Technology Tuesday: AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC

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It is extraordinary what a small stick the size of a USB thumb drive can do for your computer audio. The AudioQuest DragonFly simply plugs into an available USB port on your PC or Mac and literally transforms your computer into a full blown hi-fi system. Like the HiFiMAN HM-101 that we previously reviewed, the DragonFly is a portable digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and headphone amp that takes over for your computer’s sound card. Sadly, most computers do a pretty piss-poor job of converting your digital music to the analog signal that you listen to in your desktop speakers, headphones or other hardware. Computer audio, even with great headphones or speakers, can be lifeless, dull, muddy and void of details. DACs can inject new life into your audio offering stunning nuances that you never noticed before with more brightness, life, punch and clarity.

Many music lover’s computer audio systems are not configured with a DAC for a handful of reasons. They have often been considered luxury items with a price tag to match. Additionally, for those with space constraints, many DACs were too bulky for many people to consider. Size was a particular issue for laptop and headphones users that were often mobile. Audioquest has managed to create a DAC that is not only insanely easy to use but also the size of a small thumb drive. This week we’ll look at this $250 marvel that performs at a level comparable to devices costing several times more.

Why should I even consider a DAC? Computers are just not very good at handling audio. The digital ones-and-zeroes of your music files need to be converted to an analog signal that you ultimately listen to. The timing needs to be extraordinarily precise to hear the music as it was recorded. Sadly, since your computer is simultaneously working on many other tasks- the timing suffers and causes a loss of music quality. The DAC takes over these tasks from the computer and results in profoundly better audio output. The difference is like moving from a third-generation audio cassette playing through a cheap boombox to a beautifully mastered CD playing from high quality speakers. You should consider a DAC if you love music and want it to sound the best that it can. Regardless if your music is playing through iTunes, Foobar, any other music player or streaming from the web: the AudioQuest DragonFly will make a PROFOUND difference in what you are hear. You don’t need to be a music snob, tech geek or audiophile willing to spend paycheck after paycheck to reap the benefits of this DAC. Any music lover who wants better sound should consider the DragonFly. Further, it does not matter which type of music you listen to: rock, jam band, jazz, folk, bluegrass, shoe-gaze, dream-pop or any other genre. Like Duke Ellington said when asked what type of music he liked, “I like good music”. DragonFly likes whatever music the user likes.

In a Nutshell This thumb drive sized device supports resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz and contains dual clocks that can handle 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96kHz sampling frequencies. In a nice touch, the DragonFly logo on the device lights up in different colors to indicate which sampling rate is incoming. Unlike many USB DACs, the volume attenuator is controlled from your computer’s main volume control. This is important because when the volume is controlled digitally it reduces the resolution and overall sound quality. The mini-jack output can drive any set of headphones, desktop speakers, earbuds or can be connected directly to an amplifier.

Sound It is often difficult to describe sound without using seemingly over-blown or trite terms. However, I am at a loss to describe what it is like to listen to music from the DragonFly without such terms. Extraordinary, vibrant, bright, dramatic, full-of-life and nuanced are but a few of the words that initially came to mind when listening the first time.

The DragonFly is most certainly one of those devices that  can take you down the rabbit hole of audiophilia. So if you don’t want to get addicted to high quality audio- you most certainly will want to stay away from this device. Plugging your headphones or speakers directly into your computer’s audio jack will seem begin to seem as barbaric as listening from a string and a tin can.

The first thing that I listened to upon receiving the DragonFly a couple weeks ago was Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way”. To say that the sound was stunning was an understatement. Listening with my Audioengine A2 speakers, I could distinctly hear the breaths of air pulsing through the trumpet sounding like a real horn was blowing right next to me. It was so lively and lifelike and gave me a dramatic new appreciation for an album I’ve listened to dozens and dozens of times. After listening to the entirety of the album- it was impossible to stop listening- I next put on the magnificent “Inni” from Sigur Ros. The strings, piano, vocals and most particularly the cymbal splashes and other percussion were incredibly crisp and nuanced. I switched over to using my Logitech UE-9000 headphones (obviously not wirelessly) with equally impressive results. I listened to a handful of songs from Phish’s New Year’s Run and a recent Jimmy Herring Band show. In both cases the difference was staggering: livelier bass, more natural sound and much “fuller” sound.

One of the best things that I like about the DragonFly is the ability to play at higher volumes. Too often when you push the limits of your headphones or speaker volume- the sound really suffers and it is headache inducing. The details and texture when playing at moderate volumes carried over even when I blasted the volume as I sometimes like to do. The other major benefit of the DragonFly for me is the ability to play 24bit and other high-resolution files. I’ve never had a sound card or DAC that has had that ability and it is nice to finally be able to listen to some of these recordings and albums. I listened to a 24-bit recording of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and was blown away with the detail of the percussion and horns.

AudioQuest DragonFly with Headphones plugged in

The magic inside There’s lots going on inside the small device to make such a big difference in sound quality. I asked the lead developer of the DragonFly and the person who conceived it all and brought it to life, Steve Silberman, just exactly what is inside this thing, what are the “guts” and how it works.

He explained that there are four main devices that work in concert together: 1) The asynchronous USB code: This allows the DragonFly to be in control of the data coming from the computer, overriding the computer as the device that is in control of the data flow and this is a more accurate method. 2) There are two precision digital clocks. These are some of most accurate digital clocks available today and can be found in digital devices costing thousands of dollars. 3) The heart of DragonFly is an ESS digital to analog chip. They listened to many different chips and found nothing that has the resolve and grip of the ESS. 4) The final piece of the puzzle is the analog chip. This is a precision 60 step analog volume control. Analog sounds old fashioned, but analog volume controls are more accurate and more natural than a digital volume control. It is more expensive to use an analog volume control but well worth the money.

Ease of Use & Build Quality There’s not much you need to learn about the DragonFly. Simply plug it into an available USB port and select DragonFly from your audio devices in your system preferences. Then plug your headphones, earbuds or cable to your speakers or amplifier and you are ready to listen. The only other thing that you might need to adjust through your settings is the default format for the music files you are listening to. This is where the illuminated logo is helpful if you don’t know. (Green = 44100 Hz (CD’s), Blue = 48000 Hz, Amber = 88200 Hz and Magenta 96000 Hz). Matching the native resolution preserves the best sound quality and prevents needless upsampling or downsampling which can degrade the music.

Despite the small size (about the size of a regular USB thumb drive), the DragonFly has a real sturdy feel to it with decent weight and a great finish and build quality. A small travel pouch is included to help protect it when travelling.

Bottom Line While $250 isn’t chump change, it is a remarkably cheap price to transform ordinary audio to extraordinary audio. With a reasonable pair of headphones or desktop speakers and the DragonFly, you can sport a hi-fi system that is leaps and bounds better than what you are accustomed to. Not a bad investment to dive right into the world of hi-fidelity sound. Even with budget earphones, like the RHA MA-350’s ($40) or even the Monoprice 8320’s ($8), you will benefit from a major increase in sound quality. (Though I realize those are unlikely listening devices with a $250 DAC, it demonstrates to me that the DragonFly is versatile enough to work with a slew of different devices).

I highly recommend this device to anyone who enjoys listening to music from their computer. The difference from listening straight from your audio-out jack is stunning and you’ll never want to do it again.

I’ve blindly sampled about ten people on this device from ardent music buffs to casual listeners. When asked which music they prefer- unanimously they pick the DragonFly over audio straight from the audio-out jack. The only way to really appreciate the difference is listening for yourself. So go find a local dealer and check it out- or take the leap of faith and buy it. I doubt you’ll be disappointed, but rest assured that with 30 years in business & an easy-return policy with AudioQuest, you really have nothing to lose.

Two big thumbs up to one of the best products I have yet to review on Technology Tuesday. As always, if you have any questions, have used the DragonFly already or any other comments, I would love to hear them.

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6 thoughts on “Technology Tuesday: AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC

  1. DougF Reply

    Wow- I always thought DACs were large components only for home audio systems. Had no clue they were for computers too. I listen to about 90% of my tunes through my computer (local files and MOG and stuff like Songza and Pandora), 5% in my car and 5% on my stereo (LOL). Seems like a worthwhile investment for me.

    Any drawbacks? Downsides?

  2. aburtch Reply

    Thanks for this great review. Sounds like a really cool way to turn crappy computer audio output into audiophile quality bliss.

  3. Parker Reply

    DougF: Good question. Not really a downside but something to be aware of: If you are using Windows 7 (not sure about 8), anytime you switch from the DragonFly back to your computer’s sound card: you need to log-off of Windows and back-in. This has nothing to do with this product and is a glitch in Windows. Makes in inconvenient sometimes when you are using laptop at home and don’t want to bring your DAC with you. My laptop is ridiculously slow when logging back in and this can cost me a few minutes of time here and there.

    For many people though, this will stay plugged into home computer and either into amp or powered speakers and will never need to switch away as it can play pretty much any format of music it comes across.

  4. Russ Reply

    Damn that looks cool. I made a resolution to start saving money. Looks like that one is out the window already. Though I did make it one week. Not too bad right?

  5. Kurt Reply

    So I should replace the HIFIMAN DAC? With the Dragonfly Parker? Could you pro/com them both quickly?

  6. Parker Reply

    Kurt- Both the HiFiMAN HM-101 and the DragonFly are outstanding products and values at their respective price points.

    The HiFiMAN compares favorable to DACs costing $100’s while the DragonFly has been compared to DACs costing $1,000+.

    Just like headphones- there are great items in each price point. The DragonFly is a FAR SUPERIOR product and you pay for that. The sound is better, there is no hiss whatsoever even during dead-silent passages, can produce fuller, louder sounds with more nuance, and can handle 24-bit files.

    I travel still with the HiFiMAN and my laptop as I don’t want to risk losing the DragonFly when I am on the road.

    Let me know if you have any questions.

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