Having recently returned to head gear after a few years of hiatus I had not heard of Questyle Audio or any of it’s products. I was shipped the desktop all-in-one Q192 DAC/Amp for me to listen to and review. This was to be that review. I had it a few weeks and was ready to give a fairly enthusiastic write-up for the $799 piece of gear… Then it happened…. I was shipped the Questlye full-sized CMA800i ($2,499) DAC with headphone amplifier and (yes there’s an ‘and’) the separate combination of the CAS192D ($1,999) DAC coupled with the stand alone CMA800R ($1,999) single ended/balanced; stereo/mono block Current Mode Headphone Amplifier.
That means I have four pieces and three different systems. I’ll list them again just below to try and clarify what I have been evaluating.
- Questyle Q192 desktop DAC/headphone amplifier
- Questyle CMA800I full-sized DAC/headphone amplifier
- Questyle CMA800R full-sized headphone amplifier
- Questyle CAS192D full-sized DAC
(If it helps, think of the “I” in the CMA800I as the Integrated amp)
That changed everything. Not only didn’t it make sense to write three separate reviews, it wasn’t going best serve the Headphone.guru readers to write a comparison of the two full-sized systems without including the desktop Q192. What I decided to do, and it’s something that hasn’t been done yet, was to combine the Questyle family of products I have here and not only compare the three, but tell you what you get when you climb from the desk version to the full-sized and ultimately the separate DAC and amplifier. Are there differences? Are there similarities? What do each bring to the table?
This review isn’t to declare a winner here. No, I think it’s obvious that as you climb up the line, you get tangible improvements. My job here for you is to show you what those results meant to me and try as well as I can to describe them to you. I’ll ultimately let you (the reader) decide on the value of those differences based on what I’ve heard and listened to from the three Questlye systems.
During my time listening to the Questyle family I used the following headphones:
- AKG Q701
- HiFiman HE560
- Shure SRH940
- Musical Fidelity MF100
- Beyerdynamic T 51p
I used the AKG Q701 and the HiFiman HE560 (single ended) primarily throughout because the two differ so much. The Q701 is a brighter and more detailed can; while the HE560 is the warmer and fuller headphone. I often listened to both headphones side-by-side listening to the same segments of music repeatedly to help understand what effect each of the DAC and amplifiers had on either headphone. On my technical listening I volume-matched (with white noise) to within approximately .5 db (at about 82db) using a Radio Shack sound pressure meter.
Knowing that I used the two contrasting headphones to help write this review, when I describe how each of the Questyle systems sounds, I will talk about them in an overall sense unless I specifically mention either the AKG or the HiFiman.
When casual listening I did not volume match and those sessions were to get the entire picture of whichever Questyle system I was using at the time.
The other headphones I used were the make sure they paired well with the amps and to see how the sensitivity of the others were to each amplifier.
The rest of the gear is as follows:
- Gateway laptop Win XP
- iTunes 12 lossless
- Nordost Blue Heaven IC
The Questyle Family
I’ve always preferred the sound of a good solid state amp over tubes or the newer fashionable hybrid tube/solid state amplifiers. In some audiophile circles it is said that once you go tubes you’ll never listen to solid state again. I suppose for those that say it, it’s true. For them.
I do not find that to be the case. I’ve owned and listened to many really good tube amplifiers through the years and can understand the sentiment behind those that wouldn’t listen to music without them. There certainly is a romanticism to it. I also believe that most of us audiophiles really want to reproduce the music we covet to be as close to the artist’s intent as possible. Why would we be in this hobby otherwise?
For me, though, it is the very well implementation of a solid state amplifier that that gets my blood flowing. The clarity, the details, the tonal neutrality is what I prefer over the warmth and sweetness of tubes. The Questyle family of products does solid state well.
One of the unique technologies Questyle uses with the amplifier sections I have been reviewing is to employ Current Mode Amplification over the more common practice of voltage modes. Since I am not an engineer, instead of me trying to explain what Current Mode Amplification is and what it does myself, I will directly quote Gary Baker from Questyle:
“Conventional amplification modulates the signal by increasing and decreasing voltage. The drawback of this is one of speed, a rather slow slew rate means the negative feedback loop cannot be accurately reproduced at high frequencies, causing TransientIntermodulation Distortion (TIMD). In Current Mode Amplification, we modulate current rather than voltage, which is about 100 times faster, eliminating TIMD much in the same way that oversampling eliminates digital noise, by pushing it out of the audible spectrum. Current Mode Amplification also gives our amplifiers extreme bandwidth in excess of 650KHz (which means a flatter response at any amplitude). Further, for maximum compatibility, we convert from Voltage mode to Current Mode at input and from Current Mode back to Voltage mode at output (all amplification and negative feedback occurs in Current Mode).”
Another significant difference between all three of these systems amongst each other are the power supplies they use and how they’re employed. While the Q192 uses a single military-quality sealed Bingzi power supply, the CMA 800I uses a larger customized Plitron Toroidal transformer. The 800R/192D each have their own separate Pliron power supplies. As I’ll elaborate below, having better and/or individual, well designed, power supplies add to the overall sound quality of a piece of gear. Particularly (in my opinion) to noise floor.
Other differences include using improved capacitors going up the ladder from the Q192. Plus there is better isolation separating the DAC and Amp sections into individual chassis with the CAM800R and CAS192D. Other important improvements over the Q192 are the CMA800I and the CMA800R run in Pure Class A mode.
The flagship CMA800R amp can be used single ended as I did in this review. It can also, however, be used as a fully balanced mono block requiring two CMA800R units. I will get another CMA800R to spend time with and will do a separate upcoming review.
The DAC sections of all three of the systems used in this review are from Wolfson. The Q192 employs the Wolfson WM8740 while the CMA800I and the CAS192 upgrade to Wolfson’s flagship WM8741 chip set. The entire line uses their own 3X Clock USB Asynchronous transmission structure. The Q192 is the “purest” of the three by offering no phase filters or upscaling . The CMA800I offers HR and FIR filters while the CAS192 adds upsampling to 192k. For the purposes of this review I disengaged all filters and upsampling. Although I’m not a big fan of that type of technology in DACs anyway, all the systems in the review are on an even playing field.
The CMA800I and the CAS192 utilize True DSD that is sent directly to the DAC section for conversion. Many other manufacturers use DoP (DSD over PCM). Questyle’s claim is that True DSD will fully express DSD features.
I am not the best at describing looks. I will say the Questyle look is sharp and attractive using a frosted design that’s a bit unique. Everything feels of high quality and is nice and solid. I like it and it should fit into most systems without a problem.
You will hear me repeat this with just about any piece of equipment I evaluate (particularly an amplifier)- I feel the predominate foundation of how gear sounds to me is how quiet it is. A high or low noise floor sets the stage for a good deal of an amp’s personality. A totally black backdrop seems to make the music flow a lot more effortlessly into space, micro details pop out and additional textures can be heard. A silent amp will also sound more powerful than it’s wattage number may suggest when compared another that has a higher noise floor. I am quite particular about having the lowest noise floor possible as this let’s the rest of an amp’s performance shine through. I don’t believe I can overstate how important noise floor is to me. When we (The Headphone.guru crew) attended the recent event in Long Island, noise floor was high on the list of topics discussed when describing all of the equipment everyone had the good fortune of listening to.
The desktop Q192 does a more than fair job of being quiet. Especially given it’s relatively modest price point. If you were to have this as your only amp/DAC for mid-priced quality headphones like the Q701, listening to lossless files and have well recorded music going through it, it would sound pretty darn good. There is only a slight notion of a noise floor that doesn’t really grab much attention unless you concentrate on it. Especially when you’re not comparing it to the other Questyle pieces. This isn’t really much of an issue when music is playing, however, it wasn’t totally quiet.
The CMA800I integrated DAC/Amp and the separates of the CAS192D DAC with the CMA800R Amp mostly differ because of the individual chassis and power supplies compared to the shared power supply of the CMA800I. Does that make a difference between each other?
Before I answer that, the CMA800I integrated is quieter than the Q192 desktop unit. By a not-so-subtle perceptible margin,i n audiophile terms that is. I’d love to say that Questyle’s separates are as dramatically quiet when stepping up from the CMA800I, but, that’s just not realistic. That said, the separates are the quietest combination of the bunch. That means the blacker backdrop will showcase what Questyle has to offer the best.
The way I feel about the dynamics of any amp is how far apart (or how far apart I perceive) the loudest and quietest passages of music sound from each other. Particularly on a well recorded piece of music that doesn’t have any artificial compression caused during production. This is an area that I am careful to match volume levels so I can write as objectively as possible on something that can seem subjective.
I usually use Pink Floyd’s song Shine On You Crazy Diamond to start with. The song begins with that soft chord and the barely perceptible glass tinkles, slowly builds with Wright’s organ, Gilmour’s guitar starts picking and the tension builds past the four note cry to Syd and, at 4:30, Mason comes crashing in. Albeit the serene pace isn’t energetic, it’s a nuanced section of that song that has a dynamic build up. Although I don’t have published dynamic range numbers, while listening to the song with each of the three setups, I did notice that the Q192, despite the fact it performed quite well, wasn’t quite as dynamic as the other two. Of the three, the separate components performed better than the CMA800I alone. Particularly with the planar HE560, which I believe scales up better than the Q701 headphone does. After a certain point the AKG plateaus in performance.
Headphone.guru’s own Frank Iacone uses Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to put a good amount of gear through it’s paces. Years back Frank told me this and I have been using it ever since. Pick your favorite rendition and you know the dynamics swings are fast and dramatic. Neither of the Questyle family let the music or either of the headphones get bogged down.
Soundstage and Imaging
It’s been my view that staging and imaging are mostly dependent upon the headphones the user is listening to. For example, a pair of your favorite Grados aren’t going to magically transform into a pair of Senn HD800s with it’s tremendous soundstage using some uber amp. It just doesn’t work that way. What a good amplifier can and should do is maximize the potential of the headphones that are plugged into it without over exaggerating them. That’s not to say that all amplifiers are the same. They’re not.
When listening to “On the Run” off of Pink Floyd’s DSotM, you can get a grasp of how wide the staging of your headphones perform. The steps that pan from side to side give an excellent portrayal of your headphone’s depth. Or lack there of.
What the Questyle family of amps do do (say that three times fast) is let the music and the headphones speak for themselfves without much (if any) interference. Although the Questyle amps scale up nicely as one moves up the line, in this instance, all perform almost as equally well and do stay out of the way. That’s a good thing.
Imaging, as with staging, seems to also be quite headphone dependent. My dynamic reference for imaging has always been the Senn HD800. With the two main headphones I used in this review, they both image quite well. I give the nod to the Q701 by a slight margin.
If you listen to Dire Straits’ song “Ride Across the River” on the Brothers in Arms album, you can hear the crickets surrounding you as if you were sitting on the river banks yourself. It’s one of my favorite imaging songs and some equipment does a better job of casting that feeling. I’d like to say that the Q192 desktop does a much poorer job than it’s senior family members, yet I just can’t. All three systems do quite an admirable at placing the instruments into their proper perspectives.
Attack, Decay and Transients
Like I mentioned earlier, I’m a solid state guy at heart. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the sound of a very well done tube amp. However, when it comes down to a choice, and I could only live with one amp, give me a solid state amp. I like a defined leading edge of notes that don’t sound synthetic or isolating those individual notes from the rest of a song. Tubes tend to soften the blow. Sometimes they even can blunt it.
The decay the notes have and transitions between notes are also something I pay attention to. This can mean the difference between a fast-paced amp and one that seems sluggish, bloated or congested. The trick to a good solid state amp is to be able to define the leading edge of a note, have a proper amount of note decay and have the notes transition from each other without leaving a mechanical or too much of a digital sound. Pure Class A amps like the CMA800I and the CMA800R add a touch of warmth to combat that cheap Class D sound you might get from the box store. The two amps excel at giving the notes their proper space without sounding detached from the rest of the songs. If you listen to Bob Marley’s “One Love/People Get Up” off Legend you can really hear what a good amp sounds like. Particularly the percussion section.
You might think the Q192 didn’t fare well? Yet, it did do a nice job given it’s A/B output. Although, again, Questyle’s full sized are an upgrade to the desktop model.
When I mention that a low noise floor is paramount to an amp, extracting the details out of a song are one of the things that noise floor effects. I’m a bit of a details freak. If there were two flies on the wall discussing lunch in the studio while recording, I want to be able to hear it. Tube amps eschew being able to pull micro detail for what some may consider added musicality. High quality solid state amps are able to act as a magnifying glass and let the listener hear it all.
This is something all of the Questyle amps perform admirably at. Although somewhat dependent on the headphone, the CMA800R/CAS192 pairing let me hear all of what I expected and wanted from any of the music I played. I’d like to tell everyone I rediscovered my entire music library, but, that’s not reality. I’ve had the good fortune to listen to some of the best equipment available. What I will say is the top full sized systems of Questyle are in the higher echelon of units I’ve experienced. That’s an endorsement.
Pink Floyd’s song “Wish You Were Here” has a part that Gilmour coughs during the intro. That part is easily apparent. Just after the cough David Gilmour swallows. That’s the thing I use, in part, to gauge detail retrieval.
The Q192 does a decent enough job, but, the other two do a better job. I can hear details easier with the top system than with the others.
Clarity and Transparency
Let’s put an audiophile myth to bed. The expression about an amp (preamp, microphone or DAC) being a wire with gain doesn’t exist. It’s a ghost we all chase towards the perfect rig. The truth is, if there was this mythical unicorn of an amplifier than someone would have figured it out and all that followed would sound exactly the same.
The reality of audiophile equipment is they all sound different from each other. A sound signature if you will. It’s the manufacturing company’s interpretation of that sound that they build and limited by the science and technology each uses to build the equipment.
Where one amp can compare to another is how close the clarity and transparency can get to what the artist had in mind and what’s actually recorded on the LP. Is the tonality of what you’re hearing close to what it should be? Is there a clear window into the music?
When I listen to music with the Questyle amplifiers, I don’t get the feeling they (the amps) are trying to romance me like you might hear from a tube amp. I also don’t hear a strident amp that over emphasizes one end of the spectrum. Distortion doesn’t seem to enter the picture to my ears. Plus, with the two full sized systems, it plays the planar HE560 effortlessly. Yes, the Q192 does seem to stretch out more to fully drive the HifiMan, but it does a solid job.
None of the Questyles ever sounded congested or clouded. They all do their best to play the music with as little interference as possible. Not easily done.
One of the biggest sins that can come from solid state is the accentuated or piercing treble. Being able to have extended higher frequencies without that strident sound is not a simple task. This is where the Q192, 800I and the Amp/DAC separates seem to excel at. It’s a double edged sword though. Because the Questyle family performs well, it rewards well recorded tracks and punishes poorly recorded tracks. So is the burden of good equipment.
When I play Boston’s into to “Foreplay/Longtime” off their eponymous album, I get to test out how the Questyles do. They all did quite well indeed. While you’re at it, play Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” and listen to that amazing solo. With these amps, you’ll have a smile on your face.
It’s commonly known that the midrange is where the vast majority of the music lives. This can be tricky for audiophile manufacturers. Trying to keep the midrange balanced with the rest of the music isn’t as simple as it would seem. Far too many are “U” shaped, sloped or bloated. Let’s us not forget congestion.
The Questyles group has done an admirable job at staying neutral. It’s difficult to pick certain songs to describe the midrange. Just know that if you are listening to the music with any of these pieces, you’re getting middle frequencies that well match what the treble and bass. It does so with the clarity you’d expect from a good solid state amp with the added touch of warmth that Pure Class A will give you on the top two amps. The Q192 is just as clear and balanced without with a touch less of that warmth.
Although many thing that Jazz might be best suited with a tube amp, I say throw on Miles Davis'”Birth of Cool”, kick back and enjoy the album with your favorite headphones using one of the Questyle amps and you’ll appreciate how well the midrange from a solid state setup can be.
Bass, as with most parts of the frequency range, is mostly dependent upon the headphones being used. That said, I do find that a tube amp can add a little bloom. This isn’t usually the case with good solid state.
If you play the “One of These Days” intro off Pink Floyd’s Meddle you’ll hear a dueling bassline. One bass guitar in each channel. While some lesser equipment may obscure the contrasting differences between the left and right track, the Questyle clan allows the listener to clearly distinguish the two.
I like to use the Beatles “Come Together” as an impact test for bass. I find the Questyles to have a balanced approach that doesn’t over emphasize the bass nor thin it out.
“Rev. 22:20 (Dry Martini Mix)” from Puscifer’s “V” is for Vagina album has some nice bass to test out these amps showing how well controlled and how well extended it can drop. The Class A amps from the CMA800I and 800R seem to extend as low as I can detect.
If I’m going to pick a nit, the Q192 desktop isn’t quite as well defined as the two senior counterparts, but the differences are slight. As a family, I like how well the bass with each individual headphone used seems to handle the entire bass from the mid-bass to all the way down low. I am NOT a bass-head, so if you like more bass than the rest of the music, look for something else. That said, if you do prefer quality over quantity I think this is the route to take as the Questyle lets the listener hear the nuances and textures that can easily be obscured in bottom-heavy equipment.
Interestingly this is where I saw some of the biggest differences between the Q192 and the other two. The first song I usually play to help evaluate something is Nirvana’s song off In Utero, “Rape Me”. It immediately tells me if Cobain’s angst-filled voice is where it should be.
When I first heard the Q192 I was a bit disappointed. Oh, sure, his voice sounded great and all the nuance was there but it was just more recessed than it should have been. That song is supposed to have intimacy and sound like Cobain is speaking directly into your ear. The Q192 had Kurt further back into the mix than I would have wanted. Know that I am overly analytical, yet, it is my responsibility to tell you what I hear. Of course the distance is only slight, however, it’s still there to my ears.
My fears that the other members of the Questyle family would have this trait were unfounded when I first listened to the CMA800I. I specifically picked the Nirvana song to make sure. The song immediately fell back into pace and all was good in the world again. The flagship does just as well and songs like Janis Joplin’s heart-felt song “A Woman Left Lonely” sounded seductive.
Putting It All Together
You might want to listen to Tool’s “Third Eye” from Aenima and that will put together everything a piece of equipment has going for it. Does it have PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing)? How does the music flow? Are you tapping your feet?
When you combine everything I’ve said above and just listen to music you get to see how well all the Questyle amps and DACs play your favorite albums or songs. Besides me being (possibly) overly critical of the Q192 with vocals, everything else seemed to do it’s best to stay out of the way of the music. While using the CMA800R/192 separates and listening to “The Wall” album as I type this it reminds me of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. No bloat, no fat, nothing sucked out, nothing lean. Just “The Wall”. No hyperbole needed.
The Questyle family of headphone gear is excellent equipment. When you move up the line you do indeed get palpable improvements. Especially when moving up from the Q192 desktop amp/DAC. That said, the Q192 is well worth $799. Know that if you want to spend under $1,000 and are a lover of solid states amps as I am, you could live with the Q192 and not feel you had to compromise.
The CMA800I integrated full sized amp/DAC is a worthy upgrade to the desktop. It does everything better and more importantly it is also quieter than the Q192. The separates of the CMA800R amp and the CAS192 DAC is the most superior of the trio. You might interpret that jumping to the separates from the integrated wasn’t as dramatic as the jump from the Q192, it wasn’t. If you remember the 800R is not only a single-ended stereo amp, it’s also a fully balanced mono block and that is where I suspect the next level of performance will show off the full potential of the CMA/CAS talents. When I get the other mono block and use them in fully balanced mode I’ll let everyone know the differences. I’m quite optimistic and looking forward to it arriving.
Until then just know if you’re going to audition headgear and want excellent solid state performance, the Questyle line could be exactly what your looking for. Just don’t be surprised if you want one.
|Digital Input||USB, Coaxial, PCM 44.1K-192K/16-24bit|
|Digital Output||Standard Coaxial|
|USB input required OS||Win XP,Vista,Win7,Win8 and Mac|
|USB Input required player||No special requirement|
|USB Kernel stream mode||WASAPI，ASIO，KS|
|Analogue Output||Unbalance output|
|Headphone Output||Standard 6.5mm Jacks|
|Headphone output Max amplitude||11V(P-P),4Vrms|
|Headphone Output Max power||60mW@300 ohm;100mW@32 ohm|
|Headphone Output THD+N||<0.005%|
|Headphone output SNR||110dB|
|Analogue Output Max amplitude||2Vrms|
|Analogue Output Frequency||DC-77.5 kHz（192K sampling, +0,-3dB）|
|Analogue Output THD+N||< 0.005%|
|Analogue Output SNR||112dB|
|Headphone Amp section (External Format)|
|Max Output Power（Po）||180mW（7.5Vrms）@300Ω；1W@32Ω|
|Frequency||DC-200kHz(+0，-0.5 dB)；DC-850kHz(+0，-3 dB)|
|Input||Internal DAC output, or External RCA input,switchable|
|Output||Dual 6.35mm Standard Stereo Jacks|
|DAC and Pre-Amp section|
|Input||SPDIF input and output, USB Type B input|
|Signal||SPDIF input and output: Standard PCM 44.1-192K/16-24bit|
|USB: PCM 44.1-192K/16-24bit and DSD Source Code following standard SACD format|
|PC OS to match USB input||Win XP,Vista,Win7,Win8 and MAC OS|
|Digital Filter||PCM Mode:Switchable IIR(MP) and FIR (LP)|
|Ture DSD Mode: No filter|
|USB supported Kernal stream||WASAPI，ASIO，KS|
|Analog Output||Balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA)|
|Max output amplitude XLR||8.6Vrms；RCA：4.3Vrms|
|THD+N||< 0.005% for both XLR and RCA|
|SNR||>107dB for both XLR and RCA|
|Voltage||100-120V or 220-230V switchable|
|Digital Input USB Input||Optical,Coaxial,, PCM 44.1K-192K/16-24bit signal PCM 44.1K-192K/16-24bit and True DSD Source Code|
|Digital Filters in PCM mode Digital Filters in DSD mode||5 groups of switchable IIR (MP) and FIR (LP) digital filters No|
|PCM mode up sampling||Dual clock integral up sampling; optional for open or shut|
|Supportive OS @ USB Input||Win XP,Vista,Win7,Win8 and MAC OS|
|Music Player @ USB Input||Any player|
|Kernel Stream Mode Supported by USB Data||WASAPI，ASIO，KS|
|Output Interface||RCA , XLR|
|Output Amplitude||RCA :2.44Vrms,XLR :4.88Vrms|
|Frequency Response||DC-77.5 kHz（192K sample rate, +0,-3dB）|
|SNR||RCA:115 dB,XLR:116 dB|
|Max External Dimension||330*300*55MM|
|Max Output Power||180mW (7.5Vrms) @300Ω, standard Stereo Mode|
|710mW (15Vrms) @300Ω, Mono Mode|
|SNR||114 dB, standard Stereo Mode|
|118 dB, Mono Mode|
|THD+N||0.00038%@1kHz, 300Ω standard Stereo Mode|
|0.00026%@1kHz, 300Ω Mono Mode|
|Frequency Response||DC-200kHz (+0, -0.3 dB); DC-650kHz(+0, -3 dB)|
|Input||XLR stereo, RCA Stereo, and XLR Mono Full Balance input|
|Output||Dual 6.35mm Stereo headphone Jacks, A XLR Mono Full Balance output, A pair RCA Pre-amp output|
|Work Status||Pure Class A|
|Voltage||100-120Vor 220-230V, Internal switchable|
In an upcoming review I will test the Questyle CMA800R in it’s dual mono block and balanced mode with the CAS192D DAC. I did not include or test the amp in it’s mono block configuration because it may have skewed the results and wouldn’t have been an even playing field. Stay tuned…