The pursuit of high-fidelity audio nirvana often turns into a game of catch up, where one buys and experiments until ears are satisfied or available card credit is nil, or both. “End-game” is the subjective podium that audiophiles would like to reach when the gear they invested in can’t be topped.
Typically, a pair of headphones complete the end-game circle, but you also need the full gamut of supporting equipment, such as an amplifier, a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), interconnects (i.e., cables) and miscellaneous accessories that will reach the four- to five-digit dollar mark, to the extent budget or insanity allows. This is all in the name of reproducing music to levels of perceived perfection.
The problem with this pursuit is that, in my experience, analysis of audio is skewed through justifying how much you can spend. The world of high-end audio can be as expensive as your imagination’s limits, but most consumers can’t and won’t venture into it. Sometimes, plugging stock earphones directly into your phone is good enough, free and convenient. But, through a similar experience, I’ve found that there is a middle ground that straddles irrational spending and quality sound.
What anchors this audio real estate? The AudioQuest DragonFly Red.
The DragonFly Red is the third iteration of the portable, USB DAC / amplifier and was debuted along with the DragonFly Black. The Red features a glossy candy red, car-like paint finish that I can attest to also chips and wears like a car! Both come with a faux leather protective sleeve for transportation, but after a while, the inner sleeve material does start to chafe and I believe has also contributed to part of the red paint to dull.
At $200, the Red is $100 more than the Black, but simply put, it’s worth it.
What makes both of these units so special is their portability and versatility. The DragonFlys can plug straight into your computer’s USB port or can be used with an Apple iPhone or Android device as long as the appropriate adapter cables are used (for iPhones, the Apple Camera Connection Kit; for Android devices, an OTG cable). Previous versions of the DragonFly drew too much power for it to work with mobile devices, but AudioQuest upgraded the microcontroller to a Microchip PIC32MX, allowing the Red and Black to be plug-and-play with virtually anything.
This means you don’t need to download drivers to your computer; DragonFly is immediately recognized, which for me is very useful because my company’s IT does not allow employees to download third-party or unapproved software. After I’m done with work, I connect it to my phone seamlessly.
The Red employs an ESS Technology 9016 32-bit DAC, a well-regarded DAC chip in the audio industry, and an integrated amplifier that outputs 2.1 volts. In addition, the Red’s volume is digitally controlled in what AudioQuest specifies as “64-bit bit-perfect.” In other words, as you change your volume on your computer or mobile device, the Red maintains the music file’s integrity (i.e., sound). In contrast, the Black uses an ESS 9010 DAC chip, outputs 1.2 volts and its volume is analog-controlled. Basically, it’s technically much less impressive in the areas that matter the most.
Both devices can play back audio with a resolution of up to 24-bit / 96 kilohertz (kHz). For reference CD-quality resolution is 16-bit / 44 kHz. The dragonfly logo illuminates different colors depending on what audio resolution your device is playing back, which I find is an elegant yet practical touch.
With the Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) music, which is essentially a way of packing high-resolution music into a small file size (think Pied Piper in the sitcom Silicon Valley) picking up speed and AudioQuest revealing that the Red and Black will support MQA on its Instagram, this makes these devices even more versatile than I originally thought.
For more information on MQA, check out this article by John Darko.
If you own headphones that require power to reach acceptable listening volumes, then either the Black or Red (or any amplifier) will be better than using just an iPhone, for example. However, practical and real-world use of any portable headphone amplifier, such as the DragonFly, shouldn’t be with a power-hungry set of cans.
The Black is suited for headphones that are in the 32 to 60 Ohm impedance range, whereas the Red can drive headphones up to 100 Ohms. That said, you shouldn’t expect a $1,500 pair of MrSpeaker Ether headphones to reach its potential with the Red. It will drive them and they will sound much better than plugging it directly into your playback device.
However, in my experience, the DragonFlys are best for low- to medium-impedance headphones, such as many in-ear monitors (IEMs). It opens up those headphones’ sound stage, clarity and impact to levels beyond what any standard playback device can reach.
What I’ve found is that the Red just does this much better than the Black.
Compared to Red, Black sounds muddy and unrefined, to my ears. Though, I should note that some users found the Black’s sound to improve after “burn-in.” I can’t prove or disprove this, but out of the box, I simply found the Red’s sound to be far-and-away the clear winner. With the Red, trebles, especially guitars, sparkle and instruments are easily defined. Both female and male vocals are forward and smooth. Bass, although not as impactful as I personally like, is nicely extended and rolls off cleanly.
I tried the Red with a variety of headphones, including the Fostex TH-X00, Sony MDR-7550, MrSpeakers Ether C, MrSpeakers Alpha Prime, Audio-Technica ATH MSR7 and the Elecom HH1100. Reiterating what I mentioned earlier, the Red can drive all of these headphones, but only makes the ones that don’t require much power sound really good. In all of my testing, my preferred pairing is with the Elecom HH1100 IEMs. The Red really complements balanced sound signature of the HH1100 well and together make for a very portable, on-the-go listening experience.
What’s more, the Red is often paired with my car’s stereo system using my iPhone playing back TIDAL’s Hi-Fi streaming music. The sound is noticeably improved, albeit at the cost of awkwardly stuffing my car’s center console with cables.
On my home PC, Red sounds better than my work laptop where I’m forced to use Google Chrome to listen to TIDAL Hi-Fi instead of being able to install its desktop app. My home PC is equipped with TIDAL’s desktop app and other audio-specific software, such as Fidelizer Pro, giving me more features to control how I want my music played back. In fact, my Apple devices sound better with the Red than my work laptop (probably because they use the TIDAL app), but I prefer the convenience of accessing my music in one place throughout the day.
Gaming with the Red is surprisingly very good. Although constrained to stereo processing, directional sound is accurately reproduced. It sounds a lot better than a lot of gaming-specific sound cards. The only downside, and it can be a deal breaker for most gamers, is that the DragonFly doesn’t have any mic input, so you’ll have to use a separate mic and input if you want to communicate for games that require it. But for single-player games, I highly recommend trying it out. You’ll be impressed.
Should You Buy?
I often get mocked by my friends and colleagues about my obsession with audio, among other things. They say it’s a waste of money and hard to tell the difference from direct iPhone listening. This really depends on the person’s hearing ability (serious), what type of music they listen to and where their music is from.
To get the most out of an audiophile-acceptable setup, you really need to ensure the music you’re listening to was recorded well and is played back at CD-quality (16-bit / 44 kHz) level. If you’re into modern-day pop music, which is often compressed and recorded to make it seem loud, it simply isn’t worth it.
However, I highly recommend the DragonFly Red for anyone that:
- Enjoys a wide variety of music
- Has access to or doesn’t mind paying for high-fidelity streaming music
- Has headphones that didn’t come with your Apple or Android device
- Simply wants more out of their audio in a portable, convenient form factor
AudioQuest could improve the build quality of the Red, and the bass could use slight coloring, but besides those minor nits, the device gets a Consumer Fanatics rating of 8/10.