Review: AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt – For The Win

Dragonfly Cobalt

Disclaimer: The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt was sent to us free of charge in exchange for a preview article at the launch and this full review. Part of this article was already featured in our Picture Sunday series which has recently been renamed to First Look Sunday. If you have read that already you can skip to the part on (pre-)sound.

Intro

AudioQuest launched the very first DragonFly back in 2012 and has been improving it ever since. A few years ago the Black and Red came in to play and now in 2019, AudioQuest is back with a new and improved version of the Red: The Cobalt!

AudioQuest

AudioQuest is a US based company and the EU headquarters is located in the Netherlands. AudioQuest since the 1980’s is mostly known for their cables but they became even more popular among “head-fiers” when they released a very popular mini USB DAC/AMP called the DragonFly.

The AudioQuest DragonFly isn’t the first AudioQuest product to be featured on Headfonia, the NightHawk and NightOwl headphones, the DragonFlies and the JitterBug reviews were done a long time ago already. You can find all our AudioQuest reviews here: https://www.headfonia.com/?s=audioquest

DragonFly History

AudioQuest launched the very first DragonFly back in 2012 and back then it could only be used in combination with a PC because of the power supply. Later on AQ added mobile support and that made them even more successful

The units were and are extremely popular and loved by audiophiles all over the world. The reasons are simple:

  • it’s small and pocketable,
  • it can take a beating,
  • it’s beautiful
  • it can be used in combination with laptops and phones
  • it’s a DAC, headphone amp preamp all in one
  • it does MQA (Cobalt is a MQA-enabled-renderer product, so it ‘reveals’ the full MQA when paired with an MQA core decoder, like the Tidal app)
  • it offers extremely good value for money
  • the FW can be updated
  • it sounds awesome

Taking that into account, it’s no surprise that AudioQuest has already released several versions of the DragonFly, and the versions available up to the launch of the Cobalt were the Black and  the Red. These were launched back in 2016 and the Red version is on our list of Best AMP/DAC combos (Best buys) as well: https://www.headfonia.com/best-dac-amp-combos/ . Will the new Cobalt replace the Red? Keep reading!

In case you’re not really familiar yet with the DragonFly units, I suggest to read up on the previous models first, and especially the one on the Red.

DragonFly Reviews

DragonFly 1.2:

https://www.headfonia.com/review-audioquest-DragonFly-v1-2/

DragonFly Black and Red:

https://www.headfonia.com/review-audioquest-DragonFly-Red-Black/

DragonFly MQA + Video

AudioQuest likes MQA and they were fast to jump on the MQA wagon and make the DragonFly an MQA renderer. In this article and video we explain and show how to set up your DragonFly for MQA streaming in Tidal.

https://www.headfonia.com/audioquest-DragonFly-mqa/

DragonFly In Use

The DragonFly units can be used as DAC, pre-amp or as headphone amp. As an amplifier it is very powerful and it can drive all your IEMs and normal headphones without any issue, just looking at volume levels. That being said, I would still recommend using a dedicated desktop sized amplifier for all your high-end full sized headphone needs. There’s only so much a unit of this size can do. But you can use the Cobalt as a USB-DAC or even as a pre-amp. So there’s nothing to lose. In all ways, the Cobalt will sound a lot better than your standard on-board sound device.

So the beauty of the DragonFly is that you can take it anywhere with you and use it on the go with your laptop or your phone and have a high quality sound. Forget about the bad on-board source of your laptop and phone. Also, if you’re in to MQA, the DragonFly is a very affordable MQA streaming partner.

DragonFly Cobalt

Cobalt is the new Red! Yes, the new color is cobalt blue, and the unit has an automotive finish with silver lettering. Like before the DragonFly has a protective endcap, a contoured enclosure and it also comes in a leatherette travel pouch. It’s a nice package, and it gets even better as you now also get a DragonTail USB-C adaptor! All DragonTails use AQ’s Carbon-level USB cable.

Design wise the new Cobalt doesn’t look like the Red and Black anymore and with it’s smoother lines it looks smaller and more sexy.

The DragonFly Cobalt’s native resolution still goes up to to 24-bit / 96kHz and it has the same 2.1V  output like the Red. It’s a direct-coupled, high output which supplies enough power to easily drive the widest range of headphones. When used as a line-level device (volume set to 100%), DF Cobalt’s 2.1 volts provide enough power to drive all pre-amplifiers, integrated amplifiers, or receiver inputs.

The headphone amp used is the same one as the one in the Red version, the ESS Sabre 9601. The microchip now is the PIC32MX274 and it has the same features as Red and Black, but reduces current draw and increases processing speed by 33%. Impressive!

The DAC Chip in the Cobalt is the ESS ES9038Q2M, with minimum-phase slow roll-off filter for more natural sound. The Red uses the ESS ES9016 and the Black the ESS ES9010. It’s evolution!

The Cobalt comes with an improved power-supply filtering, specially designed to reduce WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular noise. Of course you can still use the Cobalt with your desktop pc, portable PC and your mobile and it still offers MQA rendering! (see video above)

Size-wize, the Cobalt is a tiny bit smaller and it measures 12mm (h) x 19mm (w) x 57mm (l). The Red and Black measure 12mm (h) x 19mm (w) x 62mm (l). Build-wise my sample is absolutely perfect and the connectors are sturdy. I have read some cases where the 3.5mm port was a bit “loose” but AudioQuest replaced those units immediately.

The Cobalt’s price has been set at €/$299 or £269. It’s more but it’s newer, better and you get a DragonTail USBC to USB adapter on top of it.

The article on the DragonFly Cobalt continues on the next page here.

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

12 Comments

  • Reply October 15, 2019

    Aljoša Krželj

    Something like E1DA 9038S BAL Portable DAC & Amp maybe,or PowerDAC v2 E1DA ?

    • Reply October 15, 2019

      Lieven

      Thanks for the comment. the first one certainly is unique and I never heard (about) it. The second I also haven’t heard, so it’s difficult to say if these are in any way better.

      I am sure many more of these, less spotlight units, exists and will keep coming. And more confirmed brand ones will come too.

      Probably to a point where the market for this is saturated, and then we move on to something else, right?

      • Reply November 1, 2019

        Kevin

        The E1DA 9038S Balanced Portable DAC/AMP is made by a Russian guy named Ivan who lives in China. He sells directly to the customer.

        It is more powerful than the Dragonfly Cobalt, weighs 10g, has incredible measurements and utilizes the same DAC chip.. for $70. It is one of those 1/10 times were the hype around the product is deserved.

        If you were to do a piece on it, it would blow up.

  • Reply October 15, 2019

    Craig A Sands

    Another great review any great pairings interested in how the 64 Audio A12t pairs as I have the red and a chord mojo but have ditched them both since getting my AK SR15 thanks

    • Reply October 15, 2019

      Lieven

      Thank you Craig.Unfortunately the A12T is with Linus but I have listened to it on several occasions. I feel they would pair up well. But aren’t you happy with your A12T and RED/SR15 combo?
      Cobalt will surely improve the performance of the A12T compared to the RED. The Mojo is very different, but I actually prefer most IEMs with the DragonFly and not the Mojo.

  • Reply October 15, 2019

    SHAWN P. WATSON

    Great review. Vast improvement over the DF RED. I so enjoy my Cobalt. I leave it connected to my headphone cable and just plug it into my laptop to enjoy Youtube videos. The sound can be improved futher with various accessories. I use the iFi Audio iPurifier3 which does a great job to further clean up the USB and put the “0”‘s and “1”s into a jitter free delivery to Cobalt’s DAC. Honestly, I’m using my Micro iDSD BL dac/amp less and less these days. Bravo AQ Cobalt.

  • Reply October 15, 2019

    Andras Rev

    In my opinion the Cobalt is the best portable music player of 2019 so far.
    I also compared it with Chord Mojo, and believe or not for me the Cobalt won the battle! It would be great if you also compare them, I am curious about your opinion.
    At first I thought that the price is too high compared with the Red, but the Cobalt could justify it’s much higher price. The Cobalt’s SQ listened from my Xiaomi Mi 8 phone with the Dragontail using TIDAL came surprisingly close to my magnificent sounding home headphone system’s sound which costed me USD 1700, and includes a Feliks Echo tube amp! Great achievement Audioquest!

  • Reply October 16, 2019

    Gordon Rankin

    Thanks for the nice comments!

    We spent a good deal of time looking at balanced outputs on 2.5mm connectors. The big problem was you also need a 3.5mm, we then looked at a 4 pin 3.5mm and the use of analog switches to convert from single ended to balanced and then offer up a cable for that. The analog switches did not sound good and required the use of another power supply which meant switching noise.

    These designs go through a pretty lengthy process at AudioQuest and everyone there has a passion for creating the best product possible.

    Thanks,
    Gordon

  • Reply October 17, 2019

    musikverein

    First, kudos to the Audioquest team/Gordon for this iteration of the Dragonfly which surpasses the earlier ones with a smile. Lieven, as usual your wording shows very good tuning as well.
    DF Cobalt feeds two workhorses of mine, the K712 and the DT880/600 in the office and cottage. And, as a DAC/preamp into the HE60, it indeed flatters my ear.
    Pursue this golden path!

  • Reply November 4, 2019

    musikverein

    In essence archimago s.a. is saying that DF Cobalt has in general a higher distortion and especially when measured at or near 100℅ voltage nada nada… and is subjectively less clean and fine than the Red.I ,although not so strongly, disagree.
    To my ears it indeed clips harder acoustically than Red in the last 10-20% of output voltage – but, again to my ears, Cobalt does sound significantly more natural and mature(for sake of avoiding the term ‘smoother’) than the older siblings.
    Btw I am listening, contrary to popular wisdom, to no more than 80% voltage because as soon as I feel/need it or the music needs more juice/ headroom I go for a separate amp stage. For critical listening, to be honest, this means far more than half of my time DF acts as DAC only, except with In-Ears.

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