One of the first so-called ‘dongle DACs’, the Audioquest Dragonfly is a small flash-drive look-alike that plugs into your computer, streamer or phone and handles all outgoing audio. Just connect the digital source to one end of it using a USB cable. Then a 3.5mm cable from the other end to your amplifier. Or plug headphones in and use the Dragonfly’s inbuilt headphone amplifier (complete with volume control)
At £89 the Dragonfly Black is a cost-effective upgrade to the low quality DAC in your computer. It’s insanely small and pretty much fuss free. On sound quality, one friend (hi Rory) was blown away by the improvement over his laptop’s internal DAC.
The success of the Dragonfly Black spawned an improved model, the £169 Dragonfly Red. Which in turn led to the £269 Dragonfly Cobalt. This review covers the Black and Red, we’ll look at the Cobalt soon.
The techie bit
The Black uses the ESS9010 DAC chip, the Red gets the better ESS9016, which includes on-chip volume control. The Red’s headphone amp is also better and has a higher output, meaning it works with a wider range of headphones (some are more difficult to drive than others).
All three Dragonflies can handle 24bit/96kHz resolution music, effectively the first step on the hi-res ladder (CD quality is 16bit/44.1kHz). If you try to feed a Dragonfly anything above 24/96 it will get downsampled by the sending device. Which rather defeats the object.
DSD is a no-no but the Dragonflies can handle MQA (a whole topic on its own that we won’t cover here). The relatively low limits are deliberate to keep all Dragonflies as plug’n’play as possible. Higher rates would require special drivers.
Many dongle-DACs can now handle higher rates than 24/96, which you might think would put the Dragonflys at a disadvantage. I suggest it doesn’t in practise. Think of hi-res as the icing on the cake. From experience, the quality of the cake matters more. You may take a different view.
Listening – in a big system
That’s all very well but how do the Black and Red sound? I plumb them into a big-rig system comprising Cambridge Edge NQ pre-amp, dual Gold Note PA-10 power amps and Graham LS6 standmounts, fronted by a Raspberry Pi streamer with iFi iPower supply. Over £10k in total; that should test the Dragonfly’s mettle.
Black first, and it fares well, nothing obvious giving away its modest cost. Manuel Barrueco’s version of “Koln Concert” has good tone and portrays a believable acoustic – slightly lacking in depth maybe, but it’s certainly wide and tall. The emphasis is on the leading notes of the guitar, less so the intricate supporting fingerwork. It’s a good start though.
The strong bass on Michael McDonalds’s “I Heard It From The Grapevine” is punchy. As it is on Theessink & Evans’ “Talk To Your Daughter” from Visions. The Black is also detailed enough to convey the lovely interplay between Theessink and Evans.
“Black Coffee” from Beth Hart exposes a chink in the armour, the Black getting congested at higher volume. Ditto “Time” from Hans Zimmer’s Inception soundtrack; at the crescendo the Black doesn’t quite hold it all together. But, the underlying drive of both tracks comes across. As it does on Blue Labs Beats’ “Sweetshop” from The Sound of Afrotronica, which really gets my head weaving. The Black’s low bass may be a little soft, but it’s fun and doesn’t distract from the music.
Overall, the Black is proving to be a good all-rounder.
The Red is nearly twice the price of the Black, it should be better. I’m surprised by how much though. It’s across the board, and the gains are not subtle. Where the Black was at times overwhelmed in the expensive system, the Red is holding it’s own.
The sound is more refined. Musicians are also more distinct, no longer blending into each other in the acoustic. The genius of Barrueco’s fingering on “Koln Concert” is clear now – I listen to the full 6 minutes, unable to stop. There’s more detail too, the subtle interplay between musicians on Shinya Fukumori’s “Hoshi Meguri no Uta” (For 2 Akis) far more discernible than with the Black. The Red is also quieter between notes, adding notably to the sense of atmosphere.
Bass has firmed up. It doesn’t go any lower than the Black, but the opening of “Heard It Through The Grapevine” has more heft. The walking bass-line on “Talk To Your Daughters” is also easier to follow – with the Black it was a little hidden. On dynamics, Beth Hart’s “Black Coffee” positively blasts out of the speakers, but now I’m turning the volume up, not down, any sign of congestion has gone. Overall things have stepped up considerably, the Red surpassing the Black by some margin.
A more price-appropriate system
I switch to a Marantz PM6006 amplifier and Elac Debut 6.2 speakers – £700 total – to give the Black a more representative ride. My findings hold. The Red is still a distinct step up from the Black. If I have to pick one stand-out, it’s the Red’s more believable acoustic. Musicians are just more ‘in the room’.
The Black is very comfortable with the company it’s keeping now though. In particular its low bass sounds fine, any softness minimised. The lighter touch of the Marantz seems to be a good match to the Black.
Some context is needed too. The Black absolutely mullers the sound from my laptop’s internal DAC. Even the excellent-sounding Audirvana software can’t rescue music played out of my Dell’s headphone socket. Played through the Marantz / Elac system everything is flat, lacking in dynamics, just not very good.
In contrast the Black has better bass, more treble, and a soundstage that’s believable. There’s more detail, better dynamics. And so on. In short it’s a big step up from the computer, a good first step on the HiFi ladder.
iFi’s ZEN DAC V2 costs £159. I put it head-to-head with the Dragonfly Red through the lower cost system.
Both DACs sound great but the Dragonfly Red just gets the nod; it’s slightly more poised. On Taverner’s “Depart in Peace” by the Scottish Ensemble (Tears of the Angel) Patrica Rozario’s beautiful soprano voice is more distinct through the Dragonfly, easier to hear amid the orchestral playing. The quiet background playing is also clearer, the subtle shifts and changes of the music more apparent. But, any differences disappear when I power the ZEN DAC V2 from a better power supply (Allo’s £49 Nirvana).
Which should you choose? Functional differences – how you want to use the DAC – rather than sound quality will probably decide it.
Listening through headphones
For on-the-move use I turn to my LG V30 smartphone. Ancient maybe, but it was engineered for sound quality and it’s quad-core DAC still surpasses most (all?) other phones. How will the Dragonflies compare?
An OTG (On-The-Go) cable goes into the phone’s USB-C socket, the other end into the Dragonfly. Apple users have the Lightning to USB (or USB3) Adapter. I play music from the USB Audio Player Pro app (£10, Android only) for optimal sound quality.
Using Meze 99 Classic headphones (£279) the Dragonfly Black just bests the LG V30. Bass is slightly tighter (useful with the Mezes). There’s also more sparkle to the Black’s sound thanks to superior treble. It’s marginal though, for me not sufficient to justify hanging a Dragonfly off my phone. You may find differently. Particularly as your ‘non-specialised’ phone is likely to benefit more from the Black than the LG V30.
The Dragonfly Red ups the ante, sounding balanced and confident. It’s cleaner than either the Black or the V30’s own DAC, you can hear more of what’s going on. Not at the expense of a thinner tone though.
Taverner’s “Depart in Peace” is a case in point; with the Dragonfly Red the soprano voice is easier to follow during busy sections. The quiet sections also emerge from silent backgrounds, allowing the delicate supporting instruments to be heard. And the soundstage is bigger, more lively, more real.
In Derrick Hodges “The Cost” (Colour of Noize) the LG V30’s bass is slightly rounded, a soft thud. With the Red it’s better defined. As the music builds the Red also controls the different elements well, keeping them separate. With the LG V30 they blur into each other more. As when used in a full system, the Red is a significant leap forward in sound quality.
With better headphones
I move up the headphone scale, first to Drop 6XX headphones (£200-ish) then Audioquest Nighthawk Carbons (£600). The findings stand. The LG V30’s own DAC fares well. The Dragonfly Black a little better. The Red then puts clear water between itself and the other two. At the top level – Dragonfly Red with Nighthawk Carbons – the sound is truly special.
A note on volume
The Drop 6XX headphones are hard to drive, as shown by the LG V30’s headphone output, which doesn’t really go loud enough. The Dragonfly Black is much better – loud enough for most, even if a small minority might crave more volume. The Red, with it’s higher 2.1V output, is loud enough for anyone. The takeaway? If possible, try your own headphones with your chosen Dragonfly to check compatibility.
That’s a lot of words to reach a simple conclusion – both Red and Black Dragonflies are excellent. Sure there are alternatives now. The Red and Black remain very competitive though.
The Black is a ‘my-first-DAC’ sort of device. One that blows away the sound from your laptop’s headphone output. One that works well with streamers like the Raspberry Pi. And it’s good with headphones too. All for £89. The Red nearly doubles that to £169 but boy is it a cracker. There’s a real finesse to it that was genuinely at home in my 5-figure system. In more realistic territory such as the Marantz / Elac pairing it’s a star.
If you can afford it go for the Red – it will see you through an upgrade or two, so should save you money anyway. If the budget doesn’t stretch that far then fret not, the Black is a very viable alternative. Hats off to Audioquest – to paraphrase Winston Churchill “never has so much been delivered to so many for so little”!