USB DACs have always been a natural choice for me offering both portability and audiophile grade quality in an unparalleled compact form factor. AudioQuest’s relatively recent contribution – the new and improved DragonFly USB DAC 1.2 has therefore aroused mine and many other’s interest in the scene of portable high-end music listening. The DragonFly is an affordable approach at $149 to bypass the often poor sound quality built in your computer but it also has the ability to circumvent the internal sound components of your smartphone (if OTG supported).
Box and design
AudioQuest is quite a polished brand (aside from their questionable cable claims) and right down from their website to their packaging design, you can see the work of a consistent theme idea and brand image. Within the box, the DAC itself rests in a clean foam insert and there is even a leather carrying pouch for an added touch of luxury. What I also recommend is AudioQuest’s separate DragonTail accessory USB extender which is useful for situations where the USB jack of your computer is situated in an awkward place and there is needed room for flexibility.
The DragonFly USB DAC, measuring in at just 6cm, is quite dense in weight and invariably smooth. The matte black finish again ties in to the matte black finish of the packaging and overall image of AudioQuest. The logo of the DAC embodies a dragonfly, a feature of which I’ve found to be quite nifty as it lights up different colors depending on the sample rate of music the DAC is feeding off. For example the dragonfly will light up to: green for 44.1 kHz, blue for 48 kHz, amber for 88.2 kHz, and magenta for 96 kHz.
With the asynchronous system, the USB DAC features an internal clock which retains its own data transfer protocol. This means that rather than communicating with the computer or any other digital source, the clock reduces the amount of jitter and plays sound smoothly at its optimal sample rate.
Behind the surface of the DragonFly is a 24-bit ESS Sabre D/A convertor chip which plays just about any type of file. No drivers are required when plugging the thumb drive into your computer which is very useful for those wishing to use the device across multiple platforms. Although a very capable device, the DragonFly does not really have enough power to drive large impedance headphones, especially those that require their own dedicated amp systems. Thus, the device is more suited to headphones of lower impedance and generally all types of in-ear monitors.
The DragonFly unleashes a new quality of life on dated computer sound card systems by using its own cleverly engineered system with which to output sound. It’s remarkable how technology has progressed that we are now in the position to be able to use flash drives as DACs in this new era of portable-friendly audiophile gear.
The sound of the DragonFly is one of dynamic contrast, brightness and resolution. The DAC exposes more nuances and greater levels of micro-details than I’ve previously heard before. This is one of the fortes of the DragonFly which really has the ability to extract quite a lot from tracks. From the delicate bass notes to the cymbal crashes in Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon”, the DAC reveals all and leans towards a crystal clear and resolving sound signature. Sinatra’s voice is accurate and commands precision but does lack a bit of warmth and fullness. This is a recurrent theme with the DragonFly which compromises warmth for total honesty and a reference-like sound.
With the DAC, bass becomes tighter and snappier which is good for fast-paced music and for lower frequencies in general since it is hard thing to get right in IEMs. Compared to Cozoy USB DAC/Amp, the DragonFly renders a slightly higher resolution while differing significantly in sound quality. The richer overtones of the Cozoy lie in very much a stark contrast to the cleaner and resolving sonic image that the DragonFly DAC projects. It is especially evident in midrange frequencies that the DragonFly renders an energetic presentation which feels colder but more detailed than the Cozoy. Within the higher frequency notes, the DragonFly comes into a world of its own with bright effortless highs. With that said however, there are minor levels of sibilance to be experienced but this can be adjusted with a lower listening volume.
Tethered to a Samsung Galaxy S5 via a micro-USB OTG cable adapter, the DragonFly extracts spades of detail which trounces the output of the internal sound chip of the galaxy device. It is a neat little set-up for hi-fi sound quality without the compromise of a bad user interface as well as retaining the perks of popular streaming services. One thing worth noting though is that when paired, battery life does fall more quickly than expected but it’s certainly a price worth paying for the markedly improved sound performance that this DAC offers.
AudioQuest however claims that the DragonFly was not made with the intentions of supporting OTG cabled devices but rather for native devices that already support USB. Although it worked like a charm for my particular smartphone set-up, it is important to note that it may not work with yours and so it is crucial to test this out if you’re buying this product for this sole purpose. With that being said, the idea of using the device for such a set-up is quite an exciting idea since a lot of the public, myself included, utilize streaming services whose sound quality can now be improved. Thus, with the addition of an USB DAC to a supported phone model your portable music experience can easily be enhanced for those that like using Spotify, Pandora and Rdio etc.
Overall, the DragonFly DAC is an outstanding value for money that is not only portable but offers a high resolution sound in a pocket-size form. The energetic and vivid sound character makes music seem livelier and is a reason why the DAC is incredibly useful to pair with more laidback IEMs. AudioQuest have also done an excellent job in regards to the beautiful logo which lights up different colors so that the user knows exactly what sampling rate their music is playing out of. One area that could be further improved upon is to make the sound a bit smoother to allow users to listen to the DAC for extended periods of time. When paired with an already detail-hungry device, the DAC can extrude elements of harshness. Nevertheless, the DragonFly DAC would make a great addition for any budding audiophile’s collection now and for many years to come.