Hello everyone, and welcome back! It’s been a very long time since I posted anything, nearly a year actually buuuuut…I’m back! A lot just happened over the past year between career changes, school, moving, and well, life. I’m sure you all can relate.
Today I’m reviewing not a headphone but a DAC, specifically the Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt v1.0. I’m part of the Todd The Vinyl Junkie’s loaner tour for this product, and this is the first Dragonfly family product and first AQ product in general I have had the opportunity to experience.
Let me first say that this is a $300 DAC, and when you’re in that mid-fi price range, there are certain expectations, especially when the product comes from a company such as Audioquest which has made a name for itself in the cable market with their “unique” products. Does the Cobalt’s performance match the price? We shall see…
Out of the box I was unamused and frankly disappointed. No, I was mad. The Cobalt comes in a flimsy cardboard box, like what you would get a really bad Chi-Fi IEM in. Strike 1. Inside, you find an equally crappy plastic tray with the user manual, the “Dragontail” USB-C to USB-A cable, the Cobalt itself which is reminiscent of a thumb drive, and an absurd little leather sleeve to keep the Cobalt in when you’re not using it. Strike 2.
This is 2019. The ratio of Android to iPhone users is roughly 50/50 and to not include an appropriate Lightning-to-USB cable is simply an oversight that has no excuse. One of the reasons I bought my Fiio Q1Mk2 (my currently wired mobile solution) was because it came with the Lightning-micro USB cable; something frankly few OEMs are offering. These cables are dirt cheap these days. I’ve gotten some off of Amazon for $10 that function perfectly and are dead quiet in terms of sound interference or coloration (if your cable colors the sound, you have a bad cable more than likely). Additionally, you don’t store a $300 DAC that’s incredibly easy to misplace in a sleeve that makes it harder to find (it’s black) and frankly looks horrible. The Cobalt should have come with a full leather or high-quality nylon case that could hold not only the DAC, but the cable(s) as well. 1/5 for accessories, packaging, and unboxing experience. I would easily knock $100 off the price just because of this.
Because I am an iPhone user, I did not use the Cobalt in a mobile fashion but only at my desk, plugged into my 1st generation Microsoft SurfaceBook via the SurfaceHub. I’m pleased to report zero USB noise issues, which tells me that either my docking hub is pretty decent quality, that AQ took special care to address USB noise, or some combination of the two. Either way, it’s as clean sounding as my Modi 3 with respect to USB noise.
All my music is presently through Spotify Premium and downloaded so there’s no issue with streaming quality or network interruptions. I have hearing damage so before anyone tells me I should be using ultra high bit rate lossless DSD, FLAC, or that MQA snake oil, chill out. I can barely tell a difference between 16/44 FLAC rips I have and Spotify’s Ogg Vorbis codec. Even when I can, it’s marginal, especially with the gear I presently have.
During operation the Cobalt’s LED indicator lights up in different colors to let you know the bitrate/format the DAC is processing. Red indicates Standby Mode and Blue, which is what it lit up for me feeding it from the Spotify app, indicates 48khz sample rate. The Cobalt stays cool to the touch and is relatively unobtrusive. I think its size and form factor would make it great for a business traveler who places a premium on light and svelte accessories.
Power output is substantial. On my PC, I ran the Spotify app’s volume at max, with my Windows volume dialed down to as low as 8/100 depending on the track and transducer I was using. To say that the Cobalt has power is an understatement. Your ears will bleed if you want them too. I don’t have anything particularly power hungry so I can’t give any comments on efficiency and scaling.
Now for some comparisons. I’ve been listening almost exclusively to my BGVP DMG’s on my Astell & Kern XB10 Bluetooth DAC over the past couple months, which I might add is utterly stellar given its age and short battery life. I will be reviewing the XB10 in detail in the near future.
The XB10 is decidedly neutral, well detailed, and quite clean and crisp in its sound signature. I only run it single ended and since the Cobalt is only SE as well, that’s perfectly fine for this review. I will note that in the past weeks and months I’ve used the XB10 I’ve had literally zero interference, even in a crowded commercial gym or at the grocery store, so I’d venture to say that there’s really no degradation in sound quality from the Cobalt at my desk to the XB10 fed via my iPhone X over with the AAC Bluetooth codec.
The Cobalt is not neutral. It has some warmth to it, but it doesn’t seem overly colored with respect to the lower end of the frequency response. I would describe it overall as “smooth,” “refined,” “polite,” “detailed,” “slightly soft” (highs are rolled off), and it has reasonable soundstage and good imaging. Notably, the sub bass is a touch more extended and detailed on the Cobalt compared to the XB10.
Overall, I like the sound signature of the Cobalt with certain IEMs. It pairs well with the BGVP DMGs, which is the IEM I did the overwhelming majority of listening on since it’s currently my preferred sound signature and the most comfortable IEM I have presently.
When I used my Sennheiser HD 58X though, I wasn’t happy. The Jubilee’s became softer with less clarity and given that the 58X isn’t overly bright to begin with, the Cobalt colored the sound signature enough to where the highs were essentially rolled off. They were certainly present, with good imaging and separation, but the usually lively 58X became more or less a soft, “background noise” headphone. Combine with this with the Jubilee’s already small soundstage, and it’s a bad pairing.
Sibilance is still slightly present on the 58X with the Cobalt on certain tracks. My Magni 3, slightly harsh amp that it is, is a far more suitable pairing than the Cobalt is in this case.
A comment about soundstage in general for the Cobalt…it is NOT wide. The stage feels quite centered on and in the head, but with fairly equal width, depth, and height. What it lacks in the overall size of stage it makes up for (somewhat) with how evenly it distributes and images everything, and the Cobalt does seem to lend a slight touch of air which helps alleviate the claustrophobic soundstage.
The only other DAC I have that I can really use for decent comparison is my Fiio Q1Mk2. I’ve had it for over a year now and I’ll be blunt, it’s a better DAC and amp than the Cobalt. Overall, the Fiio has a wider soundstage, better clarity and detail in the highs, and it doesn’t color the sound of any of my gear in the way the Cobalt does. While this may sound like a “duh” for seasoned audiophiles, the Cobalt definitely has a “house sound” to it, and it may not be to everyone’s liking. But first, some detailed comparison between the AQ Cobalt, A&K, XB10, and the Fiio Q1Mk2. All the following comparisons are done with the BGVP DMGs unless otherwise noted.
Vocals on Drama Free by Deadmaus and Lights are easier to understand through the Cobalt than on XB10. Cadaverous by Kai Wachi has a MUCH deeper soundstage than XB10, especially on opening woodwind synth loop, but the synth loop is sharper on the XB10. Bass extension seems to be better than XB10 with more control and detail in the super low end (Hakkerskaldyr by Heilung), and the overall soundstage, imaging, and air is better on Cobalt than XB10. I honestly expected this given one is $50 and the other $300, that and the Cobalt is a much more powerful amp. Lamb of God’s Reclamation has a very satisfying “crunch” to the rhythm guitars with midbass is very well controlled (can get boomy with some dynamic driver IEMs).
High hats on right side on Reclamation are imaged well but can get slightly blurry or soft when repeatedly struck over and over again, but this only happens when the track super busy…XB10 has crisper high hats with a more neutral sound signature overall and doesn’t have the congestion issues the Cobalt does.
Bass slam on M.O.B. Klick (We Are The Flesh) is very satisfying, good air, no sibilance; vocals on Westworld are more clear (usually slightly sibilant and “sshhh” sounding), depth and width is good, rhythm guitars blend ever so slightly with the supporting midbass at times, drum line is well defined. On the HD58X though, the Cobalt was unimpressive save for midrange detail.
Westworld (We Are The Flesh) on Q1Mk2 is brighter and has a very slight touch of peakiness in the vocal treble and the bass has greater slam than on the Cobalt. Drum slam is more centered and felt “in the head” than with the Cobalt…this was uncomfortable at times and at one point actually triggered a migraine, though I’m prone to those so don’t take my experience as the standard.
Westworld on the Cobalt + HD 58X was soft and unimpressive. Oddly, the low end was worse on this song with the Cobalt than the Q1Mk2 *shrugs with confusion* Sibilance was eliminated but vocal clarity was worse with the Cobalt than the Fiio.
Machi Bhasad by Bloodywood is usually a very congested track, especially during the chorus. The Cobalt smooths a little of the congestion out and tames most of the sibilance, but the lyrics can still be hard to follow (Hindi is a hard language to begin with). Soundstage and imaging gets a big improvement over the XB10 on this track. The Q1Mk2 has the vocals slightly recessed in comparison to the Cobalt and has more vocal sibilance than the Cobalt. Congestion is about the same between the Cobalt and Q1Mk2 on this track, but the Cobalt has better imaging and a larger overall soundstage measured 3-dimensionally.
Veritas (feat. Johnny Craig) by Kyle Lucas has a softer sound overall on the Cobalt compared to XB10. Micro detail is about the same. XB10 is crisper overall without as much warmth as the Cobalt (which is still only a minor difference).
Fiio Q1Mk2 is more neutral, but slightly brighter than the Cobalt. Soundstage and imaging are roughly equivalent. Q1Mk2 is more refined sounding than the XB10, but again we’re comparing a wired DAC with a Bluetooth DAC.
Reclamation has greater bass presence on the Q1Mk2 than Cobalt with the DMGs. Soundstage is slightly narrower and intimate. Vocals are incredibly clear on Q1Mk2, the Q1Mk2 seems to have an upper mid and very, very slight low-end focus, but not at the expense of the rest of the FR. Right side high hats are balanced between softness and clarity on the Q1Mk2, far better than the Cobalt. When listening to the same song on the HD58X you can immediately hear how the Q1Mk2 has far superior clarity and tonal accuracy. The Cobalt sounds veiled and soft by comparison and with a warmer low end, though it’s low end extension and detail is good.
When I compared Halsey’s Gasoline on the 58X between the Cobalt and Fiio, there was a readily apparent lack of high-end sparkle on the Cobalt, which is sad because Halsey’s track is very airy and has some wonderful high notes in it. The low end was expectedly warmer on the Cobalt but the Q1Mk2 delivered a performance that was closer to the HE-1 Orpheus than the Cobalt could hope to achieve (and yes, I’ve listened to the exact same song on the Orpheus, at CanJam this year actually).
I did take a little time to run my Focal Spirit One S with TaoTronics pad mod on the Cobalt. With the pad mod, the Focal’s move from being muddy and mostly garbage to a low-end neutral and high-mid/treble focused can with incredible detail, but an overall loss of tonal balance compared to my Magni, XB 10, and Q1Mk2. If anyone is interested in this particular mod, reach out to me and I’ll be glad to tell you about it!
So…what’s my verdict? 2.5/5 sound quality with respect to price. 1/5 with respect to packaging and accessories. 2/5 build quality. 2.5 overall rating.
Audioquest has never been known for intelligent, price-to-performance pricing. This latest installment of their Dragonfly USB DACs is an example of this. Plastic end cap. Loose 3.5mm and USB interfaces. An accessory suite that even the cheapest Chi-Fi companies would be ashamed to include with their products, and a decidedly “house” sound that pretty much trashes one of the best headphones on the market (HD58X).
The thing is, I do like the sound of the Cobalt at times. Would I spend $300 on it? Hold my beer while I die laughing. It’s worth absolutely no more than $120, especially given the abysmal accessory options. I wouldn’t spend more than perhaps $90 on it, given how massively limited a device it is, with no balanced out, no universal device capability, and for those who are MQA fans, your software player has to do the unfolding; the Cobalt can only render MQA tracks.
I am most thankful to Todd at TTVJ for including me on the tour and I’m happy I got to try out one of the more polarizing mid-fi DACs presently available.