Hands On: AudioQuest DragonFly Digital-to-Analog Converter
The logo on the AudioQuest DragonFly DAC changes color to indicate sample rate status.
AudioQuest was among the companies that took a leadership position in the growing category, and recently broadened its scope within the digital audio market by launching its DragonFly DAC. The compact and affordable DAC essentially takes the performance qualities of higher-end DACs and brings those traits down to a level that mainstream consumers can afford.
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 facing 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). Like the benchmark Ayre QB-9 DAC that hit the market a couple of years ago, 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.
It’s worth noting that AQ says the DAC can be used in a variable output mode with analog volume controls when it’s connected to powered speakers or directly to an amplifier. When the DragonFly is connected to a preamplifier or A/V receiver installers can set the DAC in a fixed output mode by turning the volume all the way up.
The DragonFly works with PCs and Macs, and 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. Finding the RCA ends of the Victoria weren’t long enough to span the length of my desktop I took a pair of female RCA adapters and connected the Victoria cable to a set of AQ Diamondback RCA cables that were then run to a pair of NHT SuperPower active speakers.
I opened the audio settings in my Mac’s Systems Preferences menu and selected the DragonFly as the audio output. Finishing up, I entered the iMac’s MIDI settings through Applications and went into the Utilities folder to access the Audio MIDI Setup. Once in this sub-menu I selected the sample rate option from a drop-down menu. The overall setup and installation of the DragonFly shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes.
Using the DragonFly with iTunes, GarageBand and Audiophile Engineering’s Fidelia music player software I listened to a variety of content that ranged from AAC downloads and WAV files, to a little bit of HD music.
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 “La Villa Strangiato” I liked the sense of space the DAC created within the image to allow the song’s drums, bass and guitar tracks to resonate with added liveliness.
The DragonFly also pulled up huge amounts of detail. Surprisingly while listening to some music I mixed in Garageband on the song’s guitar solo I felt the DragonFly had also fleshed out more inner detail than I could recall hearing previously.
Switching things up, I compared Pink’s “Who Knew” in AIFF and AAC. Through the resolution of the DragonFly I was able to hear the increased smoothness of the AIFF file’s midrange, as well as its more palatable low-end transparency and fuller top end. More importantly to mainstream users, however, was the DragonFly’s ability to make the lower resolution AAC file sound more musical than a standard iTunes file.
The DragonFly scores a hat trick for its ability to deliver value, performance and ergonomics. Throw in the fact that it 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.