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This review first appeared in the March 2010 issue of hi-end hifi magazine High Fidelity of Poland. You can also read this review of the C.E.C. DA53N in its original Polish version. We publish its English translation in a mutual syndication arrangement with publisher Wojciech Pacula. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end shows an e-mail address should you have questions or wish to send feedback. All images contained in this review are the property of High Fidelity or C.E.C. - Ed.

Reviewer: Wojciech Pacu
Review system: Go here

Review component retail: zł 4.950

The website of the Polish C.E.C. importer lists the DA53N as a dual-mono DAC built around two separate PCM1796 chips, one per channel. The analog stage is the LEF module working in class A single-ended mode without negative feedback. The user can set some of the conversion parameters manually. Dithering is switchable as is a soft filter. There are also three sampling modes (standard, x 2 and x 4) and the DAC is equipped with symmetrical and unsymmetrical analog outputs. The digital signal to the unit can be supplied via optical, coaxial, AES/EBU and USB. The DA35N is also equipped with a headphone output with analog volume control.

Because I’ve already reviewed what I believe were all the other models in this Japanese company’s mini series, I knew that inside those enclosures manufactured in China hides a lot of interesting technology and that the sound should be more than promising. I especially adored the HD53N headphone amplifier which looks very much like this DAC and which I tested for Audio. The sound was incredibly mature and the features went far beyond what we expect from a headphone amp. It should come as no surprise that when paired with the Sennheiser HD800, that particular review became a personal revelation.

The DA53N too is splendidly fitted including a classic type B USB on the back and a mini type B on the front. So what exactly is this C.E.C.? It’s three devices in one: a DAC, a digital-inputs preamplifier and a headphone amp. The company emphasizes the first functionality and I conducted the review accordingly. If we assume that the standard output voltage for a DAC or CD is 2Vrms, then even if this voltage was variable, we'd still have a CD/DAC—just with a variable output—and not a preamplifier. In the DA53N the RCA max output voltage is exactly 2Vrms. Let me just add that for the USB connection I used the new Wireworld Ultraviolet 6 cable.

Sound: 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.

I did this review a bit differently than usual to escape routine. I listened to the above discs in short intervals and made my notes. For comparison I used my new Ancient Audio Lektor Air which also worked as transport. Plugging in an old Pioneer DVD worked too but the sound was better with a good transport. I spent some time switching between the two oversampling filters and upsampling. Without a doubt, the best sound for me was in the last setting. It was fuller, warmer and I simply preferred it. Although the manual states that jitter is higher with upsampling (understandable) and that if we have a good transport, we should try the other settings, for me even with the Lektor the lit 'UPS' indicator was best.

Frank Sinatra My Way: This is a beautiful disc and in the Sinatra Society of Japan issue we have the master of this title. Its sound is full and slightly warm, with Sinatra’s voice located quite close in a nicely clear shape. When switching over from the Ancient Audio deck, the C.E.C. showed a thinner sound without as nicely modeled depth but a slightly stronger treble. The latter was especially audible during "Didn’t We", a slowly developing number where the voice enters together with some noise. With my player and also the DP-700 Accuphase, this was clearly audible but not a matter of being noisy per se. It was like analog LP noise instead, behind the music. The C.E.C. combined the two, music and mastering errors (because noise is just an error even as a result of the recording technology). The same thing is done by most players up to 20000zl and higher. With a well recorded disc of that type, SACD players handle this better because there the sound is placed in front of any noise. Here the Japanese DAC did not stand out from the crowd. But it also gave more than expected especially in timbre. Although thinner than my reference gear, the sound for the money was 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, would hit in an instant without audible compression or any trace of brightening but vast dynamics. Here the treble again was a bit more lit up but this was not in the range that’s responsible for brightness or sharpness but rather higher to make the sound fresh and open.

Tomasz Stańko Dark Eyes: In the very beginning of my currently favorite track "Terminal 7", the fine dynamics of this DAC became visible. The stage was a bit closer than normal and the back wall was not especially distant but at the same time there was no disorder on the stage - as though the C.E.C. maintained firm reason and measure within its boundaries. This is a disc that's technically quite difficult but the Japanese DAC showcased the guitar’s lengthy reverb very well. Ditto the quite dry percussion. It nicely demonstrated their differences in character and how the sound engineer set them.

But the most important thing was that the continuity and coherence of the sound was preserved. The flaws of this machine—one that's not very expensive we must remember—were quite evident because the sound was not as three-dimensional nor the reverb as pronounced. Still, those items were really quite minor. It was also surprising that the cymbals seemed more saturated and present over the DAC. After some switching (the DAC was connected to the digital output of the Lektor’s Philips CD-Pro2 LF drive and to one of the inputs of the preamplifier with the same cable as the Lektor), it turned out that this was due to a slight treble lift plus the closer placement of the stage. This was a departure from neutrality—subjectively only of course and only as assumed by me—but in the right direction. In cheaper systems the DAC will sound saturated and full to leverage the dryness and/or lower resolution of more affordable amplifiers and loudspeakers.

Porcupine Tree The Incident: I own this disc in a Japanese two-disc HiQuality CD version and sample it in small quantities. As usual with progressive bands of this kind, it seems to me that they issue discs that are too long. A 35 - 40 minutes format as with LPs is ideal for me. But this is a splendid disc and when listened to in installments, is absorbed easily. While Steve Wilson, vocalist and moving spirit of Porcupine Tree, is a freak for sound quality (he was present at the re-mastering of the King Crimson discs to DVD-A), the rock format still has its limitations. This could be heard stronger with the C.E.C. than more expensive players. The device performed wonderfully during the softer fragments however and just like a more expensive unit threw nice depth and evinced good timbres.

When the action got denser, things slightly compressed, the sound became more chaotic and there was no distinct difference of instrumental positioning on stage, like when sounds came from the same direction (say a voice and a processed voice with a long reverb below it). But this happens often with inexpensive digital. In that regard, inexpensive turntables fare better. Not being especially resolving, they maintain the specific timbre of each disc which better organizes everything. This is no shortcoming of the C.E.C.then but digital technology on a whole. Yet for the given money we will not find better sound. The C.E.C. preserved the overall politeness of the sound and had very lively dynamics.

Muse The Resistance: Talking about Porcupine Tree, I had to take on their newest album Muse. I also bought it in Japan but the mastering problems could not be avoided even here. Anyway, I like that music. The biggest issue is the coarsely recorded singer whose voice sounds very compressed and clipped almost constantly. The CEC sounded dynamically slightly boosted. Everything was a bit bigger and more expressive than with my Lektor. That brought the voice even closer and its problems more to the fore. But still the DA53N handled the whole well. Some things just cannot be overcome for this type of coin.