How can a little bit of electronics the size of a USB stick transform your listening experience so much? Question is: will computer manufacturers ever implement this technology?
When it comes to micro-components, the DragonFly DAC/headphone amp is about as micro as they come. It is 3cm by 1.5cm by 9mm with a USB jack on one end and a headphone input on the other. It has a sleek matte black finish and features a pretty dragonfly icon that lights up with a nice variety of colours when in use. Much nicer than those piercing blue LEDs you get on so much hi-fi these days.
Initially the DragonFly DAC has been written off by some because of it’s size. How can a DAC/headphone amp the size of a USB stick provide a high-end sound? I recently found out for myself how wrong you can be to not give the DragonFly the respect it deserves.
Since setting up Adair Acoustic showroom with all our headphones and desktop hi-fi, my two daughters have been getting very curious about improving their headphone sound. Finally I agreed to buy them each a new set of headphones, and of course they want me to bring home a selection so they can “properly check out the sound”, there’s no way they want me to choose for them!
Just before leaving work, with my clutch of headphones in hand I was reminded of a recent client struggling to hear the difference between the £79 Thinksound in-ears and the £99 pair – as he was just plugging into the headphone out of his PC. We recommended a DAC and suddenly he found the difference much clearer, he bought the DAC and kept his original headphones!
“Ah” I thought, I can’t have my daughters make a mistake on their choice of headphones, so decided it was a perfect opportunity to try out the Dragonfly DAC.
As soon as I got onto the train home I opened up my Macbook pro and plugged in my portable Stax SR-002 headphones; which have quite remarkable dynamics, clarity, detail and sound-stage.
I’ve some High Def tracks on my laptop, so I picked out Keith Jarrett: Köln concert, because piano is a great test of hi-fi. It combines the incredible dynamics of the strike of the hammer with the plethora of resonances that are all (originally!) in tune with each other. I’ve been using it as a reference piece for the last couple of weeks on all our higher end equipment that we’ve been testing out.
Firstly I played it straight out of the Laptop; I didn’t need to listen long, it was way worse than my Astell & Kern Ak120 with a dull and dreary sound.
So, wasting no time, I plugged in the DragonFly, went to audio settings and there it was, no drivers needed, the DragonFly was already in the list so I selected it (the train still hadn’t left Waterloo). Wow! Instant and manifold improvement, suddenly the sound had dynamics, pace, and detail. In fact the dynamics were really exceptional. This gives the music its pace, excitement and tension. I was really catching the little dances in the playing that relate to the main structure of the piece, nodding and getting right into the groove, this was really exciting. I was thoroughly enjoying the experience, perhaps moving about a bit more than I should in a 5:30pm Friday night commuter train! As the strange looks about me slowly penetrated my musical bliss it dawned on me I had the volume quite high and the Stax Headphones are open back. I was in the Quiet coach!
Interestingly turning the volume down didn’t lose the structure and engagement to the music, so I was able to turn it down and return to January 24th 1975 in Köln, in my seat right next to the piano.
Once the concert had finished and the clapping died down, I moved on and tried a few more pieces. I noticed that the DragonFly logo changes colour according to the audio resolution, this is quite a nice feature. Playing music from a laptop is slightly complex, and when setting-out it’s easy to find your lush High-Def files have been down-mixed to CD quality (PCM 44/16). The DragonFly will let you know – staying green for standard definition playback, which prettier pink and purple reserved for higher resolutions.
Next up I tried some John Adams, full orchestra – Harmonielehre – Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The dynamic attack that the DragonFly recreates again riveted my attention to the music, I should also point out that the bass comes across very well with good weight. Very soon I was experiencing the live performance experience again. This is quite a DAC & Headphone amp, and only £129!
Audioquest have recently revamped the DragonFly to the new v1.2 model, the price remains the same, but a higher quality headphone input and circuitry mean the sound is further improved. Best place your order soon, as the entire UK stock of the new v1.2 sold out in the first 2 days!
No one is questioning the size of the DragonFly anymore, my questions is will any of the laptop / tablet manufacturers implement this technology to give their computer the edge on sound quality?
My conclusion is if you are about to buy new headphones, stop right there, get this DAC first!
You never know your existing headphones might sound transformed.
For this review I used a Macbook Pro Laptop with Stax SR-002 Headphone and portable energiser. The music software is JRiver and most files tested are High definition – FLACs, AIFF and a couple of WAVs at CD quality. I even tried out a piece of Shostakovitch in MP3 that I’d mistakenly downloaded when I first went in-search of DSD files. The DragonFly again helps to bring these substandard files to life and do the best they can with them. Not to say you can ever make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
Also if you don’t use a laptop as your main music source you’ll be interested to know that Astell & Kern have teamed up with Beyerdynamic to launch a new portable DAC that will work with the digital output of your Android or Apple phone, as well as USB from your laptop. We will be one of the first shops in the UK to try this out. Sign up to our newsletter and we’ll keep you posted.
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