Back in 2012 AudioQuest of Irvine, Calafornia, USA, traditionally a cable manufacturer, introduced something that once upon a time would just have been impossible, a sophisticated digital to analogue converter, headphone amplifier in a package only slightly bigger than a USB memory stick (1). That product was called the DragonFly Black, now in a newer version, which took the audio world by storm, and set a new bench mark for what was possible, from such a small item. As in all things audio, bench marks are somewhat of a movable feast and AudioQuest pushed the envelope further in the form of the DragonFly Red – the subject of this review. The DragonFly Black and Red are both Gordon Rankin, of Wavelegth Audio designs.
The Dragonfly Red has a number of key specification improvements over the Dragonfly Black to account for this bench mark pushing improvement.
Increased output – Direct-Coupled, High output — With a combination of power, beauty, and finesse, DF Red delivers greater overall impact, momentum, and grip than either DF 1.2 or DF Black, while also surpassing their excellent senses of touch, texture, and nuance. In addition, Red’s high (2.1v) output means that it can easily drive the widest range of headphones. When used as a line-level device (volume set to 100%), DF Red’s 2.1 volts provide enough power to drive all preamplifier, integrated amplifier, or receiver inputs.
Improved DAC – Like the ESS 9010, the 32-bit ESS 9016 uses a sophisticated minimum-phase digital filter to provide more naturally detailed and dynamic music, but surpasses the 9010 in overall performance. DAC CHIP ESS 9023 24-Bit ESS 9010 32-Bit E
Higher Spec digital output – DragonFly Red employs a 64-bit, bit-perfect digital volume control that resides inside the DAC chip itself—an elegant and sophisticated implementation that ensures maximum fidelity, dynamic contrast, and signal-to-noise ratio. With DragonFly Red connected to a PC or mobile device, adjusting the host’s system volume control will, through proxy, control the DragonFly Red’s onboard volume.’
Like the DragonFly Black the device is capable of dealing with up to 24 Bit to 96 khz files, but not 192 khz natively, though it will down rez such files. Recent software upgrades (available as I write this review) include an MQA upgrade. I am not qualified to discuss MQA, having zero experience with this new format, therefore the positives and the negatives being raised by some in the audio community, will have to wait till another review, mine or someone else’s to explore that aspect of the DragonFly Red’s performance.
For myself I think it will be a long time before I embrace a new format like MQA, I still haven’t tried file based DSD, the only DSD being that found in SACD physical discs. Like MQA I also think it will be awhile before I try file based DSD, in saying that I do very much like and rate how SACDs sound.
I was well aware of the DragonFly Black, having read a few reviews, and vaguely aware of the DragonFly Red so when one came up for sale (including the required Apple adapter), after some research I felt it fitted the bill for giving me away of listening to an iPad Mini via headphones and thus I bought it. Great plans for doing a full review when I came back from the holiday, motivated by enjoying it while on that holiday, were swept away by other things. As they say better late than never, so here are my thoughts on a most interesting device.
The DragonFly Red comes in a nice box, with a protective slip case and full set of instructions for use, and mine with a code for RUNE. I don’t run RUNE, my preference is JRiver, and that is all you get in the packaging.
Audioquest sell various accessories to help with various set ups, so I bought a JitterBug, and stereo mini jack to two RCAs for the review. The JitterBug (2) helps reduce noise on the computers USB sockets and the stero mini jack to two RCA plugs would allow me to hook the DragonFly Red up to my reference system with the cables of my choice.
Also for the review I used a Lotus Polestar USB interconnect, Wireworld Starlight Silver USB cable, an iFi Audio iPower, the aforementioned Apple USB adapter, and a pair of Apple headphones, though these were abandoned fairly quickly in favour of much better headphones.
I used a Sony Windows 7 laptop and an HP Windows 8.1 laptop as sources, the Sony with internal storage and the HP with a 3TB external hard drive. The Sony was used in a desk top set up and the HP as part of my living room reference system.
Living room system: Balanced Audio Technology VK300 Se integrated amplifier, Anthony Gallo Reference 3.1 speakers. Signal cabling was Atlas Mavros as was the speaker cable. Mains cables were TCI Boa Constrictor. Equipment tables were Audiophile Base and Target B5.
Headphones: Apple in ear type, Sennheiser PX30, Sennheiser HD560 Ovation, and Grado GS1000
An iFi iPower was also used, as was a Lotus Polestar USB cable, WireWorld Starlight, Audio Quest Jitter Bug and an Audio Quest stereo mini jack to two RCA adapter.
For this review I mostly used tracks from 24 Bit, 88.2 Master Files from Dead Can Dance. In the main I listened to the following albums:
Into The Labyrinth
Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
I also listened to music from the following albums as well, a mix of MP3 and 24 Bit 96khz and 24 Bit 192 khz Files.
Alannah Myles – Rocking Horse
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Casino Royale – OST
The methodology for this review I was determined to keep as simple as possible, so straight forward comparisons and some longer listening sessions, but nothing too complicated.
The first part of the review was conducted at my work table, where I do all my net surfing, review writing, and my Sony Vio was the source. Initial listening was done with the DragonFly hooked up via direct connection to the laptop USB output, and then with a JitterBug plugged into the unused USB beside the DragonFly, then the DragonFly Red plugged into the JitterBug, then plugged into a Lotus Polestar USB and finally an iFiAudio iPower.
The second part was conducted with a simple kitchen system -Onkyo CD/Tuner/Amplifier all in one- and the living room set up, with the DragonFly Red hooked up to both via a stereo mini jack to two RCA jacks adapter, and as it turned out AudioQuest make one, I obtained one and used it for the review. These particular configurations interested me a lot, as I wanted to see just how good the DragonFly Red would be, hooked up to a budget regular stereo system, and in a high end integrated amplifier and speaker combination, rather than just headphones + computer, which I suspect it will be mostly used with in the marketplace.
As I said above this review has taken a lot longer to do than originally intended and as a result of that I have used the DragonFly Red as part of my day to day life over at least a year, much longer than I normally get when a manufacturer, or distributor loan is the source of the product. During this time the DragonFly Red has been used in a computer and Ipad set up with headphones for YouTube video and music, and also as part of a computer Skype headphone set up. In those aplications whatever I was listening to or watching it brought much enjoyment to that experience which only using the output of the computer or IPad alone would not have. Lets be frank very few computer sources alone have a decent audio output and anything that helps in that regard should be very welcome.
When using JRiver as the server + internal or external music fliles the DragonFly Red was a lovely device to use and none of the headphones I used with it were troubled at all by the devices output stage, all driven well, with no obvious shortcomings. I have not done a comparison with the DragonFly Black, but one aspect of improvement with the Red was its output level/driving ability, so I suspect some headphones were less than a succesful match in the past.
Music was open and detailed with a nice soundstage, the in head effect varied and seemed to reflect the choice of headphones used. The lesser headphones producing a more in head presentation, with the Sennheiser HD560 and Grado GS1000 pushing the soundstage outside the head.
Tonal balance was on average just to the warmer side of neutral with a nicely extended bass, open midrange and non fatiquing treble. The tracks I listened to off the Dead Can Dance albums all sounded very nice and often I had to remind myself regarding the nature of the device I was using, shaking my head at just how incredible it was considering its size.
Using the DragonFly Red hooked up to either the Ifi Audio USB power or the cheaper option of the Audio Quest Jitter Bug, rather than just the USB out of the computer source brought obvious benefits to the quality of music reproduction and combining the two, maybe overkill to some, also pushed the envelope a bit further. Doing so opened up the soundstage a little and finer details in the music were easier to hear, the ubiqitous cleaning of the dirty windows analogy applying to the addition of the power filters.
During the review period I obtained a nice example of an Onkyo CR-315 DAB CD/Tuner/Amplifier system for the kitchen, a thrift store score, the speakers of which I replaced with my long owned ProAc Super Tablets, these particular speakers dating back to the very early times I got into proper HiFi equipment.
The DragonFly Red was hooked up to an iPad Pro via an Apple USB camera adapter, the AudioQuest stereo jack adapter and a set of interconnects I had to hand. Listening to various YouTube sourced music tracks, despite the low resolution of YouTube as a source for music was enjoyable fun, and well worth the effort of doing. Certainly it would offer better sound quality if a streaming, or file player at high resloution had been used, but for a kitchen set up with less than ideal set up circumstances the DragonFly Red offered a major upgrade on sound, way above using the iPad Pro on its own.
Living Room System.
I am going to go into a bit more detail here regarding my listening impressions of the DragonFly Red used in a more coventional way, as most DACs are, hooked into a separates system but first an interesting step into what excellent customer care should be.
While doing a little preparation for this part of the review an accident with my system occured. I was pulling a lead out of a piece of equipment, which proved much tighter than I thought, and in my efforts to pull it out my fist hit the back of the amplifier with a fair bit of force. A few minutes after this happening I realised I had broken one of the plugs on my Atlas Mavros speaker cable. An email sent to Atlas in Scotland resulted in a quick reply from Kevin Kelly, and I arranged with him to return the cable for a repair. By the end of the week I had my repaired speaker cable back. I was very impressed with this level of customer care, particularly as my Atlas cables are long out of warranty. Back on track I began listening to the Audio Quest DragonFly Red via my living room system.
I decided intially to casually listen to some of the music files hooked up to the HP laptop I use for computer audio in the living room system and after a little while my fingers stopped on the iPad control app at the Alannah Myles track ‘One World Our Times’ off Rocking Horse.
I sat back to listen to this slice of melodic rock and there was good drive to the track, nice pace and decent levels of seperation and detail present. Overall very good for music reproduced from an MP3 file. However as I listened more it became obvious that while the left to right sound stage extended beyond the speakers there was a lack of image depth. Now this could have been down to the nature of the file, MP3, or it might have been my system showing up a deficency in the DragonFly Red. Further listening would be needed.
Switching to ‘Oh Dear’ (3072Kpbs) by Alyn Cusker, from the album Lyn’s Une had much more depth of image, separation and detail. Drums, bass and guitar interplay was nicely deliniated but the track still displayed a slight flatness and lack of depth compared to how it normally sounds via my other admitedly much more expensive DACs. The sax on the track, had nice body and top end but it lacked a degree of that 3D reality that the file of this SACD usually has. In saying that this music was much better than the MP3 track I had previously listened to.
Next up was Dead Can Dance’s ‘The Carnival is Over’ (2548Kbps) from Into the Labyrinth. All the elements were there, and it was musically enjoyable but like the tracks before had a flater soundstage than normal, lacking the dimensionality I am used to, but it was still good, very good considering that a DAC the size of a pen drive was the source. At the end of the track Brendan Perry’s spoken voice lacked the usual body and dimensionality and was more homogenised within the fading music and acoustic. Moving on to the track ‘Bird’ it lacked some of the usual stunning 3 dimensional soundstage and imagery, but it was still good, just lacking the normal cavernous walk in soundstage depth I am used to. The bird sounds, and instrument separation was still good just across a much less deep soundscape to normal.
‘How fortunate the Man’, was very enjoyable, but as with the other tracks just lacking the depth of image I was used to. There was a very good spread left to right and some depth of image, but despite the nice seperation of instruments, Bredan Perry’s haunting vocals and the swirling synths the music was lacking some of its usual magic.
Switching next to the late, The Absolute Sounds, Harry Pearson’s reference album Casino Royale OST (5488Kbps) by Burt Bacharach, track ‘The Look of Love’ sounded beautifully sensual and lovely but as with other tracks, despite the 24 Bit 192 Khz nature of the master still had the flatness evident on other tracks, though less so. The theme sounded lovely with no harshness on the massed brass instruments, with very nice separation of the instruments, but it was still lacking.
As I sat and thought about this I listened to another MP3 file, Daft Punks, Radom Access Memories (320Kpbs), the track ‘Giorgio’ by Moroder which was tonally rich, with very good drive and nicely separated instruments within a wide soundstage.
At times like this its easy to forget how compromised MP3 is as the music sounded very nice and I was enjoying it, but right from the start Moroder’s spoken words lacked dimension and the track lacked the air of the CD or vinyl.
Using my Mystra DAC or the AMR DP777 DAC there was no comparison as both outperformed the DragonFly Red, and by a big margin. However the DragonFly Red still sounded exceptionally good, and made enjoyable music. However by listening to those DACs a thought entered my head, and I wondered if it was that source of power that had compromised some aspects of the performance, used direct from the computer USB output music lacked a degree of tonal weight and density and the afore mentioned soundstage depth.
To check out this thought I employed an iFi Audio iPower with an Audio Quest Jitter Bug in an adjacent unused USB and with the iFi and JitterBug in place, this combination certainly addressed some of the depth issues. As such if the set up permits it I would urge the user to use an AudioQuest JitterBug and an iFi Audio USB power.
Compared though to my reference DACs, music still lacked a degree of tonal weight and density and the afore mentioned soundstage depth, as it should be as those DACs are vastly bigger and massively more expensive, and while I know my criticism of the DragonFly Red sounds bad I urge the reader to keep in mind the uniqueness of the AudioQuest proposition, a USB Pen Drive sized DAC, and while obtaining its power from the computer (the music and audio is also taken from the USB output) may well have compromised some aspects of the performance, make no mistake it is still an amazing product.
Regardless of how the DragonFly Red is powered, or the lack of depth I heard in the soundstage, it is still a stunning product and was and is a joy to use.
Maybe I was being unfair regarding using the DragonFly Red in a high end system, which might be thought to be outside its normal comfort zone, but I wanted to see just exactly what it could and could not do, and the Red aquitted itself well. Who would have thought, that so much could be packed into such a small space, and sound so good. As I look at the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, weigh it in my hand, turn its shiny red body over and over, I am gob smacked by just what this tiny product can do, diminutive in size, modest cost, and yet truly it punches well above its weight in terms of soundquality, in its part of the market, and I say all that despite the negatives I wrote above.
Used as intended with headphones, connected to an iPad, iPhone or similar its very good, exceptionally good, a fantastic space saving way to boost the soundquality of any computer or iPad and in a less high end system of more modest resolution as a conventional DAC, any short comings in image depth and detail resolution being much less obvious. However here is the thing, the amazing thing, this product made very enjoyable music within my high end system, ridiculously good music for what it is.
Indeed who could have imagined or believed such was possible, well in 2018 it is, and if you want to push the DragonFly Red’s performance envelope, just add an AudioQuest Jitter Bug or 2, and iFi Audio iPower.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Red
Retail Price – £170
Source of loan – enduser/reviewer Purchased.
- USB Stick-Sized Digital-to-Analog Converter
- Plays all music files: MP3 to high-res
- Compatible with Apple and Windows PCs, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices (requires Apple Camera Adapter or Made for Android/OTG adaptor)
- Drives headphones directly
- Fixed output feeds preamp or AV receiver
- Asynchronous transfer ensures digital timing integrity
- High output (2.1 volts) drives almost all headphones, including power-hungry models
- 32-bit ESS 9016 DAC with minimum-phase filter
- Bit-perfect digital volume control
- 12mm (h) x 19mm (w) x 62mm (l)
- Portable, USB-powered digital-to-analog converters. Sampling rates supported: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96kHz. Digital input: USB Type A, male plug (hardwired). Analog output: three-conductor, 3.5mm phone jack. Maximum output voltages: RMS; DragonFly Red (v1.0), 2.1V RMS.
Manufacturer: AudioQuest, 2621 White Road, Irvine, CA 92614. Tel: (949) 585-0111. Web: www.audioquest.com.
(1) (12mm (h) x 19mm (w) x 62mm (l)
(2) AudioQuest say this about the JitterBug:
‘The Problem: All computing devices—laptops, smartphones, Network Attached Storage devices (NAS drives), media servers, etc.—inherently generate a significant amount of noise and parasitic resonances. Additionally, computers contribute a considerable amount of RFI and EMI pollution onto the signal paths—all of which can easily find its way onto your USB cables and into your audio system. This noise and interference has many negative effects. Noise-compromised digital circuitry increases jitter and packet errors, resulting in distortion that causes a comparatively flat and irritating sound. Noise-compromised analog circuitry also damages the sound’s depth, warmth and resolution.
The Solution: JitterBug’s dual-circuitry measurably reduces unwanted noise currents and parasitic resonances. It also reduces jitter and packet errors (in some cases, packet errors are completely eliminated).
The Result: Clearer and more compelling sound, music, dialog, etc. A better audio experience.’
DUAL DISCRETE NOISE-DISSIPATION CIRCUITS
© Text and Photos Copyright 2018 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio. Except album sleeves/manufacturers images. Copyright resides with those owners.
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