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AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC & Headphone Amp review

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Youtube review: http://youtu.be/TE1KH4kDo78

Photos:

http://dalethorn.com/Photos/iPhone_XsMax/Headphone_Dac_Amp_Audioquest_Dragonfly_Cobalt_01.jpg

Sources: iPhone XsMax, iPad Pro 11-inch, Macbook 12-inch, Generic PC Tower, Meridian Explorer2/Oppo HA-2se/DragonFly Red DAC-amps, AudioQuest JitterBug, AudioQuest DragonTail USB-C.

When I got word of the new DragonFly Cobalt, I hesitated - about three seconds - then I went for the phone and called TTVJ to get one. I understood from various conversations that there was a bit of angst about the price - 50 percent higher than the DragonFly Red, which was and is a great little DAC/amp for mobile devices. But $300 USD is not a stretch for something significantly better than the DF Red, as long as it meets that goal, which I believe it does. AudioQuest included a DragonTail adapter (USB-A to USB-C) that connects the DragonFly to an Apple iPad Pro or various Android devices, and that was the added touch that gave the purchase even more value.

Comparing the DF Cobalt to the DF Red, and feeding 44 khz WAV tracks from my iPad Pro 11-inch to the DragonFlys, I played the first 70 seconds of Steven Wilson's Luminol (at the 44/24 data rate) playing the DF Cobalt first (3 times), then the DF Red second. Almost immediately my impression of the stereo image was that it's less open and full with the DF Red. That alone didn't seal the DF Cobalt deal though. I ended up playing the same 70 seconds 3 times with the DF Red, then repeated 3 with the DF Cobalt followed by 3 with the DF Red. I've always thought of the DF Red as a very smooth reproducer, particularly compared to the DF Black. But this time the DF Cobalt edged out the DF Red with a smoother yet detailed sound. Some users might not hear the differences, but if they are practiced at evaluating DACs, they should pick up on these differences pretty quickly.

My next listen was the album Carmen Gomes Sings The Blues, which was recorded in DSD etc. at 352 khz or so, and then down-res'd to 44/24 WAV files for my 256 gb iPad Pro. The quality of the bass in this recording was noticeably better than with the DF Red, and the impact of the bass was more palpable, although I wouldn't describe the bass as "impactful" in the sense of many EDM recordings. It's jazz, and the sound is as good as they come - surprising for a live-in-studio recording, although in reading the liner notes one can appreciate how it was accomplished. My overall impressions of the DF Cobalt are mainly the greater realism - the palpable sounds in the lower registers, resin-y bowing, and the fullness of voices and instruments that aren't the least bit exaggerated. The wrong headphone could change all that of course, which is why I give attention to adjusting the different headphones' frequency responses with a modicum of EQ.

I also incorporate listening with the AudioQuest JitterBug in my sample music tracks below, but I'll recommend the DF Cobalt straightaway for these users:

1) Perfectionists. 2) Those with good enough hearing and experience to appreciate the differences. 3) Those who won't hear the differences immediately, but who trust AudioQuest to put into the DAC what they say they put in. Don't place any unusual trust in my review, since the music you play and many other factors could net out the differences. Do read as many reviews as possible, focusing on the best-respected reviewers of portable audio gear, especially DACs and headphone amps.

The following tracks were selected from my review of the Beyerdynamic Lagoon headphone, as that headphone (in wired use only) has the best overall reproduction of the headphones I've reviewed in 2019. The Lagoon review represents its sound when using the DragonFly Red, and the music tracks below represent the Lagoon's sound using the DragonFly Cobalt.

Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has great detail and tone, the drums have decent impact, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The Lagoon/Cobalt plays this extremely well.

Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can feel the weight they carry with the Lagoon/Cobalt.

Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sounds realistic - better than what I hear with most headphones.

David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The Lagoon/Cobalt reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed, and the upright bass sound is near-perfect.

Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The Lagoon/Cobalt plays this music perfectly.

Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates an excellent deep-bass response. Overall, the Lagoon/Cobalt plays this music very well.

Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce well with the Lagoon/Cobalt. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The Lagoon/Cobalt provides excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the Lagoon/Cobalt plays those extremely well.

Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The Lagoon/Cobalt plays this with great weight and enough detail that you can hear/feel the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is subtle with the Lagoon/Cobalt.

Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The Lagoon/Cobalt's reproduction of the 'clop' sound is good, but not perfect.

Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The Lagoon/Cobalt conveys at least some of that experience. The tympani also have good impact here.

Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The Lagoon/Cobalt delivers the impacts with good weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.

Edited by dalethorn

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