AudioQuest DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red DACs

High-Flying Bargains

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters
AudioQuest DragonFly Black,
AudioQuest DragonFly Red
AudioQuest DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red DACs

The combination of the DragonFly Red and JitterBug turned out to sound so good that I moved the pair from my desktop system to my main system, where they were fed from an Audender W20 music server and drove my reference system. The DragonFly’s analog output fed the Constellation Altair II preamplifier via a run of AudioQuest 3.5mm-to-RCA breakout cable. Putting a $199 DAC at the front end of a reference-quality system may seem crazy, but nonetheless provides a different per-spective from which to examine the DragonFly’s performance.

Simply put, the Red/JitterBug combination sounded much, much better than it had any right to for $250. Even at the front end of a system that is highly revealing of source quality, the DragonFly was listenable and enjoyable. Hearing it in this context also gave me an appreciation for how cannily the DragonFly Red’s inevitable tradeoffs were chosen for the most musical overall result. For example, the tonal balance is slightly skewed toward a richer and darker rendering rather than attempting to resolve the last measure of treble openness and sparkle. This has the effect of minimizing the Red’s slight grain in the upper midrange and treble. I don’t want this to sound like a criticism; it’s inevitable that a $200 DAC will have a less-than-pristine treble. In fact, compared to any other sub-$500 DAC I’ve heard, the DragonFly Red has the cleanest treble. But the designers mitigated the inherent compromises in a way that best serves the music. The DragonFly Red avoids the stereotypical sound of inexpensive DACs in which the presentation is hard, bright, metallic, uninvolving, and fatiguing. I noticed these design choices only when the Red was in my big reference system and I was listening analytically. Before putting the Red in my main system, I’d been enjoying the DAC virtually every day for months as part of my desktop setup without ever thinking about the sonic tradeoffs. That’s the mark of exceptional design.

The Red’s bottom end was deep and extended, with a nice combination of bass heft and definition. The Red was equally adept at conveying the dynamic punch and drive of the hi-res download of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues as it was at communicating Scott Colley’s nuanced acoustic bass playing on the Gary Burton CD Guided Tour. The bass wasn’t just weighty; it had excellent pitch definition and dynamic expression. There was an odd disconnect at hearing the mighty Magico Q7 Mk IIs with their prodigious bottom end and knowing that the source was the tiny DragonFly.

I was also impressed by the Red’s sense of air and space. Again, the Red miraculously avoids the inexpensive-DAC syndrome of sterile flatness and congestion. The Red, in my desktop system, through headphones, and in the reference system, presented instruments as individual objects with a nice halo of air around them (if that’s how they were recorded). The group Oregon’s wonderfully spacious Beyond Words (a Chesky release from the 1990s) was well portrayed, with a real sense of three musicians within an acoustic.

With the DragonFly Black and Red, there’s simply no excuse for listening to the compromised DACs and output amplifier built into computers. At $99, the Black brings much of what high-end audio is about to just about any quality-conscious listener. The Red is significantly better sounding, and worth the price difference. Adding AudioQuest’s $49 JitterBug is a no-brainer for either, allowing the Black and the Red to reach their full sonic potential. And these new models work with Apple and Android phones, bringing high-end sound to a much wider audience.

With the DragonFly, AudioQuest has created a simple and affordable path into the high end for a new generation of listeners, as well as the perfect product for an audiophile’s personal-audio system.

Specs & Pricing

DragonFly Black
Maximum output voltage: 1.2V
Maximum input signal: 96kHz/24-bit
Dimensions: 19mm x 12mm by 62mm
Price: $99

DragonFly Red
Maximum output voltage: 2.1V
Maximum input signal: 96kHz/24-bit
Dimensions: 19mm x 12mm by 62mm
Price: $199

2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 585-0111