Performance and Sound Quality
The CMA Twelve’s older Questyle CAM600i sibling has been my benchmark solid-state amplifier for a while now for good reason, and the CMA Twelve immediately impresses right out of the gates by virtue of possessing many of the same family traits. Feeding it with a little bit of Aphex Twin reveals the CMA Twelve to have an absolutely neutral character while at the same time avoiding the cold, sterile glare that THX-equipped amps tend to yield. My Turbulent Labs/Turbulent X custom build headphones are absolute detail scalpels, and playing via the CMA Twelve’s XLR output they offer an incisive, magnifying-glass-like look inside the hectic percussion soundscape that is ‘Diskhat1‘. The CMA Twelve creates incredible space around each of the notes, and has a vice-like grip over the leading and trailing edge of each note – it’s a toe-tapping time on our first track, and we’re not even at 7:30 on the volume pot.
The CMA Twelve might not have the ridiculous gobs of power listed in the spec sheets of other amps, such as the 5 Watts per channel at 16 ohms of the Schiit Asgard 3, but make no mistake – it’s an absolute brute where it counts. 825mW of pure Class-A being fed into the 300-ohm drivers of the HD600 is a thing of bliss – the venerable Sennheiser benchmark sounds absolutely superb via the CMA Twelve. Twisting the volume pot up to 9 O’Clock gives them bass clout, imaging chops and blasts away any rumours of their dreaded ‘veil’. The electric bass and percussion in North African blues cross-over track ‘Ehad wa dagh‘ has genuine heft, speed, and wonderful texture over the HD600 + CMA Twelve combo.
The Questyle flagship always makes you feel like it has absolute control and authority, with endless bounds of headroom beyond what it uses to effortlessly unleash the dynamic slam lurking inside the Focal Stellia. The CMA Twelve makes for a genuinely meaty presentation when combined with the Focal closed-back flagship, Smashing Pumpkin’s new single ‘Cyr‘ showing-off excellent impact from the kick-drums and lovely rich texture from the backing female vocals. It’s thicc sounding.
To test the noise floor of the CMA Twelve, I gave it a whirl with the new 32-ohm, 109dB/mW FD1 IEM from FiiO. Music was audible at ‘zero’ volume, and there was some noticeable channel-imbalance at very low volumes, but this is not problematic in normal listening levels. Twisting the volume pot up to 10 O’Clock revealed some barely perceptible background hiss, which became very much audible at 12 O’ Clock – well above safe listening level for high-impedance full-size headphones, let alone sensitive IEMs.
Trying to decipher the ‘tone’ of a solid-state amplifier can be a fruitless exercise, but it is easier to remark on how it can make you feel in terms of the way it makes you connect to music. I did feel from time to time that the CMA Twelve did lean a little ‘warm’, but what I was hearing was a generally awesome tonal richness that presented itself in the mid-bass and mid-range that give the CMA Twelve a lovely organic sound, that you could be forgiven for calling ‘musical’. Every inflection of Chris Cornell’s vocal track on ‘Patience‘ could be felt as well as heard over the excellent open-back Audeze Sine DX planars.
Vs Questyle CMA600i
Unsurprisingly, these are very similar sounding amplifiers, but back-to-back the CMA Twelve sounds a little more laid-back and velvety compared to the slightly more forward top-end on the CMA600i. What separates them more, however, is the greater sense of immersion that the newer CMA Twelve gives. Aziza Brahim’s excellent ‘Calles De Dajla’ is not only a rocking track (thank you random Tidal playlist), but a great test for soundstage and imaging depth. The CMA Twelve takes the cake here. As I mentioned before, the CMA600i has an analogue input, and as such will be sticking around for a while. The other thing I like about the CMA600i is its twin 6.3mm headphone outs which make for a great A/B testing rig.
Vs Burson Conductor line
I reviewed the Burson Conductor 3 last year, and admittedly I haven’t listened to it for some time. I did really dig it in terms of both its excellent sound and design at the time, however. In terms of form-factor and stated ‘mission’, they’re pretty similar devices but I do like the CMA Twelve’s sleeker, more utilitarian vibes a little more. The Conductor 3 is around $250 more than the CMA Twelve but only a single-ended design, however. The balanced Conductor 3X, reviewed here by Linus is a closer match in terms of its balanced topology but is more expensive again at $2,144 USD. The newer Conductor 3XP, reviewed here by Lieven is a close match for the CMA Twelve on paper and worth auditioning back-to-back with the CMA Twelve.
Vs Focal Arche
Focal’s Arche is intended to be the ultimate sonic match for their high-end range of headphones, but in my review of that device earlier this year, I found the Arche to be a generally great-sounding and well-put-together unit. At nearly $1,000 USD cheaper and using the same AK4490 DAC chip, the Questyle unit is a far greater value than the Arche. Despite not having the on-board EQ trickery to play around with the frequency response of Focal’s headphones, the Questyle is a more flexible headphone amplifier and despite not having them both here to compare, I think the Questyle has it beaten for sound quality. The fact that the CMA Twelve has a remote at all, let alone a great one seals the deal in its favour.
Vs Topping A90
The $499 wonder from Topping is pretty-much the benchmark currently in terms of solid-state performance, and so makes an interesting comparison with the all-in-one, Class-A Questyle unit that’s three times the A90’s price. Can you believe ‘Kid A’ from Radiohead is twenty years old this week? Either can I. ‘Idioteque‘ is hard to tell apart on the two amplifiers at first over the Focal Stellia, but after a little back-and-forth, the A90 is clearly more, well, clear. While the CMA Twelve presents a more cohesive and liquid sound-scape, the A90 pushes it out front and centre, with more emphasis on the upper mid-range – Thom Yorke sounds like he is two steps closer towards you.
The Questyle CMA Twelve is one sexy, brilliantly designed and built piece of audio equipment. It’s made to make headphones perform brilliantly, and do that it does. And then some – this is quite possibly the best all-around device I’ve heard. And that’s what makes it frustrating, because despite being an incredibly well-thought-out and extremely easy to live with, you can never hear what it sound like with an analogue source or an absolute top-of-the-line DAC. But, if you’re solely a digital listener, and if you have a nice pair of headphones or a headphone collection that you’re looking to extract the last few percentage points of performance out of them, then the CMA Twelve is a very compelling option at this price and well-worth auditioning.