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Review and Measurements of Audirect Beam and AQ Dragonfly

amirm

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#1
This is a review, measurement, and detailed comparison of two "thumb drive" sized combo DAC and headphone amplifiers: the Audirect Beam and Audioquest Dragonfly Black. I had reviewed the latter last year but it was with my old measurement gear so I thought I perform a fresh set of data on it given the popularity of Dragonfly. I purchased the Audirect Beam from Amazon a few months ago for USD $104 (about $114 with tax). I purchased the AQ Dragonfly for USD $99 from Amazon just the same. The Audirect Beam is on sale for $80 on massdrop and hence the reason I thought I review it now just in case you want to take advantage of its sale.

The Audirect Beam is the smallest DAC+amp I have seen, sans the phone USB-C dongles:

Audirect Beam Portable DAC Review.jpg

It has a spring-loaded, nice feeling momentary rocker switch for turning the volume up or down. Sadly in practice it would not change level correctly, requiring multiple toggles.

The volume control changed the Windows native device volume control. As a result, it is just a convenience and not an actual analog volume control. By default the level in Windows was very low. It threw me off for a while as did odd performance in the Dashboard measurement. Then I realized it is the issue I saw before with ASIO4ALL interface to Windows causing truncation of 24 bit samples to 16.

This was a "good thing" as after further investigation, I realized this has nothing to do with ASIO4ALL. But rather, these few devices do not support exclusive WASAPI interface! You can try to use WASAPI but it will still go through the Windows audio stack with volume, sample rate conversion, etc.

Anyway, the appeal of this device is what looks too be very nice specifications:
1543517796128.png


At 0.0004% THD+N, it would have a SINAD of 107 which would put it solidly in tier-2 desktop DACs.

Notice the odd spec "IR: < 1 Ohm." The reads like input impedance would which would not interest us, nor would it be correct way to talk about USB input. If it is output impedance, then that is what we like to see.

Format support is much richer than Audioquest Dragonfly which is limited to 24-bit/96 kHz PCM only.

Let's run through our measurements and see how the two compare to each other.

Measurements
As I noted, my initial dashboard test using ASIO4ALL interface to Audirect Beam generated results that indicated truncation. So I played my test tone in Roon player which nicely avoided the truncation to 16 bits. Even though that took some distortion components away, they were low level ones so overall picture did not change:

Audirect Beam Portable DAC and Headphone Amp Measurement.png


We see that the second harmonic at -95 dB dominates so as a result, SINAD can't be better than that which we see in 93 dB results. We have quite a departure here from the specification. Both output voltage and distortion specs are not remotely close to what is advertised, indicating that those must be chip specs, not complete products. Too bad.

Before getting too depressed though, here is AQ Dragonfly black:
AudioQuest Dragonfly Black DAC Headphone Amplifier Measurement.png


Audioquest provides no specifications for the performance of the device. What we get here is worse than the Beam across the board. Lowering the digital input value increased performance up to a SINAD of 83 but then you have a lot less output.

Measuring the output impedances, the tables reverse with Dragonfly showing an excellent 0.6 ohm output impedance which allows driving of any headphone without changing its frequency response. In contrast, I measured the output impedance of Beam at 10.6 ohm. This is heck of a lot more than stated "< 1.0 volt." I remeasured this value twice more and it constantly produced the same results.

Audirect Beam Portable DAC and Headphone Amp output impedance Measurement.png


High impedance headphones should not be a problem for Beam. But lower impedance ones can be a problem if they have frequency response variations.

For these types of adapters, power availability is everything when it comes to fidelity so let's see how they do at 300 ohm:

Audirect Beam Portable DAC and Headphone Amp Power at 300 ohm Measurement.png


For reference, I have included the power from the Topping DX3 Pro small desktop DAC+AMP (red) and portable (but large) Apogee Groove (green). As you see, there is no competition with these two. The Audirect Beam clips at just 3.3 milliwatts and the AQ Dragonfly Black doesn't even get to one milliwattt! Fortunately it has more usable power since there is no hard clipping so you could get to the same power as Beam but with higher distortion.

Changing the load to 33 ohm we see:
Audirect Beam Portable DAC and Headphone Amp Power at 33 ohm Measurement.png


Here again there is some overlap in power depending on how you look at the distortion from Dragonfly Black.

To better understand these power ratings, I have started to create a bar graph of portable audio products, sorted by 300 ohm power rating:

Audirect Beam Portable DAC and Headphone Amp power table Measurement.png


Yes, the tiny version 1 Google Pixel dongle has far more power than either the Beam or Dragonfly black!

Listening Tests
A lot of times my listening tests are perfunctory but not in this case. I first started with Audirect Beam and my AKG K92 headphones. Here, there was decent power and definitely listenable. Switching to Sennheiser HD-650 was a huge let down. Yes, you can hear "music" but there is little bass and music has no impact. Switching to Hifiman HE-400i was the same, providing an anemic experience.

Compared to the Beam, the Audioquest Black was a revelation. With AKG K92 performance was superb with thundering bass that would rattle (nicely) the cups! Quite a satisfying experience :). Experience using either HD-650 or HE-400i was respectable but of course, that thunder was no longer there. All in all, the Audioquest Dragonfly is far superior to Audirect Beam subjectively. That soft clipping and low output impedance clearly allows more performance to translate into sonic energy from the headphone.

Conclusions
I have lost track of how many times we have been misled by "paper" specifications. Such is the case with Audirect Beam with numbers that have little relationship to reality. Sadly, it seems that 90% of these products are the ones I buy with my own money :( Fortunately that means you don't have to. Unless you have a very efficient headphone like the AKG K92, I cannot in any form recommend the Audirect Beam.

The Audioquestion Dragonfly Black shows why it is popular: it provides a satisfying experience with a range of headphones. I can recommend it now based on this new set of data and listening tests. Then again, if you can get your hands on the Google Pixel V1, it may very well be a better choice at a fraction of the cost.

-------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

If you like this review, please consider donating funds to support these reviews using:
Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/audiosciencereview)
or upgrading your membership here though Paypal (https://audiosciencereview.com/foru...eview-and-measurements.2164/page-3#post-59054).

Without your support, I wouldn't be able to purchase products like this and test them.
 
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#3
Thank you for sacrificing your wallet so we don't have to. ;)

So far, which one is the best of these thumb drive dac/amp you have tested? SMSL iDEA??
 
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#5
I tried the AQ Black with 2 different headphone and it was just terrible.
Yes, the bass was very good, i liked that, but the higghs screaming so much that totally ruined every track.
Now i know that was probably the effect of those big distortion spikes..
 

amirm

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#6

amirm

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#7
So far, which one is the best of these thumb drive dac/amp you have tested? SMSL iDEA??
I don't have the SMSL IDea to re-test with new gear. Without that, I am hesitant to recommend it now.

I have a DACPort HD by the way to test.
 
Joined
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#8
This is a review, measurement, and detailed comparison of two "thumb drive" sized combo DAC and headphone amplifiers: the Audirect Beam and Audioquest Dragonfly Black. I had reviewed the latter last year but it was with my old measurement gear so I thought I perform a fresh set of data on it given the popularity of Dragonfly. I purchased the Audirect Beam from Amazon a few months ago for USD $104 (about $114 with tax). I purchased the AQ Dragonfly for USD $99 from Amazon just the same. The Audirect Beam is on sale for $80 on massdrop and hence the reason I thought I review it now just in case you want to take advantage of its sale.

The Audirect Beam is the smallest DAC+amp I have seen, sans the phone USB-C dongles:


It has a spring-loaded, nice feeling momentary rocker switch for turning the volume up or down. Sadly in practice it would not change level correctly, requiring multiple toggles.

The volume control changed the Windows native device volume control. As a result, it is just a convenience and not an actual analog volume control. By default the level in Windows was very low. It threw me off for a while as did odd performance in the Dashboard measurement. Then I realized it is the issue I saw before with ASIO4ALL interface to Windows causing truncation of 24 bit samples to 16.

This was a "good thing" as after further investigation, I realized this has nothing to do with ASIO4ALL. But rather, these few devices do not support exclusive WASAPI interface! You can try to use WASAPI but it will still go through the Windows audio stack with volume, sample rate conversion, etc.

Anyway, the appeal of this device is what looks too be very nice specifications:
View attachment 18195

At 0.0004% THD+N, it would have a SINAD of 107 which would put it solidly in tier-2 desktop DACs.

Notice the odd spec "IR: < 1 Ohm." The reads like input impedance would which would not interest us, nor would it be correct way to talk about USB input. If it is output impedance, then that is what we like to see.

Format support is much richer than Audioquest Dragonfly which is limited to 24-bit/96 kHz PCM only.

Let's run through our measurements and see how the two compare to each other.

Measurements
As I noted, my initial dashboard test using ASIO4ALL interface to Audirect Beam generated results that indicated truncation. So I played my test tone in Roon player which nicely avoided the truncation to 16 bits. Even though that took some distortion components away, they were low level ones so overall picture did not change:

View attachment 18196

We see that the second harmonic at -95 dB dominates so as a result, SINAD can't be better than that which we see in 93 dB results. We have quite a departure here from the specification. Both output voltage and distortion specs are not remotely close to what is advertised, indicating that those must be chip specs, not complete products. Too bad.

Before getting too depressed though, here is AQ Dragonfly black:
View attachment 18197

Audioquest provides no specifications for the performance of the device. What we get here is worse than the Beam across the board. Lowering the digital input value increased performance up to a SINAD of 83 but then you have a lot less output.

Measuring the output impedances, the tables reverse with Dragonfly showing an excellent 0.6 ohm output impedance which allows driving of any headphone without changing its frequency response. In contrast, I measured the output impedance of Beam at 10.6 ohm. This is heck of a lot more than stated "< 1.0 volt." I remeasured this value twice more and it constantly produced the same results.

View attachment 18198

High impedance headphones should not be a problem for Beam. But lower impedance ones can be a problem if they have frequency response variations.

For these types of adapters, power availability is everything when it comes to fidelity so let's see how they do at 300 ohm:

View attachment 18199

For reference, I have included the power from the Topping DX3 Pro small desktop DAC+AMP (red) and portable (but large) Apogee Groove (green). As you see, there is no competition with these two. The Audirect Beam clips at just 3.3 milliwatts and the AQ Dragonfly Black doesn't even get to one milliwattt! Fortunately it has more usable power since there is no hard clipping so you could get to the same power as Beam but with higher distortion.

Changing the load to 33 ohm we see:
View attachment 18200

Here again there is some overlap in power depending on how you look at the distortion from Dragonfly Black.

To better understand these power ratings, I have started to create a bar graph of portable audio products, sorted by 300 ohm power rating:

View attachment 18201

Yes, the tiny version 1 Google Pixel dongle has far more power than either the Beam or Dragonfly black!

Listening Tests
A lot of times my listening tests are perfunctory but not in this case. I first started with Audirect Beam and my AKG K92 headphones. Here, there was decent power and definitely listenable. Switching to Sennheiser HD-650 was a huge let down. Yes, you can hear "music" but there is little bass and music has no impact. Switching to Hifiman HE-400i was the same, providing an anemic experience.

Compared to the Beam, the Audioquest Black was a revelation. With AKG K92 performance was superb with thundering bass that would rattle (nicely) the cups! Quite a satisfying experience :). Experience using either HD-650 or HE-400i was respectable but of course, that thunder was no longer there. All in all, the Audioquest Dragonfly is far superior to Audirect Beam subjectively. That soft clipping and low output impedance clearly allows more performance to translate into sonic energy from the headphone.

Conclusions
I have lost track of how many times we have been misled by "paper" specifications. Such is the case with Audirect Beam with numbers that have little relationship to reality. Sadly, it seems that 90% of these products are the ones I buy with my own money :( Fortunately that means you don't have to. Unless you have a very efficient headphone like the AKG K92, I cannot in any form recommend the Audirect Beam.

The Audioquestion Dragonfly Black shows why it is popular: it provides a satisfying experience with a range of headphones. I can recommend it now based on this new set of data and listening tests. Then again, if you can get your hands on the Google Pixel V1, it may very well be a better choice at a fraction of the cost.

-------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

If you like this review, please consider donating funds to support these reviews using:
Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/audiosciencereview)
or upgrading your membership here though Paypal (https://audiosciencereview.com/foru...eview-and-measurements.2164/page-3#post-59054).

Without your support, I wouldn't be able to purchase products like this and test them.
Hopefully the Dragonfly Red proves much better, it can output 2.1V and it's dead silent at max volume with very efficient IEMs and headphones like Ultimate Ears 900S, Hifiman Bolt, Sennheiser HD 630VB and it can drive perfectly the Sennheiser HD 58X and in most cases the Sennheiser HD 6XX (except with extremely low volume tracks which have been only 2 or 3 in my experience). Still waiting for it to be reviewed as it has been my go-to DAC/Amp for use with my Surface tablet and Essential Phone and it has been very good subjectively speaking. :)
 
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#9
I don't have the SMSL IDea to re-test with new gear. Without that, I am hesitant to recommend it now.

I have a DACPort HD by the way to test.
I'm sure a lot of people would appreciate a re-test of the Speaka or one of its clones.
 

amirm

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#11
Hopefully the Dragonfly Red proves much better, it can output 2.1V and it's dead silent at max volume with very efficient IEMs and headphones like Ultimate Ears 900S, Hifiman Bolt, Sennheiser HD 630VB and it can drive perfectly the Sennheiser HD 58X and in most cases the Sennheiser HD 6XX (except with extremely low volume tracks which have been only 2 or 3 in my experience). Still waiting for it to be reviewed as it has been my go-to DAC/Amp for use with my Surface tablet and Essential Phone and it has been very good subjectively speaking. :)
The red has not come. I just contacted its owner again to see if he still plans on sending it.

I agree given where the Black is, a boost provided by red would make it a very good choice.
 
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#13
Hopefully the Dragonfly Red proves much better, it can output 2.1V and it's dead silent at max volume with very efficient IEMs and headphones like Ultimate Ears 900S, Hifiman Bolt, Sennheiser HD 630VB and it can drive perfectly the Sennheiser HD 58X and in most cases the Sennheiser HD 6XX (except with extremely low volume tracks which have been only 2 or 3 in my experience). Still waiting for it to be reviewed as it has been my go-to DAC/Amp for use with my Surface tablet and Essential Phone and it has been very good subjectively speaking. :)
https://www.stereophile.com/content...lack-usb-da-headphone-amplifiers-measurements

I know it's not Amir's measurements, but shows similar distortion levels to the Black(Edit:though a lower 3rd harmonic). I would not expect it to perform significantly better other than stronger power output.
 

ILovePhonon

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#14
Hi @amirm , I was wondering if you could test Zorloo ZuperDAC-S. It is quite cute and priced cheaper than Sabaj and SMSL iDea. It uses ES9018Q2C SoC. From my listening sessions, I found it to be quite clean and detailed.
B11021EC-F575-4613-9DC7-6EEE0FDA2566.jpeg
08654281-AB97-4C8E-AE3D-425386B71D51.jpeg
 

amirm

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#15
Hi @amirm , I was wondering if you could test Zorloo ZuperDAC-S.
Hi there. I can't find it on sale anywhere but their own site. I made a request on Massdrop hoping they offer it.
 
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#16
Dang for Namit Amir! I offered to send you the IDEA. I also have the Zorloo. Now that would have been a face-off. Looks like the Audiodirect was a bad implementation: The IDEA using ESS' amp chip measured -120db on your previous dashboard. I myself was curious myself how it might have measured with your new setup, as I was thinking of using it as a pre-out. There the puny output wouldn't have mattered. BTW, something just doesn't doesn't sound right to me with the Zorloo. Too bad the AQ Black uses the opa 6130 amp, which despite the nice soft clipping, always displays those poor noise numbers.
 

restorer-john

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#19
I found a toy D/A converter similar to that tiny silver thing pictured above in a puddle of rainwater the other day at our local shopping center car park. I was hoping it was a USB drive. It wasn't.

I left it in the puddle.
 

Jimster480

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#20
I found a toy D/A converter similar to that tiny silver thing pictured above in a puddle of rainwater the other day at our local shopping center car park. I was hoping it was a USB drive. It wasn't.

I left it in the puddle.
Thats a shame, Amir could have tested it.
 
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