If you shop at Best Buy, you have probably noticed (depending on where you live) that in the very back corner sits a boutique called “Magnolia”. Don’t feel bad if you have never ventured inside; you are in the majority. The big box giant squandered an enormous opportunity when it attempted to bring mid and higher-end products into its stores, primarily because it never trained its staff properly, and had zero understanding of how to market these products to its base. One of the few smart things it did do, however, was break the Monster monopoly by deciding to offer competing cables from the likes of AudioQuest. The California-based manufacturer has been a major player in the high-end world for more than twenty years, but 2012 was a breakthrough year thanks to a little flashdrive-sized product called the DragonFly USB DAC.
The DragonFly USB DAC is a joint-venture from a design perspective between AudioQuest and Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio, who created the first high-end USB DAC years ago. Rankin’s asynchronous USB protocol, which he subsequently licensed out under the Streamlength name, is featured inside numerous high-end products and is part of the science that makes this DAC sound so good for only $250. Rankin also implemented the 24-bit ESS Sabre DAC (used in several quality A/V receivers, among other high-end products) in the design and the combination works remarkably well once you plug it into a USB port on your computer and tweak the settings.
The 24/96 DAC has a tiny LED that changes color depending on the sampling rate of the file you are playing back. If you are interested in playing HD audio files which are offered at higher bit and sampling rates, the little LED will let you know when you are. iTunes, however, does not have the ability to automatically change the sampling rate of the selected track, so unless you are using playback software such as Decibel, Amarra, Pure Music, or JRiver Music Center, you will have to make this change manually which is rather annoying.
There are two other features which give the DragonFly greater appeal and also speak volumes about the sound engineering. If you are used to setting the playback volume of your desktop system via iTunes or your computer, you will find that the DragonFly’s 64-step analog volume control offers superior sound quality; especially if you are running the DAC directly into a power amplifier. You can still leave your computer’s volume control at 100% but we find the sound quality to be just fine if you lower it a bit.
The DragonFly can also be used as a headphone amplifier and it really shines in that regard. Just like the Schitt Audio Lyrr and Magni, the DragonFly is a major over-achiever.
The one caveat to using the DragonFly DAC is that you need a mini-to-RCA cable as its output jack is a 3.5 mm port. Not surprisingly, AudioQuest has an entire selection of such cables which run from extremely affordable all the way up to $1,500 for a 5-meter pair. If you’re looking to spend a little extra on performance, its Sydney model, which will run you $170 for a 1 meter set, is money well spent, and a great place to stop.