February 12, 2013
| by Robert Archer
AudioQuest was among the companies that took an early leadership position in the exploding digital audio market, and recently broadened its scope by launching the compact and affordable DragonFly DAC, which essentially brings the performance qualities of higher-end DACs to a mainstream consumer level.
The DragonFly DAC is about the size of a thumb drive and it features a USB connection on one end and a 3.5mm input on the other end. The top side displays a simple logo that also delivers visual feedback of the DAC’s sample rate status. When the indicator is illuminated green the DragonFly is running in 44kHz mode; blue indicates 48kHz; amber, 88.2kHz; and magenta, 96kHz mode.
AQ uses a 24-bit ESS Sabre chip and it is engineered to work with a variety of music files ranging from MP3s and CD-quality 16-bit/44kHz, to native 24-bit/96kHz files (it will play up to 24/192, downsampled). Like the benchmark Ayre QB-9 DAC, the DragonFly employs the asynchronous USB protocol that allows the DAC to take command of the data transfer functions that occur between a computer and DAC to eliminate digital timing errors. The DragonFly also uses two on-board clocks to help ensure efficiency playing a variety of native sample rates.
I set it up with an iMac running the Lion operating system. Plugging the DAC into one of my iMac’s USB ports I ran an AudioQuest Victoria RCA-to-3.5mm cable into the DragonFly’s 3.5mm output. I took a pair of female RCA adapters and extended the Victoria cable to AQ Diamondback RCA cables run to a pair of NHT SuperPower active speakers.
In my Mac’s Systems Preferences menu I selected the DragonFly as the audio output. Finishing up, in the MIDI sub-menu I selected the 96kHz sample rate option from a drop-down menu. The overall setup and installation shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes.
The first thing that I noticed about the DragonFly was the natural warmth it brought to whatever I was playing. Listening to Steve Morse’s cover of Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato” I liked the sense of space the DAC created within the lossless AIFF track’s image to allow the song’s drums, bass and guitar tracks to resonate with added liveliness. I found the system to reproduce upper bass/lower midrange with tons of impact.
The DragonFly also pulled up huge amounts of detail. While listing to some music I mixed in Garageband, on a particular guitar solo in one of the songs I thought the DragonFly fleshed out more inner detail than I could recall hearing previously. Plus it delivered more bite and clarity, even with the heavy amounts of delay and reverb I added.
Switching things up, I compared Pink’s “Who Knew” in AIFF and AAC. Through the resolution of the DragonFly I heard an increased smoothness of the AIFF file’s midrange, as well as its more palatable low-end transparency and fuller top end.
More important, though, was the DragonFly’s ability to make Apple’s lower-resolution AAC files sound more musical and compelling than when typically played through iTunes. Throw in that the DragonFly sets up within a few minutes and that it can also be used with headphones, and it adds up to a no-brainer, state-of-the-art digital audio solution.
AT A GLANCE
- Plays all music files: MP3 to 24-bit/192kHz
- Drives headphones directly
- Variable output drives powered speakers or power amp
- Fixed output feeds preamp or receiver
- Asynchronous transfer ensures digital timing integrity
- Two clocks enable perfect native resolution at 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz and 96kHz
- MSRP is $250
- Compact, great sounding, affordable
- Easy to set up
- Works with both Macs and PCs
- Limited setup options
- 3.5mm output may require connecting cable creativity
Related: More about DACs here.
Related: Meridian Explorer DAC Improves Digital Music Playback
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Bob is a dedicated audiophile who has been writing about A/V for Electronic House sister publication CE Pro since 2000.