Sunday, March 23, 2014

AudioQuest DragonFly DAC 1.0 – USB Digital Analog Converter Review


I spend hours every day listening to music through headphones -- I write at least one album review each week, and it is also nice to have music going as I write for my blog and my day job. I never realized how lame the sound from my laptop was until I discovered the world of headphone amplifiers. Then my boss gave me an AudioQuest DragonFly Digital Analog Converter, and my world was expanded even further.

You see, your laptop is not optimized for audio playback. The managers and engineers in the computer companies’ product cheapening departments have to cut as many corners as possible to make their wares competitive in the marketplace, and the audio output suffers considerably. If you are watching cat videos on Youtube this is not much of an issue, but if you really love music and want it to sound as good as possible, upgrading this output is not too big of a deal and it does not have to cost an arm and a leg. I say this because in the audiophile world it is possible to spend $10,000+ on a digital analog converter, but it is possible to get the job done (and well enough) for under $200.

This is where the DragonFly DAC comes into play – simply plug it in and bypass the cheap-o sound card that the child laborer installed at your favorite third world computer factory. This unit is the size of a normal flash drive with a USB connector on one end, a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) headphone jack on the other end, and a cool dragonfly logo that lights up (more on this later). It has a rubberized coating and comes with a leatherette sleeve to help protect it in your backpack or laptop bag (I keep mine in my headphone case). It is a little thicker than some thumb drives, so you might want to invest in the AudioQuest Dragontail extension cable ($17) if your USB ports are recessed into the case of your computer.

It is astounding that this thing is made in the U.S., and even more amazing is the number of high-quality components they were able to cram into its tiny footprint. It actually has a metal case under that rubberized coating, and there are 107 parts in there including its heart and soul, the 24-bit/96kHz ESS Sabre digital-to-analog conversion chip. This chip is also found in quality CD and Blu-Ray players.

There is a lot going on inside this small package, the first of which is its asynchronous clock function. There has to be a clock so that digital music is played back with the proper timing, and there is a clock in your computer that is usually tapped into for this function. But your machine is so busy doing other operations in the background (virus checks, auto-saving files, viewing porn), that the clock will be off inducing errors into audio playback, such as harshness and a lack of clarity. The Dragonfly has its own dedicated clock (two of them, actually) so timing errors are minimized, which improves the detail of what your are listening to, as well as making the sound stage larger.

Another important feature of the Dragonfly is its 60-position analog volume control, which is unheard of on DACs at this price point. A digital volume control will reduce signal resolution and degrade sound quality. Of course it still has to be controlled digitally with the computer, and make sure you read the instructions to set this thing up properly. Pretty much it is best to max out the volume control on the app or program you are using to play the music, and use the master volume control on the computer to set the level. Again, it is a good idea to read the book…

This unit also functions as a headphone amp, and it will work with most any headphone that has more than 12 ohms of resistance. I borrowed my friend’s high-zoot Sennheisers with 300 ohms of resistance, and the DragonFly had the oomph to push them.

Before I forget, DragonFly can be set to a line level output so it operates only as a DAC, so you can control volume with other audio components down the signal chain. I have used this mode to run the audio output directly into my mixing board for DJ gigs.

The AudioQuest DragonFly will work with almost anything. It is compatible with PCs running Windows XP, 7 and 8, as well as Mac OS X Mavericks, Mountain Lion, Lion and Snow Leopard. It can accept every file format I threw at it, including MP3, CD-standard 16-bit/44kHz and native 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution, regardless of music file format. A cool feature is that the logo will light up in different colors based on the resolution of the incoming audio signal. And lastly, it works with every audio file program I tried, but for this review I am sticking with iTunes, because it is common, and is what I use most often.

Blah blah blah. So how does it work?

DragonFly installation was easy as pie. I plugged it into the USB port and attached my headphones, and set up the volume and sound controls as shown in the instructions. In less than two minutes and I was ready to go.

I launched iTunes on my Windows 8 laptop and tried every set of Sennheiser headphones I have, including HD 201, HD 228, HD 229, HD 380, and HD 600 as well as my Ultimate Ear in-ear monitors. Immediately it was obvious that the DragonFly provided a warmer tone that the original sound card could not achieve.

This was with a wide assortment of music, including Larry Coryell, Buddy Guy, Bryan Ferry, Ray Price, King Crimson and the Boston Pops. I was impressed with the organic tone that had a noticeable improvement in separation and clarity – it a very natural listening experience. There was no unusual compression and the silence between phrases had a natural decay with no abrupt cut-offs. This is one of my big gripes with digital playback. Bass and mid-range performance were exceptional

As I said earlier, I also set the DragonFly for line-out and ran it through my mixing board and QSC powered speakers. The increased detail and clarity made a huge difference with 6000 watts behind it, which made the sound of the middle school dance incredible, even if the organizer’s choice of music was lame beyond belief.

All in all, I thing the DragonFly is a winner. It woke up the sound from my laptop in ways that I could not expect, and the experience reminded me of the first time I ran my music through a dedicated headphone amplifier. True audiophiles will sniff at this because it is based in the digital world, it does not cost enough money and it does not have enough knobs. But I am the target audience for this product, and it hits the mark perfectly.

Of course, all of this goodness does not come super-cheap, but at $150 the AudioQuest Dragonfly DAC is worth every penny (and it comes with a one-year warranty). By the way, this is the price of version 1.2, which is supposed to sound even better than the version 1.0 that I have. If you spend very much time listening to music on your computer, and if you want it to sound as good as it possibly can, you need to pick one of these up.



  1. That thing sounds like a godsend, and I had not heard of it until now. Thanks, Rex!