Expectations. Managed? When audiophile music servers cost a ton, I expect them to crush and flat-line my music-optimized iMac into a dead pancake under their superior sonic gravitas. That thus far none of them have explains my reluctance over the genre at large. But with the QAT's friendly sticker, I'd have been most happily p-squared (punter by proxy) if it just offered equivalent sonics. To find out whether the RS3 would overwrite by misgivings about the breed, I had to first download its app and install it on my iPad Mini. That went down a treat. Now I had access to Vital's well-selected album preloads. Next was wiring up the QAT to my Esoteric C-03 preamp; run a Tombo Trøn coaxial S/PDIF cable to Aqua Hifi's La Scala II DAC as my keep-it-honest calibrator; and keep the latter leashed up also to my iMac via USB for a cross-check between digital transports.


For direct A/Bs, I ripped three of my home-burnt show sampler CDs to the RS3 via Vital's external Samsung drive. QAT's app confirmed error-free rips, its editing tool brought up the virtual keyboard to name these 'unknown' discs though I didn't bother to also rewrite their individual tracks. At first, hitting 'play' made no sound. Once I cranked up the Esoteric's volume far beyond normal, sound crept in at a glacial pace but was terribly compressed and pale as sin. Clearly QAT's software volume control had been carefully preset to near mute. This prevented heart-stopping surprises but also meant massive amounts of digital attenuation. Once I reset its software volume to full blast, the world was instantly right again. Some digital attenuation can be harmless; too much never is though.


Navigating the Qapp proved perfectly intuitive. Playlist assembly was a doozy and there were an unlimited number of customizable tags to genrefy not gentrify one's collection for sniper-accurate searches. One could thus tag Adnan Joubran as 'oud', 'arabian', 'fusion', crossover' or anything else that might make his solo album easier to find. Particularly for classical music fans, customizable tags help differentiate between multiple recordings of the same piece by different soloists, orchestras, conductors or even versions. Compiling a playlist of just solo piano music from before 1900 becomes a lot easier now.


The white-on-black Qapp looked good, was very easy to read and could display up to 7 albums across on my horizontal iPad Mini. For most intents and purposes, it seemed a complete natural for iTunes users. Inserting a CD into the Samsung drive automatically brought up the disc icon in the app's task bar. Clicking it showed the tracks, album art and the expected 'import' prompt with 'skip' options for individual tracks. Under 'settings', one could first determine whether imported tracks would format as WAV or FLAC.


To test meta data smarts, I deliberately tried a number of far-off-the-mainstream discs not to listen to but to see whether QAT's app would properly retrieve track titles and album art. Some of those had caused a rather costlier competitor to come up empty-handed. Being a world music fan, many of my discs use non-standard glyphs from, say the Turkish, Greek, Persian and Balkan alphabets. I was thus curious whether and how the app would butcher such album and track titles. As I saw, one 'ü' automatically rendered as a correct 'ue' substitute, various curlicues and accents on vowels and consonants were merely omitted whilst their main letters still rendered unmolested. But things got better still. A Manos Hadjidakis album entitled The C.N.S. Cycle | Kapetan Mihalis which a Greek reader had gifted me with at Munich HighEnd 2014 had always been entirely Greek to me. I couldn't make out a single letter. Now it was rendered in English including all track titles. Brava! That this album's art wasn't retrieved truly didn't factor by contrast.


Ripping progress was dead obvious from the corresponding completion icon next to each finished track. Unlike iTunes, already ripped tracks didn't show as playable until the entire album had imported. I managed to trip up the app on the Erguvan disc of the Dem Ensemble. That wasn't recognized and remained 100% unknown. It would still import of course but required that I add its meta data manually like I had to for my custom compilations. A just as obscure disc by Ali Fuat Aydin & Cenk Güray meanwhile showed up with cover art, perfect track listing and even included special Turkish characters perfectly rendered. In short, not a perfect score (which doesn't exist) but a lot higher meta-data retrieval success than that of prior servers having come through. Go QAT!


After a period of inactivity, the iPad display would revert to basic Apple mode. To reawaken the snoozing QAT display, I'd just press its icon. Seconds later, it revived without any fuss. Pressing the 'about' prompt on the 'tools' page brought up this: "QAT Audio is specialized in the manufacture of high-end music servers and audio equipment. Based in Beijing, China, the company is composed of Red Dot Award-winning designers, a multicultural conglomerate of talented IT geeks, musicians and famous audio engineers from many regions of China." Go tell 'em thought I who by now was really on with it. I'm not a complete computer virgin—I do work on and with these things—but for this type assignment, I still like to act the dithering dunce. After all, isn't the whole purpose of an audiophile music server to appeal to computer-phobic folks? The more dim-witted one can behave and still get these disguised computers to work, the better they've been designed. Here I'd credit QAT with near idiot-proofiness. That sounds disrespectful but is anything but. Making complicated procedures easy is true craft. Clearly our quatters are very crafty IT geeks. They show the proper talent to simplify operations for civilian operators, not only appeal to diehard fellow nerds!


Expectations? Managed!
The exclamation mark in the right place indicates success. My input and source switching adventures quickly netted a very happy conclusion. This skips right over my well-publicized hatred of WiFi. It's what must be used with the RS3 as is true for all its competitors I know of. Without it, one in fact can't do anything with the QAT. Disregarding this very personal reaction to microwave radiation which apparently doesn't bother the vast majority of users, let's talk sonic turkey. First up was one of my compilation CDs. I'd imported it to both iMac and QAT, then sync'd both to start more or less on time. One turn on the La Scala II's input selector toggled between my two digital transports: one the audiophile-disapproved iMac with PureMusic, the other a proper audiophile-approved server for very sane not silly coin.

RS3 with USB-mini connected Samsung disc drive for ripping, Aqua Hifi La Scala II, Lindemann Audio musicbook:15 and Metrum Hex DACs plus Esoteric C-03 and Nagra Jazz preamps.

Now, audiophile turkey tends to be heavily stuffed. Minute differences assume unrealistic proportions. This can lead to badly disappointed shoppers. They expected revelations but got earwax. To unload such comments, let's start by mentioning that the QAT/DAC connection was a simple S/PDIF cable. The iMac/DAC route meanwhile was a USB cable to the battery-powered Audiobyte Hydra+ USB bridge, from there a van den Hul AES/EBU cable to the DAC. Also, PureMusic on the iMac was set to 64-bit NOS-style upsampling to 176.4kHz. In short, a lot of mollycoddling was in place for USB because it makes a difference. Switching between the two parted neither the heavens nor seas. The QAT was a bit crisper and more sharply articulated. The iMac was a bit softer and rounder. That really was it. Which one you'd call better I couldn't say. Some people will spend a lot of money to arrive at that slightly softer cushier gestalt without sacrificing resolution by way of fuzziness. Others prefer a more incisive behaviour because it seems more overtly clear. It's your choice but as such not about class differences, just slightly dissimilar equality. Considering the RS3's greater simplicity and somewhat lower price, I thought that already made it a winner.

Review system with Esoteric C-03, Pass Labs X30.8 and Albedo Audio Aptica speakers.

But there was so much more. How would its built-in converter compare to the €4'890 tube-buffered Italian? After all, the QAT is a complete digital source with analog outputs. The iMac isn't unless we count its infernal 3.5mm headphone socket which, let's agree, we won't. No, to perform, this and any other iMac absolutely demand a quality USB converter. Good ones tend to cost more than the entire QAT. And no, Mr. Q didn't dominate the Aqua which was more dynamic and full-bodied and dense. That said, it came uncomfortably close to the slightly leaner and drier but rhythmically very keen reading of the Metrum Hex whilst being bassier like the Lindemann musicbook:15. Between those and the QAT DAC, the offset was far narrower than it is between my Zu and Sablon power cords. Having done a fair amount of DACing in the ±€3K realm, I'm confident that what's built into the RS3 falls squarely into that camp. That's where things really come to a head. To keep it real, I did a quick online check on pricing of a 2TB internal hard disk—the RS3 is delivered without—and a 1TB SSD. Think ~€100 for the former, ~€400 for the latter. An external CD drive for ripping can be had for less than €50. To that we must add an iPad Mini at €350 (a smart phone's display would be too small to be practical). To acquire a fully working QAT RS3 thus sets one back just shy of €2'000. That's about the price of a basic 27" iMac which we already know won't play tunes as is. To equal the QAT on sonics, you'd need to double your iMac budget. How about aiming lower? A MacBook Air is €899. That leaves just €1'100 for a Mac software player, DAC, decent USB cable and external disc drive.


The way I see it, the upshot is clear. Whilst one perhaps could equal QAT's RS3 with a laptop/DAC combo on price and performance, I think it a bit unlikely. That makes this audiophile server from Beijing the first deck of its sort which I find aggressively competitive on price—here aggro rocks!—and as such a perfectly valid alternative to the generic laptop/PC route. If WiFi isn't a deal breaker for you as it is for me, the QAT RS3 is thus worthy of a wholehearted recommendation. And that's from yours truly as a 'usually servers bore me' reviewer. Some things do change after all. I've been quatted!
 

QAT Audio Technology website