Note: this is the first of a two-part review, concentrating on the DAC in its home audio capacity. The second part – as a headphone DAC/amp in its own right – will be published in an upcoming issue of the magazine.
It’s hard to believe, but the original Dragonfly DAC from AudioQuest first hit the streets back in 2012. It eventually morphed into two models in 2016 – the entry-level Dragonfly Black and the more up-scale Dragonfly Red. Now, they are joined by the Cobalt; as the name suggests a vibrant blue USB converter, designed for a wealth of uses. This does not replace the existing models; it sits above them. In essence, you could think of it as what happens when the Dragonfly meets 2019’s technology.
The DAC part of the DAC itself is the latest ESS ES9038Q2M (for ‘mobile’) chip, fed by a Microchip PIC32MX274 USB receiver chip, with the company’s monoClock ultra-low-jitter clock, StreamLength asynchronous USB, and also sports elements of AudioQuest’s own jitter-busting Jitterbug, all in something that looks an elegant USB storage key. The two named chips mean a third more processing speed overall, meaning a better sound from an even smaller form factor. The filter is now ‘slow-roll-off minimum phase’ (previous iterations were fast roll-off only). There is no way to change this or any other function of the Dragonfly from the case; in fact, the only indication is the change in light of the Dragonfly on its top.
Although it comes with a USB 3.0 ‘Dragontail’, AudioQuest wanted maximum backwards compatibility, which means it works under USB 1.0 standards with ease. The advantage to this is ‘no damn drivers’ and it means it works with practically everything that ever sported a USB output. The downside is as it comes, like the Red and Black before it, hi-res is limited to 24-bit, 96kHz PCM. It will support higher rate MQA files, however.
This is where the spec-readers and the real-worlders differ. The former will look at those specs and dismiss the Cobalt as just another Dragonfly with a new DAC. Some may gracelessly add the Jitterbug circuitry as a sop to change but see this in a very narrow light. In fact, it shares almost nothing with its older but smaller brothers.
In the home, in the majority of cases, the Dragonfly Cobalt is going to hang off the end of a USB output of a computer (the exception is something like the Stack Audio Link, of course, and that is worthy of note in and of itself), with a mini-jack to two-RCA phono cable on the other end of the little blue box. This also means the whole 64-bit bit-perfect volume control ends up being ‘dimed’ and ignored in a system context.
What Cobalt does is a lot of what the two cheaper Dragonflies do, but more so and better. It’s an inherently dynamic, powerful sound, full of energy… but not over-exuberant, as can be the case with the Black and to a lesser extent the Red.