Today we’re sharing our first impressions on the $1,500 USD CMA Twelve from Questyle, which is the Chinese manufacturer’s flagship DAC, pre-amplifier, and headphone amplifier.
Each Sunday we give Headfonia readers a sneak-peek at some gear that we have in the review pipeline, along with some of our early thoughts and impressions. Questyle’s Australian distributor, Audio Dynamics was kind enough to send us a review example of the CMA Twelve to check out so we could share our impressions on the unit with Headfonia readers – our thanks go out to Tony at Audio Dynamics for the opportunity. As always, our thoughts and conclusions are our own.
The new zenith of Current Mode Amplification
I’ve had a Questyle product rooted firmly on my desktop for the past couple of years now – their CMA600i DAC/amp combo unit. I’ve used the CMA600i as both my daily solid-state headphone amp as well as my benchmark reference amplifier when it comes to testing headphones, and as a reference benchmark for testing other source and amplification gear. It’s earned a permanent place on my desktop thanks to its killer build and superb flexibility when it comes to being the ‘heart’ of my desktop system, performing flawlessly as both a balanced headphone amplifier and preamplifier. The CMA600i was released several years ago now, but it still hasn’t been knocked off its perch around these parts despite having had much more expensive gear pass across my review desk in the meantime. As well as being brilliant to live with, the chief reason I love the CMA600i so much is that its all Class-A ‘Current Mode Amplification’ (hence their ‘CMA’ prefix) stage just so happens to sound bloody excellent.
But, like all things in life, we must eventually pave way for progress. And in this case, we have in front of us the latest flagship DAC/amp from Questyle, their CMA Twelve. Given the strong benchmark already set by their older and cheaper CMA600i, let’s just say I was thrilled when Questyle’s Australian distributor, Audio Dynamics arranged a brand-spanking example of the CMA Twelve to arrive at Headfonia’s Down-Under HQ for me to spend some serious review time with.
Current Mode Amplification is a patented Questyle technology, and the CMA Twelve is named to celebrate the passing of twelve years since the release of their original Current Mode Amplification product, the CMA800. The CMA Twelve is an all-in-one DAC, headphone amplifier, and preamplifier. Digital-to-analogue decoding duties are handled by the older but proven AK4490 chip from Asahi Kasai, capable of decoding PCM up to 384kHz, and native DSD up to DSD256. As well as the standard USB, optical and S/PDIF digital inputs, an AES input is also provided which gives a hint of the ‘pro’ studio DNA evident in Questyle’s manufacturing.
The CMA Twelve’s analogue stage includes 4 groups of Current Mode Amplifiers working in pure Class-A, which manage to keep noise at an inaudible THD + N level of 0.0005%. In the spirit of progress, a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced headphone jack is provided in addition to 4-pin XLR and 6.3mm single-ended outputs. With the likes of Sony, Sennheiser and Audio Technica adopting Pentaconn as their go-to balanced connection, this is a welcome inclusion for a device intended to play a ‘do-all’ role on your desktop.
The CMA Twelve also operates as a preamplifier, with both balanced XLR and single-ended RCA outputs. Unlike the CMA600i, the output from the DAC section can be switched to either line-level or variable output, a neat feature that I did find lacking in the earlier model. Another studio-friendly feature is the ability to switch the gain level of the preamp section from 14 dBu to 20 dBu. Questyle really has gone above and beyond with the included remote for the CMA Twelve, which I can honestly say is the best remote I’ve come across on a DAC/desktop device, at any price. Far from being simply a volume control, it allows for input switching as well as playback control when the CMA Twelve is paired with its companion QP2R+Super Hub SHB2 lossless audio player, which can be connected via the CMA Twelve’s inbuilt 5 GHz wifi functionality.
Straight out of the box, the CMA Twelve reeks of high-quality manufacturing, and (like its other family members) is probably the most solid-feeling piece of personal audio equipment I’ve encountered thus far. The black, sand-blasted aluminium casing is 10mm thick and constructed by Foxconn, the manufacturers of the iPhone. It’s a great-looking piece of gear, and the CMA Twelve straddles the line neatly between ‘hifi’ and ‘pro’ in terms of aesthetics.
After a couple of weeks performing DAC and headphone amplification duties at home, the CMA Twelve has done nothing but impress thus far – it’s capable of an impressive 825mW @ 300 ohms and a whole 2 Watts @ 32Ω, and has proven to be muscular, controlled, and utterly transparent when playing with a range of dynamic and planar headphones. I’ve been yet to push it past the 9 o’clock mark on the volume pot with any of the headphones I have on-hand at the moment, and given its multiple output options, this could well be the last device that many listeners might ever need.
There is one glaring omission on the CMA Twelve however that is a little puzzling for this reviewer, and that’s the lack of any sort of analogue inputs. Why do I find this problematic? Well, if you’re a vinyl aficionado like me, then you can forget about it – you’ll need something else to handle that. Also, you’re also ‘stuck’ with the onboard Ak4490 DAC with the CMA Twelve – there’s no opportunity to pair with another up-stream DAC if you wanted to go down the upgrade path. Luckily for the CMA Twelve, it’s pretty damn talented in the digital domain and the combination of Questyle’s Current Mode Amplification and the AK4490 DAC sound excellent together.
Stay tuned for the main review, and we’ll conclude whether the CMA Twelve is ‘worth it’ as a total package. In the meantime, I’ve got some listening to do!