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DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)
C.E.C. DA53N

Price: 4950 zł

Distribution: RCM

ul. Matejki 4, 40-077 Katowice
Tel: (32) 206-40-16, (32) 201-40-96 Fax: (32) 253-71-88



Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski

On the web page of the Polish C.E.C. distributor, the DA53N is listed as a dual-mono DAC. It is built around two separate converter ICs, PCM1796, one for each channel. The analog stage is the LEF module, working in class A single-ended, without a negative feedback loop. The user can also set some of the conversion parameters manually. Dithering is switchable, and a special sound softening filter. There are also three sampling modes available (standard, x2 & x4). The DAC is also equipped with symmetrical (XLR) and unsymmetrical (RCA) analog outputs. The signal to the unit can be supplied from digital sources equipped with optical outputs (TOSLINK), electrical S/PDIF (RCA) and electrical AES/EBU (XLR). It can also work with sources, which provide the digital signal on an USB output. DA35N is also equipped with a headphone amplifier with volume control.

Now because I tested earlier, I believe, all the other products from the “mini” series from this Japanese company, I knew, that inside those enclosures, manufactured in China, there is a lot of interesting technology, and that the sound is more than promising. I liked especially the headphone amplifier HD53N, looking very much like this DAC, and which I tested for “Audio”. The sound was incredibly mature, and the features went far beyond that, what we expect from a headphone amp. So it should not come as a surprise, that paired with the Sennheiser HD800, it was for me the revelation of the test, which was comprised of a few similar devices. The DA53N is also splendidly equipped – as I mentioned in the beginning, we have many inputs, including two USB – a classic one on the back (type B) and mini USB (type A) in the front, there is also a headphone amplifier, and we can even control the volume (in the analog domain). So what is this device? It is hard to say, because this are in reality three devices in one enclosure: a DAC, a preamplifier and a headphone amp. The company emphasizes the first functionality, and the test was conducted with this in mind. Anyway, when we assume, that the standard output voltage for a DAC or CD is 2Vrms, then even if this voltage is variable, we have still a CD/DAC with a variable output, and not a preamplifier. And in the DA53N the (RCA) output voltage is exactly 2Vrms. Let me just add, that for USB connection I used the new Wireworld Ultraviolet 6 cable.


Discs used for testing:

  • Muse, The Resistance, Warner Music Japan, WPZR-30355-6, CD+DVD.
  • Porcupine Tree, The Incident, WHD Entertainment, IECP-10198, 2 x HQCD.
  • Tomasz Stańko Quintet, Dark Eyes, ECM 2115, CD.
  • Frank Sinatra, My Way, Reprise/Universal Music Company/Sinatra Society of Japan, UICY-94368, SHM-CD.
  • Hank Mobley, Soul Station, Blue Note/Audio Wave, AWMXR-0001, XRCD24.

This test was done a bit different than usual, I wanted to escape routine for awhile. I listened to the mentioned discs in short intervals, and made my notes while doing so. For comparison I used my new Ancient Audio Lektor (I do not know the name yet), which worked also as a transport. Plugging in an old Pioneer DVD worked also, but the sound was better with a good transport. I spent also some time switching between the two oversampling filters and upsampling. For me, without a doubt, the best sound was in the last setting – it was fuller, warmer and I just liked it better. And although we can read in the manual, that jitter is higher while using upsampling (what is understandable) and if we have a good transport, we can try out other settings. But for me, even with the Lektor, it was better, when the “UPS” indicator was lit.

Frank Sinatra My Way
This is a beautiful disc, and in the version prepared by the Sinatra Society of Japan is for me the master issue of this title. Its sound is full, and slightly warm, with Sinatra’s voice located quite close, with a nice, clear shape. The CEC DAC, when switched over from the Ancient Audio, showed thinner sound, without such nicely modeled depth and with slightly stronger treble. The latter was especially well audible during Didn’t We, a slowly developing piece, where the voice enters together with some noise. With my player, and also the DP-700 Accuphase, this was clearly audible, but there was no way of talking about “being noisy” – you could hear that like analog LP noise, like something “behind” music. CEC combines the two – music and mastering errors (because noise is just an error, even when being a result of the recording technology). My God! – the same thing is done by most players up to the level of 20000zl and more. SACD players, with a well recorded disc of that type, handle this better, because there the sound is placed “in front of” any noise. And the Japanese DAC does not stand out of the crowd in this aspect. But it also gives more than I could expect, especially in terms of timbre. The sound, although thinner than with my gear, was – for the given money – very nice and fluent. Sinatra’s voice, was strong and big. The same was true for the orchestra, arranged and led by the infallible Don Costa, which, in the title track My Way, could hit in an instant, without big compression and any trace of brightening, but with vast dynamics. There we could also hear, that the treble was a bit more lighted, but this was not in the sub-range, that is responsible for “brightening” or “sharpness”, but the higher one, which makes the sound “fresh” and “open”.

Tomasz Stańko Dark Eyes
In the very beginning, with my favorite – for the moment – Terminal 7, the splendid dynamics of this DAC became visible. The stage was a bit closer to the listener than normal, and the back “wall” was not especially far, but at the same time there was no disorder on the stage, as if the CEC could keep reason and measure, within its boundaries of course. This is a disc, which is technically quite difficult, but the Japanese DAC showed the guitar with large reverb very well, as well as the, quite dry, percussion, showing nicely the differences in their character, and what the sound engineer made with them. But the most important thing was, that the continuity of the sound was preserved, its coherence. The flaws of this device, a not so expensive one we must notice, were quite evident, because the sound was not as 3D, or as deep in reverb, but those things were really quite minor. It was also surprising, that the cymbals seemed more saturated and “present” with the DAC. After some switching (the DAC was connected to the digital output of the Lektor – which uses the Philips CD-Pro2 LF drive – and connected to one of the inputs of the preamplifier with the same kind of cable as the Lektor) it turned out, that this is the result of slight boost of the treble, maybe the part I was talking about earlier, and the close placement of the stage. This is a departure from neutrality (of course a subjective one, as assumed by me), but going in the right direction – in cheaper systems the DAC will sound in a saturated, full way, which should leverage dryness and/or lower resolution of amplifiers and loudspeakers.

Porcupine Tree The Incident
I own this disc in a Japanese, two disc version HiQuality CD and I taste it in small quantities. As usual with progressive bands of that kind, it seems to me, that they issue discs, that are too long. A format known from LPs, around 35-40 minutes, is optimal for me. But this is a splendid disc, and when listened to in this way, in installments, it is “absorbed” easily. And although Steve Wilson, vocalist and moving spirit of Porcupine Tree is a freak in terms of sound quality (he was present at re-mastering of the King Crimson discs to DVD-Audio), still the rock format has its limitations. And this can be heard stronger with the CEC, than with more expensive players. The device performed splendidly in softer fragments, like a more expensive unit, showing nice depth and timbre.

But when action got denser, with slight compression, the sound got more chaotic, there was no clear difference in positioning of the instruments on the stage, when the sound came from the same direction (like a voice, and a processed voice, with long reverb beneath it). But this happens often to inexpensive digital devices, and in that aspect, inexpensive turntables fare better, because not being especially resolving, they keep the specific timbre of each disc, what makes them “organize” everything better. But this is not a problem of CEC, but digital technology as a whole. But for the given money we will not find better sound, rather worse. Because the CEC preserved the overall politeness of the sound, and had splendid dynamics.

Muse The Resistance
Talking about Porcupine Tree I had to take their newest album Muse. I also bought it in Japan, on CD Japan, but the problems with mastering could not be avoided even there. Anyway I like that music… The biggest issue is the coarsely recorded voice of the singer, which can be heard as if it would be very compressed and clipped almost all the time. The CEC sounded dynamically and slightly “boosted”. Everything was a bit bigger and more expressive than with my Lektor. That made the voice stand even closer, and its problems even more audible. But still the DA53N handled the whole well – some things just cannot be overcome for this money.

Hank Mobley Soul Station
And finally I returned to Jazz, and that from the top shelf. The company Wave Audio recently started a project to re-edit Blue Note recordings in the XRCD24format, and Mobley is the first disc from the series. Returning to well recorded material with only a handful of instruments showed, that the CEC handles that best. It will be good with rock and similar music, better than with comparable players for the money (with a transport, additional power cord and digital cable it will come at around 10000zl). But with this music the DAC will fully show its assets: good tonal balance, very good resolution, for the money, and juiciness of sound. But we could also hear, that the sound is a tad boosted, but it all will combine into a lively, dynamic and very smooth transmission. In comparison with expensive digital sources, it will be heard, that the sound is slightly simplified, that Mobley’s sax is a bit more “plastic”, but we will not have a “rejection phase”. The CEC fits easily in many different hardware configurations, and should disappoint nobody. This is not hi-end, but for a really reasonable price, we get a classy, “material” sound.

DA53N as a headphone amplifier
In this role the CEC also behaves splendidly, although it should be mentioned clearly, that the HD53N, dedicated to this function, is a much better choice. This because the DA muffles the sound a little, as if it would be frightened to sound in a more dynamic way. It was immediately clear with the HD800. But with less expensive headphones, like the AKG K601 it was much more pleasurable. It was still a very resolved, and well defined sound, only in the middle the reverb is extinguished quickly, and the sound does not “get loose” as well as with the HD. The nature of the recordings, their characteristics, including recording quality, studio signature, etc, were really well defined. In that aspect, the Benchmark DAC-1 USB was better, but the CEC was really not far behind. Frankly speaking, it performed better in that role, than any headphone amplifier I heard in in the 2000-2500 price range. And this is only an “addition” to the DAC.

And finally a few words about the USB input. Although the manual talks about the possibility to supply the CEC with high sampling rates via the USB, I was not able to do that. I used my laptop HP Pavilion Entertainment PC and the Foobar 2000 player. I have not encountered such problems before, but here the sound was always downsampled to 48 or 44.1 kHz. I think, that it is an error, that the unit cannot play HD files. Anyway, describing the sound from the USB input I can talk only about files ripped from CD. The sound is very pleasant, much better than with the Cambridge Audio DacMagic. It has no annoying colorings, it is smooth, and only weaker dynamics show, that this was not a priority for the constructors. The DVD 24/96 sounded very well played through the coaxial input. Unfortunately during the test I had no devices at my disposal, that would be able to provide a signal with 192kHz, but those should be available soon, then we will have the opportunity to process Blu-ray disc signals.


The DA53N DAC is a small device, placed inside an aluminum enclosure, which was made in China. The unit had a very low profile, yet on the front panel there are quite many elements. To the right we have a volume knob, then a display with a reflective cover, then three buttons for selecting filters and inputs, a headphone socket, USB input (mini-B) and a power switch. The back plate is also full. There is a pair of XLR outputs, a pair of RCA outputs, and a switch we use to change the work mode – the output can have a fixed or variable voltage – when set to the second mode, the knob on the front panel is used to control volume. And finally we have the digital inputs – USB (type B), TOSLINK, RCA and AES/EBU. The USB 1.1 input accepts only – a pity! – signals up to 48kHz. Fortunately the RCA and AES/EBU accept signals up to 192kHz! Super! And only the optical input has a 96kHz limit. To the side there is also an IEC power socket.

The circuit inside is mounted on one big PCB. It is built around big 1798-CI modules from the company CC tech, where the I/V conversion, amplification and volume control take place. In front of those we can see the very nice D/A converters PCM1796 from Burr-Brown. On the output we can see also relays. The digital inputs are treated differently – the USB inputs have the PCM2707 chips installed, one for each input. Those are also D/A converters, but here only the receivers are used. This is not a very good IC, and this is also the reason, the HD signals are not accepted. We should add, that the signal coming from the digital inputs are transferred to the AKM AK4115 receiver, which has a PLL loop built in – the chip has a very low jitter. The CEC has an upsampler – based on the AKM AK4125 chip, usually used by this company. This is an asynchronous upsampler 24/192, a very nice one. It is interesting, that the company materials state, that the DA53N works only with a frequency of 96kHz. This frequency must have been chosen after listening sessions. The power supply is of the switching kind, but has separate sections for the digital and analog parts. The voltages are additionally filtered near the circuits they supply, but still it is a switching power supply, and not a line one.

Technical data (according to manufacturer): Input sampling rates:
USB 1.1: 32-48kHz
AES/EBU: 32-192kHz
RCA: 32-192kHz
TOSLINK: 32-96kHz
Frequency response: 20Hz-20kHz (+0/-0.2dB; DF=FLAT)
XLR: 125dB(2=hot)
RCA: 102dB
Output voltage (FIXED):
XLR: 1.4V RMS (2=hot)
Output voltage (VARIABLE):
XLR: 4V RMS (2=hot)
Power consumption: 16W
Weight: 2.5kg
Dimensions (WxDxH): 218 x 340 x 58mm

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  • CD player: Ancient Audio Lektor Prime (tested HERE)
  • Phono preamp: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC (tested HERE)
  • Preamp: Leben RS-28CX (tested HERE; soon to be changed to Polaris II, tested HERE)
  • Power amp: Luxman M-800A (tested HERE)
  • Integrated amp: Leben CS300 (reviewed HERE)
  • Loudspeakers: Harpia Acoustics Dobermann (tested HERE)
  • headphones: AKG K701, Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, 600 Ω version (reviewed HERE, HERE, and HERE)
  • interconnects: CD-preamp: Wireworld Gold Eclipse 52 (tested HERE; soon to be changed to Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, article HERE), preamp-power amp: Velum NF-G SE (tested HERE)
  • speaker cable: Velum LS-G (tested HERE)
  • power cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9100 (CD; reviewed HERE) and 2 x Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC7100 (preamp, power amp (reviewed HERE)
  • power conditioning: Gigawatt PF-2 Filtering Power Strip (reviewed HERE)
  • audio stand Base
  • resonance control: Finite Elemente Ceraball under the CD (article HERE ) Turntables change continuously, as do cartridges. My dream setup: SME 30 with Series V tone-arm and Air Tight PC-1 cartridge (also in the PC-1 Mono version).