Audioquest DragonFly Red
USB D/A Converter

Audioquest DragonFly - Red or Black?

AudioQuest is a US based company and the EU headquarters is located in the Netherlands. AudioQuest since the 1980’s is mostly known for their cables but they became even more popular among “head-fiers” when they released a very popular mini USB DAC/AMP called the DragonFly.

The AudioQuest DragonFly isn’t the first AudioQuest product to be featured on Headfonia, the NightHawk headphone, the DragonFly V1.2 and the JitterBug reviews were both published several weeks/months ago already.

DragonFly History

The AudioQuest DragonFly isn’t “new” in the sense that the original multi-award-winning version was launched a long time ago in 2012 already. In the meantime that original version has been replaced by the DragonFly V1.2 which at his turn now has been replaced by both the DragonFly Red V1.0 and Black V1.5.

So the new Black and Red units actually are the 3rd and 4th version already of AudioQuest’s popular DragonFly series. I have to say that the DragonFly from the original version up to now has grown on me and the RED version’s quality actually is very impressive to me at this stage.

If you’re not sure what version of the DragonFly you have then you probably own the original version. The simplest way to distinguish DragonFly V1.0 from DragonFly V1.2 is by looking at the 3.5mm plug as V1.0’s is black and V1.2’s is gray. The latest DragonFly Black 1.5 also has a gray colored 3.5mm plug but the unit on its back has the Black V1.5 details printed in gold. The Red version of course is easy to spot but the material used is also different. It does feature the same gold “specs” on the back of the unit as well.

New DragonFly + Build Quality + Specs

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the DragonFly yet (is that still possible?), you can basically say the DragonFlies are USB-dongles which serve as DAC, pre-amp to a power/headphone amp and headphone amplifier all in one. Small packages with a big bang for buck measuring only 12mm (h) x 19mm (w) x 62mm (l).

The build quality of the DragonFly is excellent. Their finish is great, they’re small and you can put them in your pocket or drop them in your bag without any worries. The Red version does feel nicer as the casing used has a harder feel to it and with its red gloss finish (or automotive finish as they call it) it simply looks shiny and attractive. Both new versions of course still have the DragonFly LED-feature, which shows you what sample rate the unit is receiving from your source. Red: Standby, Green: 44100.0 Hz, Blue: 48000.0 Hz Amber: 88200.0, Hz Magenta: 96000.0 Hz. Be aware the DragonFly units don’t do DSD, but more on that later.

While the original DragonFly defined the market for micro-DACs, its USB power draw made it compatible with computers only. Music lovers have craved a more portable version – one that could be reliably used with Apple and Android smartphones and tablets. The new Red and Black were born. AudioQuest and DragonFly designer Gordon Rankin worked alongside Microchip Technology to develop a new high-performance, full-speed USB microcontroller solution that delivers improved signal-to-noise ratio and significantly lower power consumption. Drawing 77% less current than the previous microcontroller, the new Microchip PIC32MX microcontroller enables true compatibility with Apple and Android smartphones and tablets (OTG with the correct software) although it seems it’s not always 100% guaranteed to work. That however isn’t related to the DragonFly but rather to the OS implementation in your Android or Apple device. It should work on Apple iOS 5 and newer and Android 4.1 and newer (For Android devices, see owner’s manual).

I could say the new Black V1.5 DragonFly for the moment is the “lowest ranked” and cheapest DragonFly in AudioQuest’s product line-up but that wouldn’t do the unit justice as its performance isn’t low at all. The DragonFly units just keep getting better and if you’re looking for an amp/dac combo under $200, you just can’t ignore AudioQuest anymore.

For greater overall performance, both the new DragonFly models incorporate an improved 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chip: the 9010 in Black and the higher-performance 9016 in Red. (Both of which employ minimum-phase filtering for naturally detailed, more authentic sound). While DragonFly Black uses the same headphone amp and analog volume control found in DragonFly v1.2, DragonFly Red includes the latest ESS headphone amp and a bit-perfect digital volume control that resides on the 9016 DAC chip itself. This implementation should ensure maximum fidelity, dynamic contrast, and signal-to-noise ratio.

DragonFly Black puts out 1.2 volts: enough power to successfully drive all preamplifier input circuits and a wide range of today’s efficient headphones. Meanwhile, with its higher 2.1-volt output, DragonFly Red will be compatible with a wider range of headphones, including power-hungry, low-efficiency models. See tests later in this article.

While the DAC chips are remarkably powerful and sophisticated, AudioQuest has intentionally limited DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red’s processing capabilities to 24-bit/96kHz resolution. This makes using the DragonFlies as simple as it’s always been: they’re fully compatible with PCs without having to download and install new drivers. I can understand why AudioQuest decided to go this route but at the same time it to me is annoying as a whole lot of music in my library has a resolution higher than 96kHz. As a result my Foobar, on shuffle play, stops working every time it wants to play one of these files. Just be aware of this if you have a lot of really high resolution music files stored on your source.

Both versions also have upgradeable drivers and in the future you’ll be able to upgrade them via a dedicated AQ software.

Sound

Unfortunately I never got to hear the DragonFly V1.0 and my DragonFly journey “only” started with the V1.2 but from that point on, the DragonFly units just got sounding better and better. The Black is a clear improvement over the V1.2. Where in the V1.2 the voices were more forward and the mids were more to the back, they are more leveled out in the Black version. Voices are still a little more forward sounding but the mids have gotten more body. The level of detail and the instrumental separation clearly is on a higher level in the new Black version. Also the sound stage depth seems to have gotten an upgrade compared to before. It makes the Black a lot more engaging, rich and realistic sounding where the old version had a more digital tone to it.

I find the Black to be the most neutral sounding one of the new DragonFly units and it’s also the most energetic one. I could have called it more aggressive sounding but that might have given you a wrong idea of the Black. It’s more that it’s fast sounding with good attack and prat. While the soundstage of the Black 1.5 in all dimensions is better than the V1.2, it still isn’t the widest or deepest. If you can read between the lines you understand that it’s good but the Red’s is even better. Bass in the Black is tight and fast but it isn’t the most detailed, layered or deep bass. Bass in the V1.2 is a bit looser and has less detail.

The mids section of the Black, as said, is now more leveled then before (more body) but I still find it to be a tad more to the back which makes the voices come out up front. Like with the bass, the mid-section in the Black has more detail and more body than before. The mids while already an improvement could be more spacious though. The treble section in both units is soft but it has detail enough. The new Black’s treble is further extended than before but the overall presentation still is on the soft side resulting in harmless and easygoing treble for everyone. A little more treble focus could have made the sound even more energetic though.

The differences with the DragonFly Red are very much there and the DAC chip difference clearly is audible. Overall the Red gives you better layering from the lows to the highs and it has better depth and layering with even more body compared to the Black. I find the Red version to be a little warmer and more unforced/relaxed sounding than the Black one and that brings a lot more emotion and musicality to the sound. The Red version sounds a lot richer.

The Red has more bass body and it goes deeper compared to the Black with better layering and detail. It’s the good kind of qualitative and airy bass although the Black’s bass feels a little tighter and faster. The increased bass body is never too much and it surely doesn’t run into the mids. The mids, which also have more body, flow nicely from the bass and have the same good amount of air and layering. Bass and mids on the Red are more layered, go deeper, wider and have more detail resulting in a very musical, yet detailed and realistic presentation. Treble still is presented in the same soft kind of way even though it might have a little more detail. Treble maybe is a litter further extended but it isn’t much.

Headphones

One of the headphones I ended up using a lot with the DragonFlies is the Hifiman Edition-S. Both units have more than enough power to drive this headphones and volume always had to be turned down by a lot. The S sounds very engaging and musical with the DragonFly units and depending on tuning I was in the mood for I switched between the faster Black and the smoother Red. The Sennheiser HD650 with its 300Ohm impedance is a harder to drive headphone and while I still prefer to listen to the HD650 on tubes, especially the Red Dragonfly made it sound very engaging and musical. Volume wise you of course have to seriously turn it up but there is headroom left.

Sennheiser’s HD800S with the bigger bass and thicker mids sounds surprisingly nice on the Black but it sounds even better on the Red. Good bass, good mids but at higher volumes the sound seems to start to distort, I still recommend a full sized desktop unit for this kind of headphones. Beyerdynamic’s DT770Pro is an easier drive headphone and so neither of the DragonFly units had a problem with it. With the Black you get good and full bodied bass and good speed overall. With the Red I find the bass to lose a little of control and I prefer the faster sounding signature of the Black with this headphones.

With sensitive monitors like the CustomArt 8.2 (an 8-driver ciem), both the Red and Black were dead silent and had enough range on the dial to listen to them at very low volumes. I wasn’t particularly a fan of this pairing though as there was no magic with the 8.2 which sounds excellent in balanced mode. The VE ZEN with its 160Ohm impedance plays best on the Red DragonFly. I don’t know what it is but I clearly prefer full sized headphones over in-ear monitors with the DragonFly units.

End Words

The red one is the best sounding DragonFly up to date even though some listeners might prefer the more neutral less bodied and faster sound signature of the Black. Once you’ve listened to either of these versions you don’t want to go back to your original V1 or V1.2, they’re just that much better. Each DragonFly is dead silent with all of the headphones I tried them with and I didn’t need the JitterBug to get that result.

On top of that these new models work on a whole lot more portable devices and you always get a desktop sound delivered to your ear and headphones, a sound with a higher quality than your normal phone will provide you with. Another advantage is that the DragonFly is small and it is much easier to “stack” with your mobile phone compared to let’s say a Chord Mojo. I love what AudioQuest is doing with the DragonFly. The sound quality of both of the units is very good and especially the Red one is impressive. The Black is going for only $99 while the TOTL Red will set you back $199. I know that is double the price but the upgrade in sound definitely is there. With all my headphones I tried the DragonFlies with, I mostly kept going back to the Red version but if you’re on a smaller budget, the Black won’t let you down.

To me the DragonFly is an ideal DAC for at work or for when I’m on the go with just my laptop, phone or tablet. It gives you a desktop quality sound for a fraction of the price. I always have a DragonFly with me in my bag in case I forget the DAC or amp I’m supposed to be testing in the office or at home. I was going to say DragonFly is a great backup and it never disappoints, but it’s not really a backup as it simply sounds great.

While I’m very pleased with the sound quality I still don’t recommend using them as your main driver/amplifier for the TOTL and very hard to drive headphones. In those cases a full sized desktop amp will still make your headphones perform on a higher level, but it also costs you a hell of a lot more in comparison to the easily affordable DragonFly. For some reason I prefer listening to my (custom) IEMs (in balanced configuration) from one of my balanced DAPs or other sources, but that’s just my personal preference.

I seriously doubt there are better DAC/Amp combinations in this price category and especially in such a small package. If Headfonia would hand out medals, the DragonFly Red would surely get one. Yes, it’s that nice.