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    Subjective: AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt Review

    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.  

     

     

    DragonFly Cobalt_DragonTail_Mobile_v2.jpg

     

     

     

    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. 

     

    DragonFly Cobalt hero with cap.jpgLet'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. 

     

     

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    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. 

     

     

     

     

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    Thank you, Chris, for this review.

     

    I have replaced my DF Red by another mobile Dac/HPamp with the ES9038Q2M chip, due to a defective headphone socket last year after 22 month of usage, and only looked back when the battery of the Topping NX4 DSD was (again) empty ....

    Another DF with even less rigid hp socket doesn't cut it for me.

    Cheers, Tom

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    Thanks, Chris.  The original DragonFly was my entry to computer audio, so I have a very soft spot for them.  

     

    Curious--what Custom IEMs were stolen?  I am getting close to biting the bullet, so I'd appreciate your recommendation.

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    24 minutes ago, PeterG said:

    Thanks, Chris.  The original DragonFly was my entry to computer audio, so I have a very soft spot for them.  

     

    Curious--what Custom IEMs were stolen?  I am getting close to biting the bullet, so I'd appreciate your recommendation.

    I had a pair of JH Audio JH13 IEMs. Loved them. 

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    Thx Chris. "Bloom" is the exact impression I got from the Cobalt. I liked it. But I returned it since I have the Red. The more I listened to it, the more it seemed that it was like a different color (which it is!) more than an improvement. I am not going for a rainbow of flys, I will wait for an improved DAC (from Audioquest or someone else).

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    Sigh. Looking at the Cobalt and Red, then looking at my on site photography laptop which when I travel is usually my system (relatively new MacBook Pro used for field processing images to show the client) with its USB-C ports. And my phone... USB-C. My tablet - Lightning port. Unfortunately the world of ports is in flux right now.

     

    I blame Apple for a lot of this. Since I started using Apple stuff for tablet and laptop (employer requirement) way back when, I've had a Bag-O-Dongles. Dongles to connect laptops or tablets to any of the various ports on video projectors. Others to connect HDMI, memory cards, USB to tablet. But the Android world has jumped to USB C now. I've got dongles and adapters from everything to everything. I think it's the actual profit model for Apple.

     

    Once I start visualizing a cable and dongle or adapter for connection to phone or tablet or laptop... Grrrrrr.

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    I tried the cobalt and it’s very good for price but  thin sounding compared to my Hugo ... but I guess not a fair comparison. I would be curious how it compares to the McIntosh ..

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    I have a Cobalt and have been using it mostly in a desktop setup controlled by JRiver.  JRiver enables (and requires) me to downsample higher-res files to 24-96.  I have no real complaints about the sound quality of even the downsampled files in that application.  It’s comparable to what I get through a low-end LH Labs Pulse (although the latter plays even DSD natively).

     

    Just for grins, I substituted the Cobalt for my Wyred 4 Sound 10th Anniversary DAC in my main system.  The cheap cable I used with the Cobalt probably explains at least some of the difference and the Cobalt generally sounded a lot thinner than the much more expensive DAC, but, on the whole, it sounded better than anyone ought to expect from a product of that size and price.  However - and this is a big “however” - it simply couldn’t play anything beyond 24-96 using my standard DLNA player.  It stuttered through those files.  I really wouldn’t recommend the Cobalt for a streaming system if you are heavily invested in hi-res, especially when there are decent uncompromised alternatives for not much more money.

     

     I don’t enjoy headphones and despise IEM’s, but I do own some $30 wireless cans from Best Buy that I use at the gym.  My Android phone connects to them via Bluetooth and keeps me entertained with low-fi Spotify and SiriusXM.  Also for grins, I attached the Cobalt to my Samsung Galaxy 9+ with the USB-C adaptor and then connected the cheap phones via cable to the Cobalt.  I was surprised at how much better everything sounded than over Bluetooth.  I suspect that the Cobalt might be at its best when connected to a phone, making mp3’s and low-fi streams sound better.  If I had more love for headphones and listened on the mobile more often away from the gym, I would be tempted to buy a much better set of cans for this application.

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    1 hour ago, Mike Rubin said:

    Just for grins, I substituted the Cobalt for my Wyred 4 Sound 10th Anniversary DAC in my main system.  The cheap cable I used with the Cobalt probably explains at least some of the difference and the Cobalt generally sounded a lot thinner than the much more expensive DAC, but, on the whole, it sounded better than anyone ought to expect from a product of that size and price.  However - and this is a big “however” - it simply couldn’t play anything beyond 24-96 using my standard DLNA player.  It stuttered through those files.  I really wouldn’t recommend the Cobalt for a streaming system if you are heavily invested in hi-res, especially when there are decent uncompromised alternatives for not much more money.

     

    There are certainly much better $300 DACs on the market if that's what you want. They aren't small like the Cobalt, which is why they sound better and the Cobalt is portable but not up to SQ snuff. The Cobalt is for laptop/portability use.  Miniaturization costs money.

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    10 hours ago, ajay556 said:

    I tried the cobalt and it’s very good for price but  thin sounding compared to my Hugo ... but I guess not a fair comparison. I would be curious how it compares to the McIntosh ..

    Yes--it would be kind of crazy if DF could match Hugo at 1/10 of the price.  All the DragonFlies are dramatic improvements over a Mac's built in DAC.  They make the Mac a reasonable source.

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    8 hours ago, Mike Rubin said:

    I have a Cobalt and have been using it mostly in a desktop setup controlled by JRiver.  JRiver enables (and requires) me to downsample higher-res files to 24-96.  I have no real complaints about the sound quality of even the downsampled files in that application.  It’s comparable to what I get through a low-end LH Labs Pulse (although the latter plays even DSD natively).

     

    Just for grins, I substituted the Cobalt for my Wyred 4 Sound 10th Anniversary DAC in my main system.  The cheap cable I used with the Cobalt probably explains at least some of the difference and the Cobalt generally sounded a lot thinner than the much more expensive DAC, but, on the whole, it sounded better than anyone ought to expect from a product of that size and price.  However - and this is a big “however” - it simply couldn’t play anything beyond 24-96 using my standard DLNA player.  It stuttered through those files.  I really wouldn’t recommend the Cobalt for a streaming system if you are heavily invested in hi-res, especially when there are decent uncompromised alternatives for not much more money.

     

     I don’t enjoy headphones and despise IEM’s, but I do own some $30 wireless cans from Best Buy that I use at the gym.  My Android phone connects to them via Bluetooth and keeps me entertained with low-fi Spotify and SiriusXM.  Also for grins, I attached the Cobalt to my Samsung Galaxy 9+ with the USB-C adaptor and then connected the cheap phones via cable to the Cobalt.  I was surprised at how much better everything sounded than over Bluetooth.  I suspect that the Cobalt might be at its best when connected to a phone, making mp3’s and low-fi streams sound better.  If I had more love for headphones and listened on the mobile more often away from the gym, I would be tempted to buy a much better set of cans for this application.

    The stuttering has nothing to do with the Cobalt really, more likely it is whatever is downsampling to 24/96. Frankly I don’t think any DAC below $1000 will make any difference when limited to 24/96 vs playing higher res. 

     

    The Dragonflys are all at home with a mobile device, or when you’re out and about with your laptop. They are not the best you can get for the money for a desktop computer or audio system. The Cobalt in particular is truly the worst choice for use as a pure DAC at 100% volume as it introduces clipping distortion - neither the Red nor Black do this. This is the most clear statement of a flawed design in my opinion (and why I returned my Cobalt). For details see:

     

    https://archimago.blogspot.com/2019/08/measurements-dragonflies-audioquest.htm

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    8 hours ago, firedog said:

     

    There are certainly much better $300 DACs on the market if that's what you want. They aren't small like the Cobalt, which is why they sound better and the Cobalt is portable but not up to SQ snuff. The Cobalt is for laptop/portability use.  Miniaturization costs money.

    I disagree. There’s no difference in the chips used here vs elsewhere. Yes, they designed a motherboard to house the whole thing. Big deal.

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    pretty happy with the iSine 10s that come with Cipher DAC lightning cable and regular headphone cables. Add in the Audeze equalization app and Qobuz sounds really good.

    Less "spaghetti" is nice but I can see where if you needed noise blocking earphones, the Dragonfly Cobalt might have a place

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    1 hour ago, miguelito said:

    I disagree. There’s no difference in the chips used here vs elsewhere. Yes, they designed a motherboard to house the whole thing. Big deal.

    The DAC chip is  a physically tiny part, and is irrelevant to what I wrote.
     

    Yes, there is cost involved in getting a complete component built into such a small package. It's pretty basic - designing something very small that does pretty much everything that something larger does  with good quality off the shelf parts is almost always more difficult and more expensive.  It's true across the board in electronics.

     

    DAC designers will tell you the chip is a very small part of the resulting sound. Two DACs with 2 different chips inside  from different companies can be made to sound alike.  Things like the PS and the analog output section make bigger differences. There are other, bigger $300 DACs on the market that measure MUCH better than the Dragonfly, and in all likelihood sound better. Those designers have fewer design constraints imposed on them by size and a lot more design options for problem solving. Easier to have quality power, shielding, internal isolation, etc. So they have an easier time getting good results if that's what they are trying for. 

    The reason d'etre  for the Dragonfly is size and apparently Audioquest  is willing to compromise the results to get there, b/c they couldn't do better at their price points in that size format. They are using a high quality DAC chip, so why can't they get the results that other, better performing DACs do? Designers of desktop or tabletop DACs don't have that size excuse to fall back on, have many more directly competing models, and need to have better results if they want to compete. 

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    6 hours ago, davide256 said:

    pretty happy with the iSine 10s that come with Cipher DAC lightning cable and regular headphone cables. Add in the Audeze equalization app and Qobuz sounds really good.

    Less "spaghetti" is nice but I can see where if you needed noise blocking earphones, the Dragonfly Cobalt might have a place

    Red. Save $100 and do better.

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    5 hours ago, firedog said:

    The DAC chip is  a physically tiny part, and is irrelevant to what I wrote.
     

    Yes, there is cost involved in getting a complete component built into such a small package. It's pretty basic - designing something very small that does pretty much everything that something larger does  with good quality off the shelf parts is almost always more difficult and more expensive.  It's true across the board in electronics.

     

    DAC designers will tell you the chip is a very small part of the resulting sound. Two DACs with 2 different chips inside  from different companies can be made to sound alike.  Things like the PS and the analog output section make bigger differences. There are other, bigger $300 DACs on the market that measure MUCH better than the Dragonfly, and in all likelihood sound better. Those designers have fewer design constraints imposed on them by size and a lot more design options for problem solving. Easier to have quality power, shielding, internal isolation, etc. So they have an easier time getting good results if that's what they are trying for. 

    The reason d'etre  for the Dragonfly is size and apparently Audioquest  is willing to compromise the results to get there, b/c they couldn't do better at their price points in that size format. They are using a high quality DAC chip, so why can't they get the results that other, better performing DACs do? Designers of desktop or tabletop DACs don't have that size excuse to fall back on, have many more directly competing models, and need to have better results if they want to compete. 

    Agree, but the vast majority of the design of the board was already done with the multiple versions of the DFs. Justifying $100 for basically the same - and then botched in my opinion - design is a little bit “funny”. 

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    > I won't even go into detail about using the Pixel because audio on Android is still a joke and a kludge. 
     

    @The Computer Audiophile adding the UAPP app is not much of a kludge to me. It sends bit perfect output to external USB DACs, and is a great all-around music player serving up local files, UPnP/DLNA files, Qobuz, Tidal (with an optional MQA add-on), Google Music, internet radio, and more. Having said that, on long trips I usually carry a separate DAP too, a FiiO X5III, also running UAPP.

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    1 hour ago, left channel said:

    > I won't even go into detail about using the Pixel because audio on Android is still a joke and a kludge. 
     

    @The Computer Audiophile adding the UAPP app is not much of a kludge to me. It sends bit perfect output to external USB DACs, and is a great all-around music player serving up local files, UPnP/DLNA files, Qobuz, Tidal (with an optional MQA add-on), Google Music, internet radio, and more. Having said that, on long trips I usually carry a separate DAP too, a FiiO X5III, also running UAPP.

    I use that app, as it’s a must on Android. However, an absolute requirement for me is offline music. The app can’t do it. Also the whole volume control thing is a mess with that app and the DragonFly. The Qobuz interface isn’t nearly as good through that app. 

     

    On iOS everything works perfect with the native Qobuz app. 

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    1 hour ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    I use that app, as it’s a must on Android. However, an absolute requirement for me is offline music. The app can’t do it. Also the whole volume control thing is a mess with that app and the DragonFly. The Qobuz interface isn’t nearly as good through that app. 

     

    On iOS everything works perfect with the native Qobuz app. 

     

    If by off-line, you mean music files on your phone, then UAPP will play those. OTH, perhaps you mean images saved from a streaming service?

     

    I use the DF Red and UAPP with a Samsung Galaxy S10.  The volume control works fine for me. Although, when there is a complete update of the Android OS, I sometimes run into problems with volume control and have to uninstall and reinstall UAPP. and reset one of the volume settings in Android.

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