Flying I Go
- Delicate sound, with a neutral-analytical tendency, but very mature, with great resolution and definition.
- Great fidelity and balance between the three bands.
- Adequate size to hold a battery.
- Still has a beautiful and attractive design line.
- Very successful addition of controls.
- Very good power level.
- Ultra low impedance, which makes it very suitable for very sensitive and difficult to drive headphones.
- Battery life.
- The power specifications are lower than my measurements.
- The box specifies the output voltage as 2V(SE)/4V(BAL), when in fact it is 1.5V(SE)/3V(BAL).
- There is no ASIO driver.
- There is no short USB cable, the long one is rather stiff and it is only Type C to Type C.
Link to the Store
Once again, I am flattered to be able to review an EarMen product. This time, it’s the recent premium battery-powered balanced headphone/preamplifier DAC/AMP called the Colibri. Actually, it»s a doped-up EarMen Sparrow: its aesthetics are very similar, but it includes elements that enhance its body and performance. It has a battery that gives it a battery life of up to 5 hours. It incorporates on/off, volume (+/-) and bass boost buttons. The balanced output is now 4.4mm and there is an extra USB Type C port for charging the battery. For all these reasons, the size has been increased, but the dimensions are still contained, only slightly larger than a traditional dongle. EarMen has opted to continue using the ES9281 PRO chip as the DAC, which allows it to support playback of files up to 32bit/384kHz PCM, DoP, DSD64, DSD128 and MQA. The Colibri is still quite a powerful device, capable of providing up to 3V on the balanced output and 1.5V on the SE output. In the following review we’ll look at these and other goodies from this new little portable audio device.
- ESS Sabre ES9281 PRO DAC.
- Hi-Res audio 32bit/384kHz PCM, DoP, DSD64, DSD128 and MQA.
- Balanced 4.4mm output up to 4V (3V according to the web), 280mW at 32Ω, 560mW at 16Ω.
- Single Ended 3.5mm output up to 2V (1.5V according to the web), 75mW into 32Ω, 150mW into 16Ω.
- THD Balanced 4.4mm output: 0.002%.
- THD Single Ended Output 3.5mm: 0.001%.
- Battery life up to 5 hours.
- Dimensions: 77x35x14mm (3.03″ x 1.38″ x 0.55″).
- Weight: 51gr (0.11 lbs).
The EarMen Colibri comes in an eminently black box, with dimensions 194x145x46mm. On the main side, a real image of the device can be seen on the right-hand side. On the left side, in white lettering, you can see the brand logo, the name, the model and a description of the device. On the back, the Colibri is shown on all sides, as well as its specifications. With the cardboard cover removed, the box is completely black, with an even darker inscription of the logo and brand name. After lifting the lid you can see the instruction manual, a warranty card and underneath, the Colibri inside a dense, grey foam mould and a couple of other accessories, which are in a recess, on the right. The complete contents are:
- The EarMen Colibri.
- A black synthetic leather case with clip.
- One USB Type C – Type C cable, textile covered, 1m.
- An instruction and specification manual card.
- One warranty card.
There is no short USB Type C – Type C cable and no USB Type A connection. The textile covering of the cable is nice, but it feels a bit stiff.
The leatherette case is quite nice, but the clip gives me a mixed feeling: I know it can be very useful for hanging in a pocket, but I don’t know how practical it is attached to a phone or DAP. On the other hand, placed on my desk, connected to my PC, such a clip is not the most suitable thing to leave on the table. There are no markings on the case either, so we have to know all the connections and buttons beforehand. On the main side, there is a circular cut-out that reveals the LED with the operating logo.
The packaging is rather large for the size of the device.
Construction and Design
The Colibri measures 77x35x14mm and weighs 51g. It is slightly larger than a normal dongle, but it has a battery, so the size is contained. It still looks very similar to the Sparrow: it is a complete aluminium block, machined on a CNC machine. It has two glazed sides. On the upper face, at the top, is the brand name, in silver. Two thirds of the way up is the logo (in white), which in turn is the operating LED. At the bottom is the model, also in silver. On the rear face there are many silver inscriptions: at the top is the list of compatible files, in the centre the Hi-Res logo, at the bottom the brand name. Along the perimeter, there are the descriptions of the buttons and USB inputs. There are 4 round buttons, two on each side. On the left are the volume buttons. On the right, at the top is the on/off button and at the bottom, the bass boost button. On the same side, at the bottom, is the serial number, in small white letters. On the bottom edge, on the left is the USB Type C female data connection and on the right, the charging connection. On the top edge are the audio outputs, 4.4mm on the left and 3.5mm on the right. The balanced connector is gold-plated, while the SE is not.
The design is beautiful, sleek, attractive, and continuist. The glazed surfaces attract fingerprints very much. The weight is restrained and I don’t understand why the SE output is not gold-plated.
As usual with Earmen, the Colibri is compatible with Android (via USB OTG cable), DAPS and PC with Windows 10. It does not support older versions of Windows. It does not have ASIO drivers. It will also connect to an Apple IOS smartphone, but it will require a suitable cable which is not included (Lighthing to USB). Apple MacOS is also supported.
To switch on the device, press the power button for 3 seconds. After switching on, the front LED will flash after 3 seconds to indicate the battery status:
- 1 flashing: the battery has a charge <25%.
- 2 flashes: the battery has a charge between 25% and 50%.
- 3 flashes: the battery has a charge between 50% and 75%.
- 4 flashes: the battery has a charge between 75% and 100%.
The front LED has the following indications:
- White: Connected.
- Green: PCM, DSD, DXD.
- Magenta: MQA Rendering.
- Red: not connected.
When the bass boost button is pressed, the front LED glows brighter.
The volume buttons allow you to control the volume of the connected source, be it a smartphone, DAP or PC. A short press of the on/off button pauses playback. Another press resumes playback.
With the current firmware, the operation is quite stable, although I have sometimes encountered a little hesitation in its operation, especially when starting playback. At this point there is a fade in. But the complete use is not completely smooth. In any case, these small details are insignificant.
I had seen a discrepancy between the output voltage specified on the website and the one specified on the box. After measuring, the website is right: the maximum voltage for the 3.5mm SE output is 1.5V and the maximum voltage for the 4.4mm Balanced output is 3V. Well, it’s actually slightly lower in both cases, but I don’t think my measurement system is ultra-accurate in this respect either.
What does seem clear is that the output impedance is ultra-low. The maximum voltage measured for 33Ω and 100Ω loads, both SE and BAL outputs, yield the same voltage value as no load, implying that the impedance tends to zero. This is undoubtedly a great data that determines that the Colibri is very suitable for use with very sensitive, low-impedance IEMS.
The current delivery limit, on the other hand, remains at that magical 90mA in normal ambient conditions. This indicates that the specified power is higher than the actual power in the measured cases. On the other hand, the device is still very powerful, I just think that the specifications are based on the theoretical voltages and not on the actual current delivery, as is often the case.
No load SE
The voltage at 1kHz is 1.43V.
The voltage at 1kHz is 1.35V, which gives a power of 120mW and the magical current value of 90mA. The power value falls short of the theoretical 150mW at 16Ω, a figure which, on the other hand, cannot be achieved with a maximum of 1.5V output, but with 1.55V and almost 97mA of current.
The voltage at 1kHz is 1.44V and a power of 63mW is obtained. Again, the power figure is below the specified 75mW, which again requires a voltage of 1.55V.
The voltage at 1kHz is 1.44V, achieving a power of 21mW.
No load BAL
The voltage at 1kHz is 2.89V.
The voltage at 1kHz is 1.30V, which gives a power of 110mW. Actually, the power is far short of the specified 560mW. At what point can the Colibri deliver 190mA at 3V, for a load of 16?
The voltage at 1kHz is 2.89V and a power of 250mW is obtained. On this occasion, the current is 88mA. That’s close to the 280mW specified. But a quarter of a watt is a great figure.
The voltage at 1kHz is 2.89V, achieving a power of 83mW.
Note: Bass boost deactivated.
Completely flat in the audible range, with very slight dips at the extremes. Note that both outputs overlap across the entire volume range, implying that there is no crosstalk.
Note: Bass boost on.
Bass boost implies an increase of just over 3dB, between 10Hz and 150Hz, with a rapid drop down to 300Hz.
Note: For the sound description I have never activated the bass boost.
Earmen has used the same DAC as for his previous Sparrow dongle, the ESS Sabre ES9281 PRO. And indeed, the sound has very similar characteristics. But this time, I find the Colibri has a more distinct Sabre character, being more neutral and somewhat cooler. It is clear that the frequency response is completely flat and that the ultra-low output impedance means that the connected headphones are respected as much as possible. This is something that seems simple, but not all audio devices combine the basic parameters of flat response and very low output impedance. Earmen’s devices do, and the Colibri is excellent in this respect. The result is a very clean, clear, crystal-clear sound, although perhaps a little thin in the mids and highs.
The bass has a technical nuance that adds precision and speed, generating a delicate, high-resolution texture that is far removed from an analogue feel. It’s not that the sound comes across as harsh or digital, but it does offer a sense of perfection and restraint that is on the edge of naturalness. The level of depth achieved is undeniable and the Colibri will be able to handle the sub-bass with remarkable technical ability, endowing a speed and dryness of punch that will enhance the natural conditions of many IEMS. The sense of cleanness and accuracy in low end development is evident, generating a specific and thorough bass, whether from the SE output or the BAL output. The balanced output is even superior in this respect. Thanks to the great control the Colibri gives to the low notes, the lower range has a finite feel, limiting depth and expansiveness. Yet the perception of cleanliness, clarity and great technical performance add extra separation, layering and layering to the range. Undoubtedly, the Colibri improves bass decay, which is faster. In this way, transients are perfected and the interband zones are rendered well-defined and neat. It is clear that the low end is not the most analogue a source can generate, but if you are looking for bass with a clear tendency towards perfection, the Colibri is in that game. And the descriptive level achieved with it is likely to offer a different point of view, rich in detail and nuance, than other sources I am used to. Undoubtedly, it is a reinterpretation of the bass, endowed with an elevated richness, where textures, beats and physical sensations acquire a distinctive and very enjoyable dimension.
The mid-range runs along very similar lines. However, the Colibri’s edge is slightly to the detriment of the corporeal sensation offered by the central range. The density of the midrange is restrained, so instruments and voices feel a little thinner. It’s not that they come across as thin, light or bland, I think the more appropriate word would be delicate. Yes, the central band is still drawn with great precision and resolution, but its interior is subtle and fragile, yet at the same time complex and very descriptive. Both voices and instruments are completely imbued with intrinsic detail, forming an exquisite, light, glassy unity that takes on a sense of brittle vulnerability, but never breaks. It is in this way that a sense of clarity and transparency reigns supreme, as well as a stellar separation. The Colibri will be able to extract the tiniest nuances from the recordings and the connected headphones, all without falling into a totally aseptic, clinical or merely analytical sound. The difference is in the richness it brings to the music, in the sense of fragility and intrinsic detail that each note possesses. The effect of all this is a central band that is executed in a very pure and free manner, where there are no strings attached, the elements sound clean, very transparent, but never blurred, as there is no loss of musicality at any point. It is true that those looking for warmth will not find it, but neither will they find an abrupt or harsh sound, in any way. As I say, they will have to adapt their ears to a singular purity, full of idiosyncrasy, capable of providing a sonority worthy of the best fidelity, but with a different personality.
The highs of the Colibri are the result of the mature conjunction of a device with a high technical and analytical capacity, a high level of resolution, precision and splendid control. It is spectacular to observe how the high range is reproduced with a level of brilliance and finesse, without ever losing balance or musicality. The treble is drawn at that crossover point, between crunch and harmony. Really, the result is neutrality, but enhanced, augmented and extended. Little more I can say. The top notes are fast, they fade quickly, they have no aftertaste and their brightness is ephemeral. Moreover, they are perfectly defined and emphasised in their sweet spot, they have the finesse and delicacy of the rest of the bands and that is something that, for this band, has more positive consequences. In no case is it a sharp sound, and that is the best thing. No one range overpowers the other. The sound is balanced in that sense and each band uses its delicate power to bring out the best in itself, bringing its best qualities to enhance the musical richness and level of fidelity. This is how the treble is vivid, pleasing and expansive.
But if there is one area where the Colibri is not so good, it is in the area of three-dimensionality. While its level of separation is excellent, this does not help it to generate an ethereal and immersive image. The feel of the scene is quite frontal, with very good height. This aspect is surprising, and how the voices benefit from it. But there is no intimacy in the recreation either. The voices have a good sense of distance, without being congested by excessive closeness. In that sense, both the instrumentation and the voices enjoy that sense of freedom, transparency and cleanliness, which achieves a unique and separate identification within the image. But just as the width is vast, the depth is not perceived as exaggerated, nor is there a vaporousness that expands the elements on a three-dimensional level. It is as if the great capacity for definition were sufficient to fix the elements in their positions. On the other hand, thanks to this ability, the location of the elements is totally unambiguous. You can’t have everything, but what the Colibri offers is highly enjoyable. Even so, the first sensation I had with the Colibri in comparison to other dongles, including the Sparrow, was that the sense of grandeur of the scene, which together with the excellent level of transparency and silence between elements, was a differentiating element of its high sonic category. The final conclusion is served, his scene is big, but it lacks an enveloping, steamy, three-dimensional level, even if its separation is almost exceptional.
Comparative note between SE and BAL output: Balanced outputs are almost always better. This case is no exception. Although I find the SE connection quite good, I am migrating the vast majority of my preferred IEMS cables to use balanced outputs. My feeling is that the Colibri’s 4.4mm connection shows the true capacity of its delicate and smooth character, conjuring a wider soundstage, sharper separation and extra transparency. The differences lie in sensations that are hard to describe, but which make me feel better and enjoy the music even more.
The Sparrow is one of my favourite dongles and is my benchmark for comparison. Its sound level and power are quite impressive. It is worth remembering that, according to my measurements, through the 3.5mm SE output and at 33Ω, it delivers the same power as the Colibri. However, the Sparrow does offer 2V on SE and 4V on BAL. On the other hand, for the balanced output, the little Sparrow breaks the deck by offering 2V at 33Ω (120mW). Still, the difference with the Colibri is here: the big brother gives it all in the same conditions, reaching 250mW. Impressive.
Looking for the 7 differences in sound between one and the other can be very entertaining. In many situations, the behaviour is similar. But I find the Sparrow slightly warmer.
In the low end there is more substrate, body and density in the Colibri, as well as more complexity in its presentation. When headphones with good low-end potential are plugged in, the better descriptive ability, the more delicate and richer texture offered by the Colibri is revealed. The Sparrow’s bass punch is powerful, but more concise, its development is simpler and not as expansive as the Colibri. This greater low end travel adds to its complexity, bringing a more flavoursome and lush feel to the Colibri’s low end.
I think the Colibri’s midrange is where the differences are most pronounced, in its favour. The sound of the Sparrow feels a little harsher and less refined. Whereas the Colibri achieves a point of superior softness and sweetness, without losing an iota of the technical competence it possesses.
The idea of delicacy is shown with greater emphasis in the upper zone of the Colibri, separating it from the greater roughness of the smaller Sparrow. It is clear that this continues to refine the Colibri’s sound compared to its smaller sibling. The simplicity of the little one is also felt here and the Colibri is able to extend the treble a notch further, lingering a little longer in the ambience. Again, the Sparrow seems to have a faster decay, but this detracts from the descriptiveness of its representation. The Colibri’s treble manages to recreate itself in a softer, but also richer and more respectful timbre.
In terms of staging I find the performance offered by the Sparrow drier. There is a touch of freshness in the Colibri that brings a superior vibrancy, something that offers superior dynamics and a greater sense of movement. This is how the image feels more realistic and somewhat superior. In terms of separation of the elements, the greater simplicity of the Sparrow limits the perception of a darker background and more obvious distance. The Colibri, with its greater sweetness and delicacy, has that point of greater resolution that widens the space between the notes.
I can’t help quoting Miroslav from Earmen, in his presentation of the Colibri in the Head-fi.org thread: the Colibri is a Sparrow on steroids. Fortunately, this is not about adding such substances to a device, but about expanding an already quite good base: that of that little Sparrow. The little dongle was already a sound reference in its price range and adding superior functionality such as a volume control, a battery, on/off/play/pause control and bass boost only completes an intrinsically very good product. It is true that the aesthetics have been maintained and, in this respect, there is no major evolution. But there were few dongles as small and refined in this respect as the Sparrow, so what was the point of changing the image?
Successfully, the Colibri has two USB Type C inputs, one for charging and one for data. It has also opted for a balanced 4.4mm output, as is the current trend. It has limited its output voltage, but has increased its power compared to its smaller sibling, which is an achievement, demonstrating better performance in its electronic design.
In terms of sound, which matters most, the added steroids have not implied a higher level of loudness, but a greater delicacy. Technically, the Colibri is a step ahead of the Sparrow, it is also more refined and sweeter, achieving a higher and more noticeable value of definition, resolution and richness in the texture. In fact, the Colibri is a logical evolution within the Earmen sound: to add musicality and delicacy to a sound with an analytical tendency, to make it more attractive and universal, approaching a superior fidelity.
Earphones and Sources Used During Analysis
- HiBy R3 Pro
- Hidizs AP80 PRO-X
- Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 Pro
- Penon ORB
- Penon Sphere
- Penon PAC
- NiceHCK M5
- ISN H40
- Rose QT9 MK2
- Letshuoer S12
- Dunu Falcon Pro
- Rose Martini
- TFZ Tequila Pro
- Hidizs MM2
- Yanyin Aladdin