Audioquest DragonFly

If you’re like me and primarily use a laptop computer, you’ll know the trials of extracting great sound from your computer. In my case, the onboard sound is actually quite good, but it’s not exceptional and I like exceptional.

At home, the sound processing is handled by my Audio-gd NFB-5.2. On the road I used to use the Creative X-Fi HD USB, but as good as the X-Fi is, I had a couple of needs that it couldn’t quite meet. Firstly, it required a separate lead to connect so I ended up with boxes and cables everywhere. Secondly, it struggled to effectively drive my low-impedance IEMs like the Shure SE535 LEs and now my Unique Melody Miracles (review coming soon).

After much hunting, I finally found a DAC that I thought would meet all my needs. Does it? Read on to find out…

Overview

The DragonFly is a DAC and headphone amp created in the form factor of a full-size USB thumb drive. That means it is about 3-4cm long, around 1cm thick, and about 1.5cm wide. At that size I wouldn’t have expected particularly strong performance, but other reviews I read suggested otherwise.

The DF’s general specs are very competitive:

  • Sample rates:  44.1kHz – 96kHz
  • Minimum HP impedance:  12 ohms
  • Maximum power:  150mW

I was excited to see the 12 ohm minimum rating for the headphone impedance as it suggested that my 15.9 ohm UM Miracles would pair well with the Dragonfly. We’ll get to that shortly…

Design

DF with lightThe design of the DragonFly is simply brilliant. It’s tiny, requires no USB cables, feels solid and high quality, and works flawlessly in general terms. I was particularly pleased to note that it’s small enough to not obscure adjacent USB ports.The chassis of the dragonfly is coated in a nice soft-touch black paint and overall it feels very high quality.

A fun (and useful) feature of the DragonFly is its LED indicator light. The indicator lights up in different colours depending on the status of the sound feed and the sample rate being used. It’s red when there is no activity and then turns to green (44.1kHz), blue (48kHz), Yellow (88.2kHz), or magenta (96kHz). It’s kind of fun to see the light change between different tracks at different sample rates and it’s useful to see if your settings are correct (i.e. if you play a high sample rate track and the light stays green, you know you’re settings are causing the system to down-sample your music).

If I had to find one fault with the design of the DragonFly it’d be the separate cap. So far I’ve kept hold of it, but I can see it being lost far too easily and wonder if it would have been possible to have it somehow stay attached to the body of the DragonFly (e.g. with a short string so it hangs free when not in use, but doesn’t get lost). It’s a tiny gripe, but it would prevent having to be quite so careful to place the cap in the bag every time I uncork the DAC.

Functionality

The DragonFly works without any special drivers which is a nice plus in my eyes. I’ve tried it with ASIO4ALL and with WASAPI and it works perfectly with both. I’ve settled on WASAPI because it’s easier in my setup, but there is no significant difference I could find between the 2. Regardless of the output drivers, the DF also handles all supported sample rates equally well with no hiccups.

DF PackagingAnother nice piece of functionality with the DF is that it’s happy driving moderate impedance IEMs like the Re272s and V-Sonic GR07s as well as high impedance cans like the HD650s, but it can also be paired with a separate amp using the DF’s 3.5mm jack as a line-out. To do this, Audioquest recommend turning the computer / DF volume to full, but I’ve found it can be used perfectly well as a variable line-out.

When pairing with amplifiers like the Tralucent T1, which has very high gain, the variable output of the DF is a godsend. You can reign in the volume on the DF so you can use a better range of attenuation on the amplifier’s volume pot.

In terms of functionality, there’s really nothing lacking in the DragonFly – it does what it does flawlessly in terms of straight-forward functionality.

Sound Quality

Where the rubber meets the road… a DAC and amp is only ever as good as it sounds and the DragonFly sounds very good, but perhaps not as exceptional as I’d hoped. I think my expectations were a touch unfair though so read on and I’ll explain in full.

In terms of basic sound quality, the DragonFly is excellent. It creates plenty of space in the soundstage, good placement of the sound image and nice response across all frequencies without any hint of colouration.

I’ve tested it with a number of devices including:

  • IEMs ranging from 15.9 ohms to 50 ohms
  • Headphones ranging from 32 ohms to 300 ohms
  • Active speakers
  • Portable amplifier

In all but one case, the DragonFly sounded great. Perhaps not quite as good as the Audio-gd NFB-5.2, but that’s to be expected when comparing a USB powered device to a mains powered device.

Line-Out Performance

The DragonFly works extremely well as a simple DAC with line-out. The sound provided to active speakers or a separate amplifier is clean, spacious and sweet. Being able to use the computer’s volume control as a variable line-out is a definite bonus too.

Headphone Performance

The output power of the DragonFly is simply amazing! The Creative X-Fi HD USB was just able to drive the 75 ohm Utrasone HFI-680s to a good listening level, but was underwhelming with the Sennheiser HD650s. The DragonFly manages to drive the HD650s to full listening volumes while still having plenty of room to spare in the volume adjustment range.

Of course, it doesn’t have quite the dynamics of a mains powered desktop amp, but you can’t expect that from USB power. As it stands, it’s the best USB powered device I’ve heard when driving power-hungry headphones.

IEM Performance

If you thought there was a “but” coming, you’re unfortunately right. The DragonFly maintains sweet sound on the 20 ohm Re272s and 50 ohm GR07s, but sounds a bit harsh with the 15.9 ohm Unique Melody Miracles.

DF BoxI expected better performance at low impedance due to the 12 ohm minimum rating published on the DragonFly’s box, but while it probably can handle 12 ohms, it won’t be with optimum sound quality.

I found a massive jump in sound quality by feeding the DragonFly’s line-out into the Tralucent T1 amp* before passing it onto the Miracles. You’d expect some improvement with a dedicated amplifier, but this jump was too great to be the amp’s prowess alone. To my ears, the DragonFly just doesn’t pair well with loads below about 20 ohms. That’s a shame to be sure, but given the distinct lack of a USB DAC/amp with 16 ohm prowess (from what I’ve seen and heard so far), I have resigned myself to using the DragonFly with the T1 if I want to listen to the Miracles from my laptop. For everything else, a direct connection to the DragonFly provides outstanding quality sound for a USB device.

* Obviously, the power of an amplifier isn’t required for low impedance IEMs like the Miracles, but a good amplifier will offer better control over the transducers in a low impedance IEM setup and will therefore provide better, smoother sound.

Interestingly, measurements conducted by Stereophile.com show the DragonFly has very low output impedance (around 0.65 ohms) which would normally indicate a good match with devices in the 16 ohm range so I am not entirely sure why the DragonFly doesn’t excel with the Miracles.

Summary

All-in-all the DragonFly is a brilliant piece of kit. For it’s size it is unbelievably powerful and sounds fantastic. It offers all of the processing features of more expensive desktop DACs (except support for 192kHz sample rates which few if any USB devices offer) at a relatively low price and with incredible portability.

At around $200-250 depending on your location, the DragonFly is fantastic value and its portability and compact design make it a winner in my book. It won’t outperform top-end DACs or separate, dedicated amps, but it’s the combination of size, functionality and very good performance that makes this a worthwhile purchase.

Perhaps don’t buy it to directly drive low impedance IEMs, but do buy it to connect to higher impedance ear / headphones, active speakers, and amplifiers.

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Super Sounding IEM Shootout

Today’s post is about 2 very different in-ear monitors (IEMs) (i.e. canal phones or earphones that go inside your ear like an earplug). They are very different in technology, slightly different in sound style, very different in looks, extremely different in price, but very similar in quality. So which one’s better for you? Let’s find out…

Our contestants are the Shure SE535 Limited Edition and the HiFiMan Re272

Dressed in red, the Shure SE535 Limited Edition

Dressed in black, the HiFiMan Re272

Both of these IEMs are recognised as offering brilliant sound quality, but they do it very differently. The Shures use 3 drivers per earphone. Yes, there are 3 tiny speakers in each of those red casings! The drivers are a balanced armature type. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means – I didn’t either until I spent some quality time with Google. In essence, the balanced armatures are a delicate and sensitive system to push the air that makes sound. They are very good at picking up subtle details in sound, but can sound a bit thin at times and without the warmth of the alternative system. The alternative system is dynamic drivers. These are exactly what we’re all used to seeing in our home theatre systems or car stereos. They have good presence and warmth, but are sometimes less sensitive. The Re272s use just 1 dynamic driver per ear, but don’t be fooled by the 1 vs 3 matchup – dynamics and balanced armatures bring very different characteristics so it’s not won or loss based on this matchup.

I want you to know that I have not planned the order or results of this shootout – I am writing, reviewing and scoring as I go so you are experiencing the comparison exactly as I am and the results will be as much a surprise to me as to you! I’ll score each section out of a possible 10 points for each phone.

Let’s look at the all-important dollar…

The Shure Se535s will set you back around AU$400-500. That places them right up near the top of the pile for non-custom IEMs. There are only a few mainstream brands (e.g. Westone) that charge more for an IEM that doesn’t require an audiologist to make moulds of your ear.

At nearly $500, the 535s may be instantly knocked out of contention for some, but read on because you might find some good news waiting for you.

The Re272s are much more affordable at around AU$250 making them still expensive compared to some alternatives, but there is very little (if anything) for less money that will sound as good.

So far it’s Re272: 8, SE535: 5

Usability & Comfort

Both headphones can be worn with the cords going over the ear, but only the 272s can have the cord straight down. Although it’s fiddly to get used to running the cord over your ear, I find the benefits definitely worthwhile. Wearing the cord over your ear means little or no noise is transmitted through the cable to your ear and it also means that if you snag the cable on something, it doesn’t put pressure directly on the fragile joints where the cable meets the earphone.

Both earphones come with a range of tips, but the 535s have a few more options (including foam tips). In the end, I’m using non-standard tips with both: Comply foams on the 535s and Sony Hybrid tips on the 272s. The range of options supplied with the 535s is offset by the small size tube which can make using aftermarket tips a bit tricky. The 272s are slightly larger than some others, but seem to fit most standard tips I’ve tried.

Both earphones are really comfortable so it’s a draw here… Still Re272: 8 + 8 = 16, SE535: 5 + 8 = 13

Isolation

One of the key benefits of IEMs is their ability to block outside noise. The 535s excel here because of their use of balanced armature technology which is happy in a completely sealed shell. The dynamic drivers in the Re272s need a small vent and therefore allow a tiny bit of sound to come in. I also find that the fit of the 535s helps to keep them snug and keep a secure seal. Using both on a noisy train or airplane, you can definitely hear the difference and it means you either have to go louder with the 272s or lose details in the sound so it’s a win to the 535s for isolation.

Running score: Re272: 16 + 6 = 22, SE535: 13 + 9 = 22

Flexibility

The SE535s are crazily sensitive. While this gives them the ability to delivery incredible details, it also makes them susceptible to poor source quality. They often produce background hiss from poor source units (i.e. amplifiers and players) and can be quite uncomfortable to use for listening to low quality sound such as radio and podcasts. The Re272s are still very revealing and can border on uncomfortable for my favourite podcasts, but they’re a step ahead of the 535s here and are my earphone of choice for low quality sources.

Re272: 22 + 8 = 30, SE535: 22 + 6 = 28

Build Quality

Both IEMs appear well-built and are both made from plastic so no major advantage there. The 535s have a slightly better feel to them and look sexy whereas the 272s could be cheap plastic painted to look nice – it’s hard to know. I definitely trust the 535s more than the 272s based on the feel of them alone, but only time will tell. If I have to choose to give an edge to one over the other, I have to choose the 535s not just for their look and feel, but also for their detachable cable and quality of cable (although that opens a whole other topic which I’ll need to cover shortly).

Re272: 30 + 8 = 38, SE535: 28 +9 = 37

Sound Quality

The all important question! In a case like this where it’s hard to separate the 2 options (except by price), sound becomes everything. It’s not like one of them is ridiculously uncomfortable or brings some fatal flaw so sound is the deciding factor.

The Re272s jump to mind first so let’s discuss their sound. The sound from the 272s is almost flawless – they do nothing wrong, but they also don’t excel anywhere. The sound is neutral without any specific emphasis and instruments are clearly spread out and placed clearly in the soundstage. There is texture to the sound and some energy to the sound, but the bass lacks some fullness and punch. Without EQing (which I’m avoiding purely to keep this shootout a consistent approach), the 272s occasionally leave me wanting more oomph.

The SE535s bring better bass impact and slightly better layering and texturing of sound. You can get lost in the sound of the 535s more so than the 272s, but the placement of the sound is slightly clumsy because of a slight emphasis on mid-range frequencies. On some tracks, you can hear the whole band perfectly laid out before you, but on other tracks it can sound like the band is all clustered together when it shouldn’t be (i.e. the issue is the earphones, not the recording).

So, based on the sound qualities, it is very hard to split the 2, but I think the seductive qualities of the 535s and being able to get lost in the sound leads me to reach for the 535s first (unless it’s for poor quality sources).

Re272: 38 + 8 = 46, SE535: 37 + 8 = 45

There’s one final thing to mention before I give an overall final score. The detachable cable supplied with the SE535s means that you can replace it with a range of aftermarket options. I was fortunate to have a friend in Hong Kong send me an aftermarket cable to try out (thanks Gavin!!) Despite having good results with hifi cables, I was sceptical of the power of a cable change on headphones, but was SO wrong!! The cable completely transformed the SE535s (you can read about it in my review of the SE535s). With the Baldur Mk2 cable attached, the SE535s move head and shoulders above the Re272s, but the total price increases by about AU$140 for the cable so I have to update the price scoring too.

Price adjusted scores with aftermarket cable for SE535:

Re272: 46, SE535: 35 + 1045

So the Re272s win the shootout when we consider all different characteristics and even the aftermarket cable… but part of me is unsatisfied with the result because I know that I always reach for the SE535s first. The reason I’m not satisfied is that I own both now so the price is no longer an issue and that changes everything. Let’s look at the scores again without the price element…

Final, money-no-object scores:

Re272: 46 – 8 = 38, SE535: 45 – 3 = 42

Conclusions

If you’re on a budget that won’t allow $500+ for IEMs (including aftermarket cable) then the Re272s are exceptional value and quality, but may need a slight dose of bass from your EQ. You’ll need to go a long way and spend a decent amount more money to get equivalent or better sound quality.

If budget isn’t such a concern and you can save up the $$$ or consider purchasing the aftermarket cable later, then the SE535s are simply amazing. They’re probably not perfect, but they are one of the most amazing audio experiences I’ve had for less than $30,000 and that’s saying a lot!!

One final note…

I forgot to write this before publishing, hence why it’s tacked on at the end.

The Re272s are able to run in a fully balanced setup. This means finding an amp that I can test them on which is why I can’t comment now. It also means that most people will use them with a standard common ground setup (i.e. both earphones have a signal cable and an earth wire going to them. The earth wires join up into one before they connect to the source unit) which makes the above comparison more relevant to the majority.

In theory (and from what I’ve read), the balanced configuration does significantly improve the sound, but will also require the purchase of a high quality amplifier which will increase the total cost to equal or more than the Shure SE535s with aftermarket cable so it’ll be an interesting comparison. I’ll post more when I can test the 272s with a balanced setup.

Apple iPhone Earphones (included in retail package)

Standard earphones as provided with the iPhone 3GS

Standard earphones as provided with the iPhone 3GS

Reference Review: this review is only provided as a reference. By looking at my comments and thoughts about a product you are familiar with, you can better gauge how my tastes match yours. I hope it helps.

This review is for the standard earphones provided with the Apple iPhone 3GS. These headphones include a microphone for phone calls, but I won’t be referring to that at all – this is all about the sound from the earbuds. As with all earbud reviews, I tested these earphones with the foam socks on for the sake of comfort.

The first impression of the iPhone Earphones in one word is “muffled”. The top end disappears into a muddy nothingness and lacks detail and clarity. The bass is OK and the vocals are clear and forward. The vocal prominence probably makes sense for a telephone headset and it doesn’t hurt the sound style at all. Here are some specific ratings:

Bass

Attack: These earphones have only a moderate attack. There is a bit of punch, but it’s not as potent as it could be. At a comfortable, moderate volume you can feel a little bit of the bass as it hits your eardrum, but it’s not “punchy”. As a result, the bass lacks definition and can get really muddy.

Rating: 4.5 / 10

Mass: Similar to the attack in the bass, there is some mass or body behind it, but it’s not as solid as it could be. Listening to “Whatever Lola Wants”, there’s a definite presence in the bass, but it’s not as full as it should be.

Rating: 5 / 10

Vocals / Mids

The vocals and mids are the most pronounced element of the sound signature for these earphones, but the upper end of vocals trails off into the muddiness of the treble. The result is a smooth and easy-to-listen-to sound, but a definite lack in clarity and detail. A lack of clarity and detail means a lack of excitement and that probably sums up the iPhone earphones… unexciting, but ok.

Rating: 5.5 / 10

Detail

You’ve probably already gathered that detail is not the strong point for the iPhone earphones. They are muddy at the top and muddy at the bottom. There’s no harshness, which is nice, but there’s no excitement either. They’re bland and a bit mushy. Listening to “Cheers Darlin'” you can hear parts of the very fine background accompaniment, but not the full picture. It sounds like an electronic sound rather than strings played col legno (where the wood of the bow is used to hit the strings and create a percussive sound). The iPhone earphones provide a solid wall of sound with no major gaps, but you can’t hear the individual bricks (so to speak).

Rating: 4 / 10

Staging

The staging for these earphones is quite narrow and not particularly well defined. This is largely due to the muddy top-end which just can’t give enough cues to our ears to define the placement of each instrument. There is some perception of separation, but it’s not wide and clearly defined like higher quality earphones.

Rating: 2.5 / 10

Note: Although I haven’t written it yet, I do plan to share more about how we hear sound and how different elements of sound reproduction, recordings and compression affect our perception of the sound. Check under Categories for more information and let me know via the comments section if you want to know something specific.

Overall

As you’d expect for a standard inclusion telephone earphone, these don’t set the audio world on fire, but they are better than many other included earphones. You’re probably only reading this as a reference to better understand my reviews of devices you’d actually buy so I’ll cut to the chase. These earphones don’t make me want to clean out my ears from muddiness or plug my ears with cotton woll from harshness. The sound is all a bit soft around the edges, but it’s bearable and easy to listen to if you’re not listening critically.

Rating: 4.5 / 10