The AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB DAC and some thoughts on it

There was a time when you could never have gotten me to shell out money for a DAC because they were pretty big. Most were about the same size as the media player itself, so they weren’t exactly what I would call portable. And considering that was my only real intended use for it, it was a non-starter for me. That was until I read about the Dragonfly… a thumb drive sized DAC created by AudioQuest that offers the benefits of a larger DAC but without the size and weight penalities that accompany them. Although, I didn’t get my hands on one at the time I was still very interested in it. Then earlier this year I read about AudioQuest’s newest version called the Cobalt. It wasn’t available yet so it gave me time to mull over it and see. After all if you already have an excellent pair of earphones, how much better could the sound really get…

Taking a step back for a minute let’s see what a DAC is. DAC stands for Digital-to-Analog Converter. It’s in every device that can play audio from digital sources like CD’s, DVDs or audio files (i.e. mp3, aac, flac, wav) stored on a computer, media player or smartphone. The audio is converted from a digital signal into an analog signal that then makes it’s way to a set of speakers or headphones via an amplifier for your listening enjoyment.

So knowing that you might then ask why do we need an external DAC if there’s already one built in to devices. Well, builtin DACs generally don’t offer the greatest level of performance due to a number of reasons. In most cases internal DACs are comprised of inexpensive chips which aren’t made of high quality components, aren’t usually shielded properly inside the device from other noisy components which interfere with the reproduction of high-quality sound in the first place. In short they only allow for the signal to be converted but don’t fully filter out all of the background or outside noise that isn’t allways noticable until it’s gone.

The Cobalt is the latest offering from AudioQuest in their diminutive sized Dragonfly Series of DACs. This DAC like their others has no digital display or buttons whatsoever, just the Dragonfly logo that serves as a color coded status indicator to tell you what it’s doing once connected. There are six colors in total; 5 of them represent which sample rate the audio is being played at.

• standby (Red)

• 44.1kHz (Green)

• 48kHz (Blue)

• 88.2kHz (Yellow)

• 96kHz (Light Blue)

• MQA (Purple)

Since the Cobalt automatically adjusts to the correct sample rate there is nothing to fiddle with except for the included carry case, and DragonTail USB-A (female) to USB-C (male) adapter should you need them.

Although, the size and shape has evolved, the overall form factor has remained the same. Internally, AudioQuest has made similar changes to move the product forward. They kept the same ESS Sabre 9601 Amp from their Red Series and upgraded both the DAC chip from the ESS 9016 to their newer ES9038Q2M and the microcontroller from the Microchip PIC32MX to their newer PIC32MX274. These changes gives the Cobalt all the benefits of their previous DAC, improves on sound quality all while using even less power to do so.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what a DAC is and does; it brings us back to where I started. How much better can the Cobalt make my music sound? What is going to be the real difference in audio quality if any? Because different doesn’t necessarily mean better. After using the Cobalt, I must say that I’m rather impressed by it. What first comes to mind is that it removed the background fuzziness while adding a level of separation to the instruments and vocals in a way that headphones just don’t do on their own. There’s also a higher level of clarity that makes the vocals standout more from the music as if it were an instrument itself but without sacrificing the accompanying instruments. Add in the increased dynamic range and you get an even more immersive listening experience. It’s something you really have to hear for yourself.

Overall, I am very pleased with how much the Cobalt cleans up sound considering it’s literally the size of a thumb drive. Music is not only cleaner, but clearer and warmer. If you listen to even 256-bit compressed audio, the Cobalt will open up your ears to a better listening experience, just remember it can not make a bad pair of headphones sound good nor can it improve badly recorded or poorly mastered audio.

This is not for everyone as audio equipment can get rather expensive, and at $299.00 the Cobalt is not cheap. So I quite understand that most people will probably pass on this device and that’s fine. But, if you’re the type who likes to get all you can out of your headphones or are looking for a very portable DAC then you should consider the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt as one of your next upgrade options.


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