I have not had this much fun with home audio since I first plugged in a Decca Mk V into my Formula 4 tonearm and listened through my Tympani 1’s amplified by Audio Research tubes. That was great sound. But in many ways the sound I heard today was better, and the gear playing it was certainly hugely less expensive. Today, I was not listening to any vinyl. There were no tube electronics. I just had a used MacBook Pro feeding downloaded music files to my AudioEngine A2+’s via the Audirvana Plus music player through a AudioQuest Dragonfly Red DAC.
The Dragonfly Red and Audirvana Plus play so well together that I am calling them the Dynamic Duo. Audirvana has such a pure sound no matter what you feed it. It even makes iTunes sound good. Add the Dragonfly Red for greater options in playback files. Fortunately, the Red does not mess up the already great sound, provided the Red is thoroughly burned in. Just leave the Red in your computer’s USB socket for several days, whether you are playing music or not. Out of the box the Red is a bit nasty – too hot on top.
Low-res audio files sound good because Audirvana Plus upsamples and dithers them. Had to make some minor adjustments to stop an occasional ringing. Most of the adjustment have already been made for you. Be user to select “SoX” because it is a state-of-the-art converter.
When it comes to higher res. files, the Dragonfly Red working with Audirvana Plus will work some real magic. Well recorded high res. files approach the sweetness of vinyl, especially the DSD 64‘s. When PCM files are done right they are a close second. I have never really enjoyed digital sound until now. Now I can do more than just tolerate it. Digital is convenient and it has gotten better over the years. But without Audirvana Plus it is still too cold and strident for me. The Dragonfly Red will play files up to 24 bits 96 kHz sampling rate. I believe that will be sufficient for most peop le. Quad DSD is out of its range, but those files are very large and very rare to come by. They will require a much more expensive DAC to play them.
The Dragonfly Red will also work with iPhone and Android phones for portable use. It requites significantly less power to run than the original Dragonfly. Not only that but its builtin headphone amplifier will power almost any set of headphones, even high impedance ones. I had no trouble using my Hifiman HE 400i’s. If you are using monitor headphones such as these you will definitely need to allow time for the to Dragonfly Red break-in, otherwise the sound may cut your head off.
What about MQA files? The Dragonfly Red can handle them, but it needs the computing power of an actual computer to do the initial decoding. It is too small to be expected to do the heavy lifting. On my MacBookPro, Audirvana Plus facilitates that decoding. Then the Red does the rendering. It is a two step operation. Again, they work magic together. A larger and more expensive DAC would be needed to do the whole operation. However, I would hate to lose the sound quality of Audirvana Plus. This expensive DAC would have to sound really good. There are that would fill the bill. But I do not need to spend the money when I already have great sound at a very reasonable price.
How about about the sound of MQA? It is good – very good! The subject is controversial. More about MQA in part 2. Without MQA files, there is a world of enjoyment ahead for those who want to listen to file based audio from their computer, especially a Mac. Audirvana will soon come out with a Window’s version of its software which is not to be missed. Trust me!
There are some downsides to this Dynamic Duo combination. As I have said, it takes a rather lengthy break-in time for the Dragonfly Red. The Red and Audirvana play well together, but iTunes and Audirvana do not. Avoid using iTunes as much as possible. Even though Audirvana Plus has a dual mode using iTunes as a browser, skip it. Use the Plus as a stand alone as much as possible. Make your own Audirvana Plus playlists. The Plus does a pretty good job a browsing your music files and displaying the metadata. A new interface for Audirvana Plus will be coming out shortly. Skip iTunes altogether when downloading high res files.
Audirvana Plus can be buggy, or is it that iTunes is buggy when used with Audirvana Plus. I do not know. I expect it is a little of both. With careful adjustments to Audirvana Plus the bugs can be overcome, as long as you stay clear of iTunes as much as possible. Then there is the matter of controlling your laptop by remote in order to play downloads or stream music, Audirvana does both. Just download a $10 iOS app from Apple to be used on your smart phone or iPad. It works better with the iPad because of the larger screen. It is quite easy to set up and once done, makes a very fine remote. Sometimes, however, the app has trouble recognizing the laptop you assigned to it. If is does, forget trying to fix it. Just dump the app and download it again. Then before trying to do the setup, go to the preference page on Audirvana Plus and erase the first setup.
Bitperfect works so well with iTunes, and it is a no hassle product. But its sound quality is far below Audirvana Plus, as just about every music player that I know of is inferior to it. Audirvana Plus and Dragonfly Red will cost your $274. Add on $250 speakers from AudioEngine and you have a complete audio system. You may not need a vinyl playback system if you do not have legacy recordings. Yes, add an inexpensive sub-woofer for good measure. We are still talking prices less than $700 dollars. This quality of sound was not available when I started out in audio many years ago. Even most high end systems did not sound this good.
I would only consider upgrading if I had a larger listening room. What would replace my system now? The new Magnepan four panels model and all David Berning electronics would do. If you are a Rock enthusiast then something from Magico might be your speakers. We are talking five figures or more. Right now I have only tied up 3 figures and I am enjoying my music as much as ever, if not more.