AudioQuest DragonFly Red and DragonFly Black
Output: 3.5mm jack
Dimensions (W x D x H): the size of a USB stick
Weight: not much more than a few dragonflies
Availability: Online and through authorized dealers
Price: DragonFly Black $99.00, DragonFly Red $199.00
A DragonFly Tale
[Parental Advisory Warning] I had an email exchange with my friend Joe about music and movies, as is our wont, and asked—
Me "What are you listening through?"At the time, I was rich in DragonFlys, having my original and the V.12 version. So I sent Joe the original. Here's the first email I received from Joe after the DragonFly landed at his place:
Joe "I have two pairs of Shure 580 in-ear headphones, which are very good headphones and also sit in the ear and cut out 90% of outside noise. About as fidelity as I get."
Me "I like those Shure in-ears too. So you plug them into your computer?"
Joe "Yeah, I just plug them into one Apple product or another."
Subject: Damn!And the follow-up email from the next day after Joe had downloaded the lovely Nils Frahm album Solo:
Fuck Me! DragonFly!
Feel another headache coming on after sticking my head in a piano for an hour. Seriously, I've had these Shures now for three years and yesterday was the first time I really heard them.There is nothing, no thing, that gives me more pleasure from the work I do at AudioStream than this. Nothing comes close.
The New DragonFlys
I think it's safe to say to say that the DragonFly has been a success so you'd think its creators, Steve Silberman of AudioQuest and Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio, would rest on these laurels. But they obviously didn't, seeing as we're here to talk about two new DragonFlys: the Black and the Red.
One of the rubs with the previous 'Flys was the fact that they drew too much power to be directly connected to an iPhone; users had to add a powered USB hub in between. For many owners, like my friend Joe, this kinda cramped the idea of listening in between home and work.
So Mssrs Silberman & Rankin went to work to solve this problem. The solution, there's nearly always one, involved working with Microchip (with input from Gordon Rankin) on a brand spankin' new USB microcontroller. The resultant device, the Microchip PIC32MX, has a larger program area, a larger buffer area, and draws 77% less current than TI 1020b used in the old DragonFlys, and 95% less current draw than the popular XMOS processor (think less EMI/RFI and ground noise). Consider the 'in-between' problem solved.
Before I go on, I'd like to pause and reflect on this part of the tale: How many companies do you think spend this amount of R&D on a $99 and $199 DAC? Hint: You can count them on one finger. Which finger is up to you.
The new DragonFly Black employs the 32-bit ESS 9010 chip while the Red employs the superiorly spec'd 32-bit ESS 9016. Both 'Flys use ESS' minimum-phase digital filter and max out at 24-bit/96kHz1. Due to their much lower power consumption, they can, as discussed, directly attach to your iPhone using one of the Apple Camera Connection Kits; no external powered hub needed. I'd recommend checking out Apple's Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter ($39) because it includes a USB Type-A port where you plug in your 'Fly and a Lightning port which can be used to power/charge the works. Nice. Gordon Rankin's Asynchronous USB Streamlength® USB protocol is still in use in both.
Where the Black and Red also differ is in their headphone amps/output; the Black, like the original and v1.2, employs a host-controlled 64-step analog volume control whereas the Red relies on an ESS headphone amp and the ESS 9016's DSP-endowed 64-bit bit-perfect digital volume control, which is also controlled by the host. The Black's output is rated at 1.2V whereas the Red's is 2.1V, the latter being better for driving demanding 'phones.
The Black & Red retain the same thumb drive-sized form factor as their elders as well as the light-up sample rate-coded dragonfly (44.1kHz=Green, 48kHz=Blue, 88.2kH=Amber, 96kHz=Magenta). The Black is matte black, while the Red is gloss red. Think racey!
Using a DragonFly involves plugging it into a USB port on your chosen device and telling that device to play music through it (Apple calls it "sounds" harumph!). Since AudioQuest has created a very nicely detailed Flight Manual explaining every possible DragonFly mate, I will happily leave the birds and bees to them. Since I use Roon, I get to skip all of this computer audio adolescent stuff.
Always Bet On Black. Or Red
I used the Black and the Red in five different scenarios: in my main system, in my desktop system, in our home system, in-barn using the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, and on-the-go using my iPhone and the RHA S500 headphones with Comply Foam Isolation 200 tips over a period of many months. The Red accompanied me to Munich way back in May.
Let's begin at the beginning (v1.2). The new Black and Red DragonFlys sound better than the DragonFly v1.2. While I cannot speak to a direct comparison with the original DragonFly since Joe's enjoying it, I can say that when I compared the v1.2 to the original, I felt v1.2 was better. Therefore, I can say with the assurance that logic dictates, the new DragonFlys are better than the old DragonFlys.
By better, I'll generalize and say I hear more resolution, greater dynamics, improved micro-detail and nuance. Music sounds righter.
Narrowing things down to Red v. Black, the most notable sonic differences I heard were when the DragonFlys were compared using my main system (Ayre AX-5 Twenty/DeVore Fidelity gibbon X). In this system context, the Black sounds fatter and more akin to a big ball of sonic happiness as compared the Red's more refined and better defined sound image. The Red also improves on the Black in terms of the subtleties that music contains: cymbal hits, piano trails, and a more dramatic dynamic range. To my ears, I'd bet on Red when coupling a DragonFly with a highly resolving system.
In our house, using my Leben CS-300XS driving a pair of c.1967 Altec Valencias, I preferred the Black because it made this system sound big, hearty, and fun. I love those old Altecs, even more so when the accompanying gear brings out their dark and handsome side. I can imagine house guests would also feel more invited into our music with this friendly un-fussiness engine. If the DragonFly Black was also Bluetooth-enabled, it would have landed for good.
In terms of headphones, the Red won out with both the NightHawks and the cheapo RHA S500s; the Red simply provides a more nuanced and delicate musical picture as compared to the Black's fullness. That being said, if the $100 difference between these two 'Flys registers on your budget-O-meter, the Black gets you where you need to go if that destination is the enjoyment of music. If we also take into account system context, I try to, then the Black makes more sense to me driving a headphone like the RHA S500s since the differences between Red and Black were minimized by the RHA's performance. To generalize, again, it has been my experience that combining components with huge price disparities typically leaves system performance short-handed. YMMV.
I was on a piano jag recently, digging into Mal Waldron, Monk, Jaki Byard (hard), Bill Evans, etc. and I kept going back to the Red in my main system for its ability to better deliver the piano's multivariate voice. Attack/note(s)/decay/space & time—music's subtleties that add to a deeper experience when listening as a solo activity.
If we compare the DragonFly Red to the MOON by Simaudio Nēo 280D MiND, which at $2200 strikes me as a nicely priced DAC/Network Player considering its performance, what we get for an extra $2k is more weight, greater clarity, more bass, and overall a larger more stable and well-defined sound image. I hope you didn't think I was going to say something like "punches way above its weight" or "you'd have to spend $10,000 to better the DragonFly's performance!" I may be old, but I'm not that old (wink).
Red Is The New Black (or vice versa) 2
What I will say is given your system context, either DragonFly can make you very happy as they both fly way above their weight. The more resolving the associated gear and the more demanding the headphone, the more I'd bet on Red. I'm not going to say that same thing in reverse regarding the Black because a) it would sound snooty, and b) it misses the point that the DragonFly Black sounds damn good. At the 99 buck mark, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better companion for you and your music.
1. If you take issue with the DragonFly's 24/96 limit, maybe it's not for you.
2. For another take on the new DragonFlys, fly on over to Stereophile for Art Dudley's appraisal.