Citypulse Audio DA-2.03e USB DAC

Citypulse Audio DA-2.03e USB DAC

Digital With A Heart


November, 2011



Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to spend some time with the wonderful Esoteric SA-50 SACD player. On top of being a wonderful player, it could also be used as a standalone DAC or preamp. When I had to send it back to Esoteric, it left a bit of a void in my system. I had gotten used to running my Apple TV music streaming device into it and thus having access to my entire iTunes library that I could play through my reference system. Then along came Stephen Monte of Bensalem, Pennsylvania-based NAT Distribution. Monte has been distributing wonderful bang-for-the-buck products (many from China) for years and always seems to come up with the right product at the right time. This time he had a remote controlled DAC that could also be used as a preamp and a headphone amp, the $795.00 Citypulse Audio DA-2.03e USB DAC.

Citypulse Audio was established in July of 2005. They have been successfully producing hi-fi audio components in Guangdong, China through the intense research and development efforts of their designers, who have been in the audio industry for more than 15 years. Citypulse Audio makes products specifically designed for hi-fi and PC-based audio systems.

At first glance the DA-2.03e USB DAC is reminiscent of the wonderful Benchmark Media DAC1 USB ($1,295), though the DAC1 USB has a slightly better level of fit-n-finish and offers balanced (XLR) digital inputs and outputs and two headphone jacks. Of course the DAC1 USB also costs $500.00 more than the Citypulse DAC. 

Looks Like A Bargain


The DA-2.03e’s black anodized chassis measures about 10” wide x 2.5” high and 11” deep and weighs only about ten pounds. The neatly laid out silver brushed aluminum faceplate holds the power toggle switch, headphone jack and a row of seven soft-touch buttons with LEDs to let you select the upsampling mode (Fs-Auto, 88.2KHz, 96.0KHz) and the input (Aux, USB, Optical, Coax). The rear panel holds three digital inputs (Coax, Optical, USB), one analogue input and fixed and variable outputs. There’s also an AC power cord connector which allows the use of aftermarket AC cords.

Internally, the DA-2.03e is all business. You’ll find a CS8416 digital encoding chip and a PCM1796 DAC chip, which supports 24bit/192KHz upsampling. There’s also a high quality headphone amplifier and a relatively massive toroidal transformer. The whole thing is nicely laid out and meticulously assembled. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a set of headphones on hand, so I can’t comment on the headphone amp’s performance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if headphone junkies found this to be an additional enticement to buy.

All the flexibility that the DA-2.03e provides, allowed me to connect my Apple TV (optical), Oppo Digital DV-980H universal disc player (coax) and HP ProBook laptop (USB) to my reference system. Because the unit has variable and fixed outputs I was able to use it as a preamp to connect directly to a power amp. I had just gotten a pair of the brilliant new Classe’ Audio CA-M600 mono amps in for review (coming soon) and decided to run the DA-2.03e’s variable outputs directly into the Classe’ amps. Big mistake. There was an obvious impedance mismatch which resulted in an audible hum that I couldn’t tame. So I downsized the amps to the always reliable Soaring audio SLC A300 stereo amp and away went the hum. Musically, the sound of the DA-2.03e through the soaring wasn’t bad at all. I listened to all 18 tracks of Andreas Vollenweider’s Book of Roses [Columbia] and came away with the feeling that there is probably a much better match for this unit as a preamp than what I had on hand, so I won’t spend much time discussing its abilities as a preamp. My guess would be that a low powered tube amp will probably do the trick.

Sounds Like A Bargain
But for all its flexibility, the DA-2.03e is primarily a DAC and that is how I primarily used it. I really had a blast when I connected my Apple TV to the DA-2.03e via a fiber optic cable and then connected the DAC to an XLH SL-11XS preamp. My iTunes library is growing by leaps and bounds and I now find myself spending hours listening to stuff I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to, like The Most Essential Classical Music In Movies [Various Artists, 2009 X5 Music Group]. This iTunes download is a compilation of 49 classical songs used in motion pictures. If you’ve ever wanted to explore classical music in a way that makes it accessible, this is an easy way to dip your toe into the deep end and enjoy music performed by some of the world’s most renowned orchestras. One of my favorite tracks from this download is “Adagio for Strings”, performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra & Andrew Schenck. This piece of music is from the haunting soundtrack of the movie Platoon. The orchestra sounds huge, though not overwhelmingly so played through the DA-2.03e. Strings sounded natural and not at all edgy or bright, and the deep bass was well articulated and sounded as though it came from an instrument and not a synthesizer. I also enjoyed listening to the “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 In G Major” by the Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra. Again, the strings were fleshed out nicely on this piece without being too harsh or grating on the ears. Just for the sake of comparison, I used an Entreq Audio USB cable to connect my HP ProBook laptop and accessed that same downloads and listened to the same music. There was noticeably more air to the music and a greater sense of realism to the soundstage and instruments. I got the feeling though that this had more to do with the Entreq USB cable compared to the cheap Monster Cable fiber optic cable I used on the Apple TV.

Despite reports to the contrary, I’ve found the quality of these downloads to be fairly satisfying; not SACD quality, but not bad either. I’ve also been using this device to listen to internet radio. There’s a shockingly endless variety of music to via the web and it is all rendered well through the DA-2.03e, even the stuff I heard on the reggae station.

But I’ve not yet made the commitment to computer-based music systems. So for my hardcore listening sessions, I ran the Oppo’s coaxial outputs into the City Pulse DAC’s coaxial inputs and then connected the DAC’s fixed analog outputs to the XLH preamp which in turn fed a pair of the excellent new Classe’ Audio CA-M600 mono amps. This system drove my reference Escalante Fremont and Dynaudio Sapphire loudspeakers. The whole system was connected with Entreq Audio Konstantin 09 cables. The speakers were placed about 4’ from the back wall and 12’ apart. My listening position is normally 12’ from the speakers. The Oppo and the Citypulse DAC sat on the gorgeous Adona Corporation Zero GXT Equipment Rack. I also sat an Entreq Audio Vibbeater atop the DAC to minimize vibrations.

I wasn’t sure if the unit Stephen Monte had sent me was broken in or not, so I waited a couple of weeks before I sat down to do any critical listening to the DA-2.03e. Once I was ready to dig in, I spent a couple hours listening to Kurt Elling’s, Dedicated to You [Concord]. I’ve heard Elling sing on numerous occasions in Chicago and could appreciate this DAC’s ability to capture nuances of his performance. The music was detailed, spacious and dimensional. The title track, “Dedicated to You” is my favorite. It begins with the gentle plucking of strings which lead to Elling’s unique vocal styling. The DA-2.03e rendered this song in a way that allowed me to become completely absorbed by the performance. The same could be said of track 10, “Nancy with the Laughing Face.” Elling’s voice seems to hover in a nicely defined space at times and makes you say to yourself, “This is an $800 DAC?” I’m not saying that it reaches the level of the Esoteric, but what it delivers at this price is extremely satisfying.

Sticking with live jazz, I moved on to a true reference disc. When it comes to live recordings, it doesn’t get much better than the late Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley [Blix Street GS-10046]. You’d be hard pressed to attend a hi-fi show where this disc wasn’t being played in every other room. The most often played track is the second one, “Stormy Monday.” Cassidy’s voice and vocal styling was made for an intimate setting like this smoky blues club. She poured her heart and soul into this song (and the whole disc for that matter) as if she knew she would not be among us for very long. The DA-2.03e rendered her voice holographically, giving it a three-dimensional quality that you would not expect from such a modest piece of equipment. Treble, midrange and soundstage imaging performance are very important to this type of music and this DAC delivers.

But I decided to get a little greedy and see if it could keep up this level of performance on more demanding and dynamic material. Voice by Japanese jazz pianist and my new favorite “mega-babe,” Hiromi[Telarc 32819-02] is a fabulous recording. It features nine instrumental tracks that blend jazz, r&b and even a little gospel music, but also maintains all of the dynamic textures you’d expect from the Telarc label. The DA-2.03e proved to be a mixed bag on this disc. While songs like track 2, “Flashback,” are very dynamic and detailed the soundstage seemed to lose a bit of composure and the musicians did not sound quite as focused, especially as I increased the volume on the XLH preamp. Also, the bass on the fifth track, “Labyrinth,” became a bit wooly as I tried to get more out of the DAC’s performance. Looking through my notes on the Esoteric SA-50 I didn’t recall this being an issue on that unit’s DAC, but bear in mind that the Esoteric player costs many times the price as well. 

Conclusion: It’s A bargain!
Stephen Monte has done it again. He has yet to send me a component that wasn’t an unadulterated success in terms of quality, musicality and most important, value. The Citypulse DA-2.03e USB DAC is a wonderful product in its under a kilobuck weight class. It provides tremendous flexibility in a hi-fi or PC-based music system and will provide hours of satisfying music without breaking the bank. Highly recommended.

Digital Coaxial Input: Input level 0.5 P-P 
Input Impedance: 75 
Digital Optical Input: Input level -15 dBM 
Digital Encoder: 24bit, 192 KHz 
D/A Converter: 24bit, 192 KHz 
USB Terminal input: USB 2.0 Standard 
Audio Output: 2.0 V (1KHz 0dB) 
S/N: 116 dB 
Dynamic Range: 120 dB 
THD: 0.015% 
Frequency Response: 18Hz-48KHz (+/- 1.5dB) 
Audio Input: 200 mV (47K) 
Earphone impedance: 32-600 
Power Supply: AC- 110V /60Hz 
Dimensions: 9.84″ x 11 ” x 2.5″ — 10 LBS
Price: $795.00

U.S. Distributor:
NAT Distribution
2307-R Bristol Pike 
Bensalem, Pa 19020


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