Reviews by Howlin Fester

Howlin Fester

500+ Head-Fier
Pros: Great Synergy with Fostex TH-900. Solid build.
Cons: Possibly picky with other headphones.
I recently had the opportunity to audition the Aune B1s amp. Thanks to a tour that @MSheney put together. I had the Aune along with a number of other amps over the Easter holiday. I plan to write up a whole Easter Amp Shootout thread, but for now, I’m just going to discuss the Aune B1s.


Equipment and Methodology:
Let me talk a little bit about the usual suspects, and my methodology. I used a Shanling M2s in Line Out mode. The Aune B1s in Class A – High gain mode. My music is FLAC L5 16/44 accurate rip from my own CDs. The headphones I used for the shootout were the AKG 702 – Austrian version (stock), LCD-XC with WyWires Red Cable, and a stock Fostex TH-900 v1. I evaluated 3 songs from the same album. From Steely Dan’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill” album, I listened to the first three cuts. “Do it Again.” “Dirty Work.” “Kings.”

I used a TACKlife SLM01 Sound Level Meter to try to level adjust as closely as I could. In the song Do it Again, I used the 2nd Verse as my standard. I used the left ear cup for each headphone and I leveled as closely to 80 dBA peak as I could. Starting around 1:55 seconds into the song is where the 2nd verse starts. The instruments and vocals tend to culminate with a peak around the words “Climber” and “Timer” in the second verse. I tried to get those two areas to hit between 80 dBA and 81 dBA peak. This allowed most of the songs energy to live in the 70-75 dBA range with it not peaking much over 81 dBA.

Now three songs may not sound like much of an evaluation, but those 3 songs total over 13 minutes of music. Add into that level setting for four amps and three headphones and this eval lasted around 5 and a half hours for all amps and headphones. I have to admit, by the time I was done, I was exhausted and really tired of hearing the same 3 songs over and over again. But I did learn some things by listening closely to those songs over and over and over and over and over…

B1s and TH-900 Synergy:
The first thing I would like to say about the Aune B1s is that the engineers must have a pair of Foxtex Th-900 in the lab. This was a truly incredible pairing and terrific synergy. The TH-900 have the reputation for having recessed mids and strident highs. With the Aune B1s, I found that it brought the mids forward and was nice on the top end. While listening to the solo for Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” I felt that the B1s provided a wonderfully full presentation with all the instruments presenting exactly where they were supposed to be.

On the day I had to ship it out, I spent the entire morning listening to the Aune B1s & Fostex TH-900 with Elton John’s Madman Across the Water and Goodbye Yellow Brick road. I have to say that I was sad to have to box it up and send it away.



Other Headphones:
“What about the other headphones mentioned,” you ask. Well, I have to say that I did not love the pairing with the AKG 702 and the Audeze LCD-XC. I felt that it was lacking in energy and heft with those two headphones. At this time, I’m just going to have to chalk it up to my preferences and I would need to spend more time with the Aune B1s and other headphones and different music. The experiment I conducted on Easter was a little limited due to the sheer number of amps and headphones I cycled through. So I can’t really want to say anything disparaging about the B1s.



Physical Attributes:
The Aune B1s is an extremely solid piece of equipment. And the window looking in at the components is a very nice touch. If anyone asked my opinion, I would suggest a different volume knob. I don’t feel like the current knob pays justice to the rest of the amp. The knob feels like plastic to me, and I sometimes had problems gripping and adjusting the volume. A nice knurled metal knob would knock the physical aspects out of the park. But that is just a small comment on a fantastically built amp.

If you get a chance to try out the Aune B1s, definitely do. With my TH-900, it sounded simply sublime. I know that this is a good amp and depending on the situation, can sound wonderful. As always, this is my opinion and everyone hears differently. So go and try the Aune B1s for yourself.

Howlin Fester

500+ Head-Fier
Pros: Excellent sound and synergy with Meze 99Neo, Great soundstage, easy user interface, great ergonomics
Cons: cuts off beginning of track after initial turn on.
Shanling M2s:
Easy, Peasy, Sweet, and Breezy. And Sounds great too!

I opened the box, grabbed the M2s, checked to see that it was charged, and slapped in a card and my 99Neo headphones, and hit play. Easy, peasy, sweet, and breezy… Mother of all machines! Does this thing sound great!

Let me back up a bit.

I was selected to be a part of the Shanling Hi-Res Portable Players Review Tour. Shanling provided a travelling kit of M1/M2s/M3s Hi-Res DAPs as short term loaners for the purpose of evaluation and review. With 10 days to play around with, Shanling knew that people couldn’t possibly take a deep dive into all 3 DAPs. So they suggested picking one and focusing on it. I chose the M2s.

Thank very much to Shanling for choosing me to be part of the tour. As things tend to happen in a busy, modern life, the review kit showed up at the absolutely worst time. I was recovering from a nasty bug that kept me in bed for the previous two days, and the family was set to leave the next day for the four day weekend to attend a Hockey tournament with my Son’s travel team. Thursday night before we left, I received the package from @reginalb. But all I was able do was notice that a brown box arrived and go back to bed.

Initial Impressions:
On Friday morning, I opened the box and grabbed the M2s, like I said above, and stowed it away for the trip. I was immediately struck by the fun sound upon a quick listen, but had to wait a little while to feed my musical hunger.

On the drive to the Northern Virginia/DC Metro area, I was able to pick up the M2s and my Trinity Icarus III iem. I listened to some of my test tracks. Everything was offered up in an EXTREMELY fun presentation. The Santa Esmeralda cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was a standout of the trip. I could not quit smiling through that whole song. And it is a loooong one. After a bit, I threw on some JJ Grey and Mofro and listened to that until we got to DC. That was about all the listening I was able to do on the trip. So I had to wait until we returned home to dig into the inner workings of the M2s.

What’s in the Box?

The fine folks at Shanling sent along a box full of goodies on top of the 3 DAPs. Here’s what was in the box Detective Mills:
M1 - with all accessories
M1 case with 2 armbands
M2s - with all accessories
M2s case
M3s - with all accessories
M3s - case
L2 - Usb C to Usb micro cable

- All 3 of the M series DAPs accessories include the following:
USB A to USB C cable
USB A to TF Card reader (mini unit with cap over the USB A end)
Little pointy poker thing
4 protection screens
Warranty card
In addition, the M3s includes a tiny "Hi-Res Audio sticker" (In addition to the one installed on the front of the M3s)

How does the M2s Sound?

One of the most important things to me in a DAP is gapless. Who wants to hear breaks in the middle of any Pink Floyd album? Certainly not me! Well, Dark side of the Moon sounds so spacious and lush with the Neo 99. Gapless works perfectly. Again, to state that this is a FUN player, I ended up listening through two whole Pink Floyd albums before I even noticed the time passing.

Nick Cave and the Cayin N3 vs Shanling M2s:
Listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Henry’s Dream, Nick and the band have wonderful timbre that makes your skin crawl. (If you have listened to Nick, you know what I mean.) Nick has a wonderful low male-vocal growl. The dynamics range from quiet whispering and light guitar strums to straight up, in your face cacophony.

When comparing the Cayin N3 to the Shanling M2s, I feel like the Shanling has fuller body and wider soundstage. The Shanling M2s seems to immerse me more fully inside the song with more happening all around. I find the Shandling presentation to be more engaging and fun. Cayin N3 is definitely more forward and close. My personal preference is for the Shanling wider and more enveloping sound. I was able to test both with the song “Christina the Astonishing” using 2 sets of Meze 99Neo and listening to passages back and forth. Both units have the filter set to short-sharp. I find that I like the presentation of the Shanling M2s over the Cayin N3.

Listening to “Do You Love Me” from Nick Cave’s - Let Love In album, I can hear all the different instruments and vocals clearly. It sounds like I’m sitting in the middle of a large cathedral with a lovely reverberation off the walls and floor. (If anyone has had a chance to see a show at “The Tabernacle” in Atlanta, it is that kind of sound. The Tabernacle is an old church converted to a concert venue with old wood floors and vaulted ceiling. I was lucky enough to see Tool at the Tabernacle in 2005. My all time best sounding/favorite show ever.) Listening to this song with the Meze 99Neo reminds me of that venue.

One of my favorite Nick Cave tunes, “Red Right Hand” is an absolute revelation on the M2s/99Neo combination. I listened to it 3 times in a row. And probably another ten times throughout the evaluation of the Shanling products.

Beginning of tracks are cut-off: But not a big deal
One consistent issue that I AM NOT a big fan of, is the fact that when you start playing the DAP, the first half second or so of the file is cut off. It has been mentioned before in the Shanling threads, so this is not a big surprise. But it is annoying. Hopefully this is something that can be fixed with a firmware upgrade that will allow the M2s to buffer the beginning of songs for a seamless start. And upon further testing, I believe that this is a power-up issue. As I played it more and more, I don’t think it happened when I jumped to other albums within the folder structure. So that makes it even less of a concern.

EDIT: Shanling read my review and replied with this info 01.29.2018:
“Cut off - happens only on very first playback after you turn on device, it doesn't cut anything when you change songs, albums, folders, etc...”

M2s vs RSA Intruder:
After re-charging the M2s, I tested it with the Ray Samuels Audio Intruder DAC/AMP via usb-out. The DAC of the Intruder will only accept 16/44 files. This is perfectly fine by me, since I only have 3 or 4 albums that are higher bit rate than the 16/44. With the 99Neo, I set up the M2s on 60 low gain, and the RSA Intruder on 11:00 or 11:30 on the volume pot. While switching back and forth between the M2s using headphone out, and the Intruder with USB Input and single end out. I feel like the M2s has a slightly larger and holographic image. The width seems the same, but the height seems greater on the M2s than on the Intruder.

The Intruder has been my favorite and constant companion for many, many years. I have used it with my iPod touch via line out dock, the iBasso DX50 with Line out, the Cayin N3 via usb out. Through my audio journey, it has been the sound that I compare everything to. Recently the Cayin N3 via USB to the Intruder has been my favorite. (Yes. I know that I’m only using the N3 as digital transport in this setup.) The M2s is the first time I’ve found something that I may enjoy the same or more as the Intruder. I really like the vaulting sound of the M2s.

Listening to the beginning of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” again, you can really hear the tolling of the bell that starts the track. Then the lighting of the cigarette, inhalation of breath to get the cigarette’s cherry burning, then the echo on the snap of the lighter. The sound pans back and forth between the left and right. This presentation really envelops me and makes me the center of the song. I can really feel the creepy intentions of the song and the sense of unease that they want you to experience. I feel like I’m watching a horror movie and the camera is just close enough to see up/down/left/right, but you know something is lurking just outside the camera’s view and is going to jump out at you. That is how I feel listening to “Red Right Hand” with the Shanling M2s and the 99Neo.

Help from Chesney:
Listening to two Demo Discs from Chesney I am getting a better grasp on soundstage depth, height, and imaging. I used to think that I was incapable of discerning soundstage. I found out that I have just been listening to the wrong equipment. With the help of the Audiogon Headphone Experience and The Ultimate Demonstration Disc, I can hear the depth and height of the bells as they raise from 1 foot to 8 feet. On the Sara K track playing live in the studio, you can feel the intimate quality of her voice while pinpointing the other instruments in the room. The Livingston Taylor – Grandma’s hands is simply sublime, and Ana Caram – Corenteza recording sounds exquisite from the church it was recorded in.

With the M2s, I’m able to identify height better than I have with any other components. Previously, with the N3>Intruder package, I experienced great depth and width. The M2s adds height for me. Thank you Shanling.

M2s vs M1
I wanted to take a few minutes and try out the other offerings by Shanling. I grabbed the M1 and checked it out vs the M2s. Trying out Nick Cave again, “Red Right Hand” on the M1 doesn’t have the same heft to it that the M2s has. The M2s seems to have just slightly more cubic volume than the M1.

M2s vs M3s
Trying out the M2s vs the M3s, I immediately noticed how much heavier the M3s is. It feels very solid in your hands. I popped in a Micro SD card and the M3s started scanning. The M1 and M2s didn’t start an auto-scan. I use the Library folder, so I didn’t bother to scan on the M2s and M1. It is no big deal, but something I noted.

Shanling read my review and replied with this info 01.29.2018:
“Scanning when SD card is inserted - this can be set up in settings, if you want player to do automatic scan or not. Apparently somebody set up M3s differently than other two players”

“Red Right Hand” on the M3s has a similar presentation as the M2s. The M3s seems to have that slight bump in soundstage, imaging, clarity over the M2s. It feels like there is a step up the same way there was a step up from the M1 to the M2s.

Then again this may just be psycho-acoustics. I need to get a SPL meter so I can start level matching everything. My level match is done by ear. But I will say that the M3s does sound very, very nice. I don’t have a 2.5mm balanced cable, so I won’t comment on the balanced output of the M3s.

My personal preference is for M2s due to ergonomics and sound. I believe that the M2s has the best size and sound for me. I don’t think I would miss out on anything if I chose an M2s over the M3s.

Moving over to Concrete Blonde – “Dance Along the Edge” from their self titled album, the M3s sounds simply glorious. I’m going to say, again, that the Meze 99Neo has some serious synergy with the Shanling DAPs. Johnette Napolitano’s bass lines are deep, full, and impactful to match her rich voice and James Mankey’s crunchy guitar.

About me and my music:
I almost forgot to mention my baseline. All of my music is FLAC Level 5 16/44 ripped from my own CDs with dB PowerAmp and verification. I did listen to the 96kHz Jethro Tull – Aqualung Steven Wilson remaster. I listen to Rock, blues, Classic Rock, Heavy Metal. No classical, Jazz (except for the Chesney tracks), EDM, Hip-Hop, etc. I just turned 49 years old and think I have decent hearing. I feel that reviews should have music specified, and that is why in each section, I mention the artist and songs I’m listening to at that time to make that evaluation. I tend to really enjoy closed back headphones and iem. As always, this is my impression and YMMV, To each his own, etc.

As I’ve been writing up this review, I’ve listened to my test tracks again, and now I’m listening to the High Rez Jethro Tull – Aqualung (Steven Wilson Remaster). One of my favorite albums, and simply a wonder on the M2s with the Meze 99Neo. My conclusion is that I really, really like the M2s. I am a big fan of separates, but this is the first stand alone DAP I have used where I don’t feel the need for the Intruder. The M2s and the 99Neo have great synergy together. I’m going to stop writing and just listen. Enjoy…
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Makiah S
Makiah S
It does sound awesome doesn't it!! Super happy to hear that you like it, and great review over all I too love the Demo discs from Chesky Records, I use Four Surround Voices alongside Drum & Bell around the mic most often myself alongside the shaker test from the Headphone disc and Spanish Harlem from their Ultimate Demo Disc.
Really nice review! To two points:

Cut off - happens only on very first playback after you turn on device, it doesn't cut anything when you change songs, albums, folders, etc...

Scanning when SD card is inserted - this can be set up in settings, if you want player to do automatic scan or not. Apparently somebody set up M3s differently than other two players
DrSHP is the line out put?
When you set the out put on line for use with external amp,and then poweing the player off,is it maintain its setting or going back to headphone out put?

Howlin Fester

500+ Head-Fier
Pros: Great bass sound.
So much fun.
Cons: Loses some details in extremely intricate music
Cable is too long for me
They are just a review pair. I don't own them yet.
Meze 99 Neo by Howlin’ Fester
Everything you want.

When Meze launched the 99 Classics, I remember seeing the banner on Head-Fi. The beautiful wood cups and closed back immediately caught my eye. I wanted to check out and see who was producing those beautiful headphones. I’ve been following Meze since that first banner flash, and now I finally get to try out one of the Meze products. I am lucky enough to be selected as part of the Meze Neo tour. It has been a long time coming, but I finally received the 99 Neo from @Jinxy245 the week before Thanksgiving. In short order, I opened the box and threw some music at them.

Gear and First Impressions:
Rig of choice is 16/44 FLAC from Cayin N3>USB out>RSA Intruder-medium gain. As soon as I got the Neo, I fell asleep to Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill album. Not going to say too much about that since it was first impression, and I fell asleep within 4 or 5 songs. But the initial impression was very positive. Meze are great looking headphones. They are not heavy, they fit well, and I was able to lay down without them being pushed around by the pillow.

Physical attributes:
The feel and fit of the Meze 99 Neo are perfect for me. The circum-aural aspect of the ear pads fit around my ears like a glove. I feel like the clamping force is spot on, and I like the isolation of the cups. With respect to headphones, I guess that I am huge fan of closed back headphones. I have Fostex Th-900, Audeze LCD-XC, Senheiser Momentum V1. With that being said, I really love how the 99 Neo fit and feel.

The ONLY thing that I am not fond of is the length of the headphone cable. I prefer a mid-length cable of around 4.5 feet. But that is just a niggle, now isn’t it? If I bought the 99 Neo or the 99 Classics, I would either shorten the cable, or buy a replacement cable that is shorter. Otherwise, I do like the cable. Below the Y-split, it is cloth covered and above the Y-split it is rubber. Neither sections of the cable experiences much microphonics, and rolling it up for transportation, doesn’t really induce memory kinks. I don’t use cables with remotes, so I won’t comment on that.

Edit: 01.29.2018
With regards to the cables: The Meze 99 Neo only comes with the shorter/microphone cable in the box. The review pair traveled with the shorter/mic cable AND the long/standard/NO-mic cable. The long/standard/NO-mic cable can be purchased separately for $20.


Over the next few days, I just listened to them while working. I ran through most of the Beatles later works. White Album, Let it Be, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s. I wasn’t doing any critical listening, but one of the things that really struck me was how deep, rich, and full the Meze 99 Neo made the Beatles sound. They were really astounding on these older recordings (new remasters). But mostly I just worked and occasionally, I would need to pause, look out the window and listen to part of a song. I think this was the first time I was really able to “hear” Paul’s bass lines. Ringo’s drums were clearly presented, and other percussion instruments were clearly represented. While writing this, I had to pause and listen to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Very nice.

The Meze 99 Neo seem to be easy to drive. I powered them with the Ray Samuels Audio Intruder amp. On medium gain, I only need about 1/4 of the power or less. This gives me great listening level with good impact, but not being loud. That is one of the things that I tend to find with other headphones, is that I want to turn them up to get the bass impact and slam. I really feel that the 99 Neo do that more safely.

Musings on Two Beatles Songs and Four Headphones:
OMG! Listening to the Beatles song “When I’m 64” is a revelation. Such fun bass lines and bass presence without overpowering the rest of the song. Switching over to the THX-900, I feel like I’m getting a more clinical representation of the song. I had to turn the volume up with the THX-900 to get the same kind of fun impact of the 99 Neo. One thing I did notice about the 99 Neo and the old Beatles stuff is that the L-R balance is more distracting and sharp. Meaning that vocals in the right are extremely panned right, etc. With the THX-900, they are more cross centered. This could be a function of the THX-900 being “semi-closed”. While listening to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” on the THX-900, I can definitely hear the bass lines, but is like I have to work harder to find it. The Meze 99 Neo smacks you with it.

Switching over to LCD-XC, you are immediately hit with the weight. (If anyone ever talks to you about the LCD-XC, it goes something like this… “LCD-XC, huh?” “Yup.” “How heavy are those things?” “Heavy. Oh, so heavy.” “OK. How do they sound?” “Sound great. But man are they heavy.” Anyway, I digress.) Listening to When I’m 64 and Lucy Diamonds, the LCD-XC really present the Beatles well. There is bass heft, and feel. But still find myself reaching for the volume to keep turning them up. The bassline in the chorus of Lucy in the Sky sounds glorious. But at a volume price.

Trying the Senheiser Momentum (Version 1). When I’m 64 sounds evenly presented and kind of boring. I don’t get that OMG moment that I got with the Neo 99. If I turn them up, I can force myself to have more fun with the increased volume. Definitely good headphones for travelling, but I very rarely reach for the Momentums

If I had to rank the headphones for these two Beatles songs, it would look like this: 1. LCD-XC (but had to really turn it up). 2. 99 Neo (just represented the songs in a “FUN” way on a lower volume.) 3. THX-900. Great sound across the board, but missing the “FUN” factor on the Beatles songs. (AND I LOVE MY TH-900). 4. Momentum. Just average.

Well, the Beatles aren’t my normal evaluation songs, so I should move on to my evaluation music. However, this first half of the review, I am really impressed with the Meze 99 Neo. Putting the Meze back on after testing the Fostex, Audeze, and Sennheiser, the meze really wins for comfort. Let’s do a comfort ranking. 1. Meze 99 Neo. 2. THX-900 (but I would like a little bit tighter clamping). 3. LCD-XC. Comfortable around the ears, but did I mention they are heavy? 4. Momentum. Tight clamping, tight on the ears. Didn’t really bother me, but when I took them off, I was glad they were off.

I also have to mention that the Meze 99 Neo are comfortable with glasses. I’m old and I wear reading glasses and computer distance glasses. My spectacles fit just fine under the Meze pads. I don’t feel pressure on the arms/temples.

Song evaluations:
Steely Dan - Do it again. This is probably the song I listen to the most when evaluating music. With the 99 Neo, I’m able to hear everything clearly and well presented. There are high hat rides and cabassa throughout the song. I can hear those high frequency instruments clearly and distinctly while getting a good bass thump.

Porcupine Tree - Hatesong. This is one I’ve really been looking forward to hearing. It naturally has a deep drumming bass line. That was represented well. But the Tom drums after the 6:00 minute mark are where the Meze 99 Neo really shine.

Fleetwood Mac – Dreams. Soundstage. The Meze 99 Neo don’t have the widest soundstage. When I’m listening to Dreams, the background vocals and acoustic guitar seem a little closer with the Neo than with other headphones and iem I have tried.

Kansas – Miracles Out of Nowhere. I grew up listening to Kansas on my stereo in my bedroom, and through old Realistic – White – Plastic – Closed back headphones. This takes me back to my childhood. Hearing all of the individual instruments in the band playing off of each other in different locations of the headphone is a real joy.

Santa Esmeralda – Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood. The definition of a smile. When the song starts off with hand claps, stomping, congas, drums, then the acoustic guitar strums in. Followed by a flamenco solo. This just made me smile very much. Definitely check this out if you have the chance.

Tool – The Pot. Thought I would throw some recently recorded music at the Neo. This Tool song has lots of bass and guitar. They all seem to blur together. On most tool songs, it is hard to get a distinction between Maynard’s voice, and the other instruments. This follows suit here with the Neo. If I change out the Neo for my Trinity Audio Hunter iem – gunmetal filters & silver litz cable, I can differentiate all the instruments separately and clearly hear Maynard’s voice. Tried the same thing with the TH-900, and the TH-900 can clearly separate all the instruments. Fun factor on this Tool song has to go to the Fostex over the Meze Neo.

Fleetwood – Rumours album. Moving from Tool over to the Fleetwood Mac, I think this is where the Meze really shine for me. Older recorded music. It gives it the heft, thump and fun factor that is needed. But I can still hear highs to give it some fun. Maybe the harmonics of the guitars aren’t as clear and bright as they could be on the song Second Hand News, but the sound is fun and inviting. In the middle of “The Chain” all the music pauses except for McVie’s bass line. That is rendered wonderfully on the Neo.

In listening to the Meze 99 Neo over the week, I have been really impressed with the build, fit, comfort, sound and thump. Right now the Meze headphones are on a short list of headphones I want. In fact, the Meze 99 Classics or the Meze 99 Neo are the only new headphones that are on that list. I could see myself using these a lot more than some of my other closed back headphones.

As I’m finalizing this review and proofreading, I’m listening to Steely Dan’s catalog. These sound perfect with Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy. As I mentioned, I believe that the Meze really shine with older classic rock albums. As I was going through my collection, I realized how much of my FLAC music IS the older recorded music. So just for fun, I put on the Virginmarys – King of Conflict. This is a newer recorded album. It sounds very good with the Meze 99 Neo as well. Drums that make you want to get up and move. Check out Portrait of Red for an awesome and fun song.

I would definitely recommend these headphones for anyone interested in closed back headphones that are simply great sounding and fun. I will be buying a 99 Classic or 99 Neo. I give it 4.5 stars. What more could you want from a headphone?

EDIT: Update 01.29.2018
Meze was running a holiday special on the 99Neo for $199. After writing this review and before the end of 2017 holiday season, I purchased a set of Meze 99Neo. I still absolutely love the 99Neo. I was part of the Shanling Hi-res Portable Players Review Tour. I got to experience the 99Neo with the Shanling M2s. I believe that they have tremendous synergy. You can read my review of the M2s here:

The Meze 99 Neo are definitely my “go-to” pair of headphones at this moment. I had been doing a majority of my listening with in-ear-monitors prior to this.

Howlin Fester

500+ Head-Fier
Pros: USB Digital Out
Cons: Line out is unusable as it is designed
Cayin N3.

Cayin was kind enough to let me be part of the N3 review tour. I received the N3 from MShenay. He drove 3 hours to bring it to me. While he was here, we had a mini meet for about 4 hours. We had a great time visiting and listening to a bunch of different equipment.

About Me:
I listen to all forms of Rock and Roll. Rock, Classic Rock, Hair Metal, Heavy Metal, acoustic rock, Blues, and a small amount of reggae. Just about everything related to rock. Not really going to touch on any Jazz, Classical, electronic, pop. All of my music is 16/44 redbook ripped to FLAC level 5. I’m 48 years old and have average Middle-aged hearing. I’m not terribly sensitive to sibilance, and I apparently like a V shaped sound signature. I really enjoy the Fostex TH-900 headphones and the Trinity Hunter iem. Both are said to be fairly V shaped. But the music I listen to does not generally have a boosted bottom end.

The unit for our tour was a black one. It came with the N3, installed screen protector, USB to UCB-C cable, silicone case, and faux leather case.

The screen protector was already scratched up when it reached me, and cleaning would not help it out. The area right above the button was pealing up. But that is what screen protectors are for, right? The rest of the N3 looked fine. The N3 feels solid in your hands, and the leather(ish) back of the unit is a nice touch and feels good in your hands.

The silicone case fits like a… well… a silicone case. Slides in easily. The silicone is smooth and dry, and doesn’t have the tacky feel that causes silicone to pick up the white dust and lint. However, it has been my experience that most silicone cases will lose that tacky dust collection after a bit and will be just fine. With the silicone case, the side buttons and micro SD (uSD) slot are covered, and the bottom headphone and USB-C connector is open.

The faux leather case is very nice and fits the N3 like a glove. The N3 slides in with nice resistance, and stays in place. The red stitching is an elegant touch on the black material. The case is open to all buttons and uSD card.

Powering on:
At power on, I can see the piano keys splash screen and Cayin welcome screen. It quickly opens to the top menu. The choices are: Music Category. Music Library (File Folder navigation). Playing now. Music Setting. Bluetooth. System Setting.

Initial listening:
It came with 28% battery power, so I thought I would have a quick listen before I charged it. This review unit came with a 4G uSD card installed. I recognized MShenay’s test track list from our mini-meet and picked Metallica Shortest Straw to play through my Trinity Hunter iem. Volume up to 38. This is loud enough without being overwhelming. (High gain setting.)

Metallica. I like Metallica very much. But I’m not as familiar with this song, as And Justice For all was not my favorite Metallica album. So no real surprises here. I have also heard that Metallica mixed the bass lower in the mix on this album. I hear a full, thick chugging sound of electric guitars through a Marshall stack. The solo is well presented and not overly bright.

After Metallica, I went to the top of the list and started listening to the test tracks from the beginning. Igor Levit. Goldberg Variations on piano. Volume up to 50. The piano has a nice sound and tone. There was a time when I listened to a bit of classical, but I’m not really into solo piano classical.

My initial thoughts are that the N3 is a very well built and solid unit. It feels good in your hands is easy to figure out and navigate. The layout of the buttons is logical and functional. So far so good. Let’s plug it in for a while.



Cayin N3 with RSA Intruder and Trinity Hunter iem.

More Detailed Functionality:
I copied some of my test tracks over to the N3 and charged it for a few hours. Plugged into a powered USB hub, it took about 2.5 hours to charge from 16% to 100%. Copying and charging was handled at the same time.

I listened to a number of test tracks that I’m very familiar with. Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon (all), some Grateful Dead from Workingman’s Dead, Fleetwood Mac – Dreams from the Rumors Album, Porcupine Tree, and Steely Dan.

One of the first things that I check is how gapless is handled. With Pink Floyd DSOTM, the gapless was handled perfectly. There were no skips, stutters, blanks, clicks or anything noticeable except music. Then I move on to check to see if it resumes music when you power it off. I am happy to report that it does. However, it took me a while to find the setting that enabled this. It is under the Music Settings section.

One of the main reasons that I signed up for the tour is to check the Line-out capability. I listen exclusively with portable units and a line out to an external amplifier. At the time of writing, I have four portable amplifiers and two desktop amplifiers. The N3 utilizes the 1/8” (3.5mm) jack for both headphones and line out. The implementation of the line out works like this. You hit the Menu key in the top left and arrow down until you are over the headphone symbol. You select the headphone and it gives you a warning that “Using the Line Out output will result in the Volume being set to MAX. Please disconnect your headphone and connect the device to appropriate equipment.” You have to arrow left and select OK. Then your N3 is in line out mode. Level is set to max, and changing between the 3 different amplifier settings (L-M-H) is now disabled. Works just like a line out should work.

However, when the N3 is turned off and back on again, it automatically resets to headphone out with the headphone volume as it was set previously. Now for someone like me who never uses headphone out, this was a significant concern. This would have been a deal breaker for me, except I found another feature that saved it for me. The digital out via the usb-C connection. More about that later.

So if you are looking for this unit to use mostly or exclusively with line-out, then take heed of how it works. You will have to re-enable line out every time it is shut off or connected to a computer. Basically every time you want to use it. There is not any setting that will leave it in Line-out mode. And discussions on the N3 thread have indicated that it will remain that way as a safety feature.

Sound take One:
How does it sound? I listened to the N3 with my Trinity Audio Hunter iem. This is Trinity’s top of the line iem and has removable filters to help tailor the sound to how you like it. I use the gunmetal filter which give the Hunter a spacious sound with an ever so slight boost in the bottom end. But there are two levels of other filters that boost the bass even more. So this is a slight bass and fairly stable through the rest of the spectrum. But nothing too dramatic. I am also using JVC Spiral Dot tips. These tips are a wide-bore design and tend to increase the soundstage.

While listening to my #1 go-to song, Do it again by Steely Dan. I find that the N3 presents a soundstage that is closed in and intimate. It is like a practice space with no width. When I compare the iBasso DX50/ Ray Samuels Intruder with the same song, it is like a large recording studio where you are standing in the middle with 20 feet to either side.

I decided to give the N3 the same benefit as the DX-50. I connected the N3 Line-Out to the Intruder. The soundstage is still closed and collapsed. I continue to listen to the N3 via the headphone out with the Hunter iem.

Headphone out:
The sound has good bass texture. The highs are present but not overwhelming. It is a very musical DAP. I don’t hear any unwanted warmth. It has bass where needed. Hatesong by Porcupine tree starts with a deep rumbling bass line. Later guitar accents are added. All very well presented and clear. I listen to the N3 for a couple of days via the headphone out to get a good indication of how it sounds.



Cayin N3 Black (tour model) & Cayin N3 Red (mine)

Sound Take Two:
When I signed up for the N3 tour, I ordered a couple of small USB-C to USB-Mini connection wires. The RSA Intruder and Predator both use old-school USB-Mini connections and have internal DACs. I have never had a player that utilized the digital out, so this will be my first time trying out this function. Other than hooking the intruder up to a computer to make sure the DAC was working.

When I hooked the N3 up to the intruder with the USB cable, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the N3 paired with the Intruder immediately. The very first thing that I was struck with was the width of the soundstage. Width was immediately increased and noticeable. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments that takes your enjoyment of this hobby up another level.

Side story: I have been trying for a while to find soundstage and imaging. I would listen to the Chesney recordings of haircuts and only hear things moving from left to right. But not really experiencing a width to the image. I figured that this was like one of those hidden image pictures that some people look at and see immediately, and others can never see them. I assumed I was not capable of discerning soundstage width. When I plugged the N3 into the Intruder, I was immediately greeted by this soundstage. It was an absolute revelation.

I listened to all my test tracks again. I listened to the first four Tool albums. With Tool, I have always found it difficult to separate Maynard James Keenan’s voice from the mix. It sounds like he is mixed at the same level as the guitar, bass, and drums. With the N3 to the intruder, I was able to localize Maynard’s vocals and hear a layering that I couldn’t find previously.

I listened to Porcupine Tree’s Hatesong from Lightbulb Sun. The bass starts off deep and textured. The track has a great soundstage, and each time an instrument is added to the mix, it feels like the soundstage gets wider and wider.

Listen to Sara K’s acoustic version of Brick House. It sounds to me like it is recorded in a studio with one microphone. You can localize each instrument in the sound field.

The N3 digital out provided such great enjoyment to me that I was not ready to lose this capability when I had to send my N3 on after 7 days. I evaluated my options and decided to order an N3 and had it shipped in 2 days. It arrived the day before I had to send the tour unit on to the next member.

One thing that I have to note about the N3 digital output. Currently the volume/value of the digital out is variable. This was brought to the attention of Cayin, and may be addressed in later firmware. That function does not bother me one bit. As I’m used to a variable line out on the DX50.

I ordered a red N3 and absolutely love how it looks against the Intruder.



L>R. Cayin N3 (bl), Cayin N3 (rd), iBasso DX50

The Cayin N3 is a versatile DAP that will play many different types of files. And as a standalone DAP, it provides a nice sound via the headphone out. If someone is looking to use the N3 with the line out, then other options should be looked at. It does not really cut it for line out. But with Digital Out from the USB-C connector, this DAP really shines.

For the price, the N3 was able to provide everything that I was looking for in a DAP. It’s able to give me digital transport to my Ray Samuels Intruder and Predator amps. I have to assume it will work with the Peachtree Audio USB In, and the Unison Research SH USB In. But I haven’t been able to test those yet. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t.

I can tell that this will be replacing my iBasso DX50 as digital transport for my FLAC files from this point forward.

Rating. On the Howlin’ Fester 5* scale.


Headphone Out ***
Line Out *
Digital Out *****

Functionality ****
Navigation ***
Speed (scanning and using) ****
Price ****+1/2

Overall ****

For an overall rating of 4, I take into account the fact that I liked it enough to buy it and that it does everything that I want in the above described conditions. USB Out to DAC IN. The price to performance ratio makes it 4 Howlin Fester Stars for me.

I would like to thank Cayin and Andy Kong for selecting me to be part of the N3 review tour. I also want to say that I did not read any other reviews prior to posting this. However, I have been reading the N3 thread actively. Hopefully this review is useful to someone.

Rhett Orr. (Howlin’ Fester) Aug 2017