Steven Rittey | 1st October 2020
Before I started working at AV Online, I was a Product Manager for a travel company. On a fairly regular basis, I would receive through the post or at trade meetings a selection of various USB sticks full of images, videos or information PDFs about some known and lesser-known holiday destinations. I’ve been given USB sticks of all shapes, sizes and shapes over the years and I had an extensive collection of them on my desk.
Maybe it is just a coincidence then that my first review in the world of AV is about a USB stick rather than a nice Hi-Fi or Home Cinema set up. However, it is not a bad introduction to the industry that I am starting with one of the smallest possible audio upgrades.
I spend a lot of time at my laptop either writing, editing photos or online shopping and I’ll generally plug my headphones in and put on a CD, a YouTube mix or an Apple Music stream whilst tapping away at the keys. I’d never really considered that I wasn’t listening to the best possible version of the song before until I found out more about DACs. Essentially, adding a Digital-to-Analog Converter is like fitting a turbo to a 3.5mm jack.
The award-winning DragonFly Red is a USB stick-sized Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) from the cable specialist AudioQuest. The device enhances the quality of the music from the music source to the user’s headphones and is compatible with most phones and portable music players with an adapter. On a PC or Mac, the DragonFly simply slots into a standard USB port and automatically connects with some minor manual adjustments of settings and the equaliser behind the scenes. In summary, the DragonFly Red will turn my MacBook Pro into a music player that approaches studio quality and will alter the way that I listen to music on the move.
As a relative newcomer to the nuances of Hi-Fi, I didn’t realise that there was a difference between the quality of sound that is recorded in the artist’s studio to the music downloaded, streamed or found on a CD by the end consumer. I’ve always presumed that the music found on a CD was the highest quality possible and never considered bit-rate conversions and how this can impact the sound delivered through a pair of headphones.
Purchasing a new pair of headphones to upgrade sound quality is an obvious route to take, however, using a DAC might bring out the best of what you already have. It was only when I used the DragonFly Red for the first time that I could noticeably hear the change in quality through the MacBook. This is achieved through by-passing the built-in Apple DAC to an external one and then selecting the correct settings in the equaliser for optimum sound performance. For ease, the colour of the dragonfly LED logo changes depending on the bit rate selected in the Audio MIDI Setup.
When music is channelled through the DAC, the native master volume increases by several notches and my budget Coloud in-ear buds handled the increase well. There is undoubtedly a clear improvement to the output when compared to not using a DragonFly. The bass is punchier on dance tracks, the treble is louder on vocals on songs like Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ and there is more definition to the clarity of the sound through the headphones. You can hear the hidden beats and feel more immersed in the music. I feel like I have not only opened up my music to a higher level of sound, but my MacBook is now performing at a vastly improved level and unlocked new technical possibilities. With an improved set of headphones from a premium brand like DALI, Denon or Audio-Technica, the experience would be further enhanced.
Despite being aimed at the audiophile end of the market, the DAC, when paired with widely available headphones, is an easy upgrade to make. I plan on getting a USB A to USB-C adaptor to easily connect the DragonFly Red with my phone to enjoy enhanced listening experience whilst on the move. When teamed up with noise-cancelling headphones, the combination should remove many of the distractions when commuting or most ‘working from home’ background sounds.
If you are looking for a quick, fuss-free way of dramatically improving the sound quality from a wide range of personal digital devices, then you should invest in a DragonFly Red. There are also two other models available, the DragonFly Black and DragonFly Cobalt, that will suit different budgets when compared to the Red model.
Quite simply, adding a DragonFly DAC is a quick and easy win for audio gains in a USB sized package.