Review: Audioquest DragonFly Black & DragonFly Red

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Test Audioquest Dragonfly Black et Red

This week we tested the Audioquest DragonFly Black and Audioquest DragonFly Red. Both of these USB DAC?s are equipped with an integrated headphone amplifier and are designed to enhance your experience when listening to music on any computer, smartphone or tablet.

Audioquest DragonFly Black: Presentation

The Audioquest DragonFly Black DAC and headphone amplifier is fitted with an ESS Tech Sabre ES9010K2M N/A converter. ESS Tech designed this chip for nomadic use (smartphones, portable players, portable USB DAC?s) with efficiency in mind: the chip consumes little power and can decode PCM audio stream up to 32 bit/384kHz, as well as DSD up to 11.2 MHz. On the other hand, the Microchip PIC32MX controller chosen by Audioquest for the USB port only handles PCM audio stream up to 24bit/96kHz. This choice was motivated by the necessity of lowering the DragonFly?s power consumption since the device was designed to be used with mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, Android devices).

The Audioquest DragonFly Black is plug and play: no driver is necessary to operate it. Its dragonfly logo has a corresponding LED indicator that changes color according to the sample rate of the incoming audio stream: green for 44.1 kHz, blue for 48 kHz, orange for 88.2 kHz and purple for 96 kHz. A practical way to make sure music is being played in the format of your choice.

Test Audioquest Dragonfly Black et Red

When compared with the Encore mDSD, which is compatible with DxD and DSD and features a USB XMOS controller, the Audioquest DragonFly Black doesn’t heat up nearly as much ? it gets barely warm. Audioquest assures that 24 hours of non-stop use only consumes 30% of an iPad battery.

The Audioquest DragonFly Black?s integrated headphone amplifier delivers a maximum voltage of 1.2 V per channel. This corresponds to a output power of 2×45 mW with 32 Ohms headphones. This voltage is moderate and best suited for headphones with an impedance ranging from 32 to 60 Ohms. For headphones with an impedance of over 100 Ohms, Audioquest recommends the DragonFly Red.

Audioquest DragonFly Red: Presentation

When put side-by-side with its counterpart, the Audioquest DragonFly Black, the main distinguishing feature which sets the DragonFly Red apart is its digital-to-analog converter, as well as its headphone amplifier. For the rest, the two devices have identical functions: 24 bit/96kHz sample rate, plug and play, and compatibility with Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Android and iOS.

The Audioquest DragonFly Black?s ESS Tech ES9016K2M converter boasts a superior signal-to-noise ratio when compared to the ES9010K2M (used by the Black model), and also offers a digital volume control (analog for the Black model).

The headphone amplifier delivers 2.1 V per channel for a power of approximately 2×135 mW into 32 Ohms. This is triple the power of the Black model and a wider variety of headphones can therefore be considered. That being said, the increase in power is intended to offer a more balanced listening experience with a more consistent energy in the bass frequencies, especially with headphones with a particularly variable impedance.

Side note: As is the case for loudspeakers, a headphone?s impedance varies in relation to the frequency. When a set of headphones is rated at 32 Ohms, this is its impedance into 1 kHz. But in the lower end of the spectrum, impedance can double or triple. The amplifier will demand twice or three times the amount of power accordingly.

In short, the Audioquest DragonFly Red is, theoretically, a significant step up from the Black model.

Audioquest DragonFly Black & Red Review: What?s changed since the DragonFly v1.2

The Audioquest DragonFly v1.2 featured an ESS Tech ES9023 DAC, an entry-level chip, and a headphone amplifier of similar quality to that of the Red model. Dimensions and functions are identical. Another new feature is the gold-plating for the connectors on the new Red and Black models.

Test Audioquest Dragonfly Black et Red
From left to right, the Audioquest DragonFly v1.2, the Audioquest DragonFly Black and the Audioquest DragonFly Red.

Audioquest DragonFly Black & Red: test conditions

With computers
We listened to the Audioquest DragonFly Black and Audioquest DragonFly Red with different computers. As per usual, the Raspberry Pi 2 and the Volumio operating system gave us the best results. The OS?s MPD (Media Player Daemon) module combined with the Raspberry Pi 2?s well-powered USB ports make it a perfect source for any USB DAC. Compared to a desktop computer running on Windows, the sound has more depth, the high frequencies are more skillfully organized, and the listening experience is soft and fluid. As a result, the sound draws you in while remaining steady and balanced.

We listened to FLAC files with resolutions between 16bit/44.1kHz and 24bit/192kHz. Rather than copy the files onto the Raspberry Pi 2?s internal memory, we simply streamed them from our computer to the RPI (DLNA DMR mode).

Volumio
Volumio?s control interface
Test Audioquest DragonFly Red
The Audioquest DragonFly Red connected to a Raspberry Pi 2 running on Volumio.

Windows and Mac OS X are both designed to operate at a fixed audio output resolution. This can be selected by the user (via the OS control panel), but the DragonFly?s limits must be taken into account. That is to say, 16bit/44.1kHz to 24bit/96kHz. Consequently, a real-time under or oversampling occurs automatically for audio files whose resolution falls outside of this range. This manner of operation leaves much to be desired, and we highly recommend using a player which can communicate directly with the Audioquest DragonFly Black or Red, in other words, capable of conveying audio stream without altering the sample rate. To profit from bitperfect playback, you need to use a software program such as JRiver Media Center or Foobar2000 (with the ASIO4ALL module) on Windows and Audirvana on MacOS.

With mobile devices
Next, we listened to the Audioquest DragonFly Black and the Audioquest DragonFly Red with Android smartphones and tablets. Our disappointment was undeniable, as Android 5 automatically resampled 16/44 FLAC files in order to attain the 48 kHz format it prefers. The LED indicators of our DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red were hopelessly stuck on the blue setting (48kHz). The result was listenable, but high frequencies were disorganized and the sound was metallic. However, it?s Android 5 ? and not the DragonFly ? that was at the source of this problem. We can only hope that the upcoming release of Android 6 will solve this problem. On the other hand, we didn’t stumble upon any problems when prompting an iPhone and iPad to read CD-quality audio files.

Test Audioquest Dragonfly Black et Red
Both Audioquest DragonFly models a fitted with a 3.5 mm mini-jack output

Audioquest DragonFly Black & Red: listening impressions

DragonFly Black
A dynamic listening experience, although the restitution of high frequencies is rather reserved, which sometimes results in a slightly dry sound. On the other hand, the medium register (and especially the low-medium register) is interesting. Unfortunately, the soundstage is not particularly ample. Playback is lively, but subtleties are lacking. A step backward from the DragonFly v1.2.

DragonFly Red
The DragonFly Red is the antithesis of the DragonFly Black: an open soundstage and a treble that remains precise while reaching very high frequencies. The sound signature is rather clear, but the low end of the spectrum remains balanced. The DragonFly Red delivers a clear sound ? even delicate ? regardless of the recording. The finer details of a recording are easily extracted: an instrument which plays softly at the back of the stage, the lingering resonance of a guitar string.

Test Audioquest Dragonfly Black et Red

Audioquest DragonFly Black & Red: conclusions

What we liked:

  • Its compact dimensions
  • The balance and the musicality (on the Red model)
  • The detailed, smooth treble (on the Red model)
  • The depth of the soundstage (on the Red model)

What we would have liked:

  • Just a bit more authority in the low frequencies (on the Red model)
  • A wider and more serene listening experience (on the Black model)

With its DragonFly Red, Audioquest has given us a more-than-worthy successor to its first model. In an effort to reduce energy consumption and thereby be a solution for nomadic use, the DragonFly Red sometimes falls short of dazzling us, and we?re sure that more power would have enabled it to provide a truly explosive performance in the low register. At the same time, why look for reasons to complain’ The DragonFly Red is a DAC and headphone amplifier bursting with charm, and it will give you plenty of punch when appropriate while providing softness and subtlety, all in perfect harmony with the music.

 

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