I was offered the opportunity by Archimago to share a few thoughts regarding the Dragonfly v1.2 which I graciously received as a pre-wedding gift from my good friend the Mago himself. However, before I go into that, I'd like to provide a little background on how I feel the entire subjective high end audio hobby has changed over the past two decades or so. This leads up to why I believe that the majority of consumer electronic products have mostly reached a technological performance plateau over the last few years and why I don’t think there are really any truly “bad” audiophile products out there any more in general.
First of all, I've followed the general evolution of the high end-audio scene off and on for the greater part of two decades and have shared insights with friends from both the subjectivist and objectivist camps; with members of both camps invited for hi-fi auditions on a few occasions which led to some very interesting dialogue ☺. [Ed: War!] As for myself, I feel that I’m currently straddling both sides, being able to recognize the merits (and flaws) of each. However, over time, I feel that there will be some kind of eventual reunification as the once elusive “high end” audio performance can now be obtained at far more attainable prices.
The one area in which all audio enthusiasts can unanimously agree to is that digital audio has improved significantly over the last 20 years, with the overall performance bar taking a quantum leap in the 90s, and then having that state-of-the-art performance trickle down gradually into much less costly products since the turn of the millennium. I still vividly remember being in complete awe with mouth agape when I first saw the Mark Levinson No. 30 and No 31 DAC and transport combo at a local high end store in the early '90s. That combo was insanely expensive, costing more than a new luxury car, and looked like it could have come off the captain’s quarters from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s USS Enterprise. It didn’t just sound incredible, it was the pinnacle of acoustics, aesthetics and literally cost-no-object build quality that made it widely regarded as the Holy Grail of digital high end audio for several years to come. It would have been my “preciousss” had I been able to afford it.
|Mark Levinson No 30 Reference Digital Processor (Photo courtesy of Stereophile, Feb. 1992).|
Fast forward a few years and I was similarly awestruck when I saw my first HDTV feed on a 42” plasma display which at the time cost a cool $25K. Today a 42” LCD TV that is superior in every way would sell for closer to a hundredth of that price. Similarly, audio electronics have also advanced significantly in price-to-performance. Archimago not long ago measured my Oppo BDP-105 which had a measured performance that is off the charts, with noise and distortion levels that are significantly below the thresholds of human hearing acuity.
In fact, I believe that the “perceptible” (as opposed to measurable) performance of most consumer electronics products, which includes everything from digital cameras to flat screen displays to audio products have reached a plateau several years ago so the continued marketability of these products have primarily come from improving aesthetics and at the same time drastically reducing prices.
All these technological advances and marketing efforts are slowly but surely killing the subjective high-end audio industry. Once upon a time, there were mighty Mark Levinson products which were lusted for by many but attainable by only the most affluent and dedicated audiophiles. But today, something close to the “absolute sound” can be quite painlessly acquired by the masses, and it is that mass-market availability that has in no small way led to the decline and possibly the inevitable demise of high-end audio as we once knew it. An audio dealer will likely require significantly more persuasion to convince an ever shrinking base of hardcore and well-heeled audiophiles that a dCS Vivaldi digital playback system is worth $100K when one can buy an Oppo BDP-105 for a tad over $1K which also gets you one of the best Blu-Ray players available. That’s a pretty steep diminishing marginal return curve to climb no matter what your available resources. After all these years, the current reigning “preciousss” has in my opinion lost much of the sizzle in the ”s”. My MacBook Air is technologically advanced and also beautifully sculpted from curved shiny aluminum yet doesn’t have to cost six figures...
Stepping back to the subjective camp for a moment, I will make mention that Archimago stated that he feels that the Dragonfly gives an overall “warmer”, more pleasant and less hard-etched sound than the AudioEngine D3 despite a bit inferior measured performance. I think that’s yet another example of the paradox that fuels the never-ending debate between the subjective and objective camps. If the original audiophile goal should be to seek the most accurate reproduced sound possible, why do subjectivists (or even normal human beings without the “golden ears”) seem to often prefer euphonic distortions in the form of tubes, vinyl, etc.? However if the ultimate goal is to simply enjoy the music, then should we even care?
Finally, I will say a few words on my overall impression of the Dragonfly, but really, there is nothing much more that need to be said that hasn’t already been covered by many others before. It is well made and feels like a very solid and weighted USB stick. I never had the chance to do an intensive A/B test with it but the Dragonfly does a fine job of radically improving the headphone output from my MacBook Air which is most obvious when listening to AKG K-702 headphones, even though it is still a very noticeable improvement even with cheap earbuds. The soundstage is much larger, with instruments having far better stereo imaging and voices had more body and depth. The Dragonfly was able to extract significantly more micro-details, especially on live recordings so it is able to more convincingly put you at the recording venue when compared to listening straight off a MacBook Air or iPhone. The bass is full but not bloated. Overall, the sound is detailed yet well balanced and smooth. There was minimal listening fatiguing even after a couple of hours of critical listening, and I was able to listen at louder than normal levels.
Overall, this nifty $150 DAC offers exceptional price-to-performance much like a $500 DLSR or LED TV, or the latest Android smartphone or many other techno gizmo these days. Heck, it may even sound as good as the revered ML No 30 DAC (in a DBT, of course) if plugged into my main system. Near state-of-the-art performance in consumer electronics products has never been better or more attainable.