EarMen Sparrow Portable DAC/Amp Review 5

EarMen Sparrow Portable DAC/Amp Review

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Introduction

EarMen Logo

EarMen is a sister-brand of Auris Audio, a Serbian company with nearly a decade of experience in making high-end tube amplifiers for headphones and speakers alike. In 2019, the company saw the burgeoning market of portable audio and created the EarMen brand to focus on more portable solutions built upon the experience and knowledge gained thus far. So while EarMen claims to be based in the US for better communication and image, it is for all intents and purposes a European company with products made in Europe, as is the case with the subject of today's review—the EarMen Sparrow. Thanks then to Auris Audio and EarMen for helping arrange a review sample for TechPowerUp!


The Sparrow is one of EarMen's newest products, and the image above does little to show how portable it truly is. This is easily the smallest of the portable DAC/amps I have here, making the FiiO BTR5 look like a giant by comparison. It does so by foregoing wireless connectivity, so gone is the battery and typical Qualcomm chipset. There are also no onboard controls, making it even more compact. But how much does the EarMen Sparrow sacrifice in functionality to achieve said form, and what is still there to make this a popular product in the world of portable audio? Let's find out in this review as we begin with a look at the product specifications in the table below.

Specifications

EarMen Sparrow Portable DAC/amp
Input:USB C Female
Output:3.5 mm/2.5 mm Balanced
SoC:ESS Sabre ES9281PRO
Power:3.5 mm: 1.4 Vrms into 32 Ω/2.0 Vrms into 600 Ω; 2.5 mm: 2.0 Vrms into 32 Ω/4.0 Vrms into 600 Ω
Audio Formats:DSD at 64/128 DoP, DXD at 384/352.5 kHz, PCM up to 384 kHz, MQA rendering up to 384 kHz
Dimensions:42x8x22 mm
Weight:12 g
Supported OS:Windows 10, macOS, Android, and iOS
Warranty:Two years

Packaging and Accessories


EarMen operates web shops in the US and Europe, but this sample shipped from a PR agency, so we begin directly with the product packaging. The box used for the EarMen Sparrow is larger than I thought it would be, adopting a flat profile similar to a paperback book. On the front is the company name and logo along with the product name and a render of the actual product in the middle, with side profiles showing the I/O options. Salient marketing features greet us at the bottom, which continues on the back with some specifications and certifications as well as contact information for the company. A seal on either side keeps the contents inside in place in transit and indicates any tampering should it have been opened before.


Opening the box, we see some paperwork right away, including a user manual in English (online copy here, also available in other languages). It contains more specifications and actually confirms the power output in mW for those who don't fancy converting Vrms with impedance (resistance in this case) to power (P=V²/R). It is here I noticed that the specifications don't add up, with the user manual citing lower numbers than on the product page. For example, the product page claims 2.0 Vrms on the balanced output at 32 Ω compared to the 1.85 Vrms in the manual, but the bigger difference is that the second set of numbers are actually at 150 Ω for both outputs rather than 600! This is certainly an issue, one I have asked clarification on. For what it is worth, based on my testing, I am going with the numbers in the user manual. The reported THD (total harmonic distortion) values are also incredibly low, as expected from a product using the current flagship ESS Sabre mobile DAC. A warranty card confirming the two-year warranty on the Sparrow has also been included, and then we see the reason for the larger packaging in the form of a large, thick foam sheet that has the actual contents inside cut-outs for protection.


At launch, the EarMen Sparrow had a few signal distortion issues. It was quickly found that the cable manufacturer the company was using had decided to skip on shielding the cable core; thus, the 4G/5G signals were being picked up by the cables and passed on to the Sparrow, which resulted in the occasional hissing (or worse) when listening to anything connected to the device. That was quickly addressed with some new cables EarMen shipped to owners, and the current SKUs all ship with braided, shielded cables. Note that there is still the rare possibility of it happening, but it now comes down to the über-sensitive DAC SoC itself. EarMen recommends using an even longer 20 cm long cable, but that defeats the whole point of the device, where I would rather the cable be as short as possible! We see a USB Type-A to Type-C cable included, as well as a USB Type-C to Type-C cable, both braided in black and with "EarMen" written on the side meant to connect to the device. The Indian market alone has the Type-C to Type-C cable replaced by Type-C to Lightning, presumably based on market research showing customers in India interested in the EarMen Sparrow are also typically iOS users.
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May 16th, 2022 08:45 EDT change timezone

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