Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt Plug-in DAC/Amp Synopsis

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp

This Synopsis

Audioquest’s tiny but powerful Dragonfly DAC/amp devices remain in the eyes of many portable audiophiles. A plug-in, USB stick style dedicated HiFi DAC/amp is such a good idea that no other audio company has provided to this extent. Sure, the now aged Dragonfly Red wasn’t the best sounding portable DAC out there, but something had to be said for its no-frills usability and affordability.

A successor is finally here three years later, and as we hoped, it has been reworked throughout to push the envelope of what a minuscule DAC/amp can do, as well as close the gap with larger, battery-powered solutions. However, that comes with a substantial price hike, which we’re sure will be more than a lot of Dragonfly fans are willing to swallow.

There are plentiful general impressions/reviews out there for the Dragonfly Cobalt, so our focus is getting straight to the point of this device. This synopsis fires through key particularities and criticisms that can go unaddressed by the general review. Let’s get right to it…

The Rundown

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp
The Cobalt DAC/amp and included USB-A (female) to USB-C (male) “Dragontail” adapter.

> It’s surprising how much girth Audioquest was able to shave off the Cobalt compared to its predecessor, the Dragonfly Red. Less material makes a difference to usability of this kind of device, being that it will dangle from the attached mobile device. As a reference, it’s exactly the width of our Apple connect adapter, making the combo a uniform interconnect.

> The Cobalt’s glossy surface won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but fortunately fingerprints don’t really show. The plastic also doesn’t feel cheap. It feels thick and weighty, as opposed to the commonplace cheap, hollow feeling of most plastic-built electronics.

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp
Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp
Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp

Curves/Angles on the Cobalt’s chassis also update the Red’s dated design, along with a metallic shimmer to the new eye-catching Cobalt color.

> That being said, the connection points could use some refinement. Plugging in on either end (headphone jack or USB port) too easily shows a tad of wiggle and creaking/clicking. And it’s not just our unit, this is widely noted on the Cobalt’s thread on Head-Fi.org. We can’t yet speak of the unit’s reliability, but this doesn’t give us the confidence that a $300 USB stick should.

> Operation of the Dragonfly is simple; it’s a plug-in USB stick. Modern phones (iPhone or Android) are plug-and-play-ready where they will automatically send power and digital audio through to the external audio device. The Cobalt has no battery, so it’s not another device that users need to charge. It will continually draw the power it needs for operation when plugged in. This may lead to concern about the device sucking power away from the phone, but so little is needed for audio processing that we found it almost negligible (primarily using in-ear headphones).

> It’s appropriate that Audioquest includes their “Dragontail” USB to USB-C adapter in the box, being that the biggest draw here is on-the-go usage. Apple users get the shaft in this respect, as it will be on them to purchase Apple’s pricey USB to Lightning adapter to be able to use the Cobalt with an iPhone or iPad.

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp
If your computer still has a USB-A port, you can directly connect the Cobalt. Note that Cobalt’s box also comes with a black leather pouch and cap to keep the USB connector protected when not in use.

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp
How the mobile connection will look to an iPhone. Be aware that the Apple USB connector is not included!

> By the same token, we can’t help wish that the design of the device was tailored to mobile devices from the bat with a USB-C connector instead of the old USB-A. Most users will use this on-the-go. USB-A doesn’t make a whole lot of sense today.

> A usability concern of this kind of system that isn’t voiced enough is the fact that the volume is run by the mobile device’s OS. There’s no independent volume control on the device. The concern comes in that, whether on Android (for the most part) or iOS, the volume steps are coarse. Especially with more sensitive in-ears, you may want in between a step that’s not loud enough and the next step that’s too loud (such is the case with our Shure SE846), where you’re out of luck unless you find a third-party music player that can handle things on its own.

> Another concern along these lines is that with the volume being solely digitally controlled by the OS, you’ll be cutting bits of data out your tracks (this is what digital volume attenuation does). It’s traditionally best to max out digital volume on the source and control it analogically with the amp. However, Audioquest does say that developed its amp with “bit-perfect volume control”, if you can stand by that.

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp
An LED that shines through the dragonfly symbol indicates sampling rate.

> So onto the most important part, the sound quality. The Cobalt’s acoustic performance is matured through-and-through. Rather than the sound of just an entry-level DAC like on the Red, this sounds more like it can compete with the big boys in the portable DAC/amp space. Ample detail is resolved, but as we’ll discuss it’s more of a matter of how than what.

> Imaging is the shining quality of this DAC/amp, if we had to pick one. The dynamic spatial-ness of sounds is what immediately caught our ears on first listen. Music feels more present, dimensional, exciting, and just alive. This quality of delivery is what excels the Cobalt in its class (and against many higher too).

> However, digging into the details, the Cobalt does have concise shortcomings. Resolution is comprehensively laid-back. So sharpness and extension of sounds is smoothened and falls flat compared to its competition with more computational power. A/B’ing with our Mojo and iFi Micro iDSD Black Label DAC/amps, we easily noticed more deepness, tightness, and sharper detail overall.

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp
Size-wise, it doesn’t seem like the Cobalt can hold its own against the iFi Micro iDSD BL (left) or Chord Mojo (right), but it arguably can.

> In other words, the details from the Cobalt have this hollow hint to them. It’s not bad per-se, but if you have a more analytical ear, it may not be the best option. However, if you’re looking for an easier/smoother listen (and non-fatiguing) that has a dynamic and full presentation (while still pulling ample detail), then it may be.

> An exception to the compromise noted above is when it comes to decay. Audioquest applies a slow filter algorithm to the Cobalt’s processing. This in part contributes to the undoubted smoothness of the Cobalt’s sound, but additionally there’s a pleasant linger to the notes. You’ll be able to more easily catch and appreciate the fade-out subtleties of notes, and strung-out body especially in the low-end.

> We think most people will like the bass’ weight. It strikes a nice balance between presence/impact and accuracy to our ears. It’s not the tightest bass we’ve heard, and we wish the sub-bass had as much weight as the mid-bass. However, we appreciate the power while being masterly controlled and not bleeding into the mid-range.

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp
It was fun seeing how a tiny DAC/amp can drive the full-size Sennheiser HD 820. While the Cobalt had no problem supplying the HD 820 with volume, its amp isn’t able to push the load the headphone needs to shine. The result is a noticeable lack in body.

> The mids are gorgeous on the Cobalt. There’s substantial presence and air. Vocals and instruments surround you with a particular openness and fullness that is the Cobalt’s “special sauce” presentation we touched on earlier. This region is where a lot of that processing magic happens. Something has to be said with how easy it is to “fall” into the music with the Cobalt and be engaged.

> Historically, ESS SABRE DACs have been known to be on the sharper/brighter side. You can detect the crispness in the Cobalt’s sound signature, but as we’ve discussed, it also exhibits that smooth and laid-back nature (maybe due to the incorporated slower filter). This a positive to our ears, because you get nice brilliance from higher frequency instruments without fatiguing sharpness. It’s a great balance.

The Summary

Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/amp

Advantages

  • Best sound you’ll get in the dongle form-factor
  • Exterior doesn’t feel cheap and looks great
  • Simple use, and quality adapter for Android users
  • Spatial, dynamic, and non-fatiguing sound
  • Quiet noise-floor, works with sensitive in-ears

Disadvantages

  • Too expensive for what it is
  • Ports have noticeable wiggle
  • Coarse volume control can be frustrating
  • Apple users need to buy adapter to be able to use
  • Laid-back details

Current Price of Dragonfly Cobalt on Amazon

The Dragonfly Cobalt is a great update from Audioquest, and we’re adamant that this is the best sound quality that you can get from a “dongle” DAC/amp device. It’s a total recommendation from us for an on-the-go audiophile to have in their collection, but only if you have the extra cash for it. We wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s only DAC/amp device, unless that person absolutely needs the portability and really doesn’t want an extra device to charge. There are better sounding dedicated DAC/amps at this price-point (like the Fiio Q5 or iFi xDSD), albeit larger and that run on a battery.

We hope that Audioquest addresses the wiggle of the ports by tightening up their quality control. This shouldn’t happen with what is essentially a USB stick, and one this costly. Additionally, we’d say to be cautious if you have higher impedance headphones. The amp in the Cobalt isn’t very powerful.

Also See: IFi xDSD Portable HiFi DAC/amp Synopsis

Josh is so enthused about tech that he writes about it. After time at several tech publications, he launched The Synops - concise and quality gadget synopses with information that readers want to know and details they want to see. You can also follow him at on Twitter (@joshnor713) and Google+ (+JoshNoriega). Email any inquiries to josh@thesynops.com.

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