Review Date: 21 March 2022
DAC Chip: ESS Sabre ES9281PRO
Input: USB C Female
Dimension: LxHxW (mm) 42 x 8 x 22
Output 1: 3.5 mm Single Ended
Output 2: 2.5 mm Balanced
Power 2.5 mm Balanced 3.5 mm
3.5mm: 2.0 Vrms into 600 Ohm, 1.4 Vrms into 32 Ohm
2.5mm: 4.0 Vrms into 600 Ohm, 2.0 Vrms into 32 Ohm
124 dB DNR, -112 THD+N
Audio Formats: DSD 64/128, DoP DXD 384/352.5kHz,PCM 384kHz, MQA 384 kHz
- Etymotic ER4SR (Single BA, 45 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- Shure KSE1500 (Single Electrostatic 200V, KSA1200 Energizer)
- TRN VX Pro (8BA + 1DD Hybrid, 22 Ohm, 106db Sensitivity)
- TIN HiFi T3+ (Single DD, 32 Ohm, 105db Sensitivity)
- Kinera Idun Golden (3BA + 1DD Hybrid, 32 Ohm, 112db Sensitivity)
- SeeAudio Yume Midnight (2BA + 1DD Hybrid, 32 Ohm, 106db Sensitivity)
- FOSTEX T40RP MK3 (Magnetic Planar, 50 Ohm, 91db Sensitivity)
- Beyerdynamic DT880 (Dynamic Drivers, 600 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
- Windows 10, Foobar 2000 (USB 3.0 Power)
- LG V50 ThinQ (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- Sony Xperia X Compact (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
- HiBy Music Player App (USB Exclusive Mode)
LISTENING EQUIPMENT USED IMPARTED HUGE INFLUENCE TO SOUND IMPRESSIONS & RATING
I have been wanting to get myself an Earmen Sparrow since last year. But only managed to buy one for myself this year. Sparrow is a device that has a good following and for good reasons. It is one of the few Dongles that are entirely designed and made in Europe (Serbia).
The unit that I received came labelled with an additional decal on the box indicating it is an MK2 unit, and I believe that this is a revised unit from the model of yesteryears.
Earmen Sparrow is a DAC/Amp built on ESS Sabre ES9281PRO, basically a top tiered ESS DAC which offers native MQA capabilities.
Build, Functions, Usability
Aesthetics wise, Sparrow is a very elegantly designed dongle. Aluminum chassis sandwiched by glossy glass on both sides. It is very compact as it is solid. Holding the unit in my hands I was immediately greeted by smooth glazed feel to the touch. Which can cause for a bit of concerns because it can be slippery if not handled carefully. The caveat that I experienced first hand, my Sparrow already picked up small scratches on the front plate, something that happened on the 2nd day when I placed it in my pocket and probably had abrasive encounter with the 4.4mm to 2.5mm adapter that I use. For the record all of my cables are terminated in 4.4mm configuration hence the need for 2.5mm adapter. Being glossy, the Sparrow will also pick up fingerprints quite easily and this can smear the elegant look. So, care is needed if I want my unit to look pristine..
Sparrow being spartan, offers simple interfaces and ports of which a female USB C on one end and two Audio ports on the other end. Sparrow is not exactly new, as such it has 2.5mm BAL instead of the more popular 4.4mm Pentaconn which is the normal standard nowadays.
To complete the look, at the front is a large led indicator for playback resolution. The led indicator being Earmen logo. As per industry standards, Purple for MQA and Green for PCM. Blue for anything in between.
On the subject of MQA, I have found my Sparrow unit to connect flawlessly with Tidal Android app in Exclusive mode. Most importantly the MQA unfolding works as intended without any hint of issues with clipping or occasional artifacts as would be observed with almost half of MQA dongles I tested so far. Tidal native app can be quite finicky with some dongles but not with Sparrow. That’s quite a relief.
Endurance wise, Sparrow clocked a respectable 6 hours of continuous drain to my Sony Xperia X Compact (Android 8, 2700 mAH Battery, UAPP Bitperfect, Airplane Mode, driving TRN VX Pro). That is exactly on par to the battery drain score of Cayin RU6, iBasso DC05 etc. After prolonged use, the Sparrow seems to have good heat dissipation as well even when subjected to high load, mildly warm to the touch.
I will be as concise on this as much as I can. Earmen Sparrow being an ESS Sabre unit, sounds exactly like most ESS Sabre DACs I have ever listened to. Up until now, out of 114 dongles I owned, more than half of them ESS Sabre based, so it would not be too extreme for me to say that I can immediately appraise the output of an ESS Sabre DAC the moment I listened to them.
What is evident to me, Earmen Sparrow does not present itself as a neutral sounding unit. It is balanced enough exhibiting mature tuning, but it is not as neutral as how I normally prefer my DAC/Amp should sound like. I can clearly hear that the lower frequencies are elevated above what is neutral, with evident hump in Mid-Bass. On the other end of the spectrum, I am hearing pronounced sparkle that is crisp and borderline bright in the Treble region. The Mids, does sound neutral to my ears. All these were observed through extensive listening throughout all of my regular listening devices from Etymotic ER4SR, Shure KSE1500, TRN VX Pro and all the way to Beyerdynamic DT880. All exhibiting consistent traits.
Timbral balance for Earmen Sparrow is assuredly good, Sparrow managed to avoid the pitfall of sounding outright sterile, metallic and digital-ish. I would say that Sparrow is among the few that exhibited mature and crisp ESS tuning – a rarity since many of the ones out there (ESS) will be either outright bright, lean or edgy sounding. What I do wish Sparrow could have done better, a bit more of organic touch, perhaps a bit more of analogue tonality and a bit more of air. But alas, too many DACs recently were designed with so much focus on chasing clean, clear and pristine sound, more often than not ended sounding sterile and lacking analogue musicality to the output. But then audio has always been a subjective passion and it ultimately boils down to what the listener prefer more over the other. It is not about right or wrong.
On the aspects of dynamics, Sparrow offers articulate balance to emit something that is crisp, mature, vibrant and rich output. The extensions on both end of the spectrum nothing short of reference grade. Perhaps if I am not nitpick, I wished for a tiny bit of smoothness over clinical crisp attack and decays. Going back to lower frequencies, throughout my extensive tests I have concluded that Bass body mass is not just elevated above normal, it is also somewhat slower, larger but a bit loose. I would probably will not complain this much but I have heard many other dongles that offers more neutral yet solid and rich Bass responses.
The highlight of Sparrow, technicalities. Undoubtedly, this is one of the best when it comes to technical prowess. The resolution and details handling are on par to the top dogs of #donglemadness. I must applaud Sparrow for exhibiting good soundstage that does not sound narrow like most ESS based DACs are, there’s good depth and height observed with the staging. Imaging and spatial positioning being very holographic and precise. Speed is amazing too, with no chance of any songs I threw at it sounding compressed or compressed regardless how complex they are.
Another highlight for Earmen Sparrow, it is one of the most powerful 4 Vrms dongles available now. Extensively tested with the pair of my Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm and Fostex T40RP MK3, I am hearing desktop grade of loudness.
For perspective, here’s what I have found on how Sparrow compares to some of my DAC/Amps:
Song: Diana Krall “The Look of Love”, Foobar 2000 Windows 10, USB 3.0. FLAC Lossless
Headphone: Fostex T40RP MK3 91db Magnetic Planar
- ZEN Stack (ZEN DAC V2 + ZEN Can): Vol 12/100 (Gain 3/4)
- Ovidius B1 3.5mm SE: Vol 30/100 (Adaptive Gain)
- Earmen Sparrow 2.5mm BAL: 30/100 (Adaptive Gain)
As can be seen above, Sparrow offered exact same loudness to my all time favorite of Ovidius B1. And by my calculation, half as efficient on loudness alone as compared to the 15.1 Vrms iFi ZEN Stack (of course the ZEN stack still has a lot more in reserve since it is just set a 3/4 gain level). If I am to place a percentage to the output of Sparrow versus the dedicated desktop stack, I would say that Sparrow scored close to 90%. Losing only on headroom, staging, dynamics richness and air. Otherwise, if not comparing side by side, Sparrow will have more than enough juice to substitute for wholesome listening experience even for hard to drive stuffs.
PS: I was unable to compare Sparrow against my No.1 Dongle, CEntrance DACport HD since it is away now for 2022 #donglemadness tour within Malaysia.
3.5mm SE versus 2.5mm BAL
The good thing about Sparrow, 3.5mm SE (rated 2 Vrms) does sound equally great as compared to the 2.5mm BAL (rated 4 Vrms) port. The main difference, audibly loudness levels are much lower. Driving Fostex T40RP MK3 on the Sparrow 3.5mm SE will require me to crank the volume up to 45/100 while it only need 30/100 for the 2.5mm BAL. Other than that, I do not sense any noticeable difference in sound presentation when loudness is matched – which is a good thing because some Dongles like Luxury & Precision W2 exhibited underwhelming 3.5mm SE output, focusing only on the 4.4mm BAL.
Earmen Sparrow MK2. Truth be told I have mixed feelings with this unit. Undoubtedly it is a very refined and great sounding DAC/Amp, it has power, amazing technicalities, great MQA stability and well controlled dynamics. However on a personal level of subjective preference, I feel that Sparrow is not neutral enough, not organic enough and somewhat still digital sounding compared to the others that I have had the opportunity to own and test extensively. For me, Questyle M12, Apogee Groove, REIYIN DA-Plus and Colorfly CDA M1 remained the ones that I prefer the most for ESS based dongles. Priced at $199 (and another $30 for shipping) , I cannot avoid being a bit more critical than normal when it comes to Earmen Sparrow. Otherwise, ignoring the steep price, no denying that the Sparrow will have niche appeal that would work for some.
- Mature and crisp dynamics
- Amazing technicalities
- Top notch driving power
- Clean and coherent dynamic transients
- Stable MQA performances
- Good battery endurance to the host
- Tone and timbre lacking organic touch
- Less than neutral tuning
- May sound edgy with natively neutral bright partners
- No hardware volume adjusters
Best Pairing: Flexible up to 600 Ohms
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