The Low Down
For folks who want to improve the sound coming from their smartphones (and laptops) while on the go, a high-quality compact USB DAC can be a godsend. A good one will give you clean, noise-free output along with additional detail and depth, all without weighing you down. To that end, the $129 EarMen Eagle is an extremely lightweight and pocketable USB DAC Amp combo that does all of that with a minimum of fuss.
It has a solid aluminum and glass enclosure that feels good in the hand, and the included USB-C adapter makes it plug and play for Android phones right out of the box (you’ll need an Apple adapter for iPhones). EarMen is the sister company of high-end headphone amp manufacturer AURIS, who designed the EarMen Eagle, and their expertise is evident when you hear its smooth and weighty sound. The tonal balance is the best I’ve heard in a sub-$200 USB DAC.
If you like a lot of sparkle up top, it may be a little too smooth for your taste (not for me), and it won’t drive power-hungry planars, but I highly recommend it for efficient headphones like SUNDARA, Grado, and the like. It’s the most refined sounding DAC Amp combo around a hundred bucks.
Disclaimer: The EarMen Eagle was sent to us by the manufacturer in exchange for an honest review. EarMen provided no input regarding the opinions expressed.
The EarMen Eagle is about simplicity at its core, which jumps out at you as soon as you open the box. All you get is the DAC/Amp itself and a heavy-duty USB-A to USB-C adapter, and truth be told, that’s all you should need, especially if you’re using it with an Android phone.
It’s also compatible with iPhone, but you’ll need an Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter sold separately. It costs about $30 bucks and works like a charm.
The Eagle is plug and play no matter which OS you use, so setup is quick and easy. You just connect it and go. No driver install is required.
The Eagle’s design is also straightforward, basically an aluminum frame with glass-like top and bottom panels. This allows it to be lightweight (0.53oz) while still managing to look elegant. It’s also very slim and compact, probably the smallest DAC/Amp I’ve seen with a full-sized USB connector on it.
Inside, Eagle is based around a 32-bit SABRE DAC chip capable of decoding PCM up to 32/384, along with DSD64 and 128. That’s DoP, not “Native” DSD. There’s no MQA, but you can step up to the EarMen Sparrow ($199) if you need that.
EarMen is quick to point out all the efforts taken to keep noise to a minimum, pointing to the use of “Super LOW ESR tantalum capacitors, high-grade components in the power supply, and 4 layer gold plated PCB technology.”
At 62mW into 32ohms, this DAC/Amp combo is firmly in the upper half of USB DACs in terms of power. However, several models in the top quarter, like the THX Onyx, can provide double the juice.
As long as your not looking to drive big planar headphones, you should be fine. I tried it with my Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow Closed, and it wasn’t quite up to the task, but it did just fine with the Hifiman SUNDARA.
The EarMen logo doubles as an LED on the top of the Eagle, with a White light indicating a general connection, a Green light indicating PCM/DXD/DSD decoding, and Red indicating a lack of connection.
There’s nothing to signal which sample rate is being decoded, which is disappointing. You have to depend on the source to tell you, which isn’t ideal.
Listening To The EarMen Eagle
For my Sound Test, I hooked the EarMen Eagle up to my HP Envy X360 Laptop and iPhone XR. On both devices, I played a bunch of Hi-Res tracks from Qobuz (Free Trial Here). My headphones of choice were the Ultrasone Performance 880 and the Hifiman SUNDARA.
If I had to sum up the EarMen Eagle’s sound in one word, it would be “smooth.” In this price range, many DAC Amp combos attempt to manufacture detail by boosting the treble and upper midrange. But often, that translates to edginess, something I’m very sensitive to.
When listening to the Eagle, I noticed its total lack of hardness in the sound. The music just flowed and didn’t harden as you turned the volume up. This isn’t what you expect from an inexpensive ESS-based DAC, as they tend to be peaky up top.
That said, you can still hear plenty of the detail and clarity ESS chips are known for, and all the talk of low noise components seems to bear out when you hear the depth this DAC is capable of.
When listening to “Speak Like A Child” by Herbie Hancock, I was amazed at the layering and separation provided by the Eagle and the natural presentation of the instruments. The DAC put each instrument in its own little bubble, which is what you want to hear from a good DAC.
The drums, the piano, and horns were presented with such an elegance that they entranced me. I can’t stress enough how out of the ordinary this is for a USB DAC at this price point. The sound was remarkably engaging.
If I had any complaints about the EarMen Eagle’s sound, it was a slight lack of top-end air, which made the presentation a little compacted widthwise. But that was forgivable when you factor in how deep the presentation was and how well it placed the elements in the mix. That’s more important to me.
The Wrap Up
I’m a big fan of the EarMen Eagle. As long as you temper your expectations power-wise, you will find an easy-to-use, affordable DAC/Amp combo that will bring your hi-res tracks alive! Its sound is quite refined for the price point, with plenty of depth and separation. If you’re sensitive to peaks in the upper treble, its smooth presentation should be right up your alley.
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My hunger for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.