Audioquest DragonFly Red
USB D/A Converter

AudioQuest DragonFly Red & Black USB D/A headphone amplifiers Read more at https://www.stereophile.com/content/audioquest-dragonfly-red-black-usb-da-h

In 1982, when moving-coil phono cartridges were gaining in popularity among audio perfectionists, the cable specialists at AudioQuest entered the source-component market with their first-ever phono cartridge, the AQ 404. Introduced at a price of $225, the 404 cost significantly less than most other perfectionist-quality MC pickups, and it had the advantage of high (2.5mV) output: a then-novel distinction that allowed the 404 owner to avoid the extra expense of a step-up transformer or additional active gain stage. More to the point, the AudioQuest 404 won almost universally positive reviews, and found its way into the reference systems of many bigwig reviewers of the day.

In 2012, as computer audio grew in popularity, AudioQuest again addressed the source-component market, this time with their first-ever USB D/A headphone amplifier, the DragonFly. Introduced at a price of $250—which shrank to $150 with the 2014 release of the DragonFly v1.2—AudioQuest's miniature DAC was significantly less expensive than the norm for USB converters, and had the advantage of portability, which was then novel among high-resolution (24-bit/96kHz) DACs with asynchronous streaming. The DragonFly earned almost universally positive reviews and found its way into the reference systems of many reviewers of the day, and was named Stereophile's Computer Audio Component of the Year for 2012.

Approximately 331/3 years after AudioQuest's first phono cartridge, the company announced two new USB D/A headphone amplifiers: the DragonFly Black ($99) and the DragonFly Red ($199). Both have circuits designed by the engineer responsible for the original DragonFly—Gordon Rankin, of Wavelength Audio—and both have the novel distinction of requiring considerably less operating power than their predecessors, so much less that the new DragonFlys can be used with iPhones, iPads, and various other mobile devices.

As William Shakespeare once observed: This shit writes itself.

Black is the new Black

The DragonFly Black can be reasonably regarded as an updated version of the DragonFly v1.2—which, in 2014, did not need to be called the DragonFly Black in the same sense that, in 1914, the Great War did not need to be called World War I. The new Black offers a number of refinements over its predecessor: The original and v1.2 DragonFlys had as their microcontroller the then-ubiquitous Texas Instruments (TI) TAS 1020B, to which was added Gordon Rankin's proprietary Streamlength asynchronous data-transfer protocol software. That microcontroller has now been replaced by the 32-bit Microchip PIC32MX, also enhanced with Gordon's code. This is a key factor in the Black's lower power requirements, as it is said to draw 77% less current than the previous microcontroller.

In the original and v1.2 DragonFlys, both now discontinued, the converter chip was ESS's 24-bit Sabre 9023 DAC chip, now replaced with ESS's Sabre 9010. Unchanged in the Black is the original's Texas Instruments headphone amplifier.

The new DragonFly Red offers even more refinements. Its microcontroller is also the 32-bit Microchip PIC32MX, but here the converter chip of choice is the upmarket 32-bit ESS Sabre 9016. But the new model also has an ESS headphone amplifier: the first from ESS that AudioQuest has used. The new headphone-amp chip is a unity-gain device, without any volume control: a 64-bit digital volume control is embedded in the Red's ESS DAC chip, allowing for bit-perfect control of listening level. The DragonFly Black, like the earlier DragonFlys, has an analog volume control with 64 steps.

The greatest practical difference between the new Black and Red DragonFlys is the Red's higher output voltage: a healthy 2.1V, which better suits it to driving difficult headphone loads. For the Black with firmware v1.5, the output has dropped a bit—to 1.2V, vs the v1.2's 1.8V. (Yes, I know it's confusing.)

Common to both new DragonFlys are: 24-bit/96kHz native resolution; a micro-LED–illuminated logo that changes color in accordance with the resolution of the file being played (I see little point in devoting to the matter a dull sentence describing which color represents which resolution); compatibility with Apple iOS 5 (and newer) and Android 4.1 (and newer), as well as Apple OS X and Windows 7 (and up); and the availability of a desktop app for—get ready for it—upgrading the software. Which is very cool. As with the original DragonFly, both of the new models are made in the US.

Installation and Setup

Just as I chafe at the idea of describing the DragonFlys' chromatic whimsy in all its tiresome detail (oh, all right: green=44.1kHz, blue=48kHz, amber=88.2kHz, and magenta=96kHz), I don't see the point in telling you, step by tedious step, precisely what messages appeared in each of the dropdown menus and windows on the screen of my Apple iMac (which gets by with Apple 10.7.5). Suffice it to say that, in Apple OS X, you need only click on Preferences and then Sound, and then choose from the dropdown menu the DragonFly—which you have presumably, by now, managed to plug into a spare USB socket somewhere on your computer. (Helpful Hint: users of Apple desktop computers may wish to avoid the USB sockets at either end of the Apple keyboard. Some experts have reported slightly degraded sound from these portals, in contrast to the ones on the back of the monitor/CPU. Also, in spite of the reduced power draw of the new DragonFlys, having one plugged into one keyboard USB port can interfere with the charging of a portable device connected to the other.)

Some owners of Apple computers—especially those who've never before used a USB DAC—may also wish to open the Audio MIDI Setup window (under Applications/Utilities) and select, from the list appearing in the Output window, the name of the DragonFly to be used and the Format sampling rate of 44.1kHz, which presumably corresponds with most of the files you'll be sending the DragonFly's way. (Don't worry: the better playback software at your disposal will be able to change that—on the fly, so to speak—to higher rates, as needed.)

To use either new DragonFly with current-spec Apple iOS hardware requires the purchase, from Apple or an authorized Apple supplier (footnote 1), of a $29 accessory: a Lightning-to-USB-camera adapter. John Atkinson loaned me one for the purposes of this review, and its use with my iPhone 6 Plus smartphone (iOS 9.3.2) was a snap: the Lightning plug goes into the phone, the DragonFly's hardwired USB plug goes into the USB socket, and the headphone plug goes into the other end of the DragonFly.

Like the original DragonFly, the new models speak to the world in a line-level voice, by means of a 3.5mm, three-conductor socket. When it comes to using a DragonFly as a headphone amp, that isn't too much of a problem, since 'phones with 3.5mm plugs aren't scarce. But it's trickier to use a DragonFly as a line-level music source with a full playback system—unbalanced only, of course. To connect a DragonFly's output to the line-in jacks of a preamp or integrated amp, you can either use an existing interconnect pair in tandem with 3.5mm-to-RCA adapter—an Internet search will turn up examples from Cardas, Kimber, and RadioShack, among others, spanning a very wide range of prices—or get hold of a purpose-made 3.5mm-to-RCA interconnect.

You'll be unsurprised to know that AudioQuest, being first and foremost a cable company, manufactures the latter in various lengths at various price points. For this review, AQ loaned me two 3m-long interconnects: an Evergreen ($49) and a Victoria ($495), the latter featuring the company's Dielectric Bias System (DBS). I tried and enjoyed the Victoria, but my sense of thrift compelled me to rely on the Evergreen.

DragonFly Black as a line-level source

I began by reacquainting myself with my lingering review sample of the original (pre-v1.2) AudioQuest DragonFly. And since I found myself doing so on the day the British fiddler Dave Swarbrick passed away, I paid particular attention to a file I'd burned from Fairport Convention's fourth album (their first with Swarb as a full member of the band), Liege & Lief (AIFF from CD, A&M CD 4257). I listened to the entire album straight through, concentrating especially on the fascinating Surrey–meets–San Francisco track "Tam Lin," with its alternating time signatures of 3/4 and 4/4, and one of singer Sandy Denny's finest recorded performances.

The original DragonFly sounded as expected: explicit, up-front, colorful, and involving to an extent beyond that implied by its paltry price. I switched to the warmed-up DragonFly Black (footnote 2), and the first thing I noticed was the new DAC's obviously lower output. Even so—and even before I'd adjusted my preamp's volume knob to compensate—it was apparent that the new DAC was also playing "Tam Lin" with a little more openness and musical nuance. And from the first notes—drum beats, actually—it was no less apparent that the original DragonFly had more fullness and weight in the bottom end.

Another telling comparison between the old and new Blacks was when I listened to Nikolai Lugansky's recording of Chopin's Prelude 15 in D-flat (AIFF from CD, Erato 0927-42836-2). This recording sounded impressive through the original DragonFly. I enjoyed it well enough through the Black, which offered a clear window on Lugansky's crisp technique and brisk tempos, but the new DAC also sounded slightly bass-light—especially during the ominous portion in D-flat minor. I wondered if the leaner bass was a byproduct of the Black's lower level, and guessed that the old and new Black DACs might exhibit similar degrees of bass-range weight after I'd compensated with the volume control—but they didn't.

The impressions described above were repeated when I listened through the Black to "The Stranger Song," from Leonard Cohen's Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (AIFF from CD, Columbia/Legacy 57067). The impressions of even greater openness and clarity were apparent here, as well, and so was the absence of a slight exaggeration of vocal sibilance that I wasn't aware of until it was gone. There was also less overhang and boom in the bottom end of Cohen's nylon-string guitar through the new DragonFly than through the old; that lack of overhang lent greater clarity to the guitar's sound, yet at the same time the alternating-bass pattern of his three-finger picking style had less depth and body through the new 'Fly. Which was right? Impossible to say for sure: The bigger, fuller, somewhat whompier bass of the old DAC was fun at times, but overall I came to prefer the new DAC's superior musical incisiveness: clearer pitch relationships and more sharply drawn rhythmic nuances.

DragonFly Red as a line-level source

Auditioned through my Shindo preamp and amp, and the exceptional Auditorium 23 Hommage Cinema loudspeakers I've had in my system for the past few months (review to come in the November issue), the DragonFly Red sounded an awful lot like its less expensive stablemate: I wonder if I could reliably tell one from the other in a quick-and-dirty A/B comparison. Listening through speakers, it was far easier to tell the Red from the original DragonFly; as with the distinction between the old and new Blacks, the original had a richer and more resonant bottom end, lending—or perhaps merely allowing—more sustain and physicality to such things as Paul McCartney's bass-guitar lines in George Harrison's "Don't Bother Me," from With the Beatles (CD, Parlophone PM1206).

And here again was the sort of contrast described earlier: Especially because McCartney's sometimes unexpected note choices help make this otherwise ordinary song a bit more interesting, the original DragonFly's tendency to give that range of notes more prominence was not unpleasant; that said, the DragonFly Red's surer reproduction of pitches and timing won the day by providing, quite simply, more—and more accurate—musical information overall. (Of course, inasmuch as the Red also made it far clearer that at least one of the three guitars in "Don't Bother Me" is very slightly out of tune, that blessing was mixed.)

Back to comparing the DragonFly Red with the DragonFly Black: notwithstanding their sonic similarities, careful listening revealed some musical distinctions, all of which favored the Red—which offered still more musical nuance and, when the recording contained them, very slightly more drama and drive, audible in particular in dynamic peaks in recordings of good, boisterous vocal music. With "Won't You Come and Sing for Me," from Hot Rize's So Long of a Journey (AIFF from CD, Sugar Hill SUG CD 3943), the vocal harmonies were more focused, with individual lines easier to follow; more important, it was easier, through the Red, to hear and feel the enthusiasm with which each singer attacked his lines. That last quality was also more apparent when I listened through the DragonFly Red to "Run Paint Run Run," from Captain Beefheart's Doc at the Radar Station (AIFF from CD, Virgin 7871362): On that wonderfully chaotic number, the more expensive AudioQuest DAC proved its worth.

DragonFly Black as a headphone amp

I admit: Having begun my listening through speakers instead of headphones, I began to wonder if the less-bass-prominent tonal balance of the DragonFly Black had been chosen to complement AudioQuest's own NightHawk headphones. I've been listening to a borrowed pair of NightHawks for a number of months, and while I've enjoyed their organically explicit and altogether huge sound, there's no question in my mind that the NightHawks, introduced well after the original DragonFly, have a slightly-darker-than-neutral tonal balance.

The answer turned out to be no. Indeed, if anything, the new DAC sounded richer through the AudioQuest headphones—and through the much brighter Master & Dynamic ME05 earbuds—than through my system and speakers.

And here, the distinction between old and new was clearer and less ambiguous: Through headphones, the DragonFly Black was superior to the original DragonFly in every way. The soundstage was considerably larger. Images of singers and instrumental soloists had greater presence and produced a more convincing impression of flesh and blood. Music of all sorts exhibited better drive, pacing, momentum, and flow. Listening through speakers, I was at times unsure which Black I preferred; through headphones, there was no comparison—the Black kicked the old DAC's ass out the door.

Examples: With "The Partisan," from Leonard Cohen's Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, the Black made spellbinding a performance that, through the old DAC, had sounded merely interesting. The backing singers, in particular, popped from the mix better, and their singing—especially the French translations of the verses—were clearer and more intelligible, with more musical color.

The title song of Jeff Buckley's Grace (AIFF from CD, Columbia CK 57528) also sounded distinctly larger overall through the new Black than through the original DragonFly—and, again, counter to the way things stacked up through my hi-fi, the new Black gave more weight and power to electric bass and drums. Yet despite the richness, certain musical details—eg, the two brief phrases in the second verse where the strings play pizzicato—were easier to pick out through the Black.

DragonFly Red as a headphone amp

As with the Black, it was through headphones that I got the best measure of the similar-sounding but, ultimately, musically superior DragonFly Red. The more expensive Red nailed the differences in interpretation between Furtwängler's 1949 performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic, of Brahms's Symphony 3 (AIFF file of unknown origin), and the 1976 recording by Rudolf Kempe and the Munich Philharmonic (AIFF from CD, Arts Archives 43013-2). The latter is a fine performance by any measure—the playing is modern and precise, notes at the ends of phrases are somewhat clipped—yet tempos are flexible, the mood and tone undeniably romantic in temper. Then I played Furtwängler's, and was treated to the emotional mainline of conductor and orchestra playing as one, in accordance with a single, sensitive musical vision. The Berliners' playing wasn't as technically good as the Munich players'—the style was older, the violins relying overmuch on portamento—yet the Furtwängler recording was far more effective. The DragonFly Red made clear all of those distinctions, and while it wouldn't be true to say that the less expensive DragonFly Black didn't put them across at all, it did gloss over them.

Another example: In Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic's recording of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls (AIFF from CD, Nonesuch 79816-2), the first appearance of the word missing, toward the left side of my head, was emotionally devastating through the Red: It popped out and startled me—there are no discrete musical cues to prepare the listener for when it will occur. Also startling was the odd way in which the entrance of the choir and harp sounds suddenly "switched on." (In that regard, it reminds me of some of the effects in the Beatles' "Revolution 9," of which I remain unrepentantly fond.) You may have difficulty believing this, but none of the above was quite as effective through the DragonFly Black—a fine product that, in comparison to the DragonFly Red, sounded a bit mushy.

DragonFly Black and Red with iPhone

After the experiences described above, there were no more surprises: Having now abandoned both hi-fi system and computer in favor of my iPhone 6 Plus, I didn't expect to hear grand sound from either of the new DragonFlys—and I didn't.

The fact is, even after confirming that its equalization function—available by selecting Settings, then Music, then EQ—was disabled, music played from my iPhone, with or without an outboard DAC, seemed to conform to a hi-fi–like curve, with boosted and blurry bass and, to a lesser extent, boosted highs.

That's not to say that my iPhone was incapable of giving minimal musical enjoyment—or that the DragonFlys were incapable of wringing from the experience just a bit more information and involvement. But that's all it was: a bit.

Through the combination of iPhone 6 Plus and DragonFly Black, "Life Is a Carnival," from the Band's Cahoots (AIFF ripped from CD, Capitol 25391 2), had enough freedom from rhythmic distortion to be reasonably involving. Detail retrieval was okay, but there was a degree of murk between the notes and between the sounds of different instruments and voices, and the dynamic range wasn't terribly wide. In the same album's "Smoke Signal," the muted opening was, again, murky—Levon Helm's humming alongside Rick Danko's electric bass was barely audible—but, as the song progressed, the iPhone-DragonFly combo had just enough musical rightness and rhythmic propulsion to keep it entertaining.

But forget all that high-and-mighty high-end talk: When I eliminated the AudioQuest DAC altogether and plugged the eminently drivable NightHawk headphones straight into my iPhone, the murk was off the charts: Now there was no air between notes—just . . . stuff. It wasn't pretty.

Leaving the headphones plugged straight into my iPhone, I listened to "(Are You) The One that I've Been Waiting For," from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' The Boatman's Call (AIFF from CD, Mute/Reprise 46530). Every aspect of the sound—the drummer's hi-hat, the tremolo-rich organ, Cave's voice—was blunted and blurry, as if heard through wool. I put the AudioQuest DragonFly Black back in the loop and things sounded better, but not wildly so: There was a little more air, a little more clarity, a little more directness. Swapping out the Black for the DragonFly Red made no appreciable difference with that recording, but when I tried a better, more natural recording—the vocal group Voces Novae et Antiquae, under the direction of Robert A.M. Moss, performing Randall Thompson and Robert Frost's Frostiana (CD, Arkay AR6110)—I heard less grain and murk, especially with the more-treble-happy Master & Dynamic earphones in place of the AudioQuest headphones.

Conclusions

The first DragonFly was hailed as a breakthrough product, and rightly praised for its fine sound and its even more impressive value for the money. A little less than four years later, AudioQuest's latest contributions to the niche it invented earn even higher points for value—but, because they set out to do more, the sound qualities of these two new DragonFly DAC–headphone amps are somewhat more difficult to pin down.

Perhaps counterintuitively, for the consumer who intends to use a 'Fly more as a USB DAC for his or her playback system and less as a headphone amp, the $99 Black may be the easier choice: in such a setting, the advantages of the $199 Red are less apparent. On the other hand, serious headphone enthusiasts should go out of their way to try the DragonFly Red—a still-affordable product that combines superb sound with equally superb musicality. (In either case, and at this point in time, compatibility with a smartphone is best viewed as an enjoyable bonus, not a raison d'être.)

Both of AudioQuest's new DragonFlys offer high value and high sound quality—and I'm more than a little excited at the prospect of the upgradability of their software. Very strongly recommended.