Before I get to the final conclusions, let’s talk intangibles – those things you can’t measure, and maybe a thorn or two among the roses.
By and large, the EarMen Sparrow has a very natural, neutral tuning that prioritises details but not at the expense of musicality. The sound can best be described as transparent, giving vocals and instruments just enough body so they don’t sound thin, without unnecessarily colouring the sound. It’s a fairly linear response, not too bright or too warm, with no unsightly peaks or troughs to worry the measurebators.
I’ve already established the Sparrow’s advantages when used balanced, so I’ll only add here that if you find the sound too intimate single-ended, it really opens up in all directions with a good balanced headphone. Not to mention, balanced is significantly more powerful, which brings me to one possible quibble: volume.
This is more a warning than a design flaw, but because the Sparrow doesn’t have its own volume control, I suggest you turn down the volume on your connected device before hitting play. Let’s just say I failed to do so first time, and have never in my life yanked earphones out of my ears so quickly. I can still hear the ringing…
Call me crazy, but I’d also like to see a future version of Sparrow sporting a 4.4mm connector and nothing else. It really is so much better balanced, and since everyone and their dog is moving over to Pentaconn, that would be the logical next step for the Sparrow too. Throw in a 4.4 to 3.5mm adapter and you have the best of all worlds in one slimline device.
It also wouldn’t hurt for EarMen to include a small carry pouch in the bargain, maybe one that holds the Sparrow with space to spare for its cables and an IEM. I know I’m being greedy here, but a premium pouch for a premium device would round off an already premium package.
When I first switched to portable audio, I always imagined a DAP as the starting point for any system. The EarMen Sparrow has made me seriously reconsider that premise.
That I’m finding a similar emotional connection to my music with a $200 dongle as I would be with a high-powered DAP is testament to how well this little bird can sing. While I won’t go as far as to say the Sparrow renders higher-end music players redundant, it definitely skews the value proposition downward, far further down than I anticipated was possible.
While I haven’t compared the Sparrow directly to other similar-sized and priced devices, a quick glance around the Internet suggests EarMen have achieved what they set out to do, at least when it comes to dragonflies. Whether it can challenge other highly-regarded devices like Lotoo’s PAW S1 is not for me to say, but given how close it comes to the sound quality and (with IEMs at least) the power and control of my fairly formidable music player, I would easily believe the Sparrow is best-in-class for its size, price and performance by any measure.
Is it the right device for you? That depends. Do you use wired headphones but don’t want or need a dedicated music player? Are you a Tidal subscriber with a playlist full of hi-res MQA tracks? Do you regularly use your laptop or tablet to play music? If you answered yes to any of these questions, the Sparrow is a shoe-in. In fact, if you are someone who prioritises sound quality above all else and want to take it with you wherever you go, the Sparrow should be near or at top of your list.