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Audioquest Dragonfly “USB Stick DACs”

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Introduction
Audioquest is probably better known as a maker of audio cables or accessories but in recent years they’ve been successfully branching out into other areas of the audio business. In 2015 they introduced their Nighthawk headphones which received praise in the audiophile community. I remember hearing them briefly at an audio show and was mightily impressed (especially at a price point around 600 Euros). Did you know that Audioquest VP Joe Harley is even involved in audiophile reissues of Blue Note records (Music Matters)? These people really love music. What’s probably more interesting to us “digiphiles” is their lineup of digital interconnects, noise filters and most importantly USB DACs.

Enter the Audioquest Dragonfly USB DAC Series
Some years ago, engineering folks at Audioquest decided to come out with a minimalistic DAC that’s pretty much shrunken down to the size of a USB stick. There’s three of them: Black (advertising link), Red (advertising link) and Cobalt (advertising link) each having different specs and price points. The entry-level Black starts from about 150 Euros and goes up all the way to 300 Euros for the flagship Cobalt.

What’s really enticing about these Dragonflys is their minimalist approach to getting the job of audio conversion done. Only USB audio is supported which covers the vast majority of usage scenarios. Dragonflys are mainly intended to be plugged into your laptop and voila – according to the manufacturer you’ve got a fantastic sounding DAC plus headphone amplifier serving even demanding full-size headphones. Want to use them as a standalone DAC in your home? Yep, even that is possible with a quarter inch to RCA adapter cable. Power is supplied by the USB output of the device the Dragonfly is plugged into.

I’m actually not a huge fan of self-powered devices as switching noise from the computer PSU could easily pollute circuits. But Audioquest invested lots of time an effort to remedy those deficiencies. We can assume that the actual DAC chipsets behave perfectly well. It’s also great to see Audioquest using all sorts of tricks for power-filtering and shielding the Dragonfly from the source it’s plugged into.

When it comes to chipsets, the entry-level Dragonfly Black is equipped with ESS Technology ESS910 32-bit DAC featuring a whopping 116dB dynamic range. As for the Red, you get the ESS9016 having 124dB dynamic range whereas the flagship Cobalt comes with ESS flasgship chipset ES9038Q2M. I’m not completely sure about the Red or Black using mobile versions of ESS chipsets, however the Cobalt definitely does. Mobile means you only get the low-voltage chipsets which are slightly lower speced than their larger siblings, at least on paper. Nevertheless, ESS DAC chips are extremely well equipped to cope even with the worst scenarios. ESS uses clever patented tricks to increase immunity against time-domain jitter and other nasties. I’m a huge admirer of their technology.

If you want to learn more about ESS engineering, especially noise shaping with delta sigma DACs, there’s an interesting presentation by Martin Mallison (CTO of ESS) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Mn5PrnZV-k which I highly recommend you watch, even if you’re not mathematically skilled.

Although all of the ESS delta-sigma chips can output line level signals per se, Audioquest cleverly decided to add a high-quality “signal booster” to be able to drive full-size headphones. In the case of the Cobalt, they’re apparently using the ESS Technology SABRE9601C while the entry-level models are rocking Texas Instruments TPA61xx chipsets. Those are also great and I remember my own DIY TPA6120 headphone amp driving 600 Ohm loads with ease. I personally think the choice of excellent line driver and overall engineering is responsible for much of the performance of the entire Dragonfly series. Many people like to attribute it to the DAC chip but I think otherwise.

Who Are They For?
Dragonflys primarily cater to audiophiles wanting better sound from a laptop while at the same time being able to drive their headphones out of a single, compact device. But since they work so well with an iPhone or Android smartphone, I think they are just as perfect for mobile use – at least the original one I had was. However, I’ve seen many people using it as their “home DAC” which makes perfect sense. If you’re fine with USB only and don’t want a large bulky standalone DAC, a Dragonfly could be all you need. Some of my friends use them, too.

Which Model is Right For You?
If you’re torn between the Black, Red vs Cobalt – they differ in the quality grade of their ESS DAC chip, its output stage and probably the cirucit complexity and internal filtering techniques etc. There’s a comparison sheet published by Audioquest detailing all the differences: https://www.audioquest.com/resource/1105/dragonfly-spec-sheet.pdf

Each Dragonfly offers some sort of volume control capability so it can act as a preamp (the higher grade Red and Cobalt probably use the built-in ESS DAC chip headroom). But since its software-only, I’d personally be cautious and not directly connect it to your power amp without some sort of physical volume control in between, just to be on the safe side…I’ve seen people damage their expensive speakers with software volume control. But that’s just my opinion.

Driver Support and Other Practical Considerations
Dragonflys receive regular firmware updates and are generally well supported by the manufacturer.

Sound Quality
Since I only listened to the predecessor, the original Dragonfly featuring the TAS1020 controller chipset by TI, I cannot tell you anything about the current lineup and I honestly cannot give you my opinion on how much they’ve progressed sonically (hoping I will get one to try out). What I can say though is that I liked the original Dragonfly a lot and I think it could well be the only DAC you need for home and on-the-go. It’s not such a huge step up from a Dragonfly to the absolute best DACs and I can only assume the new lineup sounds even better.

Value For Money
Each Dragonfly seems to be priced appropriately. What I mean by that is that they aren’t cheap but I’d say absolutely worth their money given the amount of engineering that went into them – at least that’s my personal opinion. As a customer, you also get firmware updates and a company that stands behind their products.

Where to Buy
You can purchase them from a local audio retailer or simply on Amazon. Pricing at the time of this writing (August 21, 2019) is as follows:

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Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt: approx. US$ 299.95 (prices may vary – please verify)
Audioquest Dragonfly Red: approx. US$ 199.00 (prices may vary – please verify)
Audioquest Dragonfly Black: approx US$ 100.00 (prices may vary – please verify)