Steven Rittey | 30th October 2020
For the next review in my series about pre-amps, headphone amplifiers and DACs, I am going up to the premium end of the headphone market to test the EarMen TR-Amp.
The budget JBL in-ear headphones that have been used for previous reviews have offered an admirable snapshot of how a DAC performs whilst out and about in an everyday setting, yet I’ve always felt with my review of both the EarMen Sparrow and DragonFly Red that I have just added a rear spoiler on the audio-equivalent of a family saloon rather than gone full-on GTi.
There is no point in having all of this quality audio gear to test and offering new possibilities in sound if I am not going to use a pair of reference quality over-ear headphones at least once.
As the AV Online showroom is temporarily shut due to the local lockdown, I have been able to borrow an ex-display pair of beautifully crafted Denon AH-D9200 headphones worth over £1300. These are the type of headphones that never leave the house, are wrapped in a silk bag for protection and even look ornamental on a stand. When the box says that something is handcrafted in Japan and is made out of bamboo, you do not take on them on the train to Manchester for example. They are certainly for ‘best’ and indoor settings.
This review aims to look at the EarMen TR-Amp, but also experience sound delivered through top-end headphones for the first time. Unlike the smaller EarMen Sparrow that is designed for portable use with phones, iPods and MacBooks, the EarMen TR-Amp is a chunky unit in an aluminium frame that feels substantial and nice to hold. The small, rubbery plastic pads allow the amp to be raised off the desk to avoid surface marking issues and the connections for the headphones have a distinctly industrial feel.
The EarMen TR-Amp is still portable in that you can easily transport the TR-Amp in the included mesh carry case, but this feels more like a computer or Hi-Fi accessory rather than something for ‘on the move’. If I was heading into the office, then I would put this in my laptop bag to listen to streams, saved albums or Internet radio, but for now, the TR-Amp is attached to my iMac at home using the included USB-A to C connections rather than my MacBook Pro. You can connect the TR-Amp to a phone using a USB-C to USB-C cable (not included).
I know that many reviews of these devices take a very technical turn, but I have decided to write about all reviews from the perspective as someone new coming into the world of AV and not dwell on the specs. There is one important detail to note though. Unlike the other portable DACs designed for smartphones that draw power from the source, the EarMen TR-Amp is battery operated and charges through the included USB-C cable via a compatible phone charger plug. A small blue light flashes to let you know that charging is in progress. You can also hook up a battery pack to recharge on the move if required and expect at least 4 hours of use before needing to recharge.
It is important to note that hooking up the EarMen TR-Amp to Apple products involves a simple, yet hidden change within the Mac settings. Under the bonnet of the iOS, you will need to go to the Sounds setting and change the output to the EarMen. Once connected, I advise you to be cautious about using the headphones before pressing play as the volume is dramatically increased.
You can control the volume on the TR-Amp using the silver knob on the unit. This is a plug and play device, but you will need to tweak the volume settings to get the sound just right. Too much and the sound could be grating and would certainly fatigue after a short time. Too little and you’ll miss out on the clarity and detail. Setting the volume is a balancing act, but I’ve found that it is best to keep the source set at medium and use the DAC for greater control. A small green light comes on when the TR-Amp is connected.
After completing several reviews, I can tell that I am learning more and more about the nuances of audio equipment because I am learning to drive the sound rather than just listening to music and accepting the standard output. Are these the first steps to becoming an audiophile? They might just be.
Moving onto the Denon AH-D9200 headphones, these are a flagship product and probably the finest headphones to grace my ears. I have trouble using over-ear headphones as I had my ears pinned back when I was younger and I find them to be uncomfortable as the pressure can be painful after long periods of listening. Needless to say, the AH-D9200 are very comfortable and there is a gap between the inner mesh ear-cups and the ear which is important personally.
The sound quality delivered through the EarMen TR-Amp is near impeccable, however, the enhanced power of the DAC means that the setting the right volume is important to avoid unwanted noise particularly on the treble. This is a problem that affects all headphones regardless of value when using DACs.
The Denon AH-D9200 are an expensive pair of reference headphones and will no doubt will only appeal to a select few. However, there is a feeling of the sound enveloping you rather than being pushed through the cord and straight into the ear. Music fills the ear-cup and creates an ambient sound environment.
Whilst listening to a Chilled Reggae CD and a selection of UB40 classics, in my mind I was transported to a tropical beach in Jamaica despite being sat in my lounge in rain-soaked Rochdale such is the clarity of sound, the feeling that wearing a quality pair of headphones brings and the level of detail that can be picked out.
To conclude my series of reviews on DACs, I feel that out of all of the pre-amps tested and reviewed so far, that I would probably choose the EarMen TR-Amp. Whilst there are practical limitations on using the device whilst out and about due to its size and bulk, I’ve found the versatile nature more appealing to my own needs of switching between the phone, MacBook and iMac. The Line Out also offers another output option too.
This is a fine piece of kit and with components from manufacturers such as Texas Instruments, you are getting a bit of a bargain here.
As for the Denon AH-D9200 headphones, I would love to say that I did love them. The problem is that they have to be handled a bit too carefully for everyday use surrounded by cups of coffee and wafers on my desk. That said, until the showroom re-opens, I am more than happy to keep on using them!
The EarMen TR-Amp DAC costs £269 and can be purchased here >>
The Denon AH-D9200 reference-quality headphones cost £1399 and can be purchased here >>