Pros: Excellent sound quality, excellent value, very good build quality
Cons: Visible screwing on top
A way too long intro
A while ago good people from Questyle provided me with two devices. Among them is excellent headphone amplifier - CMA800R. I've been fiddling with it for a while now, and at this point I'm 100% certain that my Audio-Gd Phoenix will be sold without looking back, not even a flinch. Yes, to my ears CMA800R is that good, but first things first. I've bought Phoenix during its FOTM era. It was one of the most obvious choices for me back then, as I'm a happy HD 800 owner. Some of you might remember what people wrote on Head-fi.org about connection of those two. Lots of folks were extremly enthusiastic with the outcome, including me. This combo gave me happiness for couple years, but now Phoenix has to go, there's simply no point in keeping it. Don't get me wrong, that heavy and hot brick has its own unique charm etc, I like it and it's fair to say that I got really attached to sound it provides. I've never had any issues with this amp as well and it did fine job as a preamp. Even though it adds lots of stuff to the sound overall, it's fairly dark and laid back so to speak, and that's hearable.
So there I was, constantly convinced that Sennheiser flagships and Kingwas device delivered me generous amount of musical goodness. Then somewhat unexpectedly HPA-21 appeared, and my audio life has changed. A lot. If Phoenix was able to show me a bit of musical heaven from some distance, Bakoons small box opened those gates of paradise unexpectedly widely and kindly let me inside, at the same time delivering oh so much joy to my ears. That's the best amp for HD 800 I've heard thus far, period. Aye, I'm aware that it costs nearly three times as much as Phoenix, but still fact is a fact, my Audio-Gd device was significantly outperformed, backstabbed silently, deftly and quickly. The stuff HPA-21 does to HD 800 is incredible, this pair is for me the best example of how far synergy can actually go in audio, probably some of you lucky owners of those witnessed it as well. Capabilities of Senns drivers aside, it's a no-brainer that secret of all this "magic" would be batteries in HPA-21 and its signal transmission in current domain all the way. Yes, for me this device is like a chest with very valuable treasure inside. It delivers perfectly linear sound to my ears, yet unexpectedly enjoyable, with very generous amount of smoothness, excellent bass and dynamics which can make my head literally explode. That's about it. Unfortunately my Bakoon loaner had to be sent back and I really miss him. But now I get chills just at a thought that there was a point where I wanted to part with my HD 800. Bad idea, now I know that. They can sound wonderfull. Onto Questyle we go.
CMA800R came along with Q192. Obviously I've started with first one. But before I even unpacked the box I already had enormously huge expectations regarding that piece. If you ask me why, project86's review explains it quite clearly. But for those of you who missed his article I have some fairly simple technical stuff, which goes like this: in Questyle and Bakoon products signal is converted (or not - see SATRI-LINK) to current form and then amplified, that is the similarity between them and those two companies are unique because of that. Thanks to their discrete current circuits they offer a kind of new technical aproach to the case, correct me if I'm wrong but unseen earlier in headphones world. But there are some differences between their products as well, the first firm relies on voltage inputs and outputs, the second one has them as well, but also additional pair of current BNC sockets, those are a part of greater good called SATRI-LINK. But bear in mind that now it's not possible to complete 100% Bakoonish headphone rig and benefit from purely current BNC connections, Bakoon doesn't have d/a converter on the market...yet. But my guess is that we'll soon see DAC with SATRI output and the mystery will be solved, brand fanboys will triumph with their fully current mode rigs fasster than we think. But you get the point, the patch is ready, just waiting in line to be applied to rest of the family.
So logically Bakoon devices are all about current signal transmission from one device to another, to minimalize deformation of the signal along the way. CMA800R is "only" about amplification of it in current form, as I wrote it has voltage in&out, but there's a purpose behind this - better match with other devices operating on voltage signal. Questyle doesn't have a SATRI alike connections available, they didn't go that road knowingly. Anyway, Bakoon HPA-21 does THE trick mainly thanks to its SATRI-IC discrete module, and since Questyle has somewhat similar solution, at least to some degree in amplifier stage, again no-brainer here, I expected the same goodnes after connecting HD 800 to CMA800R as it was present with HPA-21. Long story is short: I recieved much more than I wished for. It's hard for me to say now how close that amp is to HPA-21 pure SQ wise. I hadn't had them at the same time regretfully. But as my memory serves me well, Questyle flagship does very similar things to Senns, that vast synergy appeared once more. Smoothness, punchy lows and excellent dynamics were on the table again... and for 1499$. That really made my day. When it comes down to this particular set of cans, in my book that kind of money spent on extremly well matched amp is a bargain. It's hard to disagree, as we all know that letting go 2500 $ or more for HD 800 matched brick isn't such a big deal, as those cans deserve that kind of money investment... if it will blow our heads with its synergy in the end. They can deliver generous amount of musical nirvana, we all know that. LCD-2 is no exception though, CMA800R as a very linear amp has what it takes to show their potential as well. One of my journalist colegues, after hearing LCD-3 paired with Bakoon was stunned, not to mention he's used to way more pricier devices than HPA-21. Anyway, based on my experience it came to me that HD 800 and current amplification were meant for each other. I don't know, maybe it's just a coincidence. Time will tell as more current based devices will afloat in time, and I'm sure they will. Until then we have what we have, but I'm certain that Questyle and Bakoon are a few steps ahead of the competitors. Products they both provide are very unique to me. Small boxes, big sound all the way, period.
And then, after taking it slow with CMA800R and enjoying it as much as I can, time has come to meet his smaller brother with WM8740 DAC onboard. Again my expectations were high as hell, I already knew that Q192 shares the same tasty amplification circuit, which sits in Questyle's flagship. And back then I also knew what CMA800R can deliver. So before listening period with Q192 it came to me that integrated solution below 700$ price point, that could synergize with HD 800 on similar level than much pricier amplifiers... would be a killer deal. Yet again something really worth taking into consideration by those of you lucky Senns owners, who have fairly small budget to spend. And here's what happened: it delivered. But before we go there, some clarifications are needed here.
Two, scratch that, three disclaimers before we go:
1. I hadn't payed for any of those amps, they were delivered to me as a free samples, no journalistic surprises or secrets here. Both came directly from Questyle HQ
2. I'm not affiliated with companies mentioned in this article in neither financial, nor personal way. Though, obviously, I know PR people working there, but we get along only on professional level and that's it.
3. Sorry about my language skills, I'm aware that they could use some improvement. But I honestly believe that by writing stuff such as this review I'll get better. If you consider yourself as a language purist and are afraid your eyes might fall off, please stop reading here.
List of music I used is quite vast: Nine Inch Nails, Bat For Lashes, Rebecca Pidgeon, Einsturzende Neubauten, Corvus Corax, The Knife, Fever Ray, early albums of Mike Oldfield, Filter, Wardruna, Pig, Ministry, Michael Goddard/Monteverdi, Dead Can Dance, KMFDM, Jarboe, Muse, David Lynch, Therion and some Chesky's stuff to name a few. No additional details are needed here, but if someone asks about specific tracks, I'll gladly answer.
And for those of you who didn't see it coming, this material is about Questlye Q192. There, now we can move on.
I should start with stating what kind of product Q192 actually is. That's a single-ended, unbalanced amplifier and DAC combo in one, visually appealing package, at least to my eyes. Judging solely by external build of Q192 it is very similar product to CMA800R, there's no way denying it. Obviously it's a smaller device, but it really looks like youger brother of that excellent amp, pictures don't lie. Because of fairly compact size it sits great on desks somewhere near laptop or stationary PC. Q192 has different proportions in comparison to CMA800R, it's much narrower, but also longer and height wise almost equal. Build quality of those two products is also similar, Q192 front is made out of solid and thick CNC machined aluminum brick. Nicely done, clean and symmetrical job there, no reason to be unsatisfied. I consider myself as a person paying much attention to looks of rigs I'm using, those are seen by me as a furniture as well. Q192 can easily be shown to people without shame on my face. Fun fact: when I look at Xonar Essence III I get irritated. It is beyond my understanding (and I really am forgivable person) why that expensive device is so poorly made, visuals and materials wise. And we're talking about 2000$+ price point here. Plastic volume knobs? C'mon, that's a serious letdown. Asus needs to learn couple new tricks in the future, because looks of their flagship are one of its major flaw. Though tech junkies are also complaining about lack of discrete solutions in Asus audio stuff, for lots of them op-amps are a no-go. Anyway, to me Q192 is way nicer, more clean and minimalistic, and about four times cheaper. How about that.
Q192 chasis is entirely aluminum, it's a two piece set. Top cover is U-shaped, it sits in the oposite one with electronics mounted on it (also in the shape of U letter) thanks to rails and four screws on top. Damn, again those screws, this could be done better, those pesky little creatures disfigure that clean and nice look efficiently, they really do. But there is a chance this will be done better in the future, I've talked to Questyle owner, and he was very open minded person in that regard. I suggested removing those screws, he said they'll think about it and that's fair enough for me. I had some other advices as well, i.e. black colouring as an option. But my point is he saw that some improvements can be done, he had his eyes and ears open to clues I provided and that kind of attitude has much appreciation from me. Not to mention Questyle team response time is great, and their language... there's no such thing as language barrier. I'm not sure if you're aware, but that's often serious trouble in contacts with Korean or Chineese folks, I could easily name ten brands which have huge problems on that particular field. But since I'm such a nice guy, I won't go down that road. OK, enough off topics, getting back on track.
Q192 front panel is fairly simple. In cavity with small rake perfectly cut around it aluminum volume knob has been placed centrically, it works really good; fluently and lightly. Though I have to admit that the same element from CMA800R is better in that regard. It's perceptibly more resistive and always plced in the middle regardless of its position. What I have on my mind is that in Q192 bigger brother the gap between volume knob and front of the case remains the same all time. The one in Q192 isn't that perfect, but still very good and I have nothing to complain here, I wrote those things just for sake of the facts. On the right side of the front panel there's one 6,3 mm voltage out. The rake around it is cut with care, so yeah, CNC job well done again. On the left, near volume knob there's a small LED diode, it gives fairly subdued blue light when the device is on, it matches the casing nicely. A bit further there are two switches; one selects USB or Coaxial inputs and second one fixes line-out to 2 Vrms. All good here. On the back of Q192 there's IEC socket, 2 x Coax (one in and one out), 1 x USB type B socket and a pair of RCA's, those are line-outs mentioned earlier. Aye, Q192 is unbalanced, it's a kind of "it has all you need" package, so no surprises there. Though I'd like to see line-in there as well, just for those of you who would like to use DAC better than WM8740 onboard. But again, I understand that Q192 is for people just starting their headphone adventure as well, a kind of potentialy one solution that would be with them for years. And since Q192 delivers, that's quite possible.
As for internals, we have standard stuff here, at least to some point. A pair of OP275's is in preamplifier stage, those serve as a low pass filters. Another two - OPA627's - sits in headphone circuit. DAC chip is well known and liked, Wolfsons WM8740. Though I value them less than Sabres, not to mention multibit Burr-Browns. But Q192 is fairly budget solution, so that particular Wolfson is a safe and price adequate choice to make, not to mention it's DSD capable. No complains here from my side. And in Questyle's flagship - CAS192 (2000$+ balanced d/a converter), there's also WM8740 so I guess it's not wise to despise those or, to put it nice and simple - judge book by its cover. S/PDIF reciever in Q192 is WM8805. This device has asynchronous USB input and ES1304 branded processor dedicated to it. What it does remained unclear to me, but Questyle CEO explained that this is actually a memory chip. There are three clocks nearby as well. One deals with 44.1 kHz family, second one has 48 kHz on him. I hadn't got a clue what third does. My guess was that one of them is double, and that's probably a way to deal with jitter more efficiently or something like that. But those were only my assumptions. Truth is different though, third clock is responsible for communication control with PC, it is so to avoid PLL circuit loop, as this would bring phase noise to the table. But the most important stuff in Q192 is, at least for me, current amplification circuit mounted onboard, this is the place where magic happens. This section has couple stages. First is VCCS (Voltage Control Current Source), which is equivalent of Bakoons SATRI-IC, to some degree of course. After signal beeing transferred there it is converted to current form, then it goes to Ai section, which amplifies it. Next step is I/V conversion, OPT and then non-positive feedback to stabilize it. That's it. Fairly simple, but it cost Questyle engineers couple years of hard work and many iterations of that design. But my ears are telling me that every day spent in the labs by those people sure was worth it. No doubt about it. Truth be told, thus far I hadn't heard amp that would get along better with HD 800 in Q192 price point. OK, onto tasty parts now.
To make it more challenging I used Xonar Essence III in my tests. OK, I hadn't got any other integrated solution below 1000$ on hand as well, so you get the point. There was also DAC-9 from NuForce, though it hasn't been used much lately. The target for me was to check how good both stages of Q192 are: amplifier and DAC separately. To achieve that I've used RCA's, as obviously Q192 doesn't have XLR's. HD 800 and LCD-2's were my picks of the day, no surprises here as well. And, of course, CMA800R was there too, just to see differences between Questyle babies, to witness how good amplifier circuit in Q192 actually is. I try not to complicate my life as often as I can, so to achieve that I simply connected CMA800R to Q192 line-out. Just a little volume tweaking to mach both HP-outs... and that's it: one DAC and two amplifiers were ready and willing to be compared, nice and simple. FIX in preamplifier stage of cheaper device was of course on. Seeing how good WM8740 DAC actually is was a bit more tricky. I've used Audiobyte Hydra-X as a source. That excellent, yet pricy S/PDIF converter was connected to Q192 and Xonar Essence III coaxial inputs alternately. From there Phoenix was used as main amp, and headphones mentioned earlier in the end of that road, but that's not all. After tests of DAC with headphones I used NuForce REF 9 V3SE and a nice pair of KEF's LS50 monitors, those were very handy this time, equally revealing regarding Q192's WM8740 capabilities. And using Audiobytes S/PDIF converter showed me how good USB in Q192 is as well. I hope this testing procedure is understandable, it won't get any harder, I promise.
DAC test went as first one. Q192 had very hard task as Xonar Essence III is couple times more expensive. And to make it short, Q192 lost this battle. New flagship from Asus delivers more refined and smooth sound, that smoothness is its key feature, at least for me. Not to mention, that HD 800 will engage with any portion of that stuff with huge smiles on their ring radiators. They do sound good when they sound smooth, but not in a polite way and that's what Essence III does to them. Also Q192 has more closer and smaller soundstage, especially in front of the listener. Overall this device doesn't sound as refined as competitor. "The Third" has a tad more width, but the differences in depth are more audible. Though I have to admit that Q192 doesn't kill what's best in HD 800, oh no, amplifier section does the trick nicely, but we'll get to that in a second. And again I have to bring smoothness to the table. To me Xonar Essence III is the smoothest one out there for me, I'm quite sure I haven't heard any other DAC that would combine that aspect with very generous portion of details in such a good way. To be honest I regret that I hadn't any alternate device nearby to compare with Q192. Hence different reviews of this Questyle product might be a bit more revealing regarding its DAC section. So yeah, sorry for any inconvinience. Now onto amplifier we go. To make it short it would be sufficient enough to write, that in that regard Q192 has lots of that goodness slumbering in CMA800R. And that, fellow Head-Fi'ers, means that this integrated solution is really, really good. Up to the point, where if I had to choose between Essence III's balanced amplifier section and the one in Q192, without any doubt I'd pick the second. How about that. So it's 1:1. But to be just, loosing in some aspects to three times more expensive device isn't a shocker.
Current circuit mounted in this "Q" thing provides, again, very generous amount of dynamics, smoothness and linearity. And yes, when matched with HD 800 we have a sound so enjoyable it's hard... errr.... not to simply enjoy it. That's the stuff I really hoped Q192 will deliver, and it had, all the way. OK, about that linear sound, it's a bit tricky. When using Senns flagship I've noticed audible bass boost, this was going on in both Questyle products I have. Don't get me wrong, this is a good thing, as Senns do need a bit of something extra down there. But with LCD-2's nothing like that happened. Yes, their bass was wonderful as well, but I've found it to be as generous as usual, no new dB's here, but tighter and more punchy, again, as usual if my memory seves me well. Awkward, I'd say, but current domain is full of surprises I guess. Ah, and yes, while using Audeze "entry" planars the difference between Phoenix and Q192 was more than just slightly audible. Yes, I'm aware that LCD-2 and Phoenix isn't a kind of happy marriage, but you get the idea. OK, let's move on. Now I could use magnifying glass and write about each aspect of what I've heard. But to make it short I'll just add that CMA800R in comparison to Q192 sounds more lively, with better low ends, blacker background, wider soundstage and overall more detailed presentation. Though subtle, those differences are audible. I'm sure they will deepen over time, but for now, after taking price into consideration, well, Q192 has nothing to be ashamed of, quite the opposite in fact. It stands beside his bigger brother, not in his shadow. And for the sake of the facts, I'm pretty sure that better sounding DAC would do to some additional good things to Q192 amplifier circuit, that we could witness improvement there. But since that device doesn't have line-in, it's off the table.
I'm very impressed. I didn't think that Senns HD 800 can sound so good when connected to device that cost less than 700$ . Not more than a year ago I was convinced that SQ wise it is not possible. I've tested many headphone amplifiers and to my ears HD 800 performed extremly well only with Bakoon HPA-21 and Questyle CMA800R thus far. Now I have to be just here, Q192 is in that group as well. Yes, it's below SQ level of those two, but huge synergy with HD 800 is once more on the table, I believe that similarly priced Q192 competitors are far behind in that regard, no matter if it's NuForce, Matrix, Asus or Cambridge. And, again, there's that lovely, justified price on top of that. Current amplification shines again and I'm very happy about that fact. I'm now really confident, I know I am, to the point that I can easily state that if someone after reading my review will buy Q192 to match his HD 800, I know he'll be overall very, very happy person, believe it or not. You can thank me later.
As for DAC, well, things do complicate here a bit. Q192 does really fine job, but not as extraordinary one as amp section. It's solid in that regard. But I'm quite sure some devices from direct Q192 competitors, and of course in its price range, can perform better on some fields. But to be honest, we're judging "full package" here, as Q192 is integrated solution, ain't it? So it's all about its overall capabilities, the final effect rather than only some parts of it. And loosing to Xonar Essence III won't put Questyle 700$ DAC into infamy, as Asus has something very, very good there. And yes, Q192 has ASIO and asynchronous USB, therefore it will make life a bit sweeter for those of you, who pay attention to those things. Q192 lacks in that regard only DSD support, but these days it's not an issue... yet. That kind of files is still exotics, to put it gently. Though it isn't a surprise that Questyle will add native DSD playback in their stuff, so good news indeed. Just heard this will happen to CAS192, so I'm sure Q192 will have that too, as I wrote WM8740 is DSD capable after all.
After taking all things I wrote above into consideration I have very short and sweet finishing lines for you: just bear in mind, that if you're after some great, yet affordable integrated solution to match mainly your HD 800, look no further, Q192 will deliver lots of joy to your ears, and I'm deadly serious now. You'll be surprised how well this thing performs with that particular set of cans, but similar goodness will occur with LCD-2 as well. And that's it, short and simple. In the end I can only say, that in my crystal ball I see very colorful future for Questyle. Those guys really know how to handle "things", their products are world class performers both price and SQ wise, beyond reach of the competition with obvious headphones, at least that's what my ears are telling me for couple weeks now. Current domain owns and addicts, you have been warned.
Thanks for your time, and, as usual, your feedback is highly appreciated. Sorry for any typos I've made. If something is unclear on any level - feel free to ask. And, of course, big thanks to my suppliers. Cheers.
P.S. If anyone is interested, below there are some product photos I did. They were published somewhere else, but I'm the owner of those.