Follow-Up: AudioQuest DragonFly in a Desktop Environment

Undeniably Better

Robert Harley recently sang the praises of the nifty AudioQuest DragonFly (Issue 226). He covered its performance when the device is used as a USB DAC fronting a reference audio system, and compared it to other outboard USB DACs. That was the ultimate test, but I wondered how the DragonFly would sound in other contexts. In particular, one of the DragonFly’s stated applications is to drive powered desktop speakers from a laptop or desktop computer. How would a novice—or even a veteran—listener judge the difference between driving those speakers directly from the PC or Mac versus going through the DragonFly?

Finding out was a snap for me, since I own a pair of B&W MM1 powered desktop speakers. Normally, these can be connected to the PC (a term I’ll use generically, including Macs, from here on out) in two ways. One is via the computer’s audio output, which can typically be set to drive either headphones or powered speakers. In this case, the digital bitstream runs through the PC’s internal DAC, a 10-cent part. The B&W can also be tethered to the PC via a USB connection, but this configuration still employs the PC’s DAC.

One would expect the DragonFly to bury the PC’s internal DAC in sonic performance, and it does, at least with my high-end Toshiba laptop. For example, on the splendidly recorded recent Kate Bush album 50 Words for Snow, the DragonFly sounds superior in every way. The album is piano-oriented, and the instrument is simply far more realistic through the DragonFly. Because highs are extended, the piano no longer sounds smothered.

One can hear the “thump” of the keyboard’s hammers hitting the strings. Kate Bush’s voice also benefits from the greater upper-end extension, especially considering that she often sings in a near whisper.

More lively material, like Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” from the excellent HDtracks 96/24 download, also comes through in fine form. Thanks once more to that superior extension, percussion is far more audible. But that is not the DragonFly’s only benefit. Bass is solid as a log, and rhythms, as Robert pointed out in his review, percolate persuasively. The same track without the DragonFly is a pale dumbed-down version. Those percussive touches are nearly inaudible, and the whole presentation sounds smothered. Dynamics also vanish, which has a large impact on rhythmic drive, since the drums and bass no longer “pop.” This infectious track, like all music I tried, is simply a lot more enjoyable and engaging through the DragonFly.

Beware, though. The DragonFly, on its own, is not capable of automatically adjusting its sample rate to conform to that of the source. Without external software (see below), this must be done manually through the computer’s control panel. Should you accidentally leave the DragonFly set at, say, 44.1kHz when playing a 96kHz file, like the aforementioned Marley track, the DAC is forced to downconvert the bitstream. When this happens, there is a definite sonic toll. The sound does not degenerate to the level of the PC’s internal DAC, but it drops to about halfway-there in all the categories I’ve described. So if you are going to get the most out of the DragonFly, you must be diligent about matching its sample rate to each track.

Fortunately, there is a way to make this happen automatically, if you’re willing to fiddle a bit. Normally the DragonFly does not require any software downloads, but to get this feature you will need to download and install ASIO4ALL (www.asio4all.com), and select it in your music player software’s Output Mode menu. You may also have to open ASIO4ALL, which is usually easily done within the music player, and select the DragonFly as its output. That’s it. Though a bit of an initial pain, you will never again need to go to the control panel to manually set the DragonFly’s sample rate, and you’ll never need to worry about unintended conversions. I can tell you that it is highly satisfying, when switching from one track to another with a different sample rate, to watch the DragonFly’s lighted logo/samplerate- indicator change colors without user intervention.

OK, so as expected the DragonFly dusts the PC’s internal DAC when going through the computer’s analog output. But, as noted, the MM1 also has a digital USB input. That means the MM1 has a built-in DAC. Surely it would pose a tougher challenge to the AudioQuest. What I found upon comparing the two DACs is that they sound quite different. Although both have exemplary dynamics, the AudioQuest is extended and fast, whereas the B&W emphasizes smoothness and richness. However, that initial rush of lush turns out to be a distinctly downward-tilting timbral bias. Over time, the MM1 DAC’s goosed bass, droning midrange, and reduced openness become tiresome. In sum, the B&W’s internal DAC is refined but unquestionably colored, while the DragonFly is surprisingly and commendably neutral.

Comments

cheinonen@hotma... -- Thu, 02/14/2013 - 14:26

The review states "The B&W can also be tethered to the PC via a USB connection, but this configuration still employs the PC’s DAC." However you can read the details at the B&W page for the MM1 and see "MM-1 is different. It streams audio directly from your computer via USB and converts the signal from digital to analogue internally. So you'll always get the best possible audio quality, independent of the computer output."

You seem to post the opposite later about the MM-1 having a DAC, but the above is still incorrect. If you are running speakers from a computer over USB, then you're automatically bypassing the DAC on the computer, as USB is a digital connection and wouldn't carry analog signals.

mkoskenoja@gmail.com -- Sat, 02/16/2013 - 09:43

Good observation cheinonen. I would like to read the reviewer's explanation of the contradiction.

Alan Taffel -- Tue, 02/19/2013 - 18:45

I have received several letters pointing out this inconsistency, which was a bona fide misstatement on my part, for which I must apologize. You are, of course, absolutely correct that the MM1's incoming signal goes through its own DSP and DAC. Still, I don't think this renders my results moot -- I still heard what I heard -- but it does necessitate a different theory for why they came about.

In the first test, where I compare the analog output of the PC versus that of the Dragonfly, the result is startlingly superior in the latter case. I believe this affirms the old computer maxim, "Garbage In, Garbage Out" as it relates to the quality of the source fed to the MM1's DSP engine. The Dragonfly's superior analog signal gives the DSP better "data" to work with, and the results are sonically evident. In the second test, I compare the PC's USB output to the Dragonfly's analog out. One might expect the MM1 to sound better being directly driven by USB, but it didn't. One explanation for this is that the PC's USB signal is laden with jitter -- not a stretch by any means -- and the MM1 has no way to cope with it. This results in relatively poor sound. Sending the MM1 a pristine analog signal, such as that produced by the Dragonfly, eliminates that layer of jitter. Perhaps this explains why the Dragonfly's analog output as an MM1 source resulted in the best overall sound.

Alan Taffel
TAS Senior Writer

TD160 -- Sat, 03/09/2013 - 08:22

After reading this follow-up a few weeks ago, I got my Audioquest Dragonfly (DAC/headphone amp) for my Asus G73 and AKG K702 headphones, sounds fantastic.

Thank You Alan !

Dingo12 -- Sun, 04/14/2013 - 02:52

Hi, I've had the B&W MM-1's for a while connected via USB on my now defunct windows computer, (fantastic speakers)in the process of making the transition to a Mac mini, and have just learned of the DF, my questions are once I get the DF do I just hook-up via 3.5mm male to male cable between the DF and the Aux. input on the MM-1's (guess the MM-1's USB is no longer needed) and also read somewhere that the Macs automatically adjusts the musics bitrates instead of having to download some programPlease forgive the stupid questions, I'm a computer noob, but I love the technology Any advice would be appreciated 

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