AudioQuest DragonFly Red & Black USB D/A headphone amplifiers

In 1982, when moving-coil phono cartridges were gaining in popularity among audio perfectionists, the cable specialists at AudioQuest entered the source-component market with their first-ever phono cartridge, the AQ 404. Introduced at a price of $225, the 404 cost significantly less than most other perfectionist-quality MC pickups, and it had the advantage of high (2.5mV) output: a then-novel distinction that allowed the 404 owner to avoid the extra expense of a step-up transformer or additional active gain stage. More to the point, the AudioQuest 404 won almost universally positive reviews, and found its way into the reference systems of many bigwig reviewers of the day.

In 2012, as computer audio grew in popularity, AudioQuest again addressed the source-component market, this time with their first-ever USB D/A headphone amplifier, the DragonFly. Introduced at a price of $250—which shrank to $150 with the 2014 release of the DragonFly v1.2—AudioQuest's miniature DAC was significantly less expensive than the norm for USB converters, and had the advantage of portability, which was then novel among high-resolution (24-bit/96kHz) DACs with asynchronous streaming. The DragonFly earned almost universally positive reviews and found its way into the reference systems of many reviewers of the day, and was named Stereophile's Computer Audio Component of the Year for 2012.

Approximately 331/3 years after AudioQuest's first phono cartridge, the company announced two new USB D/A headphone amplifiers: the DragonFly Black ($99) and the DragonFly Red ($199). Both have circuits designed by the engineer responsible for the original DragonFly—Gordon Rankin, of Wavelength Audio—and both have the novel distinction of requiring considerably less operating power than their predecessors, so much less that the new DragonFlys can be used with iPhones, iPads, and various other mobile devices.

As William Shakespeare once observed: This shit writes itself.

Description: Black is the new Black
The DragonFly Black can be reasonably regarded as an updated version of the DragonFly v1.2—which, in 2014, did not need to be called the DragonFly Black in the same sense that, in 1914, the Great War did not need to be called World War I. The new Black offers a number of refinements over its predecessor: The original and v1.2 DragonFlys had as their microcontroller the then-ubiquitous Texas Instruments (TI) TAS 1020B, to which was added Gordon Rankin's proprietary Streamlength asynchronous data-transfer protocol software. That microcontroller has now been replaced by the 32-bit Microchip PIC32MX, also enhanced with Gordon's code. This is a key factor in the Black's lower power requirements, as it is said to draw 77% less current than the previous microcontroller.

In the original and v1.2 DragonFlys, both now discontinued, the converter chip was ESS's 24-bit Sabre 9023 DAC chip, now replaced with ESS's Sabre 9010. Unchanged in the Black is the original's Texas Instruments headphone amplifier.


The new DragonFly Red offers even more refinements. Its microcontroller is also the 32-bit Microchip PIC32MX, but here the converter chip of choice is the upmarket 32-bit ESS Sabre 9016. But the new model also has an ESS headphone amplifier: the first from ESS that AudioQuest has used. The new headphone-amp chip is a unity-gain device, without any volume control: a 64-bit digital volume control is embedded in the Red's ESS DAC chip, allowing for bit-perfect control of listening level. The DragonFly Black, like the earlier DragonFlys, has an analog volume control with 64 steps.

The greatest practical difference between the new Black and Red DragonFlys is the Red's higher output voltage: a healthy 2.1V, which better suits it to driving difficult headphone loads. For the Black with firmware v1.5, the output has dropped a bit—to 1.2V, vs the v1.2's 1.8V. (Yes, I know it's confusing.)

Common to both new DragonFlys are: 24-bit/96kHz native resolution; a micro-LED–illuminated logo that changes color in accordance with the resolution of the file being played (I see little point in devoting to the matter a dull sentence describing which color represents which resolution); compatibility with Apple iOS 5 (and newer) and Android 4.1 (and newer), as well as Apple OS X and Windows 7 (and up); and the availability of a desktop app for—get ready for it—upgrading the software. Which is very cool. As with the original DragonFly, both of the new models are made in the US.

Installation and Setup
Just as I chafe at the idea of describing the DragonFlys' chromatic whimsy in all its tiresome detail (oh, all right: green=44.1kHz, blue=48kHz, amber=88.2kHz, and magenta=96kHz), I don't see the point in telling you, step by tedious step, precisely what messages appeared in each of the dropdown menus and windows on the screen of my Apple iMac (which gets by with Apple 10.7.5). Suffice it to say that, in Apple OS X, you need only click on Preferences and then Sound, and then choose from the dropdown menu the DragonFly—which you have presumably, by now, managed to plug into a spare USB socket somewhere on your computer. (Helpful Hint: users of Apple desktop computers may wish to avoid the USB sockets at either end of the Apple keyboard. Some experts have reported slightly degraded sound from these portals, in contrast to the ones on the back of the monitor/CPU. Also, in spite of the reduced power draw of the new DragonFlys, having one plugged into one keyboard USB port can interfere with the charging of a portable device connected to the other.)

Some owners of Apple computers—especially those who've never before used a USB DAC—may also wish to open the Audio MIDI Setup window (under Applications/Utilities) and select, from the list appearing in the Output window, the name of the DragonFly to be used and the Format sampling rate of 44.1kHz, which presumably corresponds with most of the files you'll be sending the DragonFly's way. (Don't worry: the better playback software at your disposal will be able to change that—on the fly, so to speak—to higher rates, as needed.)

To use either new DragonFly with current-spec Apple iOS hardware requires the purchase, from Apple or an authorized Apple supplier (footnote 1), of a $29 accessory: a Lightning-to-USB-camera adapter. John Atkinson loaned me one for the purposes of this review, and its use with my iPhone 6 Plus smartphone (iOS 9.3.2) was a snap: the Lightning plug goes into the phone, the DragonFly's hardwired USB plug goes into the USB socket, and the headphone plug goes into the other end of the DragonFly.

Like the original DragonFly, the new models speak to the world in a line-level voice, by means of a 3.5mm, three-conductor socket. When it comes to using a DragonFly as a headphone amp, that isn't too much of a problem, since 'phones with 3.5mm plugs aren't scarce. But it's trickier to use a DragonFly as a line-level music source with a full playback system—unbalanced only, of course. To connect a DragonFly's output to the line-in jacks of a preamp or integrated amp, you can either use an existing interconnect pair in tandem with 3.5mm-to-RCA adapter—an Internet search will turn up examples from Cardas, Kimber, and RadioShack, among others, spanning a very wide range of prices—or get hold of a purpose-made 3.5mm-to-RCA interconnect.

You'll be unsurprised to know that AudioQuest, being first and foremost a cable company, manufactures the latter in various lengths at various price points. For this review, AQ loaned me two 3m-long interconnects: an Evergreen ($49) and a Victoria ($495), the latter featuring the company's Dielectric Bias System (DBS). I tried and enjoyed the Victoria, but my sense of thrift compelled me to rely on the Evergreen.

DragonFly Black as a line-level source
I began by reacquainting myself with my lingering review sample of the original (pre-v1.2) AudioQuest DragonFly. And since I found myself doing so on the day the British fiddler Dave Swarbrick passed away, I paid particular attention to a file I'd burned from Fairport Convention's fourth album (their first with Swarb as a full member of the band), Liege & Lief (AIFF from CD, A&M CD 4257). I listened to the entire album straight through, concentrating especially on the fascinating Surrey–meets–San Francisco track "Tam Lin," with its alternating time signatures of 3/4 and 4/4, and one of singer Sandy Denny's finest recorded performances.

The original DragonFly sounded as expected: explicit, up-front, colorful, and involving to an extent beyond that implied by its paltry price. I switched to the warmed-up DragonFly Black (footnote 2), and the first thing I noticed was the new DAC's obviously lower output. Even so—and even before I'd adjusted my preamp's volume knob to compensate—it was apparent that the new DAC was also playing "Tam Lin" with a little more openness and musical nuance. And from the first notes—drum beats, actually—it was no less apparent that the original DragonFly had more fullness and weight in the bottom end.

Footnote 1: It is extremely unlikely that Apple will ever license to an outside firm the manufacture of an adapter for use with a Lightning bus, which is proprietary.

Footnote 2: AudioQuest's Steve Silberman suggests that one can hasten the warming-up of brand-new DragonFlys by plugging them into unused USB sockets prior to use.

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dbtom2's picture

I've had this iMac for three years and until I read this article I didn't know there were USB jacks on either side of the keyboard. Thanks for that.

dalethorn's picture

If I remember correctly, they advise against using any but the main USB jacks for the DragonFlys.

low2midhifi's picture

I thought about the Dragonfly, seriously.

Then my local dealer had a rock-solid alternative: the Arcam r-Pac. The r-Pac is marginally less "portable" than this product. It is a full headphone amp/DAC offering performance of headphone amps costing many times more.

The r-Pac is a true piece of gear, made with the trappings of Arcam's higher-up-the-food-chain DACs of high repute. I hope that Stereophile will review the r-Pac in the coming days. It even has a Brown-Burr processor.

You can't use the r-Pac on-the-go, though just about any portable DAC would be a tough-sell to use in a less-than-stationary listening environment. It does square the circle on two key dimensions: 1. it is USB-powered; 2. it is a solid piece of gear with a top-rate processor; it might even double as a full home-system DAC while doubling for headphone use during the week at work.

dalethorn's picture

I know people who do like the r-Pac a lot. For me, the amp makes the biggest difference, as this review alluded to. The DACs not so much. So it would be good for someone to compare the Red to the r-Pac, on headphones.

mtymous1's picture

Dudley wrote:

"To use either new DragonFly with current-spec Apple iOS hardware requires the purchase, from Apple or an authorized Apple supplier (footnote 1), of a $29 accessory: a Lightning-to-USB-camera adapter."

So when AAPL announces removal of the 3.5mm jack next week, I do think the Lightning phone + camera adapter + Dragonfly approach will be a nifty solution for those unwilling to give up their favorite cans. Just remember to carry all of them with you!