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A tiny USB digital-to-analog converter from AudioQuest

Can a $249 digital-to-analog converter/headphone amplifier deliver state-of-the-art sound? The Audiophiliac listens to the AudioQuest DragonFly to find out.

The AudioQuest DragonFly is a USB-powered (it doesn't use batteries or an external power supply) digital-to-analog converter. I usually need some time to get a handle on the sound of a component, but within minutes of plugging in the tiny $249 DAC I knew exactly what made it so special. It sounds clear and clean, so there's less standing between the music and my ears.

The AudioQuest DragonFly AudioQuest

The DragonFly is a bona fide audio component, designed by Gordon Rankin, a man known in audiophile circles as a great tube electronics engineer, but Rankin is also a computer audio guy. He's one of the few DAC designers with equal depth of knowledge in analog and digital audio technology.

The DragonFly uses an ESS Sabre DAC, a high-performance chip more typically found in higher-end CD and Blu-ray players. The DragonFly works with MP3s and CD-standard 16-bit/44KHz to 24-bit/96KHz file formats. Inside, there are 107 components mounted on a 0.6x1.7-inch four-layer board including regulators and custom capacitors.

The DragonFly was designed with the audiophile in mind, so instead of relying on a digital volume control that might reduce signal resolution and sound quality, the DragonFly's volume control works in the analog domain for the best sound quality. The analog volume control tracks the movement of the volume slider on your computer. The DragonFly has a 3.5mm output jack.

It can be used with desktop speakers, like my Emotiva Airmotiv 4s, or a component hi-fi system, or it can directly drive headphones. I tried it all three ways, and the DragonFly's stunning resolution was always a joy to listen to.

To put the DragonFly's performance in context I compared it first with the Halide Design DS DAC ($295) that I raved about earlier this year. The DS DAC has a softer and richer sonic balance, which I still like, but the DragonFly's sound is clearer and more precise. Bass is tighter and better defined. Listening over the Airmotiv 4 speakers, the DragonFly's more expansive stereo image floats freer of the speakers than it does with the DS DAC.

The DragonFly trounced the DS DAC, but how would it fare in a shootout with the $495 Halide Design DAC HD? The DragonFly didn't win that one; the DAC HD had more bass and sounded more dynamically alive, and had better overall tonality. The stereo image was even bigger, and still had razor-sharp detail. When you hear a truly great DAC, like the DAC HD, on a desktop system, you're a giant step closer to the sound of a first rate high-end hi-fi.

At first I was less happy with the DragonFly's sound when I listened to it as a headphone amp. I plugged in the Audio Technica ATH M50 and Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones, and found the DragonFly's sound lightweight. Bass oomph was lacking, which overemphasized midrange and treble frequencies. Then I popped on my Velodyne vPulse in-ears, and the DragonFly sounded positively awesome! My JH-13 custom-molded in-ears were also fantastic, so all I can say for now is the Dragonfly might not be a great match with some full-size headsets. We'll see.

Granted, it's a $249 desktop DAC, so you can't really expect it to be a giant killer on every application, but the DragonFly still has a lot going for it.