AudioQuest DragonFly Red & DragonFly Black Review
Four years ago I crowned the original AudioQuest DragonFly 1.0 Computer Audiophile's Product of the Year for 2012. The original $250 "Fly" beat out the $15,500 EMM Labs DAC2X for this honor. In the years since the DragonFly's introduction, countless clones, copies, and derivative designs hit the market. But, AudioQuest clearly invented this category of products and it's the original DragonFly to which all similar products have been compared. While other companies were figuring out how to build a better DragonFly through endless money raising campaigns and support for the highest sample rates known to man, AudioQuest was hard at work reinventing the Fly. AudioQuest had already identified a drawback to its original DragonFly design, but the technology to resolve the issue simply didn't exist. What does a smart company do when the technology it needs doesn't exist? The company creates what it needs and beats the competition to market while the competition is doubling down on outdated designs. Using new technology AudioQuest improved and expanded the DragonFly family. The new products deserved so much more than a simple numerical model number increase, that AudioQuest named them the DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red. Due to AudioQuest's solid industry vision and the removal of the iPhone 7 3.5mm headphone jack, the new DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red are positioned perfectly to fill a giant void for high end devices facilitating better quality mobile playback. If history is the best predictor of the future, I have no doubt we'll see an endless supply of cheap and expensive copycats attempting to quickly recreate what AudioQuest has developed over the last several years. However, as the saying goes (and if you're anything like me), why get an imitation when you can have the original?[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
Pictured above from left to right: A well-worn DragonFly v1.0, DragonFly v1.2, DragonFly Black, DragonFly Red.
The DragonFly products, past and present, are many things to many people. Whether a main system DAC with the volume set to maximum for connection to a preamp, or a portable DAC / headphone amplifier for use in a laptop on the go or desktop at work, the DragonFly is an all-around blue-chip product. The new Black and Red units only serve to improve upon the original and improve our enjoyment of the greatest music in the world. However one uses the DragonFly is 100% cool from my standpoint. In this review I'm going to focus on how I use the DragonFly, as a mobile sonic powerhouse for my iOS devices. I think this is such an important angle about which to educate the CA community, that it's worth concentrating the entire review on use of the Black and Red in this fashion. Plus, I'm positive that plenty of other sites and magazines have reviewed the DragonFly Black and Red units in a more traditional setting connected to main systems or laptops. If readers want to elevate their mobile listening experiences now or in the future, I highly recommend continuing with this review.
How I Listen On The Go
Over the years, I've gone from using dedicated audio players, such as those from Astell & Kern, to using my iPhone exclusively for mobile listening. I no longer want to carry a second large device with limited storage and connectivity, when I can access 30 million lossless Tidal tracks from my iPhone with or without a WiFi connection. Being grandfathered into the unlimited AT&T LTE data plan enables me to keep up my habit of streaming over 10 gigabytes of Tidal music per month without additional charges. I know this sounds sacrilegious to some audiophiles, but I still consider myself to be as hardcore as anyone when it comes to my desire for the best music and the best sound quality. Thus, when the new DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red were released, a whole new level of quality playback was brought to my listening life. I started connecting the new units to my iPhone 6 Plus for listening while traveling by planes, trains, and automobiles.
Connecting a new DragonFly to an iOS device requires either the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter ($29) or Apple Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter ($39). There is a major difference between these two adapters and it has nothing to do with USB 3 support. The standard lightning to USB adapter is smaller and has a single USB port for connection to the DragonFly Black or Red. The lightning to USB 3 adapter features a single USB port plus a lightning power port. The power port figuratively changed my life. This enables the user to connect the lightning (male) end to the iOS device, the DragonFly Black or Red to the USB port, and a power cable to the added lightning (female) port (that's not available on the standard adapter). This is incredibly nice when flying on an airplane or driving in one's car for extended periods of time. For example, I recently flew to Sardinia, Italy, for a McIntosh Group event and I was able to power my iPhone the entire twelve hours, via onboard USB outlets in the headrests, while listening through the DragonFly Black and Red. I am so dependent on my iPhone for information that I can't travel without it having enough power when I arrive at my destination. The Apple lightning to USB 3 adapter is the best $39 I've spent in HiFi in a long time. I also use this same adapter for playback in my car with the DragonFly / iPhone combination. My car has an analog input that enables me to send analog audio from the DragonFly to the head unit. I realize that my car performs analog to digital conversion for DSP upon receiving the analog signal, but I have to get the analog signal out of my iPhone anyway and I prefer to do that the best way possible. I then run a lightning cable from one of my car's power ports (cigarette lighter for those of you still hanging on to the past) to the input of the adapter. This powers my iPhone the entire road trip.
DragonFly Black And DragonFly Red
It's important to understand the why and the how of the new DragonFly Black and Red features that make the units such an improvement over the previous generations. Several years ago when the original DragonFly was developed, AudioQuest and designer Gordon Rankin (the godfather of USB audio) selected the TAS1020B USB controller for versions 1.0 and 1.2. This controller was released in 2002 when low power consumption of such chips wasn't on the list of priorities. However, it was the best option for the DragonFly at the time. The large power consumption of this controller caused iOS devices to immediately disable the device and popup an error message about the unit using too much power. AudioQuest was aware of this design drawback, but a better option didn't exist at the time (don't even think about low power and XMOS solutions in the same sentence). Knowing that mobile device audio playback would greatly increase, AudioQuest and Gordon Rankin set out to create a low-power-consumption USB controller chip. They entered a working relationship with the Microchip company and began working on what would become the Microchip PIC32MX. After years of work and fine tuning by the parties involved, the new Microchip controller measures 77% less power consumption than the TAS1020B and 95% less than the most efficient XMOS solution. Not only that, but the 32-bit PIC32MX is software upgradable (by the end user) and features an ultra-low-noise power supply, minimizing the audible effects of high-frequency interference.
The new USB controller chip is the single biggest improvement of the new DragonFly Black and Red, but the additional smaller improvements add up to an equal or better effect, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. These other improvements are also where the differences between the Black and Red appear.
The DragonFly Black features the same soft-touch finish as the original version 1.0 and 1.2 units and supports PCM audio up through 24 bit / 96 kHz like the originals. The Black features 1.2 volts of direct-coupled output. This output should drive most low- and medium-efficiency headphones. I used Grado RS-1, JH Audio JH13, Audeze LCD-XC, and the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones with the DragonFly Black and had no problems powering each model. The DAC chip in the Black is the 32-bit ESS 9010 with minimum phase filtering. Another major difference between the Black and Red, is that the Black features an analog volume control. This analog volume control is controlled digitally by the host computer or iOS / Android device. An analog volume control can be nice when listening at very low volume levels. Where a digital volume control can reduce resolution by chopping off bits of the audio signal to reduce volume, an analog control has no such limitation. Fortunately, for some devices with digital volume controls there are engineering methods to deal with this issue, and the DragonFly Red is such as device.
The DragonFly Red features a 64-bit "bit-perfect" digital volume control. This volume control is inside an ESS 9016 DAC chip. This chip, like the 9010 in the DF Black, has a sophisticated minimum phase digital filter. The DF Red offers a much higher output than the Black, at 2.1 volts. This high-level direct-coupled output is capable of driving nearly any headphone on the market. I used my 300-ohm Senhheiser HD600 headphones with the DF Red. I had no trouble driving these headphones to very high levels and I loved the sound. Like the Black, the Red supports PCM audio up through 24 bit / 96 kHz. Readers who desire a nice-looking and nice-feeling product will love the DragonFly Red's glossy automotive finish with gold lettering. This thing just oozes quality.
Both DragonFly Black and Red use Streamlength ® asynchronous USB code developed by Gordon Rankin and licensed by many high-end audio manufacturers for some of the best USB audio devices in the industry.
DragonFly Black Or DragonFly Red?
Both DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red are great improvements over the original DragonFly 1.0 and 1.2. The improvement over the iPhone analog headphone output is something I expected, but not something I thought would be as substantial as I experienced. It's commonly thought in many circles that the iPhone features a really good analog output. I guess I thought it was pretty good, before I compared it to the DragonFly Black and Red in head-to-head listening sessions. Readers should also note that the DragonFly requires some time to warm up and for the oscillator to stabilize before a head-to-head comparison will provide the best and most accurate results.
Friday August 5th, 2016, my wife and I will attend the Pearl Jam concert at Boston's Fenway Park. Having been to their show at Chicago's Wrigley Field a few years ago, I'm like a kid before Christmas just waiting for this special ballpark concert to start. With this in mind, I've been listening to quite a bit of Pearl Jam through the DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red. In fact, I've been streaming my PJ4CA Tidal playlist extensively. Listening with my iPhone 6 Plus, Sennheiser HD600 headphones (old but still one of the best), and the DragonFly Red, I squeezed a large amount of enjoyment out of this playlist. The track "Present Tense" from PJ's No Code album has all kinds of proper punch when it kicks in around 3:59 into the track. Switching to the analog output of the iPhone 6 Plus, this punch is completely gone. The track just goes limp with no dynamics. Pearl Jam's "Better Man," from Vitalogy, is lifeless without the DragonFly Red, even at 1:55 when the track really gets going. After connecting the Red, "Better Man" has life, delineation of instruments, and emotion is pulled from Eddie's vocals that simply isn't there without the Fly. It's also possible to hear micro details in the guitar work of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready on this track as well as album Producer Brendan O'Brien's organ. Readers may be interested to know Pearl Jam recorded "Better Man" for the Vs album but refused to put in on the album because it was too accessible (in other words too good / too big of a hit). The band even wanted to give the track away for a benefit album for someone else to sing, but in the end decided to hold on to it and re-recorded it for the Vitalogy album. Say what you will, but it's one of the best rock and roll songs of all time and can give me goose bumps when played through high-quality audio gear. Through the DragonFly Red, I got goose bumps.
Switching gears to a little rap and hip hop was also illustrative of the benefits the DragonFly Red can provide. NWA's "Fuck Tha Police" is an entirely different song when heard through the Red as compared to the iPhone analog output. Without the Fly, the bass is just not there. The track is dead, leading me to believe the entire Straight Outta Compton album should not be listened to without a DragonFly. CA readers may not know that I am a big fan of Nicki Minaj and have all her albums offline within Tidal. When I get on an airplane, I always listen to Nicki. Dirty lyrics, great beats, and a unique voice. I'm sold. Listening to Nicki's track "Starships," the DragonFly Red had complete control over the bass and enabled Nicki's vocal to emanate from the mix with great clarity. Switching back to the iPhone standard output, this track and the whole album simply falls apart. It's a soup sandwich without the Fly.
Combining elements of rock and rap, Rage Against The Machine is one of the best bands of all time and features some of the best pure musicians of all time. Listening to Rage's debut album through the Sennheisers and DragonFly Red, the Red had awesome control over the entire frequency spectrum. On "Killing In The Name" and "Take The Power Back," the extremely powerful bass, guitar crunch, and drum kick had visceral impact and a certain clarity of which the iPhone alone could only dream. Listening through the headphone output of the iPhone 6 Plus provides a listening experience I'd rather not have again. Rage requires the Red. Period.
Rather than go through all the same tracks with a different combination of headphones and the DragonFly Black, I can say that the Black was my preferred choice (over the DF Red) only when listening with my JH Audio JH13 in-ear monitors. These earphones are very sensitive, requiring the volume of the DragonFly be turned down substantially. In this combination, the analog volume control of the Black was a bit better fit than Red with the JH13. When using the Black and the JH13, the same sonic impressions that I heard through the Red and other headphones were present. Control, clarity, and great delineation of instruments were hallmarks of the sonic character.
AudioQuest continues the dynasty of its category defining DragonFly with the new DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red. Both devices could fit perfectly in a home-audio system or as the centerpiece of any traveler's laptop-based system. However for me, the DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red are critical pieces of my mobile iOS playback setup. Whenever I'm in the car or on a plane, I have the DragonFly Red or Black connected to my iPhone 6 Plus. The days of using a separate digital audio player are circling the drain because of the new AudioQuest DragonFly Red and DragonFly Black. It simply doesn't make sense to carry an extra player with limited storage and connectivity, when one has access to all the music ever made and excellent sound quality, by using an iPhone and AQ DragonFly. In addition, when Apple removes the analog headphone output from the iPhone, the AudioQuest DragonFly will become a necessity. Only rubes will stick with the Apple EarPods with built-in lightning support or switch to one of the few lightning-enabled headphones. Combined with a lightning USB adapter and an iPhone, the DragonFly Red and DragonFly Black enabled me to hear albums like never before on the iOS platform. The original DragonFly was one of those products everybody just had to have. The new DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red improve upon the original and expand its use into new territories. If history is any indication, the new Flys will be replacing a ton of originals and improving the sound of countless iPhones for the first time. Unequivocally recommended and C.A.S.H. Listed.
- Product - AudioQuest DragonFly Black ($99), AudioQuest DragonFly Red ($199)
- Product Page - DragonFly Series
- Where To Buy - Dealers & Distributors
- Product - Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter ($29) LINK
- Product - Apple Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter ($39) LINK
Where To Buy In Australia:
- Source: Apple iPhone, Sonore microRendu
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, Mytek Digital Brooklyn
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
- Product - AudioQuest DragonFly Black ($99), AudioQuest DragonFly Red ($199)