EarMen Colibri

The Colibri is the newest dongle release by one of our favorite brands, EarMen. It is a battery-powered DAC/AMP using ES9281 PRO chip. The price is set at $333.

Introduction

I’m going to start this review with a fun fact – We’ve reviewed three EarMen products so far, and ALL OF THEM have won Ear Fidelity awards. The latest one, a DAC called Tradutto hasn’t been moved from my desk ever since I got it in November 2021, and that’s really something.
So, today we’re reviewing a new EarMen product, so we should expect another extraordinary device. 

The market for dongles is constantly growing and more and more people get to use dongles on the daily basis nowadays. While I’m more of a DAP user myself, I’ve bought the new MacBook Pro lately, so a dongle was definitely a good idea to get. While I can’t call the Colibri a “classic” dongle because of its size, it’s not a stationary DAC/AMP either, so…dongle it is for now.

Packaging

The unboxing experience of the Colibri is good. It comes packed in a rather big box that is well-made and quite aesthetic. Inside, apart from the Colibri itself, you’re getting an artificial leather carrying case that is protective and nice feeling. It’s not too tight nor too loose, giving you a good sense of confidence while handling the Colibri.

Next up, you’re getting a USB-C cable, which is a bag of mixed feelings for me. It is really well-made, but it is rather long and stiff, which makes it hard to use with laptops and just a pure horror with phones. For the cable to be usable in the use-case scenarios of this DAC, it should have been a lot more flexible and less stiff.

Design and Build

The build quality of the Colibri is (as we’re used to with EarMen devices) fantastic. It uses premium materials such as a full aluminum block miled on a CNC Machine sandwiched by two glass panels. 

As for the design – it’s a dongle, and it looks like a dongle. It is really big for this kind of device, making it rather hard to use in a pocket with a phone without sticking them both together. As for using it with a laptop, its size is more than comfortable and just simply not a problem at all. 

The Colibri is battery-powered, which means that a vast majority of its internals is occupied by a large battery. This gives us two USB ports, one for charging, and one for audio which is not super convenient, as you have to know which one is which (the label is on the back glass panel and you’re not able to read it with the case on). It would have been better for EarMen to use colors instead. 
On the top, you’ve got two headphone outputs, a 3.5mm and a balanced 4.4mm output. No 2.5mm balanced, it’s finally dying and fading away, good. 

On both sides of the Colibri there are two buttons for changing the volume, switching the bass boost, and turning the Colibri on/off. Lastly, this device is Made In Europe.

 

Tech

The Colibri uses an ES9281 PRO DAC chip, and here’s what EarMen got to say about it:

“The heart of the Colibri is the flagship of the ESS line ES9281 PRO DAC. The ESS SABRE PRO series is for premium audiophile and sets a new benchmark in high-end audio by offering the highest dynamic range (DNR) with impressively low levels of total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD+N). Colibri supports Hi-Res PCM files up to 32bit/384kHz PCM, DoP, DSD64, DSD128 and MQA . In short, all in one solution.”

The Colibri can output up to 280mW into 32Ω which is rather impressive for a device of this size with a built-in battery. While it won’t be enough for hard-to-drive planners, it surely is powerful enough for most IEMs and many headphones.

Sound

Okay, this review has been pretty straight to the point so far. This is because I believe it’s a rather simple device both in terms of its design and functionality. Let’s jump right into the sound paragraph now.

The overall presentation of the Colibri is neutral and engaging at the same time. I believe that EarMen has mastered this kind of sound signature with their portable devices like the TR-Amp, Eagle and now the Colibri.

The bass of the Colibri is linear and neutral, but thanks to the addition of a bass boost, you can make it more physical and powerful with a single click of a button. This is a great option to have, especially in a device with neutral tonality. This gives you an option to slightly tune the sound to your liking. 
No matter if you turn on the bass boost or not, you’re getting a highly technical, fast, punchy, and detailed bass response, just a different quantity. 

The midrange is very neutral and universal, but not the most engaging. While the Tradutto has an absolutely beautiful and lush midrange presentation, the Colibri is much more technical and analytical sounding. Luckily, it’s not harsh or boring, giving you an exciting and quite fresh type of sound. One of its biggest strengths is definitely the sense of dynamics, with its grandiose note delivery and ability to get really dynamic.

The treble is the aspect that is rather controversial in most of the devices similar to the Colibri. I just feel like such a portable and small device cannot output a really high-quality treble response, and the Colibri partially confirms that. Partially, as it is really detailed and it offers great resolution, but it’s a rather thin and not tonally correct sounding when compared to some high-end equipment. However, for this kind of device, it still sounds marvelous.

If you’re somewhat used to EarMen’ devices then you’re probably aware of the fact that they really know their stuff when it comes to the soundstage. It’s not a surprise that the staging is the biggest strength of the Colibri, tied with its detail retrieval. It offers a natural, airy soundstage with great imaging and separation, something that doesn’t sound like a dongle whatsoever. Pair it with a good staging IEM like the Unique Melody MEST and you’re getting a really fantastic soundstage delivery worth of being called extraordinary. 

Comparisons

 

MacBook Pro 2021 (14′, M1 Pro)

Okay, before you go all nuts on me for comparing this $300+ USD DAC/Amp to a laptop, hear me out. The newest MacBooks sound absolutely great for a laptop, and they should have always done that. 

So, is the Colibri better in terms of the sound quality? Yes, it is. It’s more detailed, faster, meatier, and has better staging capabilities. Is it worth getting the Colibri if you have the 2021 MacBook? I would say definitely, I definitely use it whenever I feel comfortable with it, craving for that better audio quality over the onboard (and a really good indeed) DAC/Amp.  

Cayin RU6
 

These two really trade blows a lot. They offer a completely different approach to tonality, resulting in a totally different type of experience.

The RU6 is all about its timbre, warmth, R2R-ish texture, and sweetness, it kinda sounds like a pillow.
The Colibri on the other hand wants to take you dancing, and it won’t be a slow one…you’re getting in Pogo style, quick and aggressive. 

I would say that they both play in a similar league when it comes to the technicalities, with the Colibri slightly edging the Cayin mainly due to its tonality. While their power ratings are somewhat similar, the Colibri has more meat to work with harder-to-drive headphones. It handles the Arya SE beautifully, which I would not say about the RU6. They’re different, choose what tickles your fancy, you can’t go wrong with either, or both actually. 

Pairing

Thanks to its technical and neutral character, the Colibri pairs well with most IEMs, except the most aggressive and bright ones (don’t plug Cayin Fantasy into it…please). Its detail retrieval and resolution do wonders when paired with high-end IEMs. The Colibri actually sounds fantastic with my new Fir XE6, a $4000+ CIEMs…

As stated previously, it works well with some over-ear headphones as well. The Hifiman Arya SE, Meze Elite, Edition XS all sound great when the size of the Colibri is regarded. 

Summary

The EarMen Colibri is a really good-sounding device, but its size and functionality put it in a somewhat weird category. Too big to be a true dongle, too weak to rival the best portable DAC/Amps…and it paradoxically sits in a sweet spot. It’s just perfect for business trips, hotels, and laptop work on the go, giving you a significant boost in audio quality while taking next to no space in your backpack/suitcase. It is just that for me. I travel with my backpack that has a lot of things inside, like my camera, lenses, laptop, gimbal, hard drives, etc. The Colibri takes literally no space inside, and it just gives me that great audio performance whenever I’m in the mood for some music. 

Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:

  • Headphones – Unique Melody MEST, Final A8000, Fir Audio M5 custom, Fir Audio XE6 custom, Effect Audio Axiom, Campfire Audio Solaris 2020, Hifiman Arya SE, Hifiman Edition XS, Meze Elite
  • Sources– Poco X3 Pro, MacBook Pro 2021 M1 Pro, Cayin N3Pro, Cayin RU6

Big thanks to EarMen for providing the Colibri for this review. I wasn’t paid or asked to say anything good or bad about this product, all of the above is just my personal, unbiased opinion. EarMen hasn’t seen this review before publishing it.

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