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Headphone Amp/DAC shootout – AudioQuest DragonFly Black, Red and Cobalt, Cyrus Soundkey, & Chord Mojo

I currently lean on the side of listening to HiFi rather than headphones. Funny how it reverses. Headphones seemed to be the main audio preserve when I was younger, except then we had clunky tape Walkmans. I’d love to have had the tech we have now, then!

But as I’m getting back down with my kid self with lots of headphones of recent, it’s nostalgic exploring old ways. In keeping with this, the honesty of youth and a multi product review, I’m breaking with the norm to add my personal opinions. Take them or leave them but remember always try yourself too…. The golden rule of anything audio.

I’m using a pair of MAS audio science X5i headphones into a bog standard Apple iPhone SE. The way most of us listen to our audio on the move nowadays. As much convenience as a microwave TV dinner! Not happy with the Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC) and amplifier in the phone, what can we do to pimp our sounds? The answer is to add one of these devices and alas the reason for buying. They go between headphones and the phone and for those unfamiliar, the DAC is intended to best that in the phone. To those unfamiliar, it’s the bit that changes the digital signal into the analogue one, we can hear. The headphone amp part is pretty obvious so needs no explanation;

1. DragonFly Black, £75

Its been out for sometime but it’s still an affordable stalwart of a headphone amp/DAC. I like its matt black tactile finish and you get a solid metal USB stick and detachable cap. You plug it straight into a computer or laptop using the USB end after removing its cap, with the headphones going in a 3.5mm headphone jack, the other end.

If used with iPhones you’ll need an adapter with USB socket. I used an Apple ‘Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter’ (£40) instead of the less expensive Apple ‘lightning to USB’ adapter. Audioquest actually state in the manual that the former sounds better, quite how or if true I’ve no idea. You might want to try buying a cheap eBay type adapter, but I’m not sure if compatible, so take your chances there. Just make sure you push the lighting connector into the phone (unusually with a click) and not feel rather stupid like me, when you can’t get it to work because you haven’t pushed it fully in.

The way you connect DragonFly’s to your iPhone using the Apple ‘Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter’ (showing the DragonFly Cobalt model)

If using an android phone you’ll have to get an Audioquest DragonTail adapter, which comes with the DragonFly Cobalt model.

The DragonFly Black version uses a ESS 9010 32bit DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) and copes with various sample (quality) rates from CD quality to Hi-Res (up to 96kHz). The little DragonFly logo changes colour to reflect the sample rate, which is neat.

Beyond using the standard direct connection to the iPhones 3.5mm jack, the DragonFly Black is most obvious in the field of richer tone and a fuller soundstage but not massively more appreciable, detail wise. You do notice it doing much to deal with the graininess in treble of the direct connection. This is most obviously better at the extremes of volume in a music track and where there is naturally lots of treble, such as a cymbal. Think of it as having a purpose of dealing better with electrical noise on the phone, which is not especially optimized for quality audio. This is what is so insidious to musical enjoyment in pretty much all audio applications.

It’s definitely an improvement in these areas and at the price you get what you pay for. But if you’ve got any half decent headphones, it will do what it says on the tin – no question! But my advice would be to try the slightly more expensive DragonFly Red as well……

2. DragonFly Red – £170

The ‘Red’ is another £100 and the first thing you notice on swapping over is that you have to turn the volume up. This is probably attributed to it using a digital volume control rather than the analogue control in the DragonFly Black model. Without being too technical, think of it as the way the volume reaches the amplification stages – either in the digital or analogue domain. An explanation here is perhaps not really relevant to enjoying this product.

It’s still the same USB stick type with cap and 3.5mm jack, but has a higher output voltage to better drive power hungry headphones with bigger magnets. One thing I did notice is how quickly the iPhone SE battery drains using these Dragonfly’s. That said the iPhone SE has always had a rubbish battery and not many people use them over bigger iPhone models with more battery juice. If you use the ‘Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter’ you can plug in a charger to the adapter, but if you’re on the move with a small iPhone like the SE I’d recommend carrying a USB battery pack charger.

It uses a different DAC (ESS Sabre 9016), the case is gloss red painted metal and it’s of similar quality to the DragonFly Black model. Again, coloured sample rate lighting comes through the DragonFly logo.

What I noticed over the Black model is that transients in the music are improved. Transients are the starting and stopping in the decay of notes which makes music more real. Timbrally it comes on too over the Black model, pianos or guitars for example are more real. I wouldn’t say detail is massively better but you certainly feel more involved in the music and there is a reasonable step up in performance to the Dragonfly Black here.

Timbre

the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity

3. DragonFly Cobalt – £270

Now comes the biggest surprise when you take the leap up to the newest DragonFly Cobalt model which has been on the market only a short time.

I have to say the slightly more curvaceous look doesn’t impose notions of quality in the same way as the thicker angular Black and Red models do, which also feel a bit firmer and heavier. The Cobalt feels lighter and appears to have a plastic case, but chatting to Audioquest’s Nick Allen I am assured it is metal, but it’s just that the case is smaller. It keeps the same USB/cap design.

But plug it in and any fears about its finish and appearance are put out of mind. It uses an ESS ES9038Q2M DAC and has power supply filtering, utilising technology developed in the Audioquest Jitterbug. Again in simple terms, eliminating this insidious noise factors back into improved sound quality.

What you notice is quite a big step up in imaging and detail compared to the DragonFly Red. In trying Four Tet’s Morning Evening album I was amazed at how much of a jump in imaged detail there is.

The step up is a much more significant one from the Red to the Cobalt than from the Black to the Red, very much warranting its price in relative DragonFly terms.

Added detail is so much more obvious and the depth of field and delicacy in the music is more pleasing and apparent too.

So far, easily the best.

The Cobalt was on show at CanJam London 2019

4. Cyrus SoundKey – £100

The Cyrus is a more affordable headphone amp/DAC on a par with the DragonFly Black. The Cyrus sound has always been one of incisive detail and if you had a treble dial, it would be at plus one or two. I know this being very familiar with Cyrus products. The Soundkey is no different in this sense of balance.

But it uses a micro USB digital input such that when using it with iPhones, over and above the Dragonfly models you have to use an additional lead to an Apple style lightning to USB adapter – see picture below. This makes it a touch unwieldy on the go, albeit it purports to have very low power consumption and is quite compact and thin. With Android phones it connects up with one cable in what’s referred to as ‘On the Go’ connection.

You’ll need two leads with the Soundkey into iPhones

The problem is in its sound quality, which may not be a problem if you use warmer tone headphones, but the Soundkey isn’t the most neutral of headphone amp / DACs for partnering with neutral headphones. It too won’t be an issue if you are a detail fiend. But be aware that whilst it may sound amazing in the shop with all the detail, think about if it’s what you really want long term. Will it become grating over a longer listen? If you are this detail fiend, then maybe not, but there are plenty of people who have bought HiFi and headphones only to regret so after longer term listening.

At volume with the balanced MAS Audio Science headphones it can be quite shrill. It’s more detailed than the DragonFly Red or Black but it does so in a forward way which frankly is not the best balance wise. Whenever extremes of volume or treble demands, grainy harsh treble comes into the fray. The DragonFly Black has a nicer balance and fits more to a neutral ideal. Also the Soundkey doesn’t come close to the way the DragonFly Cobalt presents detail in a very natural and balanced way, perhaps unsurprising given the price disparity.

5. Chord Mojo – £400

This Chord has too been a stalwart of headphone DACs and amps for a while. Utilising FPGA DAC technology, this is an in house designed DAC. But what surprised me when I tried it against the DragonFly Cobalt is how, relatively speaking, it is slightly edgy and raspy with treble. It has tons of detail (and a touch more than the Cobalt) but trades a bit of the balance of the DragonFly Cobalt, which I didn’t think I’d be saying as a long term Chord lover and given its higher price. It seems a little airy in the way it projects detail and as neutrality is such an important criteria it gets marked down a bit.

I wasn’t expecting it to be of a lesser performance, in my opinion, to the Dragonfly Cobalt with the headphones I am using and especially at its price point. Be aware the difference is very small though and one which could easily be obviated by preference.

It’s clearly a slightly more flexible proposition to the Dragonfly Cobalt, because being more powerful it’s going to drive more demanding headphones. Also it has optical and coaxial digital inputs and often gets used in full sized HiFi systems as a DAC, as well as portable headphone amp/ DAC. So it has more uses.

On this basis it possibly might not be comparable, but if you are looking for sound quality in using easy to drive headphones with laptops or phones, the DragonFly Cobalt trumps it on sound quality in my opinion. As well as on portability, and price. This makes the DragonFly Cobalt a fantastic product in this group test.

Bottom Line Summary

So if you are considering any of these headphone amp/DACs, are a detail meister and you want a budget offering, you might pick the Cyrus Soundkey. Alternatively the Dragonfly Black if you want to ‘neutral max’ your music within a budget. For added gains the Dragonfly Red is easily worth its price next up in the pecking order bringing better timbre and transients. The Cobalt model trumps both the other Dragonfly’s on pound for pound value, even though it’s more expensive.

With the Dragonfly Cobalt being a much lower price to the Chord Mojo, and in my opinion besting it on sound quality, notwithstanding slightly different usage between these units, it wins the test on all out sound quality. Both on pound for pound value again and in absolute comparative product terms. It also achieves the 13th Note as a great product boosting headphone sound quality resoundingly.

I suspect in future reviews it will be regarded as outcompeting other similar but more expensive products or those such products currently established. Don’t you just love competition!

Check this video out from AudioQuest

Download a spec sheet comparing the DragonFly models here.

Written by Simon Price

I'm an audiophile who likes faithfully reproduced audio and sharing experiences with others. I am primarily interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews are not overly technical and I don't use pretentious language, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

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