Improving the sound quality of your computer has often been a grey area for those outside the audiophile circle. Most people think of upgrading headphones and speakers for better sound, but what about the source itself? While your earbuds and speaker choices will effect the final sound output, the digital to analog converter will determine the quality of signal sent to those devices. With an increasing number of USB DACs (digital-to-analog converter) hitting the scene, listening to higher quality sound is becoming easier and less cumbersome for all. Case in point: the Audioquest Dragonfly.
Features: The Dragonfly looks like a memory stick, but performs a more exciting task: delivering higher quality audio than your built-in computer soundcard. By using precision clocks (to control the music's timing), and higher quality amplifiers, the Dragonfly outputs a clear audio signal on a mini stereo jack. You can connect to powered speakers, your home stereo gear, or just use it to amplify headphones. Since this DAC is geared toward the audiophile crowd, special attention was given to the volume control design.
With iTunes and other media players, volume should be set to maximium. Then, by using your computer's system volume as a marker (in OS X the audio midi setup controls this), the Dragonfly translates this level to its own analog volume - yep, it's in the USB stick. Analog control for the volume means greater resolution for all listening levels. As for file playback, the Dragonfly supports MP3 files, but higher resolution audio can also be decoded (up to 24bit/96Khz). When you select different sample rates on your computer, the color of the Dragonfly changes.
For example, your standard CD files will illuminate the DAC green (44.1Khz), and higher sample rates will light up blue (48Khz), orange (88.2Khz), and magenta (96Khz). Websites like iTrax and HD Tracks provide high resolution music downloads that go beyond CD resolution (44.1).
Listening: With my Macbook in hand, I tested the Dragonfly's ability to power earbuds and headphones. Other than plugging in the DAC to my USB and securing headphones in the jack, all that was left was to select the Dragonfly for output in Audio MIDI setup. As I listened to my (Etymotic ER-4) in-ear monitors through the Dragonfly, I began to recognize the difference from my Macbook's headphone jack. The sound of instruments became more defined with a greater sense of realism. The bass was tighter and vocals stood out with easily disernible contrast to the other instruments. When I used more demanding headphones (Sennheiser HD-600's) the Dragonfly maintained enough volume, but for driving the HD-600's I prefered a seperate headphone amp for the ultimate in sound reproduction.
While headphones can be directly plugged in, a mini-stereo plug-to-RCA, or a mini-to-mini stereo plug will be needed to accomodate most hi-fi reciever inputs. Primarily being a cable manufacturer, Audioquest sent along some specialty adapter cables to try with my home sound system. Listening through my stereo setup proved worthwhile, and certainly brought about tighter sound with more dimensionality from my stereo speakers. Compared to my Macbooks output, the difference was obvious to even non-audiophile friends. Myself and others repeatedly used the term "warm" to describe the overall sonic color. While warm, the resolution was clearly improved from the Macbook's output.
As with the headphones, the details and space between instruments became noticebly improved, and bass was tighter and seemingly more extended. On speakers, the depth and width to the stereo image was rendered with dimension, rather than being flat on the Macbook's audio output. Compared to other more expensive DACs on hand, the Dragonfly demonstrated less definition and clarity. But, for those just gaining exposure to hi-fidelity sound, the Dragonfly represents a portable option that brings the listener greater clarity compared to those noisy computer audio jacks.
At $250, the Dragonfly introduces people to the hi-fidelity sound experience. While this might seem expensive, remember that the minaturaized audio technologies contained in the Dragonfly make it one of the most compact quality engineered DACs on the market. While better more perminant solution exist for connecting your computer and stereo, the Dragonfly represents an obvious sonic upgrade from the computer's built-in sound card.
Pros: Improved sound over interal computer soundcard, Compact and portable with laptops, great for in-ear headphones, improves all computer sound output (i.e. music, movies, web)
Cons: The USB DAC becomes weighted down with stereo adapter cables, Demanding audiophile headphones may require different amplification, Will not playback full resolution of sample rates above 96Khz.
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by the manufacturer for testing and review purposes.
(Images: Vahan Baladouni)