The AudioQuest DragonFly series has made a bold promise from the beginning: plug this little USB dongle into your computer or smartphone and it will transform the way your music sounds. I had first encountered the original DragonFly in my blundering days of Beats headphones and SkullCandy earbuds, I was skeptical. “Obviously nothing could possibly improve the sound of headphones designed by the man himself – Dr. Dre! It’s totally not worth buying!”
In the intervening years, I’ve discovered what sorts of products were actually worth buying, and, in a sense come full circle. Knowing what a DAC is, and why you need one, I’m looking at AudioQuest’s latest, the DragonFly Cobalt, and asking “Should I buy a DragonFly?”
The Build and Design
The Dragonfly Cobalt is about the size of a standard ¼” cable terminal, and handles both signal and power through the single USB connection. The included DragonTail adapter adds some additional size, but even with the adapter attached it’s significantly smaller than almost any other DAC/Amp out there.
As far as features, well… there’s not much to be had in that department. There are absolutely no hardware controls or adjustments – it doesn’t even have its own volume knob. This is a simple, straightforward, single purpose device. Plug it in, and it’ll convert your 1s or 0s to actual music.
Speaking of plugging it in, the DragonFly Cobalt is plug and play with most modern OSes and smartphones. The connection on the DragonFly itself is a standard USB-A, and you can get it packaged with either a USB-C or MicroUSB DragonTail adapter for easier connection to your laptop or Android phone. If you want to connect it to an iPhone, you’ll need to purchase a USB to Lightning adapter separately.
Portability is great, but if you’ve spent any time researching portable audiophile gear, you’ve probably seen a few dozen ads for various cheap portable DACs for your phone or laptop that might even be smaller than a DragonFly. So, why not buy one of them? The key difference with the DragonFly Cobalt is that while its distinguishing feature is its portability, it’s a great DAC in its own right.
The output is balanced, and crystal clear. There is no noticeable “edge” in the signal, or any noise. I tested it with a variety of headphones and IEMs, and found that it brought out the good aspects of each, and even tempered some of their shortcomings. In particular, Meze Audio 99 Classics tend to have slightly muddy bass with most sources. With the DragonFly, the bass in the 99 Classics cleaned up nicely, and was much more coherent without losing any of its power or depth. On the other end of the spectrum, the Noble M3 IEMs which I’ve found to be too bright in the past, were still bright, but rather than feel sharp at the top end they felt more smooth and airy.
Since it does lack controls for high/low gain or different impedences, and relies on your phone or laptop for volume control, volume management can be a small challenge. In terms of volume, the various over-ear headphones I tried were great, and the oBravo Cupids needed the volume turned down a little. When I plugged in Campfire Andromedas, I initially had to turn my system volume down to 1 to get a good listening volume. I was eventually able to use a combination of the volume settings in the software player and the system to find a good balance, but you may need to do some work to dial in a listenable volume with some IEMs. As a positive, volume aside, any gain or impedance mismatch that might have existed didn’t create any hum or noise on any of the products I tested.
The Bottom Line
Right off the bat, if you need portability and simplicity above all else in an audiophile quality DAC, the DragonFly Cobalt is what you’re looking for. Even if portability isn’t a high priority, the Cobalt is still a strong contender in the $300 range for a portable DAC/Amp. With the right mix of simplicity, extreme portability, and sound quality, the DragonFly Cobalt is a great tool to help you bring out the best in your music wherever you go.