AudioQuest DragonFly USB D/A converter Measurements

Sidebar 3: Measurements

I measured the AudioQuest DragonFly with Stereophile's loan sample of the top-of-the-line Audio Precision SYS2722 system (see and the January 2008 "As We See It"); for some tests, I also used my vintage Audio Precision System One Dual Domain. I received two samples of the DragonFly: one from initial production, the second following a running production change in which a slight modification was made in the operation of the digitally controlled analog volume control.

With the DragonFly connected to one of the USB ports of my MacBook Pro, the Mac USB Prober utility reported the DragonFly as being the "AudioQuest DragonFly" manufactured by "AudioQuest inc.," and listed its serial number as "(C) 2011 Wavelength Audio, ltd." The last refers to Gordon Rankin's proprietary Streamlength asynchronous operating code for the TAS1020B USB receiver chip, and USB Prober confirmed that the DAC HD does indeed operate in the preferable isochronous asynchronous mode, with 24-bit word length and data sampled at 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96kHz.

With the volume control set to its maximum with the MacBook's Control Panel, the maximum output level at 1kHz for both DragonFly samples was 1.86V, and their outputs preserved absolute polarity (ie, were non-inverting). The output impedance was very low, at 0.65 ohm including 6' of interconnect, and appropriate for driving headphones. Fig.1 shows the DragonFly's impulse response with 44.1kHz data. It indicates that the DragonFly uses a conventional linear-phase reconstruction filter. Fig.2 shows the frequency response with 44.1kHz (green and gray traces) and 96kHz (blue and red) data. The channels are superbly well matched, and the response is flat within the audioband with both sample rates. Channel separation (not shown) was good rather than great: 65dB in both directions across the audioband.

Fig.1 AudioQuest DragonFly, impulse response (4ms time window).

Fig.2 AudioQuest DragonFly, frequency response at –12dBFS into 100k ohms with data sampled at: 44.1kHz (left channel green, right gray), 96kHz (left blue, right red) (1dB/vertical div.).

To remain consistent with the measurements of DAC resolution I've performed since 1989, I used a swept-bandpass technique to generate the traces in fig.3. The DAC is presented with dithered data representing a 1kHz tone at –90dBFS with either 16-bit words (top pair of traces) or 24-bit words (bottom traces). The traces peak at exactly –90dBFS, suggesting very low linearity error, which was confirmed with a separate test (not shown). Repeating the spectral analysis with a modern FFT technique gave the traces in fig.4. In both graphs, the increase in bit depth drops the noise floor in the upper midrange and treble by 10dB or so, suggesting that the DragonFly's ESS Sabre D/A chip has between 17 and 18 bits' worth of resolution. Considering that the DragonFly is powered from the 5V USB bus, this is good performance, and the noise floor is low enough not to obscure the shape of an undithered 16-bit waveform at exactly –90.31dBFS (fig.5). With 24-bit undithered data (fig.6), the DragonFly gives a good if rather noisy representation of a sinewave.

Fig.3 AudioQuest DragonFly, 1/3-octave spectrum with noise and spuriae of dithered 1kHz tone at –90dBFS, with: 16-bit data (top), 24-bit data (bottom) (right channel dashed).

Fig.4 AudioQuest DragonFly, FFT-derived spectrum with noise and spuriae of dithered 1kHz tone at –90dBFS, with: 16-bit data (left channel cyan, right magenta), 24-bit data (left blue, right red).

Fig.5 AudioQuest DragonFly, waveform of undithered 1kHz sinewave at –90.31dBFS, 16-bit data (left channel blue, right red).

Fig.6 AudioQuest DragonFly, waveform of undithered 1kHz sinewave at –90.31dBFS, 24-bit data (left channel blue, right red).

There was some modulation of the DragonFly's noise floor with signal level. The cyan and magenta traces in fig.7 show the level of the low-frequency noise floor with a full-scale 1kHz signal; with 1kHz tones at –60dBFS (green and gray traces) and –90dBFS (left, blue, right, red), the noise floor drops by up to 15dB. The increase in noise with the 0dBFS signal is presumably due to mathematical limitations in the digital circuitry, but is not as extreme as I've seen with some other DACs.

Fig.7 AudioQuest DragonFly, spectrum of 1kHz sinewave, DC–1kHz, at: 0dBFS (left channel cyan, right magenta), –60dBFS (left green, right gray), –90dBFS (left blue, right red), into 100k ohms (24-bit data, linear frequency scale).

With the first sample of the DragonFly, a full-scale 24-bit signal actually clipped the bottom halves of the waveform with the computer's volume control set to its maximum, giving a THD+noise level of 3.8%. Backing off the control by one click (–0.17dB) reduced the THD to 2.14%, by a second click (–0.34dB) to 0.627%, and by a third click (–0.51dB) to 0.054%, below which the THD+N percentage plateaued. The second sample didn't clip with a 0dBFS signal at maximum volume, and the THD+N was 0.041% rather than 3.8%. According to Gordon Rankin, the volume control offers 64 steps of less than 1dB to –60dB and then mute (–100dB), but he used only 60 of those steps in the DragonFly, as the top four steps suffered from significant clipping into high impedances. "In retrospect," he wrote of the first sample, "I could have changed the maximum volume down a few more steps and then this would not have been an issue."

Basically, it looked as if the running change in production was to implement this suggestion of Rankin's, as the spectrum of the second DragonFly sample's output with a full-scale 1kHz signal at maximum volume was identical to that of the first sample's output set to –0.51dB (fig.8). The picket fence of low-level distortion harmonics in this graph indicates that the DAC is still on the verge of clipping—but with a 1kHz tone at –1dBFS, the higher harmonics have all dropped significantly in level, leaving the subjectively innocuous second harmonic the highest in level at a still-low –77dB (0.015%). (Ignore the presence of low-level AC supply-related tones in fig.9 compared with fig.8: for fig.9, I used my G4 Mac mini; for fig.8, my battery-powered laptop.) Even with the first sample, this lack of top-of-range linearity with the volume control at its maximum wouldn't be a problem with typical recordings, but something like the new Bonnie Raitt album, which peaks at 0dBFS pretty much all the time, might sound a little hard. The solution with the first sample would be to drop the level by three or more clicks, but with the second sample, this has been done for you. And, of course, if you're using the DragonFly as a headphone amplifier, where the volume control would not be used near the top of its range, this wouldn't be an issue with either sample.

Fig.8 AudioQuest DragonFly, sample 1 with volume control at –0.51dB: spectrum of 1kHz sinewave, DC–1kHz, at 0dBFS into 100k ohms (left channel blue, right red; linear frequency scale).

Fig.9 AudioQuest DragonFly, sample 2, volume control at maximum: spectrum of 1kHz sinewave, DC–1kHz, at –1dBFS into 100k ohms (left channel blue, right red; linear frequency scale).

The same issue raised its head in the high-frequency intermodulation test (fig.10). Even though the second sample was about to run out of dynamic range with the volume control set to its maximum, the 1kHz difference product still lay at an acceptably low –60dB (0.1%). This performance didn't appreciably worsen into low impedances, confirming the DragonFly's suitability for driving headphones.

Fig.10 AudioQuest DragonFly, sample 2, volume control at maximum: HF intermodulation spectrum, DC–30kHz, 19+20kHz at 0dBFS into 100k ohms (left channel blue, right red; linear frequency scale).

The AudioQuest DragonFly offered excellent rejection of word-clock jitter. Even with a 24-bit version of the standard J-Test data, no signal-related sidebands were visible (fig.11). However, there was some slight widening of the skirts of the central spike that represents the 11.025kHz tone compared with the Halide DAC HD (August 2012, fig.10). There are also two pairs of low-level sidebands visible, at ±713 and ±1426Hz, these harmonically related to one another but of unknown origin.

Fig.11 AudioQuest DragonFly, high-resolution jitter spectrum of analog output signal, 11.025kHz at –6dBFS, sampled at 44.1kHz with LSB toggled at 229Hz: 24-bit data via USB from MacBook (left channel blue, right red). Center frequency of trace, 11.025kHz; frequency range, ±3.5kHz.

Designing a bus-powered DAC is tricky because of the limited headroom available. But AudioQuest's DragonFly manages that trick very well, especially considering its affordable price. And I have to give a personal shout-out to AQ for the fact that their logo changes color depending on the sample rate, a feature that usefully confirms that you're sending data to the DragonFly at the correct rate.—John Atkinson

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manniesm's picture
Art Dudley's AudioQuest DragonFly USB D/A converter review

Dudley reviews a $249 DAC with a $1395 cable.  Makes sense to me!

Boomzilla's picture
AudioQuest Dragonfly USB D/A converter

Please note that the Dragonfly, being powered solely by the USB port of the computer, is VERY sensitive to the quality of the USB power being supplied.  I used my Dragonfly on a laptop with a completely dead battery.  While in use, the wall AC-charger had to be plugged in or the computer wouldn't even boot.  

The system sounded SO BAD with the Dragonfly, that I replaced speakers (twice) before noticing that the Dragonfly was the problem.  I probably could have solved the problem with an external USB "powered hub," but I sold the Dragonfly before thinking of that.

Bottom line is - For the Dragonfly to perform at its best, the computer MUST supply sufficient voltage and a sufficiently clean DC voltage via its USB port.  If not, then the Dragonfly sounds absolutely atrocious!  If you have ANY doubt about the quality of the power to your computer's USB ports, then buy a good quality powered USB hub and be prepared to be AMAZED at the sound quality difference!



hollowman's picture
$48.00 alternative from Malaysia

Stoner Acoustics, a bare-bones start-up from Malaysia, has a few very low cost DragonFly-like DACs that seem to use high-quality parts (such as ESS Sabre DAC, etc.). A decent review is on here:

Stoner Acoustics' web site is:

Some photos ...

And it seems to be Android friendly:

brightonrock's picture
Just had a demo of the

Just had a demo of the Audioquest Dragonfly v1.2 DAC with my favourite headphones, notice this cool looking point of sale featuring the Dragonfly too :-)

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