disclaimer: The Sparrow was sent by Earmen for the purpose of this review. I have no financial interest in Earmen, nor have I received any remuneration for this review. If you have an interest in learning more about the Sparrow or Earmen, check out their website.
The packaging of the Sparrow is deceptive as the picture on the front of the box is actual size for the device and realistically you could have packed 20 of them in this size box. Packaging is fairly plain with a graphics on front and specs on reverse. Inside you have the manual, and a foam block with two cables one USB-A male to USB-C male and the other USB-C to USB-C male and the sparrow itself. The only thing lacking is a lightning to USB-C cable in the box but my apple made cable worked well for that purpose so while not included, it certainly is an option for those with i-phones.
The sparrow makes even the Hud100 look big. it is no larger than many of the dongles available. The unit is about the same dimensions as a USB drive in height and width and roughly a centimeter shorter than most of my thumb drives. Construction is glass and metal with a USB-C port on one end, an indicator LED on the main face (the Earmen logo), and 2.5mm balanced and 3.5mm single ended jacks on the other end. The unit has little heft, but looks and feels quite well made. It looks the part of a premium device.
The Sparrow uses Ess Technology’s ES9281Pro to do most of its work. The 9281 is a system on chip that incorporates a USB 2.0 controller, i2s, stereo line input, microphone input, and a DAC supporting up to 32/384 PCM, DSD128, and hardware MQA unfolding on chip. What ESS has done is created a chip (They call it a codec) that can handle USB input, convert that input to analog, amplify it and output it with almost no supporting characters involved. We are increasingly seeing either the 9281 or 9270 used in dongle products for this reason as they are low-power devices with very small footprints required to support them. The biggest difference in the two ESS chips is MQA support with the 9281 having full hardware unfolding and the 9270 omitting it. Needless to say there is a price difference between the two chips so some vendors will opt to leave off MQA to save on cost, while others like Earmen choose to use the more expensive part and provide the end user greater functionality. The trade off usually comes when we look at output power vs battery life as there is simply no way to increase output without increasing consumption commensurately. As such, there is always a target range of earphones and headphones products are designed to power, and it usually is those below 150Ω with fairly high sensitivities. The sparrow lists output as up to 4V into 600Ω balanced or 2V into the same via the single ended connector. I tested the sparrow using my 600Ω Beyer 990 and it was able to drive them to usable levels but not with a lot of headroom above that so I would say while possible, the sparrow is more at home with easier to drive models. When I kept my expectations to 300Ω and models with sensitivities in the high 90s or low 100s, all worked well.
Plugging the Sparrow into windows, mac, and android devices resulted in it being detected and working properly with no need of additional drivers. The LED indicator turned white as soon as power was applied and then green for file playback (PCM or DSD), Streaming Tidal Masters yields a Magenta indicator for MQA as well. Thankfully I never saw the red indicator which indicates power is present but no USB signal as in most cases that is indicative of a problem. I did find that when used with Hiby or UAPP, I did need to set the output to bit perfect in the software to get the MQA rendering to work correctly.
I tried the sparrow with a bit of everything around the house. laptops, desktops, phones, tablets, even a couple DAPs and it worked admirably with all of them. One thing I will warn about up front is when you plug in the sparrow, turn the volume down to zero before turning on any playback as it is considerably louder than most (especially the balanced output) and if you just plug it in on 50% volume and hit play you are likely in for a shock, and ear damage. Notes below are divided into balanced and single ended as they sound slightly different and deserve separate coverage.
Bass is good with some rumble and good extension. The limited output power prevents the sub-bass from really feeling visceral, but I have yet to find a dongle with that kind of potency to it. Mid-bass is fast and clean with good slam and detail.
Mids flow from the mid-bass with no change in level and again very cleanly presented with good detail and textures. While I liked the mids here, those who love mids really need to use the Sparrow in balanced mode as it has much better dynamics and layering and the mids come much more to life.
Treble has good detail as well and is still on the same level with nothing particularly jumping forward in the signature. Air and sparkle are somewhat limited, but extension is good with roll-off being above my own personal ability to perceive it. Here again, the treble sounds good on SE until you use the balanced output and realize what you were missing.
Overall, very linear and clean, but slightly sterile and lacking a touch in dynamics.
Bass: The first thing I noticed was how much better the extension is in balanced mode with what was a bit dull in SE suddenly digging deep and giving good enough rumble to be used for theatrical explosions etc. Mid-bass is fuller and more detailed with much better dynamics as well. The one drawback, at least to my ear is the bass is now slightly above neutral and those looking for true neutrality may want to eq it just a bit to return it to linearity.
Mids: Here again, much better dynamics are on display than the single Ended version. The Mids now have space to breathe and live and timbre is better with vocals much more lifelike and naturals and string tonality greatly improved. I love good mids, and the balanced output on the Sparrow is very capable. So much so, that I think the next version should omit the Single-ended connector and just offer the balanced. Its that much better.
Treble: Air and sparkle are much improved with the balanced output as the dynamics open up the space and give the treble more life and energy. Details are very good with a transparency that was lacking in the single ended output.
So you’d be excused for thinking I don’t like the single ended output after reading the above. The fact is, having compared it to others in my collection, the Single Ended output on the Sparrow is somewhere between the Dragonfly Red and Cobalt in overall quality and is no slouch, its just that the balanced output is so much better that it just blows you away when you try it and I can’t imagine wanting to go back to single ended knowing that option is out there. Its a bit like test driving a McLaren only to return to your Ford Mustang, sure the Ford gets you from point A to point B, but not with the same pizazz and excitement of the McLaren.
First off, you gotta love the sense of humor that Earmen have about their products. While the products themselves are all business, the naming is lighthearted and fun. The reason this device got named Sparrow? You guessed it, they eat Dragonflies. So does it live up to its billing as a Dragonfly killer?
Dragonfly Red – this is the price point equal of the Sparrow in the dragonfly line. Other than that, the two have little in common. Build quality is more premium on the Sparrow and the addition of balanced output is something no dragonfly can match. Sound quality wise, the sparrow is cleaner and more potent than the red in single ended mode and offers even more potency when using balanced output. While both support MQA, the Red supports PCM only to 24/96 while the Sparrow gives you the option of up to 32/384. With more and more music becoming available at 24/192, this may be a feature that tips the scales for the Sparrow if others don’t.
Dragonfly Cobalt – So does spending $100 more than Sparrow change the competition in favor of the Dragonfly? Nope, even on steroids the Cobalt still lacks the balanced output, is limited to 24/96 due to its USB section, and lacks the build quality of the Sparrow with the outer case on mine being barely attached to the internals. Both sound quite good and in single ended mode the sparrow is slightly more neutral while the Cobalt is bit fuller in the low end but both offer good detail and sound is nearly a wash for me. I find myself liking the sound of one a bit better for some tracks and the other for other material so this can come down to mood for me. With the addition of the balanced output to the fight though, the dragonfly quickly gets gobbled up by the Sparrow with improved dynamics as well as better output potency.
So yep, there you have it, the Sparrow does indeed eat dragonflies, or at the very least takes their lunch money and leaves them crying on the playground.
Pros – Premium build, exceptional sound quality in balanced mode, cabling options
Cons – Sound signature differences in balanced vs SE outputs.