I love to listen to music while I work. Actually, I love to listen to music any time. But while working in particular. I hate working in silence. I used to much prefer listening to music at my desk through speakers. Headphones seemed to be a bit isolating for me. Of course, that was back in the day when I enjoyed the plush confines of an office and the indulgence of audible music at work was a thing. Nowadays, with the advent of co-working and open plan office space, headphone listening has become a necessary adjustment.
Not really a hardship considering the quality of headphones and music reproduction gadgetry available to today’s music lovers. My quest for “desktop audio” utopia started over a decade ago with a pair of AudioEngine A2 powered speakers. They fit the bill quite nicely for what I consider to be “desktop audio” – which is to say audio equipment designed with near field or headphone listening in mind. It also, for me, means equipment that has been designed with a footprint ideal for desk or bookshelf placement. Think small…
Also think budget. I’m always looking to achieve the best for the least spend. I like to find that tipping point in audio gear where for every dollar increase in price beyond that point there is not a commensurate increase in sound quality or reproduction. So my search became a quest to answer the question: What desktop or portable headphone DAC/Amp(s) are to be found at that tipping point?
Today we’ll be looking at two names that I think represent the best answer to that question right now: the AudioQuest DragonFly Red and the Schiit Modi/Magni combo.
AudioQuest DragonFly Red
If portability is your main aim then we can probably stop proceedings here. The DragonFly trumps the Schiit combo hands down when it comes to form factor. It’s about the size of a single packet of chewing gum, whereas the Schiit combo is more like 40 or so packets of gum. Luckily size is not our single concern…
A USB stick form factor means limited connectivity. The DragonFly has a single USB-A input and a single 3.5mm headphone jack output. Connectivity might be limited but sound quality is not. AudioQuest’s engineers are modern day miracle workers. How they have managed to squeeze such awesome sound from such a small package is beyond me. Way beyond. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of help on the ‘net to help out.
There are no physical buttons or dials on the DragonFly. The only indication that something is happening is from the dragonfly shaped LED. It illuminates in different colours to indicate status or sample rate (whilst this minimalist approach is cute, I do find myself having to make frequent trips to the instruction manual to remember what each colour means… not a big deal, but y’know…). Anyway, red is for standby and then Green, Blue, Amber and Magenta represent sample rate levels. The highest of which is the DragonFly Red’s sample rate ceiling of 96kHz. If you want to play higher res music files, the DragonFly will “reconstruct” or downsample them. Without physical controls, volume up and down is achieved by using the volume control on your phone or PC (or whatever host you have it connected to) which will in turn control DragonFly’s 64-step, 64-bit, bit-perfect internal volume control.
Internally, the DragonFly Red sports an ESS Sabre 9601 headphone amp and an ESS ES016 DAC chip all enhanced with Gordon Rankin’s proprietary monoClock single ultra-low jitter clock technology. The Red is plug-and-play meaning no additional drivers are necessary. It is also software upgradeable thanks to the Microchip PIC32MX270 microcontroller.
The DragonFly takes the very ordinary sound that plays from your laptop or mobile device and levels it up significantly. Of course, this has to be your main aim if you want to take advantage of what the DragonFly has to offer. You will sacrifice some convenience in deploying the DragonFly. It requires a physical connection both to the device and the headphones. In the case of a smartphone, that means connection via a dongle. My preference is the super well made and highly transparent OTG Cables from ifi (more info on them here). Wired in ears or headphones are obligatory. But the course of hi-fi bliss never did run smooth – so you’ll need to suck it up and deal with the cables. Trust me it’s worth it.
Unless the earphones on the end of those cables suck. Then you’re kinda wasting your time. Insert analogy about putting a tractor engine in a Ferrari here. If you are using, say, the earbuds that came with your iPhone, you will see some improvement. But it’d be silly to expect that the insertion of an awesome DAC/amp in between them and the source would create some kind of audio alchemy. Not going to happen. You need to pair the DragonFly with some decent cans. Simple as that. (Apologies if that seems painfully obvious.)
If there is one area where the DragonFly struggles, it is driving high impedance headphones. The amp output isn’t robust enough to drive headphones with low sensitivity. Its rated output is 2.1 volts; which on paper seems like enough to drive all but the most demanding headphones. But in my listening sessions with higher impedance headphones, I found, particularly when compared to the Magni, that there was a definite lack of heft. Mind you, that is not a sharp criticism or a “con” of the DragonFly. Just something to be aware of. If you are looking for something to drive your big Beyerdynamicss at high SPL’s, you will need to look further up the food chain.
So, that’s the DragonFly. I have been using one for a couple of years now. Apart from the times when I want absolute convenience (in which case I am reaching for something wireless), it’s my go-to. I absolutely love it and the reproduction quality it provides. But is it the best option for listening at your desk or where portability is not a high priority? Excellent question! I know the inevitable questions of comparisons with devices like the Chord Hugo etc abound. But remember I am looking at this not from an absolute perspective; but with a constraint on price. I want the best for the least $ and in my view the DragonFly Red is just that. Let’s put it up against my current favourite bang for buck desktop set-up – the Schiit Modi/Magni combo.
Schiit Modi 2 Uber/Magni 3
Whilst definitely fitting the desktop form requirements (the Modi and Magni come in at about 130mm wide by 90mm deep), they are certainly not portable. Both require mains power from (supplied) wall warts. Their convenient size and, might I say, handsome looks, mean that no great sacrifice of desk space needs to be made to accommodate them. Like the DragonFly Red, they are super simple to use. The Modi offers three different outputs to receive your zeros and ones – USB, co-axial and optical. A single set of RCA outputs is available.
The Magni is a similarly simple affair. A single set of RCA inputs and a high/low gain switch handles the incoming signal. Outputs are via 1/4 inch headphone jack on the front panel and a pre-amp output via RCA on the rear panel. Volume for the amplifier (and pre-amp) is controlled by a rotary knob on the front panel.
I should point out that the Modi model I own is the Modi 2 Uber; and the Magni is the Magni 3. Both have recently been superseded by Schiit. I understand from reading many of the reviews of the newest Magni and Modi, that some minor improvements have been made. I hope to get my hands on the new Modi 3 and the Magni 3+ soon and perform a comparison.
The Modi 2 Uber can handle sample rates/bit depths from 16/44.1kHz to 24/192kHz via all three inputs. If you’re into hi-res, I suppose this puts one in the “Win” column for the Schiit. I really don’t listen to much hi-res, so it’s not that big of a deal for me. Digital to analogue conversion is handled by an AKM 4396 chip
The Magni 3 is described by Schiit as a fully discrete, fully complementary, all-bipolar, symmetrical current-feedback design with no capacitors in the signal path and DC servo. So there! I can’t tell you what any of that means; but I can tell you that it results in some very impressive total harmonic distortion specs (<0.001% 20Hz-20kHz) and a very quiet signal-to-noise ratio of 108dB. Output power is 2W RMS per channel into 32 ohms (going down to 230mW at 600 ohms) with less than 0.3 ohms output impedance at either gain setting.
The little stack of Schiit makes for a very impressive duo. Sound is full and abundantly clear. That clarity extends to really nice instrument separation and treble response. The pair work together harmoniously to deliver excellent dynamics and an all but undetectable noise floor handle sensitive IEMS with aplomb. It needs to be remembered here, however obvious it is, that reproduction is inextricably linked and dependent upon the headphones connected. So much goes for both the Schiit and the AudioQuest. So most of my listening tests were conducted using two very different headphones connected to both setups by way of a simple headphone switch. Using Roon, with both DAC’s connected to USB ports on my PC, I was able to instantaneously switch between the two at matched SPL’s.
What did my tests reveal. Well, perhaps most surprisingly at least was the remarkable lack of difference between these two very different setups. In test after test, across multiple music genres it was often difficult to tell them apart. I have to say I was not expecting this result. To be sure, there are some differences. These were more apparent when listening through my Hifiman HE4XX planar magnetic full size over ears. The HE4XX are rated at a sensitivity of 93dB. Whilst that’s nowhere near the levels of some Sennheiser or Beyerdynamics, they gave the AudioQuest a run for its money. I found the Modi/Magni to be the more favourable partner for the Hifimans. Things were just fuller, heftier and delivered with more presence than when connected to the DragonFly. I also gained the impression that the Schiit was having an easier time of driving the Hifimans.
But this difference was really tiny and by no means do I wish to convey the idea that the DragonFly was a slouch when it came to listening with the Hifimans. On the contrary, I am amazed at what the DragonFly Red can deliver from such a small form factor. It is truly magnificent and makes you understand why it has won so many plaudits and awards.
The gap became almost imperceptible when I switched out the Hifimans for my Empire Ears Phantom Custom IEMs. The Phantoms have a super high sensitivity rating. Meaning that you have to be very careful with the volume knob on the Magni. If anything I may have detected a fraction more sparkle from the Schiits; but the Dragonfly delivered superbly tight bass response, I felt like the DragonFly just had a little more “grip” on the low end than the Modi/Magni.
But really the tale of the tape here has to be that you can’t go wrong with either set up. Clearly for on the go use, the AudioQuest is the one to choose. You can do that safe in the knowledge that you are sacrificing little if anything compared to a mains powered desktop rig. If your priority leans more towards the deployment of static rig to for a desk-bound headphone listening, I recommend opting for the Schiits. I think the availability of a physical volume control and multiple input options, not to mention the slight edge with harder to drive headphones, gives them the edge.
Either way when you consider that both are around about the same price (approx USD200) its amazing that such quality can be found for so little these days. Both are very much The Huckleberry.