Review: Questyle CMA18 Portable

Select pairings

FIR Audio Xe6 (reviewed here). One of two IEMs that I consider to be among the very best in the industry right now (especially in custom form), Xe6 has an unapologetically warm, thick and full sound that can be polarising for new users or those more familiar with thinner, crisper ‘hi-fi’-tuned IEMs. 

You’d think that adding more fullness to the signature would be too much of a good thing, but instead, it’s CMA18 Portable’s control, tightness and overall neutrality that shines here. Not once did I feel the combination was tilting too warm; on the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised by how much Xe6 was able to scale up with the added power on display.

From the very first micro detailed effects in Ilan Bluestone’s Eclipse, for example, I was hearing details and an expansive stage that I knew Xe6 was capable of – driven from neutral, powerful TOTL DAPs. That I was getting the same performance from a portable DAC/amp fed off LDAC Bluetooth from my smartphone made the comparison even more impressive. Super pairing this.  

Empire Ears Legend X. Another ‘legendary’ IEM and for good reason, Empire’s Legend X has stood the test of time among stiff competition. Not only is this IEM still relevant today, I’d argue it’s still one of the top performers if a technically-adept bass-first IEM is your cup of tea.

One of the factors that possibly holds Legend X back, in my experience, is a lack of power or, more to the point, control. While you can get Legend X to play loud off a smartphone, it takes a certain level of amplification to properly wake up the twin Weapon IX dynamic drivers so they don’t sound boomy, bloomy and overbearing. 

With the right amount and type of power, Legend X literally transforms into an incisive, incredibly dynamic monitor with a relatively balanced tonality. Play any bass-heavy track, like Massive Attack’s Angel, and CMA18 Portable will show you how to prevent that droning bassline from becoming a resonant mess. Likewise, the taut control in Reb Fountain’s bass play on Together is an absolute joy for those who love their bass big but still tight, textured and bleed-free. 

Sony IER-Z1R. My ‘baby’, but bias aside, not every source is ideal for striking the right balance between Z1R’s glorious bass quality, slightly subdued midrange, and occasional treble splashiness. To date, Sony’s WM1Z remains my benchmark for Z1R synergy, but on this evidence, CMA18 Portable isn’t far behind.

In fact, listening to Neil Diamond’s classic Hello Again from The Jazz Singer soundtrack, you have to wonder if Z1R’s reputation for heavily recessed male vocals is justified. For the record, I never thought it was, but then I don’t listen to many male vocalists nor enjoy forward male vocals. Still, the way CMA18 Portable presents Neil’s iconically-chesty voice, both textured and cleanly separated from the backing instruments, is close to the best I’ve heard it.

The same applies to female vocalists. Rebecca Pidgeon’s melancholic delivery on The Raven is both sugar sweet and bittersweet at the same time, with every drop of subtle nuance and emotion present and accounted for. As for bass, there are some tracks, like Owl City’s The Saltwater Room, where I swear I can make out subtle changes in the bass notes that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s these small new discoveries that suggest CMA18 Portable is doing something fresh with drivers I know better than any.  

Foster x Drop TH-X00 Mahogany. This was both my first ‘serious’ headphone and also the only headphone I currently own, and remains probably my favourite sounding headphone out of all the far more expensive flagships I’ve owned. Rated at 25ohm with a sensitivity of 98dB, it’s not the hardest headphone to drive, but also not the easiest, and welcomes as much power as you can feed its Foster 50mm biocellulose dynamic drivers.

There’s a punch and rumble to the presentation of this headphone that surpasses the best of what I’ve heard from likes of ZMF and Audeze, but it can start to bloom if poorly driven. This is never an issue with CMA18 Portable; even in low gain, I hardly have to turn the volume past 50 per cent to get it sounding loud, clean and tight. This is warmth done right, incisive, spacious, with plenty of treble detail and bite when called for, but never ever harsh. Not even a hint of sibilance, and I honestly feel technical metrics like stage size, imaging and separation are taken up a notch as well.

It took all of the 30 seconds playing Alanis Morissette’s Uninvited, from the brilliant City of Angels soundtrack, to feel the liquid sub-bass flowing freely from the drivers. The wood cups tease out a deep stage with this track, Alanis’s distinctive voice forceful but silky, and the balance is so well done it’s almost impossibly good considering these headphones cost less than the Questyle.

Select comparisons

HiBy R8 II (reviewed here). HiBy’s latest delta-sigma flagship DAP (co-flagship with the significantly more expensive R2R-based RS8), R8 II is my current bar for a high-end TOTL DAP with a neutral-musical tuning. It has a refinement and finesse that adds a touch of sweetness to almost everything I’ve paired with it, yet is transparent enough to let almost all of an IEMs’ character shine through.

Compared to CMA18 Portable, R8 II has a touch more midbass and treble elevation, even though I still consider both devices closer to neutral. Where I find CMA18 Portable ‘improves’ on R8 II tonally is its fuller note weight, and technically, its darker, deeper background. 

Vocals that present as slightly thin or bright on R8 II are filled out and ‘cleaned up’ by CMA18 Portable, and also better separated from other vocals and instruments. The degree to which this happens depends on the track, but is consistent across every track I used for comparison. 

You could argue R8 II is the more ‘accurate’ player, with CMA18 Portable adding a touch of weight and smoothness to tracks that would otherwise present thinner and brighter, but it does this with no loss in detail and an expanded stage without adding emphasis to any particular frequency.

Sony WM1Z. There’s a certain refinement and balance to Sony’s original Signature Series flagship DAP that, despite its obvious colouration, makes this player a favourite for many even today. It is still my choice for the IER-Z1R, and despite its modest power output numbers, many are surprised just how capably it manages to drive even some of the hardest-driving IEMs like Elysian’s Annihilator.  

Compared to CMA18 Portable, WM1Z doesn’t have the same note weight, even though it still sounds comparatively fuller than R8 II. Background is also blacker on the Questyle, despite the Sony’s ‘low-power’ advantage here, which makes separation more apparent and staging even wider. Since WM1Z is renowned for its excellent staging and separation, that shows just how well the CMA18 Portable performs in practice. 

I also find bass notes deeper and better-controlled with the Questyle, though the quality of WM1Z’s bass is right up there with the very best. It all comes back to how clean and dark I hear CMA18 Portable’s background and precise control, which for me sets the scene for all the other qualities I’ve noted throughout this review.  

Continue to closing thoughts…

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Picture of Guy Lerner

Guy Lerner

An avid photographer and writer 'in real life', Guy's passion for music and technology created the perfect storm for his love of portable audio. When he's not playing with the latest and greatest head-fi gear, he prefers to spend time away from the hobby with his two (almost) grown kids and wife in the breathtaking city of Cape Town, and traveling around his native South Africa.

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