Audioquest DragonFly Black, Red and JitterBug Review

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Is the DragonFly DAC as perfectly evolved as its namesake?

by Ed Selley Jul 18, 2016 at 9:50 AM

  • Hi-Fi review

    9

    Best Buy
    Audioquest DragonFly Black, Red and JitterBug Review
    SRP: £89.00

    What are the DragonFly and JitterBug?

    The Audioquest DragonFly Black (£89) and DragonFly Red (£169) are the follow up models to the original DragonFly DAC launched back in 2012. They are self contained devices that offer digital-to-analogue conversion, a preamp and a 3.5mm stereo output. They comfortably rank amongst the smallest fully functioning DACs on the market and offer a very discrete way of boosting the performance of a laptop or mobile phone.

    On paper then, these look like very interesting options for boosting the performance of your existing device. In achieving these compact dimensions however, the DragonFly units have had to alter their design makeup and how they function over the path taken by many rivals. Audioquest states that this has not affected their performance – indeed it is how they do what they do. Is this the case, or are these compact beasts just a little too pared back?

    Additionally, Audioquest has supplied their JitterBug (£39) jitter suppression and filter device. Even smaller than the DragonFly, is this curious little black box a quick fix for some of the limitations of your PC as an audio source? It's time to delve into the world of the very small...

    DragonFly – Specifications

    Audioquest DragonFly Black DragonFly – Specifications
    Both Audioquest DACs are built around – and there is a slight sense of inevitability as I type this – the ESS Sabre DAC. Both the Black and the Red use a different version of the ESS Sabre to the original DragonFly and the DragonFly 1.2 – an example of which Audioquest also supplied for comparative listening. The Black has been fitted with the 9023 DAC – a 32-bit version of the proceeding model used in the 1.2. The Red has been equipped with the 9016 version of the chip which offers incremental but noticeable performance improvements over the one in the Black.

    The biggest difference between the old DragonFly and the new ones is how these DAC chips talk to the outside world. The original versions were intended only for use with a PC or Mac – or at least a device with a high power USB output. As the DragonFly chassis has no battery, it is completely dependent on the power of the device to drive it. This has previously been too high for an iOS or Android device to handle. The new models feature a custom interface from a company called Microchip, who have worked hard to make the DragonFly operate at lower voltages.

    This has been achieved with a fair bit of engineering brilliance from a man called Gordon Rankin who is one of the leading lights of USB audio. The business of getting the power requirements of the new DragonFly models under control reads a little like Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 sitting in the command module simulator working out how to shave half an amp off the re-entry procedure but the end result of this frenzied activity is that they've done it. It is also worth pointing out that not only does it work in a theoretical sense – the consumption of both devices is now such that they don't place any great strain on your mobile device while you use them – but also some sources on the internet suggest that the Red is even more energy efficient than the Black.
    Audioquest DragonFly Black DragonFly – Specifications
    Both DragonFly models are less self-contained then more complex rivals. Although both have a volume control in that they can alter the level of their outputs, they have no physical volume control. So both units are dependent on the volume of your PC or mobile device to do this and Audioquest supplies some good instructions on how this works. The most important ramification of this though is that the DragonFly – in all its versions – is a USB 1 type device. While the ESS Sabre is capable of decoding all manner of sample rates and formats, in the DragonFly it tops out at 24/96 (although it seems to be able to recognise and downsample higher ones).

    It is also dependent on the Windows and OSX protocol to allow the volume to function. This means that you will be dependent on the software that can establish a WASAPI-style connection for the best available results and in the case of Windows especially, you will also need to check that it isn't messing around with the sample rate while it does so. In practise, it takes a few minutes to dial your PC in to get the DragonFly working as intended and after that, you are fine. One final note is that the device is able to remember the last volume setting used so if you alternate between mobile and computer use, you'll need to max it on your computer before disconnecting it to make best use of it.

    JitterBug – Specifications

    Audioquest DragonFly Black JitterBug – Specifications
    If the DragonFly is fairly straightforward in terms of what it does, the JitterBug is a little more arcane. This is a self-contained digital filter and noise suppressor that works entirely in the digital domain and is intended to reduce the interference and timing errors generated by the average computer. Laptops in particular are prone to sticking a lot of interference on their signals as they have a huge amounts of equipment internally that tend to interfere with each other.

    Internally, the JitterBug is fitted with a passive circuit that contains teeny tiny resistors, capacitors and inductors that act to suppress the worst that a USB output can send on to a DAC. Audioquest says that the differences are measurable but the equipment required to do so is on the arcane side so I have to take their word for it. Given that the JitterBug is (allowing for slide of Sterling toward Monopoly money status at the time of writing) £39, it represents something at the 'what have you got to lose?' level of purchasing. It is also worth pointing out that the JitterBug is not intended purely for use with a DragonFly – it should notionally assist any other DAC in doing what it needs to do.

    Designs

    Audioquest DragonFly Black Designs
    The DragonFly chassis is simplicity itself. A fixed USB-A connection at one end is protected by a removable cap. This is attached to a small metal body which is roughly the size of a USB stick. At the other end of the chassis is a 3.5mm stereo analogue output. Given that the DragonFly is smaller than a pack of chewing gum there are limits to what can be done in styling terms with it but Audioquest has done a good job. The chassis is all metal and well finished and the use of a dragonfly shaped light to indicate the incoming sample rate is a nice touch. I have to say I prefer the businesslike black of the cheaper model to the red one though. The JitterBug by contrast is a small black stick with the word 'JitterBug' stamped in it. It is not a device that you'll be buying for its looks though.

    Where Audioquest pulls an ace from its sleeve is that as they make every cable known to man, the Dragonfly has access to connectivity options that mean you can use it pretty much how you like. USB ports too close together? Naturally, there are extension cables. Need an on-the-go cable for use with a mobile device? They have those too. At the other end, there is a massive selection of 3.5mm-3.5mm and 3.5m 2 RCA cables to get it connected up. A final advantage of the design is that as the DragonFly terminates in a male USB-A connection, it is able to work with the minimum of additional cabling hanging off your phone in particular.

    Audioquest DragonFly Black
    The biggest difference between the old DragonFly and the new ones is how their DAC chips talk to the outside world

    How were the DragonFly and JitterBug tested?

    The DragonFly units have been tested with a Google/LG Nexus 5 and Motorola Moto X 2014 phones, an iPad Air via camera kit and a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad running Windows 7. Etymotic HF3 and Noble 6 earphones have been used along with Audio Technica AT-H200Z headphones. Software has included jRiver, Foobar, Tidal, Spotify and Bandcamp with lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF being used along with MP3, AAC and Ogg Vorbis. The JitterBug has been tried with the same components and additionally placed on the USB output of a Melco N1A while it was connected and running with the Copland DAC 215.

    DragonFly Black – Performance

    Audioquest DragonFly Black DragonFly Black – Performance
    Once you have followed the setup procedure for the Audioquest, which as noted is relatively straightforward if you know what you are doing, the DAC has a number of immediately observable qualities. The first is that the DragonFly has a deeply impressive amount of headroom for something so tiny. It absolutely motors through DJ Shadow's Nobody Speak and it has the ability to take any in-ear monitor to hearing damage levels without trying. Pushed very hard, it can harden up a little but this is as much the headphones as it is the unit itself.

    If power was the only thing that the DragonFly had going for it would be an interesting tool but little more. In reality, this is a potent, lively and consistently entertaining performer that wants nothing more than to take a piece of music and have a really good time with it. The latest Rival Sons album Hollow Bones, sounds tremendously exciting and has an excellent sense of drive and attack to it. Furthermore tonality is genuinely impressive too. Vocals have real presence and texture to them and the Black does enough to open up this dense recording to make a little more sense.

    Compared to the much more expensive Chord Mojo, the Audioquest doesn't have the ability to remove the sense you are listening to digital altogether but for a sub-£100 product it manages to be consistently excellent. It also works a charm used as an output for a mobile phone. Connection is completely straight forward and the DragonFly imbues the Nexus 5 with a level of performance that is a world beyond what the feeble headphone output can produce. This is a seriously cost effective way of improving the performance of a smartphone – is it the best value one though?

    DragonFly Red – Performance

    Audioquest DragonFly Black DragonFly Red – Performance
    The Red behaves exactly the same way as the Black in terms of setup and if you alternate between it on a simple A-B flip, you might initially think that your extra money has bought you a nice coat of paint but little more. I'm pleased to say that having spent a little more time with the units, this isn't the case but the improvements that the Red brings over the Black are a little dependent on the partnering equipment. With the Eymotics and even to an extent, the vastly more expensive Nobles, the Red sounds marginally (and I do mean marginally) smoother and more refined with a little bit more warmth to the midrange in particular.

    With full size headphones the results are different. The Red doesn't necessarily have more outright volume but it does have a fuller bodied performance that with the Audio Technica AT-HA2000Z in particular sounds much more controlled and capable. If you prefer to use a full size headphone, the Red simply does a better all-round job with it. This particularly applies to use with a phone as the Red works exactly the same as the Black does and drives the big Audio Technicas in a way that the Nexus can only dream of. Some side-by-side listening with the Oppo HA-2 suggests that the Red has the measure of it sonically – although it can't act as a battery and has no additional inputs so the Oppo isn't completely redundant depending on your requirements but it is a demonstration that the price of excellence keeps falling.

    Audioquest DragonFly Black
    This is a seriously cost-effective way of improving the performance of a smartphone

    JitterBug – Performance

    On the face of it, the JitterBug is a slightly inscrutable product. It doesn't even show a running light when connected and although I've clearly seen a picture to show it has components inside it, there's still the slightest whiff of the 'mystery box' to it. Happily, I can say that unless you happen to own a really beautifully built and laid out computer with the sort of lay out and power supply arrangements that are simply missing from most mass produced equipment, the JitterBug does do something.

    Connected in-series with first the Black and then the Red, there is a drop in the noise floor audible through the IEMs in particular. This has an immediate impact on the way that the rest of the music signal is handled as that reduced noise makes its presence felt all the way through the frequency response. The Jitterbug doesn't add anything to the performance of either the Black or the Red, it simply improves the quality of the raw materials they work with. It isn't just the DragonFly that benefits either. Even Chord's Mojo, with its clever USB input and huge processing horsepower sees a small but noticeable improvement in overall performance when the Jitterbug is in use. This is not a product that does a 'music will never be the same again' sort of performance jump but for the price of a night in the pub, it is a very useful little addition.

    Conclusion

    9
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

    Pros

    • Exceptional performance
    • Tremendously flexible
    • Compact and well built

    Cons

    • Limited to 24/96kHz
    • Setup for best results a little involved
    • Can be a little ungainly hanging off a phone
    You own this Total 4
    You want this Total 1
    You had this Total 0

    Audioquest DragonFly Black, Red and JitterBug Review

    Both new DragonFly DACs are noteworthy pieces of equipment. They arrive into the market at a time when you have more DAPs to choose from than ever before and they both act as a massive fly in their proverbial ointment. I still make a case that for products like Pioneer's XDP-100R, there are reasons beyond sound for its existence – it lets your phone be a phone again above everything else – but the Audioquests are capable of imbuing an ordinary phone with performance that keeps them honest. This means that they have to be considered scintillating value. If you are an earphone user in particular, the Black has to be seen as the most cost-effective means of boosting a smartphone there is. The Red meanwhile is able to perform the same minor miracle with headphones. That they are just as at home running with computers has to be seen as another pleasant ribbon to an already lovely bow.

    And the JitterBug? If you are making serious use of USB audio, it's a no-brainer. It's cheap, unobtrusive and gives pretty much any DAC a better signal to work with. Audioquest is still first and foremost a cable manufacturer but in these small devices, it proves beyond any doubt that it is an increasingly important player in digital audio terms as well.


    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £89.00

    The Rundown

    Build Quality

    9

    Connectivity

    8

    Ease of Use

    8

    Features

    8

    Audio Performance

    9

    Value for Money

    9

    Verdict

    9

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