at least five - I would suggest or max 3 for bikes
If you have the Red, you probably don’t need the Cobalt. @Torq did some reports on the Cobalt at the top of this thread. It didn’t test quite as expected in the amp section, but subjectively he preferred it to the Red. My impression is that he’s not sure it’s worth $100 more than the Red.
I do note that it claims to contain most of the jitterbug circuitry, so that’s what, $60? The Red does not have that.
Yup that’s what I read as well accross his review and many others online. Is jitterbug really needed if your not using high sensitivity iem? That’s one of the questions I had.
I also read quite a bit that the cobalt is smoother and the Red is more analytical so depending on what headphones your using it can make a difference in the listening experience.
Ultimately I would be pairing it with either the Elegia or Aeon2C (still deciding between those) and possibly when at home the Elear and Ananda. Not sure if one of the two would pair better with those headphones. I also read the cobalt actually didn’t really have any battery savings improvements when using do to the new chip and firmware issues.
The Jitterbug is not needed, but it is helpful coming out of many sources where electrical noise and RFI is possible. I use it with the DFB, and occasionally with my iFi xDSD when I’m connected for longer periods. Seems to do something to improve the sound quality. I’d say marketing hogwash, except that Schiit takes special precautions with USB in the new Bifrost, and iFi also sells a similar filter.
I don’t know diddly-squat (a technical term) about your headphone choices. We can always hope for firmware updates. I’m happy with the Cobalt, but never had the Red.
@pennstac thank you, sir! I had the XDSD and loved it but returning it today as I want the larger IFI unit for more power for on the go office use, and want to add a Dragonfly for all my other portable listening. I have a decent desktop home use amp, but for portability, It seems the dragonfly is hard to beat.
Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt
‘Lightning in a Dongle’…
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 distortions 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.
Dat Bass! -
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.
Great review, thank you.
Just on your point on lack of power…I had trouble powering a pair of DCA Aeon 2 Closed…never thought of them as particularly power hungry, either.
Nice writeup, and it jibes with my experience. (Jibe yes, a sailing term, either you know it, and know when to duck, or you don’t).
I’m a generation or so behind the times with my iPad Air, iPad Pro versin 1, and iPhone6 Plus. So I don’t really understand what the Dragontail does. I use the DFC also (or the DFB+Jitterbug) often driving Porta Pros. I have both Apple Camera adapters, and I always use the Dragonflies with a camera adapter.
I do not have any USB-C Apple products, but I do have a USB-C Android tablet. With that and a Dragonfly, I use a “To Go” cable.
So please explain the Dragontail and how it can let you ditch an Apple Camera adapter. I have both version 2 and 3 adapters, depending on how portable I need to be. The adapter 3 works great, but is pretty clunky looking.
The Dragontail is Audioquest’s On the Go USB cable that goes from USB C or Micro to USB A (female). They did not make one with a lightning connector, so one has to rely on the Apple Camera Adapter for the older “i” products.
I’m using the Apple USB adapter (pictured in the review). It’s slightly smaller than the Camera adapter, but Audioquest does recommend Apple’s Camera adapter as they found it more reliable in testing.
I’d have to say that they’re making that recommendation with good reason. I have audio drop-outs from time to time, usually if the connector is wiggled a bit through my moving about.
I’m using the USB adapter because I already owned it before I received the DFC.
Definitely not intended for planars.
Actually they are sorta current Hungry, the Aeon2C, they sound very recessed and bloomy in the low end from dragonfly red.
Great review @ValentineLuke !!
I was inspired to finish early by our exchange yesterday (?).
I was not aware that a regular USB adapter would even recognize a DAC.
The Apple branded one does.
@ValentineLuke is right, the original from Apple will work. I have the one in the picture and the wider(the one with usb and lightning together)and both work with the Dragonfly Red, Bifrost and a couple of iFi dacs.
Really nice to read review , thanks!!
I’m thinking about adopt a “baby Aeolus” , just wondering how long will take to become an “adult Aeolus “
Same here, brother.
I have a few upgrades on hardware before I move onto ZMF’s line.
Excellent review Christopher. Great comparisons too with lots of detailed explanation. Great read.