One could be forgiven, I reckon, of feeling that new products are just manufacturers re-inventing the wheel and that there is nothing really new under the sun in audio. Indeed at least one product I want to write about is pretty much just that -- a manufacturer's own take on portable audio and, in many respects, not a particularly unique or interesting one.
Audioquest's Dragonfly isn't unique in a couple of aspects: It's not the very first thumb-drive-sized USB sound card and Audioquest aren't the first cable company to start making and selling digital audio gear. What makes it special (other than the funky dragonfly-shaped LED on top that changes colour depending on sample rate) is that it is designed to delivery high-quality sound and do a do a reasonable job with headphones considering it relies on USB power. This is via, among other things, via an ESS Sabre DAC and and an analogue volume control which is controlled via the computer's output volume setting.
For something that can slip into my shirt pocket and costs a buck shy of $250 it does the one important thing we all care about: Sound good. Using my Symphones Magnums (which are similar but more resolving than most Grados) it provides a solid upgrade to the headphone out of my MacBook Pro with a very engaging and dynamic sound delivery. The downside is that it sounds a bit flat compared to more serious equipment and the soundstage compresses with complex music such as Shpongle. It was surprisingly satisfying with more relaxed music however, such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing Beethoven's Piano Concertos 3, 4 & 5. It did have a bit of initial harshness in the treble that went away with use.
I got out my most sensitive IEMs, the Hifiman RE-ZEROs to test for hiss. With the volume at maximum, there was only the very slightest amount of hiss, certainly not enough to be an issue in the slightest. I expect that, unless there is a detrimental effect from other laptops, that the Dragonfly wont have any issues with other, very sensitive IEMs. I also tried my Sony XBA-3s, which have a very weird impedance spike in the treble and are good for testing for linearity in the amplification. Some amps cannot handle this properly and the result is often exceedingly bright treble. There were no such issues with the Dragonfly.
To give it a run as a DAC, I plugged in into my lab-grade Vaunix USB hub and connected it to my Stax rig. This seemed to be a bit of an improvement over the USB port of my MacBook Pro. Since the hub has better quality power this was no surprise. The resulting sound quality I'd say was about that of my Fostex HP-P1 when used in a similar fashion -- quite good and enjoyable to listen to, if not as dynamic as my main rig. Interestingly, the cost of the Fostex is about the same as that of the Dragonfly + hub.
One popular question about this DAC is whether it will work with an iPad Camera Connection Kit, as some DACs will. Unfortunately, plugging it results in the "This device uses too much power." warning popping up, so unless one uses a hub, it's not going to work.
Back before I joined Head-Fi I was using headphones straight out of the headphone port of whatever Mac I owned at any one time. I do wish the Dragonfly had been available, as it would have suited me perfectly. I reckon with a pair of basically good headphones, such as V-MODA M80s or one of the numerous offerings around the $200-300 mark, this would a be a great Head-Fi starter kit.