Once upon a time, towards the beginning of my serious portable audio journey, I bought and reviewed the original AudioQuest DragonFly. If you were to go back and read the review (don’t worry, I’ve done it for you) you’d discover that I really liked a lot about the DragonFly: its compact form factor, ability to act as a fixed or variable line-out, and ability to drive a range of headphones. Sadly, I didn’t like the way it played with sensitive, low-impedance IEMs despite enjoying its sound with headphones. Later, some measurements came out from a reviewer somewhere showing that the original DragonFly did indeed have some issues with noise / distortion (if I recall the details correctly) and that explained the less-than-stellar experience with IEMs. AudioQuest released a revised version (v1.2) of the original DragonFly to address the issues, but I never had a chance to try it.
Fast-forward 3+ years and I’ve now owned and reviewed many different portable DACs. AudioQuest also continued their efforts and recently released two new DragonFly models: DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red. Both use the same power-efficient processor, are equipped with ESS brand DAC chips, and offer up to 24-bit / 96kHz decoding, but they differ in their exact model of DAC chips, power output and volume control. I’ll detail the specifics of these differences later.
Lately I’ve reviewed a bunch of AudioQuest gear and much of it (like the JitterBug and USB cables) was on loan. I felt it was important to declare that I purchased the DragonFly Red after hearing about its low power consumption design (crucial for mobile use) and reading multiple good reviews – it is not on loan and I am in no way beholden to AudioQuest for any of the following opinions despite the volume of recent AudioQuest product reviews.
The DragonFly Red is a marvel of engineering. Let’s look at the specs to understand why:
- PIC32MX control chip (77% more efficient than the TAS1020b from DragonFly v1 and 95% more efficient than XMOS solutions)
- Asynchronous transfer
- 32-bit ESS 9016 DAC with minimum-phase filter
- Compatible with compressed and hi-res lossless files
- Up to 24-bit / 96kHz
- 2.1V output
- Output impedance: 0.65 ohms
- Fixed output function for preamp or amp
- Bit-perfect digital volume control
- 12mm (h) x 19mm (w) x 62mm (l)
- Apple, Windows PC, iOS and Android compatible (requires additional cables to connect to smartphones)
At a glance, the decoding capabilities of the Red aren’t that extraordinary. What drew my immediate interest though was the power efficiency created by the use of the PIC32MX control chip and the bit-perfect volume control. When you’re thinking of connecting a portable DAC to a mobile device (particularly a smart phone) you want it to be as miserly with the power as possible so you’re not forever needing to find a power point. The new DragonFly range (Black & Red) both offer astounding power efficiency and I’ve definitely noticed the difference in real world use.
In relation to the bit-perfect volume control, when you’re using a portable DAC / amp combo like the DragonFly (or Cozoy Aegis / Cozoy Astrapi, etc.) with sensitive earphones you often need to pull the volume right down near the minimum. With non-bit-perfect volume controls, every step down in volume effectively throws away “bits” which equate to sound quality in general terms so it goes without saying that if you’re needing to pull the volume right down for IEMs and the like, you’ll want a system that’s not throwing away a whole bunch of bits to achieve that reduction.
Design & Compatibility
There’s not a lot to say that I haven’t already, but let’s quickly go over the details about the fit, finish and functions of the DragonFly Red. Whereas the Black version is finished in a sexy soft-touch black paint, the Red is finished in what appears to be an automotive grade gloss metallic red. At first I thought I preferred the finish on the Black version, but the glossy Red has really grown on me.
The Red is clearly made of metal (except the removable cap) and feels good to hold. It’s got enough weight to feel substantial and well made while not being too heavy for use while connected to an OTG cable (or Apple equivalent). The dragonfly shaped light on top of the device is a continued nice touch since the very first version and it illuminates in different colours to tell you what sample rate you’re listening to:
- Red = standby (not playing)
- Green = 44.1 kHz
- Blue = 48 kHz
- Amber = 88.2 kHz
- Magenta = 96 kHz
Please note, there is no rainbow lighting option – the image you see here is a composite I put together to show you the 4 playback colours without needing 4 images
In terms of compatibility, the DragonFly Red (DFR) is truly plug and play with PC, Windows and iPhone. The DFR will work seamlessly with the Android OS sounds by just plugging it into the phone with an OTG cable, but to get the absolute peak sound quality for music playback (including Tidal and other streaming services), you’ll want to download a music player app that supports direct USB output (not via Android’s sound management system). Currently USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP) and Onkyo’s music app are the best two going around, but apparently PowerAmp will soon support direct USB output as well (it’s in testing now). From my experience, UAPP sounded the best (even though the app theoretically shouldn’t make a lot of difference if it’s truly sending a direct feed to the USB DAC). It’s UI isn’t as good as others like PowerAmp and PlayerPro, but the sound quality more than makes up for it!
One other thing I really like about the DFR is that the Roon software on my PC recognises it and shows a line-drawing icon of the DragonFly when using it as a source. It’s a tiny, tiny thing, but I still like it.
Bit-Perfect Volume Control
Sometimes, achieving the right settings to get truly bit-perfect sound can be tricky. I really like what I’ve read about how the DFR manages this. According to the “Flight Manual” – yep, that’s what they call it – adjusting the system volume on your PC or Mac will send the signal to your DFR to adjust the volume internally and therefore with bit perfection. I’m used to system volume controls like the one in Windows doing terrible things to sound quality so the challenge is always to bypass them. It’s refreshing that I can literally plug and play with the DFR to achieve perfect sound every time. Of course, the playback software you use can still mess with your sound quality so it’s still important to find a player that can provide exclusive control over the DAC and bit-perfect playback, but with both Roon and JRiver MediaCenter I’ve found optimal sound quality very easy to achieve.
Other than a better DAC chip and bit-perfect volume control (made possible by said DAC chip), the DFR’s other trick is its power output. At 2.1V it is significantly more powerful than the original DragonFly v1 (1.8V) and the DragonFly Black (1.2V). Having moved on from some difficult-to-drive headphones like the HE-500, LCD-2, and T1, I don’t have anything in my collection right now that will really stretch the DFR’s capabilities, but the power is evident when driving efficient headphones like the AudioQuest NightHawk and Alessandro MS1i.
When driving sensitive IEMs like the Noble Kaiser 10 I find that I only need the bottom 1-2 levels on the Windows 10 system volume (which controls the bit-perfect adjustment within the DFR). With the toughest headphone I own at present, an old pair of Ultrasone HFI-680, the DFR is purring at just 25% volume. Trying the same track via the Bottlehead Mainline amp and Matrix X-Sabre DAC brings some slight upgrades in terms of note weight and bass impact, but the difference is minor so the DFR is clearly getting close to full performance even from the slightly challenging 75 ohm, 99dB sensitivity Ultrasones. I can easily see how AudioQuest’s confidence around the Red’s power output is justified.
Having found the original DragonFly v1 a little disappointing with IEMs and given how much I love the Cozoy Aegis, you could be forgiven for wondering why I decided to buy a DFR to use predominantly with IEMs (which is how I use my portable rig most of the time). The answer to that question is that I bought it hoping that the combination of improved design, better volume management, and a high quality DAC chip would make it a worthwhile investment. I have to admit that it was a bold move on my part given how enamoured I have been with the Aegis, but power consumption was a bit of a challenge and I hoped the DFR would solve that.
As it happens, the DFR presents a very different sound to the Aegis. Using normal Android system sound output (i.e. not using an app like UAPP), the Aegis and DFR are different, but comparable in overall quality. However, throw UAPP in the mix to get direct USB output and you suddenly hear everything that the DFR is capable of and it’s startlingly crisp, clear and accurate, but not bright or edgy. A lot of people talk about the Sabre chips’ tendency towards “digititus” and while the DFR presents a sound with excellent definition, I never find it drifting into edginess. There’s definitely a sense of clarity that might be the result of the ESS approach to digital-to-analog conversion, but I find it is presented in an enjoyable way. The Aegis presents a more mellow, perhaps more analog sound, but the DFR now highlights the impact of the sound processing used by the Aegis. The Aegis makes everything sound fantastic, but it doesn’t maintain accuracy of reproduction to the original recording. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how important that is to you.
Signature & Presentation
To describe the signature of the DragonFly Red I’m drawn to words like crisp and clean. It has excellent treble extension and clarity that will reveal poor recordings or lower quality compression (i.e. low bit-rate MP3), but it doesn’t punish you for listening to these tracks – it’s just honest. Bass extension is equally enjoyable and the bass carries excellent weight and texture. In fact, texture is one of the key traits in the DFR’s sound. It has an excellent sense of layering and texture to the sound. The soundstage isn’t quite as expansive as the DSP-enhanced Aegis, but the focus of the image and sense of clarity is stronger and better. I find both DACs very enjoyable, but the DFR consistently gets the nod these days because of both its low power consumption and outstanding presentation of the music.
I’ve mentioned bass, treble and staging, but skipped past the mid-range presentation so let’s circle back. The DFR is quite a clean / lean sounding source and lends no sense of weight or lushness to the mid-range. I don’t think I’d call it analytical or cold, but it’s not going to warm up analytical or anaemic ‘phones. I thoroughly enjoy the DFR with all my gear though, whether it be Shozy Zeros, Noble K10s, Ultrasone HFI-680s, or AudioQuest NightHawks so that’s a good sign that the Red’s sound signature isn’t tilted too far in any particular direction.
As you’d expect with DFR’s bit-perfect volume control, the quality of the line-out is just as good as the performance when using it to drive headphones directly. When you connect the DFR to an amplifier before your ‘phones you’ll experience the exact same quality of sound whether you use the DFR at full volume or with a lower output volume. This is particularly handy when you need to reign in an overly powerful amp to drive sensitive ‘phones.
Ideally, you should use as high a volume as possible on the DFR in order to leave your amplifier with plenty of headroom to work with (i.e. keep amp volume below 70-80%), but knocking off a few dB from the DFR has no audible effect on performance to my ears. If I drop the DFR volume to its minimum I do notice a lack of dynamics from the sound out of my amp, but I believe this is because the amp is straining at that point. In my experience, anywhere from 35%-100% on the DFR output range sounds identical when the amp’s volume is adjusted accordingly.
Unfair Comparison Time
The DragonFly Red uses the ESS 9016 DAC chip. My desktop DAC, the Matrix X-Sabre, uses the ESS 9018 DAC chip. The X-Sabre also is heavily shielded by its solid aluminium block chassis and boasts a dedicated power supply whereas the DFR relies on notoriously unclean USB power. The comparison should be completely unfair and unreasonable, shouldn’t it?
I fed both DACs via line-out to the Bottlehead Mainline with the AudioQuest NightHawks as my headphone of choice. The only variable I couldn’t completely match in this test was the cables. I use some old, but good Tara Labs RCA cables with the X-Sabre, but the 3.5mm out from the DFR poses some challenges so I used the high quality 3.5mm to 3.5mm headphone cable from the Thinksound On1 headphones and an adaptor to connect to the Mainline’s RCA inputs. It’s a slightly imperfect setup because of the mismatched cables, but it should be close enough to show any significant differences in performance between the two DACs and there really should be significant differences given the massive differences in price, power supply and size.
It’s immediately clear that the X-Sabre’s presentation offers a greater sense of space and a smoother overall presentation without losing resolution or detail. Some might feel that the DFR is more “accurate” while the X-Sabre is warmer, but I believe it’s more about the X-Sabre being more immune to noise / jitter thanks to it’s more comprehensive circuitry – let’s face it, a solid aluminium desktop chassis coupled with a dedicated power supply grants some pretty significant advantages.
What’s impressive though is that the DFR holds its own completely in this test. The DFR doesn’t sound like a tiny, $300 portable DAC in this comparison – it sounds more like a $600-700 desktop DAC being compared against one of the better $1200 DACs on the market in recent times. Sure, the X-Sabre sounds superior, but the DFR sounds far better than it deserves to for its size and price.
The DragonFly Red from AudioQuest has no right performing as well as it does given both its price and size. Its output power, efficiency and versatility are all astonishing. Whether you’re looking for an affordable DAC solution, an upgrade to the sound from your smart phone or both, the DragonFly Red should absolutely be right at the top of your list. It’s limited to 96kHz maximum sample rate and it’s not quite as smooth as high-end ESS implementations, but it’s a stellar DAC for the price and the fact that you can take that sound quality with you for your smart phone and drive your most difficult headphones all while not instantly draining the battery is a massive achievement and one worthy of your investment!