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QLS QA361 impression thread

Discussion in 'Portable Source Gear' started by audionewbi, Dec 1, 2017.
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  1. audionewbi
    Those of you who are into portable audio will certainly have come across the QLS QA360. For a while, it has been Clarks only DAP and he did release two other variations of it but I am happy to report he is working on a new DAP, the QA361.

    For now, this is all that I have to share.

    Source: http://www.qlshifi.com/bbs/dispbbs.asp?boardid=5&Id=6895&page=1&star=4
    http://www.qlshifi.com/bbs/dispbbs.asp?boardid=2&Id=6919


    [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Official webpage: http://www.qlshifi.com/wzcp/qa361.htm

    Official Firmware page:

    Links: http://www.qlshifi.com/bbs/dispbbs.asp?boardid=2&Id=754

    Members impression:

    Reviews:

    Other useful sites:
    https://hoved-fi.dk/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=6459
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2018
  2. audionewbi
    IEM/headphone: HUM Pristine, JVD FD01, Jays QJay, Sony MDR-EX1000, AKG K3003, AKG N3003, Dita Truth, Dita Fidelity, Etymotics ER4S, Fostex TH900, HD600, JVC SW-01, Ultrasone Edition 11, Ultrasone IQ

    Sources: Lotoo Paw Gold, QA361

    Enters the obscure

    Unknown, having nothing to prove, no pressure to sell you itself using all the fancy marketing techniques available to it, it enters your life. You press play, unbeknown to you on the journey you are about to partake, you find yourself drawn into the music. Congrats, you have just had a taste for the obscurity.

    You search online forums for any detail you can get your hands on about the “thing” you heard.

    You find yourself drawn more towards this product due to how little detail available about it. Besides a few posts in some foreign forums, there is literally nothing out there to assist you in your quest of understanding it. And Google Translate isn’t helpful. You wonder how can a product this great sounding be so unknown.

    You want to make your mission to tell the world about your experience, congrats you have entered yourself into a world of obscurity, a world where the only thing that matters is the things others don’t see its obvious importance.

    Ever since I got into the hobby of portable audio, I’ve always found myself attracted to the more obscure part of this hobby. And, so far this strange attraction hasn’t failed me. The best and most rewarding of my findings have been those lesser-known items, the so-called obscure DAP, IEM, cables, amps, you name it.
    You might wonder if they are so good why are they so obscure. The reason for their obscurity isn’t to do with wanting to remain boutique, their obscurity is to do with their design approach, the approach to focus on one thing and that thing is to put sound first. And this makes them the obscure within the obscurity.

    Despite the importance of sound quality, to increase the number of your potential customers you must tailor to their needs. This is why audiophiles and their interest, despite the growing market, are still in the minorities.
    To please the apple loving masses that want a device that has an ‘apple-esque‘ UI and also have an audiophile sound status, one needs to come up with something like the ULTIMA SP1000, which cost 5000 AUD.
    Yes, 5K, if any was curious and wanted to convert, they would have checked out by now, I know I would have if I began this hobby now.

    What do the modern apple loving masses want? You know the usuals like streaming support, DLNA support, a device which can do their taxes, talk to their in-laws and look after their kids (you get the idea, right) and they want it to cost as low as possible. To be fair, those are things I also want, but it appears there isn’t a cheap way of getting such features without giving up on sound or keep the device affordable.
    The hard decision the designer has to make is how much of those things is she required to include so they can expand their customer base, without making a product that compromises the key focus, which is sound.

    So one has to give up on those features to produce a high fidelity sound, at an affordable price. That means saying bye to DLNA, Tidal streaming, etc.
    Another challenge such a barbone device faces is converting people who browse their music file not by album/artist recognition, but by cover arts.

    Most casual music listeners are cover-art browsers. They know little about the artist or recording they are listening. They need that cover art, the automatic playlist, the top of the chart recommendation, to find their music. The vinyl users will feel right at home when using the 361 (or the likes), as they know their music album by name, the artist by name, and cover art just pops in their head as soon as they see the album name.

    What’s in the box:

    1. SD card read
    2. 32 GB red, gold Micro SD card which Clark recommend loaded with all sort of recording for one to try for one’s self.
    3. Music Player
    4. User guide
    5. Extra screen protector
    6. Leather case
    7. 2.5mm female balance to 3.5mm male balance converter
    8. USB type-C used only or charging
    9. A bilingual menu in English and Simplified Chinese

    Fit, finish and user interference

    There isn’t anything I can fault on the design. The design is something I rarely talk about as it is too subjective. I do however care about functionality, and ease of operation. Despite QA361 simple UI, it's designed is for rapid navigation through your music folders. Once you have your albums organized in folders, changing albums is a matter of pressing the right button while the screen is off. This means you don’t need to turn the display on, press home button or get to a particular screen to change album. For instance, on WM1A only way I can change the album is to go to home screen and do so there.

    On QA361, while the screen is off, the right and left navigations purpose is to change to different folders. Left click taking you to the previous folder, and right takes you to the next. Down and up are FF and REW, respectively.

    With the screen on, the right button will take you the album track list, and the left will take you to the folder view, and one more press will take you to the main menu.


    On the right side of the unit, with the screen facing you, from bottom to top: you have a power button, hold button, M button (which is for setting changing), volume down and up.
    Pressing the M button takes you to the setting menu where you have control of many things such as the gain, amplification setting, filter setting and many many more things.


    You can change firmware easily. All you have to do is have all of them on your Micro SD card, have the unit turned off, hold the play button and turn the unit on. It will load all the firmware present on your memory card. You can select the FW you want, install and the unit will ask you to turn the unit off and on.

    Overall, this is so easy I swapped between the two WAV only firmware almost all the time to suit my needs.



    Amplification circuit explained

    Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 6.45.41 pm.png



    I use the “Normal” setting when I want maximum battery life, else for all IEM usage Large current will provide the best sound.

    The design of QA361 is about reducing the gap between desktop and portable gear, and this is where the different amp section output design serve its purpose. The “All to DSD” feature is something that trickled from their desktop DAC, the QA890.

    Clark, the main chief designer behind the QA360, wanted to make sure the successor of 360LE is something that offers what the LE offers and more. He sees no point in adding new DAP to his product line with a minor performance increases.
    For those who don’t know, QA360LE is the limited issue of the QA360 with hand picked parts that had is said to bring the best performance and measurement. So to say he wanted to beat that, this is where I knew I had to get this new work of his. Sadly I don’t have the QA360 with me, so I can’t make a direct comparison. Perhaps that is something I can do for the future.

    Clark believes 3.5mm jack is still very relevant in the age that every DAP is pushing for balanced output. But why? What are they trying to achieve? Better separation, power delivery, and reducing crosstalk. Sure, they all sound nice but at the cost of not having a top quality single ended out, I sure always had an issue with it. This is why I respect any DAP that wants to make sure they are both as good as each other, at the very least. Before trying to add an option that perhaps most people don’t need, or want to migrate towards due to extra cost that comes with needing to get the required cable, make sure the legacy features are as good as they can be before adding something new for the end-user to try.

    Perhaps the most important argument for wanting a high quality single ended output is that many headphones and IEMs are tune using single-ended output. If an IEM comes with a single-ended cable, chances are this is how the designer expected their product to be listened. To ignore that experience is to possibly never know what the designer of that product was trying to achieve.
    I find that in general balance out expands soundstage, brings detail out more, and pushes vocals and treble details more forward. Sometimes it benefits you others times perhaps not.

    Regarding different amplification mode, they make a subtle difference for IEMs, almost inaudible, however, pair them with a headphone like HD600 or Edition 11, its function becomes noticeable. .


    So basically with the AMP feature, try the different setting until you find what sounds best for you, but when in doubt use the double high, it gives you an extended high and meaty bass, at the cost of midrange transparency, in case of SW-01. No such things were noticeable with HD600 which just loved the double high feature. I basically thing you can’t go wrong for any high impedance headphone. For IEM just set it to Large Current.




    And how does it sound?


    To keep things simple, I compared QA361 with my current reference DAP which is the Lotoo Paw Gold (LPG).

    Upon arrival, I couldn’t help but plug it into the first thing I had near, which was my Cardas EM5813. The Cardas is power hungry and like a good current amplification rather than voltage. What I head was a transparent, clean sound with somewhat centre focused soundstage with stock firmware (FW). I felt the treble extension did not improve, but thanks to the superior transparency and cleaner background of 361, those qualities translated into the final output of music from the EM5813.

    Before I move forward, it is important to mention Quloos offers three FW for the 361, and to focus on sound quality I only tested the WAV only FW I will post my stock FW impression on the head-fi thread in future times.

    The most noticeable thing when I switch from 361 to any other DAP and back is how much cleaner the 361 background is. One of my all time favourite DAP is Calyx M. It is very dynamic, grander sound that is thanks to its class A section (rumoured) can make anything sing. But going from Clayx M back to 361 is how clean 361 is and how much leaner it is. So you gain something and you loss some body in return. I personally think this quieter background is more versatile for my IEM usages.

    Burin: I let the unit run for 200 hours out of habit and tested out the WAV only FW. What you need to know about the WAV only FW is they are two version, the 1.0.4 and 1.0.5. They WAV only FW is designed based on the aim to improve transparency and smoothing the sound by allocating the extra programming codes, algorithm, memory required for the encoding ofnon-WAV codec into writing a more sophisticated code to improve stability of WAV playback.

    QA361 vs LPG: In general LPG has the more vertical spread in its soundstage.
    Using pure WAV 1.0.4: 1.0.4 sounds more balance compared to both 1.0.5 and stock FW but compared to LPG, the 1.0.4 horizontal spread is large but not as large as LPG.
    Compared to stock FW and 1.0.5, the horizontal spread isn’t as large and you need to switch to 1.0.5 if you need such kind of soundstage.

    Using the Pure WAV 1.0.5 FW: QA361 has a horizontal spread larger than the 1.0.4 and stock FW. Compared to LPG, LPG has a more laid back sound compared to 361, and in all FW the 361 sounded noticeably more forward. Details stand out more, string instrument attacks have more of an authority. Is that a good thing? Sure if you mostly listen to solo performance. Once again it is a tuning dependent on the headphone/IEM it has plugged into it.

    QA361 put on a close fight against LPG, and in certain places, such as background noise, 361 won with a clear margin. LPG doesn’t require a pure WAV only FW to maintain its unique soundstage and this is my only issue with 361. Because of this LPG has remained my reference for now, but the hissing is problematic and despite its larger soundstage I think I’m almost ready to make 361 my new reference DAP.

    LPG fails is the background noise department. And it hisses rather badly in all DXD WAV files I had. QA361 does such playback with ease, and it does so in a very smooth analog manner. It sounds as well as LPG when it is playing DSD files. LPG is my favourite DSD playback DAP and I can say with ease 361 is slowly becoming my favourite PCM only playback DAP.

    If I did not own the LPG, I could have happily lived with the QA361 as my reference DAP with no issues. In fact with the right pairing, FW, I prefer the 361 more than LPG.
    As a reviewer, I have to look at my readers point of view and to be realistic, in this day and age a “WAV only FW approach” just feels out of date. I couldn’t care less, encoding to WAV each time don’t bother me, but perhaps it might bother other people. It doesn’t take long to convert files, and Micro SD are getting cheaper and larger, so storage is no longer an issue. And to he honest if you are one of those who are thinking of the QA361, you know what you are getting yourself into and I’m sure you too wouldn’t see this as a downside.

    With LPG, all things must be in close to perfect harmony, else something will not sound right. Such restriction naturally restricts the listener to your typical audiophile recording, which is nice, but I want more freedom and rather have my mood dictate the music I listen than the apparatus I’m using.

    QA361 did this much better than LPG. 361 sounding musical, or at least as musical as a reference, well-engineered DAP designed based on measurement can sound.

    QA361 has a brighter tonality on the string-based instrument, which makes it sound more pleasing on violin, cello, harp solo performance, however, when playing a large symphony piece, such emphasis in LPG isn’t audible.

    Noteworthy pairing:

    N5005: I paired the QA361 with N5005 using the balance out of the 361, loaded with WAV only FW 1.0.5. The result is a very holographic, dynamic, lively sound I could not achieve with the LPG. The large current and double high feature of QA361 does things to N5005 that LPG couldn’t do so on the low gain. And on high gain, the hissing becomes too much for me, and it wasn’t one of those hissing that music would mask it out.

    Compared to the LPG the sound is slightly leaner, more on the neutral/natural side.

    Where QA361 wins is how it is more forgiving on the poorly mastered recording, thanks to its ALL to DSD and mellow tuning feature, which LPG does not offer. This surely help N5005, which can portray those bad aspect of treble hidden within such recordings.



    HD600: Both LPG and 361 driven the HD600 relatively easily. With LPG having a more 3D soundstage, but 361 using the double high, gave the bass of HD600 a meatier sound, a better attack I felt missing in the better balanced LPG pairing.

    I found that 361 had a lot more juice left when driving the HD600, at high gain been on the 67/100 most of the time. I found on LPG volume was at times maxed out using the same recording.

    QJAY: I find the scale factor of this dual balance IEM to be high. They can sound very extended and natural when the recording offers it and the playback IEM is capable of it. Paired with LPG the sound was bright but adequate. It wouldn’t be my first pick, but it does the job.

    Paired with 361, with the Large Current amp setting, QJAY transformed into a natural, open sounding IEM that can easily challenge many of this high end multi balance armature flagship with ease. The treble, so extended and clear, without ever sounding harsh.

    JVC FD-01: This one was rather too close to call, if I was to say I perhaps like the LPG pairing more, as it gave more of a wider soundstage, more accurate imaging. 361 gave a more intimate sound with a better bass response. FD-01 already has a good bass, fast enough and excellent decay from any source. I perhaps don’t want the bass be any meatier.

    JVC-SW01: Upfront LPG just makes this headphone sound harsh, unpleasant and at high gain the noise level makes for a very bad pairing. Once again 361 won this one with ease. My preference was high voltage. Plug the SW01 into 361, play the complete back the Bach cello suites and close your eye to be taken into the recording studio. These headphones aren’t universal and is only superb for solo string instruments.

    Ultrasone IQ: The first high-end hybrid IEM I bought, and despite all the treble issues it can have, I have a soft spot for them. I like the depth of image IQ offers; it is unique. Paired with LPG, the sound was harsh, jus too harsh and perhaps in this case the IQ is more at fault than LPG. Paired with a balance cable and using the Current out of 361, the sound becomes organic sounding with an imagine that one wouldn’t expect from a product now 6 years old. I used this pairing more often than I thought I will. The S sound is still on the brighter side but no way as harsh as it is when coming out of LPG.
    IQ is great at revealing the DAP noises. QA361 is the quietest DAP I tried, but it still hisses, but it is so faint it isn’t there, practically that is.
    IQ is great is showing the impact of different filters and amp settings. I will talk about this once I’m more familiar on the head-fi impression thread.

    On high gain, it is important to note the hiss on QA361 becomes as prominent as what is audible on LPG, set on the low gain setting.

    K3003: The impression matches the Ultrasone IQ impressions, in large it has a very wider soundstage, but it too suffers from similar treble harshness. LPG is an excellent DAP for K3003 provided the it can tame its treble down using the PMEQ (which to be honest can be down for any other IEM) but for me the high Large Current setting drivers the dynamic driver in the K3003 better. If it wasn’t for the more 3D soundstage of LPG to me 361 would be the winning pair, but LPG is a much better pairing with the K3003 than 361, just because of that larger soundstage, and more accurate imaging.

    Which Firmware is best: Now the obvious question the listener will ask is which FW did I like more. Overall, I enjoyed the 1.0.4 more however that is really up to the listener and the style of music one listens. Thankfully, it takes less than 10 seconds to load the new FW and since they don’t take that much space, if one wishes to do so, it is practical to load all the FW on the Micro SD and have it with you at all times.

    And enters the LINEOUT

    Here is where things get interesting. The line out of QA361 is on a level of its own. It completely outclasses LPG, Chord Mojo and Hugo. It has such dynamism I only heard from my Calyx M and Marantz HD DAC1. Paired with external amps like Portaphile 627, Oriolus NT-1 or Wagnus Epsilon S, all amazing amplifier, the pairing produces a desktop-quality performance.

    It blew me away by how good the pairing was with the Oriolus NT-1. I got a very holographic, 3-D sound with enough warmth and just this natural bass decay that was never overly lush, a sound I just haven’t heard of from any DAP so far. Sadly, it means I got to stake again, but who cares if I can get such a sound from such a size format, I’m open to that idea. This pairing reminded of the dynamic sound of Calyx M, combined with the soundstage of LPG and lushness of a high-end tube amp.

    Compared to LPG line out while it was clean it lacked body and dynamism which just sounded dull and lifeless compared to 361.


    If I was an audio shop owner, I will consider selling the 361 and NT-1 as a package, they go together like hand and glove! Yes, that good, thank me later!

    Things to test in future and conclusion

    Sadly, I had no coaxial cable to test that in the time review was ready to be published, rest assured I will be testing this and publish my impression on the head-fi thread, which where I will be releasing my periodic updates. I believe rapid reviews can only cover so much and only long-term usage can tell the full story.

    How do I feel about 361, one word, happy. It is a product that allows me to listen to music with minimal distraction.
    IMG_2FE0F9FA47BB-1.jpeg IMG_20DE70A6FAD5-1.jpeg IMG_29B4D8792584-1.jpeg IMG_52C704DC5CD7-1.jpeg IMG_77F2D65BC481-1.jpeg IMG_A07BCB7151AD-1.jpeg IMG_CFAA88BEC243-1.jpeg IMG_FF6DEF19EFD4-1.jpeg
     
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2018
  3. technobear
    In the diagram it looks like it has an SD slot but in the photo it looks like a micro SD slot.

    If it's the latter, this is a large step backwards for QLS.
     
  4. kvik
    Why do you think so? Prices seem fairly close (512/400GB and 256/256GB).
     
  5. musicday
    Let's hope for an OLED screen and not another 2.4 inch 320x240 ancient one.
     
  6. kvik
    I hope the volume button will be either slightly raised or have some kind of physical markings (like on/off button). Sitting flush with the cabinet it will be hard to locate and use without looking, for instance when player is in the pocket.
     
  7. ExpiredLabel
    I actually preferred the design of the earlier model...this one not so much. Look forward to reviews



    Edit: gonna have to take back what I said about the looks. Months later and having forgotten about this thread and my post, I actually don't see anything wrong with its looks. Looking forward to perhaps a review tour!
     
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2018
  8. kvik
    I wonder if there is an actual launch scedule for this player? Reading Clark’s stream of consiousness (first link in original post) it appears to still be somewhere in the (late) development stage.
     
  9. audionewbi
    In an email I was told March 2018, he told me he will announce it on his website and allow preorders. I'm just very happy that Clark is so open about his design process, well as open as one can get without releasing his trade secret. I had high level of respect for QA360, QA361 seems to be aiming to do QA360 and more.

    I still want to buy a QA360 for my Cardas EM5813, but the QA360 is always immune to all the holiday specials.
     
    bden59, Forty6 and tarhana like this.
  10. kvik
    I agree, it’s interesting as well as useful to read about the tests and considerations gone into the development of the player. I have had QA350, and have been eyeing QA360 for some time, hence my interest in QA361 (and launch time). Thank you for starting this thread.
     
  11. audionewbi
    Mimouille likes this.
  12. unknownguardian
    [​IMG]
    still no details about the specifications and what DAC chip, but expected to release on May 2018 at price around 4000-5000RMB (~USD630-800)
     
  13. ExpiredLabel
    If I'm not mistaken this should be the DAC AKM4495S
     
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2018
  14. audionewbi
    There are a lot of new exciting announcement regarding daps. Slightly off topic but Shanling is releasing something new in three days, so is Luxury precision, targeting R2R2000. Not all will be affordable nevertheless still exciting to read about.
     
  15. ExpiredLabel
    the LP came out of Left field. My questyle may have to go back in favor of that...
     
    audionewbi likes this.
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