AudioQuest has been making the DragonFly portable DAC since 2012. The DAC’s appearance hasn’t changed much, but it’s been through two iterations, and now there are two new models vying for your readies. Up until now it has not been possible to use a DragonFly with most tablets or mobile phones because the USB controllers in these devices limit the amount of power that they let a device draw (for example, when iOS 7 came out the Apple devices that ran it restricted power output to 100mA). The previous generation of DragonFly, v1.2, could be used with some Android phones, but it would not have had a positive effect on battery life.
Given that the smartphone sector has the potential to outstrip the computer audio market by a huge margin AudioQuest has understandably been very keen to find a solution to this USB power puzzle. The company made the breakthrough two and a half years ago when Gordon Rankin and Steve Silberman found a semiconductor company called Microchip that makes low-noise micro-controllers for all kinds of applications, including linear measurement. Microchip has a low power range of micro controllers that draw considerably less power from a USB host and allow use with all smartphones on the market. It took this long to get to the new DragonFlys to market because AQ needed to write control code and develop protocols to use the new chips.
The new DragonFly Black (v1.5) uses Streamlength software and a 32-bit ESS 9010 DAC developed fro mobile applications and that runs PCM and DSD, but AudioQuest’s choice of micro controller limits sample rate to 96kHz. None of AudioQuest’s portable DACs cover higher sample rates or DSD because of the radiated noise created by the current crop of high-speed USB micro controllers. In the confined space of a portable DAC like a DragonFly, which is only 63.5mm long, this noise undermines the sound quality so significantly that it renders higher sample rates pointless.
The new DragonFly Black is £40 cheaper than the previous version at £89 – an achievement AudioQuest puts down to higher production runs and because the new DAC uses the clock in the converter chip itself instead of having a separate crystal clock.