AudioQuest DragonFly Red & Black USB D/A headphone amplifiers Page 2

Another telling comparison between the old and new Blacks was when I listened to Nikolai Lugansky's recording of Chopin's Prelude 15 in D-flat (AIFF from CD, Erato 0927-42836-2). This recording sounded impressive through the original DragonFly. I enjoyed it well enough through the Black, which offered a clear window on Lugansky's crisp technique and brisk tempos, but the new DAC also sounded slightly bass-light—especially during the ominous portion in D-flat minor. I wondered if the leaner bass was a byproduct of the Black's lower level, and guessed that the old and new Black DACs might exhibit similar degrees of bass-range weight after I'd compensated with the volume control—but they didn't.

The impressions described above were repeated when I listened through the Black to "The Stranger Song," from Leonard Cohen's Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (AIFF from CD, Columbia/Legacy 57067). The impressions of even greater openness and clarity were apparent here, as well, and so was the absence of a slight exaggeration of vocal sibilance that I wasn't aware of until it was gone. There was also less overhang and boom in the bottom end of Cohen's nylon-string guitar through the new DragonFly than through the old; that lack of overhang lent greater clarity to the guitar's sound, yet at the same time the alternating-bass pattern of his three-finger picking style had less depth and body through the new 'Fly. Which was right? Impossible to say for sure: The bigger, fuller, somewhat whompier bass of the old DAC was fun at times, but overall I came to prefer the new DAC's superior musical incisiveness: clearer pitch relationships and more sharply drawn rhythmic nuances.

DragonFly Red as a line-level source
Auditioned through my Shindo preamp and amp, and the exceptional Auditorium 23 Hommage Cinema loudspeakers I've had in my system for the past few months (review to come in the November issue), the DragonFly Red sounded an awful lot like its less expensive stablemate: I wonder if I could reliably tell one from the other in a quick-and-dirty A/B comparison. Listening through speakers, it was far easier to tell the Red from the original DragonFly; as with the distinction between the old and new Blacks, the original had a richer and more resonant bottom end, lending—or perhaps merely allowing—more sustain and physicality to such things as Paul McCartney's bass-guitar lines in George Harrison's "Don't Bother Me," from With the Beatles (CD, Parlophone PM1206).

And here again was the sort of contrast described earlier: Especially because McCartney's sometimes unexpected note choices help make this otherwise ordinary song a bit more interesting, the original DragonFly's tendency to give that range of notes more prominence was not unpleasant; that said, the DragonFly Red's surer reproduction of pitches and timing won the day by providing, quite simply, more—and more accurate—musical information overall. (Of course, inasmuch as the Red also made it far clearer that at least one of the three guitars in "Don't Bother Me" is very slightly out of tune, that blessing was mixed.)

Back to comparing the DragonFly Red with the DragonFly Black: notwithstanding their sonic similarities, careful listening revealed some musical distinctions, all of which favored the Red—which offered still more musical nuance and, when the recording contained them, very slightly more drama and drive, audible in particular in dynamic peaks in recordings of good, boisterous vocal music. With "Won't You Come and Sing for Me," from Hot Rize's So Long of a Journey (AIFF from CD, Sugar Hill SUG CD 3943), the vocal harmonies were more focused, with individual lines easier to follow; more important, it was easier, through the Red, to hear and feel the enthusiasm with which each singer attacked his lines. That last quality was also more apparent when I listened through the DragonFly Red to "Run Paint Run Run," from Captain Beefheart's Doc at the Radar Station (AIFF from CD, Virgin 7871362): On that wonderfully chaotic number, the more expensive AudioQuest DAC proved its worth.

DragonFly Black as a headphone amp
I admit: Having begun my listening through speakers instead of headphones, I began to wonder if the less-bass-prominent tonal balance of the DragonFly Black had been chosen to complement AudioQuest's own NightHawk headphones. I've been listening to a borrowed pair of NightHawks for a number of months, and while I've enjoyed their organically explicit and altogether huge sound, there's no question in my mind that the NightHawks, introduced well after the original DragonFly, have a slightly-darker-than-neutral tonal balance.


The answer turned out to be no. Indeed, if anything, the new DAC sounded richer through the AudioQuest headphones—and through the much brighter Master & Dynamic ME05 earbuds—than through my system and speakers.

And here, the distinction between old and new was clearer and less ambiguous: Through headphones, the DragonFly Black was superior to the original DragonFly in every way. The soundstage was considerably larger. Images of singers and instrumental soloists had greater presence and produced a more convincing impression of flesh and blood. Music of all sorts exhibited better drive, pacing, momentum, and flow. Listening through speakers, I was at times unsure which Black I preferred; through headphones, there was no comparison—the Black kicked the old DAC's ass out the door.

Examples: With "The Partisan," from Leonard Cohen's Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, the Black made spellbinding a performance that, through the old DAC, had sounded merely interesting. The backing singers, in particular, popped from the mix better, and their singing—especially the French translations of the verses—were clearer and more intelligible, with more musical color.

The title song of Jeff Buckley's Grace (AIFF from CD, Columbia CK 57528) also sounded distinctly larger overall through the new Black than through the original DragonFly—and, again, counter to the way things stacked up through my hi-fi, the new Black gave more weight and power to electric bass and drums. Yet despite the richness, certain musical details—eg, the two brief phrases in the second verse where the strings play pizzicato—were easier to pick out through the Black.

DragonFly Red as a headphone amp
As with the Black, it was through headphones that I got the best measure of the similar-sounding but, ultimately, musically superior DragonFly Red. The more expensive Red nailed the differences in interpretation between Furtwängler's 1949 performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic, of Brahms's Symphony 3 (AIFF file of unknown origin), and the 1976 recording by Rudolf Kempe and the Munich Philharmonic (AIFF from CD, Arts Archives 43013-2). The latter is a fine performance by any measure—the playing is modern and precise, notes at the ends of phrases are somewhat clipped—yet tempos are flexible, the mood and tone undeniably romantic in temper. Then I played Furtwängler's, and was treated to the emotional mainline of conductor and orchestra playing as one, in accordance with a single, sensitive musical vision. The Berliners' playing wasn't as technically good as the Munich players'—the style was older, the violins relying overmuch on portamento—yet the Furtwängler recording was far more effective. The DragonFly Red made clear all of those distinctions, and while it wouldn't be true to say that the less expensive DragonFly Black didn't put them across at all, it did gloss over them.

Another example: In Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic's recording of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls (AIFF from CD, Nonesuch 79816-2), the first appearance of the word missing, toward the left side of my head, was emotionally devastating through the Red: It popped out and startled me—there are no discrete musical cues to prepare the listener for when it will occur. Also startling was the odd way in which the entrance of the choir and harp sounds suddenly "switched on." (In that regard, it reminds me of some of the effects in the Beatles' "Revolution 9," of which I remain unrepentantly fond.) You may have difficulty believing this, but none of the above was quite as effective through the DragonFly Black—a fine product that, in comparison to the DragonFly Red, sounded a bit mushy.

DragonFly Black and Red with iPhone
After the experiences described above, there were no more surprises: Having now abandoned both hi-fi system and computer in favor of my iPhone 6 Plus, I didn't expect to hear grand sound from either of the new DragonFlys—and I didn't.

The fact is, even after confirming that its equalization function—available by selecting Settings, then Music, then EQ—was disabled, music played from my iPhone, with or without an outboard DAC, seemed to conform to a hi-fi–like curve, with boosted and blurry bass and, to a lesser extent, boosted highs.

That's not to say that my iPhone was incapable of giving minimal musical enjoyment—or that the DragonFlys were incapable of wringing from the experience just a bit more information and involvement. But that's all it was: a bit.


Through the combination of iPhone 6 Plus and DragonFly Black, "Life Is a Carnival," from the Band's Cahoots (AIFF ripped from CD, Capitol 25391 2), had enough freedom from rhythmic distortion to be reasonably involving. Detail retrieval was okay, but there was a degree of murk between the notes and between the sounds of different instruments and voices, and the dynamic range wasn't terribly wide. In the same album's "Smoke Signal," the muted opening was, again, murky—Levon Helm's humming alongside Rick Danko's electric bass was barely audible—but, as the song progressed, the iPhone-DragonFly combo had just enough musical rightness and rhythmic propulsion to keep it entertaining.

But forget all that high-and-mighty high-end talk: When I eliminated the AudioQuest DAC altogether and plugged the eminently drivable NightHawk headphones straight into my iPhone, the murk was off the charts: Now there was no air between notes—just . . . stuff. It wasn't pretty.

Leaving the headphones plugged straight into my iPhone, I listened to "(Are You) The One that I've Been Waiting For," from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' The Boatman's Call (AIFF from CD, Mute/Reprise 46530). Every aspect of the sound—the drummer's hi-hat, the tremolo-rich organ, Cave's voice—was blunted and blurry, as if heard through wool. I put the AudioQuest DragonFly Black back in the loop and things sounded better, but not wildly so: There was a little more air, a little more clarity, a little more directness. Swapping out the Black for the DragonFly Red made no appreciable difference with that recording, but when I tried a better, more natural recording—the vocal group Voces Novae et Antiquae, under the direction of Robert A.M. Moss, performing Randall Thompson and Robert Frost's Frostiana (CD, Arkay AR6110)—I heard less grain and murk, especially with the more-treble-happy Master & Dynamic earphones in place of the AudioQuest headphones.

The first DragonFly was hailed as a breakthrough product, and rightly praised for its fine sound and its even more impressive value for the money. A little less than four years later, AudioQuest's latest contributions to the niche it invented earn even higher points for value—but, because they set out to do more, the sound qualities of these two new DragonFly DAC–headphone amps are somewhat more difficult to pin down.

Perhaps counterintuitively, for the consumer who intends to use a 'Fly more as a USB DAC for his or her playback system and less as a headphone amp, the $99 Black may be the easier choice: in such a setting, the advantages of the $199 Red are less apparent. On the other hand, serious headphone enthusiasts should go out of their way to try the DragonFly Red—a still-affordable product that combines superb sound with equally superb musicality. (In either case, and at this point in time, compatibility with a smartphone is best viewed as an enjoyable bonus, not a raison d'être.)

Both of AudioQuest's new DragonFlys offer high value and high sound quality—and I'm more than a little excited at the prospect of the upgradability of their software. Very strongly recommended.

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.

Anon2'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!

audiobill's picture

I was directed to this article by a link in an 5/12/17 article on this site written by Jason Victor Serinus entitled "Munich Milestones for MQA."
In reading your (this) article, I noticed on page two, a photo of what appears to be a DragonFly Black connected to an AudioQuest JitterBug, which is connected to the USB port of an unidentified notebook computer (decidedly not an iMac). I find no mention of the JitterBug or the notebook computer in the body of your review or in the listing of Associated Equipment. This photo is somewhat confusing to me. Couldn't you use the very good camera in your iPhone 6 Plus to take a photo of the actual iMac setup mentioned in the article?

temujin114's picture

why don't you quantify "musical nuances." FFS you guys are so full of dog $h!t.
are you guys owned by the fox news or what.

I also liked “Now there was no air between notes—just . . . stuff.” ROFL
WTH is that?
Also amusing were “more musical color, sounded a bit mushy, impression of flesh and blood, music exhibited more momentum (omfg lol), huge sound,..”
“high-and-mighty high-end talk”, you mean unadulterated BS.
You guys are some piece of work.