Audioquest Dragonfly USB DAC

I decided to write a follow up review focusing on the performance of Audioquest’s Dragonfly V.1.0 This little USB digital analogue converter has been a hit with the public because of its versatility, portability and obvious affordability – more so given they reduced the price by a hundred bucks last winter. This review will cover the gear I tested it with, and two different scenarios that came up with the second unit I purchased.

I’ve actually had two of these in my possession since first writing about it over a year and half ago. Given all the hype and ink that was bestowed upon the Audioquest Dragonfly at first launch, I admit, for $249 and packing a Sabra 24-bit chip, I was intrigued. I went down to my local Best Buy and decided to give it a full 30 day risk free trial (something I may add that is much more difficult via internet only purchasing). At the time, my set up was split between using an Apple iPod Classic atop of a Wadia 171i digit dock, fed to an Emotiva XDA2 DAC, via a Pioneer Elite SC-35 and finally through my Monitor Audio RX8 towers. Cabling was DH-Labs and Audioquest.

As with most novice music lovers and budding audiophiles, the little things still make a big difference to me. I still remember the moment very well, where at about hour 2 of burning in the Dragonfly with the Sidney mini-plug RCA, I had a “you must be kidding me moment.” It was a weird moment mind you, while I had a half smile across my mug, I also faced an immediate dilemma of dissatisfaction and irritation with the thought that a little $250 USB DAC just trounced nearly a grand of my faithful stand by gear. It took only another two hours of listening where I began listing my Wadia and Emotiva DAC on eBay…I was that impressed.

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What was it exactly? Let me tell you, CD’s that were ripped on my laptop came through with what I would have to equate to 20% more detail, a bit deeper and certainly a bit wider soundstage. Anything I played from America, the Homecoming album, sounded fantastic, richer, more detailed. I could hear more resonance in the lead acoustic guitar. The Moon Song demonstrated this best with the drum kit strikes, metal sounded more like metal, the skins had more texture.

It is always amazing to me, even today given the huge price disparity in my gear then, versus now, in how much data can come through from a 16-bit 44.1 kHz disc. While the latest HiFi speaks of 35-bit and 844 kHz playback (NAD M51), I revel in every improvement I gain in basic cd playback. Nevertheless, 10 hours of playing the Dragonfly sparked a new want and need in me…if this was what the 24-bit Sabra chip sounded like stuffed into a tiny USB plug and play device, just how good were those Sabra 32-bit doodads?

I kept the Dragonfly in play for nearly 26 days before returning it to BestBuy; I decided to keep the Audioquest Sidney mini-RCA cable as I had a feeling it would come in handy for other applications. The DAC did continue to improve up to about the 50 hour mark where I think it settled in early with my gear limitations. While the Pioneer Class D amp is on the polite side, the Dragonfly allowed my stereo play back to breathe a fair amount more than I was used to and a notch up in the treble region. Monitor Audio RX8 speakers can play at levels most would never try for an extended period, 116 decibels. I did have to keep in mind that the Dragonfly does have its own internal volume control and the laptop main volume level had to be set to 90 or below. Pushing the little Dragonfly to anything past 93 would introduce slight fuzz to the music, thus a gentle reminder that I was beginning to cook it. (*interesting note, on the second unit I purchased, I had to lower the volume below 90 to 85, otherwise the high volume fuzz interference became prominent. I am not sure if it was the unit, or my cable issue that I mention later.)

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Regarding the cool little LED indicator reflecting at what resolution my downloads were playing at, I did not get more than three colors (as expected). Green reflected my typical 44.1 kHz CD rips, I did get some blue 48 kHz up-sampling and more rare was the magenta for 96 kHz HD tracks I started to purchase. Most of the time was spent in the green zone. I could hear no discernable difference between 44 kHz and 48 kHz. Obviously my few 96 kHz tracks were of better quality, albeit huge file samples on my laptop.

Given the Dragonfly is also a headphone amplifier, what review would be complete without testing this crucial area? Ah, but what a letdown I will be to you all, I have no high fidelity headphones, let alone mid-fi. My lame Beats “Tour” edition in ear phones will have to suffice. This begs the question; would one actually buy a Dragonfly to pair with $150 earphones or headphones, I’m not sure, I wouldn’t. However, with the Beats plugged into the Dragonfly, I had a much harder time noticing a difference in sound quality. Older CD’s from the 80’s stood the most to gain, one particular disk that can sound terribly compressed and flat is REM’s “Eponymous”. I usually go to this disc when I want to reveal my true gains. You can practically hear the gripe about CD playback in the early 80’s embodied on this album. 1981’s Radio Free Europe is a great song, but like most of the songs on this CD, they are hard to engage with if you cannot hear all of it. Yet again, the Beat’s and Dragonfly pairing embarrassed my iPod/Wadia/Emotiva combination. Driver 8 was narrow, the guitars recessed and bass drum barely audible. Yet, vocals were clear, centered and intelligible. I could just make out the harmonica. Well, I couldn’t expect the Dragonfly to undue history and poor mastering…

Of one important note I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed had I not been without my Audioquest Sidney cable. More recently, I had purchased another Dragonfly on closeout to have as a backup while I am between system DAC’s. I fired up the Dragonfly through the same laptop I had originally used, via my Monitor Audio’s and some Polk Audio Rti4’s. On certain songs like Bucketheads Tarantula Crossing, the guitar was fading in and out in a monotone wale that became unbearable to listen to. I was using a Y splitter from the Dragonfly to my integrated amp and there was some kind of cross channel loss. I also noticed on Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, again, the lead guitar was present only in the right channel, then the left intermittently (sometimes gone!). This situation took place a handful of times and was repeatable despite making any changes to my JRiver set up. If you do not use a specific Audioquest mini-RSA cable, there is some kind of channel separation loss. Hence, a $5 splitter is not advised for good playback, buy one of their “Bridges and Falls” cables and be happy.

In conclusion, now that the price is $149 and Audioquest has made improvement in the guise of V.2, anyone who doesn’t have more than $300 to spend on an outboard DAC and or wants portability, this little Dragonfly is a must have.

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Review by Audio-Head.com

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