DAC Chip: ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M & 9601 Amp
PCM 24bit – 96khz MQA, SNR: Undisclosed, Power: 2.1 Vrms, USB Type-A Male, 3.5mm SE (Microphone: Unspecified), Aluminum Chassis, DragonTail USB-C Adapter
Listening Equipment: Etymotic ER4SR, HZSOUND Heart Mirror, Moondrop Aria, VE Monk GO, FOSTEX T40RP. USB 2.0 iPhone 7, USB: 3.0 Windows 10, Deezer HiFi, Tidal Masters, FLAC
LISTENING EQUIPMENT USED IMPARTED HUGE INFLUENCE TO SOUND IMPRESSIONS & RATING
- Organic neutral timbre, natural analogue tonality
- Vibrant and engaging dynamics
- Crisp Treble with great extensions
- Mids with natural placement, warm tonality
- Impactful Mid-Bass response with natural texture, slow decays
- Audible Sub-Bass presence, slow decays
- Realistic (warm) guitar and stringed instruments tone
- Commendable balance between technical and musical ability
- Spacious soundstage with good imaging
- Excellent details retrieval, great transparency
- Remained cool even after used for long hours
- Does not drain host battery too fast
- Seamless MQA integration
- High resistance to phone RF signals
- Excellent synergy with fast DD and BA
- Slow bass performance, slow attack, performs better with already fast IEMs
- Dismal speed handling when driving demanding IEMs/Headphones
- Does not work well with demanding Magnetic Planars, very unstable timbre coherence
- Grainy edged Treble that gets worse when volume cranked higher
- Audible Bass distortion when subjected to heavy load (driving over 60/100)
- Sporadically warm nasal tonality for Mids on some songs when paired with warm IEMs/HPs
- Native USB-A instead of C makes it larger and heavier than most Thumb drives
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt. I paid dearly for my Cobalt. $350 in total including shipping from Amazon. Expectations were high and decidedly I was very critical with this one. Scrutinizing everything to ascertain if the price demanded justify the quality and experience offered.
Tuning focus for Cobalt is “Natural Sound” with the implementation of Minimum-phase Slow Roll-off Filter on the ES9038Q2M DAC. This Cobalt being my 6th DAC/Amp with ES9038Q2M so I have some good idea of what to expect. The actual tuning separates them from one to another. Cobalt clearly is the most warm sounding among them all with Hidizs S9 Pro being the most neutral and Topping D10s the most dry. E1DA 9038D is very well balanced and then followed by Shanling UA2. Lastly the dual ES9038Q2M of Cayin N6ii (E02) being the most versatile with very succinct filters option.
Honestly it is hard for me to be excited even as I write this. My personal experience with Cobalt was underwhelming to say the least from the moment of first listen until now. What I am hearing is a performance I have heard between a $20 JCally JM20 and JM04Pro – Yes it is vibrant and engaging. It has the warmth in contrast to JM20 brightness, the analogue tonality of JM04Pro. But hell, I paid $350 to get this level of sonic indulgence?
Now let’s get to the details why I was underwhelmed, bear with me on this, but it must be understood how I came to this POV:
AUDIOQUEST DF COBALT VS SHANLING UA2
- Headphone: FOSTEX T40RP MK3 Magnetic Planar 91db 50Ω
- Filters: Cobalt (Stock), UA2 (Apodizing Fast Roll Off)
- EQ: Always OFF
- Both on ES9038Q2M with dedicated Amp stage
SOURCE: WINDOWS 10, NATIVE WINDOWS USB
Hoff Ensemble “Polarity” FLAC 32/44.1
- 8 passes for each Dongles
- Volume: Cobalt 50/100 (SE), UA2 30/100 (BAL)
- Slightly forward intimate for Cobalt vs UA2
- Slower attack on Cobalt, UA2 slightly faster
- Nasal warm edged piano tone on Cobalt, crisper neutral on UA2
- Percussions crisper on UA2, smooth decays, Cobalt slightly pale, soft decays
- Macro and Micro details equal on both
As the crescendo peaked up between 1.18-1.26 and 4.05-4.28, Cobalt exhibited sibilance & micro distortion while UA2 remained smoothly controlled.
SOURCE: iPhone 7 USB 2.0 (DDHIFI ADAPTER)
Diana Krall “California Dreaming” Deezer FLAC
- 6 passes each Dongles
- Volume: Cobalt 80/100(SE), UA2 70/100(BAL)
- Slightly cleaner crisper, punchier bass responses on UA2, fuzzy on Cobalt
- More neutral vocal staging for Cobalt, slightly intimate for UA2
- Mildly recessed backing vocals on Cobalt, better nuanced on UA2
- Soft edged piano tone for Cobalt, crisper on UA2
- Crisper micro details on UA2, softer on Cobalt
- Coarse edged vocals decays on Cobalt, smoother on UA2
- Overall warmer presentation on Cobalt, natural on UA2
Hans Zimmer “Mombasa” Deezer FLAC
- 2 passes each Dongles
- Cobalt 80/100(SE), UA2 68/100(BAL)
- Very well controlled dynamics on UA2, jittery on Cobalt
- Bass distortion on Cobalt, tight, deep and well controlled on UA2
- Transients and speed compressed between 4.12-4.38 for Cobalt, UA2 survived cleaner
Alison Krauss “When You Say Nothing at All” Deezer FLAC
- 1 pass each Dongles
- Volume: Cobalt 80/100(SE), UA2 68/100(BAL) Matched Loudness
- Nasal jittery Mids for Vocals and Guitars on Cobalt, UA2 clean and truthfully neutral
And I stopped there, can’t bear to go on and place myself into more sonic grief.
As the tests revealed, DF Cobalt was outright dismal when subjected to driving demanding headphones. For the pedigree and price it asked, I expected stable performance across the range from the easiest to drive to the more demanding ones. And I consoled myself perhaps it will perform better with much lower load. So I plugged in my Moondrop Aria which has 122db of sensitivity versus the insane 91db of T40RP. Unfortunately the sound is average at best. Half of my Deezer HiFi songs exhibited tell tale signs of coarse edges and slow loose Bass responses. Simply put, my Aria does not like Cobalt.
Next I plugged in my VE Monk GO. Hey hey, Diana Krall voice actually sounds sexy neutral on this one. No hint of being nasal. I must admit this is the most flat neutral output I have heard from Cobalt as of yet. Impressive soundstage with spacious layering. Despite being very resolving, the Monk GO wasn’t sounding grainy edged at all. Treble was smoother than observed earlier with the other IEMs/HPs. However, there’s still some hint of peaky vocal sibilance especially on Toto’s “Africa”. Ah well can’t have it all can’t I?
Then I switched on the my Heart Mirror. Finally some decent output that’s actually enjoyable. The ever beautiful Heart Mirror always forgiving with her kind persona. The sound is now less grainy and less prone to Bass micro distortions. The issues with nasal tonality for Mids all gone. Speed and transients audibly better and less prone to compression and congestion on pacey complex passages.
And finally, I plugged in my beloved Etymotic ER4SR. With 45Ω and 98db of sensitivity, the ER4SR offered middle ground between high sensitivity to hard drivability. I am actually very pleased with what I am hearing. Honestly surprised that my normally choosy ER4SR synergize well with Cobalt. The natively matured, polished characteristics of ER4SR BA eliminated any hint of roughness Cobalt has. I believe this due to the exceedingly speedy behavior of ER4SR that blended greatly with Cobalt slow filters. Bass was tightly controlled and with enjoyable seismic responses. I swear if I were to use just my ER4SR I would even say this is a match made in heaven. There’s that welcoming analogue tonality to make ER4SR highly musical and still technical at the same time. The power of Cobalt was more than enough to make my ER4SR sing with vibrant dynamics.
At this point I decided not to test Cobalt with my Shure KSE1500. What I have heard so far discouraged me immensely. The ultra-resolving, ultra-transparent nature of KSE1500 will be as merciless as the FOSTEX T40RP MK3. To serve as a great AUX feed for Electrostatics, the basic requirement is a clean, grainy free feed. Cobalt does not qualify for that.
All in all, the fidelity level offered by Cobalt reminded me a lot of the sound I get from the Plextone Type-C. It is vibrant and engaging, it has power, it is musical and detailed at the same time. The saving grace for Cobalt was the pairing and synergy with my HZSOUND Heart Mirror and Etymotic ER4SR (both of which are emotionally special to me). But it is hard for me to be merciful to Cobalt because I literally expected it to perform great on a wide variety of options to melt my brains – that didn’t happen.
Best Pairing: Efficient and fast IEMs and Headphones below 100Ω
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