A Taste of the High End.
PROS: A high-quality neutral sound, clean and clear presentation, spacious soundstage, very versatile thanks to its low noise and high-power output, excellent build quality with attention to detail.
CONS: Some waterfall hiss with the most sensitive IEMs, 4.4mm headphone out compatibility issues with some plugs.
I would like to thank Miroslav from EarMen for providing me with the EarMen Angel portable DAC/amp for this review. No incentive was given for a favorable review.
EarMen Angel Specifications
- Inputs: USB-C (Charging), USB-C (Data) and S/PDIF (COAX/TOS)
- Outputs: Single End 3.5mm, Balanced 4.4mm
- DAC: ES9038Q2M
- Audio DSD 256 DoP / Native DSD 512, DXD Up to 768 kHz, PCM Up to 768 kHz, MQA Rendering, MQA Full decoding, OFS, MQA, MQA Studio, MQA Auth
- Battery: 2 x Li-Po 3000mAh
- Charge : Use 5V >= 2A adapter
- Dimension: 152 x 27 x 66mm (L x H x W) 6″ x 1.05″ x 2.6″
- Weight: 340 gr / 0.75 lbs
- Price: US$799/€799
|Single-end with Gain+||Balanced with Gain+|
|USB input||S/PDIF input||USB input||S/PDIF input|
|Output Level||7.2Vrms 0dBFS||7.2Vrms 0dBFS||8.5Vrms 0dBFS||8.5Vrms 0dBFS|
|Single-end output||Fully Balanced output|
|Direct Out||Pre Out||Direct Out||Pre Out|
|Output Level||1.5Vrms 0dBFS||7.2Vrms 0dBFS||3Vrms 0dBFS||8.5Vrms 0dBFS|
- https://duneblue.com (distributor)
For some time now I have been moving into desktop audio, starting almost two years ago with the purchase of the venerable Sennheiser HD650, reviewing an entry-level desktop stack and getting lucky with Dune Blue (the Dutch distributor for brands such as EarMen) lending me some cool stuff to try out. I must however admit that it has only been with baby steps since that time because of budget-related issues. Or perhaps I should say “Barnie-related issues”, as that is the name of the canine culprit quite literally eating away my budget. I guess that is why I have been interested in intermediate solutions that sit somewhere between a DAP and a full desktop setup. Those offer the advantage of portability, while adding the power usually reserved for a desk-bound setup. They always seem like an affordable and very versatile alternative. The recently released EarMen Angel is a perfect example and when I saw it, I immediately contacted EarMen who kindly sent me over a review unit to satisfy my curiosity.
EarMen is a relatively new company, but comes with some serious ‘pedigree’ behind it (pardon the pun, I have dog for brains). That is because EarMen is a sister-company to Auris Audio, which is renowned for its super high-end amplifiers, DACs and turntables. Most of their products are well out of my reach even without taking Barnie’s dinner into account, but they have been firmly on my radar for their ‘Euterpe’. The Euterpe is a beautifully designed all-in-one headphone tube amp and DAC that also functions as headphone stand and I love that design. Indeed, Auris Audio creates gorgeous products often using natural materials such as wood and even leather. That does of course come at a price and this is where EarMen comes in.
EarMen’s products are designed different from Auris Audio in that they are meant to be accessible to more people. EarMen seems to aim at bringing the Auris house sound down in size and price so that everyone can enjoy it anywhere. That last bit is also a key difference. EarMen started with a focus primarily on portable use and producing products that cater to the needs of modern users. Even though I used to pride myself on my ability to avoid streaming music (such blasphemy!), I have now become a full convert and feel lost if I don’t have access to my precious Tidal. It is a new way of experiencing music and that requires new tools for the job. EarMen set out to produce those tools by combining quality and convenience. They have branched further out recently with the release of a very interesting series of desktop products. These include the CH-Amp, Tradutto DAC and Staccato streamer, to make up for a very capable stack. Of course, EarMen are still best known for their portable solutions such as the TR-Amp and Donald DAC, as well as the pocket-sized Eagle, Sparrow and Colibri DAC/amps. The Angel is the latest addition to their portable solutions and seems to be a bigger brother to the TR-Amp.
The Angel was designed by Filip Tot. I know that because it says so on the Angel itself. Indeed, on the EarMen website you will find his story of the development of the Angel. It is a personal touch from what seems to be a company where its employees are encouraged to explore and innovate freely. I greatly appreciate that because all too often we (audiophiles) tend to forget that behind the products we use there are passionate people working long hours. I know from experience what it is like to dedicate an unhealthy amount of time and energy to achieve a result, only to be forgotten by those who benefit from it. Acknowledging Filip Tot’s many hours of work to develop the Angel is a wonderful gesture of appreciation.
Those who know me, know I generally prefer a simple unboxing that gets straight to the good bit and that is exactly what you get with the Angel: A no-nonsense black box that opens up to reveal the user menu with underneath the Angel itself. A few accessories are included as well. Two adapters for use with the COAX/TOS input, as well as a USB-C to USB-C cable.
The cable is a little bit stiff and I did not find it the nicest cable to use when I connected the Angel to my MacBook Pro. I prefer a more supple cable so I can push the cable to lay exactly how I want it. Or more accurately, how my OCD wants it because I need my workspace ordered just right to minimize distractions. My guess is that most people will consider it just fine for desktop use, but perhaps not ideal for portable use where a shorter, suppler cable is more practical. Still, most cables I have seen included are USB type A to type C and with increasing standardization to type C, this cable is more future proof.
The design of the Angel is very nice. The housing looks like it is the same type of CNC machined, high-grade aluminum housing as was used with the TR-amp, except that the Angel is a larger size. It makes for a sturdy feeling design. It also looks gorgeous with that blue color. I have a soft spot for blue and love this color. Darker would be perfect for my own personal preferences, but this gets close and probably better compliments the red of the TR-Amp.
On the bottom are rubber feet for secure placement, but it is of course the front and the back where all the action happens. At the front, from left to right are: The 4.4mm balanced out, the 3.5 single ended out with above that a LED indicator (with a surprisingly large number of things it can indicate), the Gain+ button with its dedicated LED located below, line out switch and finally the volume control that doubles as the on/off switch. On the back there are (again from left to right): The USB-C charge port, USB-C data port, S/PDIF (COAX/TOS) input, 3.5mm single ended line out and finally the 4.4mm balanced line out.
In terms of practical use everything feels very satisfying to use. Funny to use a word like “satisfying” here, but every aspect of the Angel gives that sort of feedback when I use it. Like someone -I’m looking at you Filip- spent a silly amount of time fiddling with buttons and dials until he found the ones with just the right kind of feel. Even the noises the Angel makes sound like it was done with great care and attention. Switch to Gain+ and the Angel gives this pleasing ‘click’ to confirm you made the right choice when you pushed that particular button. Even when switching off, the click the Angel makes seems to gently say “goodbye”. I dare say Filip, you need to get out more and work on your vitamin D production.
Another thing I noticed was that whenever I changed something, like switching headphones/IEMs or the Gain+ setting, the volume seemed to reset. It might not seem that important, but this is such a key feature to me. I previously reviewed the Dethonray Honey H1 DAC/amp and with that one I had to turn the volume wheel after pushing the gain button to activate the higher gain, which all too often caused a significant volume jump with sensitive IEMs. I got so traumatized by it that I still don’t dare keep my IEMs in when switching anything on any other piece of gear. Because of this feature, the Angel has now become my therapist, helping me recover and become confident again in pushing buttons while wearing IEMs.
Is the design of the Angel flawless? Not quite. When I used the DITA Dream XLS with the 4.4mm balanced plug, I found that the left side cuts out if the plug is fully pressed in. Basically, it needed a small spacer to fit correctly. It could be argued that this is down to the plug, not the Angel, and indeed I have come across cable manufacturers who included such spacers with their cables. Equally, I have not had this issue with other devices myself. I therefore share this observation free from judgement. Which is a posh way of me saying I will spare you the audio equivalent of a philosophical ‘chicken or egg’ debate.
Under the Hood.
The Angel is a fully balanced DAC, headphone amp and pre-amp with a battery for portable use. The battery is a two-cell battery with 2 x 3000mAh, which will give you – I am quoting the website here- “many hours” of use. That is not a very specific specification (and the box actually states “up to 8 hours”), which I expect is because the battery life depends on how you are using it. That is at least my own experience. With IEMs and Gain+ on I could get a fair number of hours use, around 6 to 8 hours, which is consistent with what is on the box. With the HD650 that seemed to have reduced quite significantly. Mind you, I did not keep a timer at hand and simply used the Angel. Based on that experience I feel that for on-the-go use with sensitive IEMs or easy to drive portable headphones, battery life is good. With harder to drive headphones it might be somewhat limited, but then it is more likely that it will be behind a desk with ready access to a charger. Charging should be quick, less than 3 hours, when using the correct charger, i.e. one with a 5V >= 2A adapter. I used one from Apple that stated it was 5V and 2.1A, but for some unknown reason that took much longer to fully charge the Angel.
The DAC section is based around the ESS ES9038Q2M chip and decoding goes up to PCM 768kHz/32, DSD256 via DoP (Native DSD512) and full MQA. The amplifier is fully balanced and the signal from the DAC to the headphone out is only amplified to minimize distortion. As expected, the Angel can provide plenty of power with 7.2 Vrms from the single ended headphone out with Gain+ on and 8.5 Vrms from the 4.4mm balanced headphone out with Gain+ on. If my calculation is correct, that is up to 2.2 W. With the line out it is the same for the pre-out, 7.2 Vrms SE and 8.5 Vrms balanced, with direct out at 1.5 Vrms SE and 3 Vrms balanced.
All that power means that in use the Angel runs a little warm, but certainly not hot. I felt it was more like a nice and cosy handwarmer. (Does it show our energy bills are up this Autumn?) You will unlikely be able to fit the Angel in the pockets of your jeans, but should you have jeans capable of accommodating it, then the temperature will not be a threat to any parts of the anatomy.