The Earmen TR-Amp is a portable integrated DAC and amplifier using an ES9038Q2M chipset, with MQA capability, and up to 400mW of output power. It is priced at $249.
Disclaimer: The Earmen TR-Amp sent to us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion in this review. We thank EarMen for this opportunity.
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Note, this review follows our new scoring guidelines for 2020 which you can read up on here.
The Golden Age of portable DAC and Amps has long since past. I recall the days of strapping my source player to a small box of an amplifier via RSA or ALO Audio.
It has been a while since I’ve seen a company introduce a new box style product as Earmen has with their newer TR Amp, which I will be detailing for you today. Nostalgia!
The chassis is full aluminum and quite dense. This is a stark contrast from the Donald DAC I have just reviewed, also from Earmen, which feels very hallow and weightless compared to this TR-Amp.
No doubts about it, the build is very nice on this one and reminds me a lot of that Golden Era of portable DAC’s and Amp’s we were all stuck in for a time, roughly 8 years ago before the portable music player market advanced their tech into the budget-friendly realm.
The USB ports are sturdy and so are the ¼ and 3.5mm…wait a second! This baby has both a ¼ and a 3.5mm!? Dear Audio Deities. It only took the better end of a decade for someone to do this? Finally! I’m so happy to be able to plug in via a 3.5mm portable cable or a larger ¼ and not have to worry about adapters.
Thank you so much, Earmen, for such a basic thing we’ve been deprived of for so long. So few other companies do this…yay! Back on track, the output ports have no jiggle that I can detect. But, the 3.5mm port output on my unit is a little glitchy. Sometimes, a gentle tap is needed to get the audio to play normally and not sound mono. Not always, but sometimes.
I certainly had a defect, or shipment damage on it, because I’ve not found anyone else citing this type of a problem in any other reviews I’ve read. Not a big deal at all, I’ll happily take a tap now and then when I can freely swap ¼ and 3.5mm as I please.
The ES9038Q2M is a serious improvement over the last generation 9018Q2M series that I really hated. I enjoy this 38 series family, as implementation to implementation, varying from company to company, is wildly different in tonality and presentation.
Meaning, the circuit really sounds different depending on who is putting it together, and if there was any intent to make it sound a specific way.
I have to say, for the price, this unit sounds good overall but has a tendency to sound a bit thin in physicality. 384Khz and DSD256 (via DoP)/native 128x DSD is a great thing to have for just $249.
This is a rare occasion where the current DAP market is less stellar than the portable amp/DAC market that can attach to your phone and how that combo compares to said DAP market.
By that, I mean as much as I love the Hiby R3, it offers a 9028Q2M and it simply doesn’t sound quite as nice as this Earmen TR-Amp as a raw USB DAC via a PC. Strapping this TR-Aamp to your phone to use as a source will sound better than the R3 by itself.
Of course, you sacrifice size and portability for sound quality.
Apparently, it is quite beefy at 3700maH, which their website lists at around 10 hours of playback. I have found that to be somewhat confirmed, as I’ve had a bit more than that with very easy to drive headphones on lower volume playing all night, vs a little less with more potent and needy headphones looping the same playlist.
Thankfully, you can use this TR-Amp without the need for a direct power supplied connection to a computer or outlet. Again though, to charge it and use it while it is being played, via a computer as a USB DAC, you’ll need a second USB-C cable plugged in somewhere, otherwise, the unit will run off its internal battery and you don’t want that for home usage and long term listening sessions.
At 400mW max, the unit is moderate in output power and not the strongest out there, as the roughly similarly priced Xduoo XD-05+ has a whopping 1000mW (1watt!) of output power and can really burn through demanding headphones up to 600ohm quite easily. This Earmen TR-Amp is not sufficient in that regard.
You get volume, yes. But, an audiophile can feel the lacking punch that usually comes with a lot more power. More so, the XD-05+ can be further enhanced with easy to install modding and so far I am not able to find any references to anyone else modding this Earmen TR-Amp.
New TR Model Coming Soon
It is important? Nah, not really. I was told that they are right now producing a new model with much higher output, so pick your poison, both are lovely. If you need power though, there are much more powerful Amp and DAC’s out there.
If you want something that actually is small, can be used as a phone source and also has both 3.5mm and ¼ output? This is another great option too! Having the ability to listen to two headphones at the same time is always fun as well.
Packaging & Accessories
Not much to report here, just a standard cardboard box and a flat style USB-C cable. What worries me here is that the product requires two USB-C’s to function with power via a wall outlet and for charging, as well as another separate USB-C for data transmission. I’d have preferred two USB-C’s included instead of one, but the one that is included is great.
I foresee myself dropping the other C’s I have at the moment and opting to use this one indefinitely because the build and style are so good. A+ on this cable choice, fellas! I love this USB-C cable. Truthfully, we all likely have a spare USB-C somewhere, and if not, well, you can grab one for a few US dollars pretty much anywhere.
Bass quantity is fairly moderate in quantity, I find it neither lacking nor overly boosted into what I would consider bass-head levels. Due to the 400mW output power there, I find the very demanding Planar Magnetic setups to be unsuitable for a recommendation. I’d be opting for something much more potent unless you are using one of the super-efficient Planar headphones out there.
For example, my newer Dan Clark Aeon 2 really sounds severely lacking via this TR-Amp, due to requiring more power than what the TR-Amp can dish out. However, at the same time, the Hifiman HE-4xx series, the newer versions, sound fantastic through the TR-Amp.
Rig pairing is important, most Dynamic driver headphone setups sounded good here, but anything over 300ohm seemed to struggle.
With EQ and MSEB in mind (a great DSP on the free Hiby music app) this Earmen TR-Amp is less than stellar in responsiveness. Dropping in an extra +5dB doesn’t do much for the experience, which means relatively low responsiveness to alteration.
However, thankfully, the experience doesn’t get muddy at all or warped. You can dial in quite a lot of extra something via EQ before you hear or feel any difference, so feel free to crank it up to +6dB to even +10dB (as I have with Foobar2000’s realbassexciter) and enjoy a bit extra bass that comes through without any serious issues.
For the price, I don’t have any other DAC’s and Amps in this price tier that do a stellar job with the bass response to EQ anyway, so I don’t take points off for it at all. This is something most of us know is something that the budget to the lower end of the middle tier is just not really expected.
If you want a stellar bass EQ alteration response, I’d opt for something else a bit more expensive than this.
This Earmen TR-Amp/DAC sounds just a bit recessive in nature and placement. Certainly not a forward sounding experience, but not one that is recessive in a problematic way. We call this “a relaxed sound” and that is a good thing depending on what type of listener you are and what headphones you like to use.
If you aren’t into the very forward and intimate sound, preferring instead something a bit more pushed back and distant, then this is a great option for you. This TR-Amp is a highly contrasting sounding product to my Monolith portable amp, for example, which sounds much more in my face when A/B’ed together, each playing the same track at roughly the same volume level.
Audio Technica headphones lack that intimacy they usually offer, but Sennheiser feels right at home here with the TR-Amp. I have a few models, such as the HD650 and HD6xx that sound amazing with this TR-Amp, so I would absolutely recommend those pairings to anyone interested.
The top end of the product is very dry feeling, lacking intensity or sharpness that most amps and DAC’s have in this price range. It is reserved and enjoyable, but not musical or exaggerated in quantity.
I find it to be what I would consider “safe” in quantity allotted and able to pair well with most headphones. In fact, headphones I know to be harsh ended up feeling more refreshing through the TR-Amp. So, that is a plus for me to be able to use hostile treble products and actually enjoy them on some level. It has nothing to do with fidelity, it has entirely to do with tonality and presentation.
The TR-Amp is not potent in strike factor (that physical impact and wince effect) so the experience ends up being presented on the softer side. As far as fidelity goes, the top end of the TR-Amp is modest at best and what I would consider solid for the price.
Specialists vs Generalists
There are certainly some specialized treble products like it out there that do it better, but they lack elsewhere too vividly. So, toned back and relaxed is the name of the game with this one, I feel like it was specifically designed to be just enjoyable overall no matter what area you are focusing on.
It is refreshing, to say the very least, to have a non-harsh tonality and presentation right at the bottom side of the middle budget tier of Amps and DAC’s.
This is a very coherent sound presentation! I feel like the experience is exactly equal parts height, width, and depth. If ever there was a coherent sounding poster child for USB DAC’s, this one could be it.
My immediate impressions are always “dang, it really feels like the entire image is perfectly shaped and nothing is bigger or smaller, or standing out from anything else in the stereo void.”. How odd it is to actually get a product that is equal parts everything. Not that this is a bad thing, just vividly unique in that regard.
The Xduoo XD05+ has more width than anything else it offers, the Monolith has more depth than anything else it offers, etc etc. A/Bing those with the Earmen TR-Amp here results in the Earmen being the more cohesively pieced together product of the lot.
The downside? The presentation that is very coherent, is only moderate in size. Much like the Beyerdynamic T1 headphone: a headphone that has the most coherent stage out there, but is relatively moderate in physical size and vastness.
This TR-Amp doesn’t extend very far in any direction. It is not something I would recommend for those with large sounding headphones. I would recommend it for those who have products setup for mildly relaxing presentations though.
I would like to see more power output in any future models, which I do hope Earmen considers because I really enjoy the sound this TR-Amp offers. It is a very nice all in one option and right now, that is what most audiophiles and general consumers want.
Need a portable amp? No worries. Need a USB DAC that can be used via a PC or a phone? No problem. Need something that is relatively small and offers a very coherent sound presentation? This is for you then. Earmen did a good job with this one, no doubt about it.
As silly as this sounds, most amp’s don’t come with a great USB-Cable like this, I wish more did. And that makes me super happy that quality was highly considered and an important factor for this company to offer.
- PCM 32bit /384kHz
- DoP DSD256
- Native DSD128
- MQA rendering
- SNR of +128dB SNR A-Weighted,
- -112,5dB THD+N,
- 400mW into 16 Ohm
- 350mW into 32 Ohm