Design and build
The Questyle CMA Twelve is a 330mm [ W ] × 200mm [ D ] ×55mm [ H ] solid aluminium rectangular box that reeks of quality the moment you lift it out of its packaging. Questyle has struck a manufacturing partnership with Foxconn, the builders of Apple’s iPhone (among other things), and I’m not exaggerating when I say that this black, sand-blasted unit (which is also available in gold) is the most solidly put-together and highest-quality device I’ve yet encountered in personal or two-channel audio. The CMA straddles the line between ‘pro’ and ‘hifi’ in the aesthetic stakes, but it’s certainly a thing of understated beauty and looks terrific on your desktop. You won’t want to be hiding this one away underneath monitors or piles of paper, that’s for sure.
Questyle has used 10-mm thick aircraft-grade Aluminium for the body of the CMA Twelve, for two reasons. Firstly, they explain that this helps to avoid resonance within the unit’s chassis, which can mess with sound quality. Secondly, being a Class-A design the CMA Twelve does dissipate a bit of heat. If you’re wondering why this is, Class-A designs operate at maximum power all the time and any energy not turned into sound is wasted as heat (well, that’s my back-of-a-beer-coaster explanation, anyway). The CMA Twelve’s all-metal chassis helps to keep the unit at a stable 45 degrees Celcius during operation. During all-day use, I found that it got a little warm to the touch, but nothing like I’ve experienced from other Class-A designs – Schiit Audio’s Asgard 2 can almost double as a coffee-warmer.
Rather than opting for a minimalist interface with a screen and a wheel or toggle input, Questyle has given a more traditional ‘face’ to the CMA Twelve, which is a pleasant-looking mix of switches, jacks, laser-etched logos and labels, and an array of LED lights to signify inputs sources, settings, and sample rates. The CMA Twelve is powered-up by throwing a nice, tactile switch on the front-left of the unit (thankfully), and the digital input can be toggled in order through USB, optical, S/PDIF coaxial, AES/BU and 5GHz Wireless via the small ‘SOURCE’ button. Above the source selector, LED indicators which glow a nice yellow to indicate the sample rate of the music being fed to the CMA Twelve, from 44.1/48kHz right up to DSD256.
Mode and ‘bias’ control
The CMA Twelve can be operated as either a headphone amplifier or as standalone DAC/pre-amp, but not both at the same time. A toggle switch allows the user to switch between these ‘HP AMP’ and ‘DAC’ modes. The most curious inclusion on the CMA Twelve is the next switch on the front which affects the unit’s ‘BIAS CONTROL’. Questyle explains that ‘Bias control is like the ‘Turbo’ mode of a car, which can perfectly drive headphones or speakers of different specifications and easily bring their full abilities to fruition’ – an exciting, if vague promise. I played around switching from the yellow-lit ‘STANDARD’ mode and the red-lit ‘HIGH’ mode and genuinely couldn’t hear any discernable difference. Not wanting to let the full abilities of my headphones go to waste (and because red goes faster, right?), I left this in ‘HIGH’ for the time that I spent with the CMA Twelve.
In the spirit of progress, a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced headphone jack is provided in addition to the CMA Twelve’s full-sized 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. I’ll generally go for the security of a full-sized XLR connection where possible in desktop listening, so its inclusion is certainly welcome here. On the other hand, the $1,000 more expensive iFi Audio Pro iDSD only provided a 2.5mm connection for balanced headphone/IEM users.
Volume pot + remote
Full-marks must be awarded for the implementation of the CMA Twelve’s volume pot. It’s a solid block of milled aluminium and has a precise, tactile throw with great ‘knob feel’. It’s a pleasure to use in both headphone and pre-amp mode and improves on the CMA600i by virtue of having a visible white dot to indicate volume position. The CMA Twelve’s volume can be controlled with its excellent included remote, and the volume pot – which is motorised – smoothly rotates clockwise/anti-clockwise while the volume up/down buttons on the remote are depressed.
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. As well as being a volume + muting control, it allows for input switching between the various input devices which each have a dedicated button – this was a nice time-saver for me, as I tended to use both the USB and Optical inputs and needed to switch between them frequently without having to toggle through the other sources.
Flipping around the unit, the CMA Twelve offers the user optical, coaxial, USB and AES digital inputs as well as a coaxial digital output. Alongside the CMA 12’s XLR and RCA pre-out connections, the user can choose to send either fixed or variable outputs to downstream components. The output level can also be chosen between 14dBu and 20dBu, making the CMA twelve a via option for studio and pro settings. And rounding-out the features on the rear panel, there’s the CMA Twelve’s 5GHz wifi antenna and ‘pairing’ button. Sadly, it’s a closed Questyle-only system for use between the CMA Twelve and the QP2R+Super Hub SHB2 and this feature can’t be used with any other source, which is unfortunate.
The CMA Twelve is absolutely flawless in the build-quality stakes, and after spending a few weeks using it as my sole desktop DAC/amp and ‘control hub’, it’s also a terrific device to live with in terms of its user experience and flexibility. While it doesn’t have a multi-function display like the Burson Conductor 3, or Focal Arche, for example, I far prefer having all the options laid out for me on the device’s dash rather than having to sift through menus to find them. The excellent remote makes input selection a breeze, and it also makes the CMA Twelve a very useful balanced/digital pre-amplifier. I use a pair of KEF LS50’s in a near-field set-up on my desktop powered by the ‘Bang’ power amplifier from Burson Audio, and the CMA Twelve sounded absolutely superb in this arrangement.
Wait, no analogue?!
But I do have one major gripe with the CMA Twelve, as I think it’s missing one very important feature – a set of analogue inputs! The CMA Twelve is an upgrade in every way over its CMA600i stable-mate, except for the fact that you’re limited to using the device’s digital inputs. Want to use vinyl with the CMA Twelve? Unfortunately, that’s going to be a ‘no’. Want to use a CD player that doesn’t have a digital output, or perhaps you might like to upgrade your DAC down the track? Unfortunately, that’s a ‘no’ on both counts, as well. I get that most people play digital music these days, and that you can only squeeze so many features into the one small-ish device, but this one omission does prevent the CMA twelve from potentially earning itself a place on my desktop, as I am a bit of a stickler for choosing to spin LP’s and 45’s over digital playback where possible.
Also, while the CMA Twelve’s implementation of the AK4490 DAC chip is rather good (very good, in fact), this chip has been subsequently superseded by the AK4493 chip (as featured in the Topping E30 and Schiit Audio Modius) and the top-of-the-line AK4499 chips (as featured in the Topping D90). So while the CMA Twelve’s excellent Class-A amplifier section will forever be paired to the AK4490, Questyle has improved the USB implementation on this chip beyond the earlier attempt in the CMA600i, which emits an audible ‘click’ whenever the source or sample rates are changed, which can be a real hassle in a playlist situation with multiple tracks of different sample rates.
The review continues over the page on page 3, where we’ll explore the CMA Twelve’s sound quality.