Review by Christopher Luckenbach (@ValentineLuke)
The Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt is the third entrant in Audioquest’s series of Dragonfly USB DAC + Headphone Amps and is situated as their flagship DAC preceded by the Dragonfly Red, and Dragonfly Black.
Under the hood
It employs the ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M chipset (32 bit- natively decoding 24 bit/96khz, including an MQA core decoder) in conjunction with the ESS Sabre 9601 headphone amplifier with a high-level output of 2.1V @ 10k ohms or higher (3.5mm output).
It has a 64-bit, bit-perfect digital volume control, and also uses an efficient Microchip PIC32MX274 USB microcontroller that draws less current, and increases processing speed by 33%. Wavelength Audio’s monoClock technology, with a single ultra-low-jitter clock to run the headphone amplifier and all of the microcontroller functions.
Yeah, but how does it sound?
Well in short, pretty fantastic with some caveats.
ESS Sabre chipsets are regarded for their resolving detail that many describe as analytical and have a tendency to be on the “bright” side.
For the Cobalt, Audioquest went with a minimum-phase slow roll-off filter which for me, is a good thing as I’m one of those treble sensitive individuals.
In my listening I use the Dragonfly Cobalt (DFC) paired with the Koss Porta Pros, or what I like to call the “Baby Aeolus”.
It’s a match made in audio heaven. Sort of.
As my source I’m alternating between an iPad Pro and an iPhone XS Max playing tracks via the Tidal, and Apple Music apps. The DFC includes a USB-A to USB-C adapter known as “The Dragontail”. I use my Apple USB adapter (non camera kit version) to pair with the above devices.
The DFC brings out slightly more details than are normally present in the Porta Pros paired with lesser DACs. They’re not resolution monsters by any means, but they sound their best through the DFC.
In tracks such as Jack Johnson’s “All At Once” the timbre is displayed with a certain sweetness (smoothness) that’s just right in the context of the song. It’s presented very clear and naturally as though Jack is present and singing here. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Another favorite vocalist of mine is Norah Jones. Her track “December” from The Fall has this raspy, echoey, ‘clarity’ that leads me to believe that a condenser mic was used. A very sweet sound.
Detail, and Transients
This is interesting because the DFC is very capable of resolving minute details that the Porta Pros just can’t portray. You can kind of hear them, and you know they’re present, but you don’t get the complete story.
And that’s okay as the Porta Pros display just enough detail for enjoyment while still offering a fatigue-free listening experience.
You can still make out the sound of piano hammers and key strikes in December, but not nearly as clearly with better resolving headphones.
“Bike Path” by Dntel is a great little ‘speed test’ of sorts, as it’s a completely synthesized piece that’s rapidly paced in a back and forth Left to Right manner.
This can reveal how well, or how fast your driver reacts. Great for planars, and what I assume electrostats, and ribbon drivers are capable of, but not so good on the polymer driver of the Porta Pro.
There’s intentional distortion as well (as much as electronic music has). Sometimes I think the DFC is reaching its power limits (more of that later), but verifying it on my other audio chains confirms it’s present.
If it’s in the recording, the DFC is displaying it.
Sparkle, or better known as Highs
Radiohead’s “Life in a Glass House” is a fun track for resolving separation of upper registers.
It incorporates Thom’s nasally voice with a clarinet and trumpet. This can be a mushy mess of mids and highs on lesser equipment.
And the Porta Pros do struggle at times with what the DFC is laying down. However, both clarinet and trumpet have a natural sound, especially the clarinet. The trumpet does lack the inherent brassy nature of the instrument, but it’s still pleasantly realistic.
I’m glad Audioquest chose to implement the slow roll-off filter they did, otherwise I think it would have been too bright for my taste. They managed to accurately portray what’s in the recording without applying a cheese grater to your ears.
Goldfrapp’s “Anymore” has a sweet little mid-bass beat that starts things off and gives way to a slightly lower foundational beat. The DFC presents this rather well while showing the v-shaped signature of the Porta Pros.
Anything off of Gorillaz’ Demon Days has a good foot tapping beat. “El Mañana” has some sweet low notes that the DFC paired with the Porta Pro’s handle like a champ.
“Man Research (Clapper)” off of the self-titled debut album is also a fun track to check out. Again the DFC portrays the bass with accuracy.
It brings da’ boom with aplomb.
Other Aspects of Sound Reproduction
I find things such as soundstage a bit difficult to differentiate or review in a DAC. Perhaps as I increase and diversify my collection of equipment I’ll be better equipped in the future to speak to these aspects.
Currently I feel that it’s more an aspect of the headphones being driven, though I’m sure it’s a combination of the audio chain, as most things are.
Tonality is another one that’s harder for me to quantify in a DAC. I will say that I found it accurately natural. Enough that it’s encouraging me to pick up an ESS based desktop DAC.
I’m looking at you Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro MQA…
The Dragonfly Cobalt is a great little DAC that performs quite well, and will not disappoint if you know it’s limitations.
Those limitations primarily being its lack of power. I tried the DFC with my low impedance Audeze LCD-X and what I learned in doing so is that impedance isn’t necessarily an indicator of required power. Planars are power hungry beasts regardless of impedance.
I kept having to volume compensate for the lack of low end that I know the Audeze’s are capable off. It was frustrating because I was getting the details but in a thin, almost anemic presentation.
This unit is not capable of powering headphone that need raw power. I don’t think it was ever intended to do so either. It is however well suited with efficient, lower impedance headphones.
The DFC excels as a simple solution for an ultra portable setup. It doesn’t harness nature into a portable DAC/amp, but it will present it in an articulate, and sonically accurate manner as long as it’s paired with a reasonably efficient headphone.
- Christopher Luckenbach (@ValentineLuke)
For an additional perspective, check out Ian Dunmore's (@Torq) impressions of the Dragonfly Cobalt on the Community Forum.