AudioQuest DragonFly Red Review

Simplicity.

I don’t think it can be overstated at how critical simplicity is for success in so many avenues of life, art, design, science, technology, music or high-fidelity – to name but a few.

Simplicity in listening to music is something innumerable companies and manufacturers have pursued with dogged determination for decades. Some, like Apple, Amazon and Google have helped the world find music more easily than ever. Some, like AudioQuest, have helped make it easy for those who want their music to sound better with products like the Dragonfly Series of portable USB DAC/Preamp/Headphone Amps.

In my experience, there are few things in hi-fi that are as simple to use, sound as good and cost as little as the USB-powered Dragonfly Red DAC.

Build, design and construction

It is small enough to get lost in a pocket, but inside packs an almost unbelievable amount of technology for its size. It comes in three specifications – Black, Red (which I’m reviewing here), and Cobalt. They are priced at $99 USD, $199 USD and $299 USD respectively. The Red features an 32-bit PIC32MX micro-controller, 64-bit digital volume control courtesy of an ESS Sabre 9016 DAC chipset, asynchronous USB, support for everything from mp3, WAV, FLAC (etc.) to MQA all the way up to 24-bit/96kHz and has 2.1v ESS headamp (unity-gain) output to help drive more demanding headphones from its one-and-done 3.5mm socket. It is compatible with iOS, Windows and Android devices (from an Apple iPhone hardware standpoint, you need an Lightning to USB camera adaptor, which adds roughly $25 USD to the tab).

On the looks front it is a shiny, wet-glossy red that reminds one of hard nail polish. It features the nice touch of a tiny LED dragonfly logo that cycles from green (44.1kHz) to blue (48kHz) to yellow (88.2kHz) and finally purple (96kHz) to let the user know what sample rate the file you’re listening to is. It comes with a very tight-fitting black, faux leather slide case for pocket or computer bag safekeeping too.

You can use the Dragonfly not only with headphones, but if you have a 3.5mm to RCA adaptor (which AQ provided in the form of their Big Sur 1m connector), then you can jack into a larger two-channel system for line-level output – which in my case was into a Pass Labs XP-12 preamplifier/X150.8 stereo power amplifier feeding a pair of Harbeth M40.1. For this review I used the Dragonfly Red with a pair of Audeze iSine20, HIFIMAN HE1000se and AIAIAI TMA-2 HD headphones via my iPhone7 Plus and my Apple MacBook Air 13-inch.

Listening

The first thing I did once I unpacked the Red from its simple, but adequate box was trip a bit at just how small everything had to be inside the sleek casework. I tripped less than I did when first assessing the Apple Lightning dongle years ago and how small the amp/DAC combo is in it, but, nonetheless, knowing what AudioQuest was able to pack inside the ‘fly series cannot help but leave you impressed at Gordon Rankin’s circuit design (of Wavelength Audio – podcast interview with him HERE) and all the custom coding that went into to making it sound as ballsy and colorful as it does.

I used the Dragonfly for months listening to everything under the sun without a glitch. It does exactly what it’s designed to do. You plug it in, it either gets recognized automatically (TIDAL), or pops up as an output option (Qobuz), or you simply choose it from your mobile device or computer’s sound output menu.

One of the thing’s you notice first after listening to a standard output and then going to the Red is the heft and added dynamic expressiveness to not only the lower-mids and bottom end, but how much more fleshed-out the overall frequency range sounds. Texture, spatiality and a pleasing organic enrichment, if you will, is revealed in the sound signature. It just makes everything sound like it has real power and weight behind it, hence my ‘ballsy’ descriptor earlier.

Timbral and tonal color is just a touch of the slider bar on the warm side of neutral, (this translated to the same basic sonic signature via the headphone output when used as a preamp connected to my two-channel system), most noticed from stock outputs with added resin on the bow of cello, violin, more skin texture and hard snap to stick work, and guitar-fret slides sounding more infused with human touch. Horns have more brassy color showing through and a veil is lifted on low-level detail in particular on piano/organ pedal work (“The Man I Love” Ethan Iverson Quartet – ECM), acoustic/electronic bass lines (“Hungry Like The Wolf” Duran Duran – Parlophone) along with an increased sense of resolution up top and in the presence region through ‘phones like the HE1000se in particular. Yes, this is a $199 DAC/headamp and the HIFIMAN retails for $3,500, but I certainly never felt cheated while rocking out to my Qobuz Playlist. Tracks like “Ain’t No Sunshine When She Gone” by Buddy Guy had me head bobbing, impressed with the fullness and impact of the track’s kick drum. Same goes for the sweet, drawn-out decay off Guy’s picking and Tracy Chapman’s vocals popping just ahead of Guy’s in the Z-axis spatially.

Another example of the Red providing real bang-for-buck came on songs like Kevin Morby’s “Cut Me Down,” off his 2016 release Singing Saw which features a huge amount of reverb and overdubs on the drum track which relate a believable sense of the recording space, relayed here with a decent dosh of the cavernous-ness I’m used to from more expensive headamps like the LTA MicroZOTL MZ3. ‘When No One Cares” is classic Sinatra and the Red is capable of getting not only the tempo of his phrasing spot on, but enough of the heft that real chest emanation in his vocals carries. Old school ’90s house classics like ‘Electrorloge” by Troublemakers with its heavy, rolling bass lines, electronic effects, synth work and constant drum-machine attack carried all the oomph and speed I remember from the walls of bass bins that clubs I frequented in my 20s were fitted with.

Conclusion

Sure, not every song sounded as great through the AudioQuest Dragonfly Red as I wanted it to, but that’s because it had raised my expectations high enough on most tracks or albums I played through it that when a cut sounded a bit more closed in than I knew it should through a more expensive amp/DAC combo I would get upset… upset at a $199 USB DAC/headamp. “What is wrong with you?” I kept yelling via my internal dialog. It’s impossible to fault to the Red. Period. For less than the cost of some LPs I own – which get played only a few times a year – you can have a piece of legitimate hi-fi kit that makes listening to all your digital music for hours a day as easy as popping the foil on a stick of gum. I don’t know what could be more simple.

Additional Specs

  • Portable USB DAC with 3.5mm preamplifier and headphone amp output
  • Sample rate support for up to 24-bit/96kHz
  • Dimensions: 62mm L x 19mm W x 12mm H
  • Weight: 22 grams
  • Price: $199 USD
  • One year warranty

COMPANY INFO
AudioQuest

COMMENTS
Simply Nobody's picture

Next, comparison with AQ-DF Cobalt, may be? :-) .......

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