Fly With Me – Earmen Sparrow Ultraportable DAC / AMP
Earmen Sparrow is like a tiny thumb drive that can actually drive IEMs and Headphones. It costs 200 USD, being one of the most expensive DAC/AMPs that exists in this tiny shape, and it has a type-C port, and a driving power of 4.0 V on the Balanced output. It will be compared to Lotoo Paw S1, Centrance DACport HD, and iFi Hip DAC. The pairing list will include Final Audio A8000, Sivga P-II, and Meze Rai Penta.
Earmen is a company from USA actually, and they are friendly with their customers. This came as a surprise to me, who knew about Auris Audio and them coming from Serbia, but it has been confirmed by them that Eramen is an American Brand, and all their products come from the USA. Sadly, there have been incidents with some batches of their products that had bugs, but they eventually solved all of them quickly through their warranty center, which is located in an entirely different country from the main company.
You can totally purchase their products and rely on them, but be careful because after a while you may need that warranty. Happily, they are the type of guys who will help you recover it, even if you somehow manage to lose it. The name sparrow seems to come from the company wanting to design is as a killer against the Dragonfly series from Audioquest.
It should be noted that I have absolutely no affiliation with Earmen. I’d like to thank Earmen for providing the sample for this review. This review reflects my personal experience with the Earmen Sparrow. Every opinion expressed is mine and I stand by it, the purpose of this review is to help those interested in Earmen Sparrow find their next music companion. Since I reviewed many competitors as well, this review isn’t trying to sell the Sparrow to you, but rather trying to help you decide on what is the best choice for you, based on pairings, comparisons and descriptions.
First things first, let’s get the packaging out of the way:
We’re talking about a high-end DAC/AMP at this price point, and it does come with some extras, like two cables. There is no carrying or protection pouch included, and given the shape and design one would have been welcome, because the unit is covered in glass on almost all sides and is always at risk of being scratched.
The technical data about the Sparrow is not entirely transparent, and things like output impedance, or actual power delivery aren’t stated officially, but happily it has a really beautiful aesthetic, and this is how my dream ultra portable DAC/AMP looks like. Smol, glassy, and made like a tiny tank. Really tiny one. It is a slightly slippery device, so be careful when handling it.
I would recommend using double sided velcro strips to attach it to your smartphone while using it. It has no bluetooth like FiiO BTR5, but it has MQA decoding abilities, along with DSD and DXD decoding abilities. It is also one of the very few DAC/AMPs that stays fairly cool during usage, and which can drive Sivga P-II well from the balanced output.
The balanced output sounds much better than the Single Ended one, and it has more driving power too. It is easily recognized by all my smartphones, windows computer and laptop, and doesn’t need a driver installed. The two cables that come with it are not very good, they are not shielded, and are noisy, so I totally recommend something like a ddHifi Cable or this one from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/CableCreation-Braided-Compatible-MacBook-Resistance/dp/B01CZVEUIE
The unit is light, and feels well made, and the Earmen Logo lights up during usage, and in different colors depending on what you’re decoding. The DAC inside is an ESS ES9218PRO, a really ballsy one actually. In fact, it is the only ultraportable DAC/AMP that has this DAC in the PRO version.
Despite all of this, it doesn’t really drain too much battery from my Xiaomi Note 9S or Huawei P20, so I can easily recommend it for portability. It doesn’t take noise from being close to a smartphone either, and I experienced no issues with it while using it, although I had to replace the original cables for the noise to go away. The sound is seriously good when using MQA and Tidal, so at least give it a trey if you can.
Here comes the part that saves this review from sounding a bit negativistic. The sound of the Sparrow is actually really good. It doesn’t have much of a signature, but it has a really clean sound, with tons of detail, a wide soundstage, and reminds me an awful lot of NextDrive Spectra X. Please be careful, the volume from the balanced output can be really loud at 10/100 with IEMs, so it has tons of power to spare, but if you don’t adjust it carefully you may lose an IEM or an ear.
The overall sound of the Sparrow can be described as extremely clean and precise, with no elevation at any point in the sonic range. It has a linear performance, with a quick, tight bass, deep soundstage, and with an energetic treble.
The bass is generally really quick and snappy, but can get really low and hit you with extreme impact. The deep rumble is outstanding and reminds me more of what stuff in the ~500 USD price range can do. The overall extension is better on the balanced output, with even more impact, and the bass is extremely clean.
In fact this is a very persistent characteristic of the sound of Sparrow, it is clean to the point of insanity. There’s no background noise, there are no uncontrolled passages, and regardless of what you connect it to, it has really good authority. The dynamics in the mids are extremely good for the price, and the overall texture is somewhat smooth, grain-free. It has that special juicy presentation for guitars that I enjoy greatly, and in my book the mids are a 10/10.
The treble is also nicely done, with a good extension up to the highest octaves, with really nice details and a wide soundstage. The overall sound is slightly aggressive and forward everywhere, so metal music lovers will surely appreciate the Sparrow. The name starts to make sense, and it is a good counterpart to the Dragonfly series. The Audioquest gems are known to be a bit laid-back and relaxed.
Especially if you hear them side-by-side, you know that Sparrow is much quicker, more punchy, more dynamic. The treble is my favorite part of the Sparrow, being so brilliant in extension and energy that I’m rocking to Dance Gavin Dance and Closure in Moscow even while writing those very words.
The main comparisons I picked for your reading pleasure are with Lotoo Paw S1, Centrance DACport HD, and iFi Hip DAC. It may seem a bit odd that I picked mostly competitors that are priced lower, but as we’ll explore in the conclusion, for the position the Sparrow occupies in the market, it has a slightly lower value ratio than most competitors.
There are tons of good USB DACs in this price range, like the Earmen TR-AMP (which is just 50 USD more than the sparrow), or the NextDrive Spectra X, but those are the ones you guys asked me the most about, so I decided to help as much as I can.
Earmen Sparrow vs Lotoo Paw S1 (200 USD vs 170 USD) – As I’ll mention in the value part of this review, the value of S1 is quite a bit better than that of the Sparrow. The support of Lotoo is good, but the key thing here is the EQ, which the S1 has. That’s a really nifty feature and I wish Earmen would make an app that could apply EQ to all outgoing sound for their Sparrow. Another nifty thing for S1 is the 4.4mm balanced output instead of a 2.5mm one, but S1 is nowhere near as portable as the Sparrow. I would describe the S1 as being more open, happier-sounding, warmer, and more detailed. The Sparrow is more engaging, has a more vivid and colorful midrange, and the Sparrow has a more juicy mid paired with more treble extension.
Earmen Sparrow vs Centrance DACport HD (200 USD vs 180 USD) – Here, the Centrance DACport HD is aimed at those who want to use it with really hard to drive cans that cross the entry-level price point. They totally did it with their DACport HD, and it has a beautiful driving power, a warm, forward and aggressive sound with tons of power. The big surprise to me was that the Sparrow doesn’t have much less power if it is running balanced. The whole point of the DACport HD is that the sound is better on 3.5mm, where the Sparrow sounds the best on 2.5mm. The sound is a bit more detailed on the DACport HD, but the Sparrow has a more vivid and colorful midrange. I like both, and I would always grab the Dacport HD for a HD660S, while I would go for the Sparrow for almost all IEMs. This is mostly because I don’t have many aftermarket cables, and most hard to drive headphones can be adapter to 3.5mm, but it is harder to outsource a balanced 2.5mm balanced cable.
Earmen Sparrow vs ifi Hip DAC (200 USD vs 150 USD) – The Hip DAC’s a huge competitor for the Sparrow, and there’s good reason for the Sparrow to fear it. The Hippy DACy has a really forward and aggressive sound that’s a bit warm, has a ton of detail and is really good for IEMs and most headphones. The Sparrow has a bit more driving power on Balanced, and is a bit more juicy in the mids, but the soundstage is larger on the Hip DAC. The Hip DAC also has a slightly better bass impact and a more detailed midrange, while the Sparrow has a better treble extension, more sparkle and a more refined overall sound.
The pairing part will include pairings with Final Audio A8000, Meze Rai Penta, and Sivga P-II. I went with pretty pricey IEMs because the Sparrow is aimed at harder to drive and more picky partners, and it wouldn’t make much sense to invest in it if you’re mainly using 100 USD IEMs.
All of the partners I picked are easily driven By the Sparrow, and it could easily drive a HIFIMAN Deva, iBasso SR-2, and even an HIFIMAN Arya too, so don’t be shy with pairing it when you got for its mates.
Earmen Sparrow + Final Audio A8000 – (200 USD + 2000 USD) – A8000 is a bit of a benchmark to me, and the Sparrow passed the test! It got good details, not a lot of background noise, and a ton of impact in its sodun. The dynamics are ok too, and the overall engagement factor is great, making me keep this pairing in my ears and not yearn to switch to something else soon.
Earmen Sparrow + Meze Rai Penta – (200 USD + 1300 USD) – Meze Rai Penta is actually helped a bit by the Sparrow, as it gives them a sparkly sound in the highs, which they direly needed. They have a smooth top end, and are somewhat too laid back for rock and metal. Sparrow seems to help a bit with that and give them a beautiful, musical sound with more life and more engagement.
Earmen Sparrow + Sivga P-II – (200 USD + 400 USD) – I was really surprised to hear that the Sparrow had enough power to drive the P-II on balanced. The sound is really balanced, sparkly, fun and engaging. I’m impressed by the speed of the bass and nice extension in the treble, and the wide soundstage. Overall, a really recommended, albeit slightly unlikely pair.
Value and Conclusion
The value of the Sparrow is visibly less appealing than that of most competition. Where the TR-AMP has been a genius product, the Sparrow is lacking in the package, with both default cables being pretty disappointing. This means that there’s nothing in the package besides the Sparrow that is working, and just like Earstudio HUD100, I can’t give full thumbs up for the value.
The build quality is really good though, and it doesn’t disappoint in any way. Although the body is not marketed as being covered in gorilla glass or any other type of protective glass, I found no scratches after taking photos of the Sparrow and using it for a while, and as you can see from the photos, I’ve been a bit adventurous with it and taking it outdoors.
The decoding abilities are impressive, with MQA, DXD and DSD, along with PCM all being read by the Sparrow. In fact, it is one of the very few DAC/AMPs on the market that has the ES9218PRO on the market, and it manages to take full advantage of it.
The sound is clear, punchy, and it has plenty of dynamic and driving power. The sound is so good that it is probably in my top 3 best portable DAC/AMPs below the 300 USD price point, and just like the TR-AMP, Earmen shows us that they can totally make something that sounds good.
At the end of today’s review, if you want something made in Europe, by a company who knows what they’re doing, if you want to hear one of the best a mini DAC/AMP has to offer, and if you like a clean, clear, detailed and sparkly sound, with excellent dynamics and punch, the Earmen Sparrow is really easy to recommend to you.
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Full Playlist used for this review
We listened to more songs than those named in this playlist, but those are excellent for identifying a sonic signature. PRaT, Texturization, Detail, Resolution, Dynamics, Impact, and overall tonality are all revealed by those songs. We recommend trying most of the songs from this playlist, especially if you’re searching for new music!
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