In the past year, we have seen many manufacturers in the personal audio category launch "statement" products – not just the normal impressive summit-fi fare, but ambitious products that truly push the limits of their engineering capabilities. The uber-priced Sennheiser Orpheus II and the excellent Chord Electronics DAVE are two prime examples. Alongside these cost-no-object offerings, manufacturer Questyle Audio has decided to push the limits of its existing (and quite impressive) technology with an intriguing four-piece statement product of its own: the Questyle Audio Golden Reference System ($12,495).
Upgrading their fantastic CAS192D DAC, CMA800P preamp, and CMA800R monoblock-capable amplifiers with hand-picked components and ultra-low-distortion Rodgers Ceramic PCB boards, the Golden Reference stack is easily one of the cleanest sounding headphone systems I have ever heard. It is so clean, in fact, Questyle had to order special equipment just to measure the CMA800P Golden preamp's preposterously low 0.00022% THD+N.
For the purposes of this review, I have evaluated the Golden Reference primarily as a single 4-piece system (with two CMA800R amplifiers running in dual-mono mode), but I did listen to each of the components individually, and I will start by sharing some insight into their individual performance and value relative to their respective price points.
CAS192D Golden DAC
During testing, I found the CAS192D Golden performed its best with high res and DSD files. Those who rely heavily on a catalog of mostly 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality files may want to look to a DAC with a multibit resistor ladder (R2R) architecture, instead. A good R2R DAC will be smoother and more transparent if you are playing with its bread and butter: CD-quality files. That being said, the CAS192D is still quite capable with these files, and if you have a mix of 16-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit high res music and DSD files, it will serve all of your needs very, very well. The DAC also comes equipped with a wide variety of user-selectable digital filters, including the common FIR (finite impulse response) filters, and the less-common IIR (infinite impulse response) filters, which eliminate pre-ringing in the impulse wave. Some people find the elimination of the pre-ring improves tone and transparency, and I tend to agree, as I found myself listening to the "IIR Soft Knee" filter the most of the seven available options.
Overall, I would say this is a really nice and very detailed DAC at $2,999. It might even be my favorite single component of the Golden Reference system. If you are looking for a strong performer in this price range that can really deliver with your high res files, it is definitely worth an audition.
CMA800R Golden Amplifier
With two CMA800R amplifiers running dual mono mode, performance makes a very compelling leap forward. Imaging becomes laser-focused with an incredibly strong center image and extremely precise depth across the enormous soundscape. Tone becomes fuller and more powerful. Even though the mids retained their über-clean "reference" type of feel, I found myself much, much more emotionally engaged with them. This is, undoubtedly, the way the system was meant to be heard.
CMA800P Golden Preamp
Comparing the Golden Stack with and without the CMA800P, I didn't find much was gained or lost sonically with or without it in the chain. In the context of the stack, it is more of a convenience than anything, as you don't need to manually match the channel volume from song to song, allowing you to concentrate on the music. It's definitely a convenience I would want, budget willing, as few components would provide the same service without compromising the sound of this ultra-resolving system in some way. To really optimize the value of the CMA800P within the context of the stack, I'd definitely consider the possibility of running the preamp out to a nice power amplifier and set of speakers, making the Golden Stack the heart of your home setup.
Making Sweet Music Together
In terms of tonality, the Questyle Golden Reference system touches perfection quite often. The neutrality on display is unquestionable, presenting a sound that is completely void of any coloration. It doesn't add to or subtract from the sound in any way, so those who prefer some extra tubey sweetness with their music may not be totally satisfied. But those who desire absolute accuracy to the source recording should be quite elated. And even though the sound is somewhat "solid state" sounding, it should be noted any sense of harshness is expertly tempered by the outstanding control offered by Questyle's current mode amplification.
Up and down the frequency response, the Golden Reference stack displays absolute benchmark performance. Treble is extremely well-controlled and extended, even on the finicky Sennheiser HD800. Sibilance was rarely present, particularly on high-res tracks. The midrange is delivered with ease and supreme detail. While "reference" and "musical" are sometimes considered polar opposites, I felt the Golden Reference stack delivered superbly on both fronts. Down low, the mid-bass and sub-bass are both presented with remarkable clarity and authority. This is probably the tightest, most well-controlled bass I have heard on a non-electrostatic system. If I had to nitpick, I would only note that the deepest sub-bass was just a pinch more defined when the CAS192D was running directly into the monoblocks than with the CMA800P in the chain, but we are talking about a difference of less than 1 or 2 percent.
Attack and decay on the Golden Reference system are beyond reproach. The sense of transient snap is quite remarkable, especially in True DSD mode. Decay is also reference grade – never hanging around beyond its welcome. This control, largely attributable to Questyle's current mode amplification, is one of the largest contributors to the Golden Reference system's exceptionally clean presentation. Combined with the system's ultra-low distortion and incredible soundstage, it creates a formidable benchmark for end-game transparency.
50% Reference System. 50% Teleportation Device
Just when I think it can't get any more immersive, drummer Chris Layton comes into the fold. The shocking inner resolution of his tone and the stunning spatial imaging on his drum kit help to unveil a perfect three-dimensional view of the enormous soundscape and a keen sense of the acoustic properties of the recording area. Running in dual mono mode with my Sennheiser HD800 via the excellent DanaCable Lazuli balanced cable, I am not sure I have ever heard a headphone system perform better in terms of soundscape size, dimensionality and imaging performance. It easily scores perfect marks in all categories related to spatial performance.
No less impressive is the performance of bassist Tommy Shannon. The Questyle Golden stack captures the intent behind his performance masterfully, in terms of both resolution and dynamics - laying back a bit on the bass, always ensuring Stevie remains the center of attention, pushing where it is needed, but taking care never to step out of turn. Gaining so much insight into such a nuanced background performance says quite a bit about the excellent resolution and powerful dynamics the system has to offer. It is truly something special.
I played the system for dozens of non-audiophile friends and relatives, both via headphones and with the CAS192D and CMA800P on the front end of a two-channel system. The response I heard over and over again was, "I've never heard music like this before. It's like you're there!" I couldn't agree more.
Equipment Used During Review
ENIGMAcoustics Dharma D-1000
DanaCable Lazuli Headphone Cables
KimberKable Balanced Interconnects
PS Audio Duet Power Conditioner
DanaCable Onyx RCA Interconnect
Virtue Audio 2.2 Speaker Amplifier
Complete Questyle Dual Mono Reference System
Questyle North America
Voice: (702) 751-9978