Still Awesome for 2023
by Venoth Nair
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!! Here’s hoping that everyone finds happiness filled with plenty of AV goodies in 2023!! Now on to the first review of the year from me on a line of products which is no stranger to any audiophile worth their salt, particularly those in the headfi scene. The Audioquest Dragonfly range of Dongle DAC and Headphone amplifiers.
Audioquest has made a name for itself in the brutally competitive headfi market with its superlative series of dongle DAC’s / Headphone amps. All three models (The Black, Red and top of the range Cobalt) are highly successful and well received by the industry over the many years at which these products have been competing in. There are some key differences between the three models and it’s important to understand these differences when making a decision on which model is worth parting ways with hard earned money for.
In this review, the focus is squarely on their respective performance and how the latest iterations of the 3 stack up against the competition in today’s market. Especially with all the improvements and stiffer competition from a smorgasbord of brands in the market. Finally, the review will identify which version is best suited to what kind of use case and its suitable partnering equipment.
All three units are pretty similar dimensionally with the Cobalt just a smidge smaller than the other two. In terms of finishing, the Black is the odd one with a soft touch finish while the bigger brothers are both treated to an automotive finish paintjob for a strikingly premium look. The signature dragonfly light is also a little smaller with a different colour structure for bit rates on the Cobalt, the Black and Red are both identical on this front.
When it comes to the internals, the major differences are between the Black against both the Red and Cobalt which actually are rather similar. There is a difference particularly in the DAC chip for improvements that favour the Cobalt over the Red. If want to see all of them technically compared side by side, Audioquest has a comparison table on their website which will provide all the numbers and details.
I tested all three Dragonfly’s with my in-house Audio Technica ATH-M50x, Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro headphones along with my Audioengine A5+ desktop speakers. For source material I relied on my MacBook Pro, iPad and my iPhone. The intention was to study the performance gains in varied use scenarios to understand where each type of unit would be the best fit and bang for buck.
Listening to all three in succession, it’s easy to understand the differences sonically between them. Taking the Black as the natural first step, compared to the built-in DAC on my MacBook Pro, almost instantly there was a markedly increased polish to the overall sound. That slight metallic tinge audible via the Mac has been cleaned up. The noise floor has also been dropped dramatically when compared to the MacBook Pro. Soundstage was opened up with better instrument separation and overall definition.
Moving on to the Red, the sound was treated to slight injection of warmth and energy to the overall playback which made the listening experience far more satisfying. The Red was also noticeably more controlled at higher volume, maintaining superb polish and dynamics without blurring the details. Overall resolution was also superior when compared to the black which sounds veiled in comparison.
The Cobalt is where the entire experience gets interesting. The overall gains are not huge when compared to the Red, however it’s how it scales depending on the type of headphones used. The performance headroom on tap with the Dragonfly Cobalt means that upgrading headphones will not render the unit insignificant. The Cobalt has the best overall imaging and resolution among the three. The scale of this gain is then amplified by the quality of the headphones paired to the Dragonfly Cobalt.
Now to talk on the sound characteristics for each Dragonfly from my experience with them
Sound is clean and clear; instrument separation and textures are improved. Midrange has more body and information then without the black. Bass is tighter with improved timbre between each bass note, which is far more entertaining than the rather flat bass that the onboard DAC provides. Treble is richer and has more shimmer. Cymbal hits have more snap with the right amount of sparkle without introducing sibilance into the mix. Headphones with low to medium level impedance (up to 250 ohms) are driven quite comfortably by the Dragonfly Black.
Soundstage has expanded with greater width and depth. Improved noise floor over the black, with a darker ambience compared to black. Improved details with micro dynamics. Instruments are better separated with Bass being weightier and better defined. Dexterity of bass notes is presented more compellingly when compared to the black. There is a slight reduction in amplitude when played at the same volume when compared to the black, however the control exhibited is far better on the Red, cranking up the volume does compensate it which luckily is fine as the Red maintains composure even when pushed. If you’re looking to improve the sound quality and drive more demanding headphones, this is a better choice.
The best soundstage of the lot. Imaging is laser sharp paired with superb layering throughout. String harmonics rendered beautifully; every single string pluck is heard in all its glory. Bass delivery is deep, punchy and weighty but conveyed without any bleed over to the mid and treble, keeping the overall detail and textures all through the range intact. Perfect choice for highly resolving headphones or desktop speakers. Ideal for those looking for technical prowess with great musicality.
If you’re not sure which one of these three fantastic DAC’s will be the one for you, allow me to give you a starting point to consider for all three. The black is for those looking to strengthen the performance of their headphones with better resolution and power handling. This is for someone looking to have cost effective upgrade to boost their headphones from the entry level to mid-tier, ideal for say around the RM 1000 to 1500 price point.
A power user with more premium headphones, say from the RM 1500 and up, can opt for either the Red or the Cobalt. The key difference will be in the use case where the red is great for a desktop upgrade with intermittent portable use and the cobalt the other way around. The Cobalt is preferred due to its inclusion of the Dragon Tail which allows it to connect more easily to more devices (USB-C is becoming the new standard with most devices today).
No matter the choice, both will be able to adapt to changes in headphones and deliver returns as you move on in your headfi journey. Both units have the right design to cater to mixed usage involving desktop speakers and headphones. If your running mid-level desktop speakers the red would be a sufficient choice, but if you’re rocking some pretty high performance powered or active speakers (without built in DAC’s) then the Dragonfly Cobalt is the perfect choice.
All three Audioquest Dragonfly’s are distributed here in Malaysia by World Klass Hifi (WKH). The recommended retail prices are as follows;
Dragonfly Black – RM 799
Dragonfly Red – RM 1599
Dragonfly Cobalt – RM 1999
For more info, please contact WKH Distribution at +603 6270 0035