The Dongle DAC Survey: Part 2: The Review(s)

Today we’re going to be comparing three dongle DAC/Headphone amps that are here for review mixed in with a few DragonFlys for good measure.

The Contenders

Clarus CODA DAC ($300)
Helm Audio BOLT DAC ($99.99)
iBasso DC03 DAC ($69)

The AudioQuest DragonFlys

DragonFly Cobalt ($299.95)
DragonFly Red ($199.95)

The Basic Specifications

Clarus CODA

Input: USB-A
Output: 3.5mm Headphone
DAC: ESS Professional Series SABRE DAC
Supported Resolutions: PCM data up to 32bit/384kHz and DSD to DSD128
MQA Support : Yes
Max Output Voltage: 2.0 Vrms
Extras: Volume control buttons, choice of three digital filters, USB-A to USB-C cable

Helm Audio BOLT

Input: USB-C
Output: 3.5mm Headphone
DAC: ESS Sabre 9281A Pro
Supported Resolutions: PCM data up to 32bit/384kHz via MQA, non-MQA data limited to 96kHz and DSD to DSD128
MQA Support : Yes
Output Voltage: Headphone output level automatically detects headphone impedance and sets level accordingly: 1V for < 150 ohms, 2V for >= 150 ohms
Extras: USB-C (female) to USB-A adapter

iBasso DC03

Input: USB-C
Output: 3.5mm Headphone
DAC: 2 x Cirrus Logic CS43131
Supported Resolutions: PCM data up to 32bit/384kHz and DSD to DSD128
MQA Support: No
Output Voltage: 2Vrms (300 Ohms), 1.61Vrms (32 Ohms)

I listened through each DAC in two scenarios – iPhone and AudioQuest NightOwl headphones, and on my desktop using an iMac and a pair of ADAM Audio A3x powered speakers. In both cases, Roon controlled playback. Check out The Dongle DAC Survey: Part 1: Ins and Outs for an in-depth run down on making connections.

I use an AudioQuest 3.5mm Mini Plug to RCA Adapter and a pair of AQ Red River interconnects to take the signal from the DACs around back of the iMac to the ADAM A3X (this group shot was for illustrative purposes only. I only used one DAC at a time)

The Sound Of Three DACs Clapping

Deciding which different we prefer takes time. Listening through these five DACs in two systems over time revealed many things, the most obvious being they each have a sound that effects the sound of music played through them. The tricky part is deciding which sound fits your system and ear preferences best.

Let’s begin with the lowest priced DAC 0n hand, the iBasso DC03 whose main strength is its midrange richness. The meat of music replay is on clear display with the iBasso, whether through the NightOwls or the ADAM A3X. To my ears, and in these systems, bass response was clearly shelved down and upper frequencies felt a tad soft providing a focus on center stage. While reproduction was nicely detailed, the individual voices of instruments were a bit homogenized, lacking the rich textures and tone colors that make for a more emotionally engaging experience. Or to put it another way, some of music’s drama and emotive force were lessened due to this lack of nuance and richness.

The iBasso’s plus column could very well be comprised of some of these same sonic traits. Anyone looking to tame a too tipped up and hot top end may find the iBasso a nice fit. Its overall center-weighted balance also plays nicely with acoustic music like the lovely All of It Was Mine from The Weather Station. Here, with acoustic guitars, banjo, bass, and vocals the iBasso offered a nice, rich ball of sound, like a big dollop of whip cream. That said, even here bass response was a bit lumpy and less well defined than every other contender in this here roundup and overall music sounded a bit thin, lacking ultimate weight and body.

Let’s cut to the chase – I really enjoyed everything, every single thing, about the Helm Audio BOLT DAC. While it did not offer the same super-fine resolution of the Clarus CODA or the overall control and deftness of the AudioQuest Cobalt, the Helm BOLT is one beautifully balanced DAC. The NightOwls got a real hoot from the BOLT’s fun appeal presentation with its lovely sense of richness, body, bass control, and dynamic snap. The Weather Station came to greater life through the BOLT, with the voice of each instrument sounding richer and more fully formed which makes things that much more exciting. Magdalena Kožená’s way with Handel, as captured on ‘Ah! mio cor’ Handel: Arias was positively stunning with the BOLT / ADAM and NightOwl pairings presenting Kožená’s mezzo in full bloom.

The BOLT is also a nuance rich champ so that every twist and subtle turn is conveyed with gripping intensity. While its bass response was not as refined as the Clarus CODA or AudioQuest Carbon, I did not find myself wanting in this regard when listening to all manner of music through the BOLT and ‘phones or on my desktop with the superbly agile ADAM A3X. This gets me back to the notion of balance. To my ears, the tradeoffs made with the BOLT, namely not the biggest boldest bottom end or the brightest crispest upper end, make music of all types sing out with a rich cohesive wholeness that made me just want more — more time to listen to more music and less time comparing and contrasting.

The Clarus CODA checked off most every sound reproduction box by offering bold and controlled bass response, a rich and textured midrange coupled with finely detailed and refined upper frequencies. In nearly every way, its performance was the best of this threesome bunch as one would hope considering cost. The CODA offers three digital filter options — Linear Phase Fast Roll-Off, Minimum Phase Slow Roll-Off, and Hybrid Fast Roll-off. It took all of two maybe three tries to land on the Minimum Phase Slow Roll-Off filter as my very clear favorite and call it a day. Since these are user selectable options, I don’t see the point in getting into the sound of each since every CODA owner will just listen for themselves.

The CODA very quickly impresses with its full-range control and finely detailed presentation whether leashed to the NightOwls or the ADAM A3X. Switching from the BOLT to the CODA, it was very easy to hear the CODA’s greater resolution with each of music’s parts coming into better focus. There also seemed to be a better sense of dynamics and decay, with cymbal strikes sounding sharper and shimmering more brightly before trialing off into silence. Bass response also gained more definition as compared to the BOLT so all told, music sounded bolder through the CODA.

To move things to a more level playing field price-wise, I rolled in the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC which is nearly the same price as the CODA (minus 5 cents). The first and most immediate difference brought into play with the DragonFly Cobalt was a greater sense of weight all around. After some time listening through the DragonFly Cobalt, I would say it offered a more fully-formed sense of dimensionality, making musicians and their instruments appear more solid as compared to the CODA. I would also say the DragonFly Cobalt sounded richer overall, more tonally saturated, with cymbals throwing off a more harmonically rich golden hue.

To turn these tables around, the CODA focused my attention on resolution, detail, and snap as compared to the Cobalt’s richer and more full-bodied way with music. Does this make one DAC better than the other? Of course it doesn’t. What it does is make each DAC better suited for a certain type of listener in a certain type of system. For me and the NightOwls and ADAM A3X, my preferences find the DragonFly Cobalt more inviting for long term listening. That said, I can certainly see why others may prefer the Clarus CODA’s cleaner and clearer sound.

The DragonFly Red has been my go to on the go DAC for many years. It sounds like a DragonFly Cobalt that has taken a few steps back from the musical proceedings, offering a less resolute, less precise sound image. Like the Cobalt, it also sounds rich with a nice sense of weight and heft which makes for extended listening fun. It is, to my ears, a very likeable and listenable DAC and I’ve certainly spent years and many hours within those years enjoying Red’s way with music.

You probably saw this coming but I was very curious to see how my resident likeable and listenable DragonFly Red compared to the likeable and listenable Helm BOLT. At roughly half of Red’s price, is the BOLT a….Dragon slayer? (sometimes you have to go with it even when it is a terribly predicable and corny joke)

The Helm BOLT is not as weighty sounding as the DragonFly Red, which shifted my focus on Deradoorian’s “Saturnine Night” from Find The Sun from its overall driving force to the parts making up that driving force. The BOLT offers up more separation and clarity when it comes to the parts that make up the whole. By comparison, the DragonFly Red sounds bigger and bolder with a focus on sheer energy. All that being said, over time I found that the BOLT was equally compelling albeit with a more up-front sound as compared to the DragonFly Red’s richer heftier sound image.

Summing Up

I know I was tough on the iBasso DC03 but that’s my job. However, with the iBasso’s $69 price tag firmly in mind, I will say it beats the pants off of the iPhone’s headphone out and it positively crushes the analog output from an iMac. Which is to say that if you’re on a restricted budget and $70 is pushing it but doable, the iBasso DC03 will let you hear more of your music if you’ve been living with your iPhone and/or computer’s analog output.

For my particular set of preferences which includes everything from sound to looks to build to price, I think the Helm BOLT DAC is a bonafide winner as it is eminently enjoyable for hours and days on end. The Helm BOLT DAC may be the easiest recommendation I’ve ever made because it makes listening to music an endlessly addictive party.