EarMen TR-Amp Review
By Stephen Hornbrook on
The EarMen TR-Amp is a portable battery powered USB DAC, preamp, and headphone amp all in one small package about the size of a pack of playing cards. Inside, the TR-Amp is well-equipped to handle all the latest high resolution audio formats thanks to the ES9038Q2M SABRE Reference quality mobile audio DAC. Feel at ease knowing your DAC can handle PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz, native DSD128, MQA, and more even when on the go.
Powering the music is a 3700mA battery, capable of up to 10 hours of playback. To harness that battery, EarMen has chosen the Texas Instruments TPA6120 current-feedback AB amplifier chip which provides extremely low noise and up to a terrific 128dB of dynamic range. The amp can deliver up to 400mW of power, enough to drive most headphones.
With so many people now working remotely, the mobile office has become more popular, so why sacrifice great audio quality being away from home? The EarMen TR-Amp offers exceptional features and performance for the price. Even though it may not be slim enough to carry in a pocket, it certainly is small enough to toss in a laptop bag. This makes it an ideal companion for enjoying high fidelity playback wherever you may be working from.
Features and Design
The TR-Amp not only provides robust headphone amplification, but is also a great way to start enjoying better musical reproduction thanks to the excellent ESS DAC and preamp mode. Down the road, the preamp out can be used to hook up a more powerful headphone amp, or to add Hi-Res decoding to a stereo system.
The ESS ES9038Q2M SABRE 32 Reference DAC is a high performance 32-bit mobile audio Digital to Analog Converter with gobs of dynamic range and ultra-low distortion. It handles up to 32bit/384kHz PCM, DoP DSD256, native DSD128 and Meridian’s MQA.
The TR-Amp also features dual headphone outputs that allow two listeners to enjoy the same music or show together. A great feature to have on a long flight when marathoning a tv series with your partner. On the front of the unit is one ¼” (6.3mm) headphone out and one ?” (3.5mm) along with the power/volume knob and a small power/charging LED. On the back is the left and right line out, a toggle switch for pre out and direct mode, and a separate USB-C input for charging and data stream. The separate USB-C inputs allow for a more permanent desktop setup.
The TR-Amp is built using an all aluminum chassis which is light, yet robust. It comes colored in a satin red finish. Included in the box is a USB-C to USB-A cable. Hooking it up to a Mac is as simple as connecting the USB-C to the data input on the TR-Amp, and USB-A end to a computer. A driver download is required for Windows based machines.
The TR-Amp can run for up to 10 hours, the exact time depending on volume and the headphone load its driving. For most of my listening, I used the Audeze LCD-1 planar magnetic headphones and the Audeze LCD-X. For testing the preamp mode, I hooked the TR-Amp up to my Denon X4400H for stereo speaker use.
EarMen TR-Amp Sound Quality
Using Qobuz to stream 24-bit Hi-Res audio allows the TR-Amp to show off it’s true capabilities. I am a big fan of Hi-Res audio as the increased dynamic range allows for more life-like musical reproduction. For example, the unique vocal tones of Kat Edonson singing “Rainy Day Woman” starts to come alive with added texture and dynamics. The baritone sax line then slams with authority. Melody Gardot sounds velvety smooth in “You Won’t Forget Me.” Her voice, warm and inviting, is brought to life via Qobuz Hi-Rez and the TR-Amp. The sinewy strings rise and fall with a lovely grace. Great analog sound has a warmth and smoothness to it, and the TR-Amp is capable of bringing that from the digital domain with Hi-Res recordings.
Playing through an external headphone amp rather than directly from a computer is worth it for the lack of noise alone. Phoebe Bridgers in 24-bit/96kHz is shockingly clear and shows off how quiet the TR-Amp is. Through the EarMen TR-Amp, I can listen to the lyrics in “Garden Song” rather than hiss and crackle of a noisey built-in headphone output. The Audeze LCD-1 planar magnetic headphones are a wonderful match for this amp. Plenty of amplification power to let the LCD-1 sing, and the LCD-1 are small and light enough to also take on the go. Fantastic rhythm and dynamics are present on Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness”, the kind that promotes uncontrolled foot tapping and finger drumming.
The little TR-Amp even has plenty of juice to power a full-size planar magnetic headphone like the Audeze LCD-X. However it is not quite powerful enough for more finicky loads such as the Hifiman HE-6. When compared to my reference Auralic Taurus amp, the much cheaper TR-Amp does not resolve as much detail, especially in the low end. The only surprise is just how well the Texas Instruments TPA6120 chip is able to keep up with a full size, plug-in, reference headphone amp. On Kings Of Leon’s “100,000 People”, the bass line is there but lacks a touch of control, yet there is still plenty of punch to the percussion. The Hi-Res recording provides that warm softness that analog fans love and the TR-Amp never gets in the way of all those extra bits of sound information.
Even with compressed audio via Spotify, the TR-Amp will elevate the performance of any headphone over a built-in computer headphone jack. All the intimate details are heard on Luke Howard’s “Portrait Gallery”, from the wonderful tone on the piano to the background creaks that bring you into the recording studio.
Hard to find any faults with the EarMen TR-Amp when you consider what they are delivering for $249. However, it would be nice if there was a battery meter. Going a step further, a way to see the current signal’s bit depth and sampling frequency would be nice. The amp being a little bigger than a stack of playing cards makes it awkward to slide into your pocket. Other portable headphone amps like the Oppo HA-2 are much slimmer, allowing pocket use alongside a phone.
EarMen TR-Amp Conclusion
The EarMen TR-Amp is a pretty amazing little headphone amp on its own, able to drive even full-size planar magnetic cans such as the Audeze LCD-X. It is also a fantastic USB DAC that can decode all the popular Hi-Res audio formats. Even more impressive is that this little device can deliver all that on the go, for just $249. Incredible value and performance for the price.
Small, affordable, and well-equipped to expertly convert high-resolution digital audio to the analog realm. Features excellent sound with low noise and plenty of power.
No battery meter and not quite slim enough for your pocket.
High fidelity on the go. Setup that remote office wherever you like without sacrificing on your high quality audio needs. The EarMen TR-Amp is an excellent way to enhance the performance of a good pair of headphones and take advantage of Hi-Res streaming providers like Qobuz.