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A short film about the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt

  • AudioQuest’s first DragonFly DAC was released in 2012. Its pocketable thumb-drive form factor brought better sound quality any computer user with a spare USB socket. The DragonFly extracts digital audio from a Mac or PC to execute its own D/A conversion. A conversion that sounds superior to the host computer’s own, either via headphones or connected to an amplifier or pair of powered loudspeakers.

    Three years later, AudioQuest’s collaboration with Arizona’s Microchip Technology saw the development and release of two new and improved DragonFly models – the DragonFly Black (US$99) and DragonFly Red (US$199) – whose low power draw added smartphone connection capabilities via a short adapter cable.

    The Black’s ace card was its affordability but the Red had this commentator question the need for a portable player (DAP), especially when any partnering iOS or Android smartphone offers a superior UI and far broader streaming service support. Most importantly, both Black and Red sounded better than almost every smartphone’s in-built 3.5mm output or matching dongle.

    Blue Monday? AudioQuest has today announced the DragonFly Cobalt (US$299/€299/£269). The new model is slightly smaller than the Red but retains its ESS Sabre 9601 headphone output chip – that runs line-level at 2.1 volts – and “64-bit bit-perfect digital volume control”.

    According to DragonFly developer Gordon Rankin, the DragonFly Cobalt is no nip n’ tuck. It’s undergone a complete internal rework. You can read Rankin’s Cobalt development story below.

    Cobalt moves old Red’s DAC chip from the ESS ES9016 to the newer ESS ES9038Q2M, its digital filter from fast roll-off minimum phase to slow roll-off minimum phase (reportedly for a “more natural sound”) and the USB receiver chip from a Microchip PIC32MX270 to a Microchip PIC32MX274, which reportedly “reduces current draw and increases processing speed by 33%”.

    Also new to the Cobalt table is “improved power supply filtering” that specifically targets WiFi, Bluetooth and cellular noise. That’s electrical noise (not acoustic). A DragonTail USB-C adapter in included in the box and this USB DAC, just like Red and Black, is firmware upgradeable. Made in China? Nope. Made in Ohio. Shipping begins this week.

    Continuing AudioQuest’s (justifiably) immovable stance on their DragonFlys offering the widest possible range of host device compatibility, the Cobalt is, like Red and Black, a USB Class 1 device. That means, MQA aside*, hi-res support is limited to 24bi/96kHz PCM, no DSD.

    That’s a minuscule price to pay when we consider the DragonFly Cobalt from a more egalitarian angle: that it’s the best sounding DragonFly to date; that it will improve the sound quality of ANY music streamed from a Mac, PC or smartphone; and that even though it is the most expensive DragonFly to date, the Cobalt remains within financial reach of anyone spending twice its sticker on a smartphone or four times its asking on a laptop. Another knockout from – and for – AudioQuest.

    Our short film explains why:

    Camera: Olaf von Voss | Editor: Jana Dagdagan

    UPDATE: You can read 10 more thoughts on the DragonFly Cobalt here.

    Further information: AudioQuest

    Gordon Rankin’s DragonFly Cobalt story:

    “Upon conducting a survey, we found that most customers used their DragonFlys with mobile devices. So, after Red, I spent a lot of time working to make a high-speed USB DragonFly that was really optimized for mobile devices.

    The challenge with mobile is that you’re limited to under 100ma, and High-Speed products are difficult to create within that limitation because, right off the bat, you’re talking about 25ma more current than a Full-Speed device. Plus, compared to Full-Speeds’ 1ms packet technology, High-Speed devices require additional processing to work on USB microframes. On Full-Speed, the processor can sleep for a good bit of the 1ms frame time, only waking up for the reception of a new sample packet before passing that along to the I2S and going back to nap. This relates to significant savings in average power used. With the advent of High-Speed, not only was the transmission medium changed from a Voltage interface to a Current interface, a new framing had to occur, which meant 8x the packet speed (of the 1ms Full-Speed) to microframes at 125us. So, with the 25ma of additional current required for the Current interface, the processor now has packets every 125us, which means it’s pretty much on all the time.

    After months of trying to get the Microchip PIC32MZ processor to work, we threw in the towel. The upside of all that work was that the new ESS ES9038 DAC chip, which was used on the High-Speed prototypes, was far better than expected.

    Microchip then informed us of a new Full-Speed processor that was faster and had lower power usage than the processor used in Red and Black. Engineering note: When a company says “new processor,” and it looks like a minor revision (in this case, going from Red/Black’s PIC32MX270 to Cobalt’s PIC32MX274), you should consider how much of the software is going to port over. The process was not easy at all!

    AudioQuest decided that the product needed a new look and they got started on the industrial design. That gave me time to rewrite a boatload of code from the previous DragonFly over to the new processor.

    The design was settled, I laid out the circuit board, and the first prototypes were made. Although the software was working okay, we needed to rethink the location of the RGB LED (Proto 1, Proto 2). Eventually, the product was given the codename Cobalt, and AudioQuest asked if we could add more mobile thinking. I took what we learned from JitterBug, applied that to Cobalt, and another run of prototypes were made (Proto 3, Proto 4; new LED). Along the way, samples with and without the new enclosure were sent around the world for testing (Android, iOS, MQA, macOS, Windows).

    The amount of energy required by so many people at AudioQuest to put a product on the table is really outstanding, and everyone should be congratulated on this new product. It’s not an upgrade of Red. It’s an entirely new product, conceived and created with both USB-A and USB-C in mind.”

    Footnote: MQA streamers won’t hit a glass PCM ceiling if they execute the first unfold in software (on a PC, Mac or smartphone) and allow the Cobalt to handle any subsequent unfolds plus rendering.

    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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