I admire small high-end audio boxes that do big things. Audiophilia's Karl Sigman recently published a superb review of Mytek's seemingly unbelievable Brooklyn DAC +. Lots of audiophile needs covered in audio glory for about $2500. According to our analytics, it's been read many thousands of times worldwide in only a couple of months. Seems like we're not the only audiophiles that like good things in small packages.
Questyle Audio, the Chinese manufacturer and designers of exceptional DAPs, solicited its engineering team to design similar small parameters but for a one-box DAC/Headphone Amp/Preamp solution. The CMA series was born. The subject of our review is the entry level of the series, the 400i.
Substance and style
The elegantly conceived and exquisitely machined CMA400i has four Class A circuits designed to drive any headphone. Dip switches under the chassis offer gain control to manage different types of headphones. The 440i has a 4-PIN balanced XLR output 2.5mm headphone jack and a 6.35mm standard headphone jack.
The DAC chip in the CMA400i is the AKM AK4490. Questyle uses its own patented DSD technology—there is no PCM conversion in the chain, providing what Questyle calls 'True DSD'. The completely separate DAC has both optical and coaxial interfaces.
This review is based primarily on the 400i as a headphone amplifier. I used Audeze's LCD-3 headphones as reference (review forthcoming).
All functions and inputs can be seen as in use by the detailed small orange LEDs on the unit’s front plate [see photo below]. When using the DAC mode, the 400i supports both RCA and XLR preamplifier outputs.
The volume control works in analogue mode. Questyle suggests matching the unit with high-end active speakers. In addition to its outstanding headphone amplification numbers regarding low distortion and ultra wide bandwidth, the manufacturer is particularly boastful about its DAC/DSD capabilities. In fact, an audiophile friend of mine just received a 400i to use primarily in that mode—a cost effective measure after a huge outlay on fantastic loudspeakers. He's loving the unit in that capacity.
I will be doing follow ups to this review with the CMA400i in both preamp and DAC roles.
For audio sources, I used a USB cable (Wireworld) to my MacBook Pro, and a generic optical cable to Questyle's QP1R DAP and Fiio's X5 3rd Gen DAP (review forthcoming).
In addition to Questyle's typically exceptional build quality, packaging is excellent and the unit comes with a very detailed manual. That Questyle brings this beauty in for $799, a full $100 less than its DAP I reviewed a couple of years ago, is remarkable. No wonder it was the wunderkind box of choice that was sent to my friend.
Long time Audiophilia readers will know of my indifference to headphones, from 5K Focals and the monster Abyss to lowly dollar store earbuds. It's not the essence of the sound, no matter how acoustically inhibited it is that bothers me—I acknowledge it is beloved by some audiophiles. I like the convenience when working out and traveling, but it's a tool, no more.
From what I hear in my role as a professional classical musician, I miss so much of the 'presence' of the performance, the immediacy, the air, the ambiance of the location. It's more of a fake. Sure, a convenient fake when living in close proximity with others, but a musical fake, nonetheless. Inimical to big-boned musicality. I know the actual delivery of two channel audio through regular speakers is also fakery, but it's a much better forgery.
So, how do you up your headphone game other than spending more on the cans? A quality headphone amplifier is a good place to start. And within the musical guide rails of headphone delivery, Questyle has produced a musical winner—a technical tour-de-force.
I'll leave describing the loveliness of the Audeze LCD-3's performance for the upcoming review. I left the four dip switches on the 440i's bottom plate in their 'standard' position. Suffice it to say, the pair was in perfect harmony.
Scrutiny. There is no way you can hear the same type of x ray effect on melody and harmony other than through headphones. Hence, the use of them for playback in recording studios. But that’s not how we naturally listen. Of course, as audiophiles, we want to hear the proverbial kitchen sink, but is it a ‘natural’ sound experience?
The CMA440i takes the signal from the source and, like the Mytek described earlier, covers it in glory. The glory is in the dynamic range, which is large, and the exceptional delivery of micro and macro dynamics. As such, low level detail is nothing short of astonishing.
I could begin to warm to the experience.
As compared to sound directly from the source, the headphones via amplifier/DAC caressed the ear canal with an ease of musical delivery that you will get used to very quickly.
Massive sonorities such as the opening of the new harmonia mundi/Gurzenich Orchestra/François-Xavier Roth Mahler 5 'Trauermarsch' (FLAC file) was splendid. No distortion even at high levels (be careful) and concomitant with Roth's super clinical approach. I've played, conducted or listened to Mahler 5 hundreds of times, torn it apart with conducting teachers and in orchestral workshops and rehearsals (and, been torn apart!), and yet, still discovered new things under the scrutiny of Questyle. It surprised me. Not a result of arrogance, simply, superior equipment. A true joy discovering minute details of masterpieces hitherto unknown.
The real musical pleasure came from the way the 400i relayed the music through accurate timbres, both instrumental and vocal. It's not surprising that a good headphone amplifier controls the sounds like a standard power amplifier. But, many amplifiers control music but are lacking in timbral accuracy, or other musical tenets.
Bass goes deep and is balanced with the beautiful midrange and sparkling treble. Lesser files will be shown up as the distortion fields they are. FLAC at least, is my suggestion.
The Questyle Audio CMA400i is a modestly priced powerhouse of a device that will take you far with your headphone dreams. It will also play well with others in your system as a standalone DAC—playing all types of digital files—and as a preamplifier. I've heard other superb headphone amplifiers (tube and solid state) costing more from Woo Audio [WA7 Firefly] and costing far more, the Cypher Labs Prautes, and while the Questyle can't quite match the Prautes for luxurious musical delivery, it's pretty damn close. And it comes with other tricks, too. Highly recommended.
Further information: Questyle Audio
· Finish: Black
· Chassis Materials: special CNC tooled Aluminum
· Dimension: 279mm[W]×189mm[D]×55mm[H]
· Weight: 84.65oz (2.4kg)
· Working Status: Pure Class A
· Voltage: 100-120V or 220-230V, switchable
· Power Consumption: 17W
Pre-amplifier and DAC Section
- THD+N: RCA:< 0.0009%; XLR:< 0.0009%
- SNR: RCA: >110dB; XLR: >113dB (non-weighting)
- USB Type B Input:
44.1K-384K/16-32Bit PCM and DSD native, DSD64 / 128 / 256
- Digital Interface:
SPDIF input and output, OPT input;
Support 44.1K-192K / 24Bit PCM
Headphone Amplifier Section
- Output Interface:
A 6.35mm standard headphone jack
A 4-PIN full-balanced headphone jack
A 2.5mm full-balanced headphone jack
- Max Output Power (Po):
106mW@300Ω; 980mW@32Ω (normal headphone jack)
418mW@300Ω; 3920mW@32Ω (balanced headphone jack)
0.0013%@1kHz, Po=100mW, 300Ω
0.0016%@1kHz, Po=50mW, 32Ω
- Frequency Response:
DC-100kHz (+0, -0.7dB); DC-600kHz (+0, -3dB)