Mobile audiophile rigs used to be a rare sight. Most people are content with the sound of their phone or laptop, so it was unusual to see someone using a portable DAC or amplifier with their mobile device. Then iPhone 7 made nerds of us all: when the headphone jack was deleted, many of us were forced use the Lightning Adapter which, although tiny, is a mobile external DAC/amp just like those we occasionally see rubber-banded to enthusiasts’ phones. For those willing to go a step further than the Lightning Adapter – but not ready for a bigger setup – we think the AudioQuest Dragonfly Black ($99) is a great place to start.
The AudioQuest Dragonfly is a DAC and headphone amplifier which, for the user, is about as simple as can be. There are two models in the AudioQuest DragonFly range – the Black and the Red. The Black version is designed for easier-to-drive headphones, with a 1.2 volt output. The Red has almost double the output — 2.1 volts — and is designed for more power-hungry headphones. The Black version, which we’re testing here, features an ESS Sabre DAC chip that is capable of handling 24-bit/96khz resolution files and, with a recent update, the ability to process MQA files.
It includes a gold-plated USB port on one end and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other end; there are no buttons or switches to speak of. There is no mobile or desktop control app — all feedback comes in the form of a multicolor LED on the top of the unit. The LED indicates the sampling rate of the music files it’s processing (Red for “standby”, Green for CD-quality 44.1khz, Magenta for 96khz, etc). The Black’s housing is made of metal, with a soft-touch rubbery paint applied to the exterior that looks great but, unfortunately, chips easily. There are almost no accessories to speak of — in the box is nothing more than a small plastic cover for the USB port and a tough vinyl protective sleeve.
Out of the box, the Dragonfly Black is compatible with PCs and Macs with no additional drivers required. Volume is controlled digitally by your device. We had no problems using the Dragonfly Black on either platform, though the lack of a Line Out mode is a little disappointing. The device’s sampling rate is also controlled by the PC — on either platform, it’s best set output sampling rate to match that of your music. Most users will be safe at 44.1khz, since that is the “CD-Quality” standard by which most music is distributed.
Though we like how the Dragonfly Black worked with our MacBook, we think it’s even more interesting as a portable DAC/amp for the iPhone. It requires the Apple Camera Connection Kit to work, but its small size keeps it within a reasonable range of portability. AudioQuest recommended that we use the USB 3 version of the Apple Camera Connection Kit; though the USB 3 CCK is nice to have in that it adds a second Lightning port for charging, we had no problem using the standard version. No dropouts, no distortion, no compatibility warnings — it just worked. Results might be different with AudioQuest’s higher-output DragonFly Red, though we’ll have to wait until we can get our hands on one to be sure.
We found the DragonFly Black’s performance to be excellent for the price, and we have no complaints about its sound. In A/B tests, we didn’t detect any glaring coloration in the sound — which is exactly what we prefer — but the DragonFly Black does a much better job driving low and medium-impedance headphones than the iPhone’s Lightning Adapter. With some headphones, we found that the Dragonfly Black produces about twice as much power as the Apple’s adapter — that extra power must come from somewhere so there will be a hit on battery life, but the extra draw was never enough to ruin our commute.
There are some oddities, however. The DragonFly Black is not an MFi device, so it will not pass track controls or voice through to the iPhone. There is a bootup sequence that lasts about 3 seconds, during which the occasional pop or static can be heard through the headphones. We found that if we unplugged and re-inserted our headphones, audio would cut out on the DragonFly and we’d have to reconnect the device to the phone all over again. Though the plug-and-play experience will be fine for most users, we think some would appreciate mobile and desktop apps to provide some more direct control over the DragonFly’s volume, output level, DSP, and the like.
Testing the DragonFly Black made us wish we had some truly bad audio equipment available to compare, since this would be an extremely easy way to upgrade the sound of any computer with an available USB port. For now, we’ll have to settle for the knowledge that it performed as advertised – good sound and more power with no drivers or settings to fiddle with. If you have recently upgraded your headphones and are looking for some more power without a big investment or cables to manage, the DragonFly Black is easy to recommend.
Company and Price
Model: DragonFly Black