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Cayin N8 – Player with the unique sound

by Vadim Kolchev
Cayin N8 – Player with the unique sound

Last year Cayin celebrated the 25th birthday, and because of that, they have decided to produce several top-tier devices that would be able to show their gained experience and potential. Cayin N8 is one of those devices.

I got this DAP as a loan from my friends at Era-in-ear.com, they are Cayin distributors in Ukraine, and I like to thank them for an opportunity to review N8. The player will be returned to them in a few days.

After seeing the first photos of this DAP, the audience’s feelings have been mixed because of the unusual design of the player. However, after Cayin has begun selling the device globally, the feedback has become different as It has been understood that the player sounds good. Cayin engineers have decided not only to release an advanced device but also to achieve the almost impossible task – to create a portable player with tube output. This achievement has become possible with the help of Korg company, that provided its NuTube micro-tubes. Of course, it has not been an easy task to achieve this, beginning from unique mounting that protects tubes from vibrations and hits and ending with a peculiar cooling system that is a must for vacuum devices. I think it won’t be a spoiler to say that they have succeeded in all these tasks and now the N8 users can switch between tube and non-tube amplifier. Of course, it is true only for 3,5mm output because it would have been impossible to place another 4 tubes for balanced output as well.

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Of course, the pricing is not small – 3300 USD before taxes, but will it stop any true audiophile?

Packaging and accessories
From all “big 3” players Cayin has the record size of packaging – the manufacturer has decided not to save on appearance and premiumness. The player is sold in a big box of a cubic form with the silver slipcover on the top of it. The box is opened diagonally to show the device itself immediately. After the unpackaging is done the owner also understands that Cayin also holds the record for accessories number. Here you will find:

  • leather case;
  • protective glass;
  • quality USB-C cable;
  • 4.4mm to 2 3-pin XLR connectors to use the balanced line out;
  • 2.5mm adapter to use headphones with a balanced connection;
  • two USB-C adapters to use for coaxial output (for RCA and 3,5mm input);
  • a couple of Hi-Res stickers
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Such accessories set makes Cayin N8 the leader of the portable world in terms of matchability as digital or analog transport in a home audio system.

Design and controls
This part has raised many questions right after Cayin has announced the device. N8 looked strange on photos. However, when you see it in person, it has its charm. It is rather large in all dimensions, and it can be hardly called portable, especially if we compare it to devices that comfortably fit in jeans pockets. Its body made of polished steel looks interesting. I want to say that it is invincible, but am not sure that the back panel made of rounded Gorilla Glass, won’t take damage in case of fall. I think it is better not to test it and use a leather case from accessories. It is notable that the back Gorilla Glass cover has an oleophobic coating that prevents it from collecting multiple fingerprints.

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Of course, the knobs on the right side have been something that got many arguments right after announcements. Especially the gold coating has been in question. Upon seeing it alive, it turns out they are not that bright and perform their tasks well. The upper knob is used to change volume and turns DAP on and off if pressed. The one located a little below works as a joystick that can switch tracks when moved up and down. If pressed, it pauses or resumes the playback. My only slight complain to those elements is that they are a little wobbly and easy to press which may lead to unplanned turning on or switching of the tracks.

Other control elements are divided between different sides of the player. There are several outputs on the top of Cayin N8 – 3.5mm line out, 3.5 mm headphone, balanced Pentaconn (can also be used as a headphone out) and a balanced variant of line out. The recent switch to 4.4mm balanced jacks appeals to me – it is technically more reliable, and a better contact area is good as well. Also, it is perfect to have a “real” balanced line out which Cayin have taken advantage of.

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The lower side of the DAP sports the reset hole (I have forgotten about it almost entirely with other players), microSD slot (the internal 128 GB are good but sometimes are not enough), I2S micro HDMI output and USB-C. The last one is, of course, multi-functional and universal – charging, USB-DAC mode, work with external DACs, work with USB OTG and even digital coaxial output. The DAP has an impressive battery of 7000mAh, but there are no records in working time from a single charge because of high power. The playing time is approximately 9 hours in the single-ended mode using standard amplification and approximately 6 hours using balanced out in HIGH2 mode. The full charge using usual 2A charger takes a little more than 6 hours, but fortunately, the player supports QuickCharge that allows to quickly charge it from 20 to 80 per cents in just 2 hours or fully charge it for 4 hours 40 minutes.

The screen takes the central part of the front panel. It is not so impressive as in other DAPs of this segment – just 3.2’’ but is suitable for all the tasks – the view angles and color rendering are reasonable, and it is bright enough to work under the direct sunlight (however you may still want to cover it by your hand when looking at it), the taps are registered well. Due to the smaller size the borders around it may cause some irritation among those who love the perfect elegant design but we, the audiophiles, are not touched by those slops. Especially when we see the mystical light of tubes just below the screen where Cayin engineers have left a designated gap…

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Just below the gap, there is a triangular button with a multicolor indicator that shows the resolution of played files, bringing shame in the form of red and yellow for those who do not listen to Hi-Res. A single short press of the button brings you back to the playback screen, and a single long press brings you to the main menu. By the way, if you get tired of indicator, it may be switched off in preferences.

I will not draw any conclusions here because tastes differ. However, I rather liked the DAP upon using it than not. It looks respectable, however vintage.

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Firmware
Although on the website Cayin calls their firmware Cayin OS it is clear that they used Hiby services to develop it. You can judge even by the inclusion of Hiby Link functions. Also, it strongly resembles something we had seen in Cayin players before they decided to switch to Android. As you may understand on this point, there is no OS from Google here. Good news for haters, bad news for streaming lovers. However, Cayin has said one may stream right to the DAP using LDAC protocol that works well both sides in N8.

Upon the whole, the firmware is rather usual, and if not, 5 minutes are enough to familiarize yourself with it. Just after power on we get to the Menu screen. There are media library buttons in the upper part of it and track information right below them with the ability to go to the playback screen. The media library is familiar – folders, playlists, artists, albums, all songs, and genres. It seems like software engineers randomized their choice of icons for different genres because it is funny to see a cocktail glass with Metal genre and Jazz genre represented by a violin. All in all, the media library works as usual, and you can also remove files and add them to playlists. Of course, the library update might be quicker, but it is at least not slow.

The playback screen brings no surprises – big album cover, playback buttons. Swipes to the left and the right allow seeing the text if it has been built-in to tags or additional information about the track. You can also use the context menu with such parameters as playback order, removal of the track and adding to the playlist.

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The main screen also benefits from the swipe system. Swiping down from the top of the screen can show you the quick preferences panel – there are different sound switches here: Tube/OPA, gain, power and so on. You can also change screen brightness and watch player information.

Swiping from the bottom will bring two buttons – sound and system preferences. There are no surprises here. In sound preferences you will find the playback order, remembering of volume and position of current playing track upon power off, gapless mode, digital filter, and others. In system options, there are Bluetooth and Wifi preferences, power-off timers, firmware upgrades, choice of buttons that may work with locked screen, language choice. As you guess, Wifi here is only for firmware upgrades.

The firmware itself is stable and functional. I have not encountered any problems during its use.

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Sound
During the test I have used the following headphones: iBasso IT04, Meze Empyrean, Audio Zenith PMx2, Noble Kaiser Encore, Campfire Audio Andromeda and Solaris, Unique Melody Mason V3, HUM Pristine and others.

Cayin has indeed decided to create a unique player and of course they have created the unique sound as well, comparing to other top players. As a result, we get a very emotional DAP that sometimes sacrifices neutrality to stay emotional. It is absolutely needed to understand that this DAP brings 3 variants of sound. The balanced output sounds similar to 3.5mm in solid-state mode. The main difference is in more power in balanced mode (and slight hiss) and slightly wider soundstage. The 3.5mm output is more interesting in this regard because of its tube output. The amplification mode may be switched from the menu, and tube amplifier starts with 5 seconds delay that is needed for tubes to get to the working mode.

The difference between tube and the solid-state sound is not that striking, however notable. By default, N8 offers dynamic and emotional sound with lots of macro-details, and NuTubes do what everyone expects them to – make sound softer, slightly deprives it of aggression on upper mids and make the overall sound signature warmer. Upon the whole, the default, solid state, sound appeals to me more, and I will describe the sound below in this mode. However 10-15% of music win from tube mode (mainly jazz and blues).

I even don’t know if it is worth speaking about such things as resolution and detail levels here. The player deserves its top status and has no problems in this regard. Therefore I will not make accents on it.

Bass is well-texturize, has good dynamics, depth, and energy. Cayin N8 slightly enhances bass, and this makes instruments utilizing low frequencies sound a little more forward. Of course, the DAP is not for bassheads. However, the bass is presented in a way that gives a good base for any melody. Of course, a high level of bass control gives the instruments a good body.

Mids are a little sacrificed here in terms of micro-details in favor of macro-details. Of course, N8 has good contrast, but due to enhanced emotions and overall immensity of mids presentation, the smallest nuances of music remain unnoticed. However, it does not prevent the player from sounding natural and transmit a high level of details. However, the emotional tracks benefit here a lot. The soundstage is good with almost maximal depth, and sometimes the DAP even enhances it. The width is slightly below the maximum level but is still very good and one of the largest in the portable world.

Highs are almost perfect, except one thing. In general, highs are what make top devices different, and I pay more attention to this frequency range (especially when we speak about flagship devices). Here we find highs of a good length, excellent detail retrieval, and outstanding layering. Of course, treble sounds very natural with good decays, and the only downside is somewhat reduced attacks that bring a little more aggression than needed. However, I think this was the intention of Cayin sound engineers.

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I will not compare Cayin N8 to any other device firstly because it is much better than players of more affordable segments. Lotoo Paw Gold (non-touch) is similar in terms of presentation but lacks in macro-dynamics, so it has no sense to speak about it. Other “big 3” members – SP1000 and LPGT offer different sound concept – less emotional and slightly more natural, so this comparison is no good also.

Compatibility
As you may understand N8 has enough power to be used with almost everything, including hard to drive isodynamic variants. As for sensitive headphones, they are better to be used with non-balanced output to avoid noise. The models with neutral sound will benefit from use with N8. However, this is rather personal.

In terms of style the player is universal, but again, in emotional compositions (from vocals to heavy genres) it will truly shine to its maximum. It, however, is subjective too. As any top device, it is susceptible to record quality – approximately 9 out of 10.

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Traditionally, several example tracks

Dream Theater — This is the Life Progressive metal is always a trial for any player. On the one side, it should be played technically, on the other – emotionally. However, as you understand, it is the ideal task for Cayin N8 with its emotional presentation. It makes this track sound very dramatic.

Röyksopp — In Space Recently I often come across those northern geniuses of electronic music. Another track that suits N8 well. Somewhat enhanced lows in combination with great soundstage let Cayin shine here.

Steven Wilson — The Day Before You Came This is the excellent cover version. Steven has made this disco track to sound like rock ballad with a good portion of melancholy. N8 in tube mode sounds great, making the guitar more vivid and vocal sound natural.

Conclusions
Cayin has not only made a top DAP, but they have also shown their vision of what the uncompromised portable source should sound like. As with any product of top quality, the result may not be welcome for 100% audience, but those who understand it and can evaluate what Cayin have done, will not stay untouched, especially when they have the love for emotional presentation.

As usual, this review is also available in video format.

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