I quickly discovered when I first strayed into the world of DACs that the Audioquest Dragonfly Red was highly regarded as a small, portable DAC. I managed to acquire one when I was on holiday in New Zealand in 2017. Circumstantial evidence suggested that they were not available in China except as pirated copies of the real thing.
The Dragonfly is about the same size as the FiiO K1 (about 50 x 15 x 7mm), but plugs directly into the laptop rather than through a cable, although it is possible to get a short extension cable. The device can also be connected to an iPod Touch (but won’t work with a Nano) through a suitable adaptor (although Audioquest recommend the camera adaptor).
I listened to some Afro Celt Sound System Volume 1 on my Bose Soundlink IIs through the 3.5mm port and then plugged the Dragonfly in, listening through that. My sense was that the sound through the Dragonfly was better to a point. It wasn’t a big jump, but there was a little something. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it wouldn’t do for manufacturers to produce DAPs that were a bit rubbish until they’re connected to a DAC.
How does this compare with the K1? I can also connect the K1 to the iPod using the same adaptor (in fact, I can also do this with the E17K so long as I switch off USB charging), and detect very little difference in sound quality. Afro Celt Sound System is still good either way. The Dragonfly perhaps has a richer sound, and a more noticeable bass. In spite of the considerable difference in the price of the two devices (the Dragonfly is about four times the price of the K1), the K1 by no means sounds inferior through the Bose headphones, or the Marshalls.
The sound out of my Sony MDR1a-DAC headphones with the built-in DAC switched on is much the same as the Dragonfly’s, or the K1’s, and even without the DAC, the headphones have excellent reproduction.
The Dragonfly Red is not cheap, being slightly north of my E17K, but quite probably giving comparable performance or better, although such comparisons will have to wait.