DUNU DTC500 Review: Sabre DAC goes Euphonic

THE PLUS:
-Punchy and lively tonality
-not a cold ES9038q2m DAC implementation
-euphonic yet detailed musicality
-chunky’ed mid bass
-full bodied vocal
-W shape dynamic
-dense timbre
-powerfull amping for it’s size
-versatile enough for sensitive and hard to drive IEM
-audacious design that would please Elon Musk
-good sound value

THE MINUS:
-not the cleanest noise floor
-favorise macro resolution over micro definition
-lack of bass definition and separation
-bit blurry timbre that lack transparency
-lack of brilliance and ”clean air”
-average imaging and layering

TONAL BALANCE: 8.2/10
DYNAMIC SCALING: 8.5/10
TECHNICALITIES: 8/10
CONSTRUCTION: 8.5/10
SOUND VALUE: 8.2/10

DUNU is most known for their earphones making, which they excell at since about 10 years. Their best seller like Titan S sure proove they know how to make IEM. Personally, I still adore their DK-2001 hybrid too. But they begin to create portable DAC-AMP out of the blue 2 years ago, by launching their DTC-100. It seem it pass under the radar, and surely for a good reason since it use an entry level ES9118EC DAC which is inferior to lot of Phone DAC use, like the LG V30 I have.
But DUNU still wanna surf on dongle craze wave and decide to launch a more serious dongle, the DTC500 I will review today.
It use this time an high end sabre ES9038q2m DAC with indepedant dual amping section.
Priced 90$, the DTC-500 enter an extremely competitive market where even 20$ can get us tremendous sound quality (Jcally JM20).
Let see in this review if the DTC-500 will have similar fate as the DTC100 and never go out of it’s shadow.

CONSTRUCTION

The DTC500 have a CNC machined built of audacious design form, inspired by cyberpunk look, including cybertruck from Elon Musk it seem.
The alluminium alloy body have interesting dark glass window that permit you to see circuit as well as a ligth that change color depending of music bit rate.
There 2 output, when single ended 3.5mm and one balanced 4.4mm. Balanced output is gold plated, other isn’t….why?

Size wise it’s quite small, about the size of Fiio KA3, Tempotec E44. Very portable dongle.
A little details that I haven’t show in these pictures is the usb-c plug that don’t fully enter the connector, to my, it’s a design flaw for 2 reason: it make it more prompt to usb-c damage by bending as well as exposed to liquid damage of any sort. At least, the connection is tight, but this is something worth nit picking.

When it come to packaging, it’s the strict minimum and it’s OK. But an extra USB-C to USB adapter would have been very welcome for those that plan to hook this dongle on their laptop (again, i have a usb-c connection to my laptop, so it doesn’t affect me).

SOUND IMPRESSIONS

TONAL BALANCE & TIMBRE

I would not call this dongle as neutral, since i feel a little W shape take to it where the mid bass presence is thicken and boosted, so we have hint of warmth that embrace mids and tend to add a sens of analog euphonic to the musicality, a bit like Xduoo Link2 Bal but brighter. The dual OPamp tend to add an appealing harmonic distortion that densify the timbre.
Bass is immediate and punchy, softed in definition so it add physicality to the slam with any IEM I use. Its opaque too, not very linear in extension nor clean in separation with mids. It’s extra vibrant, with fast sustain to rumble. It tend to add quantity over quality.
Mids have an energic presence too, they are quite lush, just a hitn bright due to slight extra upper mids bite that tend to favorize female vocal presence and loudness energy. These aren very crisp or transparent mid range, nor highly resolved one, but tone feel natural in a colored way. These aren’t cold lean mids for sure.
Treble is where Dunu take is different from other DAC or DAP I heard using the ES9038q2m. For ex, Zishan Z4 boost resolution to the cost of sounding artificial, we can say they follow the Tri TK2 curve, yet with inferor crosstalk and amping section so it’s less clean and organic, yet treble is softed on top which avoid treblyness or sharp spike that will put micro details too fowards or creat timbral imbalance. It’s gently crunchy, full sound highs, just a hint dry due to lack of brilliance and sparkle which explain why i feel 10-15khz section is subtly rolled off.

DYNAMIC

Thats an hefty sounding dongle! I like that, when instruments presence jump at you and open in center of the stage. As well, lot of dongle lack bass slam, as if it lack gain push for any IEM but ultra sensitive one, this isn’t the case here with the DTC-500, the bass hit hard and loud. Note weight in general is well felt too, yet will not create long clean and natural resonance.
Still, in term of dynamic articulation, i feel it tend to shoot instrument or sounds in thick package…while some superior dongle like Questyle M15 will be able to extract dynamic presence of each instrument accuractly, the DTC500 will condense layers of low, mids and highs, offering a simplified sens of dynamic, perhaps boosted sens of weight due to multiply loudness of these sections. This become a bit problematic with fast and complex busy music like Elephant9 ”Skink” where there alot of energic instruments and percussions that feel a bit compressed in resonance, mixed up in sustain and lacking sharpness in separation.

TECHNICAL PERFORMANCE

The DTC500 isn’t a dongle that blow your mind with technical performance like boosted resolution, open and clean spatiality or crisp edgy definition of micro details. This isn’t a dongle that have a ”critical listening” approach to sound presentation, it’s too euphonic for that, yes, this word again which mean amping section add slight romantic blur to definition edge and warm density to timbre.
Musicality is the focus of this dongle and it deliver it gloriously.
While spatiality is quite tall and immersive, it’s average wide and lack proper sens of deepnest, so you struggle to travel thrue sound layers which are both warm and grainy and lack transparency.
Imaging suffer from this even is sens of layering have a ”loudness presence” that help to extract them.
Attack timing isn’t the greatest, their slight sustain distortion that affect proper articulation of fast percussions or instrument attack in a same frequency range, so again, this will not be the dongle that will permit you to fully restitute fastest and more complex drum solo of an energic jazz or rock band.
Background noise seem a present too, which again affect precise accuracy of music recording.

MUSICALITY APPRECIATION

This is a dongle tuned to boost musical enjoyment in a lush energic way, quite immersive due to focus on bass and mid range dynamic that offer a full bodied presentation with hint of euphonic warmth.
It’s very enjoyable, yet not spectacular in fidelity.
Timbre is dense and quite natural, so i’m please with that even if texture isn’t very clean. We have this holographic presentation where instrument seem to have more weight than sharp presence, the DTC500 add physicality to my music and a sens of proximity as if resonance embrace me instead of open up in hall like airy spatiality.
I’m part of music with the DTC500, so i feel at home.
Easy to love, the versatile tonality of DTC500 seem to positively color my music by adding cream to it’s treble and balls to it’s bass (hum…not very poetic description but hey! it’s my subjective part!).
The DTC500 remind me this strange experience I do with high end vintage amplifier, like hooking an ES9018 DAC or ES9038q2m DAC to a Sansui AU D-5 solid state amp, which offer wide open lush musicality with warm impactfull bass but darkish treble and mids micro definition.

AMPING POWER AND QUALITY

The DTC500 is quite powerfull for it’s size and can be put in same league as Moondrop Dawn, Tempotec E44, Fiio KA3 in that regard. With 200mw@32ohm output, it will properly drive any IEM including hard to drive planar or low impedance IEM.
DTC500 use 2 ricore RT6863 OP amps, which are operational amplifier designed for sabre DAC.
Impedance output isn’t stated, i’m pretty sure it’s similar to KA3, which is 0.5ohm SE and 0.7ohm BAL. This mean it’s quite versatile for both low and high sensitivity earphones. My Audiosense T800 or Hisenior T2 doesn’t create distortion or sound messy with DTC500, unlike some other dongle.
Yet, i would not say this is THX like clean sounding amp, it’s a bit excited in gain and seem to slightly affect harmonic distortion.
You have a bit of background noise too, which affect sens of ”silence”.
Yet, it’s far from sounding veil or messy, and amping section seem to add energy in dynamic as well as note weight. Sens of openess is there too, but not the most impressive.

COMPARISONS


VS MOONDROP DAWN

>DAC Chips: Dual CS43131.

>DNR: 132dB.

>THD+N: 0.00017%.

>Decoding: PCM up to 32-Bit/768kHz, Native DSD256.

>Output Power: 230mW@32Ω, 54mW@300Ω.

>Line-Out: 4Vrms(High-Gain), 2Vrms(Low).

>Interface: USB Type-C.

OK, these too have very similar amping power, but are very different in tone and dynamic presentation.
The Dawn is cleaner, crisper and leaner as well as edgier in attack snap.
It have more brilliance and sparkle on top and greater sens of openess.
DTC500 is more energic and warmish analogish, with more authoritative mid bass impact and more attack crunch than snap on top.
It’s a bit more raw and fuzzy in attack, yet we have more note weight and mid bass punch so in beat driven music the presentation tend to be more exciting, while for Dawn its for classical or any music needing crisp openess and great imaging transparency that it will benefit the presentation.
DTC500 attack sustain seem dirtier than Dawn and less precise and fast in attack timing, making complex beat more clean and accurate in rendering with the Dawn, this inflict too on imaging and sens of spatiality, which is more open and better articulate in sounds layers.
Yet, while we can say the DTC500 is more ”shouty” in term of dynamic, as well as weightier in overal leading impact, the Dawn tend to be sharper and more vivid on top, with emphasis on upper treble edge, adding sens of air and longer decay to higher pitched notes.
DTC500 is more euphonic, with softed attack edge but excited dynamic loudness, the independant OPamping section indeed inflict on definition accuracy yet add fullness to timbre and treble compared to thinner yet more resolved sounding Dawn.
More i dig into critical A-Bing, more I get fascinated and tend to conclude its really a matter of taste here which would somebody prefer, like tonal balance for IEM, its really a matter of sound color and dynamic preference.
All in all, the Dawn have higher resolution, cleaner background, crisper definition and edgier-sparklier attack. It tend to make your music more open in spatiality and precise in imaging. In the other hand, the DTC500 is more excited in dynamic heft, offering a more punchy and euphonic sound, with thicker timbre and darker micro definition, it’s presentation is more meaty and holographic, yet not as accurate and crisp-neutral as the Dawn. If you prefer warm tonality with W shape loudness dynamic, the DTC500 might be for you.

VS FIIO KA3

DAC chip: ES9038Q2M.

  • Input port: Type-C USB.
  • Output port: 3.5mm single-ended, 4.4mm balanced.
  • Output power: 130mW@32R(PO), 240mW@32R(BAL)
  • Noise floor: 3.94V/4.2uV(PO), 4.4uV/4.30V(BAL)
  • Decoding: Supports up to PCM 32bit/ 768kHz DSD512.
  • Color: Black (Black main body, gold ends)
  • Weight: About 17.5g.

THD+N: <0.0008%.

>SNR: >122dB.

>Noise: <1.7uV.

>Output Power: 130mW@32Ω(3.5mm), 240mW@32Ω(4.4mm Bal).

OK, these 2 sound in fact a bit similar, since they use very same dac (ES9038q2m) as well as dual (2xRT6863)independant amping chip, but strangely KA3 amping specs are 230mw vs 200mw for DTC500. This should translate in a heftier dynamic enh for the KA3? But nope, in fact, it translate into slightly brighter tonality with hint more lower treble bite and boost. So sharper W shape edge in attack, yet lighter mid bass, less smooth definition and more compressed sens of spatial layers. The DTC500 sound more balanced and organic as a whole, with cleaner transparency here, and more natural timbre (warm part of it’s sound), this is evident with vocal whic are brighter, less breathy and bodied than DTC500.
So at they end, sens of note weight is lighter with the KA3, yet dynamic a hint cleaner in definition edge due to more energic upper mids and more neutral bass response. KA3 treble is less softed than DTC500 too, yet this seem to translate to more noisy background artefact too.
Overall KA3 sound more technical and sharp, with better imaging accuracy, less blurred by romantic euphony which tend to make mid range more appealing as well as bass notably more bodied and punchy with the DTC500. If you search for a mature bright dongle with more neutral approach, KA3 is exactly that, while DTC500 is more colored implementation of ES9038q2m, little like Xduoo Link2 Bal take on CS43131 in that regard since it sound nothing like Moondrop Dawn using exact same dual DAC chip for ex.

PAIRING

Simply put, it seem the DTC500 add dynamic energy, bass punch and timbre density to all the IEM i use it with. This go especially well with U shape soundsig, like Tri I3pro, Moondrop Aria or Aune Jasper, which gain in punch yet loose a bit of clarity in sub bass line and extension. Lean mids tend to become more upfront and loud in presence too.
When it come to crisp clarity, my Final A8000 didn’t scale up and loose cleanliness and definition edge sharpness, which affect negatively sens of clarity and imaging in general. Sub bass to seem a bit more dry.
With planar IEM like the Shuoer S12, DTC500 drive them properly and the result is a warmer S12 with focused mid bass punch. Again, S12 will benefit crisp sound without bass roll off, so here i wish Moondrop Dawn and DTC500 have a baby togheter so Dawn get more punch yet keep its clean clarity DTC500 lack.
All in all, i find very versatile the DTC500 pairing, the fact it’s not too sharp in resolution or bass light make it a good choice for any IEM, but perhaps IEM with extra sub bass and crisp treble will get a better result.

CONCLUSION

Nowadays, it seem a new dongle come out every week. Most of them using similar DAC chip either from Sabre or Cirrus, but AKM dongle are back too.
So, what would make them stand apart in term of sound is overall implementation but mostly extra amping section. In this very case, Dunu choose to follow FIIO step and implement very same RT6863 OP amp. This explain why those 2 sound extremely similar, yet for mysterious reason DTC500 is smoother and more musical to my ears.
Still, if a dongle want to differentiate itself from overcrownded dongles offering, built interface should be in top priority. Alas, apart Xduoo Link2 Bal, we rarely have dongle with gain switch, volume control and pause-play button.
In this very case, the excellent buit and unique design can justify buying this dongle, because it doesn’t sound bad at all and offer a very versatile tonality with powerfull amping.
If you don’t like too clinical or analytical sounding dongle and search for one that offer an holographic sens of musicality with chunky low end and full bodied vocal, I do think Dunu nail the ES9038q2m romantic tone with this dongle that offer tremendous amping power as well.
Pretty pretty pretty good!

———

PS: Thanks to Dunu for sending me this DTC500 dongle after I show them my interest. I’m not affiliated and Dunu didnt try to influence my unbiased review.

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