AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter Review
Company & Product Overview
AudioQuest has been inspiring us at Audio Advice for almost 40 years with its fabulous products. AudioQuest’s founder, Bill Low, is an avid music lover and continually encourages his team to come up with innovative ideas to improve the sound. This has contributed to the huge success of AudioQuest, which now has a vibrant sales force that travels around the country to facilitate their dealers and appear in consumer shows. With the popularity of computer music, AudioQuest’s team, which is composed of passionate music enthusiasts, felt the market’s need for some portable, smaller device that could improve the sound quality of computer music. This need pushed them to create the original AudioQuest DragonFly in 2012.
The DragonFly is a small audio component that gets connected directly to a USB port. It serves as a Digital-to-Analog-Converter (DAC), headphone, amp, and a preamp. It won several awards such as Stereophile’s 2012 “Computer Audio Component of the Year,” “Budget Component of the Year” for the same year, Tone Audio’s 2012 “Digital Product of the Year,” and Computer Audiophile’s 2012 “Computer Audiophile Product of the Year.” With its exceptional quality and features, the DragonFly deserved pride. Later, the originally designed DragonFly was substituted with DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red.
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt is the latest addition to the DragonFly range of products. Today’s review is about the DragonFly Cobalt, which promises to provide the best sound experience.
Design & Build Quality
Products in the Dragonfly family looks like a bit oversized USB device. The male USB connection on the device connects directly to a computer or requires an adapter to connect to a smartphone or tablet. There is no need for a power cord. On the other end is a tiny plug output that enables you to connect to a pair of headphones or connect with an audio system or powered speakers using a cable. The DragonFly bypasses a DAC on a computer or phone by having a USB DAC inside it that enhances the sound quality. The sound output of the DragonFly is much more powerful and enchanting than an ordinary headphone jack on a PC or mobile phone.
Though the parts of the DragonFly Cobalt come in from different parts of the world, it is fully assembled in the United States at an AudioQuest’s center in Ohio.
The build quality of the product has gone through continuous improvement and the latest version seems to be even better. Its size is reduced by almost 10%, and now it is easier to carry it. The Cobalt’s blue has a glowing sharp look, and the logo appearing on it changes colors while plugged it to show the status of the device.
Features & Technology
Throughout the AudioQuest’s journey of designing the DragonFly products, they have been using the expertise of the founder of Wavelength Audio, Gordon Rankin. Gordon Rankin is an expert creator of digital audio and is praised by many people for revolutionizing the world of computer audio with his USB DACs, and the invention of asynchronous USB.
Both of the AudioQuest’s devices, the DragonFly Red and DragonFly Cobalt have a very powerful headphone amplifier. Competent in handling 2.1 volts of output, it can drive any pair of headphones available in the market. 2 volts is the same output a CD play generally has, that enables you to connect the AudioQuest’s DragonFly Cobalt from your computer to an audio system and the output would match that of a CD player. 2 volts are enough to drive any power amp, enabling you to use the Cobalt as a preamp into either a power amp or pair of powered speakers.
Having enough output is a great thing but ensuring control over it with zero noise is a huge trial. The Red & new Cobalt both use a bit-perfect digital volume control mechanism which ensures a very high signal to noise ratio, providing a noiseless experience. It operates seamlessly with both Apple & Android.
AudioQuest provides a DragonTail adaptor with the Cobalt that makes its connection to the Android USB-C connector very easy. For Apple devices, AudioQuest endorses a Lightning to USB 3 adapter.
Inside of the Cobalt, there are about 200 components, that are nicely packed in the tiny case. While the DragonFly Red was praised for its price point, the new Cobalt has truly outperformed the previous versions like the DragonFly Red.
First, the DAC chip inserted in the DragonFly Cobalt is the new ESS ES9038Q2M DAC. This DAC gives a significant improvement in performance as compared to the Red and has a minimum-phase slow roll-off filter. Thus, it provides a much smoother sound.
There is a lot of improvement in the processor. Not only is it 33% faster than the Red, but it needs much less current from the USB connection. To reduce the noise from WiFi, Bluetooth, and mobile phones that the DragonFly suffered from, the company decided to put more power supply filtering into the Cobalt to slash the noise.
In terms of audio file playback ability, the Cobalt can cope with up to 24-bit 96Khz files and for MQA lovers, it is a full render.
The DragonFly Cobalt’s logo will be displayed in different colors, that will depict the status of the unit or sample rate. Red means “standby-mode” — Green means: 44.1Khz — Blue means: 48Khz — Amber means: 88.2Khz — Magenta means: 96Khz.
The Cobalt uses Gordon Rankin’s StreamLength®asynchronous-transfer USB code. Rather than utilizing several clocks, the Cobalt uses his monoClock® technology. This ultra-low-jitter clock is generated from the ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip and runs the ESS chip tasks as well as all microcontroller activities. Great Improvement in terms of sound clarity and resolution of low-level audio information is provided by Cobalt.
Several people who listened to the Cobalt’s prototype expressed their delight by saying that they are excited to get their initial sample soon.
We decided to compare the performance of AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt to the DragonFly Red.
For most of our testing, we used the Audeze, LCD-3 headphone, the Audeze LCD-X, and the Grado Sr-225e. These products belong to very low to high-price categories. The LCD-3 is a bit difficult to drive, but the other two are easy to drive. We used Tidal as a source on a Windows PC. We quickly noticed that the Cobalt had no problem in driving the LCD-3, keeping the volume at 35% make us feel that the volume is high enough.
We then started listening to various music files using the Red and Cobalt. We listened to diverse music tracks such as Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the title song from Keb’Mo’s new album called Oklahoma, “Angels or Los Angeles” from Caroline Spence’s new album Mint Condition, and Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
We first listened on the Audeze LCD-3, and very quickly we noted that the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt provides better quality. While listening to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” we felt that DragonFly Red has exceptional performance in terms of voice clarity. It made us feel a lot of warmth and harmonic richness of the music. The Cobalt Red improved the rhythm and pace of the music that produced a much captivating musical experience.
On both the Keb’Mo’ and Caroline Spence cuts, all the instruments produced good quality sound. Similarly, all the instruments were almost equal in their capability to produce a very deep base, although the Cobalt still provided much better experience and clearer sound. The guitar on the Caroline Spence provided a more harmonic & richer sound experience.
Initially, we thought that using the Grado SR225e, which is a product having a modest price, we would not be able to tell as big a difference, but we were proven mistaken. On hearing the song, “Angels or Los Angeles,” we immediately felt an improvement, in terms of better separation and harmonic details, over the DragonFly Red. The same was the experience with the LCD-X.
After listening to the music for several hours, we think that Gordon Rankin and the AudioQuest team deserve a big round of applause for designing such a wonderful product as the DragonFly Cobalt!
If you own a DragonFly Red and a good set of headphones, you may choose to give it to a friend who needs a good portable DAC and upgrade yours with the new Cobalt.
AudioQuest is offering a treat to its first 10,000 customers who purchase the Cobalt. For the customers, Cobalt will arrive with vouchers for trial subscriptions of some wonderful music streaming services – 2 months in the case of Tidal and 1 month of Qobuz.
The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt is a very good portable or at home DAC at a reasonable price. If you currently own a DragonFly Red or Black or the Orignal DragonFly, you will be super amazed by the improvements, especially if you use good quality headphones or system. DragonFly Red or Black are also good products, but DragonFly Cobalt provides a whole new enchanting experience.