Questyle CMA Fifteen Review
Pros: + Naturally musical and engaging
+ Very convincing tonality and timbre
+ Crystal clear and transparent
+ Pitch black background
+ The lowest possible digital glare
+ Wide open soundstage with sharp imaging
+ Excellent Bluetooth sound with the LDAC codec
+ Powerful headphone amplifier both from the balanced and unbalanced outputs
+ Line level analogue input
+ Headphone amplifier, preamplifier and DAC
+ Two gain settings and bias control
+ High quality anti-resonance feet
+ Excellent build quality
+ Remote control
Cons: – Gain switches are located at the bottom of the chassis
– Bluetooth doesn’t support aptX HD and aptX.
– Soundstage is lacking in depth and proportions when used as a standalone DAC
– The faceplate has two, slightly extending, sharp edges
– Limited functionality of the remote control
The CMA Fifteen was loaned to me for the purpose of this review and is now shipped to the next reviewer.
The review reflects my honest and subjective evaluation without intervention from the manufacturer.
I didn’t receive monetary or any other kind of compensation and I don’t use affiliate links.
The price is $2499 and you can order it from here.
With so many reviews and awards floating around I don’t think that I should be wasting your time with lengthy introductions.
Questyle is one of the best and highly regarded manufactures of high end audio gear, their previous flagship the CMA Twelve, not only won many awards and positive reviews but also earned a place in many audiophile desktops.
Questyle CMA Fifteen
Commemorating the 15th anniversary of Questyle’s revolutionary Current Mode Amplification Technology, the CMA Fifteen is the company’s new flagship DAC/Headphone Amp.
The CMA Fifteen is a versatile all-in-one device that offers balanced and unbalanced headphone outputs with 4.4mm, 4-pin XLR and 6.35mm jacks.
You can set high/standard bias through the bias switch on the front panel of the headphone amplifier, and select between standard and low gain through the four gain switches on the bottom of the headphone amplifier.
The location is not very handy for switching the gain on the fly but there is a good reason for the location.
The amplifier is differential and in order to avoid channel imbalance the engineers decided to include one gain switch per phase and the only suitable location that could accommodate them was at the bottom of the chassis.
There are also balanced and unbalanced line outputs (XLR and RCA jacks) that can be configured as fixed or variable with two output levels, standard and studio. (RCA: 2V/Standard, Studio mode output up to14dBu and XLR: 4V/Standard, Studio mode output up to 20dBu).
It has four digital inputs, USB x 2 (Including a high-priority USB Type-C interface and a USB Type-B interface), coaxial and optical.
The unit accepts high resolution signals up to 768kHz/32bit PCM, Native DSD 512, DOP DSD 256 and is a Full / Core MQA decoder.
Additionally there is also an RCA line level input where you can connect an external analogue source like a phono preamp.
High resolution Bluetooth connection is also supported with the SBC, AAC and LDAC (96kHz/24bit, 990kps/909kps) codecs but no aptX HD or aptX.
Current Mode Amplification
At its core, Current Mode Amplification uses current, instead of voltage, to amplify audio signals. It is a state-of-the-art technology in audio amplification, leading to tremendous performance differences when compared to traditional audio amplifiers. As the “engine” of the audio system, Current Mode Amplification features a fully discrete and topological structure, and can achieve ultra-high sound performance that reproduces music so faithfully, it feels like you are in the original recording room. Using Current Mode Amplification technology, listeners can attain a much better listening experience, even when using consumer-grade headphones and speaker systems.
To chase extreme performance, almost all high-end DAC chips from world-renowned manufacturers feature current-type output, which in most traditional amplifiers, is then coupled with an IV converter and classical amplifier architecture.
But Questyle wondered: if the DAC’s output is already current-type, why don’t we also amplify that signal in current-mode?
And that’s exactly what they did in the CMA Fifteen: they used the ES9038PRO current-mode DAC, and coupled that to four Current Mode Amplifiers, which together operate in fully balanced mode to achieve “system-level lossless” purity.
Build quality and layout
The CMA Fifteen is identical to the CMA Twelve as they share the same design and compact size that doesn’t occupy too much space especially if we consider that this is a high-end all-in-one unit with an internal toroidal transformer and a linear power supply.
The black chassis is made from 10mm aircraft-grade aluminum 6063 with excellent build quality and finish.
The appearance is neat and minimalist but the slightly extending and sharp edges to the left and right of the front face might not appeal to everyone.
Special attention has been paid for addressing the unwanted resonances by carefully balancing the internal layout and adding high quality CNC foot with high density absorbing rubber.
The power and various functions are controlled by dip switches and a button on the front.
You can select the input source, the function between headphone amplifier and DAC output and the headphone amplifier bias.
High Bias will give you a longer range of Class A operation, while Standard is more efficient, but with a lower cutoff to class AB operation.
Another three switches at the back are used to toggle between fixed or variable level output, select the line gain between standard and studio, and enter Bluetooth pairing mode.
Finally, a remote control is included which can only manage input source and the motorized volume potentiometer but not the functions that are assigned to the switches.
The headphone amplifier
The headphone amplifier max output is set at 2W/32Ω balanced and 1.5W/32Ω unbalanced, so the single ended output is actually usable and the total power is more than enough for most headphones out there minus the very inefficient ones like the Susvara.
The low gain mode has a totally inaudible noise floor, making it suitable for sensitive IEMs.
The headphone amplifier is an excellent performer and the perfect match for the DAC, there is absolutely no reason for an external amplifier unless you need considerably more power or add tubes to the equation.
Regarding the bias operation, I am not going to lie, differences – if any – where under the placebo realm, I thought that the high bias paired better with the Sennheiser HD8XX and the HiFiMan Arya V3.
The CMA Fifteen was tested both with the embedded headphone amplifier and as a standalone DAC hooked to a two channel speaker system consisting of the Audiophysic Step 35 bookshelf speakers and Kinki EX-M1 integrated amplifier in a dedicated room.
The digital front end consists of the Silent Angel Munich M1T streamer with the linear power supply and the Bonn N8 Ethernet switch.
Everything is powered through two iFi power stations.
As for headphones I mostly used the Focal Clear Mg and HiFiMan Arya V3 with the Lavricables Ultimate, the Meze Audio Elite with the copper upgrade cables and the Sennheiser HD8XX.
I believe that the general consensus about the ESS ES9038PRO is that it is a highly capable chip more focused on top technicalities and slightly less on musicality and naturalness of timbre.
Well, yes, until you hear something like the CMA Fifteen where the engineers have managed to squeeze out every last drop of musicality while retaining the excellent technical performance and even more, making it work in favor of the engagement factor rather than for absolute measurements.
This is the type of music playing machine where top of the line transparency and linearity meet together with impressive musicality and reward the user with a complete and immersive listening experience.
The CMA Fifteen combines the raw power, bass control and dynamic range of a solid-state with a tube-like warmth and sound expansiveness in a very convincing and realistic audio performance.
With headphones or speakers alike, the CMA Fifteen has a wonderful tonal accuracy with impressive naturalness for an ESS DAC chip with an almost complete absence of digital glare.
Maybe this is why the user is not offered the option to choose a digital filter as it seems that the engineers have opted for the best possible solution for the less digital sound.
The Fifteen is extremely clean and transparent with deep detail retrieval but not at the expense of naturalness, this is not an analytical sounding machine and everything sounds perfectly balanced and well integrated as a whole.
The presentation is impactful and full bodied but with excellent control and definition while dynamics are wholly convincing.
Listening to large scale symphonic works is a pure joy especially when the Fifteen is hooked to the two channel system.
Mid-range and treble consistency are excellent, everything is heard with a wealth of overtones and deep harmonic expression with an analogue like texture, no sharp treble, no shouting mids, no rough edges.
This is among the most analogue sounding ESS implementations I have ever auditioned together with some other great stuff from companies like Violectric or the eye watering expensive Ideon Audio.
Soundstage is pretty impressive with sharp imaging, grandness of presentation and holographic sculptured relief.
Mostly from the headphone output because as a pure DAC, the CMA Fifteen is great but it cannot match the field depth and proportions nor the image size of some other dedicated DACs, like the Denafrips Pontus II or the Ideon Audio ΙΩΝ.
Here again classical music was the perfect example for showing the soundstage properties.
Vs the Violectric V380² (€2300)
The Violectric V380² is another excellent sounding all-in-one unit with four ES9026PRO DAC chips (two per channel) where the engineers have managed to combine top tier technicalities with immense musicality.
There are three digital inputs (USB, coaxial and optical) and two line level inputs but it doesn’t have wireless Bluetooth connectivity and it doesn’t support MQA decoding.
You get three headphone outputs with three different output jacks (4-pin XLR, 4.4mm and 6.35mm) and two line outputs (balanced and unbalanced) that can be set as fixed or variable.
The headphone amplifier is more powerful with 5000mW50Ω and 21VRMS into 600Ω.
No remote control for the V380² but it has a higher quality potentiometer with a massive aluminium knob.
Build quality and appearance are on the same excellent level for both units.
Both sound equally impressive, engaging and musical with some differences here and there.
The V380² is just a little cleaner and transparent with a more open and layered sound presentation.
They share the same harmonic wealth and naturalness of timbre that gets a touch more convincing in the case of the Violectric.
Soundstage is a bit more holographic in the V380² while it retains the same level of performance both from the DAC and headphone outputs.
Finally the V380² has the more visceral and fuller bass texture while it is more dynamic but fading is just a bit faster than the more relaxed and naturally decaying CMA Fifteen, especially in the treble.
The battle is fierce and it can continue till the end of times without a winner.
In the end
The CMA Fifteen is proof that top class electronic components alone don’t make something sound good but it is rather a matter of proper design, clever implementation and painstaking tuning by the ear.
There are a lot of ES9039PRO based DACs but only few sound as good as the Questyle CMA Fifteen which combines top notch technicalities with the most natural and musical sound signature you can think of in an inclusive all-in-one device that can form the center of your music listening set-up.
Copyright – Petros Laskis 2022.