Introduction - what is the DragonFly Cobalt?
The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt is a digital to analogue converter. It follows in the footsteps of earlier DragonFly models, including the Black and Red that we reviewed here back in 2016 and that continue on sale, and this means that there are some slightly different design impetuses to it than might be the case with some rivals. Slightly confusingly, all three DragonFly models currently on sale have the same inputs and outputs. They have the same format handling and functionality too which augers the question- “why?”
It turns out there is both a solid reason for AudioQuest to do what they do and a decent enough reason - on paper anyway - for the Cobalt to join the range too. The world of on paper product logic and actual justification are not the same though. At over £200, the Cobalt finds itself competing against some rather more sophisticated rivals and this means that it has its work cut out. Does the minimalist premise still deliver and is this a device worth buying?
Specification and Design
At its core, the DragonFly Cobalt is a single input USB DAC. AudioQuest has taken that design concept and refined it to an irreducible minimum. At one end of the DragonFly is a male USB A connection and the other, a 3.5mm socket. This is the form that all DragonFlys have taken since the original and the biggest refinement to it was at the launch of the Black and Red models. Thanks to a genuinely clever process of energy efficiency, the DragonFly was adapted for mobile use. This is no small undertaking but it meant that just in time for headphones to start ditching their headphone sockets, the DragonFly was able to become a surrogate.
The Cobalt is exactly the same in basic layout and function as the Black and Red and this extends to one design decision that on the face of it, can seem a little baffling. At a point where the maximum supported sample rates of most DACs on the market is 384kHz (and there are a fair few that can do 768kHz), the Cobalt offers a maximum handling of 96kHz. This might seem a little parsimonious but there two important things to consider. The first is that the bulk of material that people actually listen to rarely exceeds this level. Even with on demand streaming offering easier access to Hi-Res content, almost all of it falls below this point.
The second is arguably more useful. For Windows users, even though Windows 10 has relaxed this somewhat, any use of the higher resolutions means the installation of a dedicated driver. This is fine as far as it goes but on a more locked down work computer, this is not a practical thing to be able to do. As many DACs don’t have the means to work in USB1, they can’t be used at all in these situations. The DragonFly on the other hand will work with any computer you can reach the USB socket on.
It also has one decoding option that is more unusual. The Cobalt can decode MQA which means that it will work with Tidal in manner that some rivals simply can’t, as you get a full unpack this way (as opposed to the half one that the desktop app). In terms of accessing Hi-Res content in an efficient way, this is arguably more useful than the ability to play ultra Hi-Res DSD files.
Given that the Cobalt has all this in common with the Black and Red, why does it cost significantly more? First up, the innards are new. The Cobalt makes use of an ESS ES9038Q2M DAC which is a few rungs up the ladder from the ones in the Red and Black. In particular, the filtering arrangements are considerably more elaborate and this is an area that really matters in digital to analogue conversion. Even if we take an arch subjectivist take on the nature of what a product ‘needs’ to do, there are no straightforward answers to the one true form a digital filter should take (like many aspects of design, there are strengths and trade-offs to any particular design decision). The fact that the arrangement in the Cobalt is considerably more sophisticated is not inconsequential in terms of its overall performance.
The clock of the Cobalt is also more sophisticated than in the lesser DragonFlys and this is combined with more ornate noise suppression hardware - the level of noise in a source will vary but the very small size of the Cobalt means that anything that does make it to the DAC has to be actively dealt with. AudioQuest still makes the Jitterbug (which remains mysteriously effective in certain applications) so that is an option too.
It comes with a USB C adapter as a matter of course and a selection of OTG and extended connection options to ensure that you can successfully attach the Cobalt. Then, to ensure you can connect it to something else, there is a veritable cornucopia of 3.5mm to twin RCA cables to choose from, going from a modest £25 through to a less modest £999. One thing I will say is that in a world of glossy high end cables, AudioQuest gear really is built to last, nothing I’ve ever used from the company has shown the slightest sign of wearing out, let alone failing.
The Cobalt is the same basic design as the other DragonFlys but gets a new casework design as well as new paintwork. It’s still the size of a pack of chewing gum and made of metal but the Cobalt bulges the lower casework to better accommodate one end being thicker than the other and avoid the ‘power bulge’ that the Black and Cobalt have in their metalwork. It’s a minor detail but it does make it easier to pocket. It’s easily as solid as its little brothers and the paint finish is of an exceptional standard too. The DragonFly logo is still used to denote the sample rate and this is clear and easy to see at a distance. I’d hesitate to describe the Cobalt as beautiful but it has a design that works at a glance, which is rather more important.
This being a cable manufacturer, your choice of supporting bits for your Cobalt are extensive
How was the DragonFly Cobalt Tested?
The Cobalt has been used both connected directly to a Roon Nucleus and a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad acting as a Roon endpoint. It has then additionally seen testing via an Aukey OTG adapter into an Essential PH-1 smartphone and an iPad Pro 2019 connected via a Belkertech USB hub. It has been connected to a Naim NAIT XS3 and Rega Aethos integrated amp and Sennheiser IE800S and Campfire Audio Io earphones and Audio Technica ATH-A2000Z headphones. Material used has including FLAC and AIFF, Tidal to test MQA and Qobuz with some limited on demand TV viewing too.
My review of the Red and Black ended with me effectively deciding that the Black was perfectly adequate for pretty much any earphone use and the Red, while having some benefits for full size headphone users, didn’t add too much to the party. On the face of it, this doesn’t auger well for the Cobalt but the reality of the situation is a little different.
For starters, the Cobalt is noticeably more resilient to noise and interference when used as an OTG device than either of the older DragonFlys. At points where the older models (and things like the Chord Mojo) are producing cellular interference noises, the Cobalt isn’t. For the avoidance of hyperbole, the differences aren’t huge but given that all extraneous noise is unwanted, it gives the Cobalt an advantage. Whatever AudioQuest has done here is extremely effective and when you combine it with the small overall size of the Cobalt, this has to be seen as one of the most effective mobile solutions going and if you are solely looking for a DAC to bolt onto a mobile phone, this is something you should take into account.
The really good news is that the AudioQuest is not charging you an extra £100 for a slightly quieter device. Side by side tests with the Cobalt and the Red reveal a device that is seemingly less processed in how it makes music. Listen in isolation to the Red playing Emily King’s Sides and the performance is extremely good. King is (correctly) the focus of attention. She sounds entirely believable in terms of both her physical scale and placement and the performance is convincingly three dimensional - especially via the magnificent Sennheiser IE800S.
Play the same track straight back on the Cobalt and you’ll be struck by the increase in presence and realism that it brings to King’s performance. It digs little bits of microdynamics out of the mix that the Red misses; little breaths, inflections and the other minutiae that turn music into something tangible. When I wrote up the originals. I suggested that the lovely (and much missed) Oppo HA-2SE had the edge over then. The Cobalt would have closed that gap to nothing.
If you are a Tidal user, there are definite benefits to the MQA decoding too. Being able to do a ‘full unpack’ unquestionably ensures that this service sounds as good as it possibly can. I would caution that this is not a complete endorsement of MQA - Qobuz is still a better sounding service as there is no conversion point at any stage - but if you are a Tidal user, the Cobalt has a considerable advantage over non MQA DACs.
It also has no headroom deficit to any portable DAC right up until you get to the Chord Mojo and RHA DacAmp. AudioQuest claims an output of 2.1v which translates in reality into the ability to drive any earphone to the point where it explodes and most headphones won’t be a struggle either. What this translates to in reality is an effortless and entirely unstrained performance running at normal listening levels. In the same manner as is the case with lesser DragonFlys, running at lower volume levels doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on performance either.
Of course, if you can open the taps and use the Cobalt as a line level source, it is genuinely impressive. Calming my apocalypse jitters with a burst of Joe Satriani’s Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards, the AudioQuest is able to make use of that extra space and detail to really make the prog effrontery of this album work. It’s here that the size and shape of the Cobalt works both ways. If you want something to show for your £250 odd, it is a bit of a non starter but connected to the adaptive USB out of a server or NAS, it is effectively a completely self-contained output stage.
And critically, used in this out of sight, out of mind method, it is good enough that you forget about the fact that your decoding is being done by something the size of a pack of gum and simply enjoy what it can do. The rhythmic energy and drive that is a hallmark of the original DragonFlys is present here too and it means that, reveling in the fact that PlanetFunk’s The Illogical Consequence has finally been released for streaming services, this is a device that has the flow to match the detail. Given that it vied for attention with £7,500 of Chord Electronics DAC and scaler, the simple fact that I didn’t simply switch back the moment critical listening ended should be indicative.
Whatever AudioQuest has done here is extremely effective and when you combine it with the small overall size of the Cobalt, this has to be seen as one of the most effective mobile solutions going
- Impressive sonic performance
- Brilliantly designed for mobile use
- Tough and well made
- Limited connectivity
- Limited sample rate handling
- Priced closer to more flexible rivals
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC Review
Given that the DragonFly black remains a complete and utter bargain and had me questioning whether the Red was really worth the extra outlay, I had some doubts about the Cobalt. These doubts are unfounded. While the Cobalt adheres to the same design practise as the more affordable models, this is a seriously talented device that manages to beef up its mobile credentials while also being a genuinely viable piece of home audio equipment. This is a rare example of something being most things to most people and for that reason, it comes Highly Recommended.
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