What’s in the box
Before cracking open the box and getting hands-on with the Sparrow, it’s worth setting some context for what’s to come. EarMen is not exactly a household name when it comes to audio gear. But ask anyone who’s seen an Auris desktop amp handcrafted in Serbia, and you’ll see many dropped jaws and nods of approval.
An offshoot of the self-same Auris, EarMen is a sister company not shy to use its more famous sibling’s audio know-how while forging a niche of its own. The second thing you’ll notice about the Sparrow (the first being how ridiculously small it actually is in person), is how well it’s made. With a lightweight aluminium shell wrapped in polished gorilla glass, the Sparrow is precision-made and exudes quality, in the same way a really well-made and far more expensive IEM would do. It already looks and feels better than most of today’s popular stick-sized dongles, with EarMen poking fun at the most famous of these with the Sparrow moniker (because, as you may or may not know, Sparrows eat dragonflies).
Inside, the Sparrow houses a new all-in-one flagship SoC from ESS, the SABRE ES9281PRO, the first combination DAC/amp chip to offer built-in hardware MQA decoding. Made from high-quality parts, including a gold-plated PCB, the DAC section supports all PCM formats up to 32/384kHz and DSD128 (including DoP 128 for Mac), and the amp delivers up to 4.0 vRMS of voltage from its 2.5mm balanced headphone output.
The face of the Sparrow features a LED indicator light that illuminates an EarMen logo in different colours based on its active mode: white when powered, green when receiving a USB audio signal, and magenta when decoding an MQA stream. It connects to your smartphone or laptop through a USB-C port on one end (EarMen supplies both a USB-C to C and USB-C to A cable in the box, but alas not a USB to Lightning cable for iPhones), and to wired headphones via single-ended 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm ports on the other.
You could argue this is all par-for-the course for a $199 dongle in 2020, but shop around and you’ll soon realise the new bird on the block packs far more features and output options into its tiny frame than even significantly more money would otherwise buy you. Impressive on paper, but how does it all stack up when it comes to doing what it’s made to do?
Click on to find out…