Questyle QP2R – initial impressions (part 2 of 2)

Introduction

This set of impressions follows on from my previous blog post about the QP2R (which you can find here), and concentrates mainly on the sonics and some comparisons with other gear. If you want to get the full picture, feel free to go back and read the first chapter – if you are the sort of person who reads the last page of a book just to see if it’s worth reading, feel free to carry on.

Note about ratings – normally in a review like this, I would post ratings in the various areas on our scoring chart. As this is a demo version of the final retail gear, and was running a Beta version of the OS, I don’t think a rating is appropriate at this stage. Micah (Glassmonkey) will be writing a sister review of the full retail version in due course, so once I have obtained confirmation about the final look and feel of the interface I will update this article with my overall scores. Now, without further ado, back to the impressions…

Interface

The interface on the QP2R has apparently been designed in collaboration with a major player in the electronics industry (powered by HiBy Music is the tagline). If so, their forte must be simplicity, as it is a slick but simplistic Linux based interface, with a few small icons and one tiled screen, relying on scrollable lists for pretty much all other functions. I’m not a touch-screen snob, so the fact that you need to use the scroll wheel or the touch sensitive buttons on the front of the unit to navigate doesn’t bother me—I veer pretty much to the function over form side of the street in most walks of life, although in comparison to other players in the same bracket some may be expecting a slightly more “luxurious” user experience.

The player boots into the main menu on first loading (after a few splash screens highlighting the Questyle logo and their Current Amplification tech), and then boots into the “Now Playing” screen once you start listening to music through it. The initial menu structure looks like the below:

Playing / by Category / Playlist / Browse Files / Settings

With the “by Category” section broken down into Tracks, Artists, Albums, Genres and DSD, all carrying a little running total on the right hand side to let you know how many entries are in each list.

The “Artists” and “Albums” sorting are where I start to struggle with the UI, with the Artists presenting each one individually in an Apple-esque “Cover Art” style, so you flick through one name at a time on the page. Two issues for me on that one – with my full 200Gb travelling card full of 320kbps and FLAC files, there are almost a thousand artists on my removable media, and no way to search for individual artists (so I’m @!*% out of luck trying to find someone starting with L or M without some serious button mashing or scroll wheel rotation, for instance). Also, the artist has a little silhouette that looks like it is meant to have a picture of the artist, but is left blank – granted, this is very much a Beta version of the firmware so may be changes substantially before official release, but in its current form the Beta just looks a little unpolished here.

Flicking to “Albums” is slightly better, but still suffers from the 1 listing at a time in the centre of the screen issue as Artists, so again not really usable to find albums in the middle of your alphabetical collection without taking a few hundred revolutions off the redesigned scroll wheel’s lifespan. There is a pop up option accessed from the haptic menu button option to add or remove albums (adding takes them to a playlist, removing them deletes them from the player), but again, without an alphabetical search function (which could live quite nicely in that little sub menu), this feels like an awful lot of work to be done to achieve the desired result. As before, please bear in mid these are impressions on a Beta release, so I will be looking on with interest to see what improvements the first official release firmware brings in this regard.

Fortunately, Genre and DSD are fully list based, so behave like various other list-based players out there and afford a far quicker way of getting to the type of music you want. The Genre menu could do with an Artists subdivision if I’m nitpicking (it just lists all tracks in one looooong list), but as I mainly use that for shuffling artists in the same sort of musical style, that isn’t too much of a necessity for daily use.

The “Browse Files” menu settings is by far the easiest, and will again be easily familiar to anyone who has used a Chinese or Asian DAP in the last 10 years. It keeps the internal and external memory nicely segregated, and loads into an easily navigable list structure based on the folders on your memory card. Again, search is lacking, but this can be worked around by simply organising the sub-folders on your card into sections like “A-D”, “E-H” etc, or however you want to do it. I won’t waste any more text on this – it’s simple, it’s robust and it just works, and is by far the easiest way to get around the music on this particular player.

Settings menu

The final UI section to discuss is the “Settings” menu, which opens into another list based structure from the main page. A nice touch is the configurable nature of this screen, with the first option (confusingly labelled “+ Regular Setting”) taking you into a list of all the options, and provides the opportunity to turn them on or off on the actual settings screen. It sounds simple, but taking anything that you don’t normally use (like the option to choose which way to turn the volume know to raise the volume) out of the main firing line allows for a streamlined and simplistic settings menu, which can only be a good thing in my book.

When you actually get to the meat of the menu, it’s a well designed and pretty thorough effort, allowing you to configure most aspects of the simplistic UI to your preference. Things like language, font size and cover art placeholders can all be selected at the click of a button. You can switch the way the digital volume knob works when you turn it to cater for left and right handed users, turn the volume wheel off when the screen is off (an absolute necessity of you don’t want to blow your brains into your lap when the uber-sensitive wheel mechanism ignores the nice looking chassis guard and rotates in your pocket when you move your leg – I just managed to get my T8IEs out before I ended up permanently hearing in monochrome before I discovered this setting) and make various other tweaks to start up volume, track positions on start etc. Suffice to say, if it is a working part of the UI and worth including, you can probably do it or tweak it slightly on this DAP. While some of the options might seem like overkill, once you have set the player up how you like it, you can just turn off the now-redundant menu settings as described above. This probably wouldn’t work as well for a touch based and more icon-reliant UI, but it is an approach I wish more manufacturers would consider, as it really adds a sense of polish and customisation to the whole user experience.

The more useful audio settings are all there as you would expect – three gain settings (low, mid and high), a DSD gain setting allowing up to 6dBs variance on DSD recordings and a BIAS setting to switch between standard and high. As divulged below, I couldn’t actually discern any audible difference with this mode on or off with my gear, but most things I ran through the player were IEMs without any major driving requirements so this may be different for more demanding over-ear gear..

Onboard EQ is of the 10-band variety and very easy to use, again allowing up to + or – 6dB adjustment in each frequency band. There are only 2 saved EQ “preset” slots, so for the diehard tweakers/Cowon users out there this may not provide enough customisation to allow for a different setting for each pair of cans you own or allow drastic differences in the soundscape, but it is a nice inclusion. Some of the more “purist” audiophile DAPs seem to be moving away from EQ in favour of presenting sonics exactly as recorded, but even though I don’t tend to use any, the ability to slightly tweak signature to allow for variances in source material or listening gear to make things sound best for me is an important tool to ensure maximum enjoyment of the whole listening experience.

Ability to adjust L/R balance is another nice inclusion for those with wonky ears (or gear), and an adjustable lineout setting to allow external amping without forcing the full output is another valuable option. I have an IMS Hybrid Valve Amp, and while beautiful sounding, it has a tendency to distort when the input voltage is too high (well documented in the reviews on Head-Fi), so keeping the output of the source at around 75% is usually the sweet spot to avoid introducing any noise into the output and still get the benefits of the wonderful tube harmonics. Again, it seems simple but isn’t universally adopted, so kudos to Questyle for making it an option.

The USB connector allows for the QP2R to be used as a pass-through DAC (another setting). My laptop likes allowing this about as much as the kite eating tree likes Charlie Brown’s kites in Peanuts, so I will be honest and say that I didn’t actually spend any time trying this due to time constraints when writing up this review. I will leave other reviewers to comment, but presuming it works as intended, this should be another nice option in tandem with the USB-C charging dock included as standard for those who like sitting at their PC and listening to music.

Basic tonality

As I may have mentioned in previous DAP reviews, trying to describe the tonality of something that is basically defined by its output device is a tricky proposition. With the Questyle, I think it is will be easier to describe the generalities of what it brings to the table rather than proclaiming any absolute truths.

Firstly, the basic sound is pretty much neutral across the board, apart from the previously mentioned slight uptick in bass. In fact, it is more a sense of thickness in the lower end of the spectrum rather than actual volume increase that seems to be the one solid takeaway from my pairings with different monitors. This is a sound that has body, not being afraid to add some serious weight to music when called for, comfortable that this won’t deaden the underlying resolution being pumped out from the single AK4490 powering their amp section. This weight isn’t the dead variety, swinging around the soundscape as directed by the DAP and contributing to the sense of dynamism that the QP2R brings to any sort of music that isn’t written by Morrisey (some things just can’t be un-depressed). Overall, there is a sense of gravitas about the music that just sounds right, staying musical rather than analytical but not leaving any details on the cutting room floor in the process.

Speaking to people more familiar with the QP1R signature (I only had access to it for a month or so), there seems to be a tradeoff in absolute terms between the more “lively” and dynamic sound of the QP1R and the more laid back but sophisticated sound of the QP2 model. They are both definitely cut from the same cloth, but from my own audio memory the encore model has a better sense of resolution and clarity at the expense of a little smidgen of rhythmic drive and shade.

Frequency extension is fine on both ends of the scale, the slight bass thickness giving way to a very good reach down into the lowest of lows, and treble holding firm right up to the limits of my IEM-and-age ravaged hearing.

As with all gear in this sort of price bracket, these are the finest of margins we are talking about here – the QP2R is certainly streets ahead of my entry level players like the Aune M1S, and firmly deserves a place at the head of the mid-tier price bracket out of all the various DAPs I have spent time with or heard recently.

DAP Comparisons

Aune M1S (balanced with Trinity Hunter)

The Questyle QP2R has more sub bass, and a warmer and thicker sound overall. Slightly more fullness to vocals, with a more forward stage positioning. Aune feels a little less organic, more air between notes due to the thinner overall structure. Detail levels are similar, with the thicker sound of the QP2R still extracting very high levels of detail. Overall, the QP2R is just a little more dynamic sounding for my preferences, but given the price differential the difference in performance on balanced output is small rather than massively noticeable. Build goes to the QP2R – usability is roughly equal, with the QP2R feeling more polished but losing out to the elegant simplicity and speed of use of the Aune’s 1960s style text based UI. Battery life is similar, with the QP2R having a significant advantage when driving higher impedance or sensitivity hardware due to the extra grunt and technical prowess of the amp section. Noise floor is actually lower on the M1s, producing noticeably less hiss with my Zeus-XR than the Questyle as soon as the amp engages. The Aune is simpler but more reliable for on the go use, not suffering from the hyper-sensitive front screen buttons or the easily turnable volume dial that can leave the Questyle scooping out the inside of your head with a sonic boom after an unfortunate pocket adjustment.

Audio Opus Opus #3

This is the mid-tier offering from the makers of the well-received Opus #1, which confusingly sits in between the #1 at “entry level” and their current flagship the #2. The Opus #3 is an Android based player with a solid metal build and full touchscreen. Overall, the build is far more industrial and less refined than the elegant glass and metal lines of the QP2R, feeling less solid in the hand and more angular in the pocket. One thing it does have over the Questyle in this area is multiple textured surfaces to hold on to for the user – the QP2R is so slippery it could probably run for public office, and has a tendency to slip off any surface at alarming speed if it isn’t 100% flat and covered in glue. In fact, if Questyle ever wish to branch out, designing bobsleighs for the Winter Olympics would easily make them a lot of money.

In terms of sonics, the Opus comes off a little more dry and overtly textured than the more liquid QP2R, with more “in your face” detail retrieval at the expense of a little dynamic heft. In practice, the QP2R pulls the same amount of detail out of tracks I know well as the Opus, but does so in a slightly different manner, with softer edges but a tiny bit more clarity. Neither are lacking in this particular area, so it is more a question of preference over performance here. Driving power on both is more than adequate for my entire IEM collection, and I don’t have any voltage monsters like the HD800 to test the far limits of the onboard amp performance – for in ear gear, both players have more than enough gas to get the job done with headroom to spare.

Usability is an interesting comparison – the Opus uses a “walled garden” interpretation of Android, cut down to a basic “now playing” style menu structure and a few options for Wifi and Bluetooth. The touchscreen does make it very intuitive in the main, but in some areas it does feel a little more laborious than the Questyle to get to the end result. They both share a curious lack of search options, but the Opus comes out better on that front due to the faster scrolling and ability to use a screen slider to move quickly from one end of the list to the other on Artist or Album categories.

IEM Synergy

(A note on high bias – the Questyle comments I have read suggest this is like a “supercharger” for the amp, but to my less highly trained ears, there is no obvious change to dynamics or volume/resolution in either standard or high mode. For sake of getting the best sound, I have left the DAP in high bias for all comparisons just in case).

Campfire Audio Andromeda

This is one pairing that absolutely sings with the QP2R, achieving normal listening volumes for me with a very slight hiss on around 20/60 on low gain. The sound is full and rich, and despite the slight warmth in the low end of the Questyle, doesn’t flavour the sound of the Andromeda too much from the carefully tuned balance achieved in Campfire’s co-flagship. Where the pairing really excels is in bringing out the best of both tunings. The Andromeda is smooth and musical, but capable of very high levels of detail retrieval/clarity at the same time. Paired with the QP2R, this takes this to the next level. The smoothness and substance are still there, but the tiny details you know in your favourite tracks are just that little bit more clearly separated from the background with this pairing, not having any extra emphasis as such, but just being presented on a slightly clearer and blacker background. As with all high end audio, we are talking about fractional improvements rather than “Oh my God, someone is playing a tuba on this track – who knew?!” levels of sonic step-up, but if you are in the market for a £1k+ DAP and similarly priced IEMs to listen to it through, these are most likely the sort of improvements you are likely to accept in the never ending search for “endgame”.

Empire Ears Zeus-XR

The QP2R again makes a wonderful pairing with the non-ADEL flagship of the Empire Ears line, but behaves slightly differently. I don’t understand enough about the proprietary amping tech and how it will interact with things like impedance curves on high sensitivity/low impedance gear yet (I’m trying!), but the XR does exhibit some notably more exaggerated behaviour when hooked up to the Questyle compared to my lower quality gear. For instance, on the Aune M1S, the difference between the two crossover modes on the XR is small but easily identifiable, bringing the warmth up around the mids and adding just a quarter more Keith Moon to the drum impacts. With the QP2R, the difference is far more subtle. Yes, it is still noticeable, but to my ears the two modes are definitely closer together in signature to start with, almost as if the output is forcing the two configurations to behave more similarly by accentuating or damping some frequencies that are otherwise kept in check by the 7 or 8 crossover circuitry in the shells.

Notes about crossover convergence aside, the QP2R does a similar job on the XR as it does on the Andromeda, maximising the otherworldly clarity that the Zeus is capable of with well mastered high bitrate files without removing any of the smoothness and zero-fatigue presentation that makes it so enjoyable. Smoothly detailed is a phrase I’ve seen coined by a few other reviewers over the last 18 months to describe various things, but it really does apply to this DAP and this matchup.

Campfire Audio Vega

This was a matchup that I remember from my time with the QP1R as another great pairing, and true to form sounds very impressive with the 2nd generation model. It requires more gas than the Andro, idling at around 30/60 on low gain but not showing any appreciable hiss as a result of the slight increase in driving requirements. The thing I really remember about the QP1R pairing and the Vega was the dynamics on classical music when the taps were fully open. Ken Ball at ALO/Campfire also suggests giving the Vega as much power as you have on hand to really get the diamonds in the driver glittering, so I cranked up the gain to high and dropped the volume (between 18 and 20 on the high gain setting) to see if that made a difference. It is suitably sweeping and majestic, but didn’t quite give me the same sense of extreme light and shade that I remember from the QP1R. Audio memory is notoriously fickle and I have been spending time with some new flagship level gear since then which has limited listening time with the Vega and its rare talents, so please take that with a pinch of salt, but for me the QP1R may just have the slight edge in this pair-up in terms of dynamics. In the rest of the spectrum, the Vega sounds exceptionally clear and vibrant with the Questyle, the meaty low end exhibiting serious levels of grip and control and not altering significantly under the signature of the QP2R. In terms of transparency, that speaks highly of the Questyle product for me, able to maximise the strong points of three top level and very different sounding IEMs but not subtracting or altering anything from their baseline quality and what makes them unique. One track I feel really shows the Vega in its most awe-inspiring light is a non-audiophile track, “Freak On A Leash” by Korn. It’s not massively clear or particularly well mastered, but the first time I heard this through the Vega, the bass drop that hits in the middle of the song took me by the scruff of the neck and shook every single goosepimple out of hiding. Kicking it off on the QP2R, the effect is just as I remembered, Fieldy’s bass and the subterranean riff hitting square in the middle of my chest and giving my forearms the appearance of a really long gooseberry. For me, that is what good gear is supposed to do: take you somewhere else, finding the soul of the music and bringing it into focus in your ears.

 

Balanced vs Unbalanced

This is always a controversial topic, but from my experience over the last month or so, this is a player that can definitely maximise the potential of a balanced headphone/IEM. The sound shares the similar baseline qualities, but balanced output at the same volume level seems to bring a little more dynamism and snap to proceedings, along with widening the overall stage area for me (probably due to the increased crosstalk figures). I’m no evangelist for either cables or balanced output, but my suggestion would be that if you have a balanced connection you can use in the QP2R’s audio chain between you and the music, you should definitely be using it.

Final verdict

When coming to write up my final verdict, I struggled with a way to sum up the overall experience of listening to (and using) the QP2R over the last few weeks. After writing and unwriting a lot of flowery words, it all comes down to this: this is a damn fine… no, damn great sounding digital audio player. It has a sense of dynamism and solidity to the sound that evokes a good old fashioned speaker system, giving weight and emotion to your music but without distorting the essence of the sound. This DAP simply sounds good with everything I have tried it with, giving a full-bodied sound and an effortless sense of detailing that just allow me to drift away into the music. Yes, there are a few rough edges to be polished off the firmware, but it is a major improvement on the OS for its predecessor, and some of the usability touches already baked in show some real thought and care has gone into the design.

Bottom line – it won’t make your $150 IEMs sound like $1500 IEMs, but if you happen to have a set of $1500 ear candy hanging around, it will certainly make the most of what they can provide, and put a dirty great smile on your face in the process. If you are looking for the most analytical, or most powerful, or most feature packed DAP on the market in this pricerange, you will need to look elsewhere. If you are just looking for something that sounds amazing with your music collection and will pretty much power most portable gear without needing another amp, then the QP2R is hard to beat in this price bracket. The sound is slightly more refined than its younger brother, but capable of a similar level of dynamics through the balanced output, so for me, it is an easy recommendation. It just sounds great.

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