DragonFly Red USB DAC
Next-level Performance That's Even More Beautiful
THE HIGH NOTES
- Gordon Rankin Design
- Transforms Your Portable Audio Experience
- Performance That Will Satisfy The Pros
Company & Product Overview
At Audio Advice, we’ve been in the audio business for over 40 years. That’s a long time! We’ve been representing AudioQuest products almost that entire time. We’re confident that AudioQuest’s products help our customers experience great-sounding audio anywhere...at home, in the office, or on-the-go.
Founded in 1980 by Bill Low, AudioQuest got its start building custom cables out of a home garage. Bill’s mission was to create “invisible” audio cables. In other words, cables that don’t get in the way of the sound was the inspiration that drove his quest to innovate and improve sound. It’s what drives AudioQuest today to create new categories of high-performance audio products anyone can enjoy.
In 2010, Bill Low was working on a new kind of audio cable he called an “intelligent cable.” AudioQuest described Bill’s original concept as having “a USB plug on one end and an analog output on the other.” In between, Bill envisioned a “box” that would handle the digital-to-analog conversion.
For this, Bill reached out to Gordon Rankin, considered by many the “Godfather” of USB audio converters. Gordon convinced Bill to forgo the intelligent cable concept, and house the conversion circuit into a small enclosure the size of a USB thumb drive. With Gordon’s help, the pervasiveness of USB allowed AudioQuest to create a completely new category of standalone DACs.
Enter the DragonFly. In 2012, the original DragonFly was born. It brought true high-performance sound to computers in the form of a tiny Digital Analog Converter (DAC) that you can carry in your pocket just like a USB flash drive!
The DragonFly USB DAC eliminates the biggest obstacle to great on-the-go audio…the cheaply made internal DAC chip inside most consumer electronics. You may not even know what you’ve been missing…until you hear it.
If you want to know more about DACs and how they work, read our guide —What Is A DAC?
Now, completely plug and play with virtually all smartphones and tablets, the next generation of DragonFlys are even more portable and they sound even better. You can also feel secure that your investment will keep getting better and better with each new update AudioQuest releases.
DragonFly Red, featured in today’s review is the next addition to the DragonFly family. It promises to be the “bug” that exceeds all expectations. At under $200, it might represent the ultimate combination of performance and value — Enter the DragonFly Red!
Design & Build Quality
As noted, the units are about the same size as a normal USB stick, so they slide easily into a pocket, a backpack or a purse. They’re extremely lightweight considering how much technology is packed inside.
In the box, all DragonFlys include a leatherette travel pouch to protect them while you’re on-the-go. The male USB type-A connections plug straight into a computer’s USB port. While the original DragonFly was only compatible with computers, now optional adapters allow the new DragonFlys to work with Apple iOS and Android devices too.
With DragonFlys, better sounding quality is now possible on-the-go — even with your favorite streaming apps. Whether it’s connected to your laptop or your phone, DragonFlys are powered directly from a USB connection, so there’s no need for an extra power cord.
On the opposite end, a female 3.5-inch mini-plug lets you connect the DragonFly to a pair of headphones, a set of powered speakers, or an audio system. There’s magic here. It all happens inside the DragonFlys, where a very special internal DAC chip converts the digital signal from your smartphone, tablet or computer to the improved analog signal that you hear.
With a more powerful headphone amp packed inside, DragonFly Red makes headphones and powered speakers come alive. No matter how you stream or play music, DragonFly greatly improves the sound coming out of your laptop or smartphone.
While all of its parts are sourced worldwide, DragonFlys are still assembled in the United States at an AudioQuest facility in Ohio.
The DragonFly Red just feels great in our hands. At Audio Advice, the red automotive finish and gold lettering screams high performance and impresses all of us. We love how the LED illuminates different colors to show the status of the unit. At a glance, you know exactly what sample rate the little bug is playing — and the way the little dragonfly logo changes color is (we confess) a guilty pleasure.
Features & Technology
AudioQuest worked with Gordon Rankin on the design for the original DragonFly. Gordon is a heavyweight in the audio world and worthy of a Google search. He’s the founder of Wavelength Audio, a brilliant designer, and the first to properly develop asynchonous USB for high-end audio. His company improved computer audio when it released the Wavelength Audio Cosecant at CES in 2004. All the DragonFly models have featured Gordon’s designs.
The challenge for AudioQuest was to make a new high-performance model even better than previous DragonFlys at only a slightly higher price-point. Put quite simply, AudioQuest has packaged more for your money with Red.
Inside Red’s digital audio converter is the ESS ES9016 chip. It’s a higher performance DAC chip than the one in DragonFly Black, and uses a “minimum-phase filtering” process with a fast roll-off filter. Think music with more natural dynamics and an enhanced stereo image with clearer details.
Used by music industry professionals, the DAC chip inside the Red can be found in recording systems, mixing consoles and digital audio workstations. AudioQuest told us they’re even noticing an uptick in use by new music artists, record labels, and DJs who share projects and collaborate using DragonFlys.
Turns out, when you’re an aspiring artist hoping to land a record deal, DragonFlys are a far better way to make a positive impression than going straight from a phone’s headphone jack. Even Universal Music Group is in league with AudioQuest, using DragonFlys in their corporate offices! Woah!
For a side-by-side comparison of all the models in the DragonFly family, watch our DragonFly DAC Comparison.
The Red takes the resolution of musical imagery to the next level. With it, you can experience a more holographic presentation just like the pros. Featuring a very powerful headphone amp, the Red uses the same one used in the flagship model — DragonFly Cobalt! The ESS Sabre 9601 provides 2.1 volts of headphone output, so it drives any pair of headphones on the market without breaking a sweat.
You can connect Red from your computer directly into your audio system, and its output will be the same as a CD player. Two volts is also plenty to drive any power amp, enabling you to use the Red as a preamp to a power amp or a pair of powered speakers. All this comes inside a tiny package that travels anywhere for accessing great sound. With Red, AudioQuest gives you more for the money.
Having enough output is great, but being able to control it with zero noise is an entirely different challenge for the engineers at AudioQuest. The Red uses the same bit-perfect digital volume control as the top of the line Cobalt. The digitally controlled 64-Bit architecture is built right into Red’s DAC/Amp with an extremely high signal-to-noise ratio. Just like the flagship Cobalt, this means Red is ultra-quiet. It also works seamlessly with both Apple and Android.
Connecting Red with devices that use different types of USB couldn’t be easier. AudioQuest makes DragonTail adapters to connect with these music players including micro USB cables. For the best performance with iOS products, AudioQuest recommends Apple’s proprietary lightning to USB 3 adapter.
In terms of playback, the Red handles up to 24-bit 96Khz. Designed to honor the hi-res audio files you already own, Red also supports all your favorite streaming services, including Tidal Masters, Qobuz hi-res, Spotify, Apple Music and more.
The colors of the little dragonfly logo light up to show the status. With a glance at the DragonFly’s LED light, you can see exactly what sample rate your little red bug is streaming. The LED lights on the unit indicate standby mode or sample rate: Red means “standby” — Green: 44.1Khz — Blue: 48Khz — Amber: 88.2Khz — Magenta: 96Khz. So easy.
To test Red’s performance, we simulated the way most people will use it. We used the B&W PX7 Noise Cancelling Over-Ear headphones which is a great sounding headphone for portable use. For a closed-back headphone, the PX7’s soundstage is first-rate. It also packs in a host of really useful features, including wireless and noise-cancelling capabilities, making it one of most ergonomic headphones on the market for people on-the-go or working remotely.
To keep our listening tests consistent, the PX7 is the same headphone we used to write our review for the most affordable DragonFly Black. Just like we did with our review of the Black, we used the PX7’s headphone cable connected directly into the DragonFly Red.
If you want to know the best ways to improve concentration and increase your workflow through better sound, read our guide to Must-Have Audio Gear for Working Remotely. If you’d like to know more about the PX7 from Bowers and Wilkins, read our review and see how it stacks up against the competition from Bose.
We used Qobuz to stream high-quality audio at a sample rate of 44.1 Khz from a laptop. Seeing the dragonfly logo light up with a green LED whenever CD-quality songs are streamed is really cool. Whenever we flipped back to testing the sound of music without the DAC, the dragonfly logo illuminated a red LED to show us the DragonFly was not in use. We enjoyed seeing this feature come alive during our tests. It’s so practical.
Next, we listened to a lot of different styles of music without Red installed. Doing this always gives us a better sense of how the music sounds just coming out of the laptop’s headphone jack. Then, we A/B tested the same music again with the DragonFly Red engaged. While everything sounded substantially better with Red, some of the tracks that stood out the most were U2’s classic smash pop/rock hit “Pride (In The Name Of),” the original rendition of “With A Little Help From My Friends” by the Beatles, and “Cloak and Dagger,” a jazz cut recorded by the Jimmy Heath Quintet.
We listened to music first without the DragonFly Red. Without the DAC, we tested a classic pop/rock hit “Pride (In The Name Of) recorded in 1984 by U2 for the band’s fourth studio album, “The Unforgettable Fire.” Using just the headphone jack, immediately we noticed a good separation of details in the PX7’s soundstage. Guitars stood out with good natural dynamics that cut through the mix. The energy of the drums makes the recording sound “alive,” and Bono’s vocal was presented clearly which made it so easy for us to get lost in the music.
Switching over to the DragonFly Red is where things got a lot more interesting. Immediately, we noticed improvements in the dimensional presentation of the music. Musical details were not only clearer; the imaging sounded more “three-dimensional” with a smooth top-end roll-off. As though we just wiped away a thick layer of smudge from a pair of prescription eyeglasses, new details were revealed that we couldn’t pick out before.
With Red, we heard clearer dynamics occurring in the Edge’s signature guitars. The use of the delay pedal on his cutting-edge guitar work tingled in our ears with clear distinct details that didn’t sound harsh. Drums had more energy with a sense of rhythm and pacing that made us bob our heads along with the music. We noticed a big improvement in the level of details in the bass guitar which suddenly sounded more like a live concert. We couldn’t help but tap our feet along with it. The dynamic range in Bono’s voice had a tuneful sense of timing that made us want to start singing along with him every time he belted out the chorus “In the name of love, one more in the name of love.” This DAC is so cool!
When “With A Little Help From My Friends,” originally recorded by The Beatles in 1967 played next, we were immediately impressed with the DAC’s fast roll-off filter. The Red made us want to turn up the volume louder. We could experience more details in the full stereo image at louder volumes without it sounding harsh. The improved resolution was especially noticeable during Paul McCartney’s bass playing. The rhythm and pacing of the bass guitar was smooth and musical. It made us want to tap our feet along to it!
Beatles recordings are a great way to test how good a DAC is due to the recording tools and mixing methods used in the ’60s. On many Beatles’ cuts, the separation of instruments in the mix is generally easy to pick out even without a good DAC. So, if the overall presentation of instruments starts distorting at louder volumes, it’s a good way to know something in the signal chain is not right (like a cheap internal DAC).
With the Red, all the instruments stood out in the mix with warm musical details that didn’t sound harsh or distorted when we turned up the volume. High frequencies may have lacked ultimate extension, but they always sounded warm and natural. We were really pleased with the results!
Testing it without the DAC, the bass lost some natural resolution, and guitars lost the dynamic details that had made them sound so alive when the Red was engaged. Subtle dynamics, overall, were less easy to pick out, and the recording lost some “live” holographic detail that was there when the Red had been engaged.
Similar to the recording methods used on Beatles albums of the 1960s, “Cloak and Dagger” recorded by the Jimmy Heath Quintet in 1964 has a great separation of details that’s perfect for testing how good a DAC truly is. On this cut, a saxophone is panned hard left, and an electric lead guitar is panned hard right, while both instruments play the same melody note-for-note.
With Red, the resolution of both instruments stood out distinctly with smooth natural warmth. We could hear the natural details of the saxophone sizzling with full-bodied resolution in one ear, and the electric guitar picking in the other with buttery smoothness. The dynamic details of the walking bass line sits dead center in between the two with a tuneful sense of timing that made us tap our feet along to it.
The Red presented these holographic details musically with a top-end roll-off that made the separation of details sound “glued” together. Listening without the Red, dynamic details fell into the background and were less easy to hear. We heard distinct differences every time we switched between using the Red and bypassing it.
After several hours of listening, we have to hand it to AudioQuest and Gordon Rankin for creating yet another bug that packs in this much performance while still maintaining such an affordable price-point. If you own a good pair of headphones or a good system, then you owe it to yourself to use DragonFly Red. Whether you stream hi-res audio from a smartphone or play it directly from the library on your computer or server, you’ll get a lot more performance out of your setup with this little USB DAC.
If you want to upgrade your computer audio setup to the next level, check out our DragonFly comparison review where we compare the advantages of each USB DAC in the DragonFly family.
The AudioQuest DragonFly Red is a special portable or home USB DAC for only $199.95. If you have a DragonFly Black or the original DragonFly, you might want to consider finding a friend who can use a good portable DAC and upgrade to Red. You’ll be impressed with the improvements you get from it, especially if your headphones or system are of decent quality. Don’t get us wrong though, DragonFly Black is a great product for the money, but as we said, once you hear the difference, it’s hard to go back.
Compared to the extra level of details and the holographic imaging you get, we think $199.95 is a small investment that substantially improves the sound of your music. For a USB DAC loaded with this extra level of dynamic details that make portable or home setups come alive, the DragonFly Red is spectacular — and unbelievably so at this price point.
Sound Signature: Musical/Detailed
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 Red.
Transforms Portable Audio Experiences
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.
Performance That Satisfies The Pros
Never compromising on the highest quality professional-grade components, Red packs next-level performance for only a slightly higher price-point. It’s the little bug that will satisfy the most demanding audio enthusiasts.
MORE VIDEOS & REVIEWS
AudioQuest DragonFly Black DAC Review
The DragonFly Black plugs into a computer’s USB port to bypass the computer’s compromised audio circuitry and deliver cleaner, clearer, more naturally beautiful sound to headphones, powered speakers, and complete audio systems.
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.