The Gentle Flagship Performer – QLS QA361 Music Player
The QA361 DAP is the first Player I will be reviewing from QLS, a Chinese company known for delivering some of the best sound quality on the market. They are also known for going for minimalistic features, and for achieving some of the best sound signatures in the world. As it is priced pretty high, at 800 USD, at the moment of writing this review, QA361 will be compared to other flagships, including Opus #3, FiiO X7mkii (AMP5), and iBasso DX220 with its AMP1 Mark II.
QLS has been known for a good while by music enthusiasts for their unique approach to music, as they design and create some of the best sounding Players around, but always go for a more minimalistic feature set, so that they can focus on the sound alone. They have a lot of unique features, but this part of the review is about telling you whether you can trust a company with warranty and aftermarket, and given the size and popularity of QLS, along with their good reputation, I am absolutely sure you can trust them to do a great job if anything is to happen with their products, but they make such solid products that I doubt you’ll have to worry about warranty any time soon when it comes to QLS.
It should be noted that I have absolutely no affiliation with QLS, I am not receiving any incentive for this review or to sweeten things out. This review is not sponsored nor has been paid for by QLS or anyone else. I’d like to thank QLS for providing the sample for the review. This review reflects my personal experience with QLS QA361. Every opinion expressed is mine and I stand by it, the purpose of this review is to help those interested in QLS QA 361 find their next music companion.
First things first, let’s get the packaging out of the way:
When it comes to DAPs, there are a few companies that do a really great job, and QLS is clearly one of those, as they include quite a bit more with their QA 361 than most companies do. Besides the Player itself, which is packaged quite nicely in a cardboard padded with foam package, you get quite a hefty amount of extras.
You get an adapter for the Balanced output of QA361, since the DAP itself has a 3.5mm Balanced output, and you get a balanced output adapter from 3.5mm to 2.5mm, which is far more common than the 3.5mm balanced connector, which is employed by iFi besides QLS at this moment.
You also get an extra screen protector, USB cables, and one thing that really impressed me was the leather case for QLS QA 361, which fits it perfectly, and also looks pretty good in person.
And now, here’s the thing that made me really impressed. QA 361 does not have file transfer available while using the USB cable, you can only use the USB cable to charge QA 361, and there’s no USB DAC ability available either, but with QA 361 you get a microSD / SD card reader, along with a microSD card and an SD adapter, and we’re not talking about a cheap off-brand microSD card, they include a full sized SanDisk 32 GB Extreme microSD card, which does not come empty, but is fully loaded with a Hi-Res music collection that will make you fall in love instantly with QLS and their package.
To be honest, this is better than most companies include and goes way beyond what I was expecting, so this review started with a really good start.
Given its thick technical specification list, it is much much easier to read about the entire spec list on the official size of QLS Hifi
Now it is time to talk a bit about the build quality of the QLS QA 361.
Well, starting with the build quality, this little DAP is a real tank, with a full metallic build, along with a thick glass that protects the display (since the display is not a touch screen), and has buttons on both the front, to control the playback, and on the sides to control other things, like whether it is turned on or off, the volume, and a hold setting that makes the DAP ignore the commands from the frong button.
There is an M button, which acts pretty much as a wake up button on QA 361.
On the left side of QA 361, there is a microSD slot, as it features only one microSD slot. I tested microSD cards up to 256 GB, and they worked flawlessly.
At the beginning of this part of my review, you read that the QA 361 is not a touch screen DAP, but instead a button-based DAP. Now, you may be wondering whether this is true, and what about navigating a DAP with no Touch in 2019, but let me tell you this. It really doesn’t have touch input. But I can browse it faster than most other DAPs, the OS is so light, it loads things instantly. Furthermore, buttons are responsive and I can precisely select what I want because they are click buttons, and not a wheel or a slider.
The UI is extremely basic, mostly black and white, well, you can add colors, but you get the point. This being said, it is elegant and sometimes Less Is More applies, I feel like it is good enough for basic navigation, and since the DAP doesn’t have any other abilities than to play music from its microSD slot, the UI is more than enough to browse your music collection and to select the settings you want in QA 361.
With no USB DAC, No Streaming, no other abilities but to play music from the microSd card, the QLS QA 361 can be named a minimalistic DAP for sure. This being said, QLS QA 361 has both a Line Out, and Coaxial Output, which means that you can use it as a transport, or you can use the excellent DAC inside paired with a different external Amplifier if you wanted to, making it more versatile than it may seem at first sight.
Since the microSD reader has a separated power supply circuit, all microSD cards used with QA 361 sound extremely good, and if you ever had any doubt about whether you should purchase a special brand or series of a microSD card to get the best sonic performance, you won’t have to worry about that with QA 361. Furthermore, you don’t really have to worry about Hi-Res files either, as QA 361 has an ALL TO DSD mode, where all music is upsampled to DSD, and you get both the advantage of having your collection in your favorite format, even less space-eating formats, yet you get the advantages of a DSD signal even when you were using a PCM file (like typical 192/24 bit PCM files or Redbook FLAC files).
Of course, without many extra features, the only other part I can really talk about is the optimisation that QLS Hifi did to their 361 at the hardware level so it sounds better. The first and most important aspect is that the high voltage / high current settings change the sound a lot. You should pick the one that works best for you, but for me, having both high current and high voltage at the same time, although pretty taxing on the battery, seems to have worked best with both IEMs and Headphones so far. Everything is vivid, dynamic, punchy and crystal clear, just the way I like it. When you engage high voltage modes, you immediately hear that the dynamics are better and that the sound is more vivid. When going with high current, you feel better control and better punch, and when you engage the mode that has both high current and high voltage, you get the best of those at the same time.
The DAC chip is very capable a full fledged AK4495SEQ, but as QLS notes, it isn’t a very big part of the price when you consider the entire QA 361 device, there are many other components that cost way more, including the power supply, and the capacitors which are of the best quality available, but this is why we need to go in the sound quality part of the review.
The sound of QLS QA361 can be described as very controlled, very detailed and transparent, slightly soft, very fluid and musical, impactful and with an excellent driving power. The dynamics are crazy good, and the soundstage is quite wide. The tuning is neither warm nor cold or bright, it is as linear and honest as it gets. Keeping in mind that I’ve been pairing it with both interesting IEMs like the Rhapsodio Zombie, or the Lime Ears Model X, as well as Headphones like the HIFIMAN Sundara and Brainwavz Alara, I can say for sure that QA 361 is both a very capable and a very interesting DAP.
The bass is very deep, has excellent extension, and also excellent control, even with hard to drive Planar Magnetic Headphones like Sundara from HIFIMAN, but it keeps its cool with Alara as well. The bass is very fluid, yet manages to deliver proper punch even with IEMs like the Rhapsodio Zombie, which are actually some of the most bass-heavy IEMs I heard in my entire life. The speed of the bass is sufficient and even more, even for technical death metal and fast EDM, the QLS QA 361, although having a slightly soft and gentle character in general, not being any slow.
The midrange is where the magic starts to happen with QA 361, and this is why I name it gentle and soft. Basically, the texture of the midrange is soft and gentle in a way that makes everything musical and easily listenable. This includes old albums and music that was recorded pretty poorly. Everything tends to have a very musical sound. This applies to instruments that would otherwise be a bit harsh, like trumpets, they are rendered softly and without any harsh or hard edges. Even with music that would be hard or harsh, like death metal or black metal, QLS QA 361 manages to put an emphasis on musicality and on what sounds good rather than bring out the harder parts. This is a delicious signature for EDM, especially when you have complex and more aggressive EDM and you want it to be playful and musical rather than fatiguing. The detail levels are insanely good, in line with other DAPs costing just as much, and if I dare say so, QLS QA 361 makes competition for even considerably more expensive DAPs in terms of resolution and clarity, being as good as DX220 + AMP7, and Opus #2 even, as the guys at QLS Hifi did actually deliver on their promise, that the sound will be so good for this price range, that you won’t feel the lack of extra features, but instead will drown in your music and enjoy QA 361.
The treble of QLS QA 361 is, quite ironically, pretty sparkly and very well extended. What is magical here, is that the treble has a softer texture, rather than being hard or harsh. The treble feels exactly the opposite of harsh, it feels soft and liquid, wet, slightly splashy, which is exactly how I like my treble to sound like. If you’ve ever been to any kind of concert, you probably noticed that live, cymbals are very strong and energetic instruments, they get very loud and even deafening sometimes, but they are never harsh, and this is exactly what QLS does to the higher registers, it paints them without the harshness, even if there was a bit of harshness in the recorded to begin with. The treble can be said to be ever so slightly on the bright side, but it is just a smidgen bright-ish, not bright. With the soft character of the treble, this just means that music is very sparkly and impressive without being fatiguing.
Overall, QLS QA 361 also has excellent dynamics, in line with other 1K USD or even better DAPs, along with excellent punch and impact, the super capacitors inside surely do their job when providing both depth and speed to the bass. The soundstage is also huge, not the kind of soundstage you’d want to kid about, although the width tends to be more than the depth, basically QA 361 is able to paint a sound that is extremely airy, well separated, with excellent imaging, but the depth is slightly less, compared to the excellent width. The background of QA 361 is also absolutely pitch black with any IEM you’d be plugging in it, so hiss is a thing of the past with the craftsman of QLS Hifi.
This is a portable DAP intended for portable usage, so it should also do well in portable usage, right?
Well, it is even better than that!
Except for the battery, which is a bit average, rated at about 6 hours of battery life in my favorite mode, which is the Dual High, with both high voltage and high current, everything else is quite excellent. The display of QA361 is bright and you can easily read it in full sunlight, even in a full blown Romanian summer day.
The DAP doesn’t get very warm during usage, so you can safely pocket it without having to worry about its temperature getting too high.
You also have very easy blind navigation with QA361, as the button-only navigation makes operating QA 361 a breeze. More than this, you can keep the volume button pressed for larger changes in volume, and you can quickly turn it off via its slider, which makes using it quite easy.
The only thing you should keep in mind here is that QA 361 doesn’t work with any other music source but a microSD card, and this means that you can’t open it either without a microSD card inserted. It simply won’t open.
On the other hand, it also opens rather fast, although not quite as fast as most Android DAPs, it is plenty quick so that I don’t have to worry about its initialize process taking more than 1-2 minutes.
Overall, QLS QA 361 is an excellent portable DAP and you can totally use it for a trip, as long as you either take a battery to also charge it during the said trip, or as long as you don’t stay out for more than six hours, provided you’ll be using the Double High power mode.
There are so many amazing pairings that include QA 361, but for the sake of staying relevant to this review, I have chosen HIFIMAN Sundara, Lime Ears Model X, and Audeze LCD-MX4. All of those are from different price points and rely on different principles to work, and this shows how versatile QA 361 is. Furthermore, you can keep in mind that with the black background of QA 361, you can also use it with very sensitive IEMs without a worry.
QLS QA 361 + HIFIMAN Sundara – I have started with this combo because I have a ton of experience with it, and because I simply love the way Sundara plays together with QA361. Sundara in general is a pretty soft and grain-free headphone, but which is also neutral to slightly bright. The thing that amazed me the most about this pairing was the amount of control that QA 361 has over Sundara, and how musical the midrange is. I am also quite impressed by the fact that when engaging the Dual High mode on QA361, you can totally tell what it is doing, compared to High Voltage and High Current modes. You can expect a wide soundstage, a deep yet very quick bass, and a very sparkly treble that has zero grain and zero harshness. The entire sound feels quick yet light, with a magical musicality in the midrange.
QLS QA 361 + Lime Ears Model X – Lime Ears Model X is another amazing IEM that I have been using a lot with QA361. Now here;s a funny thing that I am not sure if I mentioned in my Model X review, but I love them the most when using them in their Bass Engaged Mode, and I did a bit of tip rolling before finding the position in which they sound best, but after figuring out that, the Model X from Lime Ears has become one of my favorite IEMs, and QA361 has played a huge role in that, as it enhances their musicality in the midrange, and the sparkle up to, making that sparkle not only stand out, but also very smooth in texture, and very airy. There is a huge soundstage to talk about, and there is also a very good instrument separation and layering you’ll want to hear with this pairing. The icing on the cake is that the background is extremely black, with absolutely zero hiss, and that Model X simply sounds like a true flagship IEM with QA361.
QLS QA 361 + Audeze LCD-MX4 – LCD-MX4 is one of the most refined Audeze Headphones, yet it always had a signature of its own, rather different from the typical darkish Audeze house signature. One thing to note is that MX4 is much easier to drive than LCD-2C and other headphones from the series, but the fun part comes when pairing it with something that totally complements its signature, like the QA361. Not only is QA 361 capable of delivering a huge blow and impact with the MX4, but it is also capable of giving them a more musical and softer midrange, along with a softer treble. It was never like I felt that MX4 needed those things, but after hearing this pairing, I totally fell in love with the sound of QA361 and MX4 together, they simply play too well together for this pairing to be ignored.
The most important DAPs to compare QA 361 to, especially considering its price point, are Opus #3, DX220 + AMP1MK2, and FiiO X7 Mkii (AMP5). It would make an interesting point to compare it to Opus #2, or DX220 + AMP7, but the main reason I made the choice to compare it to those is the price point of QA361, it really delivers some interesting sound quality for its price point, and I want to make a point of that here, because while there are many other options that do have a ton more features, you need to go quite a bit higher in price to get a device that has both a better sonic performance and more features.
QLS QA 361 vs X7mkii (AMP5) – Starting with a hard one, it is clear from the start that if you’re looking for features, this will be an easy one. Not only does X7mkii have two microSD slots, but it also has streaming and other abilities, making it much easier to chose above QA361 if you need those features. But let’s say for a second that you don’t mind having physical buttons, and that you really don’t need any other features. In that situation, QA361 has a much more detailed sound than X7mkii, with better resolution, more details, more clarity, a softer and more musical sound, a wider soundstage, and with a less digital edge to it. I didn’t know that sound can go this well for a portable, but it looks like QA361 managed to pull something truly magical. X7mkii remains a perfect balance of price, features and sound, and QA361 is very unbalanced in terms of features, where it has almost none, but if you’re looking for a DAP that can do only music and nothing else, QA361 does music really really well.
QLS QA 361 vs Opus #3 – Opus #3 is the Opus DAP that is closest in price to QA361. The two have a similar feature set, but #3 is still quite a bit further ahead in terms of features, having Wifi, and allowing you to install third party apps on it, including streaming apps, and it also has a touch screen. Now, the differences, as they were with X7mkii, are when you don’t really need any of those features and when you’d be okay with a DAP that has only music playing and if you prefer buttons, then the sound of QA 361 is much more detailed, has better resolution and provides a more open kind of sound. QA 361 also has better driving power and is softer in general, making it a really likely option for those looking for music above everything else. The soundstage is wide on both DAPs, but QLS QA 361 shows quite a bit why you’d want a DAP that’s made only for music and nothing else.
QLS QA 361 vs iBasso DX220 (AMP1 MK II) – This is quite interesting, because DX220 in its default shape costs about 950 USD, which is already 150 USD above the price of QA 361. This means that comparing DX220 with AMP7, with QA361 is not quite that relevant since by that time the price of the DX220 setup is about 300 USD more than that of QA361. For the sake of being a reliable reviewer, I’ll be doing that comparison as well though. In terms of features and such, DX220 has everything, including a stable and fluid OS, a nice responsive touch screen, and pretty much everything you could require and expect from a modern DAP. In terms of battery life, with AMP7, DX220 has pretty much the same battery life as QA361 in Dual High Mode. The important thing here is that only with AMP7, is DX220 comparable with QA361. When running AMP1 MKII, QA361 has a much more punchy, more vivid and more dynamic sound than DX220, as AMP1 MKII is a bit too warm, a bit too reference and has less punch than QA361. This all changes when you add AMP7 from iBasso to the mix, as DX220 becomes pretty much as fast, as dynamic, and as wide as QA 361. In fact, I think that if you have DX220 and AMP7, I may be giving a slight edge to DX220 for an even more controlled bass, that is capable of deliver an even better impact with Sundara. This being said, both with AMP7 and AMP1 MKII, DX220 has a bit more hiss than QA361. Now, here’s the thing, if QA 361 is more or less at the same levels as DX220 with AMP7 in terms of sonics, and they are actually rather similar, resolution, details, soundstage, they are really similar, what is the cost? Well, DX220 with AMP7 costs about 300 USD more than QA361, and comes packed with many features, but you have to keep in mind whether you need those features or not. Both DAPs are nice to use while in a pocket, and both sound like a flagship. If you want a touchscreen, streaming and other bells and whistles, and if you can pay 300 USD more, then DX220 + AMP7 is the option you should go with, while if you prefer a more basic DAC, with no streaming, and with a physical button interface, then QA 361 is the one for you, and you’ll be 300 USD richer, money which you can of course spend on better IEMs and Headphones.
Value and Conclusion
Following this entire review, you probably have an idea about whether QA361 makes a good value for your or not. It is clear that it won’t be the best value for everybody, especially since it isn’t intended for everyone, this is a minimalistic DAP that takes everything to its roots, including music, without Streaming and other features that you may not require. This being said, the value is a 10/10 for the sonic performance alone, as long as you don’t require the extra features that other competitors provide, but please bear in mind that you may need to shell out a bit more money to get to the same level as QA361.
Starting with the package, QLS Hifi impressed me in a very big way, by including a microSD card, one of an excellent quality, and loaded with music they have the right to ship the DAPs with, making this entire QLS experience special, and different from what I’ve seen with other DAPs. The package also includes all the cables, a leather-y case, and everything you could require to enjoy your new DAP.
The build quality of the QLS QA 361 is quite excellent, I couldn’t damage or even scratch it even after a good few months of usage, despite me having it in my pocket quite often, even next to other objects I normally carry in my pocket, like coins or keys. Furthermore, if you don’t need a touchscreen, and if you don’t need any extra features, QA 361 is quite quick, easy to navigate, even without taking it out of your pocket, and works without any issues.
The sound quality of QA 361 is just as good as everything else about it, it is a soft-sounding DAP that manages to be musical, without being overly warm, and which manages to deliver a nice amount of sparkle and joy with its music, without ever being harsh or hard on you. The soundstage is huge, there is a ton of air between the instruments, and the overall definition and clarity is out of this world, QLS QA 361 easily competing with most 3-4K USD DAPs in sonics alone.
In fact, I didn’t have this in plan all along, but now I’ll be including QLS QA 361 to Audiophile Heaven’s Hall Of Fame as well, it simply does everything too well, and a lot of you have been asking me about what a good minimalistic DAP, but with a flagship sound is, and well, this is it. The one you’ve always been waiting for, a DAP that is both minimalistic but has the sound of a proper flagship and even more.
At the end of this review, if you like resolution, detail, yet all in a soft and musical manner, QLS QA 361 is an excellent Music Player to look into, and one I too often recommend to those looking for a minimalistic DAC with a great sound, so make sure to check it out if this was the kind of DAP you wanted as your next partner in the music adventure!
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Full Playlist used for this review
We listened to more songs than those named in this playlist, but those are excellent for identifying a sonic signature. I recommend trying most of the songs from this playlist, especially if you’re searching for new music! The playlists are different for Spotify, Tidal and Youtube, and based on the songs I enjoy and are available on each!
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