The big brother of the venerated EarMen Sparrow and Eagle has a sound that is just as smooth, detailed, and expansive as its smaller brethren but with a little more juice. Great pick if you want a refined sounding MQA DAC/Amp that’s compact but still has the grunt to drive all your power-hungry headphones. The price isn’t bad either.
A couple of months back, I reviewed a nice USB DAC Amp from a European company called EarMen. It was called the Eagle, and I was impressed by its classy looks and smooth, detailed sound.
EarMen is the sister company of AURIS, a company known for making beautiful high-end headphone amps, and they claim that EarMen products are the result of R&D trickle-down from the more expensive offerings.
This time around, I’m reviewing their transportable DAC Amp offering, the $250 TR-Amp, a somewhat compact battery-powered device housed in a CNC aluminum milled enclosure. The design reminds me of some popular iFi Audio DAC/Amps, like the nano iDSD Black Label or the micro iDSD Signature.
Like those products, the TR-Amp is designed so you can use it both on your desk and at the coffee shop, providing a clean digital music signal plus enough power to drive full-sized headphones.
Disclaimer: The EarMen TR-Amp was sent to us by EarMen in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to them for the opportunity!
|USB C / DATA
|USB C / CHRG
|6.3 mm Stereo
|3.5 mm Stereo
|THD+N (2.7V, 32R)
|DSD 128 Native / DSD 256 (DoP)
|Up to 384 kHz
|Up to 384 kHz
|Visit mqa.co.uk for more information.
|3700 mAh / Up to 10 Hrs
|Dimension L x H x W
|129x66x30 mm / 5.08”x2.6”x1.18”
|240 gr / 0.53 lbs
The TR-Amp, designed and assembled in Europe, comes in a dark metallic red color and measures 5.08 by 2.6 by 1.18 inches. The housing is comprised of all metal, which according to the manufacturer, blocks external noise.
This DAC Amp has an unconventional dual single-ended headphone output setup on the front, with one 3.5mm and one 1/4” jack. This dual parallel configuration is something I haven’t seen before, and at first glance, I thought the 3.5mm jack was a balanced jack.
You can run both jacks simultaneously, but I would be cautious with this, especially with high-impedance headphones.
Also on the front is a Silver volume knob, which is made of aluminum just like the enclosure. It feels nice in hand and turns smoothly. The volume adjustment is also smooth and uniform throughout the volume range, which is nice.
Between the headphone jacks and volume knob, a small LED indicates battery life, format, and connection status. Unfortunately, there’s no indication of bit depth or sample rate, which is somewhat disappointing but not a deal-breaker by any stretch.
Note there’s also no gain control, so you may have noise and/or volume issues with sensitive IEMs. I didn’t experience much noise, but there was a slight rustle when adjusting the volume for the Kinera Freya IEM (110 dB sensitivity). That’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking to use earphones with this amp.
White: Device is ON
Green: Connected / PCM
Red: (flashing) Battery is < 20%
Blue: (flashing) Charging
In the rear, the TR-Amp has two USB-C ports, one for data and one for charging. Two ports let you power the unit and transfer music at the same time. Next to the data and charging ports is a dip switch that toggles between fixed or variable volume thru the RCA output, which is right next to the switch.
If you want fixed volume coming from the RCA out, you set the dip switch to “Direct.” If you want variable volume, (to control the RCA output with the TR-Amp’s volume control), you set the dip switch to “Pre-Out.”
No matter which option you pick, the headphone jack output is variable, and yes, you can use both the RCA Out and the headphone output simultaneously.
The RCA Output is a nice little extra if you wish to run your input signal out to a pair of powered speakers or want to use the TR-Amp as a DAC only, plugged into an even more powerful headphone amp.
Inside the TR-Amp is a 3700mA battery rated for up to 10h of music playback depending on headphones and volume. The DAC section is based around an ES9038Q2M SABRE 32 Reference DAC chip, a widely used and well-respected platform. It’s the same chip used in the beloved AudioQuest Cobalt USB DAC, a unit that has received stellar reviews (including one from yours truly).
The USB Input handles PCM up to 768kHz, DSD256 via DoP, native DSD512, and MQA (rendering only), which means it handles just about everything.
In the box, you get a mesh carrying pouch that is thick enough to provide (a little) shock protection, along with a rubber band to strap the TR-Amp to your DAP, Phone, etc. You also get a nice long USB-C to USB-A charging/data cable, plus a user manual.
Listening To The EarMen TR-Amp High-Performance Portable USB DAC
To start my listening tests, I hooked the TR-Amp up to my HP Envy X360 laptop and queued up some music on the TIDAL Desktop App. The Mr. Speakers (now Dan Clark Audio) AEON Flow Closed was my headphone of choice, and I plugged it into the 1/4” jack on the front of the DAC/Amp.
The TR-Amp easily drove the relatively power-hungry AFC headphones, giving me a nice listening level with a little more than a quarter turn on the volume knob.
Not only did it make them play loud, but it also made them play with gravitas, bringing out the AEON’s low-end punch, something not every portable amp can do.
From there, I tried the Hifiman SUNDARA with the TR-Amp, and I dug its lively performance when plugged into this DAC/Amp.
With the SUNDARA, I could appreciate the TR-Amp’s tonal balance. It’s excellent, running pretty much neutral, except for a slight emphasis on the treble, which is not overdone. Overall the sound is open and airy, with nice detail on the instruments and vocals.
When listening to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled album in MQA, I liked how well defined the instrumentation was. The strings popped, horns sounded realistic, you could clearly hear the trailing notes of the piano. The presentation had depth and dimension to it, plus it was lively, just like you would expect a Latin Jazz performance to be.
If I had any complaint about the TR-Amp, it would be that it could use a little more warmth. The sound was detailed with decent separation, but it was just a bit hard and cold and not entirely natural or rich. Some may say “digital.”
That said, its performance is engaging for the price, and you could probably mitigate some of the coldness with a warmer headphone than SUNDARA. As it was, I liked how the music unfolded in front of me and had me engaged.
Comparing it to the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt, which sells for $50 more at $299, and uses the same DAC chip, the Cobalt sounded just a little more natural with more openness, plus it had just a bit more weight and richness on the bottom end.
That said, the Cobalt was a little bit harder in the treble and didn’t have quite the definition or separation of the TR-Amp. Instruments and vocals were just a little more fleshed out on the EarMen product.
The Wrap Up
I really liked the EarMen TR-Amp. While it could sound just a tad more natural, the overall performance is detailed yet smooth with decent depth and separation. So if you’re looking for a battery-powered DAC/Amp with an RCA output and pleasing sound that won’t break the bank, you should check this one out!
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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.