Today we are taking a look at a product that is a first for me, from a company called EarMen. EarMen is a Chicago/Serbia based affordable portable audio based sub company of Auris Audio, a maker of high end tube gear. The piece of gear in question is called the Angel, a portable DAC/Amp combo unit. I have a fair amount of experience with pieces of equipment similar to this, particularly from iFi Audio, so I was really interested to see what EarMens take on the product type would turn out like.
The Angel itself is a fully balanced unit, with two gain modes and both single ended and balanced line out options on the rear. It comes in a very striking anodized blue finish, with both 4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm SE outputs on the front. The DAC section of the Angel is based on the ESS ES9038Q2M chip, is 768khz/32bit capable, and also DSD and MQA capable. The data and charge inputs are separated, and on the rear of the device. I’m honestly not a huge fan of separating the two on portable devices, but I do understand why companies tend to go this route. It is usually done to help separate noise issues from the power section from the data stream of the unit. Still, on portable pieces of gear I find it really handy to have them combined, and only having to bother with one input cable. I suppose this depends on your use case, and a more reference based IEM listener may really want the separation to increase audio quality, but a more casual portable listener like myself may be more convenience oriented. The Angel does also have combo mini toslink/spdif input for data use, instead of the USB-C input, if you prefer to use a different input type.
From the balanced headphone output in Gain+ mode, the Angel puts out a respectable 8.5Vrms. This makes it a suitable choice for IEMs, and up to moderately difficult to drive headphones. I wouldn’t recommend it for something like the 1266TC from Abyss, or the HE6 from Hifiman. However, something like a Sundara or similar would be driven well from the Angel, and I doubt you would struggle in terms of needing more volume level.
In terms of overall tonal balance, I would say the Angel is mostly neutral, bordering on a slightly lean sound signature. I would describe it in an overall sense as being clean, clear, and crisp. I will mention more about comparisons later on in the review, but the Angel having this tonal balance is a nice change of pace from its main competitors, the iDSD products from iFi audio, which are a bit warmer and more organic sounding. Options are good to have.
The bass is in line with the neutral signature I mentioned above, bordering on slightly lean. This works well with warmer headphones and IEMs. Compared to something like the iDSD Signature from iFi, the Angel has a slightly faster and sharper sounding leading edge in the low end, and overall. It’s a slightly faster, quicker sounding DAC/Amp than the iDSD’s. The low end has a good amount of impact to it, and is slightly less rounded off sounding than the iDSD Signature. If you prefer a slightly quicker leaner sound signature, the Angel is a good option to check out.
This sound signature also carries through the mids, with the low mids being neutral and not warm at all. It is a fairly even keeled sounding mid range, but I do feel the upper mids come across as slightly more forward than the iDSD Signature for example. The slightly bloom and low mid warmth present on the iDSD Signature is not present here, and help give the overall tonal balance a slightly clearer and cleaner sonic image.
The treble on the Angel is slightly forward sounding, and has the fairly stereotypical clean and clear sound you might expect from the ESS DAC. Its definitely not grating and over blown like some of the early 9018 based DACs were, but there is a slight amount of edge and sharpness to the treble. This does lend itself to a non veiled sound signature, which works well with warmer and thicker sounding IEMs or headphones.
In terms of overall technical performance, the Angel is a strong performer. It has the aforementioned clean and clear type sound signature, with decent detail levels for the price point. I do think it is similar in overall detail levels to iFi’s iDSD Signature, but due to its tonal balance, comes across as being slightly more detailed. It has a slightly narrower soundstage than the iDSD Signature, and a more “front row” type of presentation. Again, this works well with warmer and thicker sounding headphones and IEMs. Imaging is a fairly strong point, everything is rock solid in its placement and very coherent sounding overall.
The build quality of the Angel is rock solid. Its fully made out of metal, and feels high quality and like it will last. I have not had any problems with the build quality at all. One thing I need to mention, and it is really the only negative I have had over my time with the Angel is the lack of fast charging. EarMen implemented this to prolong the life of the battery. Now, its not that I need fast charging in terms of time, but I was not able to plug it in to my laptop, to listen and keep it charged at the same time. I would have to charge it separately from a slow charger below 5v/2a, and then use from my laptop separately. This was a bit annoying at times as I would forget to charge it, and run out of battery when I wanted to listen, and was not able to charge from my laptop (a MacBook Pro) whilst listening. Its not a huge problem, just a minor annoyance that took a bit of effort to remember to charge up the Angel when not in use.
In terms of comparisons, the angels main competitor are the iDSD products from iFi. This is really stiff competition, as the iDSD’s are very well thought out, well featured, well built devices. The iDSD Signature is the main competitor in terms of features, and comes in at a very similar price point of $750USD, vs the Angel’s $799USD. I think it depends on your sonic preferences and also use case as to which I would recommend. The Angel would be better for people who prefer a more neutral, clean and clear type of sound signature, or are going to be using warmer IEM/headphones. I would recommend the iDSD if you prefer a slightly more forgiving sound signature, or need a bit more power in terms of output, for use with harder to drive headphones. The Angel is slightly smaller than the iDSD, so if space is a concern it is a clear winner in that category. The over all sonic performance in terms of technical quality is quite similar, with the two simply having different tonal balances and output power specs.
The Angel works very well as a DAC/Amp combo, but you can also use it as a plain DAC, from the outputs on the rear. You will have to use either a 3.5mm to RCA, or 4.4mm to XLR cable. I tried both, and the Angel performs well as a DAC only, maintaining the same sound signature as when it is used as a DAC/Amp combo. One thing to note is that if you will be using it as a DAC only, make sure you have a cable long enough to plug it in to charge whilst using, or make sure to get it charged prior to listening sessions. You don’t want to be right in the middle of enjoying some tunes and boom, red light, no power – no tunes. You can also select direct, or pre-out on the front of the unit, meaning the Angel can be used directly with a power amplifier in a stereo system, or used to lower input into a higher gain amplifier or similar. It’s a very handy feature to have.
Overall, the Angel was a really nice change of pace to try out. It is similar to the iFi iDSD products in terms of looks and functions, but offers a different tonal balance and set of sonic qualities. With a couple small changes, it would have really knocked it out of the park for me. The inclusion of fast charge capability, not for charging time concerns, but simply to use with my laptop would be nice to see on any V2 in the future. Also, I’d love to see the capability to combine charging and data on a single cable, but also to be able to flip a switch to go to entirely separate inputs, giving the user the decision of how they want to use it.
The Angel has a great clean, clear, and crisp type of sound signature, with decent power levels to work with IEMs and most headphones. I wouldn’t recommend it for especially hard to drive headphones, but apart from those, you should be entirely ok with most models. The Angel does also work well as a stand alone DAC, as long as you have the right cable handy and make sure it is charged up before a longer listening session. I really dig the blue colour scheme, and the build quality feels rock solid. Overall, the Angel is a solid first effort at a higher performing portable DAC/Amp combo, and with a few tweaks, could knock it out of a park if they ever come up with a V2 model. I’d certainly recommend the Angel given it fits your use case and sonic preferences.