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With the Beetle: AudioQuest’s $199 DAC goes home and away

  • In 2015 an early (prototype) version of AudioQuest’s Beetle DAC crawled out of Berlin. Two and half years later, it crawls back into the German capital (and into cities all over the world) as a fully realised retail product: a 24/96kHz-capable D/A converter with asynchronous USB, asynchronous Bluetooth and TOSLINK digital inputs plus a 3.5mm analogue output. Price: US$199.

    Like AudioQuest’s DragonFlys Red (US$199) and Black (US$99), the Beetle’s USB input can be used to improve the sound quality of a PC/Mac or a smartphone.

    How so? Unlike the average mass market computer or smartphone, the Beetle’s circuitry has been designed with optimal sound quality in mind. Once connected to a USB socket, digital audio is extracted via a low-noise, linear power-supplied PIC32MX470 receiver chip (from Arizona’s Microchip), before being handed off via I2S to an ESS Labs 9010 DAC chip with minimum phase filter engaged.

    The Beetle’s front LED glows red upon registering the host device before changing colour according to the incoming audio’s sample rate: green for Redbook CD/44.1kHz; blue for 48kHz; yellow for 88.2kHz; and – topping out – Magenta for 96kHz.

    For the Tidal or Deezer subscriber looking to enjoy MQA content at no extra charge, support for the same isn’t yet available. Never say never. MQA handling may (or may not) come to the Beetle by way of a future firmware download. Like DragonFlys Red and Black, the Beetle’s internal code is updateable via a desktop app (Windows or Mac).

    Let’s get it out of the way early: the Beetle doesn’t sound quite as transparent or as finessed as the identically-priced DragonFly Red (US$199). Its overall gestalt is more in line with the US$99 DragonFly Black whose midrange sauce is thicker than that of the cooler, more filigreed-sounding iFi Audio iONE (US$199) but, like the Beetle, brings a bit of extra dynamic wallop to the party.

    The iONE’s RCA-fuelled line level output holds it to integrated amplifier and powered loudspeaker hook-ups and therefore third party volume attenuation, whereas the Beetle’s single 3.5mm output and internal 64-bit Bit-perfect digital internal volume control additionally encompasses headphone listening.

    On output grunt, there’s more than enough Beetlejuice on tap for AudioQuest’s NightOwl Carbon, just enough for MrSpeakers’ Aeon Flow Open and not enough for Sennheiser’s HD800S.

    Those grizzling about the lack of support for higher PCM sample rates and/or DSD are reminded that the Beetle isn’t so much concerned with satisfying bleeding-edge audiophile niche interests as taking a broader swipe at the market. The Beetle is for the wo/man in the street looking for his/her first DAC and for whom, at the entry-level, better-sounding hardware will always trump better-sounding software.

    In a mainstreaming world where downloads have been supplanted by streaming, the Beetle and its USB input will make everything from iTunes to Spotify sound better than a laptop or smartphone’s own 3.5mm headphone socket (assuming it has one).

    Unlike the direct-connecting USB-A plugged DragonFlys, the Beetle’s Type B micro-USB socket sees a USB cable carry data and power from the host device to the DAC. Reminding us that they are primarily a cable company, AudioQuest sent a Pearl USB cable (1.5m, US$29) and a Tower 3.5mm to twin-RCA analogue interconnect (1.5m, US$25) with the Beetle review unit.

    With AudioQuest’s own wire on hookup duty, I put the Beetle between a 2014 11” Macbook Air and a PS Audio BHK Signature pre-amplifier that in turn fed a pair of Genelec 8341 ‘The Ones’ active loudspeakers. In this US$10K+ system the Pearl USB cable offered a slightly more nuanced take on this reviewer’s number one audiophile album of 2017 – Desolate’s Lunar Glyphs – than both a length of standard no-name USB wire and Light Harmonic’s 1G LightSpeed USB cable (US$75 – the yellow one, not the red one).

    Worth mentioning here: cutting the Pearl’s length back to 1m drops the Beetle’s additional USB cable outlay to US$17, giving lie to the twin-headed belief that audiophile-aimed USB cables a) cost the earth and b) seek to part fools and their money.

    For iPhones and iPads we also need Apple’s Lightning to USB adaptor (US$29) or an OTG cable (US$15+) for Android devices. Now the Beetle is ready for the daily commute or walkabout but with a longer cable tail than the aforementioned DragonFlys. A tail that some users may prefer, especially when moving back to a laptop’s USB socket where snap-off accidents can – and do – happen.

    At night, your smartphone and laptop dream of one day being fitted with high quality audio circuitry like that found in the Beetle. Until then, products like this remain essential.

    And yet the Beetle isn’t only an asynchronous USB DAC. It also offers a high quality asynchronous Bluetooth input that, whilst not as tonally satisfying as USB, compensates us for its minimal performance shortfall with maximum real-world convenience. Like its USB input, the Beetle instructs the Bluetooth-paired smartphone/Mac/PC when to send audio data.

    Bluetooth connectivity opens up the Beetle to the rest of the family or to those who don’t consider themselves tech savvy enough to work USB or to those who may not care that AudioQuest took a pass on Qualcomm’s optional aptX codec, opting instead to work closely with Apple on coding a better-sounding AAC.

    Gordon Rankin wrote the initial Bluetooth code with one DJ Sisolak taking his work one step further. Sisolak’s CV includes Chief Designer at Broadcomm and, according to Rankin, “could take the guidance of the Apple Bluetooth group and knew the language to change protocol instances that made Beetle much better. He also wrote the Windows Desktop Manager.”

    Here’s Rankin with a healthy dose of technical background information:

    “Beetle took 2 years to design as it does not used a canned Bluetooth controller. Instead we licensed a software stack for Bluetooth A2DP/AVRCP which allowed us to rework some of the protocol elements in the digital domain to get better results. And in order to run that BT stack on the PIC32MX processor we had to go to the PIC32MX470 running at 2x what the DragonFlys run at. It also has 4x the memory which is a big requirement to get and expand Bluetooth packets using the DSP engine in the processor.”

    “The nice thing about this for Bluetooth is we then get the best audio possible with full samples then apply the volume inside the ESS9010 [DAC chip]. Others would digitally control the volume either at the source or before it hits the I2S of a canned Bluetooth module, which means degraded sound. You really don’t want that with Bluetooth!”

    “We have AAC (which includes MP3) and SBC (required for all A2DP Bluetooth playback) software codecs included. We did a lot of digging around on aptX in the beginning. The support on phones at that point was limited to only a few companies. The support for desktops was the same. But the bigger problem was that once we got into the spec we really did not find that it was that big of a deal. The licensing of the codec and increased cost in hardware did not meet the diminishing returns of what aptX provided. In the end the Beetle would have been another $100 and for (maybe) 15% more resolution, it just didn’t make sense.”

    On aptX, the iFi Audio iONE tells us that the Qualcomm codec does indeed sound better than SBC but when compared to AAC the deltas are too close to reliably call. That said, aptX’s presence doesn’t see the iONE deviate from its crisp and spritely personality.

    If you simply must have aptX support and have no need to headphone hook-ups and are happy with a wider-eyed sonic exuberance, the iONE is there for you. The Beetle sounds a shade fuller and richer with AAC in play than its Brit rival handling aptX streams but also a little more hooded; this with the caveat that such audible differences could come down to cables. Going RCA-to-RCA for the iONE meant swapping out the AudioQuest Tower interconnect for a Forest.

    “Since AAC is a super set of the MP3 protocol, even MP3 connected devices will sound better. Plus AAC requires less bandwidth than aptX on the Bluetooth link which means lower current usage on your phone.”

    “Furthermore, in working with the Apple Bluetooth group we were able to set our negotiated services for AAC and SBC at the highest available. Something you cannot do with a canned Bluetooth module. We were also able to use the extensive buffering and 32 bit DSP engine in the PIC32MX processor to create a higher resolution AAC codec.”

    In real world use, this means a Bluetooth audio connection will default to the best possible codec common to both source (smartphone/computer) and sink (Beetle). For Apple products, like this reviewer’s iPhone 6S Plus and Macbook Air, that means AAC all the way.

    Elsewhere – Windows and Android – AAC support falls to the hardware manufacturer or our ability to install an AAC plugin. Otherwise, MP3 will take over. Failing that, SBC is the catch-all codec that ensures digital audio flows over Bluetooth no matter what. Android users especially should check in with their device’s manufacturer for details on its Bluetooth codec support.

    Perhaps I can also draw Sir/Madam’s attention to how well the Beetle performs as a superior in-car Bluetooth DAC? Click here for that coverage.

    My advice: if you’ve two hundred bucks and you only need USB, go with the DragonFly Red. If you want Bluetooth too then the Beetle becomes Hobson’s Choice: USB to play catch on Tidal Hifi streaming or HDTracks downloads and Bluetooth for more instantly-gratifying casual listening. The point is: y’all have the choice.

    We’re not done yet though. A third reason to choose Beetle over the DragonFly Red is its TOSLINK input, which according to Rankin, “goes directly into the ESS9010 and uses the ESS DAC for processing to 24/96. Since there is no volume control protocol for TOSLINK we set the output to 0dB.”

    One early indicator of AudioQuest’s attention to the Beetle’s qualitative detail came during the unboxing. Not the Beetle itself – its plastic shell means it feels light in the hand – but the micro-USB terminated power supply that’s heavy and linear. AudioQuest didn’t phone in a switch-mode varietal.

    “We tested a bunch of supplies and found the best one for the product. Then we modified the design to use better regulators and to add some film caps into the supply in place of cheaper ceramic types,” says Rankin.

    This linear power brick is used to supply the Beetle with the necessary 5V in situations where no proximate USB port is available.

    Example #1: The sound that yaps from Samsung TV’s loudspeakers is pure horror show. Blu-takking the Beetle to the TV’s rear panel for a tidy TOSLINK hook-up allowed me to add an analogue output to an otherwise digital-only display. The Beetle’s 3.5mm output was then connected to a Schiit Saga pre-amplifier and onto a pair of Genelec GTwo mini monitors for a far more aurally satisfying result. Both Netflix and Spotify are built into the Samsung TV’s software layer. The Beetle’s 5V USB power feed came from the TV’s own USB port. Easy – but not quite optimal…Jitterbug anyone?

    Although no match for the Chord Mojo, the Beetle already gives us a healthy dose of the layer separation that makes Cathal Coughlan’s Black River Falls such a pleasure to listen to, even via Spotify. However, move the Beetle’s 5V feed from the TV’s USB port to its linear power brick and we note a marginally greater sense of ease in the Beetle’s late-night micro-dynamic candle-flicker. This power supply switch-up frees up the TV’s USB port for juicing the HDMI-connecting Amazon FireStick. Win-win.

    Example #2: The Sonos Connect hasn’t seen an internal hardware refresh since 2012. Its internal DAC, never the best performer, is starting to sound extremely long in the tooth. A shame when its app is the most inclusive around. Don’t ditch the Sonos just yet The Beetle goes where the DragonFly Red/Black cannot: to serve as a TOSLINK-connected intermediary between Sonos and amplifier. Here, AudioQuest’s outboard D/A converter returns life and vitality to music. We go deeper into the subtle details that keep me coming back again and again to Plastikman’s 24-year old Sheet One. Bass notes aren’t just more forcefully present via the Beetle than the Sonos but more abundantly textured too.

    The AudioQuest Beetle shows us that Bluetooth can sound ‘really good’ – if not quite as ‘really good’ as USB. Its TOSLINK input splits the difference whilst bringing the Beetle’s D/A conversion smarts to a whole range of consumer-grade devices: streamers, legacy disc spinners, games consoles.

    This connectivity trifecta shows us that deployment flexibility is just as important to some listeners as out-and-out best sound quality. If that weren’t the case, AudioQuest would have called it a day with the DragonFly Red and shoehorned every would-be buyer into USB connections. But they didn’t. And that means the Beetle has the potential to enrich more lives than its airborne forerunner; a democratic DAC deal for the real world.

    Further information: AudioQuest

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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