How does she sing?
The sole purpose of an external audio dongle like the EarMen Sparrow is twofold: to make your music sound better, and to power harder-to-drive IEMs and headphones than your smart device, tablet or laptop won’t otherwise do.
I’ve spent a few weeks using the Sparrow out of various devices (mainly an LG V30+ smartphone, which sports an ESS SABRE DAC of its own, and an apple MacBook Pro, which doesn’t), along with a selection of budget and high-end IEMs. For kicks I also tried it with my full-size 300-ohm Sennheiser HD800 headphones, a notoriously picky headphone when it comes to amplification.
What follows are my thoughts on how well (or not) the Sparrow stuck to its task.
The story of the Sparrow, at least when it comes to sound quality and power, is a story of two outputs: single-ended and balanced.
The debate about which connection is ‘better’ is one of the most vociferous in all of audio, at every level, so I’m not going to regurgitate it here. It’s enough to say that, in my opinion, the ‘best’ output is the one the engineer designed to sound better. If an amp is designed to perform optimally single-ended, it will likely sound every bit as good as a balanced amp. In amps that offer both options (as is the case with the Sparrow), the main advantage of using a balanced cable and IEM or headphone – if indeed your IEM or headphone can accept a balanced cable – is generally an increase in power, up to four times as much power. A quick glance at the specs (2.0 vRMS single-ended and 4.0 vRMS balanced) shows the Sparrow is no different in this regard.
But more power doesn’t always equate to better sound quality. In some cases, more power means more noise, more distortion and other nasties. But, without spoiling the rest of the review for you, I’ll tell you this much: the Sparrow suffers none of the downsides and gains all of the upsides for being balanced.
But let’s start at the start, shall we. A single-ended 3.5mm connection is by far the most common and popular way to plug a cable into just about any device with a headphone jack. The very term ‘headphone jack’ is almost synonymous with the format. The LG smartphone has one, and even the MacBook Pro, which has shed just about every single useful output known to man other than a few USB-C ports, has somehow kept the jack.
So does the Sparrow, by virtue of its audio smarts, make your headphones sound better than a device that already has a built-in headphone jack?
The short answer is yes. Playing a well-recorded and multi-layered track like Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Story’ through my phone has always been a good experience. The LG’s superpower is its SABRE DAC, and I chose it specifically for this feature. But plugging the same IEMs into the Sparrow yields an even better one: Brandi’s vocals are notably more distinct, better separated from the melee of instruments around her, and the sense of space is better defined too.
Switching tracks (and genres), the classic ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles is a staple demo track for most audiophiles because of how well it’s been recorded, and to hear it from the Sparrow takes an already pleasant experience on the phone (and even directly through the MacBook) to new heights. The version I like to use was recorded live and features on the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album, and from the very start of the track, as the noise of the crowd fades in and the guitars start to play, you’re treated to what I can only describe in layman’s terms as really excellent sound.
Digging a little deeper, I’d say what the Sparrow adds – or rather removes – from the stock phone sound (and is even more apparent with the MacBook) is noise. That’s not something easy to define, but digital noise is what you get when you cram a whole lot of electronics into a tiny space like a phone or laptop, and then try squeeze clean audio through it all. I’m not talking noise as in glitches or distortion or fuzz, but rather a slight veil over the sound, a haze that makes it harder to make out details like guitar plucks and vocal shifts.
The Sparrow, unencumbered by noisy electronics and relying on the host device for nothing more than a digital stream of music, can unpack that music and present it more clearly, with more detail, and that’s exactly what it does. Even single-ended, it has more power to feed the IEMs or headphones you’re using, and can better control that power to improve the control of the music you hear.
Is the jump in quality a big one, and enough to justify investing the money you could otherwise save by just using the built-in jack or the adapter cable that comes with your device? That’s not easy to answer, and depends more on the headphones you’re using, whether or not they need more power, and how sensitive you are to the slight uptick in sound quality.
But the Sparrow has an ace to play that most other dongles don’t that make it an absolute must-buy for any serious audio enthusiast.
Find out what after the jump…