First Impression: CEC HD53N

I did not have the opportunity to take the amplifier back to Headfonia’s office to do a thorough evaluation, so these impressions were taken during a critical listening session on Music By Design’s premises (Hence the title: First Impression). Music By Design distributes high end audio gears as well as Grado products in several countries in South East Asia, and I found their shop to provide a good and quiet ambiance for doing critical listening. I only have the Ipod Classic with me, connected using a DIY LOD-to-RCA cable using a Canare Starquad cable. The cans used is the HD800 that I’m very familiar with. I’d also like to give credit to Jaben for providing the location for the photo session.

You can take this review with a grain of salt, since it’s not done in the usual review settings, but I believe that this should help people in narrowing down their choices in looking for good headphone amplifier. It’s also unfortunate that I didn’t have the balanced HD800 cable with me during this audition, so I was only testing it in single ended. In my experience, however, balanced drive doesn’t alter the sound character of an amplifier, so, what I’ll describe in the sound signature should be still relevant ifΒ  you plan to use it for balanced operation.

My humble source for this review sounded great through the HD53N.

 

During this time I also auditioned the Burson HA-160, the Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear, and the Musica 40 amplifiers, all of which I find to have a distinct enough sound from each other. I was also impressed in how flexible the HD800 was during this listening, as the HD800 was able to have multiple characters depending on the amplifier being used.

The CEC HD53N stood out among the four amplifiers as being the sweetest sounding amplifier in the bunch. It is very musical in the sense of being slightly warm, having enough mellow quality in the sound, yet possessing top notch clarity and detail. Warm and liquid sound without the muddyness. The sound is very liquid, but it never lacks clarity. It’s probably the best combination between warm and detail. Although the description of warm yet detailed has been used in almost every other review of an audio gear, I do find that the HD53N is the best rendition of that “warm and yet detailed sound” among all the amplifiers that I have had the pleasure of auditioning.

When I heard the HD53N amplifier, the sound really reminded me of the TL51XZ CD Player. Both equipments really share the same CEC house sound. The sound is fairly unique. For example, take the WooAudio6 that I’ve reviewed with the Sophia Princess tube a while ago. The WooAudio 6 is warm, detailed, full bodied and with a powerful impact. The CEC HD53N is also warm, detailed, and full bodied (though not as impactful as the WooAudio6), but the CEC differs in that it has a more airy sound signature than the WooAudio6 which emphasizes more on low end body. Although warm and full bodied often means that you will also lose some airiness, it was not so with the HD53N. And while I found that the WooAudio 6 with the Sophia Princess have a superb soundstage imaging performance, I didn’t find it to sound as open as in the HD53N (of course I’m talking from memory here). And each instruments are also further separated with an overall larger soundstage than what I remembered hearing in the WooAudio6 + Sophia Princess set up. This was using a humble Ipod Classic as the source.


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42 Comments

  • Reply May 8, 2010

    Eugen

    I have it. I agree with your review for the most part, but sorry to say, If you didn't hear it balanced you have no idea how it really sounds.:)

    Nice photo skills!

    • Reply May 8, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Eugen, nice to hear from an owner's perspective! Yes it's a shame I didn't have my balanced cable with me then. Perhaps you can share a balanced to SE impression on the HD53N?

      Just to clarify, as I didn't have the means to test it, can you feed SE signal and get balanced out from the HD53N?

  • Reply May 10, 2010

    Eugen

    Yes, you can feed it SE signal and balanced out.

    My main headphone is the Grado HF2 … balanced, the CEC HD53N it doubles it's soundstage, tightens up the bass, but most of all it lifts a veil from the music, the detail is unbelievable – at first I thought it's got to be brighter but it's not, the listening fatigue is lower despite of the incredible detail and airiness.

    To me the amp in it's SE form is MUCH worse than balanced. Is the beta22 the same?

    • Reply May 10, 2010

      Mike

      I'm familiar with the Grado HF2, and one of the weakness of the HF2 is soundstage, and if balanced on the HD53N really opens up the soundstage, then it's a must to drive these balanced!

      When you say that SE is MUCH worse than balanced, I can see what you mean. I was listening to a balanced UM Mage and JH13 Pro the other day on the Protector, and even on a small amp as the Protector, you don't want to listen in single ended after you've listened to balanced. The difference is enough to say "night and day". But at the end of the day, amplifier sinergy, ultimately is still more important than having a balanced drive.

      The SE form of Beta22 is not as good as the Balanced version. Still I won't say that it's MUCH worse, because in single ended it's already a very good amp.

      Cheers.

  • Reply May 10, 2010

    Eugen

    Also, what I noticed on all other solid state amps I heard except this one, they're all grainy compared with the CEC … even if some of them have a more dynamic sound.

    I didn't hear the Beta22 but I might hear the AudioGD ROC … I know a guy that has one .. maybe those two can compare.

    • Reply May 10, 2010

      Mike

      I Eugen,
      The CEC does sound exceedingly smooth, so it's logical that other solid states sound grainier compared to it. Even the Beta22 is not as smooth as the CEC. That said, the CEC sound is not for everyone, and some people might want a little grainier sound and a little more PRaT if they're listening to Rock.

  • Reply May 27, 2010

    Jay K

    That looks like an interesting amp. Would be great if you could take some more internal pics. I’m curious if it’s a truly balanced amp.

    BTW, do you know the price that Jaben is selling?

    • Reply May 28, 2010

      Mike

      Unfortunately I don't own it. Doubt they'll let me open it up to take internal photos. Perhaps someone else can help there.

      It should be a true balanced amp, otherwise how can you drive all four signals?

      The price should roughly be U$1,000.

  • Reply July 30, 2010

    Stephen

    Hi,

    An interesting review.

    Is it precise on details but analytical yet boring like many other Japanese amps? I'm more into musical one.

    • Reply July 30, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Stephen,
      The HD53N is nothing analytical or boring. It is one of the most pleasing amplifiers I've heard, and the soundstage and instrument separation is amazing on this amp, even only running single ended.

      • Reply August 4, 2010

        Stephen

        Thanks for the reply Mike.

        Is it wide or deep 3D soundstage? More into forward or laid-back?

        Do you have any other recommendation for a balanced musical sounding amp other than this CEC?

        Thanks Mike, would really appreciate your reply.

        • Reply August 4, 2010

          Mike

          Hi Stephen. The soundstage is wide and deep 3D with very good separation. One of the best I've heard. More into laid back than forward (this was with the HD800 which tend to be more laid back than forward). It's an easy amp to like.

          At the moment, the only other recommendation I can make is the Beta22, but the CEC HD53N is quite special in its own regards, and is built better, and it cost less than the parts of a Balanced Beta22.

          • Reply August 12, 2010

            Stephen

            Hey Mike, sorry for the late reply.

            So it's SS amp but sounds like tubey?

            Anyway, have you heard RSA Apache, Eddie Current Balancing Act, or SPL Auditor? Yeah they are obviously much more expensive. But CEC is quite competitive compared to Beta22 in your review, I'm wondering where it stands against those giants?

            Thank you Mike.

            • Reply August 12, 2010

              Mike

              Hi Stephen,
              No I haven’t heard the Apache or the Balancing Act. I’ve always been interested in the Balancing Act, but no budget to get it. πŸ™ The Auditor is very neutral as a monitoring amplifier, it may lack the usual flavoring that music listeners want in their amplifiers.

            • Reply August 13, 2010

              Mike

              Hi Stephen,
              Here is my review of the SPL Auditor and Phonitor: http://headfonia.com/spls-phonitor-and-audito

  • Reply August 18, 2010

    Albert

    Hello Mike,

    It's interesting that this amp is warm yet detailed. Does it presentation comparable (or maybe better) against tube amp in terms of warm, smooth, rich, liquid and lush sounds? I love delicate vocals.

    But I guess this solid state CEC win hands down in terms of dynamics, transients, separation and soundstage compared to tube amp, am I wrong?

    I got Woo or Little Dot in my mind by the way.

    Thanks Mike.

    • Reply August 20, 2010

      Albert

      No response Mike?

      Take your time πŸ™‚

      Albert

    • Reply August 20, 2010

      Mike

      Sorry for the late reply Albert. Sometimes comments get buried and yada yada yada excuses… πŸ˜‰

      Vocals should be delicate with this CEC. If you like a mellow, romantic presentation, then you would like this CEC. It may not be as liquid and lush as some tube amps, but if you really want a liquid and lush sound you'll be better off getting a tube amp with that signature.

      What I find to be unique is how the CEC can blend transparency and detail with a very warm and romantic sound. Often warm sounding amps are not as transparent as neutral sounding ones. Definitely one of the best attempt at combining the two characters on the CEC.

      It's a very good amp, but if you want me to compare it to a Little Dot or to a Woo, then I've got to do an A-B comparison to be sure. However compared to the Woo6 which I'm very familiar with, the CEC remains unique. The Woo6 is more energetic compared to the CEC, but the CEC's presentation has a "grander" feel to it — bigger soundstage, instrument separation among other things.

      πŸ™‚

  • Reply October 9, 2010

    Karl

    Hi Mike,
    It may help to know that the CEC has a unique amplifier circuitry, so it might be not so surprising how this amp differs from the mainstream. I know other CEC amplifier and got the same impression as you described. To me the CECs doesn’t sound typically Japanese at all.
    Would you agree to say that it takes the best of both worlds: tube and solid state? Did you do the balanced check meanwhile as Eugen suggested? It seems there are more voices confirming a rather vast improvement.

    • Reply October 9, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Karl, yes the CEC HD53N successfully combined the best of tubes and solid state. I don't personally own the amp, so I can't try it out in balanced. πŸ™‚

  • Reply October 9, 2010

    Mike

    Can anybody tell me what this is?

    http://www.phileweb.com/news/photo/201010/ippin-2

    • Reply October 25, 2010

      Karl

      Hi Mike,

      I was digging a little about CEC stuff. The pic. shows DA53N, a DAC with USB and a quite good headphone amp. It seems to be very popular in Japan.

      In Japan and Europe it seems it is openly known that the CECs are made and designed by Candeias which is German origin and has a manufacturing in China. Might explain the non Japanese sound.

      • Reply October 25, 2010

        Mike

        Interesting, Karl. They do print the Candeias company name on CEC gear, but I never really know where this company is based. In a way, I think the sound is still more Japanese than German. It's warm and romatinc sounding. Germans are not like that. πŸ˜€

        I think Lehmann amps have a true German sound. Precision, clarity, accuracy, and so on. πŸ˜€

        • Reply October 26, 2010

          Karl

          Hi Mike,

          This name is definitely Latin. There is a holiday place in Brasil called Candeias, but this is more for listening to wind and waves πŸ™‚

          Just google the name and you found more brands made by them: AQVOX and B.M.C. audio, both in Germany. B.M.C. definitely worth a closer look.

          The Lehmann is not my favorite. I'm looking for an amp without so much specific German or whatever character. This is how I got caught by the CEC integrated amps.

          • Reply October 26, 2010

            Mike

            I know, Karl. I was just joking. πŸ™‚

  • Reply October 28, 2010

    Tiago

    Hi Mike,

    I wonder if you have tried the CEC HD53 with low impedance phones such as JH13. Can this amp compete with tube amps such as WA2 ?. If not, do you have a solid state recommendation for the JH13?. Thanks. T

    • Reply October 28, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Tiago, I don't think the amplifier requirement for the JH13 is very high. I've personally never used the JH13 with big desktop amps like the WA2 or the HD53 CEC. I did try my UM Mage with the Beta22 once, just for fun, but it was way too impractical for everyday use. Besides, full size headphones make more sense with a desktop system.

  • Reply January 12, 2011

    Steve

    Mike, who sells the CEC HD53 in the USA? I'm looking for a SS amp to complement my tube amps (Zana Deux SE and Luxman SQ-N100). Currently my leading candidate is the Burson 160D. In reading your review of the Burson 160, I just became aware of the CEC amp and there has not been much discussion of this amp on Head-fi that I'm aware of. I currently own the LCD2, HE6, LA7000 (Lawton Audio modified D7000), HD800, T1, K340 and HD650. My musical interests are vocals, classic rock, and some jazz and blues. Between the Burson 160D and the CEC HD53, which do you recommend? I just discovered this site and I like your reviews. Thanks.

    • Reply January 13, 2011

      Mike

      Hi Steve,
      You can try audiocubes, they do carry the amp and I believe the price is right at $999: http://bit.ly/hmxEtw. Briefly between the Burson and the CEC HD53N:
      – CEC is more romantic, sweeter sounding, more tube-amp like.
      – Burson is more forward, aggressive, better PRaT.
      – CEC would be better for classic rock, vocals, jazz, and blues.
      – Burson would be better for progressive rock, alternative, electronics.

      I did the listening impressions of the CEC with the HD800. And so it should be able to drive the LCD-2, LA7000, T1, and HD650 quite well. However, I am not so sure about the HE-6. The Burson definitely can drive the HE-6 as I've tested it. The CEC does come with a speaker taps at the back, rated 18W at 4 ohms, so perhaps the HE-6 can be driven directly from the speaker taps.

  • Reply January 15, 2011

    Steve

    Mike,
    Does the CEC HD53N come in universal voltage for 120v operation in the USA or would I need a step up transformer? Since Audiocubes sells direct from Japan, if it doesn't have universal voltage capability then I would have to purchase a step up transformer. Thanks again.

    Steve

    • Reply January 15, 2011

      Steve

      Mike,
      Sorry but I meant I would need to buy a step down transformer for operation in the USA. Right?

      Steve

    • Reply January 15, 2011

      Mike

      Steve,
      I think CEC makes their product to cover global voltages, since they have distributors in almost every continent. I think it'll be best to email audiocubes and ask about what voltage you'll be getting. If there is a voltage mismatch, you can get a step/up/down anytime, but if that's the case, I'll probably try to find another distributor that can supply the correct voltage that you need.

  • Reply February 21, 2011

    allen

    could you drive k1000s out of the speaker taps?

    • Reply February 22, 2011

      Anonymous

      I suppose you can, with 50W of power. But I don’t have a K1000 and so I
      can’t test it. It should also work with the HE-6 I think.

  • Reply March 10, 2011

    jason

    Hi mike,
    great review. Have you ever tried this amp with cec’s headphone?
    It’s one of the best matchs i’ve ever heard. And i also think that
    If you didn’t hear it balanced you have no idea how it really sounds.

    My gear: Tl51x>dx71 mkii>hd53n>hp53 FB

    • Reply March 10, 2011

      Anonymous

      You lucky man! No, I have not tried any of the CEC headphone.

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