There is an old Mark Twain quote that always delighted me. It goes something like this: “Truth is the most valuable thing we have. So let us economize it.” With just a few words, Twain calls up a host of meanings. But as I understand it, he is saying that truth is powerful, so it must be used judiciously. I, like other audiophiles, find myself on a quest for truth in sound reproduction. But, I’m a bit like Mark Twain in that I have always thought it better to settle for that “just right” amount of truth in sound. Make it real? Sure. As long as you make it lovely.
Having spent about a month with the very handsome Questyle CAS192D high resolution DAC and CMA800R Current Mode Headphone Amp, it appears to me that Questyle have arrived at an admirably truthful reproduction of sound, one that makes a strong argument for sound that is neither obfuscated nor colored, but – get this – still very much enjoyable!
“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to the truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”
Questyle is a relatively young Chinese company; the DAC and amp on review are their first products. Reading their literature, it is clear that they want to be a leader in their field – to produce high performance audio products that are simple to use, look great, but don’t break the bank. Their MO is simple: cram as much technology as possible into the product, produce it in the most cost-effective manner, then test and tweak it until it satisfies all the goals set forth.
If that sounds a little familiar to you, that is understandable. If you’ve heard of competing brands such as Bakoon, Auralic, Audio-gd, and the like, then you’d be forgiven for dismissing Questyle as “also-rans” like I did. Learning of their interest in current-mode amplification only draws further comparison.
I thought I had my expectations properly calibrated before the Questyle boxes arrived on my doorstep a month ago. What I expected was an economy of form. What I got instead was something much more beautiful to behold. If I was expecting Audio-gd or commensurate build quality, what I got instead was something more akin to my Ayre gear than anything else – gorgeous milled aluminum casework with the kind of buttery smooth finish that must be felt to be fully appreciated. Pictures really don’t do the Questyle gear justice.
The units form a handsome stack that is compact yet hefty. The units’ size means you can easily find a spot for them on your desktop. And their heft speaks to the thickness of the aluminum casework, as well as the myriad components shoehorned within (I’ve always been a fan of heft). Plugging and unplugging headphones, the Questyle stack always stays perfectly in place. No need to place a hand on top of the case while plugging in your favorite cans – something not many headphone amps manage to get right.
The front panels are simple and well laid-out, with lovely touch points, de rigueur blue LED indicators, and a nicely proportioned volume knob that provides just the right amount of resistance. The CMA800R is equipped with not one but two single-ended headphone jacks. However, as readers may already see, there is also a single 3-pin XLR output. This balanced output is intended for use when the CMA800R is paired with another identical unit in dual-mono balanced configuration. As Questyle did not send me two units, I did not try the amplifier(s) in this mode. So I can’t comment about any improvement to the sound. Going dual-mono not only requires that additional CMA800R unit, but, for many, would also require a special adapter, allowing 4-pin balanced headphones to plug into the those dual 3-pin jacks.
If the Questyle stack was a cinch to find a spot for, it was just as easy to set up and begin listening to music. The CAS192D DAC has several digital inputs, but I decided to spend most of the review period using the DAC with my Windows PC.
The CAS192D DAC employs the Wolfson WM8741 chip, one that I have spent a considerable amount of time with, as it is used in gear ranging from Meier Audio to Audio-gd. The 8741 allows for user selection of the digital filter – apodizing, soft knee, and brick wall. I listened to each of the settings, but didn’t find much audible difference to speak of. Through its USB input, the DAC plays back PCM up to 24-bit depth and 192kHz sampling rate. This accounts for the “192” in the DAC’s moniker. The “D”, however, references a recent revision to the original CAS192 unit, allowing DSD playback. But I’ll get more into that later.
Since the units offer balanced connection from DAC to amp, I paired them up using 0.5 meter Wireworld Gold Eclipse 6 XLR interconnects. I plugged the units into my Shunyata Research power conditioner using Wireworld power cables, and connected the DAC to my PC using a Silnote Poseidon silver USB cable.
Reading through the literature, there was only one hitch in the setup process that required any thought, and that was preparing for the DSD playback mentioned earlier. If you have a lot of DSD files, and you believe DSD to be the future of digital audio, then perhaps it is worth reading up on Questyle’s unique method for playing back “true DSD” (as opposed to DSD over PCM, which Questyle asserts is used by all other DACs and is an inferior protocol). If, like me, you have dabbled and downloaded a few DSD albums, but don’t see what all the fuss is about, then suffice it to say that Questyle’s version of DSD playback requires being connected to a Windows PC running JRiver Media Center (JRMC). Already a JRMC devotee, all I had to do was navigate through a few drop-down menus and change a few minor settings. Simple enough, and nothing insurmountable for this Luddite. However, I can see that Questyle’s unique playback of DSD may find some users, particularly those with a Mac, at an impasse.
In my time with the DAC/amp combo, I listened to mostly 16/44.1 CD resolution audio, but also a fair share of 24-bit high resolution audio from HDTracks, of both the 96kHz and 192kHz varieties, as well as the odd DSD album here and there.
As with most solid state gear I’ve heard, the portrayal of music through the Questyle gear is honest, clean, and fast. There is a slight emphasis on bass speed and texture. More vroom than boom, if you will. Likewise, there is a bit of emphasis on transients, with quicker-than-average decay length. Quick decay usually yields nicely separated sounds and an unforced clarity, and you get that in spades with the Questyle. This emphasis on speed makes percussion pop nicely – drum solos sound fabulous. I also find that the ear is drawn to the beginning of each note. Other rigs with a longer decay might draw the ear further into the note, and prove more alluring with piano music, for example. But Questyle has gone for a directness and transparency to the sound here.
Layering and imaging are impressive, especially for solid state. Sounds may not emanate from depths as great as with some tube gear, but the Questyle gear produces a coherent soundstage where instruments are clearly delineated from one another.
Another attribute that comes to the fore when listening is an impressively black background – the DAC and headphone amp both have as low a noise floor as I have heard from any gear under $2,000. The CAS192D DAC boasts a THD+N of 0.005% and a dynamic range of 116dB. The CMA800R amp achieves a THD+N of 0.00038% at 1kHz, 300 ohm. Each piece of Questyle gear comes with a single page Test Report, showing that the gear met or exceeded these standards before being shipped out. This is a nice touch and one you don’t get with many products.
Given those impressive specs, one might expect detail retrieval to be somewhere between excellent and more excellent. Excavation of detail is, in my estimation, the hallmark of the CAS192D and CMA800R. It’s as if the Questyle reaches deep into the music and finds heretofore undiscovered details, pulling them a bit closer in the sonic picture.
With the right music – say, a small jazz ensemble recording – these uncovered details add much to the sonic portrait, bringing the listener into the studio with the musicians. They are the brush strokes that let you know you are looking at a real painting, and not a reproduction.
The injection of so much detail can, with other music, be a more a mixed blessing. Sometimes my ear was drawn to something – the tiniest accent or element – which I felt should be more subdued in the mix. For example, listening to Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” I found my ear drawn to the sound of his muted guitar strumming, and noticed that through the Questyle it was given almost as much import as McCartney’s vocal.
But most of the time, the presentation was spot on. Listening to Sam Cook at the Copa, it was very easy to distinguish the horn players from one another, to hear the two guitarists softly strumming, and out front, Sam’s vocal, presented just as it should be – articulate, with focus, and with correct timber and tonality. The top end was clean, and correct, without the faintest trace of extra sizzle or splashiness. I’ve heard longer cymbal decay, sure, but the Questyle presented an impeccably grain-less sound.
During my time with the Questyle, I got to hear the gear with many headphones – Audeze, HifiMan, Shure, Ultrasone, and many others. With its 180mW output into 300 ohms, it’s not going to win the headphone amplifier wattage wars, but I found it drove all my cans with aplomb, with its 16dB gain providing just enough play on the volume knob for more sensitive headphones like the Fostex TH900. Not once did the volume knob pass 11 o’clock, even with the HE-500’s more difficult load. Hearing the DAC/amp combo with so many cans also gave me a very clear understanding of its signature, and, ultimately, sparked my single criticism of the gear.
Given that the Questyle gear delivers a light and fast presentation, it proves a more pleasing partner with headphones that have ample body and weight to their sound. To my ears, the Audeze LCD-3 and LCD-XC prove an ideal match, with the HifiMan HE-500 a close third. Yes, there is something to be said for the fact that I kept reaching for my LCD-3s. This headphone showed itself as not only the equal to the Questyle gear in terms of resolving power, but its richer, meatier signature proved the perfect complement to the Questyle’s more honest and concise approach.
I did a lot of listening with the LCD-3, and it sounded as good as I’ve ever heard it. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on another way to enjoy music through the Questyle combo. The amplifier is equipped with single-ended preamplifier outputs, for sending a signal to a power amplifier or self-powered speakers. During the review period, I kept my Adam ARTist 5 speakers connected, and occasionally listened to music in this near-field arrangement when it struck my fancy. And the CMA800R proved a champ as a preamp, delivering its trademark detail through the desktop speakers. The Adams not only sounded as good as I’d ever heard them, they and the Questyle were beginning to belie their modest price, delivering big boy sound for a reasonable outlay – one of the advantages of near-field listening, for sure.
Yes, the Adams sounded lovely with the Questyle gear. But I will still register a few niggling criticisms about the preamplifier function. First, there is no switch or other means for defeating the preamp outputs. So, you have to switch off your speakers (or power amp) while listening to headphones. Second, the outputs are single-ended. I’m not sure why balanced outputs aren’t provided, but it could be something as simple as running out of room on the rather compact chassis.
During my time with the Questyle combo I had to constantly remind myself of the fact that these were the first products ever produced by the company, not to mention their $1500 price tag. In my personal audio journey, I’ve been able to hear a decent amount of gear, and can think of plenty of more expensive kit that lacked the build quality, features, and chops of the Questyle. We are at a glorious moment in personal audio, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to hear what superb gear can be delivered in this price range.
I would conclude that, if you have Audeze headphones, or cans of a similar ilk (think HD650), and want a really solid rig that doesn’t break the bank, I’d heartily recommend the Questyle CAS192D and CMA800R. They are honest-to-goodness solid gear, regardless of price.
If you favor the more matter-of-fact approach that solid state gear offers up, then all the better, because the Questyle stack will reward you with a level of detail and resolving power that is hard to achieve elsewhere for less than $3,000. If you favor a more seductive, romantic sound, then maybe the Questyle gear is not for you. Personally, I’m a Mark Twain guy. Make it real? Sure. As long as you make it lovely. I found that the Questyle combo speaks the truth – as close to the whole truth as I’ve heard at this price point. They leave it to the headphone to add the proper amount of seasoning. I found that adding an LCD-3, for instance, brought just the right amount of lovely for my taste.
Brent is a lifelong music lover and collector, and a two-channel stereo guy who fell in love with headphones sometime around 2009. Brent resides in Birmingham, Alabama, with his lovely wife and embarrassingly large collection of headphones and electronics. His contributions at Head-fi.org can be found under the user name "TheWuss".