Introduction to the EarMen ST-Amp review
Reviewed EarMen ST-Amp is a fully balanced DAC/Amp made in Serbia by an American company. EarMen is a young and dynamic audio equipment company that specializes in producing high-quality and portable audio devices. Founded in 2017, the company has quickly gained a reputation for its commitment to delivering superior audio performance and user experience. Even here, at Ear Fidelity, where we had written a few reviews about their devices.
With a commitment to innovation and quality, EarMen should receive more attention from the whole industry. Their products are sure to impress even the most discerning audiophiles.
Inside the black box of reviewed EarMen ST-Amp, we won’t find much. To be honest, we won’t find anything but the DAC/Amp and manual. There’s no power cord, there’s no USB cable, and there are no RCA cables. It’s a shame because, with the price set at $599, we could expect something to be there. Anyway, the sound quality might make it worth paying this price, even if we had to pay extra for a set of aftermarket cables. Don’t forget that many of us have those cables somewhere at home, so other ones wouldn’t be needed.
Design and build quality of EarMen ST-Amp
EarMen ST-Amp which we review is an exceptionally made DAC/Amp. It is not looking the same as other products made by EarMen, like Tradutto. It’s not looking the same as their mobile, battery-powered products either. ST-Amp is a brand-new product, from a new series. It looks and feels amazing, with just one, little problem. Reviewed EarMen ST-Amp sits on three feet, so it isn’t that stable. It’s also a little too light, even if it’s really well-built. 2.42 pounds (1.1 kg) is problematic with its stiff switches on the front. Each time I’m turning EarMen ST-Amp on, it gets off the desk at some point. To be honest, I just stopped turning it off, so it doesn’t happen.
Besides that one small issue, the reviewed EarMen ST-Amp is really great. It looks a bit rough, but I like this style — matches perfectly my headphone stand and Audeze LCD-X that I am using as my daily cans. On the silver front, we’ll find two switches, a black volume knob with markers around, and two headphone outputs in a small indentation. It looks great, especially with black screws in the corners. The rest of the EarMen ST-Amp is in satin black, which also looks great, but a little boring.
Tech and I/O
Let’s talk a little about boring tech. I know there are some fans of this paragraph, but I am definitely not one of them. So, reviewed EarMen ST-Amp is mainly an amplifier, yet it provides a built-in DAC. It is not one of the top models, because it is Sabre ES9280, the same one we could find in $129 EarMen Eagle. It does not really bother me, because the main thing that decides about the sound is the implementation, not the chip itself.
In terms of amplification, EarMen ST-Amp which we are reviewing today provides up to 1.85 Watts through the balanced output. Using single-ended output provides up to 0.5 watts. It is enough for most headphones, especially using balanced output. The amplifier is based on two TPA6120, which are quite popular through audio devices and amplifiers. The volume knob is a high-quality, balanced potentiometer from ALPS. It provides great quality and remains the sound unchanged. At least, this is what EarMen says.
In terms of inputs and outputs, I expected a little more. EarMen ST-Amp which we’re reviewing is equipped with only one digital input, and it is the USB type B. Not gonna lie, I’d really use this as a DAC with a preamplifier for my stereo set, as the sound matched perfectly. Yet, the USB is the only option. Besides, there are two analog inputs and two preamplifier outputs. EarMen ST-Amp provides single-ended RCA and 4.4 millimeters jacks.
How does the EarMen ST-Amp sound?
EarMen says it is mainly an amplifier, yet I was using it mainly as a DAC/Amp at my PC. Not gonna lie, I am a little tired of using a bunch of devices, and I am trying to reduce it, especially on my desk. So, I will start talking about EarMen ST-Amp as an integrated device, and at the end, I will focus on it as an amplifier.
In a few words, ST-Amp is really lovely and quite universal. It does imply a little of its own sound signature, but it is doing this really politely. It is not like some DAC/Amps that try to be as neutral as it is possible, which can cause sibilants in some situations. Reviewed EarMen ST-Amp is neutral, yet it is not cold and unpleasant to listen to. It provides a lot of details together in a natural manner, the addition of musicianship and something that many people would call emotions.
So, beginning with the bass, which is fairly strong, and nicely extended. It is hard to explain how does the subbass sound, because it connects two things that do not often come together. Smoothness and texture. It provides really nice amount of details, with a small amount of being silk smooth. It may not make sense when I am talking about that, but ii am pretty sure you would get the point once you would listen to the reviewed Earmen ST-Amp. Subbass goes way down with a lot of energy. That’s just wonderful whenever I’m watching some movies, playing games, or just listening to music that contains such low frequencies.
Midbass on the other hand is a little different. The smoothness is decreased, it focuses on the punch and speed. To be fair, that is one of the fastest possible options I have ever heard at this price point without sounding dry. Because you will find a lot of amplifiers that can be fast, but there is no chance they will be that pleasant at the same time. You can hear that, especially when listening to songs like “bad guy” by “Billie Eilish”. This song is really bass-heavy, and some lower-end setups will not provide anything but bass. And it is not the point. No matter what headphones I have tried together with ST-Amp, the result was the same. There was a lot of bass, but the control is awesome.
Kickbass is similar to the midbass, it is fast with a dose of softening which provides that natural feeling. It does not matter whether it is a dry snare drum, some electronic punch or anything else. EarMen ST-Amp just provides a great rhythm that will make you shake your head. Again, without dryness or being cold and too technical. All this combined about bass, I would not fear to combine anything with ST-Amp, as all the options are great. Especially if you would use balanced output, which provides more power, together with an upgrade of everything that I have written above.
The midrange is a little calmer than the low frequencies. It is still natural, but in some cases pushed back a bit. Mainly female voices, like Dua Lipa. They are a little sweetened and muffled. What is interesting, it does not occur with lower or higher voices, like “Tone And I” or Billie Eilish. It is just this specific frequency that does not shine as it could. It might be problematic for some of you, but I would not overthink that part.
Male vocalists are standing at the front all the time. It does not matter if their voice is more like Kendrick Lamar or Masked Wolf. Two different tonalities, same result. They are sounding bold, and full of confidence, yet smooth and pleasant. That is just wonderful about the EarMen ST-Amp. It is the one DAC/Amp that made me listen to the music on the over-ear headphones again.
The details are softly marked. You can hear that they are there but in not so obvious style. It is not because of the lack of technical possibilities, just a natural style. It works really great whenever I am listening to some metal or hard rock, where the amount of sharpness and poor recording might be shocking for some. Reviewed EarMen ST-Amp appreciates music in higher quality, which is well recorded. Details are still a bit soft, yet they sound just remarkable. I can hear all of them without being tired because of its amount. It can happen once in a while when it comes to my taste and preferences.
The treble is once again smoothed and natural. What’s fascinating, with some in-ear monitors, like Campfire Audio Honeydew, which are rather calm and with less high frequencies, the EarMen ST-Amp can provide a small boost in that area. Whenever I am listening to something that provides more high-pitched sounds, they are smoothed and delicate. There is almost no chance of sibilant. It might happen with some headphones like Audio Technica ATH-M50x, which tends to do so. In any other case, I would not be afraid of that problem.
Treble also contains a lot of air and space in it. It is delicate, yet well-balanced. It sounds wonderful, especially with the piano and violins. Drum cymbals are clean and even with the smoothness that comes with ST-Amp, they are able to be harsh in a positive way. With some DAC/Amps or headphones, I can hear that unpleasant abrasiveness, which causes me to change the setup or the song. On the other hand, sometimes I can feel that total smoothness, which is an exaggeration in the other direction. EarMen ST-Amp provides a nice balance, and I’m loving this in this small, Serbian-made device.
Soundstage is one of the most important things in the sound for me. I like when there’s a lot of air, a lot of apparent sources, when it is really deep, but can also play right into my ear. In this case, I have almost all of them, but in a way that isn’t really for me. It is still lovely. The main difference is caused because the width of apparent sources is rather big. There is not much space between them in terms of breadth. It is better with depth.
The layering that is provided with reviewed EarMen ST-Amp is fantastic. When I plugged in Audeze LCD-X using the balanced output, I was just blown out of my mind. This combo provides a lot of apparent sound sources that are set just behind them without mixing them into one sound. In online games, it might be even too accurate because a lot of sounds confuse me more than just one from each direction. When there is too much happening at the same time, I am screwed.
The soundstage is also very precise and broad. It does not have problems with sound sources behind the listener and inside the head. They can go all over. I won’t tell you the title because I do not remember, but when I was watching one movie, there was one shot where the camera was set under the train, right between the rails. That feeling when the railroad train went all over my head was something almost unnatural.
EarMen ST-Amp as an amplifier
That paragraph will be much shorter than the one above. It is because the sound signature of ST-Amp as a DAC/Amp and as a pure amplifier is really similar. It is still singable, smooth, and natural. Furthermore, it is quite dependent on the used DAC. We can hear a big amendment when we are using different digital to analog converters. If it is colder like Topping D50s and more natural like EarMen TR-Amp or truly analog sounding like my old CD Player, Acoustic Research CD-07 we get three different results. From my experience, it does not happen when we are using THX-based amplifiers, they are not that dependent on the source.
EarMen ST-Amp with Audeze LCD-X
Audeze LCD-X is my daily driver, so I was using them with the reviewed EarMen ST-Amp the most. It is a combo where everything fulfills everything. I can not imagine a better setup for me, even if I had to choose some really high-end gear. Okay, maybe some R2R DAC with a neutral tube amplifier would do better. It is the setup that makes me enjoy the music and listen to it for long hours without being tired. Even when I am working, there is some podcast playing in the background, some random TV series, and it is all wonderful. That combo is just pleasing, not tiring, and it allows me to cut off from anything else. It is also on the edge of being focused on the music and letting it by my ears. Everything is in place.
The bass is powerful and goes way down to rumble whenever it is needed. Midbass is smooth, yet textured. It does not cover anything in the midrange, as it can happen when LCD-X is way underpowered. Kickbass using single-ended output might be a little too slow, as it lacks the punch. It gets way better using a 4.4 mm connector. The midrange is also smooth, pleasing, and colorful. With some singers, like mentioned before Dua Lipa, it might get a bit dull. Again, that disappears when we are using the balanced output. Details are on spot. They might be a little soft, which is good when we want them to be. If you prefer them to be sharper, you should look at different headphones on THX amplifiers.
Treble is once again delightful. Smooth, accurate, and natural with a drop of analog style. Details are delicate and charming at the same time, but they are not hidden in any way. The soundstage is broad, placed rather near the head with broad sound sources. This setup works out best with hiphop, fresh pop, and jazz. I do not like it in classical music, but that’s my thing. In my dads’ opinion, it is the best in symphonic.
EarMen ST-Amp with Hifiman HE-5XX
This setup is quite different, especially because the 5XX tends to sound in a more technical, neutral style than the LCD-X. I really like it for gaming or fast music where much more happens in the background. The bass is really fast, it does not lack anything. There is much texture, and great extension in the lowest parts, and the kick is pretty powerful, but sometimes it feels tentative. The midrange is greatly textured, without hissing, and with a lot of details. Vocals are placed a little further compared to the LCD-X, but there is no problem with being dull. The treble and soundstage are fantastic, as the treble is still sparkling without being smoothed or sharpened, as it should sound in HE-5XX. The soundstage once again is different compared to the LCD-X as it provides narrow sound sources. They are similar in the other thing — its precision. Great combo, but I think that reviewed EarMen ST-Amp can do more than the HE-5XX would provide.
EarMen ST-Amp with Dunu EST 112
Dunu provides us with a really great cable with interchangeable plugs. It allows me to analyze the sound on both outputs. And even if the difference is not that big, it is for sure distinguishable. Some would call them sounding near the Harman signature, and even if I do not like many products with that sound, the EST 112 are still one of the most used IEMs for me. Together with the EarMen ST-Amp, they make a decent couple, as this time I really this how this DAC/Amp thickens the sound. Sometimes in the EST 112 there was too much space and air between the sound sources. ST-Amp fulfills that space by making the instruments wider. It does not take anything from the spacious feeling, but it does not feel like we are levitating in the void anymore. That is for sure a nice addition for me.
The bass in this setup is powerful, yet not leading. Subbass is playing in the background, behind the scene. Midbass together with higher bass is leading the show in this department. And they are doing this really well. The bass is thick, and juicy and provides a lot of fun and emotions to the music. The lower midrange is delicately recessed. It might get hidden behind the upper midrange, especially in some songs with two singers. It does still contain a lot of details, and this time they are greatly marked, but again, without being sharp and unpleasant. The treble depends on the type of connection. Using single-ended output ends with delicate, analog treble. With 4.4 mm connector, it gains a lot of air and shines without sibilants.
Vs. other EarMen devices
Well, this one is going to be delicately general, but I do not really think that there is a point in comparing those devices one to one. For me, reviewed EarMen ST-Amp is a comeback to the older models, like TR-Amp, that I reviewed years ago. It has a similar, yet not the same style. It is natural sounding, but this time we get a more neutral version that is closer to new devices, like Tradutto and CH-Amp. Also, the method of presenting apparent sources is closer to the older ones than to the new ones. It is still broad and deep, but each source is wider and more direct. I think the ST-Amp is a wonderful choice for everyone who wants more feelings in the sound compared to the other EarMen product from their current offer.
Vs. SMSL DO300 + HO200
We all know how SMSL products sound. They are precise, direct, and dead silent in the background. I know that there are people who enjoy that style, yet ST-Amp is not that good in technicalities. It does improve with a better DAC, but DO300 improves with better amplifiers. We could go count like this every time. I would not personally suggest SMSL combo to anything that tends to sibilant, to be cruel, and harsh. Unless that’s what they want. EarMen ST-Amp does sound different, it forgives way more mistakes. There’s no way to say which option is better without knowing someone’s taste. If you prefer a technical, fast, and neutral style, you should listen to the SMSL. If you like the emotions and want to connect with the music, I would give ST-Amp a shot. It is worth it. Trust me.
EarMen ST-Amp review — summary
Reviewed EarMen ST-Amp is a wonderful option for a very broad spectrum of headphones. It has a really nice amount of power using the balanced output, a great DAC even if it is mainly an amplifier, and is built really solid. It has a delightful, natural yet neutral sound signature that hits me right on the spot. I am trying to be as objective as possible but trust me, it is hard when something feels like it is made just for my taste. EarMen ST-Amp provides a lot of emotions and joy during the listening sessions. At the same time, it is a remarkable companion for work. We can just enjoy the music and be focused on anything we should do at the time.
Big thanks to EarMen for providing the ST-Amp 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.