AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2
I did all of the headphone comparisons in the March 2014 issue of Stereophile sitting at my desk, staring at my laptop, and using the latest version of AudioQuest's popular DragonFly USB DACheadphone amplifier. Aside from some small, tidy certification markings on its backside, the DragonFly v1.2 is identical in size, shape, and functionality to the original modeland, at $149, costs $100 less. Like the original, the v1.2 handles file resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz, making the device virtually plug-and-play for both PC and Mac users; no additional drivers are required, but you might have to change a few settings in your computer's control panelthe DragonFly's "flight manual" will guide you through the process.
The new DragonFly still has a USB jack at one end, a 3.5mm jack at the other, and a top-panel dragonfly emblem that changes color in accordance with the sample rate of the file being played: green for 44.1kHz, blue for 48kHz, amber for 88.2kHz, and magenta for 96kHz. It still uses Gordon Rankin's Streamlength asynchronous USB protocol and it's still made in the USA. The differencesall improvements, as far as I'm concernedare found inside, and include a revised power supply and a simplified, more direct signal path between the DAC and headphone module.
The sonic differences between the original and v1.2 DragonFlys were almost as obvious as those between the Sennheiser Momentum and B&W P3 on-ear headphones. Where the original DragonFly excelled in clarity and detail, v1.2 added a richer, more colorful midrange, improved spatial abilities, and a greater sense of ease. Through the DragonFly v1.2, "Sleeping Is the Only Love" sounded thrilling and beautiful, with an awesome amount of space around the drum kit, a solidly focused center image, and overall clarity and tonal accuracy that made following guitar riffs and subtleties of drumwork a total pleasure. Best of all, though, was the v1.2's way with David Berman's simple, familiar voice: Singing "I'd crawl over 50 yards of burning coals just to make it with you," he sounded drunk and restless with desperation and lovejust as he should. I believed every word of it.
By comparison, the older model offered a brighter, edgier overall sound. Individual voices and instruments were slightly less well defined and not as precisely located on the soundstage. And, most significant, rhythm, pacing, and overall control suffered: Snare-drum strokes now evaporated too quickly, ride cymbals splashed where they shouldn't, and the drums seemed altogether a bit ahead of the music. It was as if the band were just a little anxious to get off the stage, whereas before they were content to groove and sway. The new DragonFly added the color, texture, body, and soul that the older model missed. And when a drumhead was struck or a guitar string plucked, I got the sense that the v1.2 held on to the event just a little longer, offering just a bit more traction and grip, before moving on to the next moment of music. Cool stuff.
In the world of high-end audio, we usually have to spend more to get moremore resolution, more beauty, more music. But in the case of AudioQuest's DragonFly, improvements have come for $100 less. How is this possible?
Joe Harley, AQ's SVP of marketing and product development, explained: "Many of the biggest costs associated with getting DragonFly off the ground were initial onetime costs such as tooling and the like. Once DragonFly truly took off, we were able to amortize these costs to a great extent. We could have kept the price the same, but we decided to take a calculated risk and find out if still lower pricing resulted in greater sales. Early indications are that it does."
Since AQ's launch of the original DragonFly, many other manufacturers have introduced their own portable USB DACheadphone amplifiers: the Meridian Explorer ($299), the iFi iDAC ($299), the Audioengine D3 ($189), the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS ($189). LH Labs plans to release the Geek Out ($199; pre-order), and more are on the way. I'm writing these words just days before the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, which is where the Geek Out, and possibly a dozen other similar designs, will be formally introduced.
What's up with all these new USB DACheadphone amps? High-end audio manufacturers believe they can sell them. They've discovered a market. More people are listening to their music through headphones and laptops, and those people, just like longtime audiophiles, want their music to sound as good as possible. They may not be concerned with absolute fidelitythey don't yet know the difference between an MP3 and a WAV file, and they haven't yet heard of DSDbut they nevertheless want a high-quality listening experience. They're spending a couple hundred dollars on their headphones, and if it makes their music-listening lives better, they'll be open to the idea of spending another couple hundred on a decent DACheadphone amp. And just as those people are buying more than a single set of headphones, they may very well buy more than just one DACheadphone amp.
Why not have a DragonFly and an Explorer? These little DACs are a lot of fun, and their friendly prices make possible a bit of variety.
AudioQuest realizes this. Although the DragonFly v1.2 is still relatively new, the company is already deep into the development of their next generation of DACs. Will those models be even more affordable? Or more powerful? I'm betting on both.Stephen Mejias