Questyle CMA Fifteen: I loved the CMA 12Master…is this better?
Pros: Questyle build
Near sound perfection
Cons: Switches are still hard to use
“Gain” switches on the bottom
Questyle CMA Fifteen ($2799): I loved the CMA 12Master…is this better?
Intro: When I reviewed the CMA 12Master, I was floored. I was floored that this slim, unobtrusive critter could sound so darn good. Then I remembered (makes a good story…) that this was why I purchased the QP2R some years before. And why to this day, I still rate the QPM as the best pure DAP I have heard. My QP2R does not see much use, but I refuse to sell it, simply because the occasion comes around when it is called upon. Called upon to realign my senses as to the lack of need for bells and whistles allows one to focus on the sound. Purely. I stated as much in my QPM review as well. Does one truly need a touchscreen for their DAP? Honestly, no if it is meant for sound. No, neither can stream but I do not care. They are for pure sound, and the CMA series is as well. It does have the bells and whistles, and I shall do my best to subscribe all. That said, I may focus more on the sound alone in various platforms, for the intricacies have been described in detail by others more versed than I. Needless to say, the Fifteen is another stella product from Questyle. Period.
AC Input: 100-120V / 220-230V (switchable)
Power Consuming: <30W
Size: 330*200*55mm (Jacks are not included.)
USB x 2 (Including a high-priority USB Type-C interface and a USB Type-B interface.)
DSD: Native DSD 512; DOP DSD 256
MQA: Full / Core decoder
USB input supports UAC 2.0. It supports Win XP, Vista, Win7, Win8, Win10, Linux, MAC OS and other operating systems. It also can be connected to smartphones supporting OTG audio output.
Note: Windows system under Win10 will need to install the ASIO driver developed by Questyle. Win10 system supports DOP DSD 256 without installing the driver and supports Native DSD 512 with the driver installed.
Optical Input x 1: PCM: 44.1kHz~192kHz/24bit
Coaxial Input x 1: PCM: 44.1kHz~192kHz/24bit
Bluetooth Input x 1: SBC, AAC, LDAC (At the highest level of 96kHz/24bit, 990kps/909kps)
Analog Input: RCA x 1, 2Vrms standard level
Headphone Amplifier Output Interface:
6.35mm standard headphone jack x1
4-PIN balanced headphone jack x1
4.4mm balanced headphone jack x1
Note: You can set High/Standard bias through the BIAS switch on the front panel of the headphone amplifier and set Standard/Low gain through the four Gain switches on the bottom of the headphone amplifier.
Pre-Amp Output Interface:
XLR x 1
RCA x 1
Note: The output level can be set by Standard/Studio switch and volume can be controlled by ADJ/FIX switch on the rear panel.
Pre-Amp Output Specs:
Max Analog Output Amplitude:
RCA: 2V (Standard), Studio mode output up to14dBu
XLR: 4V (Standard), Studio mode output up to 20dBu
Frequency Response: ±0.2dB (DC-22kHz @48kHz/24bit)
Headphone Amplifier Output Specs:
Max Output Power：6.35mm: 188mW @ 300Ω 1.5W @ 32Ω
4.4mm balanced / XLR 4-PIN balanced: 765mW @ 300Ω 2W @ 32Ω
THD+N：<0.0003% @300Ω, <0.001%@32Ω
Frequency Response: ±0.2dB (DC-22kHz @44.1kHz/24bit
SNR： 6.35mm: >117dB, 4.4mm balanced / XLR 4-PIN balanced: >120dB
iPhone 13 Pro Max
HiFiMan Edition XS
Empire Ears Legend X (Eletech Socrates cable, 4.4bal)
I opened the box. Took it out. Hooked it up. Turned it on.
Another short section. Questyle quality. Questyle function. Questyle perfection.
Having just moved my Linn Axis turntable to our cottage up north, I was unable to test this aspect, but when combined with active speakers, this makes the Fifteen even more versatile. Many are now going to active speakers for their desktop set ups, and with the wonderful resurgence of vinyl, this makes for an almost cheatingly-good set up. Imagine you can go from your headphones to vinyl and very decent active speakers either via RCA or BT. For the price of a decent mid-fi headphone or IEM, you can get some superb powered desktop speakers.
The industry seems to be moving that way, and why shouldn’t Questyle accommodate the user’s needs? This make sense, and one does not mind added functionality.
Automatically gauging the rate, like the other CMA models allows you to set the unit and go listen. Analog via the RCA input is limited only by the bitrate coming from your source. One thing I do wish Questyle would change is the ability to change the Headphone Gain Control functions from some place other than the bottom of the unit. Going from a sensitive headphone to a less sensitive one means you either leave it alone, or picky the unit up and change the switch placings. I found an easy way to accommodate this was to carefully set the unit on a platform, which did allow me access to the switches. Truth be told, while it is cool to see the sampling rate on the front, reading those from afar is impossible and this space might have been better utilized by the gain switches. Mind you, I love the clean look of the unit, harkening back to my old home system integrated amplifier, which was also minimalist.
That said, their reasoning is sound, and for most purposes, you will leave the switches alone. If you do change them, turn the unit off first; AND unplug it. Then switch all four, lest you have a channel imbalance. Then reverse the process.
A 4.4bal & XLR balanced switch lie either side of the 6.35mm SE headphone jack, so there are plenty of headphone options. Using the excellent DDHiFi DJ65A, I could hook up my 3.5se IEM’s. Or plug in the DDHiFi DJ44A into the 4.4bal for 2.5bal connectivity. I like DDHiFi connectors, and they fit with the Fifteen perfectly.
Again, supporting MQA, Apple Lossless and LDAC BT, Questyle selected the flagship DAC ES9038PRO, the decoding chip with the most powerful performance of any DAC invented to date, jointly launched with ESS, supporting 32bit/768K and DSD 512 master band formats. Having a USB-C on the back afforded me the ability to hook up my iPhone 13 Pro Max and experience my iTunes Apple music. Also available SP/DIF and optical hook ups along with XLR outputs makes this on par with others in this class. Multiple hook ups for input and outputs are a must in this game, and Questyle indulges us.
All switches, and knobs functioned as expected, with no problems or loose connections. I am still careful with small toggle switches, but the last couple of desktop items I have had with them are without worry. For more details on the technical aspect, @wiljen’s excellent review is available here.
Instead of a summary like more of late that I have done, I feel a source-by-source breakdown will be more relevant. Also, changes in the switches on the bottom will be noted. If not, they are unchanged (kept on low setting). That said, to summarize: The Fifteen is astounding. Simply put, a pure pleasure to indulge my senses of listening to the fullest. Period.
First up was the easiest. My MacBook Pro running Tidal Premium and Qobuz through various output items, but mainly with my Rögnir & LCD-3. Astounding purity comes from both streaming formats, with Tidal coming across as slightly warmer and richer in tone. I knew this going in, as to me it has a warmer signature to start. Peter Frampton’s Isn’t It A Pity is sensuous, rich and full of detailed clarity. With each strum, you feel like you are there in full concert mode, but a small venue. Until the orchestra adds their wonderful part. Then the expansive soundstage allows you the Full Monty experience, so to speak. Pure, crisp and detailed. I replay the song numerous times with both headphones. The LCD-3’s open the sound markedly better, since they are an open back, but the Rögnir is fantastic as well. The ability of the Fifteen to let the headphone in use shine is a wonderful Questyle trademark to me. No coloration at all, only the headphone showings its wares.
On Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Tuesday’s Gone, vocals are sublime, with succinct staccato notes and deep reaching bass lines; giving me the impression of being in the studio as the band plays. One of my all-time favorite songs sounds superb through the Fifteen, with excellent detail in the busy orchestral sections, allowing me the pleasure of simply enjoying the music.
iPhone 13 Pro Max/USB-C:
Hooked together, the sound emanating from the iPhone is brighter than simply running a dongle through my Tidal collection. Brighter, but with an airier note as well. Bass seems a bit recessed as well. On my MBP, Tidal provides a richer tonality than here. Even with that brighter signature, there was nothing too analytical of the sound. Too clinical did not come into my verbiage as well.
While this makes for a nice sounding unit combination, unless you have a long enough cable, hooking your smartphone to BT makes more sense.
iPhone 13 Pro Max/ BT:
I had no problem connecting and the sound was as expected, quite nice. Not as good as cabled of course, but there was a certain warmth to it, which I did not expect. You can easily pair the Fifteen by using the “pairing” button on the back, by the LDAC module. Volume is controlled by the Fifteen only, and like the LO on my Shanling below, volume above 0900 became much louder. I enjoyed Tidal and Qobuz through my iPhone very much and would rate this as just about, if not the best the iPhone has sounded. Granted you are pushing it through a near-$3k unit; so it had better…
Shanling M6 Pro/RCA/USB-C:
This connection was better than my MBP, as it should be. With a better DAC, and that warmth of sound emitting from within, I really like the Shanling’s sound. Better bass depth, broader soundstage and with a more vibrant tonality as well. The versatility of the Fifteen shines yet again. Of course, I pretty much knew this going in, after the CMA 12Master. To have one unit, which can do all of this is the way of the market and should come as no surprise.
Running the USB-C to USB-C, the sound was the best yet, moving up the food chain so to speak. It was also my favorite outside of the optical hook up. As much as I liked the ease of use with the RCA cables (2 into one), the sound from USB-C to USB-C was such that I would invest in a longer cable of equal quality to the DDHiFi cable I used. Due to running LO on the Shanling though, the volume could not go above 0900. That is all right, as it was quite sufficient.
I wish I had my turntable here as well as my powered speakers. From their advertising on the site, the Fifteen can be used in this manner, which would be quite nice. Simply hooking the turntable into the RCA input would suffice, but I do note that if your turntable has a ground wire (like my Linn Axis), you will need to come up with a solution…a small price to pay.
I’m not sure what else I can say, other than the usual breakdowns of sections, but to me that is rather pointless. The Fifteen handled all sources and options without fuss or bother. Exactly what I expected.
I mentioned early about the front layout, and the headphone gain switches on the bottom. How I wished those gain switches had been on the front. Well, after trying both low and standard, I can say that I would most likely leave the switches on low and forget about them. Who am I to question Questyle’s wisdom here? It worked on the CMA 12, and 12Master; and yet again on the Fifteen.
Questyle has also lassoed in the use of the ESS chips, which in many iterations of sources can come across as cold or analytical. Not here. That “clinical” sound comes across as detailed, crisp and airy; but without that cold loss of depth. As others, I was not surprised in the treatment given to the sound, which mimics my QP2R or QPM, but in a desktop unit. Many speak about “house sound,” and that holds true here. I often speak of the Shanling house sound as richer and warmer (to me). Here the Questyle house is one of purity and detailed crispness. I rate the quality of the sound as good as it comes. Had I not already owned the fine duo from iFi the Pro iDSD and iCAN; I would most likely purchase the Fifteen. Together both the iFi units give me more options with which to change sound, including that wonderful tube sound; but when it comes down to it, the Questyle would nestle wonderfully into my system as a replacement. Would I miss the added bass the iFi can give? Most certainly, but the gain would be in additional detail and clarity. The iFi duo is meant for the warmer side of life, which I love. But the Questyle products continue to pull me back away from that into the purity of sound element. And at some point, it may just lasso me completely into that meld.
The cost of admission here is not cheap. There are alternatives at lower prices that may provide 75-80% of the performance (to me). But at some point, you reach a level of satiation, and call it quits. You throw in the towel of spending upon your system. And here is where you need to decide at what monetary point that is. If one wants a near or end-all point, then the Questyle Fifteen should be well in that mix. Not only for its connectivity options, but above all others; the sound, which emotes from within. This is as good as it gets, and I do wish more would audition Questyle products. They may just agree.