AudioQuest DragonFly

I’ve been having way too much fun with the AudioQuest DragonFly—so much fun that it’s taken me all year to write the damn review.  This nifty little device has quickly become a must-have travel accessory.  And although I’m perhaps not as sexy as George Clooney, I am on an airplane these days almost as much as his character in Up in the Air—but fortunately I never have to fire any of the people I’m visiting.

Here’s how it usually goes:  The minute we hit 10,000 feet and the pilot signals that personal electronics can now be used, I pull out the DragonFly and whatever phones I’ve brought along for the ride.  Before I can even get the cans on my head, the passenger in the seat next to mine asks, “What is that? I’ve never seen one of those. Is it expensive?”  And I’ve had just as many female as male passengers inquire.  On the flight home from the Munich High End show, I just happened to be sitting next to an audio nerd who was terribly impressed.  “How did you get one of those?” he asked.  It turns out that he was a loyal TONEAudio reader, which always makes for great conversation.

After a quick listen, everyone comes away convinced that they need a DragonFly—even Bose noise-cancelling headphones users, and that’s saying a lot.

What Makes It So Awesome?

We could go on and on about all the techie bits that make the DragonFly so special—like its 24-bit/96-kHz Sabre DAC, on-board headphone amplifier and built-in digital volume control—but that would be kind of boring.  (For those wanting such techie bits, read Art Dudley’s excellent review in the October issue of Stereophile.)

Beyond its technical achievements, the DragonFly succeeds on many levels.  It sounds way better than its $249 price tag suggests, but the real triumph of the DragonFly is that it’s accessible.  You don’t have to be a mega-nerdtron to understand it (or use it, for that matter), but if you are a true audio enthusiast, you’ll immediately grasp its gestalt.  Among the 100-plus parts inside this tiny music machine, which is barely bigger than a USB jump drive, are Sabre ESS DAC chips, a pair of clocks and a 60-step digital volume control.  The USB connector even uses the same silver coating as AQ’s premium USB audio cables.

But you’ll forget all of that the minute you plug it in.  I’ve used a couple of excellent portable DAC/headphone amplifiers, but none of them are conducive to traveling light.  The DragonFly requires no power adaptor, cables or accessories; just plug it right into your laptop’s USB port, direct your computer to use it as the sound output and you’re rolling.  It works equally well with Mac or Windows operating systems.

My review of the DragonFly begins with my current traveling companions, the Sennheiser PXC 450 noise-cancelling headphones.  Starting with Bombay Dub Orchestras’ 3 Cities, in straight 16-bit/44.1-kHz mode via iTunes, there is a major jump in sound quality that instantly eliminates some of the fog that always accompanies noise-cancelling phones.  With the already spacey vibe of this album, the presentation is definitely more hallucinogenic via the DragonFly.  Driving guitars, courtesy of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, quickly nudges me back into audiophile mode, as I listen to the big improvements the DragonFly makes to Apple Lossless files through noise-cancelling headphones.  The cymbals in “Fairies Wear Boots” have a smooth, natural timbre through the DragonFly that make me want to goose the volume up a bit higher than might be prudent—so be careful:  The lack of graininess and distortion catches you off guard at first.

Flying always makes me impatient, so I often bounce back and forth between music, movies and Angry Birds, but thanks to the DragonFly’s virtual elimination of listener fatigue, I’m listening to complete albums—something I rarely do on a plane.  I save the playlist from this trip so I can compare tracks when back in the office with a full compliment of other headphones.

Better Phones, Better Results

With the impressive performance that the PXC 450s turned in, I’m not prepared for what the DragonFly is capable of with my cache of over-ear headphones.  Should I start at the bottom and work up, or the other way around?  Decisions, decisions.  Patience gets the best of me and I jump right in with the Audeze LCD-2 planar phones and upgraded Cardas Clear headphone cable.

Yeow, this is incredible!  Even with 16-bit/44.1-kHz files, it’s like strapping a pair of Magnepan 1.7s onto my head, with a First Watt amplifier on my back—which would not be convenient or fashionable.  School Food Punishment’s Air Feel, Color Swim gives the LCD-2s a great workout, with layer upon layer of well-sorted vocals and synthesizers.  Switching back to the headphone jack on the MacBook Pro is now unacceptable—the additional resolution provided by the bigger phones is too much fun to be without.

There’s more texture and decay everywhere.  The bongos at the beginning of William Shatner’s rendition of “Space Truckin,” from Seeking Major Tom, now feels like it’s being played through a great pair of loudspeakers, and I find myself forgetting that I even have headphones on.

High-Resolution Files: The Final Frontier

Upping the ante to recently downloaded files from HDtracks shows just how much the DragonFly is capable of.  The latest version of Pure Music software is a night-and-day upgrade from the standard CD-quality files I have on hand of Herbie Hancock’s classic album, Head Hunters.  The beginning of “Watermelon Man” now has air on the acoustic instruments that wasn’t there before, and the bass line now has plenty of it’s own space and texture.  Those not convinced of the validity of higher-resolution digital files need not purchase a five-figure digital rig; the DragonFly and a great pair of headphones will make you an instant believer.

As my next-door neighbor, who knows nothing about audio, shouted while listening to the 24-bit/96-kHz version of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, “I like this a lot better!” (Funny how people shout when wearing headphones, isn’t it?)

Having auditioned a wide range of great DACs in the $1,000 range, I can tell you that the DragonFly easily competes.  It has a decidedly “un-digital” sound, with an ease that should appeal to even the most hardcore analog lovers.  At the risk of offending the analog loyalists, I will say that if I were putting together a system on a modest budget, I’d much rather listen to even Red Book CD files through the DragonFly than cobble together a $249 analog solution and play gnarly records found in the budget bins.

Eliminating the casework and power supply from the parts count (and no doubt some profit margin) goes a long way at getting the price down.  Bravo to AQ for delivering this product for such a down-to-Earth price.

Anchor Your Audio System

If the DragonFly were only a headphone amp, it would be a major bargain at $249, but it’s equally exciting used just as a DAC.  Mated to the Sansui receiver and JBL speakers (covered on page 77), and an earlier-generation Mac mini purchased on eBay for about $100 bucks, I managed to create an amazingly musical system for just under $1,000 total.  In this case, the fixed analog output of the DragonFly works well, taking the digital volume control out of the equation.

Picking out the ethereal Fairlight sounds on the Tubes’ Completion Backwards Principle is an exercise in trippiness.  Things were floating all around the imaginary soundstage in my head.  Not able to stop there, Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land dragged me further into the world inside my head—one that is typically only provided by listening to headphones.

Moving further upscale, to the system in room two, which is now configured with a Conrad-Johnson PV-12 preamplifier, Krell KSA-50 power amplifier and a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers, the DragonFly still cuts the mustard.  On a recent visit to the KEF factory in the UK, I had the pleasure of experiencing the DragonFly in KEF’s reference system with a pair of its flagship Blade speakers ($30,000/pair). Impressive!

No Longer Outside Looking In

There’s no better gateway drug for the world of high-quality sound reproduction than the AudioQuest DragonFly:  Just add the laptop and the headphones you already own and prepare to be blown away.  Or plug it into your current hi-fi system and use it as a high-resolution DAC—it’s all good.

If you spend as much time on a plane as George Clooney and I do, or if you are just an avid headphone listener, you need a DragonFly.  If you aren’t an avid headphone listener, I’ll bet you quickly become one with the DragonFly on hand.  And playing Angry Birds has never been more fun.  Bahooonga!

I am very happy to announce that the DragonFly is our Product of the Year in the digital category.    -Jeff Dorgay

The AudioQuest DragonFly

MSRP: $249