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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Bottlehead Crack – “The Review”

Recently I posted a review of the construction stage of my Bottlehead Crack amplifier. The amp’s been in action for a few weeks now and I’m ready to share a review of my impressions.

I’m not going to start with the normal list of specifications for the Crack because it’s so variable due to the massive range of modifications you can make to it. What does matter are the following details:

  • Tube driven amplifier for headphones
  • Designed for high impedance headphones (ideal with Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic cans)
  • Buckets of power

Overview

The Bottlehead Crack is a DIY kit sold by Bottlehead in America. It costs around $350 fully shipped to Australia and takes a couple of days to put together if you take your time, but could be completed in a day of assembly, committed soldering and testing.  If you want to know how easy it is to build one of these for yourself, you can check out the build post here: Bottlehead Crack – “The Build”

For $350, this amp is simply incredible. To put it into perspective, the Crack performs on par or better than products like the Woo Audio WA3 (~$580) and Schiit Lyr (~$550). Because of its DIY nature, you can get brilliant performance for a very low price. On top of that, building it yourself means you know what’s going on inside and can easily add to it and improve it either on your own or using the add-n “Speedball” kit from Bottlehead.

To read the full review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content.

 

Fiio E11 – Portable Amplifier

I recently “upgraded” my portable music player from the 5.5G iPod Video 80Gb to the 7G iPod Classic 160Gb. The decision was purely one of storage capacity because the 5.5G iPod is widely considered the best sounding of Apple’s offerings. From the moment I tested my new Classic I clearly understood the love people hold for the 5.5G. The Classic has decent sound, but it’s a bit restricted at the extremities of both the bass and treble, and the sound is overall a bit 2-dimensional. To my ears, there is also a harshness to the sound at somewhere between 8kHz and 16kHz, but that could be an individual bias or preference towards a certain style of sound.

You can read more about my portable player experiences and testing here.

So, I quickly decided to explore external amplification and ended up playing with the Fiio E11.

The Fiio E11 retails for a very reasonable $70-80 and is available from most headphone outlets. It’s affordable, compact, light, flexible and powerful (for its size).

Overview

  • Maximum output power: 300mW @ 16ohm – 35mW @ 300 ohm
  • Size: 92.5x 54.2x 13.4mm
  • Signal-to-noise: 98dB
  • Battery life: >10 hours playback (reported, not personally tested)

As you can see from the picture, the E11 is very simple: an input socket, output socket, volume knob, and 2 switches (gain and bass boost). To me, simplicity is a good thing in an amp – I just want quality circuitry that takes a line out and increases its volume without messing with it and that’s exactly how the E11 works.

The E11 is a simple, in-line amplifier designed to have a 3.5mm headphone or line-out coming in and a pair of headphone coming out. That said, I personally wouldn’t bother using it from a headphone output most cases (unless I really needed more volume than my portable device could provide). The reason for this is that the E11, or any in-line amplifier, is only as good as the input signal and amplifying a crappy signal just results in loud, crappy sound.

So, I paired the E11 with a Fiio E9 line-out plug for the iPod and tested it using some 320kbps MP3 tracks.

Sound Quality

The sound quality of the E11 is very good. It’s not elite, but very good. It’s also got the potential to be very loud which is great because it means you can enjoy your music at a good volume while the E11 is just idling at maybe 30%, not straining itself at 95% power.

The soundstage from the E11 is open and 3-dimensional. It’s not as open and spacious as the sound from the Cowon X7, but it’s so far ahead of the stock iPod Classic output. Instrument placement is well defined and the undefinable sense of space is broad even if it’s not huge. Of course, there’s a chance that the iPod Classic’s DAC doesn’t process the sound as effectively as the Cowon’s so it’s possible the E11 is actually better than I’m crediting it. Either way, it’s a good amplifier and a major upgrade over most players’ headphone out quality.

The signature from the E11 is a little warm, but in no way soft or flabby. It’s detailed and clean, but has a nice smoothness to it. The bass is solid, but not forward and the top-end detail is still well-intact. All-in-all it’s a very enjoyable listen.

Note: Since posting this review, I have purchased the Shure SE535 LE in-ear monitors. Their extreme sensitivity has revealed some background hum from the E11. The E11 has a 98dB signal to noise ratio so be careful if buying this amp to use with earphones or headphones that have a sensitivity of more than 100dB SPL/mW.

Features

There are really only 2 features on the E11: a gain switch and an EQ switch (which is actually just a bass boost).

The gain switch changes the circuitry to suit high or low impedance (or high or low sensitivity) headphones. The sound isn’t massively louder on the high gain setting, but has extra energy to overcome the resistance of more difficult-to-drive headphones. I’m not an electronics expert, but I imagine it’s an adjustment to the output impedance to better complement the impedance of high impedance headphones. Suffice to say, it works effectively.

The EQ switch is interesting. According to the booklet, it’s a bass boost only, but the label on the E11 casing says “EQ”. It really is just a bass boost as far as I can hear. On setting 1 there is a very subtle increase in the mass of the bass (i.e. it just sounds fuller, not louder). On setting 2 it’s more obvious and starts to get a little bloated and flabby.

I’d read good things about the E11 bass boost setting and I have to agree that it’s very effective, but only on level 1 in my opinion. There are 3 settings: off, 1 and 2.

Other Stuff

The E11 comes in a small metal tin and is provided with:

  • A USB cable for charging (using a standard mini USB connection on the E11)
  • A 3.5mm to 3.5mm with right-angle plugs at each end for connection to a headphone out or line out
  • A Fiio rubber band that’s just the right size to go around an iPod and the E11 together

I had read about the volume knob being a bit fiddly to use and I tend to agree. When strapped to the back of an iPod, it’s basically impossible to move the volume control without sliding the E11 down so it protrudes past the bottom of the iPod (and line out plug if you’re using one). If you’re using a line out connection, the E11’s volume control will most likely be your only volume option because most line outs are fixed volume and can’t be changed on the player. This means that you might have to adjust the E11 volume regularly and will therefore need to keep the volume knob clear to access with 2 fingers. It’s a slight issue, but not a deal breaker.

Summary

Overall, the Fiio E11 is an amazing option as an affordable and highly portable headphone amp. Its sound quality is very good for its size and price, but remember that it can only be as good as the input quality. If you run the E11 from the headphone out of your player it will only ever sound like a louder version of your player. Run from a line out though, the E11 is great and definitely makes the iPod Classic a much more enjoyable player. It will do the same for any of the other iPods and iPhones too. It’s even a slight improvement over the very good iPod Video 5.5G.