Audioquest Dragonfly Red, Tidal and MQA
I haven’t traveled enough in recent years to justify upgrading my mobile kit. My home office doubles as my listening space, so am fortunate to have my favorite gear at my disposal for two channel and private listening sessions most days. This means I’ve primarily focused on the two channel system in my office, and had little need for a portable system. I’m also working on some vintage projects – speakers, and soon I hope, an amp or two.
That said, I have kept my eye on the Audioquest Dragonfly Red (US$199) since its release. Reviews were excellent, and, it was made clear that in time it and the Black version were due to receive firmware updates adding MQA playback. So, last year I bought the Red when travelling to Illinois.
First thing: I won’t get into the current drama surrounding MQA here. There are many who don’t like the licensing and hardware requirements associated with the new format. I understand the concern. Catalog size was also an issue, though over time this would fade as more labels partner with MQA. We’ll see how things play out on that end. In the meantime, let’s focus on sound quality, and the listening experience.
So, on that flight to O’Hare, my initial impressions were good, though a couple limitations hampered its performance. First, the Android/Dragonfly relationship had it’s difficulties – you couldn’t access the full output power of the Red when connected to an Android device. So, I wasn’t getting the volume I wanted. Not cool. Second, MQA updates were delayed. And, currently, only the Tidal desktop app will decode MQA files, so I’m limited to cd quality playback when I’m mobile.
This week, all of that has been addressed with a firmware update for both devices. Now – if you are using the Tidal desktop app along with an MQA compatible dac – you can stream MQA files and experience the sonic benefits of full software/hardware decoding.
I’ve been using Tidal for a couple years now, and love it. Streaming thousands of cd quality files for $20/month is a deal. MQA is included in the $20 subscription, so is simply a bonus for existing users. And, I’ve only had a couple instances where I couldn’t find an artist or record I wanted. I tend to purchase on vinyl those records I really love, so it’s not an issue. The rest of the time, I’m streaming via Tidal and Roon.
MQA – First Impressions
For this listening session I decided to go basic – I’m plugging the Red into my desktop computer with only the Jitterbug in line. The Nighthawks are my go-to ‘phones. I don’t normally use this machine for playback. Of course, I’m using the Tidal desktop app. The Tidal apps settings are set to Exclusive mode for the Red, and MQA software decoding is active.
The Dragonfly Red will now completely unfold the MQA encoded file passed from the Tidal app. I can listen to MQA masters in all their glory. So, how does it sound?
I started tonight with the Black Keys’ Attack&Release. It was impressively layered and dimensional. Textures were more touchy. Touchable. This is comparing to the same songs on Tidal in cd quality. Dynamic shifts were more palpable. When I moved on to Duke Ellingtons Afro Bossa, all of these qualities shined even more brightly. The brass sounded fantastic. The MQA file better represented the recorded space, and the instruments within it more naturally. The unique tones of the individual woodwinds were better delineated by the air around them. I could ‘feel’ them moving air – this is critical for me- and overall the music was more engaging. Not by a little.
I’ll stop here and say that early impressions confirm MQA’s qualities. And, the Dragonfly Red is an excellent budget dac/headphone amp. This is a great budget friendly upgrade for folks who play music from a desktop computer, and want more music in their stream.
I’ll come back with more later.
Thanks for listening.