As computer-based hi-fi becomes more popular, the gear is getting smaller. Take Audioquest’s DragonFly ($299), a device no bigger than a USB stick that packs a 96/24-capable DAC and headphone amp. The DragonFly plugs into your computer’s USB port and has a 3.5mm output jack at the other end to hook up to a pair of powered speakers, headphones, or an amp/preamp. Put it under the microscope and you’ll uncover some serious audiophile flourishes, including high-end ESS Sabre DACs and the same Streamlength asynchronous protocol that much pricier components use to transfer audio data over a USB connection.
The DAC’s small size is only part of its appeal. Colored LEDs light up a dragonfly emblem in green, blue, amber, or magenta, depending on the sample rate of the file being played. For such a simple device, it also offers plenty of setup flexibility. An analog volume control lets you tweak levels using your computer’s own volume adjustment as opposed to the sliders on software players like iTunes – a factor that improves sound quality. A fixed-level output mode, enabled by setting the DragonFly’s volume to max, also lets you connect it to a receiver or preamp in larger systems.
In listening comparisons made between the Audioquest’s DAC and the output of my laptop’s built-in sound card, music sounded notably cleaner and had a good bit more detail when heard via the DragonFly. High frequencies in particular were more open and natural, and vocals had better dimensionality. The differences could be heard easily over headphones, but they seemed even more dramatic when I listened with my desktop speakers. As a simple computer audio upgrade, the DragonFly is one you don’t have to think twice about. It’s also one that any audio-quality-conscious family and friends on your list will appreciate. — Al Griffin