Happily, the TR-Amp makes good on that very promising specification – and it makes increasingly good as the quality of the system into which it’s implemented increases. Because for all that EarMen is happy to bang on about what an upgrade to your smartphone’s sound the TR-Amp is, the fact that it’s supplied with a shielded USB-A to USB-C cable lets you know where the company thinks this product should sit.
Nevertheless, because Hi-Fi+ is endlessly curious and rigorously thorough, the TR-Amp is tested when connected to a Sony Xperia 5 Android smartphone (via USB-C to USB-C) and an Apple MacBook Air (via USB-A to USB-C) with Shure’s excellent AONIC 50 over-ear headphones attached to the EarMen’s 3.5mm output. It’s also connected to an AVI Laboratory Series integrated amplifier (with the Sony smartphone as a source) feeding a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 607 S2 Anniversary Edition speakers, using a QED Performance Audio 40i stereo interconnect and QED XT40i speaker cable.
Admittedly a system comprising Sony Xperia 5, EarMen TR-Amp and Shure AONIC 50 isn’t really deserving of the description ‘portable’ (especially not if you’re rash enough to take the colossal Shure carry-case along for the ride), but a mobile music experience really doesn’t get any better than listening to MQA-powered TIDAL Masters – so that’s how the test begins. And there’s no denying a pass through The Divine Chord by The Avalanches [Modular Recordings] with the TR‑Amp taking care of business fairly wipes the floor with the (admittedly wirelessly provided) sound the Sony is capable of handing over to the Shures by itself.
Once you’re over the initial shock and awe of just how straightforwardly loud the EarMen is, it’s possible to revel in the absolute solidity of its soundstage and the prodigious amount of detail it retrieves. Low frequencies are burly and controlled, with ample extension and completely straight-edged positivity. High frequencies shine benignly, with the substance to balance their brightness. And in between, the MGMT vocal is balanced nicely – there’s enough low-level harmonic variance to give proper expression to voices, even if (as here) they’re scrapping for primacy in a fairly busy mix.
Introducing the TR-Amp into a desktop system bring, if anything, even more tangible improvements. A 24bit/192kHz FLAC file of The Band’s Jawbone [Capitol], delivered by Colibri to bypass Apple’s abiding disdain for the FLAC format, enjoys unshakeable rhythmic expression and a stack of dynamic headroom. The timing of the EarMen is such an improvement over that of the DAC sitting behind a MacBook Air’s headphone socket that it’s almost comical.
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