AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC
Device Type: Digital to Analog Converter/Headphone Amplifier
Input: USB Audio Class 1.0
Output: 3.5mm jack
Dimensions (H x W x D): approximately .5 x .75 x 2.25 in. (uncapped)
Weight: a little more than a dragonfly
Availability: online and through Authorized Dealers
What's a cable company like AudioQuest doing making a DAC? The easy answer is—because its here (Computer Audio audio that is). AudioQuest makes an extensive line of audio and video cables and in addition to the usual suspects there's a line of Ethernet cables which I'll be reviewing shortly. AudioQuest also has had a "Computer Audio" section on their website for some time now that includes two informative "How To" type PDFs, and they've been hosting Computer Audio seminars at most of the major Hi-Fi Shows. So I would say its safe to say that AudioQuest has embraced file-based playback with both arms and legs. The subject of today's musical travels is their new DragonFly USB DAC which adds a pair of wings to their computer audio-centric offerings.
The DragonFly is unusual in a number of ways—the most obvious is its size which is thumb-sized, the only way to connect to its non-USB side is via a 3.5mm mini jack (you can buy a 3.5mm to RCA cable from any number of companies including The obvious one), the DragonFly incorporates an analog volume control (I know—how does anything analog fit into such a small place?), the dragonfly built into the body of the DragonFly DAC changes color depending on the sample rate; 44.1kHz (Green), 48kHz (Blue), 88.2kHz (Amber), 96kHz (Magenta), and last but certainly not least the DragonFly employes Gordon Rankin's Sreamlength technology for its asynchronous USB implementation.
As a matter of fact, Gordon Rankin provided more than firmware for the DragonFly seeing as he was responsible for the complete circuit design, the guts. The look and feel of the DragonFly was handled by AudioQuest's in-house design team and Steve Silberman, AudioQuest's VP of Development, led the DragonFly team through design, development, testing and delivery, taking a vision to a formed idea and into 3 or more dimensions.
Functionally, since the DragonFly is limited to native 24/96 playback no drivers are required and while the DragonFly will play higher sample rates, they will get downsampled before leaving your computer and exactly how and where this happens will depend on your setup. Musical data is passed from your computer to a Texas Instruments TAS1020 USB receiver chip which contains the Streamlength code and then on to a 24-bit ESS Sabre™ conversion chip via I²S. The DragonFly is USB bus-powered and I used the AudioQuest Big Sur 3.5mm to RCA cable ($89/.6m) from their Bridges & Falls line which was provided on loan along with the DragonFly DAC to connect to my Leben CS-300XS.
I asked Steve Silberman about the reason for the native 24/96 playback limit since I know some of you are asking yourselves that very same question:
There were a few reasons we decided to stop at 96KHz.1. Windows doesn’t support class 2 audio. In order for a Windows user to stream files beyond 96KHz third party drivers are required. For the vast majority of consumers this just isn’t something that interests them.
2. When we looked at the USB chips available for class 2 audio we found that their power consumption was higher then what the TI TAS1020B draws. This would have forced us to reallocate the available power, taking away from the digital and analog circuitry. This would have reduced the overall performance, but given us another feature. In the end we had to choose between the two and we went with better overall sound.
Since the analog volume control incorporated in the DragonFly is somewhat uncommon, I thought it worth asking Steve Silberman to talk a bit more about it:
The DragonFly’s volume is controlled by the main system controller, not the application control, so it’s controlled by Mac OSX, XP, or 7. Vista has a glitch in their volume control device so it does not support the DragonFly's volume control.To clarify, when using the DragonFly with iTunes and a third party media player, if you want to take advantage of the DragonFly's analog volume control you should set your iTunes volume as well as your third party media player's volume to their maximum level (unless your third party media player takes over your system volume like Pure Music and Decibel) and use your System volume to adjust playback volume. I listened to the DragonFly in two system contexts: in my main system connected to my MacBook Pro running Pure Music and Audirvana Plus and on my desktop connected to my iMac/ADAM A3x speakers running Audirvana (full system details are provided in the "Associated Equipment" link at the end of this and every other review).
Dragonflies and Ladders
You know the old saying—perspective is 9/10s of the
law moveable truth? If you were to read a "review" or what I think may be more appropriately called an embellishment of the DragonFly's press release on any number of highly trafficked and cutely-named gadget blogs, you may very well see their writers refer to its price. And the funny part is that reference may read something like this, "Even though the DragonFly clearly sounds better than using your computer all by itself, this improvement comes with the rather hefty price tage of $250". Whereas our perspective on AudioStream could very well be summed up by asking - How good can a relatively inexpensive DAC sound?
People who care about the quality of their experience when listening to music on a hi-fi are very fortunate. The barrier to entry for an engaging and musical hi-fi-generated event seems to be getting lower each passing day and the AudioQuest DragonFly DAC has added another step to the entry level price-performance ladder and that's great news. Above all else, I find the DragonFly has struck a nice balance between what it does well —resolution, pace, and micro detail—and what it does not do quit as well—texture, tone, air and ease.
Bass is a tad loose but weighty with resounding heft. The upper registers are natural sounding but slightly forward which helps explain the DragonFly's sense of hearing into the recording and the aforementioned micro detailed view into your music. If I were to gauge its sonic center of sound it would lie in the lighter and leaner weight class as compared to other weightier presentations. I've heard Ella fill out her dress more. The potential downside to this kind of presentation becomes apparent when you slide, tap or turn the volume up so's you have to raise your voice to hear over the music. At these higher volume levels, the DragonFly, especially with complex, dense music, begins to show its fragility. The overall sonic picture condenses somewhat, flattening out and its sense of ease begins to exhibit signs of strain. A hardness creeps in. To tame this sting, just turn the volume down to a suitable level.
While there's an enjoyable array of tone colors delivered, the DragonFly does not capture the full rainbow of micro hues and overtones that makes one instrument not only stand apart from another but startle with difference. As compared to more costly DACs like Gordon Rankin's own Proton USB DAC ($900), there's less air and ease to the overall sonic picture. Of course I'm being very hard on the little DragonFly, but I think it deserves to be treated like any other DAC regardless of price because the things it gets right it gets really right. And I would highlight, again, its ability to resolve fine detail and deliver music's flow while hinting at music's many-colored hues enough to pull me in.
If I add all of this up and look for a sum, what this means to me is if you're looking for a USB DAC for your main system and you like to listen to your Germans, for example, at concert-levels, the DragonFly may not fly for you. Of course in order to get your favorite Germans at concert levels convincingly in-room means you've invested some serious coin in your system and I don't think that's where Audioquest pictured the DragonFly landing.
I've mentioned this before, but one very comfortable place where the DragonFly shines is on a desktop system with powered speakers. My ADAM A3Xs love, love, love the DragonFly and it loves ADAM. For an under-a-grand desktop system the DragonFly/ADAM A3X combo delivers some very serious music. And I should know, I've been listening to all manner of music through this combo for the better part of a month—just for fun. You know, just because I wanted to and I'm not nearly finished. Listening in the near-field also means I never push the DragonFly too hard.
For those looking for comparisons, I may do a follow-up, circumstances permitting, with some like-priced DACs but the others I've reviewed near this price point, like the Audioengine D1 24-Bit DAC ($169) and the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II ($349) are too long gone from my system to make any direct comparisons. I will say that in my experience with DACs in this price range, you're going to get a partial sonic picture so choosing becomes very dependent on listening preferences. If you like resolute and clean as opposed to fat and full, the DragonFly may be a good choice and I have yet to hear a DAC for anywhere near its price that resolves music this well while remaining musical.
And if you want the scoop on the DragonFly as a headphone amp, stay tuned for a full report over at our brother-site InnerFidelity. I did give the DragonFly a spin on my Audio Technica ATH-W1000 (yes regular readers 'we' found them in the 'beach bag') and everything I've said so far applies here as well—super-fine detail, great swing but things get edgy when pushed. Kinda like me!
If we travel by my, um, Dragonfly
I can't help but think of Jimi Hendix's "Spanish Castle Magic" from his sophomore release Axis: Bold As Love whenever I hear the word Dragonfly. And if you read Jimi's lyrics, the kind of travel he's talking about takes two (nudge-nudge - know what I mean? Say no more?). While the DragonFly isn't up to the full out psychedelic sonic trip that music has to offer, its shortcomings may very well go unnoticed when inserted into a system-context more in line with its price tag.
A case in point—if you're looking for a DAC to light up your desktop's powered speakers and are currently feeding them from your computer's analog output, the DragonFly has the goods to fly circles around your current sound and make you positively dizzy with musical delight.
Also on hand and in use during the DragonFly review: Mytek Stereo 192-DSD DAC, Wavelength Proton