Review – AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon Headphones, DragonFly Red, DragonFly Black DAC+Preamp+Headphone Amp, & new Neil Young & Jaco Pastorius from HD Tracks, & The Beatles “Sgt. Peppers 50th Anniversary Edition” – Part Two of a Two-part Article

In Part One of this Two-Part Article, we explored the new AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon Headphones, and in Part Two we explore their new DragonFly Red and DragonFly Black DAC+Preamp+Headphone Amp units. We listened to the newly released Neil Young “Decade”, and Jaco Pastorius “Truth, Liberty, & Soul – Live in New York” from HD Tracks both in High-Resolution, and The Beatles Sgt. Peppers 50th Anniversary edition from EMI.

AudioQuest Red & Black DACs

To audition the new titles, we booted up the newly released AudioQuest DragonFly Red, their top-of-the-line USB portable DAC and Headphone Amp. Before we did so, we visited their website, downloaded their utility and updated the firmware, which added among other features, the ability to natively unfold MQA content. The DragonFly Red, and the lower priced DragonFly Black, both have updatable firmware, and both represent a bargain. Both had the ability to just become invisible, which to our mind is the goal of every superior piece of audio equipment. The differences between them mostly amount to how much power they can deliver as we detail later.

According to the company, AudioQuest and DragonFly designer Gordon Rankin worked alongside Microchip Technology to develop a new high-performance, full-speed USB microcontroller solution that delivers improved signal-to-noise ratio and significantly lower power consumption. Drawing 77% less current than the previous microcontroller, the new Microchip PIC32MX microcontroller enables true compatibility with Apple and Android smartphones and tablets.For greater overall performance, the new DragonFly models also incorporate improved 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chips—the 9010 in Black and the higher-performance 9016 in Red—both of which employ minimum-phase filtering for naturally detailed, more authentic sound.

While DragonFly Black uses the same high-quality headphone amp and analog volume control found in DragonFly v1.2, DragonFly Red includes the latest ESS headphone amp and a bit-perfect digital volume control that resides on the 9016 DAC chip itself—a sophisticated implementation that ensures maximum fidelity, dynamic contrast, and signal-to-noise ratio. DragonFly Black will output 1.2 volts—enough power to successfully drive all preamplifier input circuits and a wide range of today’s efficient headphones. Meanwhile, with its higher 2.1-volt output, DragonFly Red will be compatible with a wider range of headphones, including power-hungry, low-efficiency models. While the DAC chips we’ve selected are remarkably powerful and sophisticated, we’ve intentionally limited DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red’s processing capabilities to 24-bit/96kHz resolution. This makes using the DragonFly’s as simple as it’s always been: they’re fully compatible with PCs without having to download and install new drivers”.

With a statement that complete, there isn’t much that we can add to that description of the two models, except to say that although boasting different components, in use, we were hard-pressed to hear any difference, they both sounded tight, musical, airy, and natural. We were a bit surprised to learn of their decision to limit the native sampling to 96kHz/24-bit resolution, but playing back 192kHz files didn’t cause a hiccup nor could we identify any sampling conversion errors. We found that the Black was able to drive anything we threw at it, from the NightOwl Carbon, to the Oppo PM-1, PM-2, and PM-3 Planar Magnetic headphones, and for good measure, AudioTechnica headphones. Using IEM’s, we found both sounded exemplary, with maybe, and we aren’t sure if this is our imagination, a slightly lower noise floor with the Red. But, the Red was able to provide more bottom end punch with our less efficient models. Both can be used as a fixed output DAC, both sound wonderful.

If we have one complaint, it’s that the little case provided for the units is a bit too small, and way tight! Even leaving a unit in the case didn’t cause any appreciable stretching. In order to reduce strain on our USB ports, we used the AudioQuest DragonTail USB 2.0 Extender, a small flexible USB extender, and we recommend that users consider purchasing one to go with their DragonFly. We liked it so much, that we use it with other portable USB DACs as well. You can also use the units with your iPhone, iPad, or Android phone by using the proper cable. The DragonTail for Android is a USB to Micro USB adapter, and the phone will detect the DAC, and bypass all the onboard electronics, essentially turning your phone into a music player storage device. On the iPhone, you need to use the Apple Lighting to USB 3 Camera Adapter, then attach the DAC and you now have a superb sounding system. Either way, the audio quality is markedly improved. And leave it to Apple to cost it’s consumers extra bucks.

Music

There have been some outstanding high-resolution releases from HD Tracks of late. A gorgeously restored, remixed, and remastered title “Truth, Liberty, & Soul – Live in New York” featuring Jaco Pastorius, was a great test of bass, percussion, and big band reproduction, as was the recent release of Neil Young – Decade, one of Young’s most popular compilations. Notably absent from the releases of Young’s catalog in remastered high-resolution form, this release finally meets the wishes of his fans with a sparkling remaster. While that title has an enormous range in terms of recording quality, from the almost low-fi grunge of Buffalo Springfield, to the gorgeously recorded Harvest with Eliot Mazur at the helm. While the Greatest Hits anthology also boasted wonderful sound, along with the Blu-ray Archives Box Set, the release of Decade is almost a stream of consciousness playlist, with Young personally guiding you along. The sound quality is wonderful, and tracks like “Helpless” float with melancholy, while the anger of “Ohio” comes through as sharp as a tack. Using both the Red and Black DACs, they drove headphones and the new 1More Quad-Driver in-your-ear earphones without distortion and plenty of dynamic headroom. “Four Dead in Ohio” with guitars blazing, and the urgency of Young’s and Still’s voice as vital now as it was during the Vietnam War.

Thomas Fogel-Burlan, a contributor to Mac Edition Radio is a bass player, and having a real life acoustic bass, and electric bass drifting throughout the house, is the best possible lesson in how audio components and music should sound. Along with Charles Mingus, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius was at the pinnacle of bass musicians. So, the news that a long sought recording was being lovely restored from the original tapes was one of the most eagerly awaited news of bass fans. And “Truth, Liberty, & Soul – Live in New York” delivers. With a superb band, Pastorius is playing at the peak of his powers, matched only by his work for Joni Mitchell. Listening to him play makes his senseless death all the more tragic. With the NightOwl Carbon’s both the air of a live recording, and the subtle power of his bass is conveyed with accuracy, musical, neutral, yet alive with energy. This is one of the titles where the DragonFly Red seemed to have an edge but it was really a toss-up between the DragonFly Red and Black. “Truth, Liberty, & Soul” was recorded at Avery Fisher Hall, in New York City, on June 27, 1982, as part of George Wein’s Kool Jazz Festival. Originally recorded for National Public Radio’s Jazz Alive! Program. It took six years of work to bring this title out for the world to hear, and the copious liner notes narrative the process in detail. While portions of the concert were broadcast, this is the first release of the entire concert, with 45 minutes of never released music. Among the treats on this release is the addition of the legendary Toots Thielemans, and as you listen to this meticulously remixed and mastered title using the 2xHD FUSION which seeks to marry the best possible analog signal path with the highest quality digital transfer, the interplay between Thielemans and Pastorius is just amazing. Not only is the performance deserving of its near mythical reputation, but it’s also one of the best sounding jazz recordings you’ll ever hear.

The newly released Sgt. Pepper’s anniversary edition has captured the news. Unlike the 2009 remasters, which were solid, yet subtle improvements, this new version is instantly identifiable. I set up a playlist using Decibel with the original CD version, the 2009 remaster, and the 2017 release. I placed the tracks next to each other, so I could instantly switch between the tracks, and while the difference between the original CD and 2009 remasters were clearly audible, with a veil lifted off the original release, the new 2017 release is another order of magnitude. Not only were the mixes different, the clarity of the instrumentation and vocals is a revelation. Try the comparison yourself to really nail down the differences. The NightOwl Carbon’s made it seem like Lennon was in the room next to you. We should thank our lucky stars that Giles Martin had access to the raw tapes, and allowed to spend time and money on a restoration that would make an archivist proud. While the argument continues over high-resolution of various sampling rates and bit-depth, no matter where you fall on that discussion, the one gift society has been given is the first-rate archiving of increasingly fragile tape mediums.

The AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon and the DragonFly Red, and DragonFly Black come highly recommended, and the DragonFly Black, with its firmware updatable MQA capability has to rank as one of audio’s great bargains.

Harris Fogel, posted July 9, 2017

For more information on the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon Headphones visit: www.audioquest.com

For more information on the AudioQuest DragonFly Red and Black DAC+Preamp+Headphone Amplifier visit: www.audioquest.com

For more information on Jaco Pastorius on HD Tracks visit: www.hdtracks.com

For more information on Neil Young – Decade on HD Tracks visit: www.hdtracks.com

For more information on the The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heartclub Band 50th Anniversary Edition visit: www.thebeatles.com