CES 2018 in Las Vegas was short on high-end audio. There was essentially one floor of the Venetian hotel dedicated to products that audiophiles would consider “hifi.” This year there were more companies exhibiting that are not traditionally associated with tech, such as appliance manufacturers and auto makers.
For my part, I was interested to investigate the growing interest in personal audio and the broadening interest in high-resolution audio. There was a whole pavilion at the convention center dedicated to high-resolution audio products. This pavilion was a collection of 20+ companies demonstrating the latest in hi-res compatible devices designed to deliver “studio quality” sound. (The term “studio quality” appears to be replacing “CD quality” to describe state-of-the-art sonics.) The collection felt like a bridge between mid-fi and hifi, with the emphasis on lifestyle – car audio and mobile audio, as well as devices for the home, were on display.
I was in search of USB-based mini digital-to-analog converters (DACs). One that really caught my eye, and intrigued my ears, was the DragonFly by Audioquest. The product has been around since 2012, but these USB mini DACs are new to me. I spent a lot of time in the Audioquest suite at the Venetian and at the Hi-Res pavilion auditioning both versions of the DragonFly with my iPhone and iPad. DragonFly Black lists for $99 and the Red version lists for $199. Both versions have an on-board preamp and can drive headphones directly. With proper adapters, DragonFly can be used with all kinds of mobile devices — not just computers.
One of the fun things about this type of device is that it makes A/B comparisons super easy – when you plug into your device’s headphone jack you bypass the DragonFly circuitry. I was listening primarily to Apple AAC files and songs downloaded from the Napster streaming service. Both versions of the DragonFly made good on Audioquest’s promise to “deliver cleaner, clearer, more naturally beautiful sound to headphones.”
The Black version performed best on rock and high-energy pop tracks, particularly those that were recorded with a lot of compression and mastered for loudness. The Red version was best on more subtle recordings that feature more space in the mixes. I was particularly impressed with the low-frequency response in the Red’s treatment of dynamic traditional jazz featuring acoustic bass. Both versions perceptibly improved the depth and soundstage of most recordings of any kind.
In the interest of full disclosure, I bought the Black because it’s cheaper and I listen to a lot of classic rock on my mobile devices. Audioquest asserts that your device has “compromised audio circuitry,” so you best restore its honor with a DragonFly.