I'm sitting in my room at a resort in the mountains of Colorado, in one of the famous ski towns. The view out my window is picturesque, without any snow. I love it here without snow. I get enough of the white stuff at home in Minnesota. Plus, the town is nearly empty, except for the wildlife. A deer walked right in front of my car as I pulled out of the parking lot of the resort earlier today and I've seen numerous warnings about bears in the area. What's not to like? I can tell you. It's my second trip out here in less than one week.
Getting to the small ski towns in Colorado from Minnesota involves making a connecting flight in either Denver or Salt Lake City. On my first trip out here I missed my connection and had to stay the night in Denver. This really screwed up my trip because I had planned to be here for one full day, getting in the night before and leaving the morning after. After missing the connection and waiting through a few delays the following morning, I made it to my destination in the middle of the afternoon. Given my flight home was the following morning, I only had half a day to accomplish my task.
I flew out here at the request of an audio dealer, to work on a customer's home network. Once in a while I do consulting gigs because I really like getting out in the real world to see everything work in another environment, to get music coursing through the house again, and I like the challenge of fixing something that's broken. There were numerous issues, one of which was audio dropouts, in addition to spotty WiFi. Fortunately I had everything working by the end of my one day out here. At least I thought. By the time my puddle jumper flight reached Denver the following morning, I received word that other things weren't working as they should.
Needless to say, I was home for about 24 hours and back on a flight out here. I just finished working at the residence today and so far everything is working perfectly. I'm scheduled to be here for another couple days just to make sure.
What does any of this have to do with the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt? Let me tell you. The AudioQuest DragonFly series has always been about travel for me. Whether I'm traveling to the coffee shop or around the world, I bring a DragonFly along. In fact, the DragonFly has become one of those nonnegotiable items or what I'll call standard issue. If music will be played on the road, a DragonFly will be there to help reproduce it.
I've had the DragonFly Cobalt for several weeks now and I've put more hours on the Cobalt than any other previous version in this series, prior to writing a review. This is partly due to the fact that I read the measurements we published and I wanted to make sure I gave the Cobalt every opportunity to shine, and because I've been traveling quite a bit. Last weekend I flew to California to see the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance car show. Of course the Cobalt was pumping music into my ears the entire way there and back to MN.
In addition to the Cobalt, I've also had the DragonFly Red with me the entire time. I really loved the DragonFly Black and would've had it with me as well, but it was stolen, along with my laptop, custom IEMs, passport and more things than I care to remember, when I was robbed in Beverley Hills. I've yet to replace my custom IEMs, mainly because they are so dang expensive nowadays. Customs are my favorite and the only way to go, in my book. But, money doesn't grow on trees here in MN, so I've put off the purchase for a while. Anyway, I use a pair of Etymotic ER3SE (Studio Edition) earphones whenever I'm out of the house. I used to have the ER4 earphones from Etymotic and considered re-purchasing a pair until I saw the ER3SE available for $179 and the two earphones are nearly identical.
My "rig" for the review consists of the DragonFly Cobalt, DragonFly Red, DragonTail USB C adapter, Apple Lightning to USB adapter, and Apple Lightning to USB 3 (with power port). The last adapter enables one to connect the DragonFly and another Lightning cable to power the iPhone. I tested the Cobalt on my iPhone XS, iPhone 8, and Google Pixel phones, along with my MacBook Pro laptop. I won't even go into detail about using the Pixel because audio on Android is still a joke and a kludge.
Let's get into the listening. If readers don't know what the DragonFly is by now, I completely understand. Our lives are busy and y'all have lives outside of audio. However, I encourage you to open a topic in the forum to discuss the particulars. I'm going to skip the gory details of what's inside as they are covered in the objective assessment simultaneously published here.
I've been on a Qobuz binge lately. Filling up my iPhone with offline content and favoriting tons of albums so I don't forget about them. On April 15, 1991 pre-Pearl Jam band Temple of the Dog released its only album called Temple of the Dog. Twenty-five years after its original release the album was re-released with remixed content and alternate takes. I heard the 25th anniversary mix of the track Wooden Jesus while driving to the airport and liked what I heard, even though it was played via terrible SiriusXM lossy compression. This evening I downloaded the album through Qobuz and played it back through the DF Cobalt, DragonTail, and my Etymotics.
I started with Wooden Jesus because it was fresh in my mind. Through the Cobalt the sound was fantastic and, as one would expect, so much better than what I heard in the car. The opening sequence of drums and percussion sounds wonderful, driven directly into my eardrums. Matt Cameron's drum kit sounds better and more textured than I remember hearing it in the past. In addition, the right / left channel percussion placement can't go unnoticed with a good pair of headphones and the DragonFly Cobalt. I love the sound and detail that can be heard through this inexpensive portable rig. Sure, some of this sound comes from the remix of the album, but some of it also comes from the DragonFly Cobalt.
As a freshman in high school when the album came out, I loved the deep tracks just as much as the commercial hit Hunger Strike. One such deep track is All Night Thing. Listening through the Cobalt connected to my MacBook Pro, I feel like I could listen for hours. There's no DAP to mess with, just a Command + Tab over to Qobuz and a couple clicks. The Fly is super simple to say the least. Anyway, All Night Thing through the Cobalt really shows off a softer side of Chris Cornell's vocal prowess. Singing with Audioslave he screamed with the best of them, but on this track he is smooth like butter. As Cornell lays down the vocal, the backing keyboard sounds very sweet and delineated. Usually on rock tracks like this, backing instruments can be a jumbled mess, especially when played by mastering engineer Rick Parashar (who would later die with the master tapes in his London Bridge studio, leading to a legal battle between the band and his brother Raj). Rick also played organ on this track and it's sonically special as well. When I used to listen to this track I would get taken by Cornell's voice and lyrics, but listening to the remix through the Cobalt and Etymotics has given me a different perspective of this track and album. It sounds like real musicians rather than a bunch of stoned grunge rockers recording a tribute album to their late friend Andrew Wood.
A little piece of trivia: Mama Cass Elliot and Keith Moon both died in the same room in Harry Nilsson's London flat. Four years apart. Now on with the show. Harry Nilsson's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night is one of my favorite albums. I listen to it in spurts as I do Taylor Swift's 1989 album (gilty pleasure). I have this album on my laptop and my iPhone for my offline listening pleasure. I press play and don't stop listening until the final note of track twelve. The album's opener, Lazy Moon begins with a smooth Nilsson vocal and Gordon Jenkins conducted orchestra sending the listener floating through the air via violins and strings similar to when an Academy Award is presented and the winner walks up to the stage. My Etymotic and Cobalt combo reproduce this sonic delight pretty well and about as good as I'd expect from a portable system. Nilsson's voice doesn't quite have the enveloping full range that I'm used to with my full-sized audio system, but that's to be expected. Above all, this track, and entire album, has a beautiful bloom to it through the Cobalt.
Another great example of the Cobalt's spin on this album is the track Makin' Whoopie. Listening to the track I frequently get lost in the music or daydream, even though I'm trying to concentrate so I can collect my sonic impressions for this review. The sound isn't like what I hear on a reference-level system that enables me to get lost in the music on a different level, but nonetheless I get lost in the music on this album through the Cobalt. The dreamy orchestral string section and Nilsson's magical way of weaving lyrics through the strings is incredibly seductive. While listening I never got the sense of noticing Nilsson's breath or the ultimate in detail like can happen when listening to beryllium tweeters on a very clean-sounding system. The DragonFly isn't going to fatigue any listeners but at the same time won't win over those who demand the ultimate in finger plucking / fingernail detail.
Additional Notes and Wrap Up
While using the DragonFly Cobalt I noticed the device rebooting every now and then. The music on my phone would stop playing then the light sequence would go through the colors on the front of the unit. This only happened with my iPhone and only with the Cobalt. I used two different Lightning to USB adapters. The rebooting happened less with the larger USB plus Lightning power adapter and more with what is commonly called the camera connection kit (CCK). I don't know the cause of the issue, but I'm not willing to say it's definitely the Cobalt causing it. More investigation is needed. One item that's more of an annoyance and disappointment with the Cobalt is its ever so slightly loose headphone jack. With headphones connected, there is a little play in the jack and end cap. The DragonFly Red doesn't have this annoyance as it seems built to a touch higher level of quality. Certainly not a showstopper but is a bit disappointing.
One big question potential buyers will likely have is how the DragonFlys compare to each other. I can only address the Cobalt and the Red in this review and I think these two are the most competitive and similar. Both feature great colored finishes that feel good in the hand and look really nice. I prefer the shape of the Cobalt as it looks a bit less mechanical or techie to me. With respect to sound quality, I believe the Cobalt has possibly a touch of bloom to it that I don't hear in the Red. Other than this tiny detail, I'm very hard-pressed to discern any sonic differences. If a touch of bloom is your thing, the Cobalt may be for you. I caution against blindly taking my word and encourage people to use their own choice of headphones and music when determining sonic preferences between the Flys.
The Cobalt MSRP is $299, the Red MSRP is $199. If that hundred dollars is a hardship, then by all means go with the Red and rock out. On the other hand, if you "need" what AudioQuest considers its new top of the line Fly or if you'd much rather purchase the Hasselblad X1D-50c over its clone from DJi (which owns Hasselblad), and you like the cachet of having the newest DAC, then go for the Cobalt. To some a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks while to others it's just a hundred bucks. Give both a spin and pick a winner. After all, at least one Fly is mandatory you know.
- AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt ($299)
- DragonFly Cobalt Product Page
- DragonTail (included w/ Cobalt) Product Page
- DragonFly Product Comparison (PDF)
- Cobalt Introduction (PDF)
- Source: Roon ROCK, 2018 MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Mojave)
- DAC: dCS Rossini, EMM Labs DV2
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver,
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: Transparent Audio Reference Power Isolator
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption, ATS Acoustics Bass Traps
- Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x4, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload