Today we’re checking out the Sparrow from EarMen, a new USB dongle-DAC.
EarMen clearly has a sense of humour, and it shows in the clever naming of their products. With models like the Donald Dac and TR-Amp in their lineup drawing a chuckle, it is no surprise that the Sparrow is a jab at a popular series of DragonFly DACs from AudioQuest. Sparrows are known to snack on the occasional dragonfly which for most avian species is notoriously wily and difficult to catch thanks to their speed and uncanny agility. The attention of consumers is much the same when there are piles of similar products on the market.
The Sparrow has been with me for five months now and has powered everything from budget friendly earphones like the KZ EDX and Moondrop SSR to full-sized planar and closed back headphones like the HiFiMAN Deva and Campfire Audio Cascade. Did it do a good job of it? Let’s find out.
Packaging and Accessories The Sparrow arrives in a surprisingly large, flat box with a mostly smooth, matte black texture. On the front is the usual branding and model info, along with a glossy, embossed image of the Sparrow set between wire frame images of the front and rear panels. What’s neat about these images is they are 1:1 and accurately reflect the Sparrow’s compact dimension. Flipping to the rear are some basic specifications along with logos for PCM, Hi-Res Audio, DXD, DSD, and MQA.
Cutting the QA seals and lifting the slender top flap reveals a sheet of soft foam taking up the entirely of the interior. Set within shaped inserts are the Sparrow and two cables; USB Type A to C, and USB Type C to C. Also inside is a warranty card and a much more in depth specifications sheet.
Overall a very simple but effective unboxing experience. I appreciate that EarMen included a Type C to C cable in the box, as that has been a main criticism of mine as of late for a couple other products that fill a similar niche, such as the Radsone Earstudio HUD100 and EarMen’s own TR-Amp, although the latter is notably less portable than the Sparrow or HUD100.
Build Quality Initial images of the Sparrow had me thinking it would be a compact, plastic affair, but wow was I ever surprised once it showed up. A lot like the FiiO BTR3K, the Sparrow takes cues from modern smartphone design with front and rear glass panels and a painted black aluminum surround. It feels amazing in the hand for such a small device, with a weight and density I would attribute to something larger and more visually substantial.
On top top end of the device is a USB type-C input, while the opposite end housing the standard 3.5mm output, along with a balanced 2.5mm output. The type-C and 3.5mm ports are neatly integrated, while the 2.5mm port is flattened along the top and bottom, shaving off some of the plastic surround. It doesn’t effect anything and I haven’t experienced any issues with durability, it just looks odd given they didn’t do the same thing with the larger 3.5mm port.
The front glass panel houses the EarMen logo, brand name, and model information. The brand and model names are decked in a reflective silver that looks better in person than in pics, while the logo is a soft white. Flipping to the rear panel you find the MQA logo, model and brand names, again in that sexy reflective silver. A small Hi-Res Audio logo sits dead centre. Further adding to the premium feel of the Sparrow is that all of this branding/writing is under the glass panels, ensuring they won’t wear off over time.
A neat touch that went unnoticed until the device had powered up was the EarMen logo doubling as an LED. It indicates a number of things; white means the device is connected, with red indicating the opposite. Green says you’re using PCM, DXD, or DSD audio formats, while Magenta indicates MQA is in use. The colour indicators are more limited than some of the competition, such as the aforementioned BTR3K and Earstudio HUD100, both of which indicate 5 or more formats with various colours. I never refer to this feature, but if you’re one who does, you might be underwhelmed by the lack of precision in format indication.
Overall, the Sparrow looks classy and feels excellent in the hand. The build quality is fantastic, but I would like to see either EarMen or a third part like DDHiFi develop a case for it because glass is glass, and glass breaks when dropped. The Sparrow lacks a plastic insulating layer between the aluminum frame and glass panels. If it somehow finds its way from your pocket to the ground the shock will transmit straight through to the glass, increasing the likelihood of cracks or chipping. It’s such a good looking device, I would hate to see that happen to anyone.
Sound Quality and Device Pairing The Sparrow utilizes the Sabre ES9281Pro, a flagship in their ESS lineup of DACs. As I explained in my TR-Amp review, I’m casual scum when it comes to explaining and/or understanding the tech behind DACs and amps. As such, EarMen can take over in describing why the above matters. This next bit has been borrowed from the Sparrow’s product page.
“Sparrow is powered by ES9281PRO, the flagship of the ESS line, which can provide 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 (Master Quality Authenticated) 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 engage the rendering. The entire process requires no additional design work.”
That out of the way, what I’ve found is the Sparrow follows the experience I had with the TR-Amp. Through both the 3.5mm single-ended output and 2.5mm balanced output, the sound of the Sparrow is extremely clean. The 2019 Campfire Audio Solaris and original Polaris are some of the pickiest products I’ve come across, revealing noise from the vast majority of sources I’ve tested. Even through balanced out on the Sparrow, the background is dead silent and hiss free. Impressively, the Sparrow bests the Radsone Earstudio HUD100. While the HUD100 is dead silent through its standard output, the high output option introduces a hint of background hiss on sensitive earphones like the aforementioned Campfire Audio gear. Compared to another similarly sized DAC/Amp, the Periodic Audio Nickel, there is no comparison. The Sparrow is significantly cleaner sounding, most especially with sensitive gear that is basically unusable with the Nickel.
Also impressive is the Sparrows ability to drive headphones of various requirements. We already know it handles extremely sensitive stuff with ease, but what about something a bit more challenging? Well, HiFiMAN’s affordable orthodynamics, the Sundara and DEVA, are easily brought up to volume with plenty of headroom and no distortion. Same with the notably more demanding Alara from Brainwavz. When listening to the demanding Astrotec Phoenix, the Sparrow’s basic 3.5mm output produces more volume than the Radsone HUD100 and its high output port under the same settings. When comparing the Periodic Audio Nickel to the Sparrow, I was expecting the Nickel to be the better of thw two in terms of raw volume output but that’s simply not the case. What about the ridiculous HiFiMAN Susvara, a device that makes full-size desktop amps weep? Like the HUD100 and to a lesser extent, the Nickel, the Sparrow can run it though it understandably isn’t ideal. The sound produced lacks the nuanced dynamics and soundstage the Susvara is capable off. I suspect the two would work better together if I had an appropriate cable to use the Susvara through the more powerful balanced out. Still, the Sparrow isn’t being knocked for this. Expecting such a small DAC intended for use with portable devices to run a full-sized flagship planar is absurd and completely unreasonable. What is impressive is that the Sparrow will do it as well as it does, while still running extremely sensitive products with a perfectly clean background.
When it comes to sound quality the Sparrow continues to follow in the footsteps of the TR-Amp with a coloured signature that adds warmth and low end to the presentation. That said, it’s not an overbearing amount of heat or bass leaving it fine to just pair with products that already have these qualities in aplomb, such as the new Vega 2020 from Campfire Audio. Adding to those qualities does not leave it lacking in upper end air or emphasis either, meaning it still pairs well with bright earphones like the ADV GT3. For a portable device this tune is ideal since bass is the first thing to lose impact when outside of the home in a noisy environment, where ever that may be for those of us in Covid-current environments. Extension deep into sub-bass regions or well into the brilliance region is excellent with no roll off that I can detect. The Astrotec Phoenix provides the deep, physical rumble I expect, while the soaring highs of EarNiNE’s EN2J are there in full force. Notes are presentation pretty much the same as I felt with the TR-Amp. Everything is quick and snappy and as a result I never found anything to be held back in those regards when paired with the Sparrow. Where I found the TR-Amp to slightly compress the sound stage, no such flaw can be heard in the Sparrow. The Campfire Audio Andromeda sounds just as open and spacious here as it does through my TEAC HA-501 desktop amp (but without the background hiss) and other products like the ZiShan DSD or FiiO BTR3K. It also does a good job of displaying the imaging, instrument separation, and layering qualities already inherent to anything you plug into it. The Brainwavz B400 can still envelope me in a busy track without congestion, just as the original Campfire Audio Polaris’ wall-of-sound is retained. Flaws already inherent to the staging qualities of your headphone or earphone will still be present, but nothing new will be added
When listening to it next to some competition, the Sparrow comes out on top. I wasn’t expecting to find another portable DAC I liked as much, or more, than Radsone’s HUD100 this year, but the Sparrow comes out on top in terms of sound quality. While they are both tuned very similarly, particularly when you start using the tuning switch on the HUD100, the Sparrow has better micro detail and a more dynamic feel to it thanks to more apparent depth and height to it’s extremes. This along with a more rapid feel to notes when they hit and decay, it just sounds like a more lively, crisp version of the sound offered up by the HUD100. Pitting it against the Periodic Audio Nickel, a device that pretty much stays glued to my Shanling M0, shows just how hard hitting the 199 USD Sparrow is. At 299 USD, the Nickel is completely shamed when it comes to build quality, but more importantly, can’t really hold up to the Sparrow when it comes to sound. In the Nickel’s favour it does present itself with a more balanced, less warm signature. It also provides a hint more space and seems to image slightly better. These positives come at the expense of the smooth, natural sound provided by the Sparrow. The Nickel adds a harsh, almost metallic edge to some products and as a result it lacks the pairing versatility of EarMen’s smaller, more feature rich and affordable option. My M0 might have a new best friend…
Final Thoughts The last five months with the Sparrow have been an absolute joy. The small size and outstanding build quality as well as the powerful output via both single-ended and balanced outputs have made it a near perfect companion to use at all times. Whether I’m at work on my laptop or desktop, typing up a review or answering emails from a client, lying back in my recliner for some rare casual listening time, out for an evening walk, or analyzing a product for my next review, the Sparrow has integrated itself seamlessly into whatever task I need it for. This little device is outstanding, and well worth the attention of anyone in the market for a compact type-C DAC/Amp/Pre-Amp.
Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer A huge thanks to Miroslav for reaching out to see if I’d be interested in reviewing the Sparrow and for arranging a sample for the purposes of this review. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on five months of regular use. They do not represent EarMen or any other entity. Please note that the first sample provided was dead on arrival and was replaced by EarMen. Hopefully they were able to determine why as it was returned for examination. At the time of writing the Sparrow was retailing for 199.00 USD. You can check it out here: https://earmen-shop.com/products/sparrow