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Kevin Hunt - The Electronic Jungle
The Electronic Jungle
4:12 PM EST, December 28, 2012
Aside from being a potential stunt double for the on-location filming of "The USB Flash Drive Story," the AudioQuest DragonFly is an unlikely gateway device for the music lover who stashes tunes on a computer.
This USB memory stick look-alike is actually a highly sophisticated digital-to-analog converter that invigorates computer audio perhaps like no other device its size or price ($249). Followers of high-end audio, a niche market for sure, have exchanged celebratory full-body bumps since the day the DragonFly arrived. It is, indeed, a device that extends to the rest of the population an invitation to high-end sound.
The DragonFly politely informs a Windows or Mac computer's sound card that, thank you, but you're no longer needed. It plugs into a computer like a USB flash drive, but by the time the signal travels to the 3.5-millimeter stereo minijack on the other end of the DragonFly, it has been converted from a digital music file into an analog form ready for the human ear.
An audio cable inserted into that minijack connects to desktop speakers, a full-size audio system or directly to an amplifier. The DragonFly is also a headphone amplifier, though to these ears this little device was least impressive when paired with headphones.
AudioQuest, a maker of audio-video cables, recruited a designer of high-end converters, Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio, to design the DragonFly's circuitry built around a 24-bit ESS Sabre digital-to-analog chip. This is Rankin's baby with an AudioQuest brand.
In USB audio, a method called asynchronous mode reduces a digital distortion called jitter. Rankin's asynchronous technology, Streamlength, is the go-to software in expensive digital-to-analog converters. (Look for his computer-audio primers at usbdacs.com.)
Inside the DragonFly, it's standing-room only: Somehow, Rankin fit 107 parts and five regulated power supplies into the tiny chassis. He even included a 64-step analog volume control, adjusted by the computer's master volume, that avoids the possible loss of resolution with digital control.
The DragonFly icon illuminates according to the sampling rate of the digital file playing. It's either green (for 44.1 kilohertz, the CD standard), blue (48 kHz), amber (88.2 kHz) or purple (96 kHz).
The DragonFly plays any file, including the lowest form of MP3, but it reformulates the highest-resolution files now available, like 176.4 kHz, to the lower-rez 96 kHz format. If the DragonFly is truly directed to non-high-enders whose music collections are mostly populated with low-resolution MP3 and iTunes-issued AAC files, the high-resolution limits mean nothing.
The DragonFly is at its best as a digital-to-analog converter feeding an audio system, virtually regardless of price. Where with headphones the DragonFly accentuates the lower frequencies, it reveals itself with basic audio systems as well-balanced and natural-sounding without any of the shrill, emaciated characteristics of a computer's sound card.
I liked the DragonFly in a minimalist setup, connected by AudioQuest's $99 Big Sur cables to the M-Audio Studiophile AV40 (about $140, m-audio.com) powered speakers that, because of their built-in amplification, required no other equipment.
But with a two-channel system costing several thousands of dollars, the DragonFly was almost the equal of a recent budget high-end darling, the $460 Peachtree Audio DAC-iT (peachtreeaudio.com), a digital-to-analog converter dressed like a Mac Mini's first cousin.
For basic Internet radio streaming and the lowest bit-rate MP3 music, a less-expensive, less-sophisticated DAC like the $42 model from HiFimeDIY (hifimediy.com) that uses the same Sabre ES9023 chip as the DragonFly might satisfy many listeners.
The DragonFly, however, offers so much more. When paired with high-resolution software that either supplements or replaces iTunes and at least CD-quality music files, the DragonFly is capable of high-end sound on the cheap. This Mac user's favorite music software, Audirvana Plus ($49, audirvana.com), turned the DragonFly into something special.
The DragonFly is also the least-expensive DAC I've seen that also works with Audirvana Plus' Integer Mode, which reduces processing within the computer. In this mode, the DragonFly sounded most like a much more expensive DAC.
That's what I like about the DragonFly. It takes you almost anywhere you want go, however deep into the high end you dare to fly.
What: AudioQuest DragonFly digital-to-analog converter
Hot: A real taste of high-end audio for $249. Beautifully designed, more technologically advanced than anything else in its class.
Not: Requires complementary high-grade desktop speakers or audio system.
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