Audioquest DragonFly Black Vs Red Review

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As the pioneer of the USB DAC movement, Audioquest already has a pretty big and vastly loyal following.

While most companies lucky enough to find themselves in that position tend to take it for granted that loyalties will remain, and simply stop innovating and pushing the limits of technology, Audioquest is one of the few which haven’t rested on their laurels following success.

Their initial success with the original DragonFly DAC seems to have spurred them on to make more and more advances, releasing an improved version of the DragonFly DAC, the DragonFly Black v1.2 in 2013, culminating in their latest releases, version 1.5, called the DragonFly Black and the all-new DragonFly Red.

Dragonfly Red vs Black

Defining a DAC

Before diving into the finer details of both DACs, here’s a brief explanation of what exactly a DAC is for those who might still not be familiar with the term/device.

A DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) basically converts audio files from the digital format understood by computers, smartphones, CD players, etc to the analog waveform audible to human ears.

Without this all-important circuitry, your music would just be a sequence of 1s and 0s (binaryform) and you would never hear it.

Now practically every device you’ll use to listen to music carries an onboard DAC but these almost always do the bare minimum in terms of sound reproduction. External DACs always offer better functionality and superior sonic reproduction.

Dragonfly Black Portable DAC Amp

Design and Build

It’s safe to say that just a few years ago mobile audiophile rigs used to be a rare sight and that was mostly because of the design flaws.

The gadgets that were necessary to get the finely detailed sound reproduction every audiophile craves were cumbersome and excruciatingly unattractive to carry around for most people.

The original DragonFly changed all that and with the two new versions, Audioquest has continued in the same vein.

Small and compact, the USB flash drive lookalikes are very similar to each other in design and build. In fact, the only difference physically is their colors.

The Black comes in all black (of course) with a green DragonFly logo and the word DragonFly in gold. The Red is exactly the same except the main color is Red.

The Red is definitely the more aesthetically pleasing of the two, with the glossy red color standing out and more likely to strike a chord with the fashion conscious. The matte black of the DragonFly Black will, however, be more appealing to the more conservative at heart.

Inside, the two DACs carry identical PIC32MX processors. Beyond that, the differences start to get more pronounced, with the DAC chips slightly different.

The Black uses the ESS 9010 Sabre DAC which has a peak voltage output of 1.2.

The Red, on the other hand, uses the ESS 9016 Sabre DAC with the voltage at a high 2.1 volts, incidentally, the same DAC chip is used in the $5000 Simaudio Moon 380D (make of that what you will).

The somewhat similar DAC chips used mean both DACs have a much lower draw on battery life than the previous version of the DragonFly Black, precisely 77% less draw making both compatible with Android and Apple smartphones/products.

The Red, however, outshines the Black in terms of voltage output meaning while the Black will only manage to drive lower power headphones the Red can drive pretty much any headphone you throw at it.

Dragonfly Red Portable DAC Amp

Performance

Plugging your headphones directly into your laptop or smartphone then via the DragonFly Black reveals a stark difference in sound quality. A difference so easily noticeable that you wouldn’t need any expertise to hear it, in fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the difference is like night and day.

The audio quality immediately becomes more nuanced, the details finer, richer and more pronounced than you would have imagined. Bass all of a sudden becomes vibrant and colorful while the highs and mids gain a certain solidity that makes it impossible for them to be overshadowed.

The separation between different instruments is mind-bogglingly clear and the soundstage so well defined its impossible not to appreciate why audiophiles go crazy over it.

Comparing the Black to the Red produces a much more subtle difference in audio quality. While the black is clearly good at what it does, there are no two ways about it, the Red is definitely better.

The audio from the Red is much more sophisticated, the bass is tight and unrelenting while the highs and mids are fully present. The soundstage is infinitely better and gains a real sensuality to it that you won’t hear anywhere else.

The fact that the Red can handle the more power consuming headphones means this difference is even more pronounced the better your headphones are (the better they are the more power hungry they will be).

Finally, the Red makes use of a digital volume control from the 9016 chip where the Black uses the analog version of the previous DragonFly DACs. This change allows greater control over the Red’s volume and allows for finer adjustments as per the user.

Dragonfly Red and Black Head to Head

The Smart Choice: Red or Black?

Besides the color, the other immediately noticeable difference between the DragonFly Black and the Red is, of course, price. At almost twice the $99 price of the Black, the Red is obviously the more expensive DAC ($194), a fact that comes with its own advantages for the Red.

But because the two DACs are so similar in a lot of ways, choosing one over the other could be an unenviable task especially as the differences in performance are so subtle.

An effective way of choosing the best option for you would be to consider your headphones first.

If you own low-level $50 headphones to mid-level $150 headphones you’ll definitely be better served by going for the cheaper Black, and if you own headphones that price from $200 upwards (or close to that) you should definitely push for the Red. The extra cost will be well worth the reward.

Any questions, let me know in the comments below!

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.

15 thoughts on “Audioquest DragonFly Black Vs Red Review”

  1. Checking in late here but do have a question. I have a iPhone 8 Plus and Audio Technica ath-M50x headphones and have just been using the Apple dongle. As the headphones aren’t high end would there be any noticeable difference using the Dragonfly Black, as I am assuming that the Red might be wasted on my set-up?
    Thanks for the great review!

    1. The ATH-M50x is a great closed headphone and with its 38 ohms it’s very suitable to be used with portable players. I do believe however that the M50x will benefit from a portable DAC like the Dragonfly Black. While taking into account the price of the M50x, the Dragonfly Red might be a bit too much, but the Black, with its lower price point would make an excellent companion! Do keep in mind that you would need to buy the Lightning-to-USB adapter to hook up your Dragonfly to your iPhone 8+.

  2. What if you plan to use it in between an iPhone and home audio amp or receiver to listen in 2.2 mode? If not using with headphones, will the red still be a noticeable upgrade?

  3. Thanks for the review. Really informative. I have some Bose QC 35II’s. Can I use either of the dragonfly DACs with them whilst wired or do they not work with NC headphones?

      1. Great thanks. But would it improve the sound quality? Does the Bose not have its own dac? Or at least it’s own amp. Would the dragonfly override this?

        1. Hey Will, that’s a good question. Every Bluetooth headphone has its own DAC, otherwise, it would not be able to make music from the data it receives wirelessly from your audio device. The only way to bypass the internal DAC is if your Bluetooth headphone can also be hooked up wired, which is the case with the Bose QC35. Cheers!

  4. Hi Jurgen!

    I’ve got Audio-Technica MSR7. They are not hard to drive – 35 ohms. But the price is around $250. I’m going to listen the music from my Windows 10 Lenovo laptop. Which do you suggest Black or Red (is it worth paying 🙂 )? Thanks a lot!

    1. Hey Alex, the MSR7 is a very efficient headphone so the Dragonfly Black is sure to have enough juice to power it. It will give you better audio quality than the standard audio jack from your laptop, as to be expected. Depending on your budget you could consider the Red of course, as it will be more future proof and it sounds better than the Black. Cheers!

  5. Patrick Allen

    Hi. Really appreciate the information about the DragonFly red and black. I recently purchased the AKG N40 and intend to listen to them through my iPhone 7. Just wondering which would be a better choice in this scenario.
    Thanks

    1. The N40’s are pretty high-end earphones and while I’m sure they sound good from the built-in DAC, I think you’re holding yourself back and a portable DAC like the Dragonfly Red would be justified on these babies!

  6. Hi there!
    Thanks for the informative comparison between the two. I have a B&W P7 wired headphone and my playing source would be my iphone 7. Which DAC should i go for? Am much considering about the difference of the price also.
    Thanks!

    1. For your headphone, the Dragonfly Black is a good choice. The P7 is a low impedance headphone (only 22 Ohm) and the Black has enough power to drive it properly. If you’re thinking about buying a high impedance headphone in the future, you might consider the Red, as it has more power. There’s also the difference in sound quality, but that is of course personal taste. Keep in mind you need Apple’s Camera Adapter to connect the Dragonfly with the iPhone 7. Cheers!

  7. Hi…
    Great information about DragonFly RED and Black, appreciated!

    I have ‘Etymotic Research ER-4PT’ which DragonFly should I bye RED or Black.
    And also please suggest me what can I use to get the best sound from my earphones.
    I use a laptop with Linux OS.

    Thanks!

    1. Both DACs are well capable of driving your ER-4PT. Which one you choose is entirely up to you 🙂

      Keep in mind the DragonFly is not officially supported under Linux. However, you can make it work! Here’s where I found a possible solution: http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/setup-dragonfly-on-ubuntu-linux.339486/

      Besides a quality DAC, the other thing is, of course, a quality music source. You can read my review on HDTracks, which is a high-definition music download site if you want the best quality music files. For streaming there’s Tidal Hifi

      Cheers!

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