Review: AudioQuest Dragonfly Red and Dragonfly Black
The market for tiny, USB powered “dongle DACs” with built-in headphone amplifiers currently has a lot of entrants and is hotly contested, but this wasn’t the case back in 2012, when AudioQuest introduced their first portable USB DAC and headphone amp called the Dragonfly. AudioQuest got their start building audio cables back in 1980, and that’s still what they are most known for today, but the Dragonfly is hardly their first foray into the world outside of cables. In fact, only a few short years after the company’s founding, they released their first phono cartridge, called the AQ 404. They also sold several tonearm models for a number of years, which were built for them by Jelco.
So while AudioQuest is certainly no stranger to analog, it would be 32 years before they decided to tackle digital. To help create the original ‘fly, AudioQuest reached out to Wavelength Audio’s Gordon Rankin, creator of the “Streamlength” asynchronous mode protocol that was instrumental in turning USB audio from a joke into the preeminent way to attach a computer or music server to a DAC, and is used on every Dragonfly to date.
Both the original Dragonfly and its 2014 sequel (version 1.2) used the tried and true TAS1020B USB receiver chip, which is perfectly suited to any standard PC USB port. Where you start running into problems is if you try to use either model with a phone or tablet. Some may be able to supply enough power to drive the 1020B from their USB ports, but most will not. AudioQuest wisely recognized that most of us would rather use our phones than some pricey DAP for listening to music on the go, and in order to make the Dragonfly a practical phone add-on, a new and vastly more power efficient USB receiver would be required. Nothing suitable existed, so AudioQuest and Rankin worked with a company called Microchip to create the PIC32MX, which is claimed to draw 77% less power than the prior 1020B solution, and as much as 95% less than the ubiquitous XMOS receiver. The PIC32MX also has the added benefit of being software upgradeable via AudioQuest’s Desktop Manager.
Back In Black
This time around, AudioQuest opted to release two Fly’s at once: the Black, (a.k.a. version 1.5) and the Red. The Black is the more affordable of the two, and is more closely related to the prior Dragonfly versions, though both new models share the same PIC32MX processor, and both use updated DAC chips from ESS, though not the same DAC chips.
The Black has the same rubberized, matte black soft touch finish as the older models, and it retains their host-controlled, 64-step analog volume control. The ESS 9010 Sabre DAC replaces the prior 9023, and peak output power is actually down from the prior v1.2 Dragonfly’s 1.8V to 1.2V, though this is still more than plenty for most of the headphones it’s likely to be used with, and indeed, the Black was perfectly capable of driving my Sony MDR-1As to beyond ear-splitting levels.
Lord Of The Fly’s
AudioQuest could have simply stopped there, but instead they decided to create a second, further improved model called the Dragonfly Red, which features a pearlescent red “automotive” finish, a very healthy 2.1V peak output, and the high-end ESS 9016 Sabre DAC – the very same chip used in my $5000 Simaudio Moon 380D. In the Red, the 9016’s built-in volume control replaces analog setup in the Black. Without being able to isolate just the difference in volume control types it’s hard to say exactly how much of an audible difference this makes, but one definite advantage of the on-chip digital volume control is the removal of the 64-step limitation, allowing for much finer adjustments. Both new Fly’s retain the exact same form factor as the prior models, and are the same size as a typical USB flash drive.
Unlike a lot of DACs which emphasize their support for super-ultra-mega-hyper-xtreme PCM sample rates, dodeca-rate DSD, etc, AudioQuest has purposefully chosen to limit both the Black and Red to a maximum of 24/96. Why? Blame Microsoft. Unlike MacOS and Linux, Windows still has no native support for Class 2 USB audio, because Microsoft would rather pawn the work off to others to create the drivers for it. The upside to being limited to Class 1 is that both Fly’s are plug-and-play in all operating systems. Using them with Windows 10 on my Asus Zenbook is about as easy as it gets. Plug either one of them in, and they immediately become the default audio output device. I then simply tell Foobar to use them in WASAPI Event mode if it isn’t already set to do so from last time, and start listening. Speaking of….
I’ve never been the world’s biggest stoner metal fan, but when I am in the mood for it, there’s one album I always return to: Blues For The Red Sun, Kyuss’s 1992 masterpiece that was the first, and arguably the best of them all. Listening to “Green Machine” from my needledrop of my original pressing, the difference between the Black and my Asus’ built-in headphone jack was shocking. Some audio upgrades are subtle, some take a fair amount of time and patience before you can start to discern and appreciate the improvements, and some are what you might call “sidegrades,” gaining in one area at the expense of another. None of that applied here. Comparing the Asus’ headphone output to the Black is like comparing a tugboat to the Bismarck. One of them is going to lose that fight, and I have a pretty good handle on which one.
The album with my MDR-1A headphones plugged straight into my laptop was flat, dull, and boring. The drums had no impact, cymbals were strained and stale, and everything was compressed into an indistinct blob. The Black took care of all of those issues in a hurry. Oh yeah, that’s why I love this album so much. There’s that fuzzy goodness, there’s the rumbling bass, there are the surprisingly well recorded (for this genre) drums. I should note that my needledrop is 24/192, but this wasn’t an issue, I simply loaded the SoX plug-in, and had it resample in real time down to 96kHz.
Moving on to another oldie but goodie, Paradise Lost’s Icon, the story was much the same. The sound was tolerable through the built-in headphone jack, but that was about it, no fun, no involvement. Switching to the Black and listening to “Forging Sympathy,” the drums and guitars suddenly had real weight and impact, and the sonic image was far better defined and more spacious. Now we’re talking.
Changing gears a bit, “In The Gutter Of This Spring,” from Empyrium’s incomparable The Turn Of The Tides again had the Black absolutely obliterating the Asus’ headphone jack, pulling out gobs more detail and hugely expanding the soundstage. Staying on the same track and switching to the Red brought similar improvements again, though to a slightly more subtle degree.
The difference between the Black and the Red, at least as heard on my MDR-1A headphones, was not the black vs white, night vs day difference that separated the Black from the laptop headphone jack, nor did I expect it to be. All of the improvements were still clearly there though. Everything that the Black did over the Asus’ headphone output, the Red did that much better. Instruments were better separated, the soundstage seemed deeper and wider, highs were more delicate and refined, and lows had more weight, authority, and impact. I suspect with more resolving (and possibly harder to drive) headphones, the Red would pull away that much further.
As I stated at the beginning of this review, the list of products with a USB connector on one end and a headphone jack on the other is now getting pretty long. The list of these types of devices that can be plugged straight into a phone or tablet using either an OTG cable or a camera adapter cable without any kind of AC power source though is pretty short, and if you do a lot of listening on the go with headphones that cost more than the $99 list price of the Dragonfly Black (or maybe even a bit less) you need to give it a try. The difference between the Black and a laptop headphone jack is so massive that it’s a good teaching tool to convince “normies” what this whole audio thing is about.
Does the Red justify double the price of the Black? I would say so. It’s suitable to a much wider range of headphones, offers much finer volume adjustments, and sounds substantially better, even with my very modestly priced Sony MDR-1A headphones. If the price tag of your headphones starts with at least a “2,” it’s well worth the additional outlay. The fact that it costs $50 less than the original Dragonfly from 2012 is just icing on the cake. Well done AudioQuest!