I was lucky enough to be selected as the first user for the N3's European Tour. I got twice as lucky because I kept the N3 way beyond the time I was supposed to send it on to the next fellow reviewer, and thus got the chance to download and test HiBy Music's beta version of HibyLink, as provided by Cayin. Thank you Andy!
I will post no pictures as there are plenty beautiful hi-res pix already posted on the N3 thread, so no need to take up space unnecessarily.
The unboxing was pretty seamless. The packaging reflects the diminutive size of the N3, which to me is a plus. I was happy to receive in addition the black-red stitched faux-leather protective case, more elegant and pleasant to the touch than the provided silicone case. I did miss however a USB-C to coax or S-PDIF cable, or at least a USB-C to micro converter. I ordered one online but didn't get it on time. The intended use was to connect the N3 to my iFi micro iDSD BL and use it as a pure transport.
The N3 was already 95% charged out of the box, so no need to charge.
After unboxing, I followed this procedure, which I recommend to any prospective user of the N3:
- Download and read the user manual;
- Download and install the latest firmware. After copying the new firmware on the SD card, I used the hard upgrade procedure, as described in the manual, which consists in holding both the Enter and the Power keys at the same time. The N3 then upgrades and reboots itself. The whole procedure is swift and seamless.
- Load music library;
- Start burning in. I let it burn in for a full initial 30 hours before starting listening to it. Amazing battery life, btw;
- Familiarize with the capacitive touch buttons. That was not the easiest part for me, the characters on the screen are really small, the capacitive buttons are black on black and they are not back-lit, so I had a bit of a hard time getting used to the whole thing, even though the haptic feedback helped some.
In the beginning, i.e. before downloading and installing HiByLink beta, I used the N3 like a regular DAP, and although I was truly impressed with the sound quality of it, I must admit I fumbled quite a bit with the capacitive touch buttons and the tiny screen before getting the hang of it. After getting used to the tiny icons and lettering, I was able to browse across the different functions and through the files with relative ease, although I never quite came to terms with the capacitive, dark buttons. The UI however is pretty intuitive, and moving through the Music Library does not present any issues, allowing the user to quickly select his tracks from the different categories.
The form factor of the N3 is definitely one of its foremost qualities: it is small and light (100grams) but feels solid and fits perfectly in one’s pocket. Build quality is very good, and I personally very much appreciated the elegant carrying case (supplied extra).
Booting up and scanning the music library is a pretty quick operation (15 secs and between 1and 3 minutes respectively, depending on the capacity of the microSD). The N3 does not have an internal memory, however it supports microSD cards up to 256GB which, at least for my necessities, is plenty. Moreover, with the latest firmware update (v2.0), the number of music files the N3 can handle has been increased from 12’000 to 20’000 (the folks at Cayin do listen!). It can also be connected to flash or external drives, too bad the required adapter is not included.
Battery life is excellent (about 12 hours, over 1 week in stand-by!), with a full recharging time of approx. 2 hours, very reasonable.
There are 2 Settings menus, Music and System. The Music Settings menu offers several important features, the main ones being Gain (3 levels, Low, Medium and High), DAC digital filters (5 different ones), gapless, Line Out or Hedaphones Out (careful, selecting Line Out sets the volume automatically to 100%), S/PDIF output mode (DoP or D2P, depending on whether the coaxially connected device supports DSD or not) etc.
Since I don’t use IEMs but only headphones I always used the Medium or High gain setting, and took advantage of the Super Slow Roll-off filter that the AKM4490 DAC chip provides, which is supposed to give out the most natural sound. To be honest, I would have had to A/B the different filter settings to try and hear an audible difference, but that was too cumbersome for me on a single N3! In any case, it sounded awesome (more on sound below). I also could not try out the S/PDIF link as I had no USB-C to coaxial or female USB-A cable to connect with my iFi micro iDSD BL.
I didn’t use much of the System Settings menu (besides the language selection), not even for firmware upgrade, as I found the hard upgrade procedure more convenient.
I would like to begin by saying that I am not one to describe sound like certain so-called wine experts describe wines. To me, the best sounding equipment is that which most accurately reproduces an original recording, by adding or subtracting as little as possible to or from it in terms of coloration, noise, tonal qualities etc. Openness and soundstage are also qualities which I value highly.
I used three different sets of headphones (I'm no fan of IEMs), a 32ohm Philips Fidelio X2, a hard to drive and heavily modded pair of Fostex TH500RP orthoplanars, and a pair of bespoke-sound Even H1, also 32ohm impedance.
The music files used were wildly different, both in terms of genre (baroque, symphonic, jazz, rock, progressive rock, pop and new age) and resolution (aiff, flac, DSD up to 256.
On High gain, the N3 was able to drive the somewhat impervious modded TH500RP seamlessly, on high volume of course, but sound came through crystal clear, without the slightest veil. I cannot imagine how they would sound if the N3 had a balanced output (the Fostex have a balanced cable, but I used a SE adapter).
Natural, transparent, clear and uncoloured are the adjectives that first come to my mind when I try to describe the sound of the N3, regardless of whether I’m using one or the other headphone. Of course, the Fidelio X2 are a little more bass-heavy than the Fostex, but the fact that these characteristics of transparency, clarity and detail came across, no matter what headphones I was using, speaks volumes, at least to me, about the inherent sound quality of the N3. The implementation of the AK4490EN DAC and the three TI opamps is superb and certainly draws on Cayin’s experience with their higher-end DAPs. The fact that they have been able to implement this level of sound quality at this price point is truly remarkable.
The best match however, given all of the above, was with the somehow underrated Even H1 headphones. These headphones, though not of the highest level as such (they are based on an inexpensive Chinese M4 shell), have the unique ability to singularly adjust 10 different frequencies for every ear to the perception level of the user, thus optimizing one’s listening experience. Being also very comfortable to wear, and with good noise isolation, I found them a great match with the N3 for mobile use. With the gain setting on Medium, I was very impressed with the overall musicality and fullness of the ensemble.
Soundstage is also excellent, the best results in terms of headroom and openness coming with the Fidelio X2.
Overall, the sound quality of the N3 rests at a much higher level than its price tag would suggest. I cannot stop wondering what it would sound like with more power, such as would be provided by a balanced implementation (I apologise for repeating myself, but I really believe that this would be another game changer, over and above the one described below. I would gladly pay $100 more for this).
Best for last!
Given the exceptional sound quality and the price attached to it one would think that this is good enough, right? No way!
It’s the Bluetooth connectivity and the new HiByLink software that make the difference, at least to me. Remember all that has been written about the N3’s not-so-great UI? Well, you can forget all of it. By updating the N3 firmware to its 2.0 version and installing the latest HiBy Music app on your Android phone (http://en.cayin.cn/download/show?id=13513) you get the best of two worlds: a great UI as provided by the HiBy Music player on your phone, and a perfect wireless connection to the N3 via BT/aptX . Mind you: the phone does not transmit music to the N3, it only controls all the functions of the DAP remotely. The music files are on the N3 and are played by the N3, your phone’s HiBy music player is just the interface, so no quality is lost due to transmission.
I can only somehow compare this to my current mobile setup, (Sony Xperia XA+Opus #11 DAC/amp) but only in terms of UI, small form factor and sound quality. The XA/Opus #11 combo is connected via OTG, not wirelessly, sounds great, but only has one output, no volume or any other control, for that matter. Everything is controlled through the OTG connected device.
The N3/HiBy Music/HiByLink combination instead fulfils one of my audio dreams: a pure transport, that delivers bit perfect digital files to my desktop system while at the same time being remotely controlled through my smartphone, without any data being lost to the Bluetooth connection. Oh, and by the way: HiBy Music with HiByLink is free!
Too bad I didn’t get to try it out because I was missing the USB-C to S/PDIF cable. But that will be corrected soon.
Everything comes to an end, and so did my leg of the Cayin N3 review tour. Needless to say, I enjoyed every moment of it, so much so that I kept the review unit at least twice as long as I was supposed to (sorry Layman1!), but I got lucky by doing so because I got to install the latest HiByLink compatible firmware, which really makes a big difference.
Synergy is defined as “the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements”. This is certainly true in the case of the N3 plus HiBy Music/HiByLink. The combination of sound quality, form factor, great flexibility, affordability and ease of use provide arguably the best price/quality ratio in the DAP world, bar none.