AudioQuest DragonFly USB D/A converter
"This product is an industry disrupter."
Thus spoke AudioQuest's Steve Silberman, VP of development, of their brand-new USB D/A converter, the DragonFly. "There are a lot of very good DACs out there," he continued. "There are even a lot of very good affordable DACs. But the problem is, people outside of audio don't want them: They don't want old-style components like that.
"I know a lot of people who have started and sold companies, who could have anything they want. People who love music. And they don't want what our industry makes. For so long, our industry has dictated to the customer: 'You want to play CDs? You need a CD player, and this is how it has to be.' Same thing with DVDs and lots of other things: The manufacturers and the retailers dictate to the customers. I wanted to make a really high-quality audio product that meets people on their own terms."
The product that Silberman and AudioQuest had in mind was an outboard D/A converter that would sell for the same price as an Apple iPod Classic: a mere $249. The AudioQuest DragonFly measures 2.5" long, weighs three-quarters of an ounce, streams up to 24 bits and 96kHz, and plugs directly into the user's laptop or desktop computer. And it's a heck of a thing.
Ideas in mind, Steve Silberman approached Gordon Rankin, the man who created what many of us regard as high-end audio's first USB D/A converter: the Wavelength Audio Crimson. The Crimson, which went on sale in 2004, wasn't Rankin's only computer-audio first. He also invented the first cross-platform asynchronous USB protocol, which allows the clock in an outboard DAC to override the clock in the datastream coming from the computerthe native frequencies of which are mathematically unrelated to audio sampling rates, to near-catastrophic effect in terms of timing errors, or jitter. Rankin has since licensed that code, given the trade name Streamlength, to a number of well-known manufacturers, and it now resides in the ROMs of many computer-audio components that have received glowing reviews in Stereophile.
The Streamlength software resides on the Texas Instruments TAS1020 controller board inside the DragonFly: one of three chips at the heart of the new converter. Rankin, who designed every aspect of the DragonFly except its connectors and cosmetics, says that AudioQuest expressed admiration for the Wavelength Proton D/A converter ($900; see my review in the October 2011 issue). Thus he began by basing a prototype on the Proton's Wolfson D/A chip. "I got it working," Rankin says, "but, for me, there was something lacking. I asked [AudioQuest] to let me do whatever I wanted, and so I ended up using the 24-bit ESS Sabre DAC." A Burr-Brown headphone amp/line amp, incorporating a 64-step analog volume control, completes the picture.
Rankin seems almost surprised at how well the finished DragonFly turned outbut he adds, with a laugh, "You don't know how much of a pain in the ass it was to get it that small! There are 107 parts inside, including five regulated power supplies." The scale of the thing's innards are typified, Rankin says, by the 1mm microdot LEDs that enable the dragonfly emblem on the DAC's zinc-alloy case to change color in accordance with the sampling rate of the file being played: green for 44.1kHz, blue for 48kHz, amber for 88.2kHz, and magneta for 96kHz. Yet for all that, the DragonFly is made in the USA.
Last but not least, the DragonFly's connectors are the sorts of things one might expect from a maker of perfectionist-quality cables: Its 3.5mm jack and USB plug feature silver-plated contacts. is machined from a compound of copper and beryllium (the latter said to add strength and elasticity), while the USB pins are copper. Both connectors undergo AudioQuest's direct-silver plating.
Installation and Setup
Installing the AudioQuest DragonFly, which is designed to work with the latest versions of Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X, took a little less than 15 minutes. Physical installation consisted simply of plugging the unit's integral USB plug into an available jack on the back of my Apple iMac and fitting the 3.5mm jack at the DragonFly's other end with an appropriate audio cable (about which I'll say more in a moment). Finishing the job was a simple matter of clicking on the Mac's Systems Preferences window (footnote 1), clicking the Sound icon, and then, under the Output tab, selecting "AudioQuest DragonFly," which appeared there as if by magic. (Under the Sound Effects tab I selected Internal Speakers, thus denying myself the pleasure of using a five-figure music system to alert me to every new kitten photo on Facebook.)
I mentioned the DragonFly's 3.5mm output jack, which might pose a challenge to The Unprepared. I still have a mini-plug-to-phono-jack adapter left over from my days as a Sony Walkman Pro owner, but I didn't press it into service. Rather, I accepted the loan, also from AudioQuest, of one of their new single-run Bridges & Falls interconnects. The interconnect cable I borrowed is a 5m run of AudioQuest Yosemite, with a 3.5mm plug of silver-plated "red" copper at one end, a pair of RCA plugs of the same composition at the other end, perfect-surface copper+ conductors, fluoropolymer air-tube dielectrics, and AudioQuest's 72V dielectric bias system: a sophisticated cable by anyone's definition. The retail value of this 5m Yosemite cablethe second-most-expensive in the Bridges & Falls lineis $1395. (I'm cheered by the existence, at the other end of the range, of the Evergreen single-run cable, which would sell for $53 for this configuration and length. I look forward to trying it.)
I've used a few different Mac-based music players in recent months, with still more on my to-do list. My reference remains Decibel v.1.0.2, by Stephen F. Booth Software, but rest assuredthere are more than just one or two very good players out there. If you're still using iTunes, you're not getting the performance of which your system is capable, plain and simple.
Footnote 1: My iMac runs OS X 10.6.8.