In an earlier review we looked at the Audioquest Black & Red Dragonflies – small dongle-DACs that take a digital USB signal from a phone/streamer/computer and convert it to analogue. The signal then goes to your amplifier for use in a main system. Or plug in headphones to access the Dragonfly’s internal headphone amplifier, complete with software-based volume control.
The £89 Dragonfly Black was first to market. We found it a cost effective upgrade over a computer’s 3.5mm output, improving sound quality considerably. Its success led to the £169 Red, which sounded even better when we compared the two. Quite a bit better actually.
If the formula ain’t broke don’t fix it. So Audioquest upped the ante again with the £269 Dragonfly Cobalt that we look at here. Costing half as much again, it should sound better than the Red. Does it? If so, in what ways? And is it worth £100 more than the Red?
The Black and Red use Sabre’s ES9010 and ES9016 DAC chips respectively. The Cobalt steps things up with the ES9038Q2M, a 2-channel chip that’s optimised for low power consumption as well as good sound quality. Ideal for on-the-go use then.
The Cobalt’s headphone amplifier is carried over from the Dragonfly Red, meaning output remains at 2.1V. We found that more than enough for even hard-to-drive headphones. And it should sound better in the Cobalt given the higher-quality DAC feeding it. A few other tweaks have been made to bump up the Cobalt’s sound quality – better clocking and more stable power arrangements in particular.
Like its siblings the Cobalt handles MQA but not DSD. And the PCM 24bit/96kHz resolution limit remains; Audioquest has stuck with its plug’n’play policy. Which makes sense in our view. At this level (and much above) the DAC chip, its output stages and power supply arrangements make far more difference than using high-res music.
Physically the Cobalt is marginally smaller than the Red. It’s also sculpted, making it slightly better looking. Time for a listen…….
Audioquest Nighthawk Carbon headphones (£600) were mainly used for headphone listening. A pair of Drop 6XX (£220 – badged Sennheiser 650) and Meze 99 Classics (£270) corroborated findings. The Cobalt was compared to the Dragonfly Red (£160) and iFi ZEN DAC V2 (£160).
Headphones listening – Red vs Cobalt
It doesn’t take too long for the Cobalt to emerge as the top Dragonfly. It’s not night and day though. Indeed the Red initially seems to have better bass, the Cobalt holding back slightly lower down. That turns out to be a case of ‘more not better’ though. The Cobalt may have an ostensibly lighter balance but it’s a lack of smear rather than a tonal issue. And bass does indeed go commendably deep. More importantly it’s controlled and taught, with greater heft than the Red. Which all goes to make the Cobalt more impactful when called upon to flex its muscles down below.
I’m minded of my old B&W Nautilus 802 speakers, which sounded bass light until real bass was present in the music. At which point they went lower than anything I’ve heard before or since at home. It’s similar with the Cobalt.
Further up the frequency range there’s more detail on show through the Cobalt. And in complex passages you hear musicians distinctly as opposed to the wall of sound presented by the Red. All in all the Cobalt is just more composed. Lady Blackbird’s latest single, ‘Did Somebody Make a Fool Out Of You?’ is a case in point. Three minutes in piano, cello and cymbals build to a mini crescendo. The Red bleeds the instruments into each other slightly whereas the Cobalt presents each separately. Its treble is also a smidge sweeter; through the Red the piano sounds a touch splashy.
Likewise with Bersarin Quartett’s chaotic ‘2287’ from Methoden und Maschinen, where the Cobalt cleans up a slight bloom that the Red adds to the sound. Even on simple choral music like Voces8’s ‘Drop Drop Slow Tears’ (After Silence) the Cobalt’s cleaner gestalt comes through.
So, through headphones the Cobalt bests its sibling, but the differences shouldn’t be overplayed. Good as the entry-level Dragonfly Black is, the step up to the Red is worth taking if you can afford it. It’s obviously better than the Black. In contrast, the Cobalt serves to polish the already excellent sound of the Red, elevating the musical experience a little more. If I didn’t have access to the Cobalt I’d be happy with the Red.
Headphones – Cobalt vs iFi ZEN DAC V2
A similar picture emerges when comparing the ZEN DAC V2 to the Cobalt. The differences are just smaller than between the two Dragonflies.
Against the ZEN DAC V2, the Dragonfly Cobalt is a little clearer, a little more relaxed. Like it’s not having to try as hard. Particularly when playing large-scale music with big forces in play. None more so than the final movement of Saint Saens’ Organ Symphony. The organ dominates proceedings but through the Cobalt the supporting orchestral playing is easier to follow. Through the iFi the organ tends to swamp all else.
Low bass is more controlled through the Cobalt too, the ZEN DAC V2 struggling to keep on top of it in comparison. Listen to the slow 2nd movement of the Saint Saens. Six minutes in when the lowest organ notes come in, the ZEN DAC V2 presents it as an indistinct rumble. The Cobalt adds definition, the rumble becomes a low growl, the underlying menace more impactful.
The differences are hard to ignore once you’ve heard them. Getting a handle on them takes longer than when comparing the Red and Cobalt though. It’s even less night and day. The ZEN DAC V2 does still sound wonderful, the Cobalt is just a little more…..composed. That word again.
Main system listening
For listening through speakers the Cobalt got a real workout. In a £10k+ system; Pro-ject S2 Stream Ultra streamer (£630), PrimaLuna EVO 300 Hybrid amplifier (£6,500), Graham LS6 speakers (£2,400) and REL T/7x subwoofer (£1,000).
Bless me if the Dragonfly Cobalt didn’t sound perfectly at home. Not just passable, really good. On the pristine and detailed side of the spectrum, but never tipping over into cold or detached. Bass was taught and controlled, even when faced with that low bass in the Saint Saens. The Cobalt also presented a believable soundstage. All in all a very tidy performance.
Stepping up to a Mytek Liberty II DAC showed what spending five times more brings, with palpability several steps beyond the Cobalt. Indeed it was just a bigger sound all round. Richer too, with much greater tonal colour. Those who argue all digital sounds the same would struggle to make a case against the Mytek. In context though, the Cobalt held its own in an environment it was never designed to. Kudos to Audioquest.
Step forward the Dragonfly Red and iFi ZEN DAC V2. The Red was fascinating, as with the Cobalt more than holding its own in exalted company. The Red’s slightly richer character initially seemed to suit the sound of the system. As before though, that richness proved to be down to softness, a lack of control. Its treble was also slightly muted. But, it was a sound you could listen to all day long. Much like Meze’s 99 Classic headphones, whose slightly warm character cossets your ears.
Reverting to the Cobalt established its superiority. A more extended treble helped present a better soundstage, which made everything sound more live. Bass was more controlled, musicians were better defined. I do confess to missing some of the Red’s tonal colour though. Its Chardonnay butteriness versus the crispness of a Sauvignon. Which, of course, is a personal preference coming through. Many would vote for clarity and cleanliness every day of the week. To each their own….
The ZEN DAC V2 was very similar to the Dragonfly Red. Maybe a tad more controlled, a slightly cooler tonal character. But not by much, small enough differences that switching an interconnect could change the pecking order.
I also tried the ZEN DAC V2 with a good external 5V power supply (Allo’s £55 Nirvana.) It made quite a difference, the sound gaining significantly, particularly in clarity and control. Overall it was now snapping at the heels of the Cobalt. Proof yet again of the importance of good power.
To answer the questions posed in the opening paragraph, yes the Cobalt is better than the Red. Overall it’s just more composed. There’s more detail on show and better clarity. As if the Red’s sound has been burnished, a slight smear removed. Amongst other things that gives the Cobalt a more believable soundstage. Bass is also tighter.
It’s not completely one-way though. The Cobalt’s tonal character is lighter than the Red’s. Some may rue the Cobalt’s slight lack of richness, wanting a little more meat on the bones. Tonal colour and great clarity is perhaps asking too much of a sub-£300 DAC though. Particularly one packaged so exquisitely small.
Is the Cobalt worth £100 more than the Red? To these ears, and pockets, yes. I have all three Dragonflies, the Cobalt is my go-to DAC when I’m out and about. If you can’t stretch to it don’t fret. The Red seems to occupy the sweet spot in the Dragonfly range and is a fabulous option.
The Cobalt is a step up though, displaying a poise way beyond its price. That it can hold its own in a £10k system is truly impressive. It also acts as a brilliant headphone amplifier. So much functionality, such good sound, so small a package. All for £269. Slam dunk or what?