All about balanced
So, you know how earlier I pondered the meaning of life and the fundamental differences between single-ended and balanced outputs on audio devices? If the EarMen Sparrow was my only reference, there’s no debate whatsoever. It’s balanced or nothing.
While the 4.4mm Pentaconn format is quickly becoming the de-facto standard for balanced output on both portable and desktop devices, it makes sense for EarMen to have used the still popular, original 2.5mm balanced output on the Sparrow. Not only is it much smaller, which allows the Sparrow to be smaller, it’s also fairly ubiquitous. If you use balanced cables for IEMs or portable headphones, chances are you’ll have at least one with a 2.5mm termination.
Practicalities aside, if using the Sparrow single-ended is an improvement, using it balanced is a revelation. I can pick up the basic character of an audio chain from the opening chords of BEYRIES ‘Alone’, a simple vocal set against sparse instrumentation that on really good gear feels like Amélie Beyries is sitting right next you, singing in your ear. With the Sparrow connected balanced to a pair of 64 Audio IEMs, I could almost feel her holding my hand, a tear slowly parsing her cheek.
I had to double check I was listening to music from a MacBook when the drums of Lorde’s ‘Royals’ kicked the fillings out of my back teeth, such was the Sparrow’s power and control of the lower registers on this, my go-to bass test track. For a few seconds I was sure I was still connected to the $800 HiBy DAC I was using to compare and contrast the Sparrow’s sound, but no, it was definitely the Sparrow.
Where the quality gap was easily more obvious in the single-ended sessions, switching to balanced really blurred the lines between what I’d become accustomed to from my higher-end gear, and what I was hearing from the Sparrow. This was especially true with more complex music, like the busier passages in Daft Punk’s ‘Giorgio By Moroder’ and the collision effects in ‘Contact’ from the same, sublime Random Access Memories album, where the sound was more even, more controlled, less congested and better defined using the balanced output.
Often I’ve said I hear a wider stage and better separation of instruments with balanced headphones, no matter the source, which is not always obvious and always seems to be up for debate on the popular audio gear forums. Listening to the Sparrow, this point at least is not up for debate.
The Sparrow, by design or otherwise, is at its very best when used balanced. I briefly mentioned the HD800 and how, not expecting much, I used it with the Sparrow to test the power output, if nothing else. The HD800 is a performance machine, and like all performance machines, it needs the right amount of juice to perform. While it did perform connected to the Sparrow single-ended – if your definition of performance is ‘making a sound’ – it only came to life when I switched to balanced.
Even then, I’m not going to grade the Sparrow on how well it drives an HD800. It’s enough to say it didn’t disappoint, and while sitting on the couch listening to soft music with a giant pair of headphones hooked up to a tiny dongle might look bizarre, I’ll wager it still sounds much, much better than doing the same with a pair of consumer headphones, regardless of how easy they are to drive.
Click on for my closing thoughts…