If you find most audiophile gear too bulky and too expensive but you’re still interested in good headphone sound, may I direct your attention over to the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt? It’s a tiny USB digital converter and portable headphone amp, and it sells for $299 in the US, £269 in the UK and AU$549 in Australia.
More good news: the still-terrific AudioQuest DragonFly Black ($100, £68, AU$139) and DragonFly Red ($200, £169, AU$275) aren’t going away, but the Cobalt aims higher and boasts a new and more powerful digital converter chip, a faster microprocessor that draws less power, and an improved, more noise-resistant power supply than the Red, the previous DragonFly flagship.
Did I mention Cobalt is really small? Just 2.3 by 0.7 by 0.47 inches (57 by 19 by 12mm), and connectivity via USB to any Apple or Windows computer, or with adapter cables to iOS or Android phones. Cobalt’s 3.5mm analog jack can be used with headphones or to connect to desktop powered speakers, receivers or an amplifier’s stereo input.
Into the Blue
I started listening to the Cobalt with a set of Sony MDR 1A headphones with ambient music from Sam Gendel’s Pass If Music album. The sound wasn’t confined to the Sony’s ear cups, it floated free like a cloud. Gendel’s music has a breathy, swirling abstract quality you can lose yourself in. I knew right then and there the Cobalt’s audiophile cred was assured.
Cobalt is a high-resolution PCM converter, with up to 24-bit/96kHz sampling rate. It also has built-in MQA decoding for Tidal music subscribers.
Stop right there: thanks to the Cobalt I heard legitimate high-resolution sound with my iPhone 8 while streaming MQA files from Tidal. That’s huge — while some Android phones have had hi-res capability for years, Apple kept the standard resolution lid on tight up until now. Hi-res on an iPhone — wow!
Take R&B/gospel great Mavis Staples’ latest album, We Get By, in MQA: her heartfelt singing came pouring through with the Cobalt over tough-to-drive Abyss Diana Phi headphones. Even better was The Fellini Album (also in MQA) of Nino Rota tunes written for Federico Fellini’s films. Performed by La Scala Philharmonic and conducted by Riccardo Chailly the sound was incredibly pure and vibrant, and never sounded quite like that before on an iPhone. Before I forget to mention it, the Cobalt also plays hi-res MQA files from Tidal over my Mac Mini computer.
I also spent some time comparing the DragonFly Red to the DragonFly Cobalt through a set of Sennheiser Momentum headphones, and right away noted the Cobalt’s bass had more heft to it on Philip Bailey’s Love Will Find A Way album. The Red had a more forward, more immediate sound, but I liked that the Cobalt revealed more depth in the soundstage. The treble was more refined and subtly detailed with the Cobalt; it makes headphones sound like better headphones. To my ears, it absolutely sounded like it was worth an extra $100 over the Red.
The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt is an impressive little device, and one that makes a case for the superiority of wired headphone sound in 2019. If you’ve already invested in decent wired headphones and don’t want to go wireless, the Cobalt is well worth considering!