Audiobyte Black Dragon – Review
I’ve known of this project for a while now and if you’ve been reading some of my reviews, you would know I am really interested in Audiobyte and their products. I had Hydra-X for a while now and it really impressed me throughout the time. Let’s not forget about their top of the line DAC , the Wavedream, a product that I loved and thought to be right next to MSB Analog DAC.
I finally have this wonderful product on my desk and it really looks and sounds wonderful.
What is it? This is a very strong competition for my Burson Conductor or any similar unit, as it is a DAC / headphone amplifier / pre – amplifier .
Looks and Build Quality
The minute I saw it, I was really impressed by its looks, and heard a dark voice deep inside me saying : “my precioussss” . So, I think it’s safe to say that I really loved the design and finish of the unit.
This might be the best looking product from Audiobyte yet.
Everything is made of metal and it is well polished, especially the front plate that is thick and sturdy and has a very shiny and cool look.
Some of the things that caught my eye:
The dual mono conversion (2 x AK4396)
is a perfect complement to the digital input stage. Each dac chip is processing one channel in fully balanced mode which leads to better analog performance and noise rejection.
The custom minimum phase digital filter
is a high-performance upsampling block for conditioning the incoming signals. It is especially effective on standard resolution digital signals, like 44.1/48 KHz. With a large number of taps (1200) and a carefully adjusted response, the extension and atmosphere of the recordings are virtually enhanced prior to conversion. The filter can be enabled or disabled from the menu interface. For filter detailed performance consult the technology paper.
The LNS (linear power supply)
– all power supplies inside are linear type. There are a total of 11 linear stabiliser IC’s, 8 of them are low noise. The total filtering capacity exceeds 50.000 uF. The power supply is serviced by 2 separate toroidal transformers.
So what does the Black Dragon bring to the table compared to the older version?
The most important thing is the new Femtovox clock system, a system very similar to the one found in Wavedream :
Femtovox Clock System (300 fS) that that assures that only extremely small amount of jitter is present at the dac conversion clock input. The clocking system is at the heart of a good DAC. What is music without timing? The better the clocking system the more precise the sound will be. Rockna explains it better here:
The clock is the heart of a digital reproduction system. It’s accuracy and jitter levels are critical in regard of sound quality. Only a very good clock system can make the way to the analog sound on the output of your DAC. If the clock is flawed, digital harshness will occur and the analog feeling of the music will be severely altered. Apart from the performance of the clock itself, equally critical is the construction of the clock tree (the clock distribution architecture) inside the DAC. The jitter amount that really counts it’s not only the performance of the clock itself – but the clock which actually enters the dac and is used for conversion – let’s call it the conversion clock. The conversion clock that enters the dac section relies on the clock tree, which is usually not just routing, but in most cases conditioning, altering it’s quality. A poorly designed clock tree can degrade significantly the clock quality entering the d/a section, even if the source clock has great performance
With these facts in mind, we designed for the Wavedream an advanced clock system called the femtovox. With femtovox in place, one is assured that only extremely small amounts of jitter are present at the dac conversion clock input. It’s unique architecture employs that conversion clock is directly synthesised at the dac input, without any conditioning, giving constant jitter performance at any sample rate. The conversion clock is controlled with 1 ppb precision, while exhibiting about 300 fS of jitter. The smallest jitter figure in the world? No. The smallest jitter figure where actually matters? Probably.
Another important step ahead is the new asynchronous usb that supports up to 384 Khz for PCM and 5.6 MHz for DSD, compared to 192 khz and 2.8 MHz in the old Silver Dragon.
The Black Dragon also has a bigger display, easier firmware update via the USB port and a 2 ohms output impedance on the 6.3 headphone jack, compared to 10 ohms on Silver Dragon.
I also love the fact that it is very generous with the inputs and that it has balanced outputs:
1) USB receptacle, typeB, high-speed
2) S/PDIF coaxial, 75 ohms
3) AES/EBU, 110 ohms
5) I2S/DSD over HDMI (LVDS)
1) Single Ended, 10Vpp max.
2) Balanced, 20Vpp max.
3) Headphone jack 6.3 mm, 2 ohm impedance
I’ve also looked inside the unit and I was impressed by the simplicity and the neat order I found there:
The remote control included in the package is very helpful and it also has a very sturdy build quality:
Seeing the i2s input from Black Dragon, I couldn’t resist testing it with Audiobyte Hydra-X, as Hydra gives it’s best on I2S. The results were quite pleasant as it added some energy on the lower frequencies, giving another flavor to the sound. However, the usb input from Black Dragon was overall better, offering better transparency, instrument separation, soundstage, etc.
The usb input and clocking from Wavedream was felt quite easily, offering the improvements above. It’s very impressive that Audiobyte managed to add this part from their top product and at this price.
I’ve tested the unit just as DAC pairing it with Decware Taboo MK3 and Burson Conductor. While doing this i’ve been very impressed by the amplifier section of Black Dragon as well. I’ve always expected Black Dragon to be a very good DAC, but I never expected the amplifier to be this good.
The details are just amazing and come at you from every direction. I’ve lost myself between the wonderful instruments that tickled my ears, as everything was extremely clear and transparent like a clear mountain river. I felt like this song was not just music, but a full blown show where every sound started to dance and to fly from one layer to the other with acrobat skills and full of joy and energy.
So yes, Black Dragon is one of those products that makes me loose myself in the music, forget all about my surroundings. I’ve told my friends a bunch of times that I like the sound better in a good system than going the the actual classical concert. Don’t get me wrong, I would still go, as I love the feeling and watching the artists. However, the sound experience could sometimes be better in a good sound system. This is the case with Black Dragon as well. The timing and precision of the sound was impeccable. The soundstage was very big and airy with a lot of space between the instruments and it was presented in a holographic / 3d manner. The crystal clear transparency offered a clean window to some sounds that aren’t that easy to hear on other systems, as between the sounds from the instruments I’ve also heard the artists inhale to play the flute, fingers touching the instruments, change of pages, etc.
This song was hypnotizing even with HD800. Yes, the Black Dragon is an excellent match for it and in this case injected them with an energy shot. Everything was impressing, especially the heavy guitars which had an incredible extension, detail and impact. The first time the chorus enters in the song could be quite subtle, but the voices were very well extended with Black Dragon, giving them a lot more presence into the scene. The timing and precision is again mesmerizing, as every instruments hits with surgical precision. This song has an abundance of different sounds and instruments popping from nowhere and every one of them was incredible with Black Dragon.
Ok, I had to wait a little to regroup, as I’ve been ambushed by Black Dragons. The guitars are just amazing with incredible attack and decay, leading to very energetic and strong plucks that just tickle your ears. The voice was the second part that left me speechless, as it’s extension and transparency are exemplary.
The guitars from the beginning that come from both channels have a crisp pluck and seem to come from a perfectly black background. Hugh’s voice is very well textured, extended and very clean. The drums have a good and clean impact.
Again, the soundstage was presented in a very grand and holographic way. The extension of the guitar is excellently detailed. The tonality of the sound is quite natural and makes you feel in the room with the artists, surrounded by guitars.
I’ve recently been to Westminster Abbey and I just loved the chorus there and how it sounded in the Abbey. I’ve bought this CD from the gift shop and I was really impressed by the quality of the recordings. With Mr. Black the chorus and the greatness of the abbey was caught very well.
The voices were very clean and well distinguished from each other showing excellent layering.
The cello from the beginning has a very good presence and feel as it’s very well textured and very detailed, even if it’s subtle in a layer from the back. The hands and their rhythm is very well felt throughout the song with a good and energetic pace. The voice is clean and natural. When the drums hit in a distant layer, they have a strong and dynamic impact.
The transparency and fluency of the sound is hypnotizing. The sound flows continuously and effortless, leading to a very natural sound that made me feel the guitar in my body giving me shivers. I could listen for hours and still not get enough.
Andre Rieu – Air ( J.S. Bach)
Mr. Black has some qualities that makes you feel in the concert hall. The contrabass has an amazing body and texture that makes you feel the depth of the room and even though I listened through headphones, I felt it in my body. The violins had a very holographic feel themselves and an echo that enlighten the room revealing it’s size.
The bass is very clean and has a very good punch. While with a stronger amp you can get better depth and control, the bass is very enjoyable on it’s own on Black Dragon.
The mids are excellent with great instrument extension and vocal performance, as the voices are very clean, well textured and natural.
I like the treble very much on the Black Dragon, as it has very good detail and extension. It’s also very sparkly, but manages not to be bright, not even with HD800.
The sound is incredibly clean, showing crystal clear transparency that leads to a very enjoyable musical experience. I sometimes got lost into the song, closed my eyes and saw myself in the concert hall, near the cellos, the trumpets, the violins, the drums, etc
Instrument separation, soundstage, layering and imaging
The femtovox clocking system gives very accurate timing and precision to the sounds, leading to excellent imaging and instrument separation. The soundstage is presented in a holographic way.
This is another very strong point of the Black Dragon. The instruments have a very full and detailed sound, and between the sounds from the instruments you can hear other sounds like when the artist changes the page, puts his lips on the flute, inhales, exhales, moving in the chair, etc.
I found that every instrument had a very lively impact no matter how deep in the scene.
The transients are very natural and fast, with very good impact and fast decay. Every pluck has a very energetic explosion with fast and natural decay.
Ladies and gentleman, I present to you my new favorite full sized dac / headphone amp combo at the moment. It has an excellent DAC, a very good and clean amplifier and a lot of nice features like a lot of inputs, a remote control, balanced DAC, pre-amplifier, digital display, very good looks, etc.
I found the DAC to be excellent and the fact that is comes with a very good clocking system (femto clock) and usb input that is taken from the top product from the mother company (Rockna) was easily felt in the quality of the sound. This is one of those products that when you start testing it, your wallet wants to quietly leave the room without notice. It knows that by the end of the testing that it may end up with a big whole inside.
It’s one of those products that makes you think of a financial plan on how to get it.
The good news is that the Black Dragon is quite cheap for what it offers. I think it would be very hard to find a good dac / headphone amp combo to beat it at 1500 eur.
While at first I didn’t have very big expectations for the amplifier section of Black Dragon, thinking it would be under Burson Conductor, it really managed to impress me. Actually I ended up liking HD800 more with Mr. Black , as the sound was more transparent and cleaner, even though Conductor is more powerful and has deeper and more controlled bass.
The Black Dragon also managed to drive LCD-X very good as well. Conductor had more control over LCD-X, offering a little more relaxed sound, more decompressed and with better bass depth, but there were still cases when I preferred the Dragon with LCD-X as the combination offered a cleaner sound overall.
I even enjoyed it with the power hungry LCD-3, as Mr. Black kept it’s clean and transparent quality, but in this case, Conductor’s superiority in power was easily felt as it presented better dynamics and energy, showing more ease in moving the membrane.
Letting the power aside, the transparency offered by the amplification section of Black Dragon is excellent and makes the product very appealing even from this angle.
DAC wise there is hardly a competition between Conductor and Black Dragon, as I thought it to be clearly superior in this department offering an excellent performance for this price and even more, as it enters in Chord Hugo category, a category that can stand their ground even near much more expensive products.
Considering all of the above, the Black Dragon earns my sincere recommendation, as overall it was the best dac/headphone amp/pre-amp combo I have ever heard until now. Besides that, it has an excellent DAC that can be used with pride in any high end system.
- Good design and looks
- Good build quality and finishes
- Excellent DAC section
- Very good and clean amplification
- A lot of inputs including AES and I2S
- Balanced Dac outputs
- Remote control
- Digital screen
- Excellent dynamics
- Excellent mids with great voices
- Natural tonality
- Excellent timing and accuracy
- Very good details
- Excellent transparency
- Great soundstage, imaging and layering
- Good price for what it offers
- Doesn’t have balanced headphone outputs
- Doesn’t have inputs to use just the amplifier
- Doesn’t have just DAC out that doesn’t use the pre-amplifier