DragonFly Black USB DAC
Naturally Beautiful Sound
THE HIGH NOTES
- Gordon Rankin Design
- Transforms Your Portable Audio Experience
- Greatest Bargain in High-end Audio
Company & Product Overview
AudioQuest products have been part of the Audio Advice story for a long time. For nearly 40 years, we've been relying on products by the brand to help our customers achieve great sounding audio at home, in the office, and on-the-go.
With an instinct for musical sound, Bill Low founded AudioQuest in 1980 to produce custom cables with a philosophy that “the best cable is no cable.” The passion behind Bill’s “invisible cable” philosophy inspired a whole new wave of product categories for anyone wanting to tap into better sound.
Today, with Bill Low pushing his team of hardcore music lovers to innovate and improve sound, AudioQuest creates some of the coolest gear. Serious music fans who want to enjoy higher quality music on-the-go look to us for advice about great sound, and that’s what keeps us coming back to AudioQuest again and again.
In 2012, AudioQuest brought true high-performance sound to computers with the original DragonFly USB DAC — a tiny Digital Analogue Converter (DAC) that conveniently plugs into a computer’s USB port and fits inside your pocket.
Inside the DragonFly is a specially designed chip that converts the digital signal from your smartphone, tablet or computer into the analog signal you hear. With a DragonFly USB DAC, you bypass the cheaply made internal DAC chip inside basic computer electronics. The purpose of something like the DragonFly is to give you a better DAC/headphone amp, and the ability to use it with powered speakers.
If you want to know more about external DACs and how to use them, read our guide — What Is A DAC?
With the simplicity of USB, the original DragonFly created a completely new category of portable standalone DACs that reshaped computer-based audio. It even won awards from the most prestigious names in audio, including the 2012 “Computer Audio Component of the Year” in Stereophile Magazine.
To learn more about the backstory and the awards won by the original DragonFly, check out our review on AudioQuest's flagship USB DAC, the DragonFly Cobalt, for more.
Now, virtually plug and play with all smartphones and tablets, the next generation of DragonFlys are completely firmware-upgradeable. Your investment gets better and better with each new feature and improvement AudioQuest releases.
DragonFly Black, featured in today’s review promises to be the “bug” for ALL music lovers. At under $100, it might just be the greatest bargain in high-end audio — Enter the DragonFly Black!
Design & Build Quality
For anyone not familiar with the family of DragonFly DACs, the units are about the same size as a normal USB stick. They slide into your pocket, and they’re extremely lightweight considering the quality of the technology inside them.
In the box, all the DragonFlys come with a durable leatherette travel pouch. The portable pouch protects the DragonFlys from scratches while inside a pocket or a backpack. They all feature USB type-A male connections that plug straight into a computer’s USB port. While the original DragonFly was only compatible with computers, now Apple iOS and Android users can all plug-and-play with DragonFlys too.
Tapping into the digital audio converter inside the tiny DragonFlys will provide better sound quality on-the-go — and now they support all your favorite music streaming apps! No extra power supply needed. The DragonFlys draw their power directly from the USB connection, so there’s no need for a power cord.
On the other end, the DragonFlys have a female 3.5-inch stereo mini-plug connection. This allows you to connect to a pair of headphones, a set of powered speakers, or an audio system. But, it’s what’s inside the DragonFlys that makes all the magic happen.
The audio output is also more powerful than the headphone jack built into computers and mobile devices. So, no matter how you stream or play music, DragonFly Black greatly improves the sound coming out of your laptop or smartphone.
While the parts inside the Black are sourced from all over the world, all DragonFlys are assembled in the United States at an AudioQuest facility in Ohio.
We have to say the Black has a build quality that feels great in our hands. It has a matte black finish that helps repel fingerprints, so it always maintains a sophisticated look. We like the way the little DragonFly logos change colors while plugged in. The colors show the status of the unit, so with just a glance, you’ll know exactly what sample rate your little bug is serving to you.
Features & Technology
A good DAC plays a very special role in digital music. A good one dramatically improves the resolution of details you hear. Like wiping a layer of dust off a window to see a colorful sunrise, a good DAC lets you hear subtle details in the stereo image you normally cannot experience. DragonFlys are packed with cool technologies that make your powered speakers or headphones come alive.
One of the coolest features that all DragonFlys share is the chief designer. Gordon Rankin designed all the DragonFlys — including the Black. Gordon was the first designer to properly develop asynchronous USB for computer-based high-end audio.
The clock inside a computer that controls the timing of data transfers is not very good for audio. So, DragonFly bypasses the one in your computer and uses its own, instead. DragonFlys command all the timing of audio data transfers themselves. This reduces timing errors (or jitter) and minimizes packet loss. Through the special USB protocol that Gordon helped design, the Black is the most affordable model to feature all of Gordon’s best work. So, the technology it packs inside is top-notch.
Inside DragonFly Black’s digital audio converter is the ESS 9010 DAC chip. It’s a high-performance DAC that uses a process called “minimum-phase filtering” with a fast roll-off filter. Think of music with a more naturally detailed sound. The Black upgrades the resolution of your music so you hear more details with improved dynamics that really make your headphones and speakers come to life.
With an output of 1.2 volts (slightly less than a CD player), the DragonFly Black has enough power to comfortably drive most preamps and a wide range of efficient headphones. The DAC/Amp in the Black uses the TPA6130 by Texas Instruments. A great little headphone amp that’s far superior to the internal headphone output inside laptops and smartphones. All of this comes inside of a tiny package that travels light anywhere you go. With the Black, AudioQuest gives you the biggest improvements over your sound for the most affordable price.
For a side-by-side comparison of all the models in the DragonFly family, watch our DragonFly DAC Comparison.
Connecting Black with Android devices and computers that use different types of USB couldn’t be easier. AudioQuest makes DragonTail adapters (sold separately) to connect with these music player sources including micro USB cables. For the best performance with iOS products, AudioQuest recommends Apple’s lightning to USB 3 camera connection kit adapter.
Additionally, the Black has a 64-step analog volume control. With DragonFly Black connected to a PC or mobile device, adjusting the host’s system volume control also controls the DragonFly Black’s onboard volume. This ensures maximum resolution and the highest sound quality, regardless of your host’s volume setting. We appreciate simplicity, and we love how easy Black is to use when on-the-go.
In terms of audio file playback, the Black handles up to 24-bit 96Khz. Designed to honor the high-resolution music you already own, it also supports the most popular streaming apps, including Tidal Masters, Qobuz hi-res audio, Spotify, Apple Music, and more.
The colors of the dragonfly logo will show the status of the unit. So, with just a glance, you can see what sample rate your little black bug is streaming. The Black’s LED lights up with different colors indicating standby mode or sample rate: Red equals “standby-mode” — Green: 44.1Khz — Blue: 48Khz — Amber: 88.2Khz — Magenta: 96Khz. It’s that easy!
To test its performance, we wanted to emulate the scenario people will use the Black when out in the wild. For our testing, we used the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Noise Cancelling Over-Ear headphones to conduct our sessions.
Although this headphone has wireless capabilities as well, the PX7 by Bowers & Wilkins provides exceptional sound, and a whole host of other features to make it an ergonomic favorite by people who work remotely. At Audio Advice, we like using the PX7 because it’s so easy to drive. It allows us to listen to great sounding music while we focus on our work. It also plugs into a laptop’s headphone jack, so it’s the perfect way to listen flexibly. For this test, we used the PX7’s headphone cable connected directly into the DragonFly Black.
We streamed high-quality audio with Qobuz at 44.1Khz from a laptop. Immediately, we noticed volume adjustments matched our host computer almost exactly. This made A/B testing with and without the DAC a seamless experience.
Also, seeing the dragonfly logo light up with a green LED during the songs that streamed CD quality was cool. When we flipped back to testing the music without the DAC, the dragonfly logo lit up red, letting us know the DragonFly Black was in standby mode. So easy and convenient!
Next, we listened to a lot of different styles of music without installing the DAC at all. This gave us a better sense of what the music sounds like just coming out of the laptop’s headphone jack directly to the headphones. Then, we listened to the same music again with the DragonFly Black in our front-end. With the Black, some of the tracks that caught our attention the most were “Africa” by Toto, “High and Dry” by Radiohead, and a live studio orchestra recording of Mozart’s “Symphony No.1 in E flat.”
Our first listening was done without the DragonFly Black. Without the DAC, we listened to Toto’s original 1982 album version of “Africa.” Using just the headphone jack, already we noticed a good separation of details with the PX7. Synths sounded lush and warm, the dynamics of the congas were detailed, and background vocals were presented clearly with a good sense of depth. It was easy to get lost in the music!
Switching over to the DragonFly Black is where things got interesting. Immediately, we noticed a broader separation of details than there was before. As though we just wiped away a thin layer of dust from a pair of prescription eyeglasses, we noticed new details in the music.
We heard clearer dynamics across the entire soundstage that made the PX7 headphones sound more alive than without the DragonFly Black. Toms sounded “bigger” with a bottom-end weight that packed more low-end “punch” and deeper lows that made listening to this recording feel more like a live concert. Cymbal crashes sounded clearer and less “far away.” We just leaned into the music more easily when we listened with the Black.
When the 1996 alternative rock hit, “High and Dry” by Radiohead appeared next in our playlist, we were impressed. The resolution of acoustic guitars had a rhythm and pacing that sounded more present and natural like they do when the instrument is strummed in your hands. Details in Tom Yorke’s unique style of falsetto were also more apparent. We could even hear the little “crackles” in Yorke’s voice clearer when his voice begins to tremble as he sings the chorus “Don’t leave me high — don’t leave me dry.” So cool!
The DragonFly Black significantly improved the presentation of details on classical music with warm musical sound too. Immediately, we heard an improvement across the full dynamic range of instruments compared to listening without the DAC. We heard differences every time we switched between using the Black and bypassing it.
With the Black engaged, violins were smoother, and more resolute during the English Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Mozart’s “Symphony No.1 in E flat K. 16: II. Andante.” Conducted by Jeffrey Tate, the low-end of the double bass was deep and musically well rounded. We noticed a smooth top-end roll-off that prevented flutes from sounding “metallic,” “harsh” or “brittle.” Overall, the Black allowed details normally hiding in the orchestra to sound more “open” and natural in the soundstage.
After several hours of listening, we have to hand it to the AudioQuest team and Gordon Rankin for creating another bug that packs in this much performance at such an affordable price! If you own a decent pair of headphones or a good system, then you really owe it to yourself to integrate the DragonFly Black. Whether it’s a phone, tablet or a computer, you’ll get better performance out of the setup you already have with this little USB DAC.
If you want to upgrade your computer audio setup to the next levels, check out our comparison review on the other USB DACs in the DragonFly family. We think the Black sounds beautiful, but just wait until you read our reviews on the DragonFly Red or the flagship model — DragonFly Cobalt!
The AudioQuest DragonFly Black is an incredible home or portable USB DAC for the money. In the world of high-performance audio, DragonFly Black packs a huge amount of performance inside for a very small investment. Compared to the huge return and the improvements in detail you get from it, we think $99.95 is a small price to pay.
If you have the original DragonFly, you might want to find a friend who could use a good portable DAC and upgrade to the newer Black. You’ll love the improvements of the Black, especially if your headphones or system are of decent quality. Once you hear the DragonFly Black difference, it’s hard going back to hearing digital music without it. For a USB DAC loaded with this level of details and dynamics that will make your portable or home setup sound more alive for less than $100, who wouldn’t choose it?!
Sound Signature: Musical
Who it’s for: Music Lovers
What it’s for: All Kinds Of Music
How to get peak performance: At Home or On-The-Go
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Gordon Rankin Design
Designed by who many people consider the “Godfather” of USB DACs, Gordon Rankin brings years of digital experience to DragonFly Black.
Transforms Your Portable Audio Experience
Compatible with all major streaming apps, including Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify and Apple Music, the difference you will hear on a good set of headphones or speakers will make you never want to hear music without it.
Greatest Bargain in High-end Audio
Hats off to AudioQuest for not compromising on first-rate components and exceptional quality. This little bug is the greatest bargain in high-end audio and the biggest bang for the buck.
MORE VIDEOS & REVIEWS
AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC Review
DragonFly Red offers next-level performance for only a slightly higher price-point. It’s the little bug that will satisfy the most demanding audio enthusiasts. Read our review, and enter the DragonFly Red!
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC Review
The DragonFly Cobalt, with its best-ever processor, headphone amp, and microcontroller, provides even greater clarity, dynamics, and finesse than previously possible.
What is a DAC and How Does it Work?
Ever wonder what’s going on inside your audio equipment? How does the audio data on a CD, MP3, or WAV file stop being data and become sound? That “magic” is in large part thanks to a digital-to-analog converter, or DAC.