Full DragonFly Comparison
AudioQuest has been so kind to publish a clear overview of all the available DragonFly models and you can find that here: https://www.headfonia.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/DragonFly-Cobalt_ComparisonChart_white_6.20.19.pdf
I wish there would be a balanced version of the Cobalt (and Red) with a 2.5mm output. To be honest, I don’t know how AudioQuest stands in regards to “balanced outputs” but I hope to see a version in the future where you can choose a balanced output. At the way and speed the market is progressing, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else comes up/out with a balanced USB-dongle sized DAC soon, if that hasn’t happened already. iBasso actually has something similar with the DC01, though I don’t consider this to be a USB-Dongle like the DragonFly. And then there are the rumors about the upcoming DF competitor by Earmen.com….
Before going into detail on how it sounds exactly, I want to point out that the DragonFly Cobalt is very powerful. With sensitive, easy to drive IEMs, it will get loud very fast. You’ll only need a listening volume of 2-3 or 4 out of 100 to get to a comfortable listening level. (example for Roon on laptop). So be very careful to not push play with a high volume is set, your IEM or eardrums will not like it.
The Cobalt can also easily be hooked up to your mobile phone with a USB-C to USB-Female converter. It’s easy, very small and perfectly transportable. It’s high definition sound for on the go. What’s not to like?
Power-wise the new DragonFly Cobalt is rated at 2.1V, just like the Red version. That means it can easily drive full sized headphones to a certain level, and it can perfectly be used as line-level device (to pre-amp or amp, etc.)
A note though, with sensitive monitors (such as the CustomArt FIBAE 7), you might hear some noise from the Cobalt/USB-port when hooked up to a really laptop. I have never experienced this but with my new DELL laptop it’s audible when music is paused or on a very low volume. This will depend on your laptop though, and you can always put a JitterBug in between just as I am doing now. That way the DragonFly Cobalt is perfectly silent and my ears are happy.
As you could see the amplifier section in the DragonFly Red is the same one as in the Cobalt, so it all comes down to the new DAC chip, the faster processor and the better power supply. Most of the impressions on sound were done with the Xelento Wireless and the Fibae 7, and then a whole bunch of monitors. All DF’s are on the latest FW.
The first things you notice is how clean and clear the new Cobalt is delivering the sound. And not only that, it does it without any effort making it sound wide, natural and musical. The sound stage is really good in both width and depth and the layering is really nice, especially in bass and mids.
You get a full bodied sound from bass to treble, and the signature is neutral but with a smooth delivery and maybe a touch of warmth, but never too much. No matter how you call it, the DragonFly Cobalt is very musical. I love the airy presentation and spaciousness combined with the excellent detail retrieval and decay of notes. The vocals are also really natural and right where they should be.
The negative? The separation is good but not the absolute best I’ve ever heard. The Cobalt also might not always sound the fastest or tightest, but it makes up for that with its musicality and natural sound. It’s very easy to listen to and to genuinely enjoy, no matter what source you’re using and what kind of music is played. For the $299 price tag, the sound simply is remarkable.
Bass is beautiful. It has good body, sounds very full and comes with a lot of impact depending on the IEM your using. Bass goes down low, even the sub part and it does so with good rumble, precision and layering. No, bass might not always be the absolute tightest or fastest but gosh it is fun to listen to.
The mids also are full bodied and connect perfectly with the bass. Bass never runs into the mids and they have a slight bit of warmth in their presentation. The delivery is smooth, natural and with the right amount of air. The depth and layering again is really good and the vocals are right where they should be. Voices sound soft and natural and no matter if you’re listening to metal (Bring me the horizon) or smooth Jazz (Melody Gardot), they sound “right” and real. The mid section to me really is where the Cobalt shines most, followed by the bass, and then the treble section.
Treble is softer but extends pretty well and it has enough energy to counter the full bass and weighted mids. The delivery here is soft and also smoother, making them relaxed and very easy to listen to. If you’re a big fan of really precise and volatile treble, maybe the Cobalt will sound a bit soft to you in this regard, but it is musical and very easy to listen to. Sharpness and sibilance you won’t find in the Cobalt’s treble section.
The DragonFly Cobalt is more spacious and it has a more airy and wide presentation than the Red. Cobalt is more clean and clear than the Red and the sound is more natural but it’s especially the effortless delivery which makes it so remarkable. It’s a higher quality sound and it’s easier to listen to.
The Red comes at you with more attitude and boldness, and it doesn’t have the precision and finesse of the Cobalt version. With the Red the feeling is more intimate, while the Cobalt is more open. The depth, layering and extension of the Cobalt version is remarkably better and it’s at the highest level of all the DragonFly models up to now.
The Cobalt is superior to the Red on a technical level. Red is more punchy, more in your face, the mids more narrow/intimate, the treble less present. I’ve been going back an forth between the Red and Cobalt using the transfer zone function in ROON, and after a lot of listening and switching, I have to say I really do prefer the Cobalt over the Red.
Red still is a very good unit though, and it has an excellent price.
The Black version sounds much more closed, intimate and has a real “in-your-face” presentation to the more relaxed and natural, spacy Cobalt. The depth, layering, precision, decay and extension is at a much lower level, and compared to the Cobalt the Black version even sounds forced.
Black and Cobalt are very far apart from each other on a technical level, but the presentation and naturalness of the Cobalt also are miles ahead.
If you’re on a limited budget, I suggest not to listen to the Cobalt, as it will be difficult to go back to the Black.
The Cobalt for sure is the best DragonFly AudioQuest has released up to now. It’s small, pretty, sounds great, is affordable and does full 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)
If you don’t have a DragonFly yet, I would recommend to go for the Cobalt for sure as it’s the best of the DF trio. The Red still is a really nice alternative if you’re on a lower budget or if you prefer Red’s tuning, of course. If you already own the Red but feel there’s room for improvement (and there clearly is with the Cobalt), then the Cobalt will make you even happier.
The DragonFly Red already was in our best DAC/AMP list, but it now is replaced by the DragonFly Cobalt. Not because the Red isn’t good enough anymore, but we in this list only put the very best, and that to us, clearly is the DragonFly Cobalt. A new recommended buy!
I do know some other companies want a piece of the USB dongle DAC/AMP market though and I look forward to comparing them to the AQ DragonFly units over the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned…