Audioquest Cobalt Review
I listen to primarily Classical, Opera and Film Scores although I have an affinity for Classic Jazz and Brazilian Music as well. With my listening focusing on large scale works I have been a life long Audiophile always trying to get as close to the concert hall experience as possible with my audio components.
My main listening setup is also my home studio where I have my Yamaha Montage and Tyros 3 Keyboards and my iMac loaded with a variety of Virtual Instrument Libraries. All of this is connected to a Benchmark DAC3 and a QUAD 909 150 watt per channel Amp. My speakers are KEF R300s with an REL Sub. Principle monitoring headphones are the Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm. For Music listening with this setup I switch to the Sennheiser HD650.
For late night listening in bed I use my Macbook with a Dragonfly Red (DFR) and a Shure 1540 50 Ohm Closed Headphone. This combination has been excellent and very enjoyable but just missing some overall transparency. I’ve compared this setup directly with the Benchmark instead of the Dragon Fly Red. In that comparison I could hear a more transparent presentation with the Benchmark along with more extended highs and a cleaner deeper low end. So I began a search for an upgrade to the DFR. I eventually narrowed it down to the Grace M900 ($550) or a more radical change to a Sony WMA1 DAP ($1100). Fortunately I procrastinated long enough for Audioquest to introduce their own DFR upgrade and it was worth the wait.
The Cobalt as you my know is slightly smaller than the Red. Has a significantly upgraded ESS DAC and a lower noise floor. So how does it sound to me?
Well I got setup with my favorite reference tracks to do a comparison with the DFR. The first track was Boulez and the Chicago Symphony recording of the Mahler 4th Symphony. I use the opening 3 minutes of the final movement. It’s great test of all frequencies as well as soundstage and instrument separation. I am very familiar with this track. To my surprise there was no question that the Cobalt was superior to the DFR. I noticed it instantly. The low end, while no slouch on DFR, was cleaner, better defined and more impactful. The highs were clearly more extended without any shrillness or edge and with more detail. However the true winner was the midrange. It was so natural, smooth and open. One of the issues I had with the DFR was I perceived a slight imbalance in the upper midrange. This coupled with a softer upper end caused me to try to increase volume to bring out the higher frequencies but when I did the midrange became to prominent. So I had to back off the volume to get a more relaxed listening level. Not so with the Cobalt. The frequency range is very even and neutral that increasing volume to me raises all frequencies equally. Just a beautifully even response with all the low end and upper end transparency that I was looking for.
There is another advantage over the DFR: Soundstage and Instrument Separation.
The Cobalt delivers a wider soundstage with increased depth and an instantly noticeable increase in instrument separation. These are all qualities that are very important when listening to complex large scale works. In fact these were the first characteristics I noticed when I listened to the Cobalt. So I am very happy with the Cobalt. It satisfied every objective I had in seeking an upgrade from the DFR. It is just a very musical device and I think the lower noise floor contributes to its excellent presentation as the orchestra appears out in front emanating from a black silent background.
As a follow on comparison I directly compared the Macbook/Shure1540/Cobalt set up to the Macbook/Shure1540/BenchmarkDAC3. To my surprise I clearly preferred the Cobalt. I found again that the soundstage and instrument separation were better with the Cobalt. The Benchmark did have a slightly more impactful low end but other than the soundstage and instrument separation advantage of the Cobalt they were pretty similar.
I then compared the following setup:
Macbook/HD650/Cobalt vs Macbook/HD650/BenchmarkDAC3.
In this comparison I clearly preferred the Benchmark. I needed to set the Cobalt volume at 50% to drive the HD650 to an appropriate volume. With the Shure 1540 volume was just about 30%. Increasing the volume to drive the HD 650 did tend to mute some of the soundstage advantages of the Cobalt. When listening via the Benchmark the HD 650 sang tunefully and beautifully. However it did not reach the soundstage and instrument separation heights I experienced with the Cobalt and the 50 Ohm Shure 1540.
So my conclusion is that the Cobalt is a fantastic product when used with lower impedance headphones and actually out performs the Benchmark DAC3 in those situations. However some of its soundstage and instrument separation advantages are muted when driving higher impedance headphones although it will still sound great. I would guess that when used as a DAC with its volume maxed out more of its unique qualities maybe muted. However for the price and for its convenient connectivity to Laptops, Tablets, Phones etc it’s a real marvel at what it delivers. If you have lower impedance phones (not sure what the upper limit is but probably <150 Ohm) you cannot beat the price /performance of this unit. The Benchmark DAC3 was $2200. The Cobalt $299. I’m going to go listen to more music now.