Portable headphone amplifiers may seem like an anachronism in this day and age. bluetooth headphones. Why go wired when the future is wireless? Many BT headphones offer great sound quality, but are inherently limited by design. Built-in batteries and electronics take up space and increase overall cost. Many manufacturers of wired headphones and earbuds offer models with better or more drivers, at prices that are theoretically similar to BT models. Additionally, some models are equipped with drivers that consume so much power that the built-in battery cannot adequately operate them.
Audio Quest Dragonfly Cobalt
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These wired headphones can be powered by any headphone jack, but those built-in ports rarely have much power. Instead, a portable headphone amplifier can give you the functionality you need from audiophile headphones without being tied to a chair or desk.
Here we are: dragonfly cobalt From audio quest. It has been on sale for several years, but now he is 30% cheaper and from now on will be the only model in the DragonFly line. It's about the size of a small thumb and connects to any phone or computer via USB. Inside is an amplifier and his DAC (digital-to-analog converter), which he claims will improve the listening experience. we will see. Or just ask. Let's listen.
- DAC chip: ESS ES9038Q2M
- Maximum sampling rate/frequency: 24 bit/96kHz
- Amplifier chip: ESS Saber 9601
- Power supply: “2.1 volt”
Cobalt looks like a USB thumb drive. Some of you may remember it. It includes a short dongle that converts the Cobalt's USB-A to USB-C for use with phones and many laptops. Of course, a special adapter is required to connect to Apple products. Available separately. It also comes with a small synthetic leather case. I don't think it will be used much, but it's nice.
Inside the Cobalt is an ESS Saber 9601 headphone amplifier and an ESS ES9038Q2M DAC. The Cobalt's maximum is 24-bit/96kHz, which is lower than some USB DACs. There isn't a lot of music available at higher rates, but there is some. Personally, I think the higher sampling rate than CD (16/44.1) is worth it, but I'm skeptical of people who say they can hear the difference between 96kHz and 192kHz.
The “2.1 volt” power rating is unclear and is effectively misleading. Almost all amplifiers are rated in watts, which is the most easily understood audio specification. Watts are the product of volts and amps, and such devices will not put out anywhere near 1 amp. So “2.1'' is definitely a much more impressive number than the milliwatts this (or let's be honest) headphone amplifier delivers. For comparison, the older, cheaper DragonFly Black claims 1.2 volts, while the similar iFi Go Link (review coming soon) claims 70mW at 32 ohms and 2.05V at 600 ohms (7mW equivalent). Masu.
DragonFly's dragonflies light up different colors at different sampling rates. Red for standby, green for 44.1 kHz, blue for 48 kHz, yellow for 88.2 kHz, light blue for 96 kHz, and purple for MQA. At least, that's the theory. This rarely matched the sampling rate of the content we tested on the Pixel 7. We found a better match, or at least a faster match, with the Sony NW-A306 portable media player.
I tested the Cobalt with several high-end headphones, two of which are on the border of what would be considered “portable.” At least in the sense that I don't think most people would walk around with one. They are the Audeze LCD-3 ($1,945) and the Sendy Audio Apollo ($500). These are headphones made to be enjoyed while sitting in one place. I also used Meze Audio Rai Penta in-ear monitors ($1,100). It's not particularly difficult to operate, but it has excellent clarity. Why use ultra-expensive and sometimes gigantic headphones to test a $200 amp? Well, if you can power those, you can power just about anything. I used a combination of CD quality and high resolution FLAC from Qobuz.
Since I didn't want to listen in a vacuum so to speak, I compared the Cobalt to several other amps/DACs. He started with the computer's headphone jack, then the USB-C-to-1/via he compared it to the Pixel 7's analog output. 8th analog dongle.I also compared it with cobalt. iFi Audio hip-dac2. This is also technically a portable headphone amplifier and is priced similar to the Cobalt. However, it's much larger, has a fairly cumbersome connection process, and I doubt most people will walk around and use it.
When I compared the Cobalt with the LCD-3 to my (admittedly anemic) desktop PC's headphone jack, the sound through the Cobalt sounded richer at the same volume level. Percussion had a tighter and immediate attack. Most notably, with Cobalt, I was able to get better bass and more volume. I turned my PC's volume control all the way up and was able to get the sound to be a little higher than my normal listening volume. On the Cobalt, roughly the same volume is achieved at settings around 60, with 75 being plenty loud and 100 being more than comfortable. Not bad for a thumb drive sized device or giant planar magnetic headphones. Admittedly, the sound at maximum wasn't as clean as when I turned the volume down.
Sendy Apollos had better clarity with Cobalt compared to my computer's built-in headphone jack. Switching to cell phone output via the dongle, the Apollos sounded more open with richer bass when he played through the Cobalt. Again, the biggest difference was the volume. When I turned my phone's volume control all the way up, the Apollo was just above what I would call normal listening volume. However, with the Cobalt, the maximum volume was louder than I was listening to for extended periods of time.
With Rai Pentas, there wasn't much of a noticeable difference. Despite the price and five-driver design, it's not particularly difficult to drive. Therefore, even the Pixel 7 dongle can be driven with sufficient volume. Do the overtones and high frequencies become more realistic on high-resolution tracks? probably. For example, the opening glockenspiel of the 24-bit, 192 kHz version of “Sloop John B” is pet cries Even though Cobalt was downconverted to 96 kHz, it still had a richer, more realistic tone. It's also possible that the tonal balance has changed only slightly, as the Rai Pentas have a mellower sound due to fewer amps. In any case, I don't know if I would risk my life on blind AB testing.The truth is it is far There are fewer differences between modern DACs than with anything else in the audio chain.
Finally, I reinstalled the LCD-3 to compare the Cobalt and the iFi Audio hip-dac2. If you're looking for something that provides better audio on the go, the hip-dac2 is probably too big. It's a little smaller than a flask. However, that extra space includes more powerful electronics, so if you normally listen to music while sitting or sitting at a desk, this may be an alternative. Therefore, the power of hip-dac2 has been further improved. Not only will the LCD-3 be louder, but it will also sound cleaner. Hip-dac2 sounds less compressed when the volume is increased. The difference isn't that big, but it's noticeable when viewed consecutively.
There are two questions that arise from such products and reviews. First, does it improve the sound beyond a reasonable baseline? Yes, even with hard-to-drive headphones, the Cobalt definitely sounds better than a headphone jack or cheap dongle. Many of the easier-to-drive headphones could at least sound a little better (or at least, louder).
Second, does it perform well enough to justify the price? That's a little hard to say. Do you have headphones that require an amplifier or sound better with an amplifier? Are your headphones' performance limited by the sources you normally use? Most computers and phones (dongles The answer to the latter question is, because (whether you need it or not) has a terrible headphone amplifier. yes. As for the price, DragonFly seems a bit expensive. Compared to when DragonFlys first took flight (just kidding), there are now a wide variety of Cobalt-like amp/DAC dongles on the market, many of which are much cheaper. I'll check out some soon.
Finally, if you don't have headphones that are worth the $200 accessory price tag, this shouldn't be your first purchase. $50 headphones don't sound like $500 headphones. If you've only ever listened to amplifier-worthy headphones while sitting in one place, the hip-dac2 will sound a little better at the expense of portability and overall convenience (new hip-dac 3 (with dual USB-C connectivity for easier use).
That said, if you fit into the niche outlined above, I'd say the Cobalt impresses you more than you'd expect given its size. Despite being smaller than my thumb, it definitely improved the sound of some great-sounding headphones in a very portable way.
In addition to covering audio and display technology, Jeff also conducts photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, giant aircraft carriers, medieval castles, and epic 10,000-mile road trips.
he wrote this bestselling science fiction novel About city-sized submarines and cheap travel for beginners. You can follow him on Instagram and YouTube.