AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB D/A-headphone amplifier

Unlike the world of recorded music, where streaming has decimated sales of physical products, book publishing is seeing the reverse trend: sales of eBooks are declining while those of both hardback and paperback books are recovering. I have been a book junkie all my life—the two long walls of my listening room are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and I have many boxes of books in storage—but these days almost all my book reading is with the Kindle app on my iPad mini.

Before I retired at the end of March 2019, most of my eBook consumption took place on the subway as I commuted to and from Stereophile's Manhattan office. But these days I settle down to my reading in my listening chair, with my iPad both running the Kindle app and allowing me to control what I am listening to with the Roon app. Mostly the music plays on the big rig, but I also listen on headphones, driving them with the AudioQuest DragonFly Red USB DAC that Art Dudley reviewed in September 2016, plugged into the iPad mini.

So when AudioQuest's Stephen Mejias asked me a few months back if he could send me a review sample of the new DragonFly Cobalt, it took me less than a New York minute to say "Yes."

The Cobalt
. . . costs $299.95 compared with $199.95 for the DragonFly Red and $99.95 for the Black. What do you get for the extra coin?

All three DragonFlys feature Gordon Rankin's StreamLength asynchronous USB code, which allows the DAC chip to control the conversion timing of the samples fed via the USB bus, reducing word-clock jitter. However, the Cobalt replaces the Red's Microchip PIC32MX microcontroller with the new Microchip PIC32MX274, which is specified as increasing processing speed by 33% while drawing less current. While the Red's DAC chip is the ESS Sabre 9016, the Cobalt uses ESS's new ES9038Q2M DAC chip, which, like the earlier chip, incorporates a 64-step digital volume control. Like the DragonFly Red and Black, the Cobalt is limited to decoding data with a sample rate of 96kHz or lower. While the Cobalt's reconstruction filter is still a minimum-phase type, the ultrasonic roll-off is slower, which AudioQuest says results in a more natural sound.

The Cobalt's output amplifier is the same as that used in the Red, an ESS Sabre9601. This is a DC-coupled, unity-gain device and runs off a single positive voltage rail. (An integral charge pump provides the necessary negative voltage.) The Cobalt is also said to feature improved power-supply filtering, increasing the audio circuitry's immunity to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular noise.

Other than the color, the only external difference between the Cobalt and the Red is that the contoured enclosure is 10% smaller and doesn't have the earlier DAC's distinctive ridge above and behind the 3.5mm jack. As on the Red and Black, the DragonFly logo lights up in different colors to indicate status or sample rate: red for Standby mode; green for 44.1kHz data; blue for 48kHz; yellow for 88.2kHz (closer to lime green, I felt); light blue for 96kHz; and purple for MQA. AudioQuest warns that the DragonFly is an MQA renderer only and must be partnered with appropriate playback software—Roon, for example—to perform the first unfold with MQA files.

The Cobalt's price includes a DragonTail USB-A (female) to USB-C (male) adaptor, for use with devices that have a USB-C port, like the iPad Pro.

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Listening
For my initial listening sessions with the DragonFly Cobalt, I plugged it into one of the USB ports on my Roon Nucleus+ server. The Roon app recognized the Cobalt as an ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture) device, and I selected it as a playback zone and set it to render MQA files. I plugged a pair of AudioQuest NightHawk headphones into the DragonFly's output jack and started playing music.

First up was my go-to performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No.6, with Richard Egarr directing the Academy of Ancient Music (24/88.2 ALAC files, Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461.62). The Cobalt clearly revealed the elaborate interplay between the two lead violas in the Concerto's final movement without shining a spotlight on the sound. In fact, over the next few hours' listening, it was the unfatiguing nature of the DragonFly Cobalt's presentation that caught my attention—that is, if a lack of something, digital glare and edge in this case, can call attention to itself.

I next called up "Rivers of Light" from the Portland State Chamber Choir performing works by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds (24/88.2 Qobuz stream from The Doors of Heaven, Naxos 8.579008). The work starts with a solo soprano singing a simple phrase over an ostinato jaw harp and descending choral "oohs" and "aahs" while the Cobalt is specified as being able to deliver a maximum output of 2.1V, this is into high impedances. When the Cobalt is required to drive lower impedances, the volume control has to be backed off to avoid clipping the DAC's output amplifier. With the AudioQuest NightHawk until the full choir enters, singing of the glories of the aurora borealis. Again, the Cobalt and the NightHawks allowed me to hear deeply into the music without any unnatural emphasis. The warm reverb of Portland's St. Stephen's Catholic church, where I had made the recording, was presented around and behind the singers, though with the dark-sounding NightHawks, the reverb was overly warm.

COMPANY INFO
AudioQuest
2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 585-0111
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

Best thing to happen to smartphone music since smartphone music ......... AQ DragonFly :-) .........

Graham Luke's picture

Good comment.

invaderzim's picture

That is something that is often overlooked in comparing audio components. Small differences get much more noticeable over time.

John Atkinson's picture
invaderzim wrote:
That is something that is often overlooked in comparing audio components. Small differences get much more noticeable over time.

Jim Austin examines the relevance of long-term listening in his "As We See It" essay in the January 2020 issue.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

I've been gifting the Dragonflys since their introduction.

People love them, use them 100% of the time, look for them if they get misplaced and keep thanking me for them.

I've also given WristWatches from Long Island Watch. ( which tend to be nice but forgotten )

The cute little Dragonfly is what people mention to me.

The people, I gift, are not Audiophiles but won't listen without the Dragonfly plugged in. It significantly improves Sound Quality and always leads to "better" headphones. ( our people are buying and showing new headphones, constantly, it's exciting )

Overall, I'd say and think that these Dragonflys are probably "Gateway" devices to Audiophile "leanings", it presents music as a beautiful & accessable life component. In one case the Device led my recipient to purchase a record player. ( unintended consequences , oh dear ! )

Now, I "have-to" use the blue one ( instead of the dreaded RED one ) for nonsense political reasons.

And...

The Blue one is pricier to gift, darn it. ( I could just give the Black one which would be even better politically, if they still offer it )

Tony in Venice

ps. this thing has to be a respectable Audiophile device if the Editor of the World's most Authoritative Audiophile Journal owns one. Isn't JA1 the highest Authority that we Audiophiles had ? ( jus say'n ) Of course JA2 is equally brilliant and is also brave enough to take sides with MQA and the lovely Devialet stuff.

ps.2) Audioquest probably SHOULD gift every Dragonfly purchaser with a ONE Year Subscription to Stereophile, they'd be doing themselves and everyone else a HUGE favor!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

JA1 is Apollo and JA2 is Orpheus :-) .......

JRT's picture

I bought a couple of the original Audioquest Dragonfly units before any of the colored models were released. Performance is adequate for casual background listening, and I like the small form factor for some applications, but also that small form forces some compromise in some other applications (adapting mini-plug connectivity, lack of balanced output, lack of external volume knob, etc.).

For non-portable applications, look at the SMSL-500, $399 on Amazon.

https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/smsl-m500-dac-and-hp-amp-review.9606/

SMSL-500 can sit on a table next to the listening chair, can drive most headphones, has external volume knob, and includes balanced output on the rear which can drive longish interconnects to amplifiers located adjacent to the loudspeakers.

For balanced XLR interconnects, look at Monoprice's Stage Right starquad microphone cable, XLR-M to XLR-F, gold plated contacts, 24AWG, 10ft, black, available in wide variety of lengths from 1.5_ft to 100_ft. The 50_ft length is priced under $20/cable, with two cables needed for stereo pair. Microphone cable works well for balanced interconnections, but tends to be more flexible, smaller in diameter, yet also more durably rugged in construction.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

For non portable applications, one could also consider ......... the new, iFi Audio Zen DAC/headphone amp $130 :-) .........

Brown Sound's picture

I have been eyeing the new iFi Zen as an upgrade for my original iFi iDSD Nano, which has been dutifully performing my desktop tasks. Can you review that one JA1? Great review, sir!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you want both SS and tube flavors, you can check-out iFi Audio Pro iDSD desk-top DAC/headphone amp ($2,499) reviewed by Stereophile :-) .........

jimtavegia's picture

Focusrite Scarlette 2i2 and the Steinberg UR22 USB 24192 interfaces. At about $150 each I would like to see how they compare as they are both I/O devices with built in Mic Preamps. I love mine even just for listening to computer audio. You can even use them for line level inputs.

Brown Sound's picture

I do have an original DragonFly v1.0 in my laptop bag, if I ever need a better listening experience on the go, which has been a rarity lately. As cool as the Cobalt seems, after getting burned for the initial $250 of the original, I'll wait for the price to come down, when the DragonFly Mauve is introduced. Great review, JA1!

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