Audioquest DragonFly USB DAC

      Date posted: November 21, 2012

Audioquest’s DragonFly Zooms In On USB Plug-In Computer Super Sound!

Audioquest DragonFly USB Digital Audio Converter DragonFly in the hand
Manufacturer: Audioquest (949) 585-0111
Canadian Distributor: Lenbrook Industries (905) 831-6555

US $249.00

This is a product that may look a little like a Dragonfly, but one that soars more like a Dragon flying, as seen in various special-effects-heavy Hollywood films of late. It’s a friendly beast, too, easy to set up and use with any computer of today’s normal specs for USB digital audio output. It can be used with headphones, powered speakers or as your computer output into an audio system. It’s very simple to configure, and I had mine going in 10 minutes through Windows 7 in my new Quad-core i7 laptop PC.

The main limitation of the DragonFly is that it’s stereo only, so multichannel aficionados can look elsewhere. I have a separate 3.2 GHz PC configured for multichannel using an AUDIOTRAK PRODIGY 7.1 internal board, that is waiting for enough RAM to make it sing, as well as for a terrabyte of hard disc to help it remember, but that’s an ongoing project involving recording as well as playback. Here simplicity rules, and it was nice not to have to fuss before sitting down to hear some high resolution audio from my computer. The software for the DragonFly is internally contained and automatically organizes itself, settling a few user questions before going to work.

According to its online description (, it
“Plays All Music Files: MP3 to 24-bit/192kHz DragonFly2
Drives Headphones Directly
Variable Output Drives Powered Speakers or Power Amp
Fixed Output Feeds Preamp or Receiver
Asynchronous Transfer Ensures Digital Timing Integrity
Two Clocks Enable Perfect Native Resolution at 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz and 96kHz
DragonFly is an affordable and easy-to-use device that delivers far superior sound by bypassing the poor quality sound card that is built into your computer. DragonFly is a sleek, flash drive sized Digital-Audio Converter that connects to a USB jack on a Mac® or Windows® PC, turning any computer into a true high- fidelity music source.”

“The heart of DragonFly is the 24-bit ESS Sabre™ conversion chip, a high-performance solution that’s typically found in better CD and Blu-ray Disc™ players. DragonFly can accept audio and music files ranging from MP3s and CD-standard 16-bit/44kHz to native 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution, regardless of music file format.”

“Timing errors have long been the plague of digital audio playback, never more so than in recent years as computers have been pressed into service as audio source components. DragonFly uses a very sophisticated ‘asynchronous*’ USB audio data transfer protocol. Rather than sharing crucial audio “data clocking” functions with the computer, DragonFly alone commands the timing of the audio data transfer, dramatically reducing digital timing errors. In addition, not all audio content is encoded at the same native resolution or ’sample rate.’ DragonFly uses two discrete onboard ‘clocks’ so that the math algorithms used to convert the digital audio data to analog are always optimized for the native sample rate of the audio file or stream being played. This ensures the least amount of mathematical manipulation to the native audio data, which results in fewer errors and better sound. A smart LED indicator on DragonFly shows the resolution of the incoming signal.”

According to the cutely-named “Flight Manual“, colours displayed are, “Red: Standby; Green: 44100 Hz; Blue: 48000 Hz; Amber: 88200 Hz” and “Magenta: 96000 Hz”. Back at the web site, we find that, “While the digital domain is where your computer-based music experience starts, the analog domain requires attention too. Digital volume controls too often reduce signal resolution and decrease sound quality. Even when the iTunes volume slider is used, DragonFly’s high-resolution analog volume control carries out the instructions in the analog domain for the best sound quality. And DragonFly’s analog circuits are direct-coupled from the ESS converter chip’s output, avoiding the need for any extraneous, sonically degrading components in the signal path.”

Sounds like a digital slam dunk, doesn’t it? Well, it pretty much is, designed for serious listeners who’ve, like me, gravitated from the radio climate-changed wasteland of FM to internet radio, and other stereo online music services, as well as to disc-based sources, from CDs to DVD-As. It will not play SACDs, of course, and it made some possibly tweeter-destroying noises when I tried my DTS HDS version of Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth, but my multichannel DVD-As were reproduced in excellent stereo, as were a whole range of 96K stereo discs that were released outside the DVD-A format as simple audio DVDs. So the DragonFly’s limitations are twofold, no multichannel, and no SACD, even in stereo, but it does play the CD layer on hybrid SACDs. These will certainly not bother many who haven’t embraced the almost abandoned format I love, and I can always turn to my OPPO that plays everything except the lute. DragonFly1

I’m listening as I write to an especially nice-sounding Chesky disc, Remembrances, by the Jon Faddis group (CHDVD176), that has an amazingly natural sound, with extraordinary dynamics from Faddis’s flugelhorn, backed by a big band conducted and arranged by Carlos Franzetti - shades of Nelson Riddle or Billy May, with a virtuoso soloist other than Frank Sinatra! Through the DragonFly it sounds spectacular! It’s also much quieter than any other computer playback I’ve heard directly form the headphone outputs. And the DragonFly sounds superb directly into headphones, too. I compared it to my portable Pioneer PDV-LC20 DVD player, with its 96K DAC, and the DragonFly seemed a bit more present and live-sounding, while it easily matched the stereo reproduction of my OPPO 980H universal player. It also sounded great on premium CDs like my MoFi Ultradisc II version of Marc Cohn’s eponymous album containing the huge hit, “Walking In Memphis”.

It also superbly played any and all files I had on hand in my computer, and is, therefore, a wonderful tool for the inveterate hi-res downloader, something I’ve avoided becoming until now because of the playback limitations. So, if you’re into HD Tracks and their ilk, the Audioquest DragonFly is a great asset in the “quest” for great-sounding “audio” online. Hell, I’d buy one of these at twice the price, given what it can do for computer audio! So the quick advice is, get onto a a DragonFly and SOAR! Quickly, before they all go south!

Andrew Marshall

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