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AudioQuest Dragon Interconnect

AudioQuest Dragon Interconnect

I rarely write about cables because I rarely encounter one that inspires me to review it. This isn’t to say that cables are unimportant, only that I find other product categories more interesting. But after hearing AudioQuest’s new top-of-the-line Dragon interconnect, I immediately knew that I wanted to share my impressions with you. To spill the beans in the first paragraph, the Dragon is the most significant advance in interconnect performance I’ve encountered in 33 years of full-time reviewing.

Although AudioQuest has been developing proprietary cable materials and techniques for 42 years, the company embarked on its new “Mythical Creatures” series of interconnects with a fresh mind. Rather than create a more advanced implementation of existing technologies, AudioQuest approached its new reference series by starting from first principles. It would call on proven technologies but not be bound by them. The result is a fascinating amalgam of fresh thinking and AudioQuest’s established designs. I’ve broken out the unique technologies of these interconnects in the sidebar.

Dragon is the top model in the three-product Mythical Creatures series. It is priced at $9500 for a meter pair terminated with RCA plugs, or $11,900 for balanced connection with XLR connectors. FireBird is $5500/$6900-per-meter pair (RCA/XLR), and ThunderBird comes in at $2900/$3900 (RCA/XLR). All three share the same design approach but differ in the level of execution. As a tremendous bonus, the interconnects are extremely flexible and easy to install and swap.

Listening

AudioQuest initially sent me a single one-meter run of balanced Dragon that I installed between the CH Precision P1 phonostage (with X1 power supply) and the CH Precision L10 four-chassis linestage. After replacing my existing cable with Dragon and listening to the first record, I was beyond surprised, not only at the magnitude of the improvement but also at the ways in which the sound was better. I had simply never heard this kind of wholesale effect from any cable. Dragon wasn’t just different; it was better in every possible way. Comparing cables is often a matter of trading one set of virtues and drawbacks for a different set of virtues and drawbacks. You pick the cable that happens to have the tradeoffs that best suit your system and tastes. Dragon wasn’t like that. Rather, it elevated the musical experience to an entirely new level of involvement and expression.

Some months later, I was able to replace the entire line-level signal path with Dragon, including the 37′ run from the linestage behind the listening couch to the front of the room where the CH Precision M10 amplifiers are located. This run made the most significant difference in my system, and the improvements it rendered combined with the advances heard with Dragon in the phono path and from the Wadax Reference DAC to the CH Precision L10 linestage.

Although Dragon does everything you’d expect from a top-level interconnect at this price, it goes above and beyond the cliches of greater transparency, smoother textures, and a bigger soundstage. Judged simply by the traditional criteria for evaluating cables, Dragon excelled in all the audiophile parameters. But this interconnect did things I’ve never heard from a cable—or more precisely, Dragon allowed my system to reveal previously hidden qualities. For example, the midrange was simply luscious, liquid, and stunningly present and vivid. Vocals were completely untethered to the speakers and projected against an absolutely silent background. This had the effect of increasing the sense of presence and fostering the startling impression of the vocalist being in the room. Dragon made the midrange sound eerily like that of a full-range planar speaker, with the unmistakable palpability and realism that comes so easily to full-range electrostatics and ribbons. I’m not saying that Dragon will make any box speaker sounds like a Magnepan MG30.7 or a MartinLogan CLX, only that Dragon moves the system in a sonic and musical direction that is reminiscent of the best full-range dipoles. Listen, for example, to Melody Gardot’s beautiful singing on her new album Sunset in the Blue (Qobuz 96/24). Switching to Dragon (from an already reference-level interconnect, AudioQuest’s WEL Signature) heightened the sensation of her singing directly to me. Incidentally, I heard this album on Magnepan MG30.7s the same week I installed Dragon in my system. Dragon has a vividness that is startling, but in an entirely musical rather than a hi-fi-hype way.

Another aspect of Dragon that is unique is that it conveys more richly saturated tone color. From the lowest bass to the top treble, the sound simply had denser timbre, greater body, and better tonal weight. Timbres not only had more color; they also had a greater sense that there was energy and substance behind them. I don’t mean dynamically (although Dragon is superb in this regard), but rather in the impression of solidity and tangibility of instrumental textures. Consequently, images took a step toward the way we hear instruments in life, rich in vivid color and body and less like an ethereal simulacrum. It was as though Dragon stripped away a very slight grey patina overlaying timbres, allowing their full color to bloom. This was true no matter the instrument or the register in which it was playing. From the most delicately played passages on solo violin (Hilary Hahn’s Retrospective, direct-to-disc on Deutsche Grammophon) to the fff brass tuttis on John Williams at the Movies (Reference Recordings, 176/24 download), Dragon allowed the system to express the palpable physicality of instrumental timbres more realistically. Dragon was the antithesis of threadbare and lightweight. It made other interconnects, even great ones, sound a bit thin and bleached by comparison, like a slightly underexposed photograph. I was struck by the unique quality of this improvement, the magnitude of the difference, and the profound effect it had on musical realism and my immersion in the experience.

Dragon’s density of texture was also apparent in the bass—warm, rich, and full without being plummy or thick. Textural resolution in the bottom end was superb; there was simply more detail resolved in the timbres of acoustic and electric bass, left-hand piano lines, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, and low brass, for examples. I love the sound of bass clarinet, with its dark and rich color. Dragon allowed my system to portray that instrument with greater realism—try Bob Mintzer’s fabulous and extended bass clarinet solo on the 13-minute piece “El Faqir” from guitarist Steve Khan’s Borrowed Time. 

This quality extended beyond timbre to the way Dragon allowed the system to portray dynamics, both in the startling suddenness of transient impact, but also in the way an instrument’s dynamic envelope expands into the air around it. The bloom around an instrumental outline, static during held notes, modulates with the instrument’s dynamics, a quality Jonathan Valin has called “action.” It’s the bloom around an instrumental outline expanding outward with the dynamic envelope of the note. With Dragon, this “action” seemed to have more force and power behind it, and more tangibility, further adding to the lifelike rendering. Dragon also better revealed the space between instruments in an ensemble. A vivid example is The Zappa Album, a performance of Zappa compositions performed by the Finnish new-music group Ensemble Ambrosius on Baroque instruments. I know it sounds weird, but it works, presenting these brilliant compositions in an entirely new light. Dragon more realistically conveyed the unique timbres of the period instruments as well as the space in which they were played. Indeed, Dragon opened new vistas in soundstage depth and transparency. The presentation was more three-dimensional, with superb resolution of the size and character of the acoustic surrounding the images, further adding to the overall organic and lifelike sound.

Last, and certainly not least, Dragon’s treble was simply stunning in its combination of openness and resolution on one hand, and smoothness and refinement on the other. One of my “go-to” evaluation tracks is “Ain’t Misbehavin’” performed by Bob James on the trio album Espresso (one of the best-sounding piano trio recordings I know of). On the intricate and subtle ride-cymbal work at the beginning of the bass solo, I heard a newfound delicacy, richness of detail, and treble purity. The treble was exquisitely detailed and finely filigreed, with no hint of hardness. The combination of high resolution and textural smoothness was extremely compelling, and greatly contributed to the musical involvement and overall ease of the presentation. If you audition Dragon, listen to how sibilance is less intrusive on an album like Diana Krall’s Turn Up the Quiet. The sibilance is still there, but it doesn’t have objectionable “ssss” component. This very fine resolution of treble detail was also apparent on “Beckus the Dandipratt” from The Arnold Overtures (Reference Recordings 176/24), particularly during a passage in which an unaccompanied snare drum is played at a barely perceptible volume. After installing Dragon, I could more clearly hear the inner detail and texture of the drum despite the vanishingly low signal level.

Conclusion

AudioQuest’s new Dragon is not only the most transparent and revealing interconnect I’ve heard, it’s also the most musically rewarding. The things that it does so well are all aligned toward fostering a powerful feeling of connection to the music and the expression of the musicians rather than just filling in boxes on an audiophile checklist.

It’s important to note that the qualities I’ve described here are not intrinsic to Dragon. Rather, they are qualities of my system that Dragon is simply revealing better than any other interconnect I’ve heard. There must be some distortion mechanism in other cables that Dragon somehow avoids, allowing the true quality of the rest of my system to be revealed.

Dragon is expensive, but in the context of a reference-quality system, it is indispensable.

Specs & Pricing

Terminations: RCA or XLR
Price: $9500 1m RCA; $11,900 1m XLR

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

Associated Equipment
Analog source: Basis Audio A.J. Conti Transcendence turntable with SuperArm 12.5 tonearm; Air Tight Opus cartridge; CH Precision P1 phonostage with X1 power supply; DS Audio ST-50 stylus cleaner, Levin record brush, Degritter ultrasonic LP cleaner
Digital source: Wadax Reference DAC, Wadax Reference Server, Wadax Akasa optical interface, UpTone Audio EtherREGEN Ethernet switch
Amplification: CH Precision L10 Dual Monaural linestage; CH Precision M10 Dual Monaural power amplifiers
AC Power: Shunyata Everest 8000 conditioner, Omega and Sigma NR V2 power cords; Shunyata AC outlets, five dedicated 20A lines wired with identical length 10AWG
Support: Critical Mass Systems Olympus equipment racks and Olympus amplifier stands; CenterStage2 isolation, Ayra Audio RevOpods isolation
Cables: AudioQuest Dragon Zero and Dragon Bass loudspeaker cables
Accessories: The Chord Company GroundArray noise reduction
Acoustics: Acoustic Geometry Pro Room Pack 12, ASC 16″ Round Tube Traps
Room: Purpose-built; Acoustic Sciences Corporation Iso-Wall System

Tags: AUDIOQUEST CABLES INTERCONNECTS

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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