It looks good and feels great in the hand with a slight rubberised texture to the surface of what seems to be a metal shell underneath. As you can see above, it is slightly smaller than my AudioEngine D3 previously tested. Despite the smaller size, the weight on the Dragonfly feels heavier; hence a noticeable ruggedness and density to the package. It comes with a small black pouch for safe keeping along with the USB cap. I don't think the Dragonfly comes with a 1/4"-to-3.5mm adapter cable like the D3.
|You can see the Dragonfly indicator change color depending on sample rate. AKG Q701 connected.|
Other specs like power (150mW Dragonfly, 200mW D3), both being driverless USB Audio 1.1 devices with a maximum of 24/96 sample rate (it is capable of the important 88kHz for DSD conversions) further adds to the functional similarities between the D3 and Dragonfly. However, output impedance - <1 ohm Dragonfly vs. 10 ohms D3 - is quite different and in the Dragonfly's favor. These driverless USB DACs make it really easy to just "plug 'n play" with Windows and Mac OS X - I did not try using Linux but that should not be a problem.
I. Objective EvaluationA. The Basics
As you may recall, at 100% volume, the AudioEngine D3 would clip. This was noted to happen with the Dragonfly v1.0 as well; discussed in the Stereophile measurements, and used to show some atrocious distortion numbers by Light Harmonic when they did their "Geek Out vs. the Others, 3rd Installment" (5% THD+N!? Sorry, that's just plain nasty and paints the situation in a much poorer light than it should even though objectively correct...). Well, it looks like this issue has been resolved with v1.2; here's the oscilloscope measurement from the unit I have on hand:
|Square wave at 0dBFS.|
|Sine wave at 0dBFS. No clipping at 100% volume.|
Impulse response is the typical symmetrical appearance of a linear phase oversampling filter. The signal maintains absolute polarity. No surprise.
B. RightMark 6.4.0
Test machine + AudioQuest Dragonfly --> shielded phono-to-RCA cable --> E-MU 0404USB --> shielded USB --> Win 7 laptop running RightMark 6.4.0
Summary of the machines tested (the laptops were described here in more detail although OS has been updated):
1. ASUS Taichi 21 Ultrabook (early 2013): Intel "Ivy Bridge" i5-3317U (1.7GHz dual), 4GB, Windows 8.1 x64, 128GB mSATA SSD, USB3 port, foobar + WASAPI component
2. Apple MacBook Pro, 15" (mid 2009): Intel Core 2 Duo (2.26GHz dual), 8GB, OS X 10.9.2 "Mavericks", USB2 port, WD 640GB SATA HD, Decibel player (AIFF files)
|Frequency Response - Transporter seems to roll off a wee bit more.|
|Dynamic Range test.|
|Stereo crosstalk - note the significant difference between the Dragonfly vs. the others.|
|Frequency Response (no significant difference <20kHz)|
|Noise level - notice Dragonfly slightly higher especially in the bass.|
|Stereo Crosstalk - Dragonfly again significantly higher crosstalk... Very impressed by the Transporter using XLR cables!|
II. Subjective Evaluation
I spent about 2 weeks listening to music with this DAC/amp (some before, and some after the objective testing) and comparing what I heard with the same tunes off the AudioEngine D3 and ASUS Xonar Essence One (which remains my primary DAC on the computer workstation). Each of the devices have quite different DAC architectures; Dragonfly with the ESS Sabre, D3 with an Asahi Kasei AK4396, and the larger Essence One using TI/Burr Brown PCM1795s (quite unfair comparison given that it's not a simple USB bus powered device!). It's impossible to "instantaneously" switch headphones / DACs and then level-match compare... I tried my best.
|A potpourri of DACs and headphones: AudioEngine D3, AudioQuest Dragonfly 1.2, ASUS Xonar Essence One; Sennheiser HD800, AKG Q701, Etymotic ER-4B IEM.|
I started with listening to some "vocal audiophile jazz" - Diana Krall's The Look Of Love (2003 24/96 DVD-A) being one of my favourites over the years and particularly "Let's Fall In Love" as a track I've been using to compare new gear with since around 2000. I like the instrumental portion in the middle of the track and particularly the detailed resolution of the bass and piano through that portion. With the Dragonfly, the piano sounded rich and full. The bass was detailed with each pluck easily discerned. In comparison to the D3, the Dragonfly sounds more laid back and "smoother". The D3 just seemed to have a bit more sparkle, slightly brighter; for example the high-hats on the song stood out a bit more from the rest of the instruments. Personally, with my "Anaxilus mod" Sennheiser HD800, I preferred the D3 rendition but I can imagine with even brighter headphones, the Dragonfly may be preferred.
While staying with the vocal genre, I listened to some Nat King Cole - Cole Español (HDTracks 24/96 release, and no, I don't actually believe this album has enough resolution to warrant the high-resolution format). On a track like "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas", the Dragonfly was a joy to listen to with the HD800! This old 1958 recording can be a bit "brittle" through many DACs and the Dragonfly just made the instruments sound less harsh and the voice "ultra-smooth". I found the same on some traditional Chinese erhu recordings where the pleasant demeanor of the Dragonfly helped impart an enjoyable, smoother experience.
Time for some heavier fare - how about AC/DC Back In Black (1988 DR12 CD)? Pump this baby up to rock! The intro to track 1 - "Hells Bells" - with those church (er... hell's?) bells sounded realistic in terms of the attack and smooth decay using the Dragonfly. While not exactly the paragon of audiophile recording technique, this analogue recording from 1980 is about as "hard" as I like my rock to be and the Dragonfly was able to render it nicely. However, I found the Dragonfly to be a bit more on the "polite" side of things as compared to the more aggressive sound of the D3 which I thought fits this type of music better.
I listened to a number of other genres to get a feel for things - Pet Shop Boys Actually (2001 remaster), Yello Touch Yello (2009), Eiji Oue & Minnesota Orchestra Stravinsky: Song Of The Nightingale, Firebird, Rite Of Spring (1996 Reference Recordings), Ed Sheeran x (2014). In general, I thought that the Dragonfly performed well but was more at home with an acoustic set than say the synthpop or electric guitar rock. Despite the dynamic range compression especially near the end of the song, a track such as Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire" with overlaid vocals and relatively simple instrumentation found on x sounded just fantastic through the HD800 with the Dragonfly; bass response on that track was simply cavernous in depth.
Not unexpectedly, the much larger (and unportable) ASUS Xonar Essence One sounded better than the USB stick DACs. This has more to do with the quality of the headphone amp than the actual DAC function I believe - providing a more full-bodied, powerful sound overall (even more cavernous bass at the end on "I See Fire"!).