The high-end industry has long lamented its inability to appeal to regular folks who just like to listen to music. Part of the problem has been that we expect the would- be audiophile to make the giant leap from mass-market audio into our often-esoteric world. Being an audiophile often requires a lifestyle change, such as allowing the audio system to dominate the living room.
What the high end needs is a “bridge” product that brings our aesthetic to the ways in which ordinary people already enjoy music. Such a product would be affordable and require no special setup or change in living arrangements, yet deliver a far better listening experience than mass-market gear. It would be a “stealth” product in that everything about it appears normal save for the sound quality.
I can’t imagine a better realization of that ideal that AudioQuest’s new DragonFly USB DAC. This $249 unit has the form-factor of the ubiquitous USB memory stick; just plug it into a computer and connect headphones or a line-level interconnect to the 3.5mm stereo mini-jack. It can function as a USB DAC, headphone amplifier, or DAC and preamplifier when driving a power amplifier directly. So far so good for our non-audiophile listener. But the DragonFly wouldn’t be special if low price, cool form-factor, versatility, and ease of use were its only claims to fame. Fortunately, the unit is brimming with high-end parts and design techniques that reflect a real effort by its designers to deliver great sound (more on this later).
Setting up the DragonFly requires entering a couple of menus (Mac or PC) to tell the computer that audio output should be through the DragonFly. Although not as simple to set up as a true UPnP (Universal Plug ’n’ Play) device that configures itself with no user intervention, installing the DragonFly requires no software downloads.
Once it is set up, operation is very cool. The dragonfly graphic lights up in different colors to indicate the sampling frequency it is receiving—blue for 44.1kHz, green for 48kHz, amber for 88.2kHz, and magenta for 96kHz.
The high-end parts and design I mentioned include the acclaimed ESS Sabre DAC that incorporates a novel (and patented) technique for greatly reducing clock jitter where it matters. Many high-end DACs and disc players use this same chip. To provide even more stable clocking and lower jitter, the DragonFly employs dual master clocks, one for the 44.1kHz family of frequencies (44.1kHz, 88.2kHz) and one for the 48kHz family (48kHz, 96kHz). If you play files of a higher sampling frequency (176.4kHz or 192kHz), the DragonFly tells the computer what frequencies it can decode so that the computer can downsample the data. Note that you can also downsample 176.4kHz and 192kHz in a program such as Pure Music, which is a sonically superior solution to the computer performing the downsampling.
Despite its low price, the DragonFly’s USB interface is asynchronous. This means that the DragonFly is not forced to lock to the computer’s clock. Instead, it uses its own on-board precision clock as the timing reference for digital-to-analog conversion, reducing sonically degrading jitter. DragonFly’s asynchronous USB interface runs the same code found in multi- thousand-dollar DACs. In today’s world, any USB interface that is not asynchronous is a non-starter.
Rather than allow iTunes or another music-player program to adjust the volume in the digital domain (which reduces resolution), the DragonFly features a 64-step analog volume control. The volume slider in iTunes (or a keyboard’s volume up/down buttons) merely sends volume data to the DragonFly which implements the volume change in the analog domain. This is a better-sounding solution in part because digital-domain volume control reduces resolution by one bit for every 6dB of attenuation. The volume control comes into play when driving a power amplifier, headphones, or powered desktop speakers. Those of you who use the DragonFly with a preamplifier will set the volume at maximum (indeed, you should bypass all DSP so that that data remain unchanged) and set the playback volume with the preamplifier. DragonFly’s output level for full-scale digital signals is 2V, the same as any full-sized DAC or disc player.
This is an impressive list of high-end design features. How the designers packed all of them into a device that weighs three- quarters of an ounce is beyond me.
I listened to the DragonFly in my reference system driving a Rowland Corus preamplifier through an AudioQuest Angel 3.5mm mini-plug-to-RCA interconnect. Although many listeners will use the DragonFly with a laptop and headphones or as part of a desktop-audio system with powered speakers, I figured that putting it at the front end of a system that included the $108k plasma-tweetered Lansche No.7 loudspeakers would be the acid test.
Upon first listen, the DragonFly sounded remarkably relaxed, musical, and engaging. The overall tonal balance was just right— weighty in the bass and midbass without sounding thick, fairly smooth in the midband, with a treble that combined openness, extension, detail, and a real sense of ease. Frankly, for a $249 DAC I was expecting a thinner tonal balance along with a hard metallic-sounding treble that sounded bright without any sense of air and openness. This kind of presentation would not be out of place even in a $1000 DAC.
The more I listened to the DragonFly the greater my appreciation grew for just how well it does its job of communicating the music. It struck me that it gets the gestalt of musical involvement right. The sonic tradeoffs necessary in such a budget product have been cunningly balanced to deliver a surprisingly engaging listening experience. It finally occurred to me that what makes the DragonFly so enjoyable is that this DAC hits it out of the ballpark when it comes to music’s dynamics, timing, and pace. Music reproduced through the DragonFly is upbeat, exciting, and involving, with a propulsive quality. Listen to a great rhythm section like the one behind Koko Taylor on “Can’t Let Go” from the HDtracks 96kHz download sampler and you’ll experience the full measure of this band’s upbeat energy and drive. Or the powerful blues grooves of Robben Ford, Roscoe Beck, and Tom Brechtlein on Robben Ford and the Blue Line’s Handful of Blues. It wasn’t that the Dragonfly had the greatest slam, tightest bass, or most dynamic impact I’ve heard from digital. Far from it. Rather, the Dragonfly just had some sort of sonic alchemy that conveyed music’s rhythm and drive in a way that made me forget about sonic dissection and just have fun. I can easily imagine someone whose frame of reference is an iPod or soundcard in the computer hearing the DragonFly and being completely blown away. It’s exactly that experience that turns everyday music listeners into quality-conscious music listeners.
AudioQuest’s $249 DragonFly USB DAC is brilliant in every respect: form factor, cool factor, versatility, value, and sound quality. I can’t think of a product that makes high-end sound more accessible to more people. Want better sound? Here, plug this into your computer. Done.
I don’t know if this was by accident or design, but the DragonFly hits just the right sonic buttons for fostering musical engagement. It’s not the last word in timbral liquidity or soundstage depth, but it has a remarkable sense of ease and engagement. In addition, the DragonFly’s exceptional ability to convey music’s rhythm, pulse, and flow is key to its powerful musical appeal.
Although you wouldn’t mistake the DragonFly’s sound for that of a Berkeley Alpha DAC, that’s not the point; most DragonFly customers would think that spending $5000 for a DAC is completely insane. The DragonFly’s genius is bringing the technologies, musical passion, and aesthetic of high-end audio to a product that all who love music can afford—and one that easily fits into the way they already access music.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Asynchronous USB DAC Output: stereo 3.5mm mini jack
Output level: Variable (2v at full scale)
Sampling frequencies supported: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz
Dimensions: 2.5" x .75" by .4"
Weight: 0.77 ounces
2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
Also check out Alan Taffel's take on the Dragonfly in a desktop environment.