laptops and phones,
- outperforms the onboard sound
- DAC, AMP and PRE_AMP all in one,
- MQA capable,
- good value for money,
- awesome sound,
- very affordable
The EarMen Sparrow is compatible with Apple® and Android™ mobile devices. You can find the dedicated product page here: https://earmen-shop.com/products/sparrow. The user manual can be downloaded here: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0250/1758/1634/files/Sparrow_Uputstvo.pdf?v=1594810721
The Sparrow has a built-in adaptive drive, there is no need to manually install the driver. The connection can be used directly.
“So why is it called the Sparrow?” I hear you ask, well that’s simple. The most known USB DAC/AMP dongle on the market is the AudioQuest DragonFly, and what does a sparrow eat? Right, insects. It’s a bit of friendly fun between the companies.
The EarMen Sparrow sells for $199 USD and €219 Euro.
Sparrow Design, Build Quality, Lay-out & packaging
I personally love the looks of the Sparrow. It is housed in a light-weight, but robust aluminum enclosure, which protects the audio signal from the interference. The aluminium structure is created via CNC milling.
Sparrow’s PCB (Printed Circuit Board) is 4 layer gold-plated, which is unmatched in terms of quality and performance. According to EarMen, a gold plated PCB guarantees the minimal loss of sound quality.
As you can see in the pictures, the Sparrow’s front and back are made of glass. It really does looks beautiful, but it also makes the unit very slippery. So watch out that you don’t drop it. The Sparrow measures only 42 x 22 x 8 mm or 1.65 x 0.86 x 0.31”.
The Sparrow lay-out is very simple. On the top you have EarMen’s name and logo which has the LED behind to display the different colors for the file types. On the top side you have the USB-C connector, on the bottom the 3.5mm (left) and the 2.5mm balanced output. On the back you have the MQA, Hi-Res logo as well as the EarMen logo and some obligatory legal info.
Sparrow comes delivered in a simple box with cut-out foam, Accessory-wise you get a normal USB to USB-C as well as a USB-C to USB-C cable. For $199 that is a very nice package.
The EarMen Sparrow is powered by the ESS Sabre ES9281PRO chip, the flagship of the ESS line. It provides 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 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 engages the rendering. The entire process requires no additional design work.
The Sparrow supports Tidal Masters (MQA) playback from computers, iPhones and Android smartphones. MQA’s technology folds high-resolution files into smaller files that can be streamed on the go. As MQA Renderer, EarMen products complete the unfolding process, allowing music lovers to enjoy a wider selection of high-res music.
Sparrow also supports Qobuz high-res playback from iPhones, Android smartphones, and MacOS and Windows computers. Qobuz streams and downloads music in bit-perfect FLAC, the most widely used format for mastering and archiving, at resolutions of up to 24-bit/192kHz.
Like with most modern units, a LED shows you what file type & quality you’re listening to. For the Sparrow these are the color codes:
White = connected
Green = PCM/DXD/DSD
Magenta = MQA
Red = Not connected
When using ROON, make sure the Sparrow is setup correctly as renderer only. When using the Sparrow with your phone, make sure you’re using a playback app that allows bit perfect USB output (like HiBy music just to name one)
The part on sound can be found on the second page, just click HERE or use the jumps below.