AudioQuest DragonFly DAC Comparison

A thorough analysis of the DragonFly Black vs Red vs Cobalt.

AudioQuest DragonFly DAC Comparison

A thorough analysis of the DragonFly Black vs Red vs Cobalt.

Introducing The DragonFly Family

AudioQuest products have been part of the Audio Advice story for as long as we’ve been in the business. For over 40 years, we’ve been recommending AudioQuest products for home theater and home audio setups. Today, we're excited to include the DragonFly family of USB DACs in our recommendations of portable USB DACs! 

DragonFlys eliminate the biggest obstacle to great sounding audio for computers — the cheaply made internal sound card inside most consumer electronic devices. You may not even know what you’ve been missing until you hear the difference with DragonFly. 

Today we’re taking a look at the three newest models in the DragonFly family — DragonFly Black, DragonFly Red, and DragonFly Cobalt. Now, compatible with all major streaming apps, including MQA for Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, and Apple Music, the difference you will hear with a good pair of headphones or speakers will make you never want to hear music again without a DragonFly. 

We’ll compare all three and share juicy insider details from our exclusive interview with the AudioQuest team. With this guide, you'll have everything you need to know which little “bug” is right for you.

 

THE HIGH NOTES

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt High Note 1

Gordon Rankin Design

Gordon Rankin brings years of digital experience to the DragonFly family. Each DragonFly is designed by Gordon Rankin, considered by many the “Godfather” of USB DACs. 

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt Highnotes 2

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 a DragonFly.

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt Highnotes 3

High-end Audio's Best Kept Secret 

Hats off to AudioQuest for not compromising on first-rate components and exceptional quality. DragonFlys are the greatest bargain in high-end audio.

How Do You Use A DragonFly DAC?

If you’re not familiar with DragonFly USB DACs, DragonFlys are tiny Digital to Analog Converters (DAC) that also have a headphone amplifier inside. Their size and shape resemble a small USB thumb drive. You plug DragonFly into a computer’s USB port or your phone to make speakers or headphones come alive.

DragonFlys fulfill three functions in high-end audio setups — external DAC, preamp, and portable headphone amp. Typically, when a product serves multiple functions, something is necessarily compromised. But, with DragonFlys, performance is the top priority. 

On one end of the little DragonFly, a female 3.5-inch mini-plug lets you connect it to a pair of headphones, a set of powered speakers, or an audio system. There’s magic here, and it all happens inside the DragonFly, 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. 

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt Phone

If you want to know more about external DACs and how to use them, read our guide — What Is A DAC?

For people who enjoy music and concerts on YouTube or Vimeo, DragonFly dramatically improves the experience. Since DragonFly functions not only as a digital-to-analog converter but also as a headphone amp, it’s a great way to enhance the listening experience with headphones – anywhere on-the-go or at home.

This makes the DragonFly a great choice for people who own collections of digital audio files (from MP3 to hi-res) or for those who stream music from Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, or any other streaming-music service. 

Features & Technology

 

Top Features All Current DragonFlys Share:

  • Compatible with Apple® and Windows® PCs for dramatically better sound. 
  • Play all high-resolution files, including support for MQA Renderer when streaming hi-res Tidal Masters.
  • Support playback of digital music with sample rates up to 24-bit 96Khz.
  • Drive a wide range of low to high-efficiency headphones and Volume control for powered speakers or a power amp.

The coolest feature that all DragonFlys share in common is their chief designer — Gordon Rankin. In 2010, AudioQuest teamed up with Gordon Rankin to design the original DragonFly — the first little “bug” to bring true high-performance sound to computers. 

Gordon Rankin is the founder of Wavelength Audio, and the first designer to properly develop asynchronous USB for computer-based audio. A brilliant designer, Rankin is highly regarded among his peers and his designs have won numerous awards. 

Today, all DragonFlys feature Gordon Rankin’s designs — however, he and AudioQuest have consistently improved each new iteration while incorporating sophisticated features into each successive model to enhance their overall value. In the next section, we’ll provide an overview of the most important differences setting each apart. 

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt Phone

Development of DragonFly Black and Red

Since the original DragonFly was limited to computers only, it was replaced by DragonFly Black and Red to make your mobile devices come alive too. In our exclusive interview with the company, AudioQuest provided us some background on what led to the new DragonFly Black and Red designs:

“Combining exceptionally low power consumption and low-noise power supplies, the new microcontroller reduced DragonFly’s current draw to the point where it could be successfully used with handheld devices. Before this, DragonFly was mostly found on desktops or tethered to stereo systems. Then, starting around 2014, tech-savvy enthusiasts found ways to hack their mobile devices to make them compatible with DragonFly, but the results were inconsistent. We knew the demand was there, but it required Gordon’s breakthrough with Microchip to appropriately and reliably meet that demand.”

AudioQuest increased the overall performance of DragonFly Black and Red compared to the original DragonFly while also packaging more value inside each new model. 

In addition to better sound quality, AudioQuest brought two major upgrades to the DragonFly Black and Red:

  1. Compatibility with Apple iOS and Android smartphones and tablets.
  2. Upgradeable firmware via the free AudioQuest Device Manager application — now, your DragonFly gets better and better with each new update AudioQuest adds.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt Computer

The AudioQuest team was able to improve the sound quality of the original DragonFly while also lowering the price without sacrificing high-quality components. At under $100, Black might just be the greatest bargain in high-end audio — Enter the DragonFly Black.

AUDIOQUEST
DragonFly Black

Naturally Beautiful Sound.

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt

THE HIGH NOTES


  • ESS ES9010 DAC chip
  • PIC32MX270 microprocessor
  • Greatest Bargain in High-end Audio

PRICE


$99.95

With DragonFlys, AudioQuest is serious about giving you more. DragonFly Black represents huge performance upgrades over the original for a very small investment:

“During the developmental stages of Black, we were thrilled that we could be able to improve upon the original...while also lowering the US retail price to $99.”

Important ingredients in Black’s precedent-setting performance:

  • ESS ES9010 DAC chip — fast roll-off filter for natural musical sound.
  • Microchip PIC32MX270 microprocessor — 32-bit architecture and extremely low current draw.

We think the DragonFly Black is an incredible USB DAC for the money. For a portable USB DAC that will make your setup sound more alive for less than $100, who wouldn’t choose it?! 

To learn how Black performs in a listening session, watch our DragonFly Black USB DAC Review.

DragonFly Red is the next addition to the DragonFly family. It promises to be the “bug” that exceeds all expectations. At under $200, it represents the ultimate combination of performance and value — Enter the DragonFly Red.

AUDIOQUEST
DragonFly Red

Next-level Performance That's Even More Beautiful.

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt

THE HIGH NOTES


  • ESS ES9016 DAC chip
  • PIC32MX270 microprocessor
  • ESS Sabre 9601 provides 2.1 volts of output
  • Pro-level Performance

PRICE


$199.95

To satisfy the largest possible number of headphone enthusiasts, AudioQuest knew it would also need to design a model with higher output voltage. Red, with its output of 2.1 volts is the result. In our exclusive interview with AudioQuest, we were told:

“Of course, we also took that opportunity to incorporate better parts to deliver further improved sound quality.”

Important ingredients in Red’s next-level performance:

  • ESS ES9016 DAC chip — fast roll-off filter for even more natural detailed sound.
  • Microchip PIC32MX270 microprocessor — 32-bit architecture and extremely low current draw.
  • ESS Sabre 9601 provides 2.1 volts of output about the same output as a CD player, so Red drives any pair of headphones on the market without breaking a sweat. You can also connect Red from your computer directly into your audio system, and its output will be the same as a CD player. 

We think Black sounds beautiful, but if you require the more powerful output to drive high-efficiency headphones or powered speakers, DragonFly Red takes performance to the next level. The difference you will hear on a good pair of headphones or powered speakers is well worth the extra money. 

Red offers more holographic details that will substantially improve the sound of your music for only a slightly higher price compared to DragonFly Black. At under $200, Red is the ultimate combination of performance and value. 

To see how Red performs in a listening session, watch our DragonFly Red USB DAC Review.

Up next is DragonFly Cobalt. It's the smallest DragonFly and yet it packs the most high-end components inside without compromising audiophile-level performance — a remarkable achievement! We think its the best sounding little “bug” yet.

AUDIOQUEST
DragonFly Cobalt

The Most Audiophile Performance In A Tiny Package.

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt Computer

THE HIGH NOTES


  • ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip
  • PIC32MX274 microprocessor
  • ESS Sabre 9601 provides 2.1 volts of output
  • Improved power-supply

PRICE


$299.95

The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt is a very special portable or at home DAC for only $299. If you have a DragonFly Red or Black or the original DragonFly, you will love the improvements. Don’t get us wrong — the Red and Black are great products, but once you hear the difference with DragonFly Cobalt, it’s hard going back.

Important ingredients in Cobalt’s precedent-setting audiophile performance:

  • ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chipslow roll-off filter for the most natural detailed sound.
  • Microchip PIC32MX274 microprocessor — reduces current draw and increases processing speed by 33% over DragonFlys Black and Red.
  • ESS Sabre 9601 provides 2.1 volts of output — drives any pair of headphones on the market without breaking a sweat. Two volts are also plenty to drive any power amplifier, enabling you to use the Cobalt as a preamp to a power amp or a pair of powered speakers. 
  • Improved power-supply filtering designed to reduce WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular noise.

Out of all the DragonFlys, Cobalt is the smallest “bug” that offers the most natural and immersive holographic sound. The difference you’ll hear will make you want to start playing all of your favorite songs just to hear them like it’s the very first time. We think Cobalt is the best sounding little bug yet! 

To learn how Cobalt performs in a listening session, watch our DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC Review.

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt Phone

Final Verdict You Can't Go Wrong!

You just can't go wrong at these price-points. All three DragonFlys are excellent products. If your headphones or system are of decent quality, you’ll be impressed with the improvements you get from either one. And, if you own the original DragonFly, you might want to find a friend who needs a good portable DAC and upgrade to one of the new DragonFlys. Virtually plug and play with all mobile devices, they all pack enough power to drive most headphones. 

However, if you’re serious about headphone listening, then DragonFly Cobalt or Red will provide enough output (2.1 volts) to drive the most demanding headphones. If you’re really serious about playback, Cobalt delivers the most audiophile performance of them all.

Watch our video reviews on the DragonFly BlackRed, and Cobalt to see how they each performed in our listening sessions. Happy listening!

 

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