08 September 2017

AudioQuest DragonFly Black and Red DAC Review

AudioQuest known for the cable, according to the company profile: AudioQuest has been the largest cable supplier to the high-end specialist market for many years. AudioQuest is sold in several hundred outlets in the US and in over sixty countries. In 2012, more and more people especially audio enthusiast know about AudioQuest because of the portable DAC "DragonFly". The review below covers the next generation DragonFly: DragonFly Black & DragonFly Red.


It's a truly a portable device at 12mm (h) x 19mm (w) x 62mm just as big as USB stick. The black coated with rubber plastic while the red coated by glossy paint. Even though the glossy paint looks nicer but for durability I would say that the black is better.


There's a DragonFly LED logo which lights up to a different color indicating the sample rate / status.  Red: Standby, Green: 44100 Hz, Blue: 48000 Hz, Amber: 88200 Hz, Magenta: 96000 Hz. I like the placement of the LED, it's easy to see the status when it's plug into the laptop.

Both version support up to 24-bit / 96kHz resolution. they are also using the same microchip PIC32MX offering low power consumption, option to upgrade the firmware and USB 2.0 compliant.
The black has ESS 9010 32-Bit and Red has ESS 9016 32-Bit DAC chip which similar minimum-phase digital filter to provide detailed and dynamic music but surpasses ESS 9010 in overall performance. 

DragonFly Red has a higher output at 2.1v compared to Black 1.2v, if black can make your headphone loud, the Red could make it even louder.

Something interesting for the volume control in DragonFly Red: DragonFly Red employs a 64-bit, bit-perfect digital volume control that resides inside the DAC chip itself—an elegant and sophisticated implementation that ensures maximum fidelity, dynamic contrast, and signal-to-noise ratio. With DragonFly Red connected to a PC or mobile device, adjusting the host’s system volume control will, through proxy, control the DragonFly Red’s onboard volume.

Supporting a wide range of OS from mobile (Android, iOS) to pc (OS X and Windows), the good thing is that no driver need to be installed, you just need to plug and hear it. So far there were two firmware update version 1.03 and 1.06, it's good to know that AudioQuest is releasing firmware update.


Connecting to iOS device, you need additional adapter: CCK (Apple Camera Connection Kit). You could choose either lighting to USB camera adapter or Lighting to  USB 3 camera adapter + power. During the test, I was using the lighting to USB 3 camera adapter.

Power consumption for the black is lower than the red. just for a rough indicator, using the Black in my iPhone for 50 minutes took 6% of battery life while the red took 12% for 42 minutes. Occasionally I encounter issue while playing from iPhone with the USB 3 camera adapter, the sound suddenly gone, which can be fixed by unplug and plug back again the device.


Even though it's considered as a slim device but if you've another port side by side, it's possible to plug in another device side by side but it's pretty tight, I kind need to force it a little bit when I tried to plug in another DragonFly.

Sound Quality.

I did my first test with 1More headset and laptop, Once you plug in the DragonFly, immediately you can hear the soundstage become wider. the difference is bigger when I tried ATH-M50, Initially what I heard was all the mids, highs and lows performing in one single layer but with AudioQuest DragonFly it become layered and much more pleasing. I guess the ATH-M50 benefited from the extra amp compared to the 1More Quad.

listening to Angel - Sarah McLachlan using Dragonfly the mid become more prominent, the vocal open up add some life to it. the lows and highs are much more defined,  the piano and violin at the background is clearer. The overall sound signature become a little bit warmer and balanced, without the DragonFly the mids are more forward and the lows and highs suffered because of this.



I tested this with someone that is not an audiophile, kind of blind test. She mentioned that the music sounded better and "sounded as a whole". She feels that she is hearing it from a bigger room, a hint that showing that the soundstage indeed is wider. I also asked to compare which sounded better between DragonFly Black, Red and ZuperDac but she couldn't really tell the difference between Black and ZuperDac but she noticed that the Red sounded different.

I feel that the Red's highs is brighter compared to the DragonFly Black. DragonFly Red is also revealing a little bit more details in I Must Confess - Everything But The Girl. Certainly there's an improvement of sound quality in DragonFly Red but it's not a day and night difference in my opinion, well at least to my ear.



I think the Red gives me the feeling of analytical while the black is sounded more natural to me. The Red for sure is better in overall performance and offer a better output to support a wider range of power hungry headphones.

For second test using the iPhone 6, honestly I only notice a slight improvement compared when I'm using my laptop. I tried a different apps from default music player, Spotify to Tidal but I've the same result. I did a blind test as well and she mentioned all of them (without and with) sounded the same. Too bad I didn't have Android phone or other iPhone version to test this out, so it's not conclusive that there's only slight improvement using mobile device.


Overall.

For such a portable device, there's no reason not to have one of these if you want to improve the sound quality out from your laptop or desktop without burning your pocket. The black has a budget friendly price at $99 and better for mobile device because of the lower power consumption. The Red offering the best in terms of quality and blasting your power hungry headphones but it comes with a price: you need to fork out another $100. If you don't mind the price and not using it for mobile pick the Red for the sound quality, of course power hungry headphone user should pick Red as well. else Black is good enough for me, considering the price and lower battery consumption.



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