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Digital Audio (FLAC/MP3/etc) Players (DAPs) item created by twister6, Apr 20, 2017
Pros - Capable amp section, good battery life, USB-C
Cons - Apt-X only supported in transmit mode
Cayin N3 Impressions
I was lucky enough to be selected to take part in the Cayin N3 review tour. Howlin Fester had the unit before me, and has written a very thorough review of the N3, which is located here. My own focus in these impressions is going to be less about the sonic characteristics of the N3 and more about its functionality as it applies to my particular needs.
I listen mostly to heavy metal, hip hop, and electronic music, as well as movie and video game soundtracks. I value detail, clarity, and soundstage above other acoustic qualities, and generally prefer a V-shaped sound signature.
For portable listening, I use Mee Audio P1 Pinnacle out of my smartphone or out of Fiio E6 portable amplifier. For desktop listening, I use Fostex TH-X00 out of JDS Labs The Element. I also own KZ ATE, Mixcder X5, and Archeer AH07, and have owned the V-Moda M-80, V-Moda LP2 Crossfade, Mee Audio M6, Hifiman HE-400S, and (very briefly) Phillips Fidelio X2.
Other equipment used:
I mostly used the Cayin N3 paired over Bluetooth with a Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 Android smartphone running Nougut, using either Spotify Premium HQ streaming or 320 kbps MP3 files. I did my listening with the Mee Audio P1 Pinnacle and the Beyerdynamic DT-770 (250 ohm).
The N3 unit on the tour was black, and came with an installed screen protector, USB-A to USB-C cable, silicone case, and faux leather case. The screen protector was in rough shape, peeling up near the center button, but the unit otherwise looked okay, and had a good weight to it. I strongly preferred handling the N3 without the silicone case, which I felt crowded the touch buttons too much and made the unit feel less substantial by screwing up the volume to weight ratio of the player. I did not use the faux leather case during my time with the N3.
I initially found the N3 difficult to use because the touch buttons were not responsive enough, but enabling the capacitive touch option solved this issue. The menu was intuitive enough to navigate quickly, though I found it interesting that the Bluetooth menu was separate from the general Settings menu. I had no issues pairing the N3 with my smartphone, but I could not get the N3 to see my Archeer AH07 Bluetooth Apt-x headset. I did not spend a lot of time on this issue, so I cannot say for certain what the cause was.
Because my smartphone lacks a dedicated DAC, and because of widespread compatibility issues attempting to use USB DACs with Android smartphones, my primary use for the N3 was not really as a DAP but more as a remote DAC. Pairing the N3 with my smartphone allowed me to us the DAC/AMP section of the N3 instead of my smartphone while still having access to the streaming and music transport capabilities of my smartphone. Sadly, I discovered that the N3 only supports apt-x in transmitter mode, and not as a receiver, and is therefore useless for receiving lossless or hi-res music from local smartphone storage or Tidal. This is a limitation shared by the N3’s closest competitor, the Shanling M1, and is ultimately a deal-breaker for me. I don’t know if this is something Cayin could add in a future firmware update, but if it is I implore them to pursue this. That said, given that the A2DP Bluetooth protocol is sufficient for lossy streaming I feel confident in the listening that I did do.
I really want to applaud Cayin for using USB-C on an entry level DAP. This should really be a basic expectation at this date, and it is frustrating that it is so rare. Battery life was exceptional (10-12 hours with Bluetooth on, charged in less than 2 hours).
I generally subscribe to the philosophy that if a source device is coloring the sound, something is wrong with the source device, so I will not wax lyrically about how the N3 made such and such song sound different than with other source devices. It has also been my experience that the primary benefit of high-end amplification is to increase the maximum volume music can be played at while still having the instrumentation resolve clearly. In comparison to my own amp (JDS Labs The Element [$350]) I don’t really notice a difference until the level of something like the Cavalli Liquid Carbon ($800). The N3 ($150) is not at the level at which I expect those kind of noticeable improvements to resolution, but being a dedicated DAP, I did expect it to be able to drive higher impedance headphones better than the average smartphone, which it was able to (P1 Pinnacle [50 ohm] on low gain, DT770 [250 ohm] on medium gain).
To conclude, I think the N3 is best suited to Android smartphone users who want to take advantage of a stronger DAC/AMP section than their phone and don’t want to deal with the compatibility headaches inherent to the Android ecosystem. I think that the value proposition of the N3 would be helped immeasurably by enabling Apt-X in receive mode. 3 1/2 stars.
Pros - USB Digital Out
Cons - Line out is unusable as it is designed
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 *****
Speed (scanning and using) ****
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
Pros - Functionality, Clarity, Ease of Use, Intimate Imaging
Cons - Lengthy Menu Navigation, Smaller Capacitive Touch Buttons
Back when I was in middle school listening to music was easy. I had a CD player loaded with my favorite album at the time, Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, and a pair of semi-open Koss TD 75's.
I'd hope on the bus and just listen, occasionally the CD would skip when we hit a bump in the road, but it was smooth listening for the most part.
Growing up though, I went from my CD player to an iPod Nano, then a ZUNE HD which I sold and replaced with my Hifiman HM 601 and upward an onward to 2013 when I purchased my Hifiman HM 901.
So listening to music on the go has always been a pretty simple part of my life and I've always had one stand alone device to do it. Though these days, for many of us that's not the case. Cellular technology has made huge advancements over years, making it easier and simple to listen on the go! Spotify went mobile in 2010 offering lossy streaming quality. It was likely that most listeners where still running around 96kbs streaming with them. Which means that a dedicated player loaded with a library of CD quality music, was still the best choice. The launch of Tidal in 2014 and big improvements to cellular technology changed the industry, Hi-Fi music play back was no longer limited to a dedicated portable audio player. Mobile speeds could now support lossless streaming bit rates.
Arriving at our present day, enjoying music on the go is still simple affair. Most people are content with their phone, but for those wanting more there are dozens of options available. Since 2015 there have been a few choice for those looking for a BlueTooth Dac/Amp. From the Sound Blaster e5 and the Shanling H3, so the N3 isn't the first product of it's kind. Even today you can find a basic BlueTooth dac/amp for around $100. Though what sets the Cayin N3 apart is that is functions as both a stand alone player and a BlueTooth compatible Dac/Amp. What Cayin has done with the N3 is offer a unique solution. Having had a chance to speak briefly with Andy Kong of Cayin, he informed me that Cayin choose to integrate with instead of choosing to compete against cellular technology.
Priced at $150, the N3 offers a step up from the more basic portable dac/amps. It's a digital audio player, able to function by it self, with your cellular phone and with your computer! It can be purchased in the US from Amazon and the online retailer Musicteck. Aside from functionality, I'll be discussing the build quality, user interface, and sound quality over the course of this review.
The N3's build features clean edges and well machined seams, running my fingernail across it's surface I'm hard pressed to find any gapes or weak seams. The player it light, each physical button has good tactility and resistance, the front facing touch interface works well. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to release the left and right buttons, move through the UI as well as double as forward and reverse buttons. Silly me spend 4 days thinking I had to swipe from the middle down to go left?! Thankfully, it's not that complicated. I did how ever accidentally hit the back button a few times in my attempts to move right or forward. The Cayin N3 is well built, it's neither luxuriously vain nor hastily slapped together, rather it's solid assembly sports entry level materials. A good balance of design, functionality and durability.
My only gripe was the SD Card slot, I had no issue working it but others in my tour group had some difficulty getting a card in an out. By the time I got a hold of the unit I was able to insert an SD card without any issues. I was not how ever able to retrieve it, not a huge deal as I can still access the card from the USB C port.
Navigating the user interface was easy, it's approachable though often a bit time intensive. It's not as robust as the open source RockBox I run on my other digital audio players, but it's also graphic based. Lines of text aren't always everyone's preference. An Cayin met a happy median with the N3's graphic interface.
Visually pleasing and self explanatory, each of the Menu's were labelled correctly. Everything read naturally an operation was seamless. No hiccups or freezes during my time with it. Each menu had numerous options, and the buttons made navigation simple. Although there were too menu's I had to work back through to get to the home screen.
My average battery life ranged from as low as 7 hours and upwards of 9. Running the line out drew a little more power than having the headphone amp in usage. BlueTooth also drained the battery quicker than standard usage, non the less it lasted around 2-3 days.
What I found most impressive was the power out of the headphone port, I had more headroom with the N3 than I did with Hifiman HM 601. The N3 was also blacker, providing more power with less noise. Additionally it had three gain stages, I found my self using the middle two the most. This combined with the precision of the digital volume controls made for seamless level matching at lower levels. In contrast my HM 601's analog volume wheel didn't match as well during quieter listens. An it had more noise with less power output.
BlueTooth playback did introduce a touch of noise how ever, pair'd with my LG v20 I was easily able to adjust the volume of my music straight from my Cellular phone. The addition of noise didn't haze up the imaging as much as I'd thought, and was mostly harmless.
An honestly, I enjoyed the BlueTooth functionality the most, I had the convince switching from my internal library of music in Neutron, to streaming from Napster Premium to falling back to the internal library on the N3. While streaming from my LG V20, I could easily adjust the volume on my phone, tweak my DSP settings and scroll through my library of music. Without having to fumble around with a cable sticking out of my device. I also like to do a little photo editing with my v20, an often times I'll rotate my screen to fit the angle I want while editing, a cumbersom task to do with a headphone cord dangling from your phone. The dynamics suffered a little, as quieter passages of music had audible noise mixed in. Still when my hands are busy I enjoy having music playing in the back ground. Even better is being able to keep the N3 and my headphones tucked away safely in my pocket with my favorite pair of headphones plugged directly into the N3. An when I'm ready to really listen to the music, I can terminate the BlueTooth connection and immediately continuing listening straight from the N3 it self.
Over the course of my week, I listened with both my open back Superlux HD 668B and my heavily modded Audio Technica ES 10, I had no EQ and I tested both the headphone and line level out.
Clarity is the N3's focus, placing more emphasis on ambient details and individual textures over transients and spacial information.
You can adjust the sound signature further with a selection of digital filters. Sharp, Short Delay and Slow are the three I found made the biggest impact. Sharp offers the quickest sound and most clarity, though it's often a bit to lean. Slow sacrifices some of the clarity and speed for a more natural sound, Short Delay sits in the middle. Not as lean as Sharp but not missing as much of the clarity of Slow. I enjoyed Slow with my Superlux HD 668B and Short Delay with my Audio Technica ES10.
Lows are quick an articulate with the N3, with more focus on the attack and decay than on the sustain or release. This makes for an exciting listen, adding additional impact to instruments like the double bass, though low notes on a piano were often too percussive, sounding a little hollow.
Mid-range is lean, offering a clearer presentation of texture within individual instruments, though the texture can be over emphasized some times. Leading to a thinner timbre, the filters do help regulate and correct this fault in timbre a little. Depending on the track and headphone your listening with.
Up top the N3 presents has a nice edge. A bit of a tizz to high hats and percussion, this plays nicely with a lot of the thick and dark entry level headphones, but with something more open like the Super Lux HD 688B it's a real distraction. The filters offer the most help here, switching to slow alleviated a lot of the hardness for the HD 668B. Still though I often found percussion, snare drums and tom tom drums to sometimes get lost beneath the energy of high hats and cymbals.
Imaging is intimate and a little closed in, compared to my HM 601. However N3 is more precise within the space it offers, where as the HM 601 offers a larger more cohesive image overall. Instruments have a very exact presentation as to where their placed in relation to one another.
The Line out is characterized by much the same qualities though improved, clarity first and foremost but with a more dynamic presentation. Highs maintain a good edge but gain a little air. This added air allowed for a snappier more precise presentation with percussion in particular. Feeding into my Pico Power I also enjoyed a more cohesive image from the N3 as well. It's very pin point imaging isn't as disjointed via the line out either.
Finally, for those curious the sound of the Cayin N3 was noticeably better than that of my LG v20. In comparison, the V20 is bright strident and often artificial sounding. It has a very dynamic sound, but some how lacks impact and texture, a very incoherent sound signature.
All in all the N3 presents a smartly voiced sound signature that pairs nicely with both entry and more reference tuned mid range headphones. The almost limitless functionality pair'd with a smartly built and designed package make ownership a no brainier. It isn't a luxury device, but one designed to be an important part of your mobile listening needs bridging the gap between cellular and stand alone music players to create a more enjoyable seamless experience.
Check out the N3 Thread for a more detailed Comparison with my HM 601 and Behringer UCA 202.
Pros - Stunning array of features unmatched at this price point
Cons - Slightly warm sound presents some genres better than others. Nothing else.
“La di da di, we like to party; we don't cause trouble, we don’t bother nobody”
(technically that’s a double negative, hehe).
A review of the Cayin N3 Digital Audio Player.
Featuring random lyrics, partly to punctuate the moves from section to section, but mainly for my own amusement
I would like to begin by thanking Andy Kong of Cayin and audiopimp extraordinaire @glassmonkey of www.audioprimate.blog for including me on this tour.
The thread for discussion of this DAP may be found here:
All details regarding the build and components can be found on the other reviews of this DAP and on that thread.
"Hello, let me introduce you to the characters in the show; one says yes, one says no".
For purposes of disclosure, I reviewed the Shanling M2s a few months back. I used that review as a something of a template for this review. This was for two reasons.
1) I have recently had something of a sudden sea-change in my working patterns and am temporarily working 12 – 16 hours a day. So the time I intended to devote to writing my usual bespoke review has been mercilessly cut down in its prime.
2) It transpires that I’m hearing almost the exact same differences between the N3 and my xDuoo X3 as I did between the Shanling M2s and the xDuoo X3. YMMV.
"They give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph"
“Stop! Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what's going down”:
I own the xDuoo X3 DAP; I’d describe it as having a transparent, neutral and reference-style sound signature. I haven’t heard any other DAPs directly in the price range of the Cayin N3 and the only other DAP’s I have to compare the N3 with would be ones at 3 – 5 times the price (Shozy Alien+ and the iBasso DX200), a calamitous mismatch on a par with Federer vs Berdych, Wimbledon 2017
So for the purposes of this review, I shall be A/B testing using the Cayin N3 (£149 approx. at time of writing) and the xDuoo X3 (£75 approx. at time of writing).
IEM’s used will be the Spirited Away 'Haku and No-Face' style combo of the Noble Katana and the iBasso IT03.
My favoured method of assessing any piece of audio equipment is to listen to selected tracks from a few different genres and A/B test one product vs another comparable one wherever possible.
When compared with the X3, which has a neutral, reference-style sound signature with good detail, soundstage and clarity, I found the N3 to be slightly more warm and organic in its sound signature, perhaps a touch more closed in regards to the soundstage, although that may simply have been a perception engendered by the slightly warmer presentation.
This sound signature is not a negative thing by any means. I think this will depend on your own personal preferences and you may of course hear it differently to how I did.
Indeed, its sound signature worked synergistically with many of the songs, and presented them beautifully.
I feel the N3 excels on vocal and acoustic music, jazz, blues and so on. It performs very respectably on other genres and more complex music, but in general I found I preferred a more reference-style signature and with more detail and soundstage to bring the best out of these other genres.
The X3 has a transparent, reference sound signature, but lamentably, it is very much a bare-bones DAP; it’s worth mentioning that the X3 is bringing to the table a stripped down DAP experience. The budget has mainly gone into making it sound as good as possible, with broad/advanced functionality tellingly absent.
So to just compare them in terms of price alone is going to be a somewhat misleading exercise.
Conversely, the N3 has a simply staggering array of functionality.
Other reviews go into these in detail and I am too pressed for time to list them, but simply I don’t know of any player at its price point that offers anything like the amount of functions that this extraordinary box of tricks offers!
If you especially enjoy vocal and acoustic music, jazz, blues and so on, this player seems like it could be a good fit.
It still performs very respectably on other genres and more complex music, but in general I found I preferred a slightly more reference-style signature with more detail and soundstage to bring the best out of these other genres. However, at no time was I left disappointed; we are talking small margins here, and as ever, your ears may hear differently to mine.
Plus, to labour the point yet again, there is the simply mind-expanding array of features that this DAP offers
The Conclusion (TL;DR):
“Indecision clouds my vision; no one listens, because I’m somewhere in between”
To sum up, the Cayin N3 offers outstanding value for money, a good colour screen which can display album art, an easy to use interface, playback of pretty much every audio file type including native DSD 256 playback, a plethora of functions, tiny size and a quality sound signature.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give what the kids refer to as ‘mad props’ to Cayin for their attention to the little details in the packaging and accessories. Lovely packaging, a piece of micro-SD sized plastic to fill and protect the micro-SD card slot, stickers and screen protector, comprehensive user manual, USB-C cable with the Cayin logo branded on it, a smart white velcro tie for that cable, a gorgeous case, etc etc.
Extremely commendable at any level; remarkable at this price point!
The End of The Affair:
Fun time is over; time to get back to the crazy work schedule >.<
“All I am saying - it’s all insane; I just want to run away!
My heart is beating, but then again, I took the wrong way, I drifted far away”
I include below the song lyric quotation sources, for those who are wailing and gnashing their teeth - much like they did in biblical times - as they try to identify or remember them.
This serves the twofold function of simultaneously demonstrating my compassionate nature, whilst avoiding being sued for infringement of copyright
(in order of reference):
La Di Da Di - Doug. E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew (Ft. Slick Rick)
I Dare You - Shinedown (I love the acoustic version. I'm just saying. It's staggeringly powerful)
Kodachrome - Simon & Garfunkel (their original 'Live in Central Park' album is an all-time favourite of mine)
For What It's Worth - Buffalo Springfield (also sampled in Public Enemy's excellent 'He Got Game')
Falling To Pieces - Faith No More
Run - Club 8 (from their astonishingly good album 'Above The City')
Pros - Duplex Bluetooth 4.0 aptx, sound quality, form factor, amazing price/quality ratio, long battery life, amazing UI (with HiByLink)
Cons - No balanced output (but at this price point I really should not complain); small display, capacitive touch controls need getting used to (this is utterly and super-satisfactorily resolved with HiByLink). OTG adapter not included.
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.
Pros - Small, affordable, easy to use Bluetooth. UI is fairly intuitive. Excellent sound characteristics on BT and SD. Ability to use as a dedicated DAC is a definite plus.
Cons - Side buttons easy to bump, "control area" below screen needs a backlight, or you need a good memory! Nothing sound-wise.
First, this unit should be rated at 4.5 stars, but I am unable to do that from my computer...any help would be appreciated!
The Cayin N3 is the newest iteration of a portable DAP from Cayin, and as such, Andy Kong arranged a tour (and we were glad!!). Hoping to compare this excellent little critter to my existing small DAP, the Shanling M1, as well as the mid-fi models I own, I quickly applied.
Andy has always been a gracious host, tirelessly working for the betterment of Cayin, and as one would expect, it paid off with the N3. To say I missed the little-DAP-that-could after it left would be an understatement. I thoroughly enjoyed my time together, and the comparison with the M1 revealed some noticeable differences, which I will get into of course. I thank Andy for arranging the tour, quickly and efficiently. I had not heard the i5, since it left my hands last fall, but from what I heard, the newest Firmware gave it a needed sonic plus. My hope was that this would peel over into the N3. From what I had read about the update, several bugs were fixed, and sonically the sound signature was brought to a slightly more neutral sound. Almost everything I read about the update was positive. And this made me happy to wait my turn.
The mid-fi DAP market is full of many fine examples, too many to list here; but I have heard my share. Suffice to say, many are very, very good. The lower-priced end is pack-full with choices, too. Again many good, and some VERY good ones. Of which, I will mention the Shanling M1, not only because I own one, but I reviewed one. This little unit has flown under the radar since it came out, much the way of the Shanling M5, its big brother. Both share that “house sound” of slightly warm, engaging sound, chock full of detail and sufficient reach on both ends to keep you thoroughly occupied. I really like both the M1 and M5 for those qualities listed; but for the purposes here I will contain myself to the M1/N3 comparison, since that is the limit of my expertise in this end of the market (well, besides older iPods…).
To finish that thought on the low-end spectrum, what a company needs to do is provide something, which sets itself apart from the herd, of course. Think of the econo-car end of the market in the US. Years ago, VW went with very high quality interiors, and fit/finish of those interiors to distinguish itself. As such, the rest of that market had to play catch-up, resulting in much better interior quality at that level where we all benefitted. Unfortunately for VW, their overall quality was still behind the Japanese/Korean contingency. In this regard, companies that want to sell their wares need to be forward thinking, such as VW was at that time…and in this regard, both Shanling and Cayin have succeeded. Incorporating (successfully, I might add) the latest Bluetooth technology, to help run the critter wirelessly; we are provided with a multitude of hook-up options regarding our soundscape.
We can run the N3 alone, as an excellent portable DAP (and I did on my runs). One can also run the N3 in a system, using an amp/pre-amp combo or such and enjoy quality portable/home music (iFi iDSD Micro Black Label & iFi iTube2 were used, to much listening pleasure). And one can also use the Bluetooth as a connectivity tool for use as a transport. If you stream Spotify or Tidal, through your Smartphone, but loathe the quality of sound, simply turn the Bluetooth on both, allowing the DAC of the N3 (and M1) to be used for much better audio quality. A last benefit, which did come in handy and I use regularly on my M1 is that if you also have a Garmin/Fitbit-type device with Bluetooth, you can run the controls of your music through that. I often use that option while running, which avoids having to find the fast forward/reverse start/pause features of my DAP. Convenient, and much safer. I applaud both for bringing this into the affordable realm.
And all Bluetooth connectivity sessions worked flawlessly, no matter the connection. To me, gone are the days of hit/miss Bluetooth. The connection was solid, stable and of lengthy reach. Just as other reviewers noted, I tried the distance method, and could successfully manipulate the Bluetooth connection/controls from a considerable distance within my house. And yes, one need be wary of using such in public, what with security concerns. I was not worried.
After only four years in the portable DAP market, Cayin is to be commended for approaching all levels with gusto and fortitude. While the i5 did suffer initial problems, it does seem to be learned from, and the N3 suffered no such problems for me. Working without a hitch, my time was entirely too short. One week went by way too fast.
From the Cayin website:
Construction: Aluminum chassis and anti-slip leatherette backing
DAC chipset: AK44900EN
Headphone opamp: OPA1622
Line amp: OPA1652
Audio file formats: DSF, DIFF, SACD-ISO, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, APE, WMA, MP3, OGG
Display: 2.4 in (6 cm) TFT 400x360 IPS screen
Buttons: Capacitive touch
Bluetooth version: Bluetooth 4.0 + aptX
Headphone impedance: 16–200 ohms recommended
Gain control: 3 gain stages: High, mid, low
Continuous playback: 12 hrs (screen off)
Standby: 200 hrs
Charging time: Approx. 2 hrs (with 1.5–2A charger, not included)
External storage: TF (up to 256 GB), USB OTG
Output connectors: 3.5mm headphone and USB type-C
S/PDIF output: DoP and D2P
DoP output: DSD up to DSD64, PCM up to 24 bit/192 kHz
Dimensions (L x W x H): 3.9 x 2.1 x 0.5 in (10 x 5.4 x 1.3 cm)
Weight: 3.5 oz (100 g)
Power rating: 130 mW + 130 mW at 32 ohms
Frequency response: 20 Hz–20 kHz (+/- 0.3 dB, Fs=192 kHz); 5 Hz–50 kHz (+/- 2 dB, Fs=192 kHz)
THD+N: 0.03% (1 kHz, FS=44.1 kHz; 20 Hz–20 kHz, A-weighted)
Dynamic range: 108 dB (20 Hz–20 kHz, A-weighted)
SNR: 108 dB (20 Hz–20 kHz, A-weighted)
Output impedance: ≤ 1 ohm
Output level: 1.0 V at 10 kohms
Frequency response: 20 Hz–20 kHz (+/- 0.2 dB, Fs=192 kHz); 5 Hz–50 kHz (+/- 2 dB, Fs=192 kHz)
THD+N: 0.03% (1 kHz, FS=44.1 kHz; 20 Hz–20 kHz, A-weighted)
Dynamic range: 108 dB (20 Hz–20 kHz, A-weighted)
SNR: 108 dB (20 Hz–20 kHz, A-weighted)
Rated output level: 0.5Vp-p at 75 ohms
Rated output impedance: 75 ohms
DSD: Up to DSD128 (native or DoP), native DSD decode at DoP mode
PCM: Up to 192 kHz/24 bit
Windows: Supported (Cayin USB audio driver required)
Mac OS X: Supported (Driver not required)
Android: Not supported
iOS: Not supported
USB mode: Asynchronized USB audio 2.0 class
With a stated battery rating of 12 hours playback and 200(!) hours standby, coupled with 130mW, the N3 does provide reasonable power and long playback. Suffice to say that I was more than able to reach uncomfortable listening levels with my Unique Melody Martians, and Vibro Labs Aria. Without distortion, too. As for the claimed 12 hours listening, I was able to verify that, based upon my simple calculations over the first two days, coming up with approximately 16 hours playback time, actually. Unscientific, but worth a consideration, based upon the companies claim. In 24 hours, with approximately four hours of use (the rest mostly off), the battery had dropped from 92% (upon delivery from Pinky) to 68%. 6%/hour of play would yield approximately 16 hours. Slightly less than the loaner Shanling M1 I had of Nik’s, but better than my personal unit, which I purchased second-hand. I’m not sure what is going on there, but I would certainly like the loaner-battery-play-time!
My initial indoctrination was quite decent, similar to Cayin i5, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did find the capacitive buttons to be quite touchy. I could easily touch the other buttons, as they are quite sensitive. Others concurred with this assessment. That said, in hand, the N3 is easier to operate than the mini-M1, what with the lower added portion to use for a gripping point. Screen size, they seem to be identical so I did appreciate that added portion, where I am sure most of the electronic gizmos are running this little wonder. The side-buttons are simple plastic touch-switches, and are not easy to decipher in low light, as they are not lit at all. But, once you get used to which switch works whatever function you are using, it becomes somewhat intuitive. A nice addition would be a backlight to the capacitive switches, much like we have on our Smartphones, and touch screen DAPs. As for the side switches, that may add complexity and cost, so one can learn to decipher the buttons.
Separation of sound is quite good, with a slightly forward sound, which to me pushes the sound stage forward. I really like what @ike1985 did with his head chart in his latest reviews (of which they are a worthy read, exemplary they are), so think of that and you can picture where the sound originates. Sound stage seems average at best (to me). Fore/aft is the biggest, with not much stage beyond ones head. It seems a bit higher than neutral/average in the vertical plane, too. Kind of an interesting sound stage, it is…and different than the M1. To me, the M1 provides a wider stage, but not as tall.
With three gain settings, H/M/L easily accessible, one can quickly tailor a boost to your delight or song. Simply pushing the upper left button below the screen, and then clicking the center circular “OK” button, you change the gain level. Accordingly, you also raise the volume as well, depending upon what setting you use. Gapless play between songs from the album played flawlessly.
*Note: this sub menu controls many additional features, which are covered in my video review.
What with quite a fast start up, this simply leaves devices such as the FiiO x5iii in the dust. If this were a drag race, the race would be over before the FiiO had even started. Yes, the x5iii is more complicated, but that also shows how quickly the N3 starts. Power down is slightly longer. A nice Come Back Soon message appears, whenst you turn the critter off, reminiscent of our Mazda6, where upon turning the car off, a pleasant Goodbye message shows on the display. A polite saying indeed.
Moving between screens was a familiar movement with a fairly intuitive UI. I will say that almost none of the small critters I have heard, or reviewed have that absolutely free UI, meaning that all have shortcomings. What I will say, that Cayin has thoroughly thought about this conundrum, and have tried hard to make a near-flawless interface. Moving through menus (and sub menus) is right intuitive, and efficient. Even though my doltishness showed in the video, it is much easier than that.
From the main menu, you can access everything from playback to EQ to the system settings. Once you enter a menu, getting into the sub menu, such as the music folder, then you are presented with Cayin’s efforts to make the music easy to read. Folders such as Songs, Playlist and others present them selves easily using the forward and rewind buttons below the screen. And, once one becomes familiar with the menus and sub menus there are few problems (unlike in my video, “off screen” I was able to use the N3 flawlessly….must have been screen-fright of my hands…). I was easily able to manipulate between screens, all the while enjoying the music.
An extremely nice feature is the long press on the “previous” button in the top right of the button area. By doing so, one is brought all the way back to the main screen for easy access to the other menus. And once a setting is changed, or folder, or whatever, a single press returns you to the song at hand (if all you did was a bit of menu browsing, instead of changing something). A very nice feature, which to me makes perfect sense.
One can also change the time in which the “on screen” sub menu appears on the left side while a song is playing. I kept the delay short, but easily found if I scrolled down the sub menu, I could change what I wanted as needed. And thankfully, the gain aspect is at the top of the sub menu list. With two touches, you can add gain one step at a time or return to low from the high setting. So, in a situation where you need that added boost to hear your music (don’t we all?!) with two touches, you have added or lower the gain. I could see this as expressly useful in commuting situations, and when we know it can easily be changed back, that simply adds to the usefulness.
As opposed to going through all of the other sub menus (Twister6 does it better, and why rehash greatness!), you can peruse his excellent written review, or my video. I won’t beg for watches, but…
As stated in my video (hint, hint…), the Bluetooth functioned perfectly. I really believe we are past the days of a non-functioning tool as Bluetooth was once considered, and I for one like the functionality of it more and more. Add in that many manufacturers are taking this technology seriously, hence the audio quality is rising at a very quick pace; and we all win.
Using the N3 as a DAC from your Smartphone allows you to utilize the better sound quality of the N3’s system. While using the browsing capabilities of ones smartphone, whether through Spotify or Tidal, you can seamlessly tie the two together for a very good listening experience. Using my iPhone, Tidal and the N3, I was treated to a wonderful sound through my UM Martian of twenty one pilots and Kansas. With the Cayin to tidy up the sound, and the fairly good quality from Tidal, I was treated to a sound aspect, which was not possible all that long ago. To be able to spend this small (somewhat) bit to increase your sound quality immediately should be a serious consideration for those who rely upon their smartphone for music. Add in, that you also get the benefit of the SD card music, and you have successfully taken a step towards your audio-nirvana…OK, a bit over the top, but you get my drift…I hope…
An additional added benefit is that those with a fitness device will also be able to control the music through your Smartphone and N3 using the on wrist capabilities of your device. I use this feature with my Shanling M1 and Garmin Vivoactive HR+ at least a couple of times a week. To me it is much, much safer to turn my wrist to control the music, than reaching onto my upper arm; or in my pocket where the music device may be. So, an unintended benefit to me would be the added safety factor. While this does eat into your battery of the fitness device, if you have a GPS-able device, it uses less than that. It is worth it to me, and probably the best portable feature of my M1. And thus, the N3. Those with Bluetooth capable home systems will see this benefit, too. And as I understand it, with a minimal amount, you can add a security feature to your Bluetooth listening (not on the N3 itself, but through your Smart-device). Well worth the added security in my mind.
As for the sound through the Bluetooth connection, to my tired old ears, it was on par with the SD card listening. Maybe a bit behind, but if you have Bluetooth headphones, you could then use your native music as opposed to only streaming.
There is no fighting for a spot sound-wise between bass, mids and treble. A good cooperation going on here between all three provides the listener with a very even pleasant experience. One in which you can decipher all three sections in a straightforward manner. There is no bleed of any one characteristic into another. All three play and work well together. An admirable tuning experience done by Cayin, and from what I understand similar to the updated i5 firmware sound.
Initially, I found a better clarity of sound than the Shanling M1. To me, it was a more crisp sound, with a neutral signature to be applauded for its honest representation. Details were quite good with Dave Matthews So Damn Lucky. An impressive sound was heard, but it lacked the bass punch of the Shanling M1. A near-neutral signature with that very good clarity is how I would describe the N3. After much more listening, that clarity over the Shanling still rung true, but I did miss the better bass punch of the M1. And yes, an EQ can take care of that quite easily. As stated in my other reviews (and in my “about me” section above), I value a warmer darker signature. That said I found the N3 to be thoroughly pleasing and satisfactory. I was mighty impressed, and that rapt grew during our time together.
Unique Melody Martian
Vibro Labs Aria
Ziggy Marley- I Am Human & Dragonfly (live and album version)
twenty one pilots- Guns for Hands, Trees, Screen, Car Radio
Bob Marley- No Woman No Cry, Buffalo Soldier, Three Little Birds
Stevie Ray Vaughan- Look at Little Sister (live Austin City Limits), Mary Had A Little Lamb (same), Couldn’t Stand the Weather
Dave Matthews- So Damn Lucky, Dodo, Gravedigger
Kansas-Dust in the Wind, Song for America, Point of Know Return
Musical listenings (for a lack of better words…):
Starting with Ziggy’s album version of Dragonfly, and continuing through the rest of the audition, I found the N3 to be a brilliant combination of sound, including presentation, separation, instrumentation and depth of sound. Just an overall positive characteristic rung true, no matter what was thrown the Cayin’s way. No problem, and positive vibes throughout all.
Ziggy is one of my all time favorites, and excellent for audition purposes because of his musical variety. From his sumptuous voice and acoustic guitars (when used) he varies his songs enough to provide excellent opportunities to delve into a difference when comparing items such as the N3 & M1. From both the live version, and the studio version, those differences quickly became apparent.
Dragonfly is such a wonderful presentation for environmental protection to start with, then add that it really is a fine song to boot, and you have a very happy medium with which one can judge sound characteristics. Using the live version, the acoustic guitars sounded not quite as deep and melodious on the N3 as the M1. But, the guitars were better separated, a characteristic, which would continue throughout the review time. From this separation, one can garner minute differences such as the pluck of a finger not heard on one device but clearly on the other. I found this to be no matter what headphone was used, too. Over and over the N3 won the clarity battle, while losing the bass depth and somewhat the depth of overall sound. As a near-neutral source, though this clarity was an exemplary trait to own; and one to cherish as you hear music at this level separated like (maybe) never before, in a critter at this price point.
Moving from IEM to IEM, that common theme of clarity won me over. I really like the M1, but the clarity of the N3 is to be admired. Whether it is from the complicated “mess” known as Guns for Hands to the clearly defined delineation of sound in Look at Little Sister (Austin City Limits version), the N3 proved that at this low price you can certainly have a very good sound. As for that “mess” Guns for Hands, what I mean is that throughout the complexity of song from the on-stage and off-stage instruments, I never once felt as if there was a doubt exactly where those instruments were, nor were they jumbled. So for this song, the clarity meant definition of space. A proximal instrumentation, which I applauded.
As stated in my other reviews, I am in love with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music, holding it closest to my heart and soul for a multitude of reasons. And on the live Look at Little Sister, Austin City Limits it left no doubt. Hearing SRV’s voice clearly defined as he sung, and with almost every finger pluck, you simply had to admire how a device of this price and size could portray that sound. As an added bonus, the flawless guitar change resulting from his intense playing, which broke a string simply sings through the N3/UM Martian combo (obviously not seen on the N3, but memory serves me well, there…). Downloaded to SD card, yes, but the essence of the song remains. From his rock’n guitar riffs, which change chords after the string break, to his vocals, changing from sweet and melodic to strong and gruff and back, SRV can bring out the best and worst of almost any device. And the N3 nary shied away, groov’n with SRV together for a thoroughly wonderful sound.
Switching to the iconic (and one of my all time favorite songs) Dust in the Wind, Kansas has the ability to make one completely humble in most of their songs. Having played at my brother-in-laws Senior Prom, the year before they went big, Kansas is probably second only to SRV in my musical soul. Steve Walsh’s sensuously ranged voice can make almost anything sound good. When you throw in Kerry Livgren’s musical creative genius you are hooked. Ballads were meant for Kansas, and Kansas should have had a much larger audience than it did... Seeing Steve Walsh handstand on a piano, while still playing and singing is a sight to behold. The N3 brought back those memories, and I was glad. Very glad. To say the diversity of music shown through well in the Cayin, should make them very proud. At one time, in my listening history, I laughed at how digital sounded…to say that it would sound better than analog to me was an insult of the highest order. I scoffed at the notion. I now humbly eat those words with my crow’s pie, bowing to the wondrous sound these digital marvels can produce. Again, I am glad. And the N3 does Kansas justice. I’m not sure what else I can say in that regard.
Throughout the whole audition as I mentioned the N3 provided a clean, clear and mostly crisp sound, which to me yielded itself as that clarity of which I speak. With an ever-so-slight-north-of-neutral sound, I found myself actually preferring this to my usual dose of WAY north of neutral, warm sound. I guess, that my maturation of review-process is proceeding as a result. Why? Well, when one can truly appreciate a sound, which differs from their usual norm, then two things are very apparent (to me). 1. The sound is very good, indeed and, 2. My tired old ears can still make different the sound of two somewhat similar sounds. #1 goes without saying. #2 means I must be doing something right!
The N3 need to be promoted. The N3 needs to be marketed. The N3 needs to be heard. It is an extremely satisfying low-priced DAP, which confirms how far (possibly) sound and sound capabilities have come in the last 2-3 years. To incorporate the level of Bluetooth sound and capabilities this critter has is very admirable. And when said function works seamlessly with any option thrown its way, well then the “new” technology has succeeded. This has been promoted as a new function, but my own experience with the excellent Shanling M1 shows, that it is not entirely new. But, when you think of how few devices at this price point in fact do have this capability, while providing excellent sound characteristics of its own accord, then there are two winners: the company and most assuredly us. I for one, applaud this type of R&D, and the price at which this happens. Because isn’t our selfish goal, to bring quality audio to the masses? One can hope.
I want to personally thank Andy and Cayin for running this tour. It takes time, an IMMENSE amount of time, resources and the product itself. It is very gracious of those manufacturers to provide their wares for we users to dissect, good or bad. And I truly am thankful for these opportunities, for without which, we might not hear the more expert opinions and findings than I can provide here. Thank you again, Andy! It was a wonderful week, indeed.
21 minutes of rambling and doltishness...if you dare...
Pros - This thing is as versatile a device as is on the market and does most things astonishingly well.
Cons - Buttons are easy to press by accident. Leather case resolves this but at an extra cost.
Thanks to Andy and Cayin for setting up the Tour. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with this little jewel.
It started simply enough, a nondescript little white box arrived at my doorstep. Inside was a well labeled box with an interesting layout. The packaging contains a small box with the accessories and manual and a slide out tray that holds the device itself. Well thought out, with cloth tabs for pulling the tray out as well as lifting the device out of the padding. The packaging is well engineered to protect the device and if put in so the device is facing the center between the accessories and the outer packaging, it should take a pretty severe blow to harm it.
At this point, I have now referred to the N3 as “the device” twice. Let me explain why right up front. Calling it a DAP is inadequate. This device goes so far beyond what most entry level DAPs are capable of, that to call it simply a DAP seems derogatory. In my week of using the N3, I found it to be a DAP, a wireless DAP, a headphone amp, a USB DAC, a Bluetooth DAC, an external hard drive, and once I made a USB to Coaxial cable using Andy’s instructions (I’d advise buying one but, since I only had the sample for a week, time did not allow) a very good little transport for either USB or Coaxial output.
The device is solid and uncluttered. The case feels strong and showed no flexibility. With 2 buttons on left, the top being power the lower being a volume rocker, and 3 on the right being forward, Play/pause, and back (top to bottom) most of the functions you need can be handled quickly without looking once the initial playlist has been chosen. For initial setup it does have capacitive buttons below the screen that make sifting through the menus fairly straight forward and intuitive.
The screen is crisp and clear and the album cover art is well displayed albeit not entirely square. The corners are still pruned somewhat but overall a very usable display. I would advise backing off the display brightness to somewhere between 75% and 50% as this still leaves it very legible but improves battery life considerable. (As a side note, this is not a touch screen but at $150 not to be expected).
The screen did come with one small scratch on the review sample and a screen protector still in the box so I would recommend using same. I understand that others dislike screen protectors so I did not mount it but would certainly do so were the device my personal one.
The bottom of the unit has a single 3.5mm jack and a USB-C/Spdif port (you can read more about Cayin’s proprietary use of the unused pins in USB-C to handle the coax output duties elsewhere). The only fault I can find with this is that the USB-C port on the test unit was just slightly off-center. This did not cause any issues and was merely a cosmetic issue.
Cayin rates the battery at 2500mAh and my testing came out to 2350mAh measured so the runtimes suggested in their literature are pretty much spot on what should be expected although I suspect they had tuned the device to get a full 12 hours out of it. (screen off or way down, Bluetooth off etc).
The UI is obviously based on Hiby Music as is commonly the case in this tier of Chinese DAP. Once you know where the controls are in Hiby, it is pretty straight forward to get everything setup as you wish.
I would advise changing the power saving/sleep functions right away as they are disabled as factory default and the device is prone to parasitic drain when not in use if the sleep function is not enabled.
Gain settings offer 3 levels of gain, the EQ offers several presets along with Custom. One drawback is the custom EQ is a bit of a learning curve to get setup as it isn’t the most intuitive process with the button arrangement on the front of the player. Once set though, it did an admirable job of remembering those settings.
The media management on the device is easily one of the best I have used. The ability to load a music library quickly from an SD Card is much appreciated and with my 64gb card it took less than 30 seconds to read files in and be ready to use. Way better than the Hidiz I tested last. The category titles make for quick sorting of music as does the genre drill down feature. I found playlists to be about as expected and navigation between artists and tracks was simple and straight forward.
Cases and Caveats:
The device came with a little slip over silicone rubber case. While good for protecting the device back and sides, it does basically nothing for the front and it does leave the buttons exposed. This lead to hitting the wrong button while trying one handed operations as I often hit the forward/back/pause when trying to adjust volume or the reverse when trying to switch songs.
Toward the end of my week with the N3, a leather case arrived. The device slides in from the top with a gentle effort. The leather case provides recesses for each button and the screen as can be seen above. While not covering the screen, the recess does provide some protection for it. The good news here is the recessed buttons mean your fingers sit on top of them rather than pushing them when doing the same one hand operations I mentioned previously. The issue with hitting the volume or track change button while trying to adjust the opposite was nearly completely cured by the leather case. I would strongly advise purchasing the case to go with the N3 or even better would be if Cayin would bundle the Leather case in the package. It would be worth a few extra dollars to keep from having to go back and order it separately.
Pairing was smooth and simple. The CSR8811 does a good job of the Bluetooth duties and use of headphones 40-50 feet from the device was not a problem. Very good overall implementation of Bluetooth as presented fewer hiccups and other problems than I have grown to be accustomed to when attempting to use Bluetooth headphones. Notably the battery of the device did not seem to drain notably quicker with the Bluetooth enabled which is a great thing. Far too many of the inexpensive devices (phones included) drain the battery in ½ the time when you enable the Bluetooth features so seeing the power management on this was a nice surprise. The other cool feature was the ability to pair the N3 to a phone and use it as a DAC/Amp for streaming Spotify and tidal through the phone. That is an impressive feature which makes the N3 a potential Chord Mojo competitor at ¼ the cost.
This is the hardest part for me. Trying to discern what coloration is being added by the DAP and what is caused by the rest of the system means putting in a lot of time and really knowing every piece of equipment in the chain. For that reason, I have a list of tracks I always use, and a handful of headphones/earphones that always get used as I know their biases and can then use that information to tell what is being introduced by the player. For the N3 the two words that come to mind are Neutral and Clear. To me, this is about the best thing you can say about a DAP. I could not discern any coloration that was imparted by this player. It might lean just a touch to the warm side, but again this could well be my other choices rather than the player itself. Clarity was better than expected with micro-detail being well rendered. (Admittedly this was evident mostly when using the device as a DAC into my home system). I do think perhaps the DAC chip is slightly better than the opamp it is paired with for earphone listening as I could pick out more detail when using the N3 as transport or DAC with the USB to coaxial than when listening directly from the 3.5mm output.
Probably the most interesting thing to me is that the AK4490’s digital filters are very audible. The UI offers sharp, short delay sharp, slow, super slow delay, and short delay slow. Differences in the later three are very subtle if audible for me. Differences in the first 3 listed are clearly audible.
Sharp is great when paired with a planar like the Fostex or Alpha Dog. Very fast attack and decay with lots of treble sparkle and good slam. Probably the least musical of the filters and the most obviously “digital” sound signature but quite possibly my favorite of the bunch.
Short delay sharp is a bit more laid back, slightly smoother around the edges but retains some of the sparkle and edge of sharp.
Slow = smooth. All the sharp edges are gone and what is left is thick and warm. Might be best paired with a headphone that tends to get a bit harsh as it smooths out a lot of roughness. Unfortunately for me, it also masked some of the detail and was probably my least favorite.
Comparisons: (Battle of the 3s)
N3 vs Fiio X3ii
Soundstage - N3 (much larger than X3)
Power Handling - N3 (but not by enough to make it a huge difference)
Sound – N3 – Clarity, more neutral and better dynamics than the X3.
N3 vs Xduoo X3
Soundstage – N3 but not by a lot. Pretty close to a dead heat.
Power Handling – Xduoo X3 – the N3 has to use the high gain setting to drive earphones as strongly as the X3 can at lower gain setting. It should be noted though that the N3 has a much blacker noise floor when compared to the X3 and is a better choice for highly sensitive headphones.
Sound – N3 – easily a clearer more detailed sound from the N3.
Since keeping the review sample was not an option, I am left with no choice but to purchase a Cayin N3 and the optional leather case, as should anyone who wants the most versatile and useful DAC/DAP on the portable market for $150. While the N3 isn’t perfect, it does an awful lot of things very well. You might even justify buying more than one as you could have a portable machine for on the go, a USB DAC/amp for your laptop, and a transport for your home system all for less than $500. Name me one other device that can do all those things well and still cost you less than a good set of headphones?
Pros - neutral musical tonality, decent output power, unique Bluetooth functionality, compact slim design, battery life.
Cons - capacitive touch buttons.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion. The review was originally posted on my blog, and now I would like to share it with all my readers on Head-fi.
Manufacturer website: Cayin, for sale on MusicTeck and Amazon.
* click on images to expand.
After a number of successful DAP releases, from N6 to N5 and i5, I was surprised when I heard that Cayin is planning to introduce an entry level audio player. While mid-fi and even summit-fi DAP market starting to feel saturated, entry level DAP pool is already overflowing with mediocre releases. Typically, the cheaper audio players are targeted at consumers who're not as picky about sound quality, and looking for something compact and convenient, or maybe just a portable digital transport for a DAC/amp. But knowing how much planning and design goes into every Cayin release, I decided to give it a benefit of a doubt, especially after I heard their pre-production unit at CanJam NYC. Even with a beta fw, N3 already showed a lot of potential, and I wasn't even aware about its secret weapon, thinking BT wireless connection will be only for a pair up with headphones.
Following the CanJam and with a help from MusicTeck [http://www.musicteck.com/], N3 made its US debut on MassDrop where in my opinion the real highlight was the comments in the Discussion section. Andy Kong, who many are probably familiar with as the face of the global Cayin support, started to answer MD questions about N3 which revealed many hidden treasures of this new release. At that point I couldn't wait to get my hands on this little guy, to be able to use it not only as a portable DAP but also as a wireless Bluetooth dongle which should be able to transmit and to control audio through Bluetooth connection from my phone and other sources. Now, after spending a few weeks with this little wireless surprise, I'm ready to share what I've discovered.
N3 arrived in a small cardboard box with a rather minimalistic cover artwork, though you do get Hi-Res Audio stamp of approval which gives you a clue this is going to be more than just an entry level DAP. Typical of their other products, on the back you will find a list of Main Features with the highlights of the design, each one accompanied by a small graphic thumbnail - more indication that you are dealing with a fully loaded portable DAP.
Packed tightly inside of the box you will find a secure foam lining surrounding N3, a manual, and a box with accessories. Overall, this is just a typical unboxing experience of a portable DAP. The box didn't have N3 picture, keeping it as a surprise until you get everything out, though later I realized that a circle with N3 on the cover could have been representation of a round multifunction button found on the front of the DAP.
When it comes to accessories, most of the companies are selective to distinguish their entry level from mid-fi and summit-fi products. But still, even in comparison to their higher-level models, Cayin didn't cut too many corners here. You get a decent quality usb to usb-c cable, an extra screen protector in addition to the one which has been already applied, two hi-res stickers for those who want to showcase it, and a silicone case. Pretty much all the essential accessories.
I think that silicone instead of pleather case was one of the indicators of lower model, though I hope Cayin will offer a pleather/leather case for N3 as an optional accessory in a near future. Also, an armband or a case with a clip to use N3 while exercising would be a great idea! For me personally, I'm enjoying N3 naked with its slim metal body and a pleather non-slip back cover. I found silicone case to be a little slippery, though it does offer a scratch resistance and a basic bump protection.
One accessory I did miss from i5 is micro-usb to usb-c adapter, very convenient when you are traveling and only have access to more common micro-usb charging cables. But either way, I do highly recommend to purchase a few of these adapters which could be found on eBay or Amazon for a few bucks.
Known for their artistic design style, Cayin DAPs always stand out from the crowd, but here they decided to cool things down with a more generic look. With an exception of a large round button on the front, there is nothing that really jumps out at you from the first look. I assume it was done intentionally to simplify the design down to a slim pocket-friendly shell. Everything is well laid out and all the controls are highly functional and right under your fingertips.
The footprint of N3 is very compact, measuring only 100mm x 54mm x 13mm and feather light at only 100g. It felt very comfortable in my hand, and I enjoyed the solid aluminum metal chassis and a textured pleather back panel. As a matter of fact, this is the first time where I prefer to carry a portable DAP naked rather than inside the case because you still get an excellent non-slip grip and the pleather back adds enough friction when placed on any surface so you don’t have to worry about N3 sliding or scratching anything.
The focus of N3 front panel is 2.4” display with 400x360 resolution. It’s a small display with a lower resolution, but you're still able to view clearly the cover artwork embedded into your songs, and overall it had a decent contrast even for an outdoor viewing. Underneath the display, right in the middle you have a large round multi-function button which is easy to access and comfortable to use with a nice tactile feedback when clicked. This was probably one of my most used buttons since you can turn the screen on without a need to reach for a power button, you can use it for Play/Pause in a playback screen, or use it to select and to change options within menu settings.
That round physical button is surrounded by 4 capacitive touch buttons, 2 on each side. These have a built-in haptic vibration feedback to let you know when they are tapped, or you can disable haptic feedback to extend the battery life. The upper left is your menu button which brings up number of shortcuts accessible within playback screen as well as other options in different screens. The upper right button is your Return/Back to a previous screen as well as long-press to get to the Main menu screen. In lower left/right corners you have multi-function direction buttons which are used to scroll through vertical and horizontal menus, skip to the next/prev song, or long press to fast forward/back. While the location and the placement of these capacitive touch buttons is convenient, I would have personally preferred physical buttons or maybe even a D-pad around the center button. At the beginning when I started using N3, I had a number of mishaps where I skipped (or restarted) the song while accidentally brushing over these buttons, but after awhile I became more aware and careful when moving my thumb.
On the left side, you will find a separate power button and joined +/- Volume buttons, all with a nice tactile response and click action. On the right side, you will find 3 separate HW playback control buttons with Play/Pause in the middle and Skip Next/Prev above and below it. Under a normal operation with a screen off, you can easily change the volume and skip through songs using these buttons, and it’s very convenient to use these buttons when paired up with another source to control playback remotely.
It's also worth mentioning that N3 headphone jack supports CTIA headphones, those intended for smartphones with in-line remote where you can Play/Pause and Skip songs right from the headphone cable without even touching N3. This becomes very convenient when your DAP is in the pocket or if you find an armband to keep N3 while exercising. Also, the headphone jack can be configured from within settings menu to function as either HO or LO. And since USB-C port has a digital out, with an optional type-c to spdif cable you can use N3 as a digital transport. Furthermore, USB-C port can be used as a digital input to turn N3 into usb-DAC. And last, but not least, this type-C usb connection also supports OTG to expand your storage capacity.
Under the hood.
Despite being considered as an entry level model, you will find AK4490EN DAC and OPA1652/1622 opamp, just like in i5 design which explains sound similarities when comparing these DAPs. With this configuration, you get plenty of power (130mW per channel into 32ohm load, with output HO impedance of less than 1ohm) to drive even some demanding headphones, which I’m going to cover in my pair up section of the review. Also, the Bluetooth wireless functionality is covered by advanced Qualcomm BlueCore CSR8811 multi-function chip supporting apt-X.
There is no internal storage, but you can use a single microSD card up to 256GB and expand your storage further with USB OTG support. For a compact pocket DAP, this is plenty of storage for a high-res library on the go where N3 supports DSD256 as well as MP3, FLAC, WAV, AIF, and other popular formats. And with a battery capacity rated at 12hrs, though in my testing with mixed lossless and lossy files, screen off, and haptic feedback disabled, I got somewhere between 10-11hrs, you'll get plenty of playback time before running out of juice.
Once you power up N3, you will feel like at home being familiar with menu settings due to similarities with other (non-Android) Cayin models as well as other DAPs designed in collaboration with Hiby. The main menu is very clear, with all the main icons visible left to right and corresponding text labels explaining the functionality in the middle of the screen as you step through.
Music Category will take you to a carousel of Playlist (M3U supported), Songs, My Favorites, Recently Played, Album, Genre, and Artists, sorted according to the tags in your song file. Music Library takes you to microSD card, OTG, or to update the music library. I personally prefer the folder view, thus go straight to microSD folder and step through the songs in there. When you have a long list, holding the touch buttons scrolls through the list faster. Pressing Menu touch button (upper left button), brings up a shortcut menu to start playback or to tag the song as favorite or to delete the track. You can also start the playback by simply pressing middle round button. When you are searching through songs from Music Category under Songs, pressing Menu button brings up ALL or alphabetic song search where you can jump to a specific letter without a need to scroll down.
Next in the menu is Playing Now icon to take you to the currently playing song, which you can also get to by pressing a Back/Return button. Btw, long pressing Back/Return button also brings you to main N3 menu. Music Setting is the next icon with a selection of Gain (Low, Mid, High), DSD gain compensation, Replay gain (by track, album, or to disable – this came in the last fw update), EQ with 10 paragraphic bands where you can adjust the gain or step through 8 genre specific presets, or to customize your own. Digital filter refers to AK4490 DAC and I will go through its presets later in the review. Play mode is self-explanatory (repeat all, repeat one, random, play through). Output selection switches between Headphone output and Line Out, both of which are shared from the same 3.5mm output. When selected, Cayin displays a warning to disconnect your headphones since LO has direct output from DAC at max volume. S/PDIF has a dual setting for either DoP or D2P. Then you have Breakpoint resume, Gapless, Max Volume and a Start Up volume setting, L/R balance, and enabling/disabling Lyrics and Album art.
In Bluetooth setting menu you can toggle it on/off, as well as enable/disable aptX, and view the list of Paired and Available devices. In my opinion, the Bluetooth Wireless functionality of N3 is what makes it stand out from many other DAPs. In addition to being able to pair up N3 with wireless headphones, you can also pair up your smartphone or any wifi enabled player with N3 to transmit the audio which turns this little DAP into a wireless BT dongle. Just imagine when you are streaming Spotify or Tidal or any other audio app from your smartphone, instead of using your phones HO, you can drive headphones remotely from N3 that functions as a wireless DAC/amp. It will not only save your phone battery, but will also give you a higher output power and definitely improved sound quality. And on top of that, you can remotely control your smartphone to Play/Pause, Skip, and change Volume straight from N3.
Last, but not least, is a System Setting where you can select Language, Theme (different color themes), switch USB mode for either DAC or USB mode, enable/disable haptic feedback of Capacitive touch buttons, Backlight time, Brightness level, Folder operation (play through), Idle shutdown and the shutdown time, Scheduled power off and sleep shutdown time, About the player, Reset (to restore factory setting), and System upgrade.
The main Playback screen has a clear view of the song artwork (if one is embedded), and if not - N3 will display a default artwork for a song. The status bar above it has a volume icon with a current volume setting, the gain level, the play/pause icon, playback mode, and a battery icon with a % of the remaining capacity. Underneath of the screen you have a time bar with a current song play position, total time, and song index number within a folder. As I mentioned before, in a Playback screen, direction buttons either skip the song when short pressed, or fast forward through the song when you press’n’hold them. Pressing Menu button brings up a menu with quick shortcuts, including Gain, Play mode, selecting Favorite, HO or LO selection, adding to Playlist, and Trash icon to delete the song.
Overall, there was no surprises with GUI, I knew exactly what’s going on since all the menus looked familiar. The only complaint some might have is that you're dealing with 2.4” screen where everything is scaled down and could be hard to read, though icons are self-explanatory. Also, once you are done with all the settings, just enjoy the playback using either hw control buttons on the side, or in-line headphone remote, or from wireless headphones and their associated controls.
This is becoming repetitive, but I do have to say the same thing under Sound analysis of most of my DAP reviews – it’s not easy to describe the sound of the DAP because often it goes through a "filter" of your headphones sound sig where it gets colored. To really get into DAP sound, you need to go through different pair ups and comparison testing with other headphones and DAPs to understand the sound of your source. Once I started listening to N3, after a proper 100hrs of burn in, I had to do a double take to make sure my ears are not playing a trick on me because I was experiencing i5 deja vu. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, N3 and i5 don’t just share the same DAC/opamp DNA but they also sound very similar.
Once I realized that, I continued taking my notes which came down to very similar results I found when testing i5. To my ears N3 has a neutral-warmish full body clear detailed sound, with excellent dynamics, and wide soundstage (limited only by your headphones performance). To my very pleasant surprise, N3 has a great bass extension, full body lower mids, clear, detailed, smooth, organic upper mids, and a well-defined treble with a nice sparkle. We are talking about a balanced sound that oozes with natural, musical, neutral tonality, slightly tilted toward the warmer side.
This was expected from AK4490 DAC performance, but you should always keep in mind that amp section also plays a very important role. But still, you can't take DAC out of the sound shaping equation, especially AK4490 with its digital filters. As a matter of fact, here I was able to hear a difference when switching between the filters where I found the following. Maybe not as drastic, but still audible:
Sharp - faster note response/speed, a little more sparkle, more digital tonality.
Short delay sharp - a little smoother, but still with a sparkly edge.
Slow – even smoother, more musical, with more warmth and a bit less sparkle.
Super slow delay – I hear it similar to Slow filter.
Short delay slow – I hear it similar to Slow filter.
During the comparison with other DAPs, I used UERR, Zeus XRA, and W900, and made sure to volume match by ear as close as I can.
N3 vs N5 - N3 is a touch (literally only a touch) narrower in staging; N5 bass is a little bit tighter, and N5 lower mids are just a touch more neutral, while both have nearly the same upper mids and treble. The difference in sound is very subtle, where N5 is just a "touch" brighter, but in terms of over all tonality, resolution, and transparency - they are close.
N3 vs i5 - N3 soundstage is a bit narrower in width, the rest is nearly identical.
N3 vs M1s - Nearly identical soundstage expansion, M1s sound is a little bit more neutral and with a little more transparency, while N3 is a little warmer and smoother in comparison.
N3 vs AP60 - N3 soundstage is wider, while both have the same staging depth. They also have a similar tonality, but when you start looking closer into the technical performance, N3 sound is more resolving and more transparent. Also, N3 dynamics of the sound is a little more expanded, while AP60 is a little more compressed.
N3 vs X1ii - N3 soundstage is wider, depth is similar. X1ii has a little stronger mid-bass punch, while I hear N3 bass being a little tighter and more layered. Also, X1ii mids are a little warmer and thicker, while N3 is a little more transparent and with better retrieval of details. I also hear a little more crunch in treble with N3. Overall, X1ii has a little warmer tonality, and overall sound is not as dynamic or transparent like N3.
N3 vs X3ii - N3 soundstage is noticeably wider. Overall, X3ii sound a little warmer and flatter in comparison to a relatively more neutral and more dynamic sound of N3. In more details, N3 bass is a little tighter and more controlled, lower mids are more neutral, upper mids are similar, and N3 treble has a little more sparkle.
N3 vs X5iii - N3 soundstage is wider. After the latest fw update, X5iii tonality is not as warm and less congested, and very close to N3. But I still find N3 to have a little tighter bass and crisper treble. And dynamics of N3 sound is a little better in comparison to X5iii.
N3 vs Paw5000 - N3 soundstage is slightly wider, while they have a similar depth. N3 has a little more rumble in sub-bass, while mid-bass punch is similar. Also, I hear a lot of similarities in tonality of mids and treble, but in comparison to N3, P5k sounds less dynamic, not as layered, and a little more compressed.
"Family portrait" with Cayin N6, N5, N3, i5
All pair up testing was done in medium gain, and I also noted the volume level after "M" prefix.
PM-3 (M57) - spacious soundstage, very detailed balanced smooth sound with an excellent extension and impact of the low end, clear smooth detailed mids, and well defined treble sparkle. PM-3 planar magnetic cans are very picky when it comes to a source and the sound could easily get veiled and congested, but this pair up was great.
EL8C (M67) - average soundstage width with a great depth, a revealing analytical sound with a tight fast bass response, neutral lower mids, revealing micro-detailed upper mids, and a crisp treble. Here I'm glad to report that I didn't sense any metallic sheen typical of some EL8C pair ups. The sound wasn't too thin either, so I was happy with this planar magnetic pair up.
T5p2 (M49) - very spacious soundstage (like open back), very detailed and highly resolving balanced sound with a natural tonality, deep sub-bass rumble, excellent mid-bass impact, clear mids with an excellent retrieval of details, well defined airy treble with a crisp sparkle. Really enjoyed the combination of resolving detailed sound with an organic tonality. N3 drove these Tesla cans to their full potential.
Pinnacle 1 (M58) - very spacious soundstage, bright mid-centric signature, with a slower smoother bass, neutral lower mids, bright revealing upper mids that a little more forward and a bit thin, and crisp airy treble. There was no sibilance, and N3 drove these higher demand IEMs pretty good. Not the best pair up due to a brighter sound, but definitely no issues driving these iems.
Zen (M59) - spacious holographic soundstage, detailed balanced signature with a natural tonality, nice low end rumble, fuller body lower mids, clear detailed upper mids with an organic tonality, well defined clear treble. The synergy with these 320 ohm earbuds was excellent and N3 drove them to their full potential.
W900 (M36) - very spacious expanded soundstage, detailed balanced signature with an organic tonality, deep sub-bass rumble with a meaty mid-bass impact, full body lower mids, very detailed organic upper mids, very defined clear extended treble. Excellent pair up, though a bit on a warmer side.
Zeus XRA (M28) - very spacious expanded soundstage, a detailed slightly mid-forward signature with a revealing tonality, neutral tight bass, close to analytical revealing upper mids (never sibilant), and crisp airy treble. I'm sure many will wonder about hissing due to high sensitivity of Zeus. I found with N3 while idling (in pause) there was no audible hissing, also I can't hear it while music is playing, but while playing and lowering the volume to zero, I do hear a noise floor with a synthetic hissing, but it's not audible during the playback.
U12 w/M15 (M33) - a wide soundstage expansion, full body balanced signature with a warmer tonality, warm round analog quality bass, full body lower mids, smooth detailed upper mids, smooth well defined and a little rolled off treble. The signature was a bit too warm and smooth for my taste.
VEGA (M34) - a wide soundstage expansion, full body slightly L-shaped signature with a deep low end extension, warm punchy mid-bass impact, full body lower mids, clear detailed upper mids, and crisp well defined treble. The sound was warm and analog, very lush, not as resolving, but great if you want to enjoy analog quality dynamic driver bass performance.
ERIB-1C (M44) - very spacious holographic soundstage, slightly mid-forward signature with a neutral revealing tonality, tight fast bass, neutral lower mids, very revealing micro-detailed upper mids, crisp airy treble. Pair up with N3 gave ERIB a little bit of body, especially in low end region, and kept the tonality natural without any harshness.
W80 (M30) - a spacious holographic staging, a very balanced detailed signature with a natural tonality, excellent bass extension with a nice sub-bass rumble and fast mid-bass punch, neutral lower mids, clear detailed upper mids with a very natural tonality, clear well defined treble with a moderate amount of crispness and airiness. Great pair up. No hissing while idling or during playback, but when playing with volume down to zero, I hear a synthetic hissing noise, probably due to W80 very low impedance.
UERR (M44) - very spacious holographic staging, a neutral-balanced signature with a detailed organic tonality, tight punchy bass with a north of neutral impact, neutral lower mids, clear and very detailed natural tonality upper mids, crisp well defined airy treble. Very good pair up.
I know that N3 considered to be an "entry" level DAP, but there is nothing "entry" about its performance, sound quality, and variety of connections.
N3 + Micro iDSD (w/Cayin SPDIF cable) - works great as a transport, very clean, transparent, undistorted sound.
N3 + E12A (LO connection) - Cayin's C5 is good but it colors the sound, so instead I used E12A since it's very transparent, and indeed it shows the clean dynamic output of N3 DAC. When comparing N3 vs N3+E12A, you can hear that N3 internal amplifier stage adds a little body and a more musical organic tonality to the sound.
N3 as USB DAC - need to install Cayin USB Audio Driver (V3.30.0), easy install on my Win7 ThinkPad, recognized right away, clean USB DAC solution with a signature N3 sound.
With Bluetooth, you can either connect N3 to your phone or connect headphones to N3, but not both at the same time since headphones can simply pair up with a phone directly without N3 being in the middle. Thanks to CSR8811 Bluetooth transceiver and its low sensitivity, I was able to use wireless headphones almost 60ft away from N3.
Connecting headphones wireless to N3 was fast and easy. Here, I have it with the latest Sennheiser Momentum In-ear Wireless headset where I can control playback and volume from headphones:
Or you can pair up N3 with your phone:
and then you can connect your wired headphones to N3, and use N3 playback controls and volume to control Spotify streaming directly from your N3:
or playback from your favorite audio apps, like Neutron (play/pause, skip next/prev, and volume works from N3):
or enjoy watching movies, like Netflix streaming with play/pause and volume controls supported:
And the BT wireless connection works not only with a smartphone, but also any other source supporting wi-fi, like for example here with DX200 DAP, paired up and streaming Spotify:
I said it many times already, DAP market is saturated and people are overwhelmed with choices. Also, Android and streaming support is no longer a rarity, plus majority of manufacturers use the same few DACs and opamps, and you no longer have to pay arm'n'leg to get a decent sound. With so much competition it's a daunting task to come up with something new, something fresh, something that going to make your product stand out from the crowd. And that's exactly what Cayin N3 was able to accomplish under $150. Without sacrificing sound quality, which is literally on par with their other mid-fi models, N3 delivers a very compact, slim, portable audio player for audiophiles on the go. It's relative cheap, has a great build quality, excellent sound tuning, decent battery life, and flexible connection options.
Despite being labeled as an entry level DAP, you get both HO and LO, digital S/PDIF with an optional type-c coax cable, USB DAC functionality, and support of wireless and wired headphones, even with in-line remote. And if that wasn't enough, you can pair it up (though BT wireless connection) with your smartphone and other sources to be able to stream audio and remotely control those sources. With an exception of capacitive touch buttons which I personally still getting used to (much better now after I disabled haptic feedback), based on its price, functionality, sound quality, and flexibility of wired and wireless connections, this little guy from Cayin hits close to perfection in my book.