Cayin N3 DAP, Master Quality Digital Audio Player (Black)

Rating:
3.95833/5,
  1. Wiljen
    Cayin N3 - a Swiss army knife for the Audiophile
    Written by Wiljen
    Published Jun 13, 2017
    5.0/5,
    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.
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    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.

    Construction:

    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.

    player front.jpg


    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).

    UI:

    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.
    cases.jpg


    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.

    Bluetooth:

    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.

    Sound:

    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.


    Conclusion:
    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?
  2. twister6
    A wireless Surprise!
    Written by twister6
    Published Apr 20, 2017
    4.5/5,
    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.

     
    Intro.
     
    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.
     
    Unboxing.
     
    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.
     
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    Accessories.
     
    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.
     
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    Design.
     
    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.
     
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    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.
     
    cayin_n3-40.jpg
     
    GUI.
     
    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.
     
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    Sound analysis.
     
    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.
     
    cayin_n3-19.jpg
     
    Comparison.
     
    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
     
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    Pair up.
     
    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.
     
    cayin_n3-38.jpg
     
    Connections.
     
    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.
     
    cayin_n3-33.jpg   cayin_n3-34.jpg
    cayin_n3-35.jpg
     
    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.
     
    cayin_n3-36.jpg
     
    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.
     
    cayin_n3-37.jpg
     
    Bluetooth Connection
     
    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:
     
    cayin_n3-bt-01.jpg   cayin_n3-bt-02.jpg
     
    Or you can pair up N3 with your phone:
     
    cayin_n3-bt-03.jpg
     
    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:
     
    cayin_n3-bt-04.jpg
     
    or playback from your favorite audio apps, like Neutron (play/pause, skip next/prev, and volume works from N3):
     
    cayin_n3-bt-05.jpg
     
    or enjoy watching movies, like Netflix streaming with play/pause and volume controls supported:
     
    cayin_n3-bt-06.jpg
     
    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:
     
    cayin_n3-bt-07.jpg   cayin_n3-bt-08.jpg
     
    Conclusion.
     
    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.
      moriez, trellus, ngoshawk and 21 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. zeddun
      Great detailed review as always. Always like reading your reviews!
      zeddun, Apr 21, 2017
    3. ValSilva
      Hi Alex, thanks a lot for the review. It's very helpful.
      ValSilva, Apr 21, 2017
    4. mgunin
      Thanks a lot, seems like a great product! Do you think it is comparable to X5-II or Hidizs AP100 soundwise?
      mgunin, Apr 24, 2017