EARMEN ANGEL DAC/headphone amp
+ Neutral and reference level sound; balanced outputs for both headphone and line out; USB, optical, and coaxial inputs; toggle between pre or fixed line out.
– Gets warm if used while charging; needs two USB-C cables to use while charging;.
A guide to the ratings
EARMEN flies high again with its newest portable DAC/amp – Angel. So far, EarMen has been producing portable devices marketed to the lower price brackets and competing against brands like FiiO, SMSL, and Topping. But being the sister company of Auris Audio – a well-regarded audiophile company with a pedigree – it was only a matter of time before EarMen came out with a portable DAC/amp that would go toe-to-toe with other premium products, and perhaps its own higher end offerings like the Tradutto desktop DAC and the CH-amp desktop amp.
Angel is the brainchild of engineer Filip Tot, as written on the unit itself. It comes in a beautiful, vibrant blue anodisation, something that’s uncommon in this neck of the woods.
Inside the box are a proper quality USB-C cable, RCA-to-3.5mm coaxial cable, 3.5mm adapter for optical cables, and the unit itself. Everything is encased in a fairly simple box with sponge padding.
The form factor reminds me a lot of iFi Audio’s iDSD and iDSD Diablo. It is elongated and a little heavy with good build quality all around. Nothing rattles and parts match with good tolerance so I wasn’t too surprised about the US$799 price tag.
Under the hood, it is clear the company is willing to put its money where its mouth is. At the heart of Angel is the ES9038Q2M ESS DAC chip that provides an astonishingly low 0.002% THD+N from the balanced out. The circuit is fully balanced and can be exploited using the 4.4mm headphone and line out. Yes! You didn’t read that wrong, it has a 4.4mm balanced line out at the back to be used with balanced amplifiers. The signal-to-noise ratio is also high at a respectable >119dB from the balanced outputs.
For Tidal and MQA fans, Angel not merely an MQA renderer but a full-fledged MQA decoder. It also supports most file formats ranging from PCM to DSD to MQA. There aren’t any analogue inputs, so you’ll have to make do with either a coaxial, optical, or USB-C connection.
Providing power are two 3,000mAh batteries that charge from zero to full in three hours. EarMen makes no claims over how long the batteries will last but I haven’t gotten more than seven hours per charge.
The EarMen Angel was my loyal companion for several weeks, coming along to many work-related events as well as being on my desk as a home DAC/amp. The dual USB-C input is a little annoying considering the charging and data connectors are separate. The unit also gets warm in operation – especially if you use it while charging, much like a class A headphone amplifier.
As a computer set-up, the LED indicator is extremely useful to show the type of MQA file playing. The volume control is digital and multi-turn so there’s no notch on the knob to show you the volume level. The LED indicator doubles as a volume level but will only indicate when you adjust.
EarMen touts Angel as a reference portable device, and throughout testing, it proved to have a big desktop-like sound. I started off my evaluation with Here But I’m Gone by Vanessa Hernandes on Tidal. Its certified MQA decoding capability was amazing, and listening to the track with the Vision Ears VE8 in ear monitors (IEM) revealed shocking realism and neutrality. Due to the sensitivity of the IEMs, an iFi IEMatch is absolutely essential for a pitch=black background.
Jumping around genres, I played One of These Nights by The Eagles. Everything sounded linear with a sweet midrange. There’s no exaggeration either on the opposite frequency extremes. Compared to the Chord Hugo V1, Angel sounded like the poster boy for neutrality.
Everything sounded smooth with Angel. And although it is transparent, the sound just edges at the border before being too analytical. Coupled with the fully balanced topology and an incredible dynamic range of 120dB, Angel sounded larger than it physically is.
Single-end vs balanced
In essence, the sound from both single-ended and balanced are the same but the contrast could be heard in the presentation. There’s definitely a noticeable increase in headroom for your power hungry cans. Opting for balanced provides a more spacious soundstage with improved imaging and depth. Akin to updating your prescription glasses, going balanced improves sharpness and clarity.
With all this praise for the balanced output, don’t be misled into thinking the single-ended output is a slouch. The sound signature remained neutral and clean, low end went deep with excellent control, and the highs were presented with a lifelike timbre.
THE LAST WORD
I was impressed by the capabilities of the EarMen Angel, through and through. And as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t find any glaring faults to change my mind. There are no bells and whistles like bass boost or filters compared to competitors, but the neutral sound signature is a clear sign that EarMen kept the signal path pure, with no coloration.
There’s tough competition aplenty for Angel, from products costing the same as well as cheaper ones. You could save a little and get yourself the Chord Mojo 2 for something that sounds a little leaner, or you could splurge a little and get the iFi iDSD Diablo for that extra grunt. But if you’re looking for true-to-life neutrality, the EarMen Angel is recommended.
Sources: Mac mini M1, MSI 7RDX / Headphones: Sennheiser HD525, Final Audio Pandora Hope VI, Hifiman Ananda Stealth, JVC HA-S500 / IEM and Earbuds: Vision Ears VE8, VE Clan Zen / DACs: Chord Hugo V1, Matrix Mini-i