Our Verdict 
Awards 2012 Product of the Year - DACs. We still love this little device, but newer rivals have pushed it off top spot
For 
Great design and build
Highly portable
Bold dynamics
Agile timing
Clear detail
Against 
The slightly hard edge to the sound can become tiring
Not the last word in subtlety
Reviewed on

You’ll be forgiven for your double-take at the star rating. Our most recent 2012 DAC Product of the Year, the AudioQuest DragonFly, down to four stars already? Yep, we were surprised too.

But with plenty more portable USB DACs popping up in what was once a very niche market, the competition is hotting up even more – and that makes us very excited indeed.

MORE: AudioQuest reveals new DragonFly v1.2 USB DAC 

When the AudioQuest DragonFly first arrived at our offices, it was the first of its kind: a DAC and headphone amplifier all tucked into the size and shape of a USB memory stick.

All you have to do is plug it into the USB port of your computer, slot a pair of headphones into the DragonFly’s sole 3.5mm output, and voila! – you’ve transformed your computer into a full hi-fi system.  

AudioQuest DragonFly

AudioQuest DragonFly: Design

The design of the DragonFly makes a long-lasting impression as well: the matte-black finish is smooth and the DAC itself has good weight, lending it the classy feel of a high-quality product.

Despite the stick’s tiny and delicate-looking exterior (it measures just over 6cm in length), it’s actually quite weighty in the hand, while the classy finish feels smooth to the touch.

The neatest feature is the DragonFly logo embedded in the stick – it lights up with different colours depending on the type of file being played: 44.1kHz (green), 48kHz (blue), 88.2kHz (amber), and 96kHz (magenta). The asynchronous USB DAC can handle files up to the full 24-bit/192kHz, but they are downsampled to 96kHz first.

More after the break

To produce a more accurate sound from your music files, the USB socket supports asynchronous data transfer. A DAC is likely to contain a clock that’s much more accurate than the one in your computer. It tells the PC when to send data, rather than the computer supplying it whenever it wants (usually inaccurately) – which means the timing of the digital signal is far more accurate, and jitter levels (digital timing errors) are lower.

 

AudioQuest DragonFly: Sound quality

It’s elegant, yes, but it’s not just a pretty face: the DragonFly charges along with a bold and energetic attitude, full of rich, clear detail in an open soundstage. There’s fast and agile timing, along with a good deal of muscle in the lower frequencies.

There’s also a good sense of depth that allows you to engage with the music, and vocals are delivered with plenty of emotion.

 

If you’re looking for a DAC that favours attack and aggression, the DragonFly is ideal: it has an endless supply of energy that ensures a fast, punchy sound – albeit with a touch of hardness to the overall presentation. Play Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name and you get the full impact of the anger and intensity behind Zach de la Rocha’s vocals and the heavy guitar riffs.

Despite all that, the DragonFly no longer has the monopoly on its particular brand of portable USB DAC: new rivals in the shape of the HRT microStreamer and Meridian Explorer have emerged, and their impact can be seen in the DragonFly’s new star rating.

Play a WAV recording of Oasis’s Wonderwall, and both the HRT and Meridian DACs manage to uncover another layer of subtle detail that gives more depth and space than the DragonFly (which seems just a bit too hard and insistent in comparison).

AudioQuest DragonFly: Verdict

Don’t get us wrong – the DragonFly’s attacking sound is exciting, but it may not suit long periods of listening as the hardness can start to grate.

New rivals may have ousted the DragonFly from its throne in terms of outright sonic performance, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s still an extremely attractive piece of kit to own. It’s super-portable, has a great design, and delivers a solid and exciting sound: the DragonFly still has lots of appeal.

See all our DAC reviews

Follow whathifi.com on Twitter

Join whathifi.com on Facebook