Robert Harley recently sang the praises of the nifty AudioQuest DragonFly (Issue 226). He covered its performance when the device is used as a USB DAC fronting a reference audio system, and compared it to other outboard USB DACs. That was the ultimate test, but I wondered how the DragonFly would sound in other contexts. In particular, one of the DragonFly’s stated applications is to drive powered desktop speakers from a laptop or desktop computer. How would a novice—or even a veteran—listener judge the difference between driving those speakers directly from the PC or Mac versus going through the DragonFly?
Finding out was a snap for me, since I own a pair of B&W MM1 powered desktop speakers. Normally, these can be connected to the PC (a term I’ll use generically, including Macs, from here on out) in two ways. One is via the computer’s audio output, which can typically be set to drive either headphones or powered speakers. In this case, the digital bitstream runs through the PC’s internal DAC, a 10-cent part. The B&W can also be tethered to the PC via a USB connection, but this configuration still employs the PC’s DAC.
One would expect the DragonFly to bury the PC’s internal DAC in sonic performance, and it does, at least with my high-end Toshiba laptop. For example, on the splendidly recorded recent Kate Bush album 50 Words for Snow, the DragonFly sounds superior in every way. The album is piano-oriented, and the instrument is simply far more realistic through the DragonFly. Because highs are extended, the piano no longer sounds smothered.
One can hear the “thump” of the keyboard’s hammers hitting the strings. Kate Bush’s voice also benefits from the greater upper-end extension, especially considering that she often sings in a near whisper.
More lively material, like Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” from the excellent HDtracks 96/24 download, also comes through in fine form. Thanks once more to that superior extension, percussion is far more audible. But that is not the DragonFly’s only benefit. Bass is solid as a log, and rhythms, as Robert pointed out in his review, percolate persuasively. The same track without the DragonFly is a pale dumbed-down version. Those percussive touches are nearly inaudible, and the whole presentation sounds smothered. Dynamics also vanish, which has a large impact on rhythmic drive, since the drums and bass no longer “pop.” This infectious track, like all music I tried, is simply a lot more enjoyable and engaging through the DragonFly.
Beware, though. The DragonFly, on its own, is not capable of automatically adjusting its sample rate to conform to that of the source. Without external software (see below), this must be done manually through the computer’s control panel. Should you accidentally leave the DragonFly set at, say, 44.1kHz when playing a 96kHz file, like the aforementioned Marley track, the DAC is forced to downconvert the bitstream. When this happens, there is a definite sonic toll. The sound does not degenerate to the level of the PC’s internal DAC, but it drops to about halfway-there in all the categories I’ve described. So if you are going to get the most out of the DragonFly, you must be diligent about matching its sample rate to each track.
Fortunately, there is a way to make this happen automatically, if you’re willing to fiddle a bit. Normally the DragonFly does not require any software downloads, but to get this feature you will need to download and install ASIO4ALL (www.asio4all.com), and select it in your music player software’s Output Mode menu. You may also have to open ASIO4ALL, which is usually easily done within the music player, and select the DragonFly as its output. That’s it. Though a bit of an initial pain, you will never again need to go to the control panel to manually set the DragonFly’s sample rate, and you’ll never need to worry about unintended conversions. I can tell you that it is highly satisfying, when switching from one track to another with a different sample rate, to watch the DragonFly’s lighted logo/samplerate- indicator change colors without user intervention.
OK, so as expected the DragonFly dusts the PC’s internal DAC when going through the computer’s analog output. But, as noted, the MM1 also has a digital USB input. That means the MM1 has a built-in DAC. Surely it would pose a tougher challenge to the AudioQuest. What I found upon comparing the two DACs is that they sound quite different. Although both have exemplary dynamics, the AudioQuest is extended and fast, whereas the B&W emphasizes smoothness and richness. However, that initial rush of lush turns out to be a distinctly downward-tilting timbral bias. Over time, the MM1 DAC’s goosed bass, droning midrange, and reduced openness become tiresome. In sum, the B&W’s internal DAC is refined but unquestionably colored, while the DragonFly is surprisingly and commendably neutral.
I should point out that the MM1’s main purpose in life is to be an outstanding desktop speaker. At that it excels. The MM1’s internal DAC was clearly a secondary design consideration, as evidenced by the fact that all source material is converted to 44.1kHz. The MM1 offers no means of matching the DAC’s sample rate to the source, either manually or via ASIO4ALL. It’s no wonder, then, that the DragonFly proves to be the superior DAC. The take-away here is that getting the most from the MM1—and from similar desktop speakers—means bypassing both the PC’s and the speaker’s internal DAC in favor of the DragonFly.
Robert’s review mentioned how suitable this new product is to up-and-coming audiophiles. I can now attest that those newbies will experience significant benefits even in a modest desktop environment. As Robert pointed out, those benefits extend beyond mere sonic considerations. The DragonFly sounds undeniably better than anything most novices will have ever heard; it really does generate greater involvement in and enjoyment from the music. And that’s something even the most experienced listener can appreciate.