Review: The Ambitiously Well-Rounded AudioQuest DragonFly Black

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AudioQuest DragonFly Black DAC, Overview

Five years ago, AudioQuest came up with something totally unique and unexpected; a DAC and headphone amplifier inside a USB stick, the original DragonFly’s release took the world by storm. Supremely innovative, compact and simple to use, the award-winning DragonFly ushered in a new era of hi-res audio on the cheap for music lovers everywhere.

Click here to find the cheapest price on Amazon.

The latest version of the DragonFly Black serves as a brilliant sonic upgrade, improving on the dynamics of the previous versions and in particular offering (for the first time ever) compatibility with portable devices, namely Android and Apple devices, all this while lowering the price to below $100.

Audioquest Dragonfly Black Dac Review
Driving this LCD-2 (a high efficient planar) is no problem at all!

What Is A DAC?

If you’re a freshly minted audiophile, you’re probably wondering what the hell is a DAC and what does it do?

You’d be forgiven for thinking it looks just like a regular USB stick because it does. What you wouldn’t know, however, is that a DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) is a device/circuit that converts digital audio (CD files, MP3 files, etc) that can be processed by devices such as your laptop, smartphone, hi-fi stereo, etc to Analogue wave signals that can be processed by human ears (regular sound is transmitted in soundwaves which travel to our ears in a continuously varying analogue signal).

Now, in case you’re wondering, yes, every single device you use on a day to day basis has an onboard DAC. The problem is because most of these devices are built to multitask, the onboard DAC usually takes a back seat to everything else, resulting in weak, cheap circuits with poor playback, often introducing unwanted noise, and distortion.

A separate DAC has its own digital clock which is usually much more accurate than that of, say, the average PC, meaning the sound is infinitely better.

Dragonfly Black with Box
That matte black looks pretty nice and feels even nicer!

Design and Build

While the design, and build of the DragonFly Black DAC has remained constant over the years, a lot has changed inside.

For one, while the previous versions were only compatible with PCs, the latest offering works just as well with Apple or Android devices/smartphones because of the new Sabre DAC-ES9010 chip which uses 77% less power than the previous Texas Instruments chip.

The chip is capable of handling 24-bit to 96KHz resolution files, anything higher than 96KHz will be downsampled by your device first.

Sadly DSD (Direct Stream Digital) files remain incompatible.

As with the previous versions, the headphone amplifier and the analog volume controls remain, as well as the LEDs that light in different colors to show the sampling rate of the file playing, green for 44.1KHz (CD quality bit rate), blue for 48KHz, amber for 88.2.KHz and magenta for 96KHz.

To connect to your smartphone you will need an adapter, Micro-USB for Android and the camera adapter for Apple.

The DragonFly Black ships with minimal accessories, namely a plastic cap to prevent dirt getting into the USB port when it’s not in use and a leatherette pouch to carry it all in.

Specifications of the Dragonfly Black

Why Choose the Latest DragonFly Black?

All the various improvements in addition to the already standard features on the previous versions combine to make this one of the most powerful portable DACs around.

Offering a tellingly crystal clear and tight presentation from the moment you plug it in, the DragonFly Black more than improves your audio experience, it magnifies it. You don’t even have to be an audiophile to notice the difference. It’ll smack you in the face.

With a 1.2 volt output, this DAC is built for lower power headphones.

After testing the DragonFly Black with a variety of those, including AKG’s Y50s, it’s quite clear that the level of detail in my music files is much more than I ever imagined.

The bass resonance becomes much tighter and the overall sound is clear and impeccable, distinctive even to the untrained ear.

Every instrument suddenly becomes even more pronounced, and the soundstage bright and fulfilling, transforming a solid but otherwise unspectacular range of headphones into an audiophile’s wet dream.

Dragonfly Black and Red with Sennheiser HD598
The Black (accompanied here by its big brother) is an excellent choice for driving a Hi-Fi can like this Sennheiser HD598

Conclusion

Admittedly not everyone is particularly worried about the overall richness of their music, as long as the quality isn’t jarringly bad, most people don’t care.

That said if you’ve read this far you’re probably one of the few who actually cares. If so, with the new and improved DragonFly Black you’ll be met with a DAC and amp that will not only whet your audiophile appetite but will infinitely satisfy that hunger.

At comparable price levels, you’re unlikely to find another DAC that’s so good and well-rounded in its performance.

The only problem for purist audiophiles would be the lack of DSD compatibility, a niche that’s still underserved.

Conversely, if you didn’t care at all about the quality of your sound, let me tell you right now, the DragonFly Black is a rewardingly ambitious DAC and amplifier that will vastly improve your audio experience in more ways than you can imagine.

It’ll get you hooked on the supposedly ‘snobby’ ways of the audiophile and believe it or not or life will be the better for it.

As always, pop your questions, or anything else by the matter, in the comments below!

See what others have to say about the DragonFly Black.

Update (January 2018)

AudioQuest has released a firmware update for native MQA support, so if you’re a Tidal user you might wanna head over to AudioQuest’s official download & update instructions.

8 thoughts on “Review: The Ambitiously Well-Rounded AudioQuest DragonFly Black”

  1. Hi! Thanks for your review, i found it very accurate and useful. I have just one question for you: as my first ever DAC, should I buy the Black or the Red?
    I have 32ohms headphones and mainly listen to spotify 320kbps downloaded tracks, various bitrate mp3s and occasionally CDs via laptop: is there any difference in audio quality worth the price of the Red considering my typical use?

    1. The Black is a good choice for high efficient headphones like yours and although the Red has a superior DAC chip, whether you’re going to hear the difference also depends on the quality of the headphone. As a general rule, I would recommend the Red for headphones in the $200+ range.

      I’m in the process of doing a review of the DragonFly Red very soon. After that, I will be comparing the Black vs Red. So keep an eye on the site in the coming weeks.

      Hope this helps!

  2. This is the first time I see something like that!

    I was looking around to improve my audio experience and a DAC can be what I really need. I’m just tired of the weak audio quality.

    Thank you for the review and enlightening me!! I will definetely consider getting one for myself.

  3. I had never heard of a DAC before but now that I have read this post, these sound great. I do have one question, and I hope it is not too stupid LOL… but can you put this DAC directly into a headphone to play the music? I mean does it store it and make it available for use? If so, this is awesome and I can see so many uses. Since my hearing is not the greatest, I need to have all the clarity I can get so things are more understandable for me. This sounds like a great choice!

    1. It’s not a musicplayer/dac combined. This little fellow exclusively makes sure the music from your computer or mobile device gets send to your headphones in a much cleaner way, so bypassing the lower quality dac in your computer/mobile.

  4. The AudioQuest Dragonfly looks like a perfect addition to my laptop to help improve the quality of sound output. I use my audio output to to my speakers when DJ-ing from by laptop. Do you hear a major difference when comparing it to the built-in DAC in a computer, for example? I’d love to try this one out! Thank you for sharing!

  5. DACs seem interesting! Question though, is this a usb stick I plug in and then use with headphones exclusively made for the Dragonfly? Or can I use say my earbuds to connect with this? I am just a tad confused on the hardware part of the setup since you mentioned smart phone compatibility.
    Thanks in advance

    1. Hey Joe, yes you plug it in the usb port of your computer and then plug in your headphone in the 3.5mm jack on the DragonFly. By doing this the music will go through the DragonFly (instead of the lower quality onboard DAC of your computer) and into your headphones. You can use it with any brand of headphones.

      To hook this up on your smartphone you’ll need a separate adapter because smartphones don’t have full size usb ports.

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