AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC

High Flyer

Equipment report
Categories:
Digital-to-analog converters
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC

A new year, a new DragonFly color! But first let’s go back to the beginning. AudioQuest’s thumb-drive-sized DragonFly bowed in 2012 to immediate acclaim—and for good reason. Inside this diminutive, plug-and-play package resided both a high-res DAC (up to 96/24) and a surprisingly good headphone amp. The original DragonFly was wildly successful based on these merits alone, even though it was only compatible with Macs and PCs. 

The real breakthrough came with the introduction in 2016 of the DragonFly Black ($99) and DragonFly Red ($199). With those models, AudioQuest reduced power requirements so substantially that the devices could be driven by Android or iOS devices. Voilà: an easy, inexpensive way to replace the crappy audio bits found in smartphones and tablets. 

Now comes the fetchingly hued Cobalt model. The new ’Fly includes the latest ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip, as well as a new Microchip PIC32MX274 USB receiver. AudioQuest says these components result in a 33% processing power boost. The Cobalt also incorporates elements of AudioQuest’s stand-alone JitterBug jitter reducer, better filtering and isolation in the power supply, and a new slow roll-off digital filter that better maintains proper phase than the Red’s fast roll-off filter.

Here, a word about the Cobalt’s maximum sample rate is in order. Although the Cobalt features an upgraded USB receiver chip, its maximum PCM sample rate remains 96/24. So if you’re streaming from Qobuz, that’s the top resolution you’ll get. However, the Cobalt also supports MQA. (The original Red and Black didn’t, but thanks to a firmware upgrade they, too, now support MQA.) This means that the Cobalt can play higher-res files that have been folded into losslessly compressed versions via the MQA process. When streaming these files via Tidal, Cobalt, along with the Tidal software, will unfold them to their original higher resolution. Through this process, the Cobalt ’Fly can support files of up to 192/24 resolution.

So much for the tech talk; let’s get to the sound. First, a review of the already-outstanding Red. I chose the Band’s “Whispering Pines” (from The Band at 96/24 on Qobuz) to encapsulate the Red’s virtues and minor limitations. On this track, the Red DAC’s smooth and eminently listenable presentation is on full display. Detail is manifestly present, but it’s never in your face, and it’s easy to follow separate musical lines. The subtle dynamics make the song as moving as it’s meant to be. 

Turning to jazz, the ever-informative Ah Um by Charles Mingus (also via Qobuz at 96/24, as are all the musical references in this review) illustrates just how realistically the Red can render tonal colors. And when asked to rock out, as on Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” the Red does not disappoint, delivering plenty of energy and head-bobbing drive. Yet when given a nice, clear classical piece like the Harmonia Mundi recording of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, the Red conjures an orchestra and vocalist who are right there. 

There are a few minuses. “Whispering Pines” reveals that, while the Red’s bass is full, it could use more definition. Similarly, as can be heard on George Harrison’s introductory guitar picking on “Here Comes the Sun” from the newly-mixed Abbey Road, the Red’s transients are a bit soft. Finally, the Red’s overall balance is on the lean side. 

Despite these few small dings, it’s obvious why the DragonFly Red has been such a winner in the market. Indeed, after my listening session with the above tracks, I concluded that the Red would be hard to better. 

But the new Cobalt is better. In particular, channel separation is noticeably—and I’m sure measurably—higher. This may sound like mere techie talk, but the real-world result is way more precise imaging. The Cobalt also boasts a lower noise floor and, along with it, a newfound level of clarity that lets you hear individual musical parts even more distinctly. The Cobalt also brings more bass definition and air. 

These improvements would be enough, but after extended listening I gleaned what may be the most musically significant difference between Red and Cobalt DragonFlys (DragonFlies?): more realistic note decay. With the Red, notes are “hung over,” in both the literal and figurative sense. They extend too long and are a bit lubberly. But with the Cobalt, notes stop smartly and exactly when they are meant to. This phenomenon affects not only the obvious areas, such as bass, but also, say, pizzicato strings. It’s a subtlety, to be sure, but one that makes a wide range of instruments sound truer to themselves.

Because the Cobalt acquitted itself so well in comparison to the Red, I decided to throw it some stiffer competition. Specifically, I pitted the Cobalt against Simaudio Moon’s lovely 230HAD headphone amp—a $1500 piece of equipment. It must be said that some of what that coin buys is convenience. For instance, the Moon has a physical volume control, as well as support for 192/24 files. 

But what about the sound? After going back and forth a few times—and, yes, I had to do that to get a bead on the differences—I ended up with a slight preference for the Simaudio. That preference owed to it being a tad more extended and therefore open-sounding on top. But that was the only significant distinction I could perceive after concentrated listening. 

All of which convinced me that the DragonFly Cobalt succeeds in not one but two ways. First, it represents a worthy, evolutionary upgrade to the Red version. And second, it’s also, quite simply, one of the best headphone amp/DACs money can buy. At $299, the DragonFly Cobalt remains perhaps the greatest bargain in all of audio. Let’s hope AudioQuest never runs out of colors.

Specs & Pricing

Maximum output voltage: 2.1V
Maximum input signal: 96kHz/24-bit
Dimensions: 19mm x 12mm by 62mm
Price: $299

AUDIOQUEST
2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 790-6000
audioquest.com

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