Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt

General Information

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From MP3 to MQA and High-Res: Naturally Beautiful Sound at Your Fingertips—
Whenever and Wherever You Want It


Cobalt takes everything DragonFly Red is famous for — the same drives-anything 2.1-
volt output, bit-perfect digital volume control, seamless compatibility with Apple and
Android devices, and MQA-rendering and Hi-Res capability—and incorporates some
important new upgrades:

New, more advanced ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip with a minimum-phase slow roll-of
filter for more natural sound

More sophisticated Microchip PIC32MX274 microprocessor that reduces current draw
and increases processing speed by 33% over DragonFlys Black and Red

Improved power-supply filtering, specifically designed to reduce WiFi, Bluetooth, and
cellular noise

Includes a form- fitting DragonTail USB-C to USB-A adaptor—like all DragonTails,
using AQ’s Carbon-level USB cable

From MP3 to MQA and Hi-Res, DragonFly DAC/Amplifiers preserve the body, warmth,
and natural color in all your music. Experience more beauty at home and everywhere
you listen.

Meet Cobalt: The Most Beautiful-Sounding DragonFly Yet!

DragonFly Cobalt, Audioquests new flagship DAC, takes what music lovers around the world have come to expect from the multi-award-winning DragonFly family—naturally beautiful, seductive sound—and strips away fuzz and fog that weren't even noticeable until Cobalt removed them.

How is this possible? Like the critically acclaimed DragonFly Red, Cobalt has the robust 2.1-volt output to drive almost any headphone, uses a bit-perfect digital volume control for outstanding signal-to-noise ratio, enables seamless compatibility with Apple and Android devices, and is an exceptionally competent and affordable MQA Renderer.

Cobalt's precedent-setting performance is made possible by multiple significant upgrades:
  • New, more advanced ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip with a minimum-phase slow roll-off filter for more natural sound.
  • Microchip's superb PIC32MX274 microprocessor draws less current and increases processing speed by 33%.
  • Improved power-supply filtering that specifically increases immunity to WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular noise.
  • Includes a form-fitting DragonTail female USB-A to male USB-C Adaptor.
    All DragonTails use AQ's Carbon-level USB cable.
AudioQuest, Gordon Rankin: A Beautiful Partnership
Like all previous DragonFly models, Cobalt uses Gordon Rankin's precedent-setting StreamLength® asynchronous-transfer USB code. Further, in Gordon's monoClock® technology, a single ultra-low-jitter clock generated from the ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip runs the ESS chip functions as well as all microcontroller functions. This superior clock enables DragonFly Cobalt to provide greater resolution and clarity than DACs with multiple clocks.

Why the "Slow Roll...?"
Cobalt employs ESS's new flagship ES9038Q2M DAC chip. While the chips used in DragonFlys Black and Red are unbeatable for the price, the minimum-phase slow roll-off filter in the 9038 results in naturally expressive sound that is always emotionally engaging and never fatiguing—a beautiful combination of warmth and detail that we find equally exciting and soothing.

Killing the Noise
In Cobalt, we've taken what we've learned from our recent research and development in noise dissipation to employ power-supply filtering specifically designed to dramatically reduce the increasingly prevalent noise from WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular signals. Successfully combating this noise is absolutely crucial to the preservation of the lowest-level musical details, particularly when it comes to high-res audio—and especially when applied to a portable-audio device such as DragonFly.

Bit-Perfect Volume Control and 2.1-Volt Output
Cobalt features the same ESS Sabre 9601 headphone amp and bit-perfect volume control that give DragonFly Red its unique combination of power and grip over the music. This solution ensures maximum fidelity, thrilling dynamic contrast, and excellent signal-to-noise ratio. The 2.1-volt output makes Cobalt and Red compatible with a wide range of headphones, including power-hungry, low-efficiency models.

Firmware Upgradeable
DragonFlys Black, Red, and Cobalt are firmware upgradeable via our free Desktop Device Manager. In today's fast-paced digital world, longevity in a hi-fi component is increasingly rare—at any price. AudioQuest believes that today's digital devices should evolve as technology itself evolves, thereby delivering musical pleasure for many years to come. Our Desktop Device Manager will also allow you to identify your DragonFly's serial number and software version to ensure that the device is up to date. Click here to download the latest Device Manager available for your operating system.


Beautiful Sound in a Smaller Package...
and now with a Tail

All this goodness is packed into a sleek new case that measures just 2.26" x 0.73" x 0.47" (57.5mm x 18.6mm x 11.9mm), making the latest DragonFly 10% smaller and even a bit more pocket-friendly.

Finally, to easily accommodate the increasing number of electronic devices that feature USB-C ports, DragonFly Cobalt comes with AudioQuest's USB-A to USB-C adaptor.

Capabilities
  • Plays all music files: MP3 to MQA and High-Res
  • Compatible with Apple® and Windows® PCs
  • Compatible with iOS devices (requires Apple Camera Adapter/Connection Kit)
  • Compatible with Android devices (requires DragonTail or other USB Adaptor for Android Devices)
  • MQA Rendering
  • Drives headphones directly
  • Fixed output feeds preamp or AV receiver
  • Asynchronous transfer ensures digital timing integrity
Specifications
  • Sample rates supported (LED indicator color code): 44.1kHz (Green), 48kHz (Blue), 88.2kHz (Amber), 96kHz (Magenta), MQA (Purple)
  • Volume Control: Analog Volume Control (Black); 64-position, 64-bit, bit-perfect (Red, Cobalt)
  • Output voltage: 1.2 (Black); 2.1 (Red, Cobalt)
  • Headphone Amp: Texas Instruments TPA6130 (Black); ESS Sabre 9601 (Red, Cobalt)
  • DAC Chip: 32-bit ESS 9010 with minimum-phase fast roll-off filter (Black); 32-bit ESS 9016 with minimum-phase fast roll-off filter (Red); ESS ES9038Q2M with minimum-phase slow roll-off filter for more natural sound (Cobalt)
  • Microcontroller: Microchip PIC32MX (Black, Red); Microchip PIC32MX274 reduces current draw and increases processing speed by 33% over DragonFlys Black and Red (Cobalt)
  • Dimensions: 12mm H x 19mm W x 62mm L (Black, Red); 12mm H x 19mm W by 57mm L (Cobalt)
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Latest reviews

Pros: Small, Pretty, Warm with proper "loads"
Cons: Inconsistent Output, excessively noisy and almost energetic when over driven
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Cobalt is the latest flagship from from the Audioquest Dragonfly series of portable dongle style digital audio converter with built in amplification products. Price new is currently at $299, the unit I've gotten in for review is a temporary loan from Todd of TTVJ and I was not compensated for my thoughts.

Just to set the tone, I don't feel at this time the Cobalt is competitive given the iFi xDSD is on the market and even at the xDSD's full $399 asking price I feel it's overall just a better product given all factors.

So that said here's what I like about Cobalt
  • Size
  • Aesthetics
  • Included Accessories
An what I wasn't a fan of was it's performance. Starting with my all stock HE 4XX I experienced the following technical drawbacks
  • Slow to start - literally took about 10 seconds before my V20 and G8 recognized the device and were listening ready
  • Volume often reset to MAX - Neutron was the worse but uDAPP had it happen to. After a pause and resume the volume would sometimes be at MAX output
Music wise I listened to all of the 1995 Chesky Demonstration Disc before moving into one of my usual track sets consisting of
  • System of a Down - Mind Vinyl RIP from the 2018 Reissue
  • The Eagles - Hotel California Hell Freeze's Over Simply Vinyl 180g RIP
  • Precious Fathers - Brad Quin, Medicine Man
I'll also add I don't necessarily like bright sounding systems and headphones but have a higher tolerance for it or I'm less offended/distracted or fatigued by them. Bright it usually not as offensive to my ears as others, so for me when something is TO bright or leaves me fatigued it's indicative of what I'd considered not really "worthwhile" performance.

And yes I volume match with pink noise and these days my average listening is right around about 79 dbs, peaks of 87 an dips as low as 71.

Overall sound wise I felt the unit was
  • A bit exaggerated sounding and often congested
  • Kinda bright with evident top end emphasis
  • Presentation and envelope were a touch aggressive
  • Emphasized macro detail or "noise"
    • So breathing, fret work, foot steps the occasional air conditioner and any other incidental noise captured during the recording process
Dare I say noisy?
  • Drum kits often had obvious overlap to my ears and with a lot of instruments it presentation makes it not as easy to really discern a clear position and sense of space between everything.
  • Really a lot of top end spectra was just overly aggressive and it was hard to discern as much as I would have liked.
As a heads up I had some technical issues with it namely my subjective impression may have been a result of poor amplification among other things. I also had issues with my V20 maxing out it's volume into the Cobalt and again when I switched between Neutron, Tidal and Amazon HD Music and the steps were not as precise as I would have liked. I did volume match as close as possible but it could be that the device simply did not behave as it should have with my V20. It could be possible those sudden jumps to max volume left my ears more sensitive and my brain with a stronger impression of how cacophonous it sounds at MAX Output.

Where as the xDSD was both more natural on it's "listening" filter and presented less overall congestion. And for what it's worth I also feel that xDSD can be a touch bright

Still starting with the envelope I felt the xDSD presented;
  • A more vivid release or reverb trail
  • Tactile without excess emphasis on the attack
Dynamics were also more vivid as well so the difference between quiet and soft sounds were more discernible an there was more evident micro detail with xDSD as well, an to be clear I also feel the xDSD is kinda bright an sometimes aggressive but it's not so overdone!!!!

I will say it Cobalt was more detailed than my Shanling M2S and both had issues with congestion though the M2S presents more of an overlap of “reverb” or the body of different instruments. So it sounds kinda smoothed over, VS Cobalt which presents congestion more so as an overlap between the initial attack of sounds.

Frankly I’d rather experience congestion as a smoothing over rather than a cacophony of noise. An despite being technically more detailed I again wasn’t a fan of Cobalt at all. I also didn’t really feel compelled to listen to Cobalt with any of my other headphones as I’d have to pair it with something dark like my E-MU Purpleheart to get a nice “pairing” though again you can enjoy the Purpleheart more with other ultimately more resolving devices with a"bright" presentation.

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Now I did take a moment to switch over to a different playback solution this time I used USB Android Player pro with exclusively MQA featuring the following tracks
  • Beck - Guess I’m Doing Fine
  • Schubert Piano Quintet - A Major D667 “The Trout”
Headphones used here where the HD 600 and a WabiSabi MapleSleeved BlackLimba Magvnum V7 Build which sounds like a more refined/detailed Grado RS2E.

As mentioned subjectively the Cobalt has a rich organic tone due in part to it’s heavy top end roll off. Overall with these dynamics I found Cobalt to have;

  • Soft but full bass response
    • More quantity but with a loss of texture and impact
  • Tonally rich presentation of Vocals
    • This helped mask a lot of coarseness or excessively forward breathing
    • An honestly I felt Cobalt’s tuning really reproduced a more natural presentation to vocals
  • Heavy Unevenness in the mid to upper mid transition
    • Stringed instruments sounded off just simply wrong
    • Lacked detail and was overly “romantic”
    • Literally slowed some faster more complex string passages
  • Fairly closed staging with what was often congested imaging
    • Lacked air and precision when presenting passages with multiple instruments and musicians within a shared space

An to make matters worse I often had the volume output maxed with my HD600 to achieve a meager 81 dB peak with more dynamic/quite classical pieces.

While it wasn’t as “noisy” it still lacked detail and presented a congested image, overall I still feel it’s not a worthwhile purchase. xDSD sounds more tonally even and presents better detail, interestingly enough Bluetooth with xDSD was tonally flatter and about as detailed as cable’d listening with Cobalt. An from time to time I often use xDSD in such a manner, tucked away in my pocket connected wireless to my cell.

In conclusion I just don’t find any value in Cobalt unless you listen with easier to drive headphones and enjoy mostly vocal heavy music. Big thanks of course to Todd for sending the unit my way!
musikverein
musikverein
A tender question, since I experienced similar impressions with an Android tablet recent weekend.
Did your V20 too play with the DF Cobalt in permanent "blue light" mode or was it changing the color due to the input signal/resolution?
musikverein
musikverein
Which resolution did you play it?
Mshenay
Mshenay
I played it with 24 96k Files
Pros: very easy to use with no drivers needed and best sound yet from a dragonfly
Cons: trade-offs for ease of use limit resolution, build quality only fair
I received the Cobalt as part of the TTVJ tour and kept it for a week to listen and then forwarded it on to the next tour participant. I have no financial interest in Audioquest or TTVJ and received no other incentives to compose this review. I'd like to thank Todd for providing me with the opportunity to listen to gear I might not have been able to otherwise. Todd the Vinyl Junkie carries a ton of cool stuff, so if you find yourself out shopping for things audio, have a look at his site.



Packaging:

The box the Cobalt came in had a large Sticker over most of the front but my understanding from others I have seen is the only thing covered by the sticker is a large dragonfly graphic. All the pertinent information is still visible in the photos below. Inside the box is a plastic tray with the manual on top and the case, dac, and USB-A to USB-C adapter. It is not what one would call upscale packaging or a large kit, but the case and cable are of good quality and give the impression they should last well, and the DAC itself (while tiny) appears well constructed.

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Build/Internals:

Those who have had a chance to play with any model Dragonfly, will recognize the Cobalt immediately. It is about the size of a pack of Wrigley's Spearmint with a large dragonfly that changes colors to indicate bit-rate of the file being played. The Cobalt is slightly narrower than either of its predecessors, but otherwise the same size and roughly the same weight. At one end is the USB-A port, while at the other a single 3.5mm TRS connector is fitted. A provided cable allows for connection to usb-C but is not an OTG cable so did not allow for direct connection to my Moto Z3.

The big draw for the cobalt is the improved DAC although power supply filtering improvements do contribute to improving the output from the amplifier section as well. The DAC used in the Cobalt is the ESS ES9038Q2M, a 2 channel mobile version of the 9038. For sake of reference, this is the same chip used in the Burson Swing and the Khadas Tone Board. This is not to be confused with the 9038pro as that chip is 8 channel or the ES9038K2M which includes a 2 Volt amp on the same silicone to minimize footprint for applications like tablets or phones. The ES9038Q2M offers several filters but the Cobalt is set to the minimum-phase slow roll-off by default which Audioquest claims gives the Cobalt a bit more natural sound than the previous generations that both utilized a fast roll-off filter instead.

By using the version that does not have internal amplification, Audioquest has the option of utilizing its own in-house design. That is exactly what Audioquest chose to do, and as such the amplifier section of the Cobalt is largely unchanged from the previous Dragonfly Red. Both utilize the ESS 9061 amplifier although as mentioned previously, the cobalt cleans up input power a bit better than the Red, and also uses a lower powered main processor (Pic32MX274 (Cobalt) vs Pcic32MX (Red)) that frees up more of the input power to be used to run the DAC and Amp sections of the Cobalt.

One detail worth noting is that some play exists between the USB and jack and the shell. I can physically rock the jack by placing an finger on it and watch the usb move so the board is all that supports the jack and USB. I am not sure if this is by design or the result of a tour unit that has taken more abuse than it should before it arrived (it does not look abused) so production models may have tighter tolerances.

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Operation:

Operation is straight forward as the DAC was detected by Windows without having to install drivers or fuss with it. Once Setup as the output in Foobar, I was able to throw a variety of tracks at the Cobalt and watch the little dragonfly on top change colors as I went. MQA is lavender, other than that, the dragonfly identifies bit rate rather than file type with 44.1kHz being green, 48kHz blue, 88.2kHz yellow, and 96kHz a lighter blue color. The Cobalt has a 64 position volume control that gives it good range but for me it lacks a bit of volume on some full sized cans. I found it was best reserved for use as the DAC to an external amplifier in those situations.

When paired to an android phone, the dragonfly worked equally well with USB Audio Player Pro providing the source material. With the Camera connection kit, I was also able to get the Cobalt going on an Iphone 8 without any extra hassle. I did see a bit of battery drain associated with using the cobalt paired to mobile devices, but overall it was less than several other devices I have tried. (more on that in comparisons).


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Sound:

I have never been a fan of the dragonfly models, and my complaint has always been that they lacked control and sounded a bit loose. I am happy to say that the Cobalt has gone a long way to correct this as bass is impactful without becoming boomy and treble is definitely tighter and more articulate than the Red. It is moves in the correct direction. Overall, I would describe the Cobalt as slightly laidback and musical but with reasonably good control and detail. Dynamics are better than the Red as well. Lower treble is slightly forward and may seem overly bright if your source material already leans that way or you are particularly sensitive. If there is a knock in the sound department, it is as the output demand goes up it begins to lose a bit of low end as it just cant provide the needed current to really drive hard to drive headphones. I would avoid things like 600Ω Beyers or the big inefficient planars like the He-560 as it isnt particularly successful with either of them. Best pairings are low impedance / High sensitivity earphones or headphones. At times I struggled to get the amount of volume I would have liked with some cans (Cascade/HD700).



Limits:

Sound of the cobalt is dependent on what is providing the source material. I found connecting to an android tablet would only show green (48kHz) regardless of what it was fed. Turns out this is a limit of android and when paired with UAPP it works correctly. The problem is in android and not the Cobalt. With the UAPP drivers, it handles input appropriately and the color changes when different bit rates are presented. I also found noise was slightly lower when I used the same content through the UAPP driver vs the built in android systems.

The 24/96 limit of the cobalt has nothing to do with the DAC, instead it has to do with universal support. The trade off comes from the fact that Audio type 1 (required for driverless operation) only supports up to 24/96. Had the Cobalt been configured as a USB-type 2 device it could have gone up to 32/384 (limit of the dac) but with the added hassle of specialty drivers being required to do so. Audioquest clearly chose ease of use over absolute fidelity.



Comparisons:

I tried to pick a few other daps that have something in common with the Cobalt so 3 of these are competitors in the portable world and the 4th is a desktop board that uses the same DAC chip albeit lacking the amplifier stage of the Cobalt.

Khadas Tone Board - The Tone board has been quite popular as it combines the ES9038Q2M DAC with a USB input and RCA outputs at a roughly $100 US Price point. In use, I find the Tone board to have good detail and a broad range of supported formats including DSD up to 256k and MQA as well as the standard Flac, Alac, mp3 etc. The tone board makes no attempt to amplify the signal for use as a headphone amp so cannot be used as a stand alone like the Cobalt can, but supports higher resolution files 24/384 vs 24/96 and offers better DSD decoding. Ultimately, I think the tone board is a bit cleaner and tighter than the Cobalt but this may well be impacted by the amp attached to the tone board as well. If you have to have portable use, the Cobalt is a better option, if for desktop use feeding another amp, I'd opt for the KTB.

Zorloo ZuperDAC - in comparing the Zuperdac vs the Cobalt, we have two devices that both share the same form factor and same amplifier chip but two different generations of DAC. The Zuper uses the 9018 series chip for its DAC. Perhaps oddly the Cobalt is limited to 24/96 while the older device handles 24/192. The Cobalt fires back with MQA and DSD support which are absent on the Zuper. Sound is better controlled and a bit tighter on the Cobalt while the Zuper seems to lose a bit of control at both ends. This would be an easy win for the Cobalt except for that nagging lack of support for 24/192.

Apogee Groove - Here we have a dogfight. The Groove uses a full 8 channel version of the ESS series DAC and sums 4 channels to create its output. This lowers noise and THD and allows the Groove to post numbers not unlike the Cobalt even though it uses a much older chip. Apogee doesn't disclose other than to say it uses and ESS with 4 channels summed. Best guess is the chip is either a 9008 or 9016s as those are the most cost effective possibilities. The groove supports 24/192 but not DSD or MQA so format support isnt going to separate the two unless you have to have DSD or MQA hardware unfolding. Upsides for the Groove are its micro-usb female connector that allows a broad range of cabling options for connections to PC or tablet and its built in volume control keys. Upsides for the Cobalt are its lower power draw and smaller form factor. Those using android or apple phones will prefer the Cobalt as while its output is not as potent as that of the Groove, it also doesn't have the demand on the battery that makes the groove all but unusable from a phone.

Centrance DACPort-HD -This is another tough fight for the Cobalt. The Dacport is larger and uses a female port like the Groove, but has a form factor closer to that of the Cobalt. The Dacport-HD utilizes the AK4490 chip at its core and while it does not support MQA, it does support 32/384 flac and DSD64 and 128. The DACport-HD feels more solid than the Cobalt but is nearly double its size and weight so again those using it to pair with a portable device will find the Cobalt more convenient. Centrance does not market the DACport-HD for use with android or IOS devices and while I was able to get android to recognize it using USB Audio player pro, it drained the battery quite quickly. Power is no contest as the DACport can easily drive my 600Ω Beyerdynamics while the Cobalt begins to struggle considerably before reaching anywhere near 600Ω.



Conclusions:
The Cobalt is certainly the best of the line and an improvement over previous generations in both sound and power, but still suffers from some of the same limits as its predecessors. Trade-offs made for ease of use and portability prevent the high-end chip used from accomplishing its full mission. For those where portability reigns king, the Cobalt will find an easy niche, for the rest of us, those same trade-offs may make it look less than attractive.
musikverein
musikverein
Oops, (4star) review
Comment was meant for s.a.

Comments

Thanks, very helpful. I had been seriously considering the Cobalt as an upgrade from the Red. At the price though, I instead went for the slightly higher priced Schiit Asgard 3 with the Multibit DAC for desktop use. I will continue to use the Dragonfly Red as my portable, it is still a sweet sounding device paired with my AKG N40 IEMs.
 
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