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AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2

I never really felt like I had much use for computer audio. For lack of a better way of saying it, nothing with the words “computer” and “audio” in it ever really spoke to me. It took being at a buddy’s house to suddenly change my mind. My buddy (who is also an audiophile) has terabytes of music stored on various hard drives.  It took seeing the process in motion to see how it applied to me. The result: for the past nine months, I haven’t even had a CD or SACD player in my system. It’s been an unexpected but very welcome change.

My plunge into the world of computer audio had me purchasing a Toshiba laptop, a Toshiba external 1.5 TB hard drive, and a Schiit Modi DAC. I rip all my CDs using Winamp (RIP) but do 99% of my listening using foobar2000 with the WASAPI plugin. The other 1% is done through iTunes.

Audioquest Dragonfly v1.2

So what is the DragonFly? It’s a thumb drive-sized DAC as well as a headphone amplifier that plugs directly into a USB port on your computer. It uses a 24-bit ESS Sabre D/A convertor chip. It’ll play pretty much any file you throw at it but doesn’t do DSD.  The DragonFly requires no drivers – meaning that when you plug it in, your computer should automatically recognize it for what it is so it can send audio to it. Neat. My Schiit Modi does the same thing. I had no problems “installing” the DragonFly.

The output end of the DragonFly is a 3.5mm stereo socket that accommodates the majority of headphones on the market. So if you want to use the DragonFly in your main system (sans headphones) you’ll need a cable with a 3.5mm plug at one end and male RCA’s at the other. I had one on hand though AudioQuest sent me one of their Sydney cables to try out. More on that later.

The DragonFly that AudioQuest sent me is the second version that is said to be an improvement over the original. Having never heard the original, I can’t comment on whether this is so or not. I can say that the original version was $249 and v1.2 is $149! That’s something that pretty much never happens in high-end audio. 

On top of the DragonFly is an outline of a dragonfly that is translucent and contrasts with the rest of the black device. The DragonFly illuminates a different color according to the sample rate of the file being played: if it’s glowing green, the file being played is 44.1 kHz; blue – 48 kHz; amber – 88.2 kHz; magenta – 96 kHz; and red – no signal. 

I did the majority of my listening to the DragonFly with it plugged into my main system. I asked the folks at AudioQuest if there was a recommended break-in period for the DragonFly but never got a reply. I did let music play through it continuously for a few days but didn’t notice a huge change in the sound compared to taking it right out of the box. The Sydney cable that AudioQuest sent me appeared to be previously used so I’m assuming it was already broken in.

For months after receiving the DragonFly, I listened to a ton of music through it – all digital files went through the DragonFly, while the Modi sat idle. My initial impressions of the DragonFly were good but nothing struck me over the head as being revolutionary. The DragonFly was perhaps a tad warmer and more romantic sounding then the Modi but then maybe that was just me. It wasn’t until I swapped the DragonFly back out for the Modi that the differences became clear.

Those initial thoughts of warmth and romance were not imagined. The DragonFly, all around, was more present, intimate and engaging than the Modi. The one thing that the Modi did better was space, but by doing so, recordings sounded more distant than through the DragonFly. The DragonFly had me front and center to the music. The Modi put a few rows of the audience in front of me.

Due to a friend’s recommendation, I started listening to the band METZ. Per my disdain for paying full price for an inferior MP3 version of a record, I was determined to find the bands full-length CD. As a brutal reminder of the times, no local retailer had a copy. And when I say “local retailer,” I’m referring to Best Buy and Barnes and Noble. The town in which I live, a college town with a population of over 250,000 people no longer has a regular, independent record store. Sigh…….. So I resorted to ordering the CD off Amazon which has their AutoRip feature where for select titles, you can instantly download a 256kbps MP3 version of whatever record or CD you just ordered. It definitely cures that lack of instant gratification that online shopping can’t fulfill but also makes getting the hard copy kind of anticlimactic.  So while I waited for the CD to arrive, I listened to the MP3 version. Through the DragonFly it was much more forgiving than through the Modi. I found this to be the case when listening through MP3’s via iTunes as well. The DragonFly seemed to make it less apparent that I was hearing a lossy, compressed file. It wasn’t as if I could mistake the MP3 for the original but music was more coherent and warmer than what I was used to hearing from an MP3 file in my main system.

My daughter has introduced me to Lorde. Listening to her Pure Heroine record was a pure delight through the DragonFly. It was able to flesh out the synthetic, minimalist studio recording with proper pace and timing while not neglecting the human texture of Lorde’s voice. The DragonFly had the recording sound authoritatively big when called on to do so and nimble and delicate when that was necessary. Dynamic swing never seemed to be an issue for the DragonFly. I think the laptop/DAC combo sounds hand-over-fist better than most CD players and their timing (lower jitter) and dynamics are a big reason why. I’m sure multi-thousand dollar DAC’s could improve on the DragonFly’s performance but at $149, I doubt there’s better to be had for at least another $1000.

Louis, Duke, Coltrane, Miles – they all sounded good through the DragonFly. All music sounded great – and in some cases, better than I had ever heard in my system. Jazz was portrayed with timing intact and texture galore – which was a real treat through the Zu Soul Superfly’s. One thing you could never say about the DragonFly is that it makes music sound dark or distant. The presence, especially of voices, was eerie at times.

I went so far as to take the little DragonFly to work with me to see what difference, if any, it made listening to music via a Dell PC and little HP computer speakers. To my surprise, it did make a difference, and for the better. The first thing I noticed was that it made things quieter. I needed to turn up the volume significantly to match the output sans DragonFly. No big deal – it was worth it. Whether it was MP3’s via my thumb drive or crappy YouTube videos, the DragonFly improved on whatever it was I was listening to – and at low, low listening levels. I don’t think the majority of folks that consume their music via YouTube and $15 computer speakers are AudioQuest’s target audience for the DragonFly. But, I am here to say that even in these somewhat crude audio elements, the DragonFly made a noticeable change for the better. Music was more fleshed out, more engaging and easier to listen to.

I don’t listen to headphones a ton, and when I do it’s usually with my iPhone while riding my bike. My wife and I went on a weeklong cruise this winter and I took my laptop, Grado SR80’s and the DragonFly along for the ride. Compared to using my laptop’s headphone jack, I’ll echo all the things I said while using the DragonFly at work with the cheap HP computer speakers – only magnified. After listening to MP3’s, FLAC and WAV files and a few high-res files through the DragonFly, and then comparing the same with the SR80’s plugged direct to the headphone jack, I can’t imagine listening without the DragonFly. All the above qualities were delivered, but more than that, music came to life and was more intimate and inviting and made me feel like it was being made just for me – which sounds ridiculous since I was listening to headphones. Plugged directly into the headphone jack, I heard sound. The DragonFly made music.

Complaints? The biggest issue I had with the DragonFly was not with its performance but with its physical implementation. I found that when plugged into a USB port on the side of my laptop and either the interconnect or headphones attached to the other end, I needed to prop something under the DragonFly for support as the weight of the DragonFly with a cable attached put more stress on the USB port than I liked. I usually used the supplied little leather carrying case as a support under the DragonFly to put my mind at ease. Is it a deal breaker? No, and I really don’t even know what a solution would be other then supplying some sort of dedicated support object that can be placed beneath the DragonFly.

In terms of comparing it to the Schiit Modi, it’s only fair to point out some differences between the two. The primary difference is that the DragonFly plugs directly into a USB port whereas the Modi requires a separate USB cable to connect to the computer. All I have at my disposal is a cheap, non-audiophile USB cable. Second, the interconnects I used going from the Modi to the amp are Audience AU24’s which are no slouch of an interconnect. It’s beyond the scope of this review to decipher the differences between them and the AudioQuest Sydney interconnect used with the DragonFly. I’m just merely pointing out differences between the two. I will say that during the review period, I swapped out the Sydney with a Monster RCA/3.5” interconnect and the difference between the two was immediately apparent. The Sydney is no slouch of an interconnect either.

Recommending the DragonFly is an absolute no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. I would readily recommend it to folks not well versed in the world of audiophile jargon as well. The little device is really amazing in that it is obviously a sonic improvement but is really inexpensive and is both a DAC and headphone amp. It seems that the industry has taken note of the DragonFly’s success as there are quite a few like-minded, plug-and-play devices hitting the market. I can’t comment on those… yet. As for the DragonFly – buy one.

Associated equipment  

  • Rega Planar 2 with updated motor
  • Rega RB-250 tonearm wired with the Incognito tonearm cable
  • Denon DL-160 cartridge
  • Bellari VP-129 phono stage
  • Toshiba Satellite C855D-S5103 laptop running Foobar2000/WASAPI
  • Schiit Modi DAC
  • Royal Devices Sara 300B integrated amp
  • Zu Soul Superfly spakers
  • Audience AU24 interconnects and speaker cables

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