Hey hey my my. These past few weeks I’ve been taking a handful of dongle USB DACs out of their comfort zone: away from the desktop and into the street. Out of the blue and into the black.
My intent? To re-imagine Apple’s 5th generation iPod Touch as a viable, ‘audiophile grade’ alternative to the likes of the Astell&Kern digital audio players, for which we need to improve their D/A conversion and headphone output staging. Think of it as rolling your own.
Despite the huge leap in GUI attractiveness and functionality made by iRiver in moving the AK100/120 to second generation models, the interfaces found on iOS-driven devices remain light years ahead of the DAP rivals. That and the iPod Touch bring streaming services like Spotify, Qobuz and Pandora into the game; the only audiophile-grade music player to do this to date is Sony’s NWZ-ZX1 (AU$699).
What if one could append a suitably small DAC/headphone amplifier to the iPod Touch using Apple’s Lightning-to-USB adaptor?
Trial and error has exposed a few USB DACs that play ball with the 5th generation iPod Touch and also those that don’t.
Thirstier devices don’t get time on the field. iOS red-carded both LH Labs’ Geek Out and the Cambridge DACMagic XS for drawing too much power. It’s a common iOS reaction to devices not intended by their designers for use as iPod/iPhone appendages.
Of those that did work nicely, the m2Tech hiFace DAC had an output impedance that proved too high for satisfactory headphone use (which defeats the intended purpose here) whilst the Resonessence Labs Herus had a terrific, punchy sound – considerably better than the iDevice’s own headphone output – but the awkward bulkiness when piggybacking the iPod Touch kept it from universal acceptance.
My attention subsequently turned to AudioQuest’s second generation Dragonfly. With little fanfare the all-new and improved model has been anointed with the perfunctory “v1.2” status. It has also seen a significant price drop: from US$249 to US$149. More for less – what’s not to like?
AudioQuest’s website copy expands on the changes: “The circuitry between the DAC chip and the analog output stage has been refined to create a more direct signal path, leading to even greater transparency and immediacy. Also, the DAC’s power supply has been fortified, which gives the sound more “grip,” and even greater dynamic contrast.”
Having never heard the 2012 original for more than five minutes at shows, I’m unable to deny or verify such claims. What Hi-fi complained of a “slightly hard edge to the sound can become tiring” and called it “Not the last word in subtlety” before affording the original Dragonfly a Product Of The Year award.
I’m unwilling to throw either criticism in the direction of the updated version so it would seem AudioQuest have addressed these minor quibbles with the v1.2. Hats off.
With Macbook Air playing host, I found the Dragonfly v1.2’s sound to be spacious and energized. Its ability to communicate the rhythmic bursts that puncture Peter Gabriel’s “Kiss Of Life” is superb, especially when you step back to consider the cost of entry. That said, it falls short of the tonal mass supplied by the Schiit Bifrost Uber (reviewed here).
I’d also say that the Dragonfly v1.2 is creamier and more polished than the HRT microStreamer (US$189, reviewed here). This new version’s overriding quality is smoothness in the treble.
How does the Dragonfly v1.2 compare to the Resonessence Labs Herus (reviewed here)? The latter is bolder, chunkier and more bombastic. If you want a DAC with a more agreeable sense of elegance in the treble, the AudioQuest is your guy. The Herus, whilst never nervy or tense, is more of a matter-of-fact straight talker. And whilst the Canadian also deals in higher PCM rates and DSD it’s also US$200 more expensive than the more svelte Californian.
The DITA Audio The Answer IEMs really benefitted from the new Dragonfly’s (presumably) improved treble although extending listening showed this pairing to a be little bass shy. The less fussy Cardas EM5813 Ear Speakers faired much better below the waist but crave a little more grit up top.
Full sized headphones like KEF’s M500 (reviewed here) and Sennheiser’s Momentum faired much better than both IEMs, both of which benefitted from the Dragonfly sounding FAR better than the Macbook Air’s own 3.5mm output.
What Hifi said of the v1.2: “The original Dragonfly blew us away, but the v1.2 takes performance to a whole new level.” And that’s at the UK RRP of £130 (US$218)!
Their point speaks to mine: a DAC with the Dragonfly’s performance at the Dragonfly’s price point is as rare as rocking horse shit.
Such is the price-pressure being brought to bear by AudioQuest I’d wager that rival USB DAC manufacturers are currently scrambling for ways to match the v1.2’s insane value quotient.
With the internal ESS Sabre 9023 chip releasing 2V at its maximum volume level there’s scope for connecting the Dragonfly’s 3.5mm socket to an integrated amplifier. For headphones, the volume can be varied using your computer’s volume up/down keys or master volume setting. Much like the aforementioned Herus, the AudioQuest device sports an analogue volume control whose position is set by digital markers sent by the host device. Output impedance is rated at a low limbo-ing 0.65 Ohms.
A pioneer of asynchronous USB handling, Gordon Rankin’s Streamlength code is still very much in play in this latest iteration. As per the product brochure:
“DragonFly’s Streamlength™ Class 1 asynchronous USB code is licensed from Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio. In addition to being an asynchronous transfer pioneer, Mr. Rankin has repeatedly contributed to advancing the frontier of high performance digital audio.”
Because the Dragonfly is a USB Audio Class 1 device it is capable of decoding PCM up to 24bit/96kHz. Its LED glows green when it sees a 44.1kHz datastream, blue for 48kHz, amber for 88.2kHz and magenta for 96kHz.
“We tell users who’ve purchased music with higher sample rates that they should select directly divisible rates to get the best sound from those files. In other words, 88.2kHz should be selected when playing a 176.4kHz file and 96kHz should be selected when playing a 192kHz file.”, said AudioQuest’s PR guy Stephen Mejias.
Like the Resonessence Labs and m2Tech units before it, the Dragonfly hasn’t been specifically designed for use with smartphones. However, I’d heard rumours by way of Mejias that it played nice with the iPhone 5.
The scene was thus set for the v1.2 of the AudioQuest Dragonfly to step up and snatch the gold medal by being both compatible with the 5th generation iPod Touch and small enough to strap to its back.
The Dragonfly’s sleek profile would spirit away any complaints about additional bulk. Its sonic smarts as a genre-leading product with desktop PC deployment meant its superiority to the 5th generation iPod Touch’s own headphone output was a given.
First hand experience was all that remained before packing up and heading home after a job nicely done.
The box is ten times the Dragonfly’s size; not the most environmentally focused packaging doing the rounds. This niggle is counterbalanced by user instructions referred to as the “Flight Manual”, a matt rubberized shell and protective end cap, each of which are elegant touches than reflect AudioQuest’s apparent desire to impress down the last detail. It feels heavy in the hand, thus emotionally reassuring the new owner of its packed-out internals.
I hooked Apple’s Lightning-to-USB connector into the iPod Touch and then connected the Dragonfly, waited two seconds for its logo to glow and then… no deal: “AudioQuest Dragonfly: the connected device requires too much power”.
Unable to make the iPod Touch sing, I reached for alternative devices.
An iPad 2 running gave a frustratingly similar response (too much power draw)
but an iPad Air humoured the Dragonfly, lit up its logo with Redbook green and off to the Spotify races we went*. Same same with an iPad Air. Another listening party was attempted a while later with an iPhone 5 – like the iPod Touch this was a firm no go (again, too much power draw). The Dragonfly compatibility rumours proved to be unfounded. How frustrating.
Android devices have always been bit hit and miss with USB DACs. The Google Nexus 5 smartphone doesn’t yet play nice with any of them. Another attempt to hook in the AudioQuest dongle DAC via an OTG cable came up empty. Ditto a Google Nexus 7 tablet.
However, Samsung loads full USB audio compatibility into its Galaxy range of smartphones. My freshly unboxed Galaxy S5 acknowledged the Dragonfly’s connection in its status bar and swiftly struck up a digital audio conversation. Again, I was down to party with Pandora, Qobuz and Spotify.
Curiously, its logo held tight to magenta suggesting the Samsung phone’s internals were streaming 96kHz. Such technicalities pale into insignificance when one finds an Android phone that can make nice with a USB DAC!
The compromise here is a shortened battery life. As the iPod Touch and iPad 2 had foretold, the AudioQuest’s need for power hits the Android phone reasonably hard. I snatched approximately six hours of audio playback from the Samsung between charges.
To my mind, Android devices as digital audio transports hold two key advantages over their iOS rivals:
1) Hi-res audio (HRA). With a suitable app, up to 24bit/96kHz appears possible. I say “appears” as the Dragonfly’s logo never lets go of magenta no matter what the input file; the HDTracks version of Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft played nicely and sounded lovely.
2) Background processes. It must bug other iOSers that they have to keep Spotify and Qobuz in constant motion in order to keep the offline download engine running? I know it bugs me. Leave it alone for more than five minutes and iOS pauses all downloads. I’m an adult, I can manage my own battery life – a consideration that Android embraces out of the box. I set the S5 to download a bunch of playlists overnight (‘Extreme’ quality) and come morning I’m set and ready to go offline with 320kbps Ogg Vorbis audio.
The HTC One Harman Kardan Edition aside, I’ve yet to hear an Android phone that I’ve liked the sound of. The Samsung Galaxy S3, the Google Nexus 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S5 – all dreadful. Initially, their ill-defined bass might make them sound warmer, more agreeable. After a I notice how music sounds congealed and mushy.
The AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 means Galaxy S5 users at least don’t have to suffer in silence. $150 down takes you up several serious sonic strata without the need to move to a separate device. This DAC is precisely the kind of device I had in mind when exhorting mainstreamers to consider better ancillary equipment before dropping cash on a Pono Player.
Pair the Dragonfly v1.2 with a nice pair of headphones – the Sennheiser Momentum or KEF M500 each strikes the right balance between sound quality and affordability – and you have a portable rig that would melt the heart of even the most ardent audiophile snob. One that would closely rival the original Astell&Kern AK100 in terms of quality but acing it on the interface and streaming service front. Hi-fi for the mainstream – huzzah!
I can’t help think that AudioQuest could have given the nod to Curtis Mayfield and re-branded this latest iteration the ‘Superfly’; it’s a helluva lot more memorable than the software development cycle nature of ‘v1.2’ and connotes the supreme value for money available here. The original version was the unit that kick-started this miniaturised DAC revolution and the v1.2 change up keeps AudioQuest at the very front of the miniature DAC pack.
Further information: AudioQuest