Cayin N3Pro

NewEve

500+ Head-Fier
Cayin N3 Pro
Pros: It sounds great
It sounds great for the price
It has got tubes
It has got tubes but can work without tubes
It's well constructed
It operates well
Cons: Dignis still hasn't come up with a nice leather case for it...
Disclaimer: I have a preference for an open, lush/smooth/warm sound with some definition, texture and soundstage — none to excess. I am not into an analytical or clinical sound. Keep this in mind when reading this review.

· · ·​

This introduction will be short: I saw a relatively affordable, seemingly well-made DAP with tubes. That’s pretty much it, really. And despite the fact that I recently found, bought and reviewed Astell & Kern’s SR25 which is the DAP I rated the highest so far, the N3 Pro was too alluring to ignore.


SOUND

Since I ended-up disappointed with A&K’s SP1000M, especially in terms of price/performance, I was curious how well would perform a DAP in this price range with an AKM DAC.

I was pleasantly surprised as I found it to be as articulate as what I remembered hearing from the SP1000M — particularly how clear the mids / vocals are without being too dry. The tube modes most definitively bring something, something many people would pay a lot for. And that’s in Triode mode. In UltraLinear mode, this blows away pretty much all DAPs I had and is noticeably better than A&K’s SR25 side by side. In line out with my Schiit Vali 2 tube amp, I could also hear more details than with the SR25.

Cayin definitively struck a very nice balance with their choice of DAC and tube modes. While at first, my personal favourite was the UltraLinear mode, the Triode mode most definitively has its place when you want to relax a bit more while still getting that tube sound.

As a whole, I find the entire frequency range to be more organic and natural which conveys more emotions — something I admittedly just love.


USABILITY

The UI is spot-on and easy to use. External buttons are well laid-out, logic to operate “blind” and the overall build quality of the DAP is on par with A&K’s — the volume wheel is even better as far as I’m concerned.

I’m still waiting for Dignis to release a leather case for it as I don’t like the official green one with which the DAP was released. The included transparent case is a useful touch albeit it doesn’t do justice to the DAP’s looks.


CONCLUSION

Cayin’s N3 Pro is easily the best price/performance I heard in a DAP for a while. For a DAP which can’t stream, I would struggle to recommend anything else, unless you’re not into the emotions conveyed by tubes.

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· · ·​

SOURCE

Cayin N3 Pro / Firmware: 1.0 – EQ: none / Music app used: Stock – Official site


HEADPHONES & IEMS

  • Campfire Audio Andromeda Special Edition: Gold (silicone tips, medium) with stock Smoky Litz Cable, 3.5mm, Single-ended
  • Dita Project 71 "Bumblebee", 3.5mm, Single-ended
  • Grado Labs RS2e with G-cush, 3.5mm, Single-ended

SONGS
  • Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Never Going Back Again
    Quality: 24-Bit 96.0 kHz – Stereo, FLAC
  • Iron Maiden, Fear Of The Dark, Fear Of The Dark
    Quality: 24-Bit 44.1 kHz – Stereo, FLAC
  • Joni Mitchell, Blue, California
    Quality: 24-Bit 192.0 kHz – Stereo, FLAC
  • Nina Simone, Pastel Blues, Sinnerman (Live In New York/1965)
    Quality: 24-Bit 192.0 kHz – Stereo, FLAC
  • Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here, Wish You Were Here
    Quality: DSD / SACD
  • Plüm, You're the one, You're the one
    Quality: 16 bit 44.1 kHz – Stereo, FLAC
  • Simon & Garfunkel, Sounds Of Silence, Anji
    Quality: 24-Bit 192.0 kHz – Stereo, FLAC
  • Stevie Wonder, Talking Book, Superstition (Album Version)
    Quality: 24-Bit 192.0 kHz – Stereo, FLAC
  • Various Artists, Atlantic Jazz: Soul, Comin' Home Baby (LP Version)
    Quality: 16 bit 44.1 kHz – Stereo, FLAC

BURN-IN

None

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Shabda
Shabda
Gotcha, thanks for the info!
E
Elbonja
There are 2 things holding me from buying the N3pro.

1. Tubes reliability. Would it survive a few (accidental)drops without breaking them?

2. Battery replacement. I'm planning to use it for at least 4 years and really wish I could replace the battery after it starts having drainage issues. Someone from Audio 46 told me they don't do that kind of job, besides, the DAP itself is glued so having the battery replaced is not an option.
That's interesting; to say the least. Battery powered electronics have either Ly-Po or Poly batteries, and they usually present issues after 2-3 years depending on the charging cycles. What should I do after battery last 2-3 hours?
NewEve
NewEve
I'm afraid I can't help you in this regard. The only DAP which I've come across with a battery saving option is Sony's ZX300.
Essentially, it would only let itself charge up to 90% in order to have the battery last longer.

rev92

100+ Head-Fier
Cayin N3Pro
Pros: Excellent build quality
Beautiful design
Snappy, intuitive OS
4 different sound signatures
Lovely, romantic and highly musical sound that's easy to absolutely love
Tubes!
Output power
Comfortable to hold and use
Cons: None for me
Lack of Android might be a problem for some
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Cayin N3Pro is a newest DAP by Cayin. It is priced at 479$ and it’s the first DAP to feature miniature vacuum tubes inside.

Packaging
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Cayin N3Pro comes in a minimalistic and rather simple box compared to it’s older and more expensive brothers like N6ii and N8. It’s a nice looking and well made box which is quite pleasant to unbox.

Inside you’ll find the N3Pro, a screen protector for the front (back panel is already protected right out of the box), a usb A-C cable, transparent case and some Hi-Res audio stickers. Well, if it’s between the manufacturers putting these stickers on the device or just including them in the box for you to decide wether you want to use them is a great touch.

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Leather case
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I received the N3Pro with the green leather case which was included in the preorder bundle a while ago. It’s a pretty short story – I simply love it. Great color, quality is actually very good, and this metal frame on the back…damn, it just looks sophisticated, industrial and fresh. Beautiful little thing. If you’re planning to order this DAP and you love the case – don’t worry. It can be bought separately, and I strongly suggest doing it.

Build quality
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Cayin N3Pro is somehow similar to it’s older brother – the N6ii. It is all black with satin finish. The design is quite minimalistic which I absolutely adore. Looking at the device from the left side it is just a metal block with microSD card slot. On the other side you’ve got your play button, as well as previous and next song ones. Right side is finished with a copper/golden color potentiometer which always works as a power button. The knob works with some resistance and its very robust and accurate, which makes it easy to operate.

Front panel is occupied by a 3.2′ IPS screen with a resolution of 480×320. It gets bright enough to comfortably use it in direct sun, yet can be dimmed enough to not distract you during night listening sessions. Underneath, there’s a vacuum tubes window, which is lighten up when you’re using the triode or an Ultralinear mode (damn it looks cool). At the very bottom there’s a button which glows in different colors to indicate the sample rate of a currently played track.

Two problems with the button itself – I wish it was reprogrogrammable so it could work as a back button, since it’s quite uncomfortable to press the one on the top-left part of the screen. Also, you can simply turn down the led indicator, which I did instantly, as it glows so bright it’s really interrupting in the dark, when im listening to music in my bed at night. An option to change it’s brightness would be great to have.

On the bottom, you’ve got a 3.5mm line out, 3.5mm jack output, a 4.4 one working as a headphone out and balanced output and a usb type c connector. Its worth mentioning that tubes can only be used through the 3.5mm connector, as the valve circuit is not balanced. Also, the USB C also works as a coaxial output, all you need is a special cable which you can also get from Cayin.

The whole thing is a bit chunky, but it ain’t that heavy. Both build quality and ergonomy is simply spot-on. Absolutely no flaws, Cayin N3Pro is stunningly looking, robust and well thought out.

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Functionality
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Cayin N3Pro has a lot of functionalities, even if it’s not an android based DAP with no streaming services whatsoever.

I really don’t want to make this review overly long, so the functions which are pretty self-explanatory will only be mentioned, with no details.

So, as previously mentioned N3Pro doesn’t operate on an Android OS, but it’s a custom Hiby software which Cayin has used in their flagship N8. The OS is quite snappy, intuitive and just doesn’t get in the way, which is great. For me personally, it is a great example of how a minimalistic and simple OS in a DAP should be made. Oh yeah, and the amount of times the N3Pro crashed on me was…exactly zero.

Because of the OS though, this DAP does not support Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz etc natively. It might be a deal breaker for some. Me? I personally prefer an old school microSD filed with tons of music, which i gathered for many years now. But that’s hugely subjective, as i know many people that would never buy a DAP with no streaming services built in it. Fair enough, if you need them, it’s a bad luck for you this time unfortunately.

Nonetheless, you’ve got Hiby Link and Duplex Bluetooth 5.0 (up to 96kHz) – which you can actually use for streaming services via your smartphone, so even tho it’s not a perfect solution, it’s more than doable.

I’m getting around 9h of battery life out of it, just as Cayin states on their website. Charging time is a bit long at +/- 3h, but if it’s between this or quicker battery deterioration – i’ll take this anytime.

Tech
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Cayin N3Pro is using a dual AKM AK4493EQ DAC. It supports a wide variety of audio formats including DSD256 and 32bit/384kHz, so it pretty much got you covered with everything you’ll need in this regard.

But let’s get into the star (or rather stars) of the show – the tubes. N3Pro has two miniature JAN6418 vintage tubes built inside. Damn, real tubes in a DAP – it’s a first time I’m seeing this ever, have i missed something or Cayin truly is the first company to really do it?

Nonetheless, it’s much more complicated than to put these inside the chassis and call it a day. Cayin had to design and engineer a special silicon case which they suspended inside the specially crafted slot inside the body. They also used a flexible PCB to maximilize the suspension effect. Thanks to that, you can even run with this thing and dont worry about your hardware getting damaged.

I’d like to show my respect to Cayin here, as they took something never seen before (or at least not on this scale?) and they overcame all the problems and inconveniences to make it work…and work good. We’re talking months or even years of development and testing to create such a flawlessly working technology. Fantastic job Cayin!

Sound
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Okay, i’ve been wondering about how to put this as simple as it gets for a while now. I don’t want to get robotic and all analytical over here tho, so i decided to just let it flow and try to organize stuff as much as i can.

Firstly, N3Pro has 2 MAIN sound setups – tube and solid state. I’d like to subjectively point out one thing here. If you’re using some hard to drive over-ear cans and you need a lot of power (800mW to be specific) – plug them into this bad boy’s 4.4mm output and youll be happy. I did it with the Sennheiser HD800 and they sounded very good. Obviously, not fully reaching their potential, but as for a portable player sub 500$? Terrific.

Other than that situation, just use the Triode or an Ultralinear mode. Why? Well…here’s a thing.

I believe that a sub 500$ DAP isn’t meant to be a reference, detail retrieving monster focused on being absurdly neutral. Especially, if it has tubes in it. And those tubes…oh gosh, they do sing.

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When turning on the Triode mode you’re instantly aware what’s going on. This sweet, soft and delicate timbre, full and thick body of the sound, warmth and naturalness from top to bottom. Soundstage gets absolutely huge for a DAP here, being both wide and deep, with spectacular imaging.

But then, you switch to the Ultralinear mode, and you’re sacrificing a bit of that sweetness, thickness and richness to get more slam, faster decays and an overall boost in dynamics. Don’t get me wrong here – Ultralinear is still very sweet, rich and natural, but it’s just a tiny bit more neutral than the triode, with better technicalities. I’d call it a best of both world’s – tube timbre with ss slam and speed.

Based on that, i use Triode mode for vocal, jazz and acoustic music, to get this beautiful, vintage-like analog sound full of emotions. When I’m listening to metal, rock, rap and triphop i just simply switch to the Ultralinear mode and i get this more coherent, crispy and faster sound with just a tiny bit less color. That’s more than a fair trade.

With the 4.4mm balanced output you’re getting this hardcore fast, accurate and very powerful sound ready to take on the world. Fantastic for some modern genres, rap and metal or simply for more demanding headphones. You truly can’t go wrong with any of these 3, but if you’re using IEMs and you’ve got these sweet tubes inside your DAP…just use the bloody things, they’ll award you with some of the most (if not THE most) musical sound in a DAP ever.


As for the technicalities of the sound – it truly depends on the mode youre using. With UL and 4.4 balanced you’re getting a fantastic detail retrieval, dynamics and an overally controlled sound from top to bottom. Great imaging, layering, textures of the instruments. Compared to Fiio M11, M11Pro and Cayin N5ii it just completely blows these out of the water in an overall sound quality, and that means something from a long-term Fiio M11 user and lover. It is faster, more defined, more dynamic and natural sounding.
Triode is objectively the worst out of the three in terms of pure sound quality. It’s slower, it has longer decay, less details and is slightly pushed back. But i still use it the most, for that absolutely lovely timbre, sweetness and overall pleasing tone. For me music is all about emotions, and this mode gives me the most emotional and romantic sound i’ve ever heard in a DAP ever.

In terms of matching N3Pro with different IEMs – it pairs with just about anything i plugged into it. What striked me the most was how excellent does it pair with the Cayin YB04 – this combo sounds so natural, refined and just right.
Also, Campfire Andromeda (2018 version) and Lime Ears Aether R sounded extraordinary with it, as that lovely timbre really helps these two brilliant IEMs to really step up to another dimension of enjoyment.


Summary
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Cayin N3Pro is a marvelous DAP designed, engineered and refined in every single detail. It is perfectly built and has a very minimalistic yet technical design which is easy to adore. It’s a pinnacle of engineering by Cayin, and im still a bit suprised they priced it that low.
Finally, it sounds spectacular and has 4 different sound signatures for you to choose from, depending on your IEMs/Headphone, music you’re listening to or just your mood. It’s a first perfectly rated device that i have reviewed in my 7 year reviewing career. But how could i rate the Cayin N3Pro any lower, if it’s giving me the most pleasant music listening sessions in years? It’s my new daily driver and it won’t change in a near future.

Highly recommended.


Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:

  • Headphones – Lime Ears Aether R, Lime Ears Pneuma, Campfire Andromeda, Noble Audio Khan, Cayin YB04, RHA CL2, Sennheiser HD800, Dan Clark Audio AEON2 closed, Focal Clear, Audeze LCD3, Akg K501
  • Sources– Cayin N8, Cayin N5ii, Fiio M15, Fiio M11, Fiio M11 Pro, Shanling M5s

Remember to visit us at ear-fidelity.com
Shabda
Shabda
Trying to delete this because I got the answer cant figure out how so just writing this instead

Miru

Head-Fier
Cayin N3Pro
Pros: -Multiple sound signatures
-Small form factor
-Cool operating temperature
-Great dynamics
-It's got tubes
Cons: -No Android
-May be more fragile
IMG_20201229_174405.jpg

Cayin N3 Pro Review
This is a review unit given to me by Cayin and I will be passing this unit onto the next reviewer after the loan is over. Thank you to @Andykong and @Cayin for letting me join this tour!
Accessories:

It comes with a clear case, a sturdy braided cable USB cable, and a screen protector. It comes with a preinstalled screen protector already on too. As well as 2 amazing, great hi-res stickers to show off to all your friends. Packaging wise, I do love the reflective design for the box.
IMG_20201229_175439.jpg

Ports:

It comes with a line out, a 3.5mm jack, a 4.4mm balanced headphone jack which is also a line out, USB-C, and a micro-SD card port. The 3.5mm headphone jack allows tube mode through ultra linear and triode mode.
IMG_20201222_182113.jpg

Build Quality:

The moment I first had it, I noticed that it was compact, but relatively light at the same time compared to something like the N6II mk2. The volume knob feels easy to turn and gives a smooth feel to it when turning. What I really love is just how compact it is and easy to hold. This is something the N6II Mk2 was not as great as it was much heavier in comparison. Not only this but the DAP seems to run a lot cooler. Throughout all my testing, I never found the DAP to be exceptionally warm unless you had it charging and listening at the same time. Even then it is still perfectly fine for me, and I imagine in the summertime as well.
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General use:

My experience with the N3 Pro was amazing, the tube modes which really sounded great. Ultra linear was my main use with warmer headphones, brighter headphones I used triode mode. Solid state mode was my least used mode, but I changed to it randomly if I felt I wanted something to reference. Majority of my time I used the DAP at my desk, I do feel a little cautious about the use of tubes on the go with all the vibrations going on.There was also another case provided which I felt was a very much needed upgrade if you are going to take it on the go. It provides a lot more protection than the clear case provided, but it did fit in a bit tightly so you may peel off part of your screen protector on accident while installing it. If I did take it on the go, I would probably see if I could leave it a tight pocket in my backpack to reduce as much movement and interference.

Interface Experience:

For the most part I found it to not have any issues with slowdowns through songs. A part that I did miss was having android and being able to stream. One issue is that the cover art usually took a bit to load on some songs. Although the design is straightforward, and everything seems easy to access. Whether you want to search by song title, album, or artist name it seems intuitive.
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Sound quality:

Solid State:

So, this was my least used mode, but I am assuming everyone looking to buy this, only wants to hear the tube mode. This is also for the 3.5mm as I did not try the 4.4mm. Solid state to me gave a similar signature that Cayin generally tries to give with their other solid-state DAPs. The sound is a thicker, leaning warmer sound that just has great dynamics to it. A lot of emotion enveloped in this and I was quite surprised when first hearing this as it was eye opening to hear this. It made my home gear sound almost emotionless. Which is a part I loved about Cayin’s take on sound. Although this is not to say it was my favorite out of all the options. I mostly used this mode as a reference when switching back and forth between various tube modes.

Triode:

The sound of the triode tube mode gave me a similar sense of Cayin’s signature sound but this mode leans on the warmer side. The mids seem to be a bit pulled back here as well with the low end being the more pronounced out of the frequencies. For this mode I only preferred it with brighter headphones and IEMs such as my EX1000 and HD 800. The amount of subdued energy here in the treble was a nicer addition to have when pairing with these brighter headphones although the difference was not mind blowing enough to make these brighter headphones not feel bright. It did also give a smaller sense of space and staging when using this compared to the ultra linear and solid-state mode.

Ultra Linear:

Now this is my favorite mode out of the 3 here and most used during my time with the N3 Pro. It gives the largest sense of space and staging out of all these three. While also giving a good sense of weight in the low end, but also keeping a good amount of extension in the treble. The dynamics on all 3 of these were amazing but I believe the Ultra Linear mode had a very slight edge over the other two. To me this mode paired greatly with warmer headphones and IEMS such as my HD 580 and bl-03s. The air here was accentuated too, which I do not mind on the warmer IEMs, but they did not pair well at all with brighter headphones.

Micro detail:

Just for random thoughts here I did find all three modes to be somewhat similar in detail retrieval. Comparing it to something that is standard for most IEM users, apple dongle, it was falling behind in micro details, and clarity you get. I would say this is less detailed than my LG V20 as well. If I did have to say one mode was more detailed, I would say ultra linear had the most detail, but the difference was slight. Although, this is not a deal breaker for me because the sound was just amazing especially for the price.

Bluetooth:

I am not a huge fan of Bluetooth, but I gave it a shot with some random TWS earbuds I had laying around that I used with the N6II mk2. First impressions were that it did give a similar sense of body in the low end and good dynamics, but this is all faded away with the amount of noise I get. It was very noticeable and just not as enjoyable as the wired modes could be. I will probably not be convinced on Bluetooth for a while.

Screen:
The viewing angles are great on it and I do not see any issues with it. The screen is on the smaller side which makes typing a little harder, but I do love the smaller form factor, so I consider it fine.

Power on time:

For this test I used the EX1000 at 5/100 on low gain. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi off and the screen was off with shuffle on during this test, but it was at 50/100 brightness if that makes a difference.

On a continuous basis of nonstop FLACs playing at 16bit 44khz to 24bit 192khz I found myself having about 10 hours of use on solid state mode. With triode and Ultra Linear mode I found about 9 hours of nonstop playback time.

Random thoughts:
The only thing I really feel worried about is how vulnerable the tubes may be to drops, especially if you are going to use this as a portable player. I would feel very worried if the tubes just went out one day if I dropped it when I'm outside. I have not tested how durable this is as it is not mine but it's a looming thought I have. If you do consider buying this I would definitely try to mitigate these risks by not having it in your hand on the go and maybe try leaving it in a tight pocket when it's not standing by. That being said, the emerald case is a must if I would be buying it as the clear case does not seem to have a lot of protection added onto it.
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Would I buy it?

I believe the N3 Pro is a great option for someone wanting to get a vacuum tube amplifier on the go. The sound options are versatile and just convenient to have wherever you are going. Along with a smaller compact form factor I think this really makes a good argument to consider this DAP as one I would want. I will put this as something I want to put on my Wish list. Although what I feel would make this a perfect device for the price would be support for streaming services in my use case.
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el tri head
el tri head
I can tell you this: I had two big drops with mine...and dreaded what I would find...Zilch. It handled them like a pro!!!
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M
Miru
Yeah it definitely made me a bit weary with the tubes added on. But good to hear this! It makes it all the better product :smile_phones:
el tri head
el tri head
Hey, can someone answer me this...if money wasn't a problem, would you buy the TOTL Sony, A&K or L&P...and if you know, how do they compare to the considerably cheaper Cayin NP3? Thanks...brad

gordec

1000+ Head-Fier
Cayin N3 Pro
Pros: - Excellent sound quality.
- Sound tuning options with tubes.
- Fast and snappy.
- Supports all file formats.
- Excellent built quality.
Cons: - No direct streaming options.
- Small display.
Disclosure: This player was sent to me as part of the review tour from Cayin.

Design:

The N3 Pro is a medium size player coming in at 115.2 x 63.5 x 18.9 (mm) with glass on the front and back and solid aluminum covering the edges. Weighing 195g, it feels solid and hefty in the hands. The build quality is excellent for its price range. On the ride side, you have a large bronze volume wheel that doubles as on/off button. There is enough travel and resistance that I have never accidentally pressed it when I’m adjusting the volume. Below it, you get the typical buttons for previous track, play/pause and next track. In general, I like this layout because the player is small enough for one hand operation. Your thumb can get to all the buttons.

N3 Pro Player.jpg


The IPS 3.2” (480 x 360) screen is small but serviceable. About bottom 30% of the player is taken up by the Dual Raytheon Jan6418 tubes.

N3 Pro Volume Knob.jpg


On the bottom you get your USB-C port without quick charge support. It takes over 3.5 hours to fully charge it. The USB C port also functions as embedded S/PDIF out. Moving to the right, you get your 3.5mm line out, 3.5mm headphone jack, and 4.4mm balanced headphone out/line out. The 3.5 mm headphone out can utilize both the tube output (130mW into 32Ω) or solid state (250mW into 32Ω). The more powerful 4.4mm HO goes up to 800mW into 32Ω with solid state only.

N3 Pro SD Inputs.jpg


The left side of the player houses a single microSD card.

N3 Pro SD Card.jpg


The heart of the N3 Pro is the dual AK4493EQ DAC chip.

Features:

The N3 Pro checks all the boxes in terms of file formats. You get native DSD256, MQA decoder, PCM up to 32Bit/384kHz. OCD audiophiles can rest easy that they are getting all their bitrates covered. The incorporation of vacuum tube renders wireless connection impossible, so you don’t get any built-in streaming options. In order to listen to your favorite streaming service, you have to connect the N3 Pro to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth in LDAC mode. Therefore allows you to use the N3 Pro as a Bluetooth adapter.

UI and Interface:

The N3 Pro runs Cayin’s custom OS. The OS is very simplistic which works for a player at its core is suppose to be a pure music player. When the player boots up, you are greeted with 6 options Folders, List, Songs, Artist, Albums, and Genre. You can’t do more, and you can do less. There is something very liberating about that. Operation is very snappy even when you are playing DSD.

When I tried to connect it to my LG V60 to try the Bluetooth function, the pairing process was seamless. Remember to use the LDAC mode (if supported) on your host device to get the most out of the sound quality.

Sound:

For reference, I mostly find myself listening to Chinese artists with tracks from the 1990 - 2010 period as of late. Our family moved to the US when I was 10. Everything else has been Americanized like football, SUVs, and Costco, but I still find myself listening to a lot of Chinese music and eat steamed fish. I guess your taste for music and food gets ingrained earlier in life. Lately, I'm listening to DSDs of Jacky Cheung. I love good vocals and clean treble. I prefer my bass to be tight. I don't need lots of quantity.

I tested the N3 Pro with my trusted Westone ES60 CIEMs with FLACs, MQAs, and DSDs. In solid state mode from the 4.4 mm balanced, the N3 Pro sounds mostly neutral with a touch of warmth. Tracks sound musical with good dynamics and layering. Sound staging, imaging and instrument separation is really good, but not great.

N3 Pro Screen.jpg

Switching to the pure tube mode out of the 3.5 mm, there is a lot more warmth. Everything sounds smoother, but you lose dynamics. I think the Ultralinear mode from the 3.5 mm may be the best for IEMs, because you get the dynamics of the solid state, but you get some of the tube benefits. To my ears, the difference between the Ultralinear mode and 4.4 mm balanced isn’t so significant.

N3 Pro Menu.jpg

Comparing my most recent DAPs (AK380, DX220 with Amp, and Fiio M15), the sound quality is on par with the DX220. The DX228 had more audible noise for a high sensitivity pair of IEMs. The N3 Pro is not pitch black because you can hear the amp engaging. It’s almost like when you turn on the engine of an efficient car. You know it’s running, but it doesn’t bother you when the music kicks in. The only DAP I have ever tried which has a pitch black background was the Cowon Plenue 1. The M15 and AK380 both have audible background noise.
N3 Pro Tubes.jpg

The sound stage, imaging, and instrument separation is similar to the AK380 and DX228, but the M15 is clearly better at everything. It’s another tier or two of improvement. When going back and forth with the M15, the N3 Pro felt a little congested. I had more sense of space with the M15. The AK380 is better in that department too, but it’s closer to the N3 Pro than the M15.

What if you have a good smartphone like the LG V60 or the previous V series phones? Is a dedicated DAP like N3 Pro worth it for you to have 2 devices? I think if you want the best sound quality, of course the N3 Pro will sound better. You get native DSD support. The LG V series depends on the version may or may not support DSD. However, to get streaming services to work with the N3 Pro, you have to tether with Bluetooth. For the V60, I can stream Tidal via USB Audio Player Pro without messing with a second device.

N3 Pro Compared.jpg

Conclusion:

The N3 Pro is probably a top contender in $500 - $1000 range purely judged on sound quality. I didn’t quite enjoy the pure tube mode, but I think the tubes add value to the Ultralinear mode. If you are someone who has never played with tubes, this may be a safe first step. With the expanded choices in sound tuning, you do partially sacrifice streaming option directly from the DAP, but I think it’s very thoughtful that Cayin gives you the option to stream losslessly through Bluetooth.
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kmmbd

100+ Head-Fier
Chameleon
Pros: Great build quality and ergonomics
- Tube mode offers a very different flavor of sound: colored yet engaging/fun
- Little hiss in tube mode suitable for sensitive IEMs
- Good connectivity options and MQA full unfolding
Cons: Average battery life (albeit expected)
- Display could be better
- People looking for a neutral sound will be disappointed
- Poor EQ options, not the best to drive high impedance cans
- Switching between reconstruction filters don't make much difference
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This review was initially published on Audioreviews.org

Tube amplification is a rather divisive topic.

For some, it’s the holy grail and a step closer to the “analogue” feel. For others, it’s just gooey warmth that robs instruments of detail and also introduces coloration by adding distortion artifacts.

Cayin, in their usual out-of-the-box manner, decided to give listeners the best of both worlds. This is not the first DAP with tubes from them, that would be the flagship Cayin N8. However, it’s the first somewhat affordable one, and thus carves itself a niche in an otherwise highly competitive price segment. Does it perform up to expectations though? Let’s find out.
Note: the ratings given will be subjective to the price tier. The Cayin N3Pro was sent part of Cayin’s review tour (thanks Andy Kong). Disclaimer
IEMs/Headphones used: Final E5000/FI-BA-SS/Sonorous III, Dunu Studio SA6, IMR R1 Zenith, Reecho Insects Awaken, Sennheiser HD650

Firmware version: 2.0 (MQA support enabled)

Price, while reviewed: $480. You can buy the Cayin N3Pro from Hifigo.

Accessories: The Cayin N3Pro comes with most of the stuff you’ll need out of the box. The screen protectors are pre-applied, for one, and you also get a silicone bumper case. Lastly there is the USB type-C cable. It’s nothing fancy but all these are fairly usable and of pretty decent quality. However, I would recommend spending a bit extra for the Leather case. At ~35 euros it’s fairly affordable given similar cases by third parties can cost quite a bit more. The color palette isn’t my favorite but it’s not that offensive a hue either.
4/5

Build:
Cayin always have had great build quality and the N3Pro is no exception. The entire frame is sandblasted aluminium, sandwiched between glass (tempered?) front and back. At 195gm it’s not the lightest DAP but the weight does add a reassuring heft in-hand. There is nothing on the top of the player. On the right side there are the three playback buttons and a volume-wheel/power button combo. The buttons have a nice feedback with no mushiness. The volume/power button combo can feel a bit wobbly but the overall scrolling is quite smooth. On the left side you find the micro-SD slot (up to 1TB capacity). On the front there is a touch-sensitive button at the bottom which by default takes you to the Now Playing screen and acts as an indicator LED with RGB colors representing various sampling rates/file types (e.g. purple for MQA). Up top is the 3.2" IPS display. Between the display and the button there is a small window through which you can see the tubes with a red underglow during playback.

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At the bottom of the unit you’ll find the three output ports (3.5mm headphone out, 3.5mm line out, 4.4mm balanced out) and the type-C charging cable. This is where I encounter my first gripe with the N3Pro: the location of the lineout port. As it stands it’s quite easy to mistake the headphone jack for the lineout jack in the dark (and the Dignis case hides the markings altogether). Mistakenly plugging your sensitive headphones/IEMs to the very powerful line out won’t be a pretty picture and might damage the drivers. I’d have preferred better physical separation, perhaps slotting the balanced port in the middle and flanking the phone-out/line-out on either side. Or just do it like many others do and make line-out an option from the menu by combining line-out/3.5mm out.
As it appears the fear of line-out blowing out IEMs was rather unnecessary. The N3Pro line out has only voltage gain and no current gain so you are unlikely to ruin your eardrums and/or headphones.

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I have no qualms about the N3Pro’s build. It feels positively dense, the buttons have good feedback, and the ports are at the bottom for once.
5/5

Display:
The Cayin N3Pro has a 3.2" IPS display with 480*360 resolution (~180ppi). It’s nothing groundbreaking and the IPS display doesn’t have the best of contrast/color accuracy. However, viewing angles are good and it’s moderately sharp. Side and top bezels are fairly slim and symmetric unlike the TOTL Cayin N6ii (reviewed here) so that’s a plus.
3.5/5

UI/Responsiveness:
Cayin decided to not go the Android route this time around and that’s a welcome change IMO. The OS here is Hiby OS with some bits and pieces customized especially for Cayin (e.g. the tube mode selector). By default you are taken to a launcher of sorts with all the most used menus available at a glance. Swiping up from bottom will show additional settings for playback (gapless, repeat, EQ, filters etc.) and device (wifi, BT, firmware upgrade etc.). Swiping down from the top will slide down a notification shade where you can select various tube modes, gain level, USB/DAC modes, tube/solid state selector etc. along with the handy brightness slider. It’s a very well-thought out design and improves the usability of the N3Pro by a margin.
The UI is fairly pedestrian all in all but has good responsiveness. Scrolling through the library is fast and also has fast/alphabetical scrolling. The album art thumbnails aren’t cached though (or takes a while to load from memory) so they appear a bit late. Some high resolution album arts weren’t even displayed which was a bit of a letdown. Lyrics support was also a hit-or-miss. There was no proper PEQ support, only a basic 10-band EQ support which was a letdown. The biggest offense of the UI is that the iconography looks like something designed back in 2006. Other than that it’s a functional UI that gets the job done without getting in the way.
4/5

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Connectivity: BT 5.0 with LDAC, WiFi (no 5GHz sadly), USB type-C with SPDIF functionality— it’s got all the stuff I will possibly need. Given there is no direct support for streaming I am fine without 5GHz wifi (not that 2.4GHz isn’t enough). You can also use the N3Pro as a BT amplifier to stream music from your smartphone (via the Hiby Music app). Using as a DAC was also very straightforward: select USB mode as “DAC” from the dropdown menu (swipe down from top) and you’re good to go (ideally install the Cayin USB driver as well from here). Bitperfect playback was also possible. I couldn’t make it unfold MQA from the Windows Tidal app though, but offline Tidal files were supported with full MQA unfold.

Solid connectivity overall. No glaring gaps whatsoever.
5/5

Battery Life:
The N3Pro utilizes a 4100mAh battery which last ~8hrs of real-world uses (in tube mode). This figure will vary depending on the file format and how much volume/output power you require. Nonetheless, I’d call this about average for the price class. Standby battery drain is pretty good however and setting up idle shut-off saves even more battery. As an aside, it takes ~15 seconds to boot from cold so powering it off when not in use is a viable option. It takes ~3+ hours to fully charge the battery. No fast charging here.

There are DAPs with far better battery life at this price bracket, but I’m gonna cut Cayin some slack because of the tubes.
3/5

Tubes:
The N3Pro houses two matched Raytheon JAN6418 miniature tubes which are suspended inside a silicone housing. As per Cayin these increases shock absorption. Despite that, there is a high-frequency ping every time you put the N3Pro on a solid surface with some force, or just walk around briskly with them in the pocket. The ringing noise isn’t distracting during busy music passages but in quite passages it can stand out quite a bit. Just an eccentricity you gotta live with if you want the tube goodness I guess.

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The tubes are not in the typical OTL setup, rather they operate in conjunction with the differential amplifier and mostly alter the timbre. The operational diagram can be seen below. I couldn’t detect any hiss even with sensitive IEMs (Final FI-BA-SS in this case) while in tube mode. Another topic of discussion: tube burn-in. These tubes will need ~10–20 hours to settle in. The sound will have noticeable changes esp in the higher frequencies until then.

Sound Quality

Cayin N3Pro can have at least 4 different sound signatures. The differences are sometimes subtle, and at times drastic. To summarize: there are subtle differences between the solid-state sound from the single-ended and balanced out. Then there are drastic differences between the Triode and Ultralinear modes for the Tube mode. Before going further, some relevant specs:

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The N3 Pro uses dual AK4493 DACs in true balanced configuration (so each DAC handles only one channel).

Tube Mode: There are two different operation modes for the tubes: Triode and Ultralinear. Keep in mind that the tubes will warm up for 5 seconds before playing tracks if you stop playback for a while.

Triode mode has a very intimate presentation with up-front midrange and the typical tube bass with smoothed out leading edge of bass notes. It doesn’t sound blunted though and has pretty good resolution (though the balanced out has better layering and staging). Overall the Triode mode is the one I used the mode during the course of this review and the one I’d recommend you to try first if you plan on getting the N3Pro. I liked how the N3Pro sounded in Triode mode with both warm and bright IEMs/Headphones so you can pretty much set it on and forget it.

The Ultralinear mode is polar opposite. It throws an artificially wide stage and has a very aggressive leading edge of notes. The imaging is quite odd in this mode and I just don’t enjoy the presentation. Your mileage may vary and you may find it appealing with specific pair-ups/music but for my library and the headphones I tried this mode was a no-go.

Solid-state Mode: The solid state mode is rather uninspiring. The single-ended output is decent but nothing to write home about in terms of overall resolution and staging. The balanced out is better in this regard but still about average given the competition.

The other thing to notice about the solid-state mode is the coloration. The single-ended mode has a warm tilt with more focus on mid-bass. The balanced out is more… balanced sounding but still not what I’d call “neutral”. The warm tint is there all along. Separation from balanced out is pretty good, but there are better performers in this price bracket if you are after channel separation and soundstage width.

There are six selectable reconstruction filters: Sharp, Slow, Short Delay Sharp, Short Delay Slow, Super Slow, Low-dispersion Short Delay. The differences between them weren’t that drastic or immediately noticeable (unlike some other DAPs in this range). You are welcome to fiddle with them and see if you notice any drastic difference. I mostly stuck with Slow for this review.

Overall, it’s a difficult task to assign a rating to the N3Pro’s sound quality. It changes so drastically between modes after all. That being said, the general sound is definitely a step up from your average smartphone and in tube mode it’s a very engaging DAP indeed and offers a different flavor of sound vs the run-of-the-mill DAP offerings out there.
4.5/5

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Amp performance: The N3Pro could get the Sennheiser HD650 loud at high gain but couldn’t bring out the full dynamics and imaging prowess of them. The HD650 is not unusable at all and quite decent in fact with the N3Pro single-ended out but it’s just not as good as some desk setups out there in this price range. The balanced out mode faired better in terms of power but had similar issues with dynamics and presentation.

The most power hungry IEM that I’ve got: Final E5000, got loud enough from the balanced out but lacked the bass control it exhibits from better sources. At 93dB/mW and 15ohms of impedance the E5000 is very particular about amping and the N3Pro couldn’t drive it as well as, say, the Questyle QP1R does.

All in all, the Cayin N3Pro isn’t what I would call a “powerhouse” like the venerable A&K Kann Alpha. It’s mostly meant to be used with IEMs and moderately efficient headphones. Low sensitivity planars and high-impedance full-size cans aren’t the best use-case, though that’s the case for most DAPs in this price range.
4/5

Select Comparisons

vs Cowon Plenue R2 ($550):
The sound signatures couldn’t be more different between these two DAPs. Whereas the Cowon Plenue R2 has a near-neutral tone out of the balanced out (and the single-ended out has just a bit more warmth) the Cayin N3Pro is noticeably warmer even in solid-state mode/balanced out combo. The Plenue R2 opts for its fantastic DSP effects named JetEffects to add various degrees of coloration. The PEQ options are also noticeably better. The N3Pro on the other hand is quite colored by default and has no PEQ options. The Cowon player lacks MQA support and WiFi/BT 5.0 however, so Cayin N3Pro is definitely more feature rich.

In terms of the rest of the aspects: display is far superior on Cowon Plenue R2, whereas UI navigation is faster and simpler on the Cayin N3Pro. I do prefer the design of Cowon’s UI more despite somewhat cumbersome navigation. Battery life is far superior to the N3Pro on the Cowon R2 and I get ~18hours of music playback regularly.

vs Fiio M11 ($500): Soundwise, Fiio opted for a lean, mean, brittle signature with the M11 and kind of forgot that something called bass exists… Well it’s not that bad but the bass texture and extension is quite poor for such a pricey device. It lacks in dynamism as a result but does bring out more top-end detail though it gets too fatiguing for me. I much prefer the N3Pro.

As for the rest: M11 is Android, N3Pro is not, so you know which one you need. Display is better and handling is also easier on the Fiio DAP. Battery life is better on the Fiio M11 by a couple hours more (~11hrs or so).

vs iBasso DX160 ($400): The iBasso DX160 is a benchmark champ with very good figures on the usual test-bed metrics (THD, IMD+N, Crosstalk etc.). Perhaps the Cowon Plenue R2 beats it but they’re quite close and the DX160 has even better output power. Against the N3Pro the differences aren’t as stark. Both opts for a warm-ish tone, though the N3Pro in tube mode has more coloration and fun factor. I prefer the balanced out of the DX160 more vs the balanced out of the N3Pro, but the tube mode is lacking on the DX160 and I crave for that unique signature.

DX160 is Android too but performance is subpar and there will be hiccups. It also has some RF interference issues while using WiFi. The display used to be excellent on the first-batch DX160 but the later 2020 revision has brought in a worse display. Still, it’s better than that on the N3Pro. Battery life is similar on both.

vs Questyle QP1R ($600, discontinued): This gem of a DAP is sadly discontinued but if you can get a second-hand QP1R — give it a strong thought unless you need Android smarts. The dynamism of the QP1R is unlike anything in its price bracket. Certain TOTL DAPs like the Cayin N6ii (with T01/E01 motherboard) will beat it on that aspect but then you’re spending nearly twice as much. QP1R also has a more neutral presentation and can render an abundance of detail. The staging isn’t the widest but imaging is precise.

The OS, sadly, is outdated on the QP1R. There are no smart options anywhere neither is the UI touch friendly. Battery life is worse as well (7 hrs vs 9 hrs on the N3Pro). The QP1R also hisses more on sensitive IEMs (though it sounds better still than on the N3Pro). Build quality/fit and finish is even better on QP1R, despite the apparent solidity of N3Pro’s build. Display is again larger on the N3Pro though QP1R has a higher quality display (in terms of contrast etc.).

If you only care about music playback or want to use the DAP as a DAC/Amp/pre-amp at times the QP1R is the better choice. I do realize it’s a very niche device so the N3Pro will be more suitable for general use and will offer more flexibilities.

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Conclusion

Cayin’s N3Pro is a fun sounding DAP with two different tube flavors and the usual bells and whistles you expect from a mid-tier DAP in terms of output options. It’s a unique offering in the price range if you don’t care too much about neutrality. The display and UI elements could definitely be better but the performance is good enough for most use cases and the connectivity options are solid.

The Cayin N3Pro earns my recommendation, mostly because it dares to bring tube sound to the masses inside a DAP and the overall execution is quite graceful indeed.

Overall rating: 4.25/5
#Recommended (as long as you’re not after neutrality)
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Ichos

Reviewer at hxosplus
A dap for the tube lovers.
Pros: - Excellent sound quality
- Tube stage with two timbres
- Four different sound signatures
- Powerful from the balanced out
- Fully balanced line out
- High resolution bluetooth
- Great build quality
- Two digital outputs
- Usb otg
Cons: - Tube stage power is limited
- Doesn't support streaming services but for a good reason
- USB dac input doesn't support Android
- No Android OS
- Search bar too small to read
This review is part of the Cayin N3 Pro loaner tour and reflects my subjective and honest opinion of it.
Thanks Cayin and Andy for making it happen.

Introduction

The Cayin N3 Pro is a mid priced digital player that costs $479.
Full specifications are available here
https://en.cayin.cn/products_info?itemid=132

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Technical specifications

Digital conversion is done by two AKM AK4493 chips in a fully balanced configuration.
This is the most affordable dap in the market to offer dual timbre solid state and vacuum tube analog output.

The solid state amplifier is a fully differential balanced circuit while the vacuum tube is available only from the single ended output.

A matched pair of JAN6418 tubes in mechanically suspended shock-absorption case is used for the vacuum tube output.
There are two modes available - the ultra linear and the triode operation.

The implemented differential amplifier stage is one of the most powerful available and can output a whole 800mW/32Ω from the 4.4mm jack.
Single ended power is considerably lower and for the tube mode is even lower.

The player is compatible with all the known music formats with resolution up to 384kHz/32bit PCM , DSD256 and full native MQA decoding.

Physical specifications and battery

The unit measures 115x63.5x18.9mm weighing 195gr.
It is quite a thick one but this was to be expected in order to accommodate the two vacuum tubes and the large 4100mAh battery.

Real Battery duration is about 9 hours from the single ended solid state output and 7 hours with the tube enabled.
The same 7 hours are available from the balanced output.
Bluetooth or WiFi use will deplete the battery much faster.

The front panel is split into two sections.
The ⅔ being the 3.2" IPS touch display and the other one the tube compartment which features a semi transparent small window to browse the glowing tube.
A small touch home button is located at the bottom of it.
The scroll volume wheel plus three function buttons are located at the right side of the unit.

The unit is a CNC machined aluminium case with full glass front panel coating and build quality is top notch.

IMG_20210217_211641.jpg


Regarding I/O

We have two headphone outputs - one 4.4mm balanced and one 3.5mm single ended with three gain stages.

Two line outputs the one shared with the phone 4.4mm balanced out and the other one a dedicated 3.5mm single ended with three different voltage settings that max at 4 and 2 Volt respectively.
Switching from 4.4mm PO to LO and a very useful warning message will display.

The Cayin N3 Pro is the only dap at this price point - as far as we know - to offer a true balanced line out , a very useful feature as we can hook it to active speakers and amplifiers without loss of quality.
The Vacuum tube timbre is not available from the 3.5mm line output.

A digital s/pdif out is embedded and the USB type C port can have two way USB input and output making the N3 Pro an excellent digital transport.
We can also hook a USB drive through an OTG cable as long as the power is up to 300mA.
A micro SD card slot is available to store the music library with up to 1TB of available memory but do note that there is not an onboard memory.

Inside the box we will find a silicon protective case , two screen protectors and a gold plated 1m USB A to C cable.

Wireless

The Cayin N3 Pro features a bluetooth 5.0 wireless connection with AAC , LDAC and UAT support.
It is a duplex connection so we can use the Cayin N3 Pro as a transmitter with bluetooth headphones etc or as receiver to stream music from a smartphone.

WiFi connection is also available but to our great disappointment it is only useful for OTA firmware updates and for wireless file transfers.
The Cayin N3 Pro OS does not support streaming services but for a good reason.
As Cayin have pointed "Online streaming will involve WiFi during listening, but WiFi will introduce interference to vacuum tube, that's why we don't plan to add streaming to N3Pro once we decided to use vacuum tube based amplification."

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Brief operation and user interface description

The Cayin N3 Pro runs under a custom developed user interface and OS that does not support any kind of streaming services although the device is WiFi enabled.
It is compatible with the HiBy link music app that can provide enhanced wireless functionality under bluetooth mode.

Since we don't use digital files in favor of streaming services the dap was mainly tested under USB DAC mode and bluetooth connection.
The latest firmware v2.1 was installed prior to testing.

A small music library was used with the micro SD card in order to have a taste of the user interface.
So we cannot comment about database reading speed or provide in depth user interface experience while browsing local media.

In general the UI is quite polished and user friendly with all the regular browsing and search functions , cover art display and the usual stuff.
There is a drop down menu with shortcuts on the main operations like selection between vacuum tube modes or gain settings.
Two comprehensive menus are available for the rest in depth settings like low pass filter selection and equalizer or other settings that allow a great deal of personal customization.

Despite the touchscreen , navigating the N3 Pro and using the search menus isn't a very straightforward experience because the keyboard is the old style 3 letter layout and the search bar is very small at all size settings.

Listening tests

Our main portion of the listening tests was done under USB dac mode or with LDAC bluetooth connection without encountering any functional problems.

You have to install the available drivers in order to get ASIO and high resolution support and Android USB mode is unfortunately not supported.

Bluetooth sound quality under LDAC mode is very good and while there is a certain lack of fidelity it is the best and easiest way to enjoy streaming services from our phone.

We have used various headphones like the Meze Empyrean , the Sennheiser HD660S , the HiFiMan Ananda and Drop HE5XX and iems like the FiiO FD5 / FA9 or the Meze Rai Penta.

Noise floor is very low and the N3 Pro is dead silent from both the solid state outputs while a certain hiss was audible at vacuum tube mode with more sensitive earphones.

The balanced output is powerful and can drive most of the normal headphones with ease and authority.
Single ended solid state is almost three times lower and vacuum tube mode is even lower so careful matching should be done or the amplifier can easily clip and sound harsh.

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Solid state mode

In our opinion this is one of the best implementations of the balanced AK4493 configuration available in a portable device and Cayin have successfully managed to squeeze out every last drop of performance.

The 4.4mn output sounds open and spacious with an even and well balanced presentation.

Bass is greatly extended with a fair amount of body but not overly done just a touch before sounding lean.
It is tight and controlled with great layering and definition while slam and macro dynamics are excellent for a dap.

Mids are linear , clear and spacious with enough space for voices and instruments to shine aided here by the natural timbre.

Higher frequencies are nicely extended with great energy in a vivid presentation without a hint of sharpness.
Tonality is still good but there is a certain lack of body compared to the lower registers and a touch of a digital flavor at the leading edges.

Stage width and separation are very good especially from the balanced out without lacking in depth.
As that the recording venue is nicely portrayed with sufficient echo and reverberation.

As a whole the solid state mode is quite natural and enjoyable without sounding sterile or fake.
Switching to solid state single ended out the basic character is still there but sound is more compressed and there is a noticeable loss of spaciousness and driving authority.

Vacuum tube mode

In order to engage the vacuum tube mode we need to have our headphone plugged into the 3.5mm output and select the tube mode from the drop down menu.
After a five seconds warming notification we are good to go and start listening but our tests dictated that about fifteen minutes are necessarily to reach optimal performance.

From the drop down menu we can also choose whether the tube timbre is the Ultra linear or the Triode.
Switching to tube mode or choosing between timbres and there is an audible high pitched sound that fades away after a while.

The device never gets too hot but we must be leaving it in a stable position because small moves and taps to the body result in microphonic noise.

Ultra linear mode

In this mode the overall sound signature is still retained but we get some extra tube warmness and a more pleasing presentation.
The sound becomes more natural and full bodied - especially at the higher registers without much coloration.
It is more like harmonics get accentuated so as a result we gain the tube effect without sacrificing in overall technicalities or the sound becoming too loose.
Timbre and tonality are greatly improved leaning towards a more natural and life like presentation with better overall decay.
The stage is a touch narrower but we find it more cohesive and three dimensional so more persuasive in the long run.
This is our most preferred mode and the greatest achievement of the Cayin N3 Pro that differentiates it from the competition.
A very pleasing and engaging sound but still technically competent although lacking in power and overall dynamics/slam compared to the balanced out.

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Triode mode

In this mode we get some extra warmness and wetness in exchange of higher register extension and linearity.
The sound and especially the bass becomes more loose and less controlled while the mids get a touch of emphasis.
An old school like tubey sound that is more about an overly relaxed and bloomy presentation sacrificing technicalities.
It is a nice extra option to have and can be useful depending on mood and material or to tame an overly aggressive headphone

At the end

The Cayin N3 Pro is an excellent sounding mid priced dap with four different types of sound signature and the only one at this price point to offer a unique tube implementation and a very powerful balanced output.
The only deal breakers for us is the lack of embedded streaming services and the somewhat outdated user interface that are not up to 2021 market demands.
But this is the penalty to pay in order to get a good tube implementation without distortion.
If you don't care much about this and the best tube and not only sound is all you need then the Cayin N3 Pro is truly exceptional and very highly recommended.

Qobuz test playlist - http://open.qobuz.com/playlist/5669033

Copyright - Laskis Petros 2021.
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monsieurfromag3
monsieurfromag3
Yes it’s pretty much impossible to achieve reliably with just the N3Pro and a phone, I remember now. I believe it is due to the way Android handles USB out. I got a little hub that is engineered to send charging current and data one way, this way it works without issue - needless to say it’s starting to look like quite the sandwich with an external battery, a phone, a hub, a DAP and the three cables to bind them all!

I often get annoying little pops with BT transmission, no matter the codec. I still use the N3Pro as an LDAC receiver when I’m out, as it’s not too distracting, it’s mostly when a song starts or is about to end, buffering maybe.
hmscott
hmscott
"Doesn't support streaming services" - this is the reason I haven't picked up the Cayin N3Pro yet, as I live on the Tidal / AMHD Streaming services.

Thank you for taking the time to write up the nice review @Ichos :)
Ichos
Ichos
Thank you.
Keep in mind that as I have already mentioned LDAC is really good so you can stream from your phone.

antdroid

Headphoneus Supremus
Unique DAP at a killer price
Pros: Great feel in hand and build quality
Snappy UI
Three unique sound modes - each having its own flavor
Tube sound is best choice for me personally
Cons: no streaming apps (expected as such)



When Cayin announced the N3 Pro in early 2020, I was very excited for what it could be. On paper, it seemed like a cheaper and smaller N8 -- Cayin's Flagship Digital Audio Player. The N8 was extremely well-built, fast, and had a solid-state and tube amplifier mode using Korg Nu-Tubes. It was also extremely heavy, and extremely expensive!

The N3 Pro, instead, is a lighter-weight and smaller player that fits well in my hands, and also has the ability to switch from solid-state to a discrete tube amplifier with a press of a button on the touchscreen. This player retails for $479 USD and was provided on loan directly from Cayin as part of their Head-Fi Tour group. I was the first to get my hands on it as part of this tour and was able to provide a full unboxing experience video shown below:


Unboxing

The N3 Pro comes equipped with a pair of AKM 4493 DACs and has the ability to play from its solid-state amps in balanced mode using 4.4mm or single-ended using 3.5mm. It also has the ability to swap to using a tube amp mode using JAN6418 matching tubes and play using the single-ended 3.5mm output only. The tube function has two filters available for different sounds which I'll discuss later.

In addition to these functions, the N3 Pro also has 2-way bluetooth and digital output using USB-C and a dedicated line output using 3.5mm. One can also use Hiby's app on a mobile device to control the player's music using HibyLink.

The User Interface is a customized Hiby OS that looks very modern and simple and has a touch button on the lower center of the front panel, that is lit with an LED ring. Just above this ring is a transparent glass display that shows the tube lit when activated, and the main screen is a 3.2 inch IPS display that is sharp and looks good.

There is a large volume knob on the right side of the player that also acts as the power and screen-off button when pressed-in. Below that are the skip and play/pause buttons. The player uses USB-C for data and charging and that is at the bottom of the player next to the phone outputs.

Finally, the player includes data cable and a single case. The first case is a simple clear TPU bumper case that protects the edges and sides of the player. The second case that came with this bundle and is available to purchase separately is a green leather case with a metal screen on the back side that looks very reminiscent of cases made by Korean brand Dignis. This case is quite nice and I love the overall look and feel of it and highly recommend it for the optional $39 USD.




Software Experience
The Cayin N3 Pro uses a customized Hiby OS which means it has the proprietary wireless remote feature, HibyLink. This feature lets you control you music and volume via your phone or tablet without having to touch your DAP once enabled.

The user interface seemed quite snappy to me, especially after upgrading to the v2.0 firmware. The main screen gives users an option to search for music by various methods such as Folder, Lists, Songs, Artist, Albums and Genre. My music collection has well-defined tags, and so I did not notice any issues with weird tag reading or any other anomalies with file display.

Album art isn't pre-cached, so it does take a second to refresh the artwork while scrolling through each menu, but it's not any longer than I've noticed on other Hiby-based player.

Swiping down from the top of the screen shows a quick-access menu similar to what you'd find on Android. Its here where you can switch from solid-state to tube and also change the tube sound from Triode to Ultra Linear.




Swiping up from the bottom of the screen brings up the two settings menus. One is to control settings related to the sound/music functions like changing filters and EQ, and the other is to change system settings.

Overall usage of the UI is easy enough to use for me, and everything just works fine. I had no issues using it once I figured out the LED ring is actually a home screen button, which saved a lot of button presses to get back to the main playback display.

Sound Experience & Comparisons
The N3 Pro runs in three different modes as I've mentioned before. It also has several AKM DAC filters, but I've kept it in the "Slow" filter for the most part during this trial period. This has been the filter I found to sound the most realistic for the acoustical music I typically listen to in my experience.

Most of my listening on the Cayin N3 Pro were with the Hidition Viento-B, Unique Melody MEST, and Thieaudio Legacy 4 in-ear monitors. I spent a very short amount of time with the ZMF Verite and Denon D5200 headphones as well.

In all-cases, I find that the overall sound and character of the Cayin N3 Pro is that is a warmer than neutral audio player. Its been a while since I've had a chance to hear the N8 or the N6-II with its default amp, but I remember those both being a little warmer in their default settings, but I do feel that Cayin's house sound is a more warm and lush sound style than a flat neutral or airy signature.

My main points of comparison in this review are with the Lotoo PAW 6000, Hiby R2, Apple USB-C Dongle, and a Topping A90 desktop amp. Of these, only the A90 is within the same price bracket as the N3 Pro, but of course, its not a portable unit. The PAW 6000 is over double the cost at $1200 USD and the R2 is a fraction of the cost at $109 USD, so these do show if the Cayin hits its price mark, below or above it in my comparisons.



Solid-State

With the solid-state active, I found the Cayin to have a similar general signature to the Hiby R2, which is a warmer sound signature that emphasizes the lower mid-range more. The N3 Pro sounds a little lacking in air when compared to the Lotoo PAW 6000 and Topping A90, and presents a thicker overall signature. The resolution is very good on the N3 Pro solid-state but I do find the PAW 6000 to just go slightly beyond and adds a deeper level of layering and depth that the N3 Pro doesn't dive as far down.

Tube Amp

The tube amp modes is where the N3 Pro differentiates itself from its competition at any price range. The player is equipped with a matching set of JAN 6418 mini-tubes that are suspended in the player to reduce the amount of noise from movement and shock. While it does a fantastic job at this, I do still hear the occasional hum noise randomly while idle, or electromagnetic interference from my cell phone if the phone is right next to the tubes. In most situations, though, it's generally quiet, though I would be wary with the most sensitive of IEMs. Still, it is impressive and much quieter than I would have expected of a portable tube-based amplifier device.

There are two modes when you activate the tube mode to choose from. There is also a 5 second waiting period for the tubes to warm up prior to music playing. You can continue to play music using the solid-state amp side while you wait, but there will be a short pause when switching over, so it's not seamless, and I wouldn't expect it to be either.

Triode
The first mode is the Triode mode, which is the tube amp in its purest form. This really opens up the sound and changes it up. The low end is bloomier, with an even warmer and engaging presentation. It can make bassier IEMs sound, perhaps, too much, but it is up to preferences here.

The overall sound is smoother, though I did find the treble to be a little jarring at first, but I believe that really had more to do with the tubes not fully being broken in and opening up, since this unit was brand new when I received it. I let the tube section on and playing music for hours at a time while I was doing other things to let it naturally open up and I don't sense that harshness using triode mode anymore.

This is the more pleasant of the three major options on this player, and one I would pick to use if I had to. I really liked it with the Hidition Viento-B, which is a reference monitor with a small bass shelf bump. It tames down some of the highs when using it on the solid-state mode and especially the ultra-linear mode, which I'll take about next.

Ultra-Linear
Yes, Cayin put in an ultra-linear mode using it with tubes. It's an interesting and almost contradictory combination, but then again, I do this on my desktop setup often. I use my Topping A90 when I need to power my planar headphones, but use my Feliks Elise OTL Tube amp as a tube buffer pre-amp to it. This way, I get a small amount of that harmonic distortion along with the current power I need to use the planars at full efficiency.

In the case of the N3 Pro, the ultra-linear mode seems like a filter change that makes the player have very much a neutral sound profile that brightens up the sound significantly. The change is pretty dramatic, especially if you flip back and forth between the Triode and Ultra-Linear with everything becoming leaner, brighter, and more airy, though I don't feel it sounds more forced than natural.

I am not a big fan of this mode to be honest. It loses a lot of the engaging sound of the N3 Pro and even if the tube is still running in the background, I find this makes some of my IEMs become nearly unlistenable. It does not pair well with brighter gear.

I believe they were trying to make this mode to compete with more neutral-tuned gear, but when comparing it to the Lotoo PAW 6000, I just don't think it stacks up. Cayin's N3 Pro performs much better with the warmer and intimate sound than it does with the brighter tuning.




Wrap-Up
The Cayin N3 Pro is a really nice package at $479 and it comes with a great deal of options to satisfy a lot of different tuning options and features. It doesn't do streaming apps but at least you can use your device to stream via BT directly to the player if you want to use Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, etc.

The tube portion is definitely not a gimmick and it seems to do what I'd expect a tube amp to do and that's a nice feature. It's also good that it does not have too much impact on extraneous noise such as hissing and humming. I like that all three major sound options on this player are unique to the others and that provides an option for all listening types and one should be able to find a nice pairing with most gear.

Finally, there's really nothing in this price range that competes with this unit, if you're looking at something that sounds pleasant and has nice build and feels great. Yes, it does not have Android like the iBasso DX160, but this unit runs smooth and does not have many quirks with it in its hardware or software.

Overall, this seems like a nice recommendation from me. It's probably a small step behind players double to triple its price in sound quality, but competes and exceeds players at its own price range, and I find that very appealing.
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twister6

twister6 Reviews
Headphoneus Supremus
Nate Jr!
Pros: Choice of Solid State or Tubes, 2 Tubes modes: Triode and Ultralinear, high power SS output, duplex (Tx/Rx) Bluetooth with LDAC and UAT support, responsive interface, balanced Line Out, solid build, price.
Cons: 5sec tube warm up delay (necessary, but still a bit annoying), no internal storage.


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 tw6 review site, and now I would like to share it with my readers on Head-fi.

Manufacturer website: Cayin. Available for sale from various authorized retailers like Musicteck and others.


Intro.

There are magic words that can get attention of any audiophile, and Tubes is one of them. Now, if you add on top of that in a compact pocket friendly DAP and at lower mid-fi level price, this attention will be undivided. And that is exactly what happened when Cayin announced their latest N3Pro DAP. Actually, the undivided attention was a follow up to the initial confusion triggered by “N3Pro” name. With so many recent Pro releases, people assumed it is a refresh, similar to R3 Pro, M3 Pro, AP80 Pro, etc., without realizing N3Pro is a brand-new DAP.

Once you start reading the spec of N3Pro, you quickly recognize that it has nothing to do with the original N3. Instead, it follows dual Solid State/Tubes architecture similar to flagship N8. Cayin even took it one step further by offering Tubes output in two different operational modes. With all this new stuff under the hood, I was surprised they kept N3 name. But nevertheless, this reincarnation or reboot, or whatever you want to call it, is the focus of today’s review after I spent the last month testing N3Pro. Now, let’s take a closer look at what I found.

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Unboxing and Accessories.

Considering this being Cayin’s “entry” level DAP, the packaging is less glamorous, in a smaller compact box inside of an all-black sleeve with an outline of N3Pro (and a hint of two tubes) on the front and a highlight of main features on the back. Inside the box you will find N3Pro surrounded by a secure foam cutout, and a collection of basic accessories such as a detailed manual booklet, screen protector, durable usb-c cable, and a clear protective TPU bumper.

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It makes sense that Cayin keeping the number of accessories down to a minimum so it can distinguish its “entry” level model from mid-f and flagship. But nevertheless, usb-c cable was rather nice, and I would take this protective bumper over a cheap silicone case. The bumper keeps the front and the back open while protects all the corners and sides, has a generous cutout for ports at the bottom and the volume wheel, covers micro SD slot, and has playback control buttons covered as well, yet still easy to press. The bumper enhances the grip and will give you some level of protection if you drop it.

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You can also get the optional leather case ($29, here) which IMHO worth every penny. With an aged green color finish and gold infused swirls, the case also features a cutout with a metal mesh on the back, similar to popular Dignis cases. N3Pro slides from the top with a case fitting the DAP like a glove. Micro SD card is covered, playback control buttons are covered as well and easy to feel and to press. Volume wheel has easy access, and all the ports are open and easy to access at the bottom.

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Design.

While functionally N3Pro reminds me of N8 Jr, the exterior design has more resemblance with N6ii, especially around volume wheel and hardware playback control buttons. As expected, with a lot more built-in functionality, N3Pro will be bigger than its N3 brother-from-another-mother. Actually, its overall size of 115x63.5x18.9mm is closer to N5ii. With the weight of 195g it is lighter than N6ii and N8, but you still feel some heft when holding it in your hand. Its compact pocket friendly size and weight makes it very comfortable to hold and to operate in one hand and being able to easily reach across the touch screen with a thumb even if you have average or smaller size hand.

And speaking of touch screen, I assume it’s the same 3.2” IPS touch display with 480x360 resolution as used in N8. The whole top surface is glass, only 3.2” area is allocated for touch display. At the bottom, you have a round touch LED Home button which also has functionality to change LED color depending on sample rate of played file or when charging. The light could be disabled as well in Settings. The back of N3Pro seems to be glass as well, while the chassis frame is metal. There is nothing at the top, and the left side has a spring-loaded slot for micro SD card, the only internal storage option for N3Pro which you can expand up to 1TB with the latest high capacity flash cards, or you can add OTG external storage as long as it doesn’t draw more than 300mA of current.

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As already mentioned, the right side resembles the design of N6ii. You will find a volume wheel at the top, surrounded by top/bottom guards. The wheel also doubles as a power button you long press to turn the power on/off and short press to turn the display on/off. Similar to N6ii, the wheel is not super tight, allowing easy control with just a thumb when you roll it up/down to change the volume. There is a click action as you turn it with every step. Below the volume/power wheel you will find 3 playback control buttons, comfortably spaced even for fat sausage fingers, where you have Play/Pause in the middle and Skip/Forward at the top and bottom. While chassis of N3Pro are all black, the volume wheel and buttons are golden, but it has a muted golden tone, not too much bling-bling in your face.

All the ports are located at the bottom of N3Pro. Multi-function USB-C port supports charging, file management, USB DAC, digital Transport, as well as embedded SPDIF Out using optional cable to bring out Coax output. Then, you have a dedicated 3.5mm SE Line Out with a selectable output voltage of 2.0/1.5/1.0V corresponding to High/Mid/Low in Settings. Next to it is SE 3.5mm Phone output which you select as either SS or Tube in Settings and change the gain between H/M/L. Tubes output is only from 3.5mm jack. And last, but not least, 4.4mm BAL output which is shared between Phone output (SS only, H/M/L gain) or BAL Line Out with also has a selectable voltage level of 4.0/3.0/2.0V corresponding to High/Mid/ow in Settings.

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Under the hood.

In the heart of N3Pro you have a dual AKM Velvet Sound AK4493EQ DAC, with a playback support of all the popular lossy and lossless audio file formats, including PCM decoded up to 32bit/384kHz, handling DSD up to DSD256 and even SACD-ISO. I went back and forth switching between mp3, flac, and DSD (DSD64, DSD128, and DSD256) files, and didn't experience any noticeable lag in the audio playback. Since no internal storage is offered, you will have to use micro-SD cards, though those are growing in storage capacity and dropping in price. Plus, you can connect additional storage via USB OTG, just make sure it doesn’t draw more than 300mA of current.

As previously mentioned, the display is similar to N8, 3.2" IPS with resolution of 480x360, nothing special by today's smartphone standard, but considering it's not intended for apps or video playback, this is more than adequate. Plus, I’m not too picky about the quality of embedded artwork. Also, the viewing angle was good, thanks to IPS display, and the same with visibility in a daylight, just need to bump the brightness setting higher. Considering compact size, the battery capacity of 4100mAh (3.7V) is not bad, and you will get up to 11hrs of playback time from 3.5mm SE SS output, or up to 9hrs of playback time from either 4.4mm BAL SS or 3.5mm Tubes outputs.

The headphone output spec can shed some light about the design since 4.4mm BAL (1ohm impedance) can drive up to 800mW into 32ohm load, while 3.5mm SE (0.6ohm impedance) scales it down to 250mW @32ohm (SS) or 130mW @32ohm (Tubes). Obviously, if you need extra power to drive your more demanding headphones, SS Balanced output would be the way to go, while SS/Tubes Single Ended are for easier to drive headphones and IEMs. I will cover various IEMs/headphones examples in Pair up section of the review.

You also have WiFi support (2.4GHz band only, according to Cayin spec), so you can upload fw OTA or do wireless music file transfer. Though only a single band, in reality this is not Android DAP intended for streaming or running apps, thus single band WiFi is not a showstopper. Instead, Bluetooth plays more important role here, and BT 5.0 with a duplex operation (Rx/Tx) has a higher value. From the Bluetooth menu under Quality option I see an option for LDAC, UAT, aptX, and SBC, and while AAC is not listed, several users on Head-fi reported about being able to stream AAC from their iPhone. With a duplex BT, you don’t just pair up with wireless headphones/speakers, but also can pair up with your Smartphone to use N3Pro as a hi-res Wireless DAC/amp.

Of course, I saved the best for last. What makes N3Pro stand out from other DAPs in a similar price range is dual Timbre design of using either Solid State or Tubes. Cayin doesn’t call it SS and Tubes amplifier design because the selection between SS and Tubes is an audio buffer before going into the final Phone Amplifier stage. Thus, Cayin refers to this part of the circuit as SS Timbre and Tubes Timbre, user selectable from 3.5mm port (SS or Tube) or SS only from 4.4mm port.

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The tubes used in the design are Raytheon JAN6418, vintage miniature pentode tubes, known for their low power consumption which is appropriate for a portable use. These are not considered to be very warm tubes, but have just enough to give the sound a warmth and texture which is different from Solid State timbre signal path. Also, only two matched Tubes are used to cover SE output because fully balanced design would require not only 4 matched Tubes but also doubling of the ckt around it. The compact footprint of N3Pro wouldn’t be able to fit all the ckt to a have a fully balanced Tubes output.

Just like with any real Tube, you also have to deal with microphonics effect due to vibration of the filament. For that, Cayin designed a custom silicone case, suspended inside N3Pro with a flexible PCB. This way you can move around without too much of microphonic effect, but you have to keep in mind when you tap or shake the DAP, you will hear some ringing which goes away after a few seconds when you hold it steady. Also, by default, when you switch from SS to Tubes or pause for a few minutes, you have to wait 5sec for Tubes to warm up and stabilize after being powered up. And even after this 5sec timeout, sometimes it could take another 5-10sec to fully stabilize the output sound.

Tubes by itself are not the only highlight of this design. When you switch from SS to Tubes timbre, you also have a choice of 2 Tubes modes: Triode and Ultralinear to give you more variety in fine-tuning and coloring of your sound, as part of their DOM (Dual Operation Mode which first appeared in HA-6A desktop tube amplifier). I will go over the details between SS and Tubes and Triode (TR) and Ultralinear (UL) in Sound Analysis section of the review, but as a spoiler – the difference between TR and UL is quite noticeable. So, overall, you are getting a DAP with 3 different sound timbres, Solid State, Tubes Triode, and Tubes Ultralinear.

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GUI.

Considering “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, N3Pro interface is nearly identical to their flagship N8. This is a custom Hiby software, optimized for maximum audio performance, and it's not Android based. So, don’t expect running apps or streaming directly from this DAP.

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The N3Pro GUI is split into two main screens to simplify the navigation and operation. The Home screen has a clear layout when browsing songs by Folders (to access micro SD card or attached USB OTG storage, as well as to scan the music), List (Recently played songs, tagged My Favorites, or custom Playlist), Songs (every song in alphabetical order), Artist (every artist in alphabetical order), Albums (all albums in alphabetical order), and Genres. Underneath of browsing section, you have an area for the currently playing song with an artwork thumb (if one is embedded), name of the artist/song, file type and remaining time. You can skip the song by swiping left/right. By tapping on the song or pressing Home button, you will get to Playback screen. To return to Home screen, press on back arrow in upper left corner.

In Playback screen you have a more expanded view of embedded artwork if one is available. If not, Cayin has their own picture artwork, or you can add and replace your own background image in Settings. The artwork could be swiped to the right to display detailed song info or to the left to display lyrics (if embedded). Above artwork you also have brief info about the file type and in the upper right corner 3-dots shortcut to bring up a menu with play mode selection, current playlist (by default shows songs in the current folder), tagging as my favorite, adding to a playlist, or deleting the file. Underneath the artwork, you have a scroll bar to fast forward/back through the song and current time position / total song duration. Below it you will find a song name, touch buttons to skip the track and play/pause button. The screen and controls are very clear and easy to read.

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The Notification bar at top displays all the relevant info at a glance, including small icons showing volume level, playback and play mode, gain setting, digital output setting, EQ, and a battery status with a percentage. When you swipe Notification bar down you have a set of 8 shortcuts to choose the Gain (low, med, high), switch between SS and Tube (when using 3.5mm output), switch between UL (Ultralinear) and TR (Triode) operation modes, Headphone or Line Out selection of balanced output, DSD output (D2P, DoP, or Native), Bluetooth enable/disable (long press to get into BT setting menu), USB mode (to switch between data or usb DAC), and enable/disable Idle shutdown. Every shortcut has a clear label and a graphic icon for an easy identification when it's enabled or disabled. Underneath of the shortcuts you have brightness control slider and link to About where you can find a device name, micro SD storage info, WLAN/MAC address, FW version, and OTA version.

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When you swipe the display up, you get a link to Music setting and System setting. Music Setting brings up a comprehensive menu with Play Mode (order, single repeat, random, list repeat), DSD output (D2P, DoP, or Native), DSD gain compensation (up to +6dB), breakpoint resume (off, song, or location), Gapless on/off, max volume, startup volume, Fade in/out, Replay gain, Line Out setting (Low, Mid, High voltage levels), L/R Balance, PCM digital filters, EQ (10band with +/-12dB custom adjustment, 8 genre specific presets which could be modified), Plays through folders and albums option, and displaying album art option.

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System Settings starts with WiFi on/off, Bluetooth on/off (including HibyLink on/off and Quality with a list of all the codecs, Language selection, Font Size (small, middle, big), Background image, Backlight time, Lock screen (very useful to enable/disable), Key Lock on/off and Key Lock setting (with individual controls of Volume, Play/Pause, and Prev/Next - each one can be enabled/disabled separately), Led on/off (for home button), Idle shutdown and time, Scheduled power off and time, Reset, and System upgrade.

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With any selected menu choice under Music and System Settings, the available options are displayed in a pop-up window at the bottom of the screen with a clear graphics and easy to read text, so you know exactly what you are selecting. I found the GUI to be organized in a very logical way, everything is easy to find and self-explanatory, and the most important - you have text and graphic icons, so everything is easy to id. Also, navigation is relative fast, I didn't notice any lag.

Considering compact size of N3Pro, it is very easy to hold it in one hand and navigate touch screen with a thumb. And no matter which screen you are in, tapping on home button always brings you back to the main Playback screen.

Sound Analysis.

I analyzed N3Pro sound with Odin, Luna, and Solaris ‘20 IEMs while playing a variety of my favorite test tracks, such as Agnes Obel “The curse”, Sandro Cavazza “So much better” (Avicii remix), C-Bool “Never go away”, Ed Sheeran “Shape of you”, Alan Walker “Darkside”, Galantis “Hunter”, Iggy Azalea “Black widow”, Indila “Boite en argent”, Dua Lipa “Love again”, Counting Crows “Big yellow taxi”, David Elias “Vision of her”, and Michael Jackson “Dirty Diana”. I let N3Pro burn in for 100hrs before starting my sound analysis.

I prefer to describe the DAP sound based on the comparison to other DAPs and pair ups with different IEMs/headphones since the DAP by itself doesn’t have a “sound”. What we hear is how it sounds through IEMs/headphones connected to it or the difference relative to other sources using the same pair of IEMs/headphones for monitoring the sound. As a result, this section of the review usually summarizes what I find in the follow up Pair-Up and Comparison sections.

Tubes vs SS (Solid State) - despite SS being 4.4mm BAL (and 4.4mm SS having wider soundstage than 3.5mm SS), 3.5mm Tubes (UL) output has an even wider soundstage. The difference is easy to pick up, the sound spreads wider left/right. When it comes to tonality, as expected, SS will be more transparent, colder, less colored, and with a blacker background. In contrast, Tubes output is smoother, softer, more musical, with fuller body, and more textured tonality. I also found Tubes (UL) output to have some improvement in vertical dynamics and more rumble in sub-bass. But what stands out the most to my ears was the analog texture of the sound when switched to Tubes timbre.

UL (Ultralinear) vs TR (Triode) - both of these Tube operation modes have a smoother fuller body tonality but the sound is quite different. TR is smoother, warmer, and slower, with a less aggressive sound that has shorter attack and longer decay, and slower transient response of note on/off. UL is faster, more articulate, more energetic. Both Tube operation modes have a wide soundstage, but UL is noticeably wider with a more open soundstage and better layering and separation of the sounds while TR sounds more intimate and even a little more compressed and congested in comparison.

Don’t get me wrong, Solid State output is not bad at all, and it is on par with other DAPs in the same price bracket. But when you switch to Tubes output and enable Ultralinear operation mode – the sound scales up with a wider and more open soundstage, more expanded vertical dynamics, and more natural and musical tonality. As a result, the contrast when going back and forth makes SS sound flatter and less exciting. Of course, everything will depend on pair up synergy, but for me personally, I went straight to Tubes output and kept it at UL as my favorite mode when using N3Pro.

Pair up.

The sound of a DAP is based on pair up synergy with different headphones. Afterall, you are hearing the sound of headphones connected to the Source. In this section of my review I will go over how various earphones and headphones pair up with N3Pro. In each pair up I noted the port (BAL 4.4mm or SE 3.5mm), SS Solid State or Tubes TR Triode or UL Ultralinear mode, HG high gain or MG med gain, and V# volume level.

Beyerdynamic T5p 2nd gen (full size Tesla drivers)
  • 4.4mm, HG, SS, V33 - balanced clear signature, deep bass, smooth clear vocals with colder tonality, smooth treble, not as extended.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V38 - still balanced sig, some improvement in dynamics, bass is warmer, a little slower, mids/vocals are smoother, a little nasal mids, treble has a little more sparkle.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V38 - balanced sig, better dynamics, more sub-bass rumble, bass is tighter and faster, mids/vocals have more clarity and better definition, doesn't sound as "nasal" as it was in TR mode, more sparkle than SS, but similar to TR mode.

Audio Technica ATH-R70x (470 ohm, open back full size)
  • 3.5mm, HG, SS, V60 (don't have BAL cable for this one) - balanced sig with a natural tonality and a smoother more laid-back sound presentation. More focused soundstage/imaging, even for open back feels a bit more intimate. Mids/vocals are smooth, not as layered or well separated.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V60 - sounds similar to Solid State SE, except SS has blacker background while with Tube TR is a little smoother and slower.
  • 3.5mm HG, Tubes UL, V60 - soundstage expands wider, sound has blacker background like Solid State, but tonality has a little more body and richer texture. Mids/vocals have more focus, and improved layering and separation of sounds.

Meze Audio Empyrean (dual driver Planar magnetic)
  • 4.4mm, HG, SS, V38 - a bit narrow soundstage, sound is balanced, smooth, laidback, mids/vocals are a bit veiled, lacking some clarity, too smooth overall.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V44 - very similar to solid state output, just a little bit smoother and more laidback.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V46 - wider/deeper soundstage, smoother detailed, but has more resolving mids with more clarity in vocals.

Out of these 3 headphones, I preferred using 3.5mm Tubes UL output/mode, and actually found T5p 2nd to pair up better, while R70x and Empyrean felt like they were not exactly driven to their full potential.

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Campfire Audio Solaris 2020 (hybrid DD/3BA sensitive IEM)
  • 4.4mm, HG, SS, V11 (MG, V21) - balanced signature with a nice sub-bass rumble, natural clear detailed mids/vocals, well controlled crisp treble. Average soundstage. Very faint background waterfall hissing. When I switched to Med gain, that waterfall hissing was nearly gone.
  • 3.5mm, MG, Tubes TR, V27 - balanced signature with a deeper bass, smoother more natural mids, treble is more natural as well. No waterfall hissing at all.
  • 3.5mm, MG, Tubes UL, V27 - similar balanced signature with a deeper and faster bass, natural more transparent mids with improved layering and separation, natural detailed treble, wider soundstage expansion. Probably one of my favorite pair ups with Solaris.

Dunu Luna (beryllium driver single DD)
  • 4.4mm, HG, SS, V25 - relatively balanced sound sig with deep bass, smooth natural vocals, and sparkly treble. Average layering and separation, and dynamics is just OK in this pair up.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V31 - more balanced sound sig with mids coming more forward, but overall sound is still smooth and laidback.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V31 - similar to TR, but there are many more improvements. Overall sound is faster with a black background, bass has more rumble and also faster attack, mids are more forward and also slightly more revealing.

Venture Electronics SUN Dice (180ohm single DD earbuds)
  • 4.4mm, HG, SS, V40 - smooth balanced natural tonality, but for some reason the mid-bass and mids/vocals sound hollow. I wasn't too crazy about SS BAL output pair up with Dice.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V45 - still a smooth balanced natural tonality, and I also hear now a little more sub-bass rumble and more treble sparkle, but the most noticeable improvement is in mids/vocals where they have now a fuller more natural body.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V45 - very similar to TR, with the soundstage being wider now, but in my opinion, it ruins the sound because vocals are spreading wider and I was having a hard time focusing. With SUN Dice, I preferred to use Tubes TR mode.

Empire Ears Odin (tribrid 2DD/5BA/4EST)
  • 4.4mm, HG, SS, V26 - sound signature is a little more mid-forward with more focus on mids and lower treble. Plus, mids/vocals are brighter and colder and lower treble a bit harsher.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V30 - sound sig is more balanced, now I hear a deep sub-bass rumble and stronger punch of mid-bass, mids/vocals have more body which still sounds smooth, though also more resolving.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V30 - switching to UL mode fine-tunes the TR sound with a wider soundstage, blacker background, and fuller body vocals.

64 Audio U12t (12BA w/TIA driver and M15 APEX module)
  • 4.4mm, HG, SS, V26 - balanced signature with a deep bass, clear detailed natural mids/vocals, and sparkly treble; actually, treble is a bit splashy.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V32 - similarly balanced signature, with more sub-bass rumble, mids/vocals have fuller body sound, more natural tonality, and treble is less splashy.
  • 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V32 - soundstage expands, background is blacker, the sound is not as laidback as in TR, but the biggest difference was in mids/vocals, given them more clarity and articulation.

In general, like in example with Solaris ’20, I found that more neutral or brighter/revealing IEMs to pair up better with Tubes output while warmer and bassier IEMs to have a better pair up synergy with SS output.

cayin_n3pro-32.jpg

Comparison.

In this test, I was using EE Odin and 64 Audio Nio to listen/compare between N3Pro and other DAPs, volume matched. Each of these DAPs, besides a difference in tonality and pair up synergy, has its own Pros/Cons, all of which should be taken into consideration depending on your preference.

N3Pro vs iBasso DX160 – starting with a soundstage, when comparing N3Pro SS vs DX, the DX is wider, but when switching to N3Pro Tubes the soundstage is the same as DX, even a touch wider in N3Pro. With tonality, depending on pair up, DX is a little brighter and leaner in mids, while N3Pro has more body and stronger and tighter bass impact with both SS and Tubes outputs. With Tubes, TR mode of N3Pro gives sound slightly warmer and smoother tonality with a slower speed, while UL still sounds smooth but with more speed and articulation. Also, keep in mind, DX is Android DAP with direct app support.

N3Pro vs Shanling M5s – with soundstage, when comparing N3Pro SS vs M5s, N3Pro is a touch wider, but when switching to Tubes timbre, the width improvement in N3Pro is a lot more noticeable. With tonality, M5s is a warmer and smoother sounding DAP, so it actually has a tonality closer to N3Pro Tubes, while N3Pro SS sounds a little brighter. Both have a strong bass impact, but N3Pro yields a deeper sub-bass rumble in various pair ups I tried. Another interesting observation, the vertical dynamics of N3Pro SS is similar to M5s, but Tubes output of N3Pro improves the dynamics, making the sound more expanded and layered.

N3Pro vs Dethonray DTR1 - soundstage of N3Pro Tube and DTR1 are on the same level, having wide expansion, while N3Pro SS is a little bit narrower. With tonality, both N3Pro Tubes and SS have a smoother tonality in comparison to more revealing brighter sound of DTR1. Also, both tubes/ss outputs of N3Pro have stronger and faster bass impact in comparison to more neutral DTR1. When it comes to a technical performance comparison, DTR1 and N3Pro tube (UL) have more in common with a dynamic layered sound which has the edge over N3Pro SS. Another thing to keep in mind when comparing Pros/Cons, DTR1 has a non-touch screen.

N3Pro vs Lotoo PAW6000 - in this comparison I found LP6k to be somewhere in a middle, between N3Pro Tubes and SS when it comes to soundstage. LP6k soundstage is wider than N3Pro SS, but not on the same level as N3Pro Tubes. With tonality, LP6k is smoother and closer to N3Pro Tubes, though not exactly as textured. Also, LP6k bass is softer in impact and not as fast as N3Pro Tubes/SS. With technical performance, when it comes to layering/separation/dynamics LP6k has an edge over N3Pro SS, but N3Pro Tubes comes closer to it.

N3Pro vs Cowon Plenue R2 - this is another interesting comparison since I find PR2 to have a performance somewhere in between of N3Pro Tubes and SS as well. With a soundstage, N3Pro Tubes is definitely the widest in comparison. Plenue R2 is a little be narrower but still wider than N3Pro SS. With a tonality, I also noticed how PR2 is a little bit smoother, having fuller body when compared to N3Pro SS, but it is not quite there when it comes to comparison with N3Pro Tubes. And I also noticed how in many pair ups PR2 bass has as much sub-bass rumble as N3Pro, but when it comes to mid-bass punch PR2 is a little softer and slower. Technical performance, such as layering/separation of sounds in PR2 is nearly identical to N3Pro SS, while N3Pro Tubes is superior in comparison.

cayin_n3pro-31.jpg

Wired/Wireless connections.

In this section of the review I will go over various wired and wireless connections I tested and verified with N3Pro.

Digital usb-c out

You can use N3Pro as a digital transport which I verified connected to iFi micro iDSD BL using usb-c OTG cable. I was able to adjust the volume from N3Pro and iDSD. The sound was typical of micro iDSD BL signature with a natural smooth tonality.

Coax out

You can also use N3Pro as a transport connected to iFi micro iDSD BL using Cayin CS-30TCR Type-C to coax cable. In that connection, volume can only be adjusted from iDSD. The sound tonality was a little brighter, soundstage was wider, and I was able to hear more air between the layers. For me personally, I enjoyed COAX out better than USB-C with N3Pro.

cayin_n3pro-39.jpg

Line Out

Connected to Romi Audio BX2 amplifier, the sound tonality of N3Pro 4.4mm BAL Line Out, the output which is shared with phone out, is a touch warmer relative to N3Pro direct 4.4mm SS Phone out. The sound quality of N3Pro 3.5mm SE Line Out, the clean unamplified dedicated line out, is a little warmer as well when compared to 3.5mm SE Phone out. In both cases, BX2 does improve the soundstage expansion and I also hear some improvement in dynamics. Based on these two tests and considering how transparent BX2 is, I can draw the conclusion that Line Out (output of DAC) is warmer, while internal SS amp ckt brightens it up a bit. Of course, Tubes output is a different story.

USB DAC

N3Pro was recognized right away on my Win10 ThinkPad T480s without the need to install any drivers. I was able to adjust the volume from laptop and from N3Pro. N3Pro connected as USB DAC sounds nearly identical as playing the same file directly from N3Pro.

Bluetooth Wireless

Bluetooth Tx – tested with Hiby WH3 TWS, working 30ft away without a problem, and it sounds the same as paired up with other wireless sources. The support of different codecs makes you appreciate the difference in quality as you step through them. Also, you can control playback directly from wireless earphones/headphones.

Bluetooth Rx – Paired up with my Galaxy S9 smartphone, using HibyMusic with UAT option enabled, N3Pro was connected using UAT codec and works flawless as a wireless DAC/amp paired up with my phone as a wireless transport. If UAT disabled in HibyMusic, wireless connection switches to LDAC. The sound quality was nearly identical to playing directly from N3Pro.

HibyLink

HibyLink allows pair up of N3Pro with your smartphone running HibyMusic app to use it as a remote control/display of the DAP. This is not a Bluetooth pair up to stream music, as some are mistaken. You enable HibyLink under Bluetooth control on N3Pro and enable it on your smartphone in HibyMusic and then search for N3Pro to pair up from a phone. This way you can keep N3Pro in your pocket or backpack with headphones connected, and control the playback and volume of the DAP straight from your phone.

Conclusion.

Relative to other DAPs in Cayin’s current lineup, N6ii and N8, N3Pro is considered to be entry level, but there is absolutely nothing entry about it. I do understand that Cayin narrowed down their DAP product line to N3Pro, N6ii, and N8, where “ii” indicates Android audio player, and two others are not. But each player is packed with so many unique features that I’m having a hard time putting a label on them. There is no question flagship N8 will be superior in every aspect, but if you want to get a taste of a pocket DAP with Tubes, N3Pro is a scaled down version of N8 that will surprise a lot of people, especially those who still think BAL output is superior to SE.

Besides having a similar display and identical OS/GUI, this Nate Jr (as in N8 Jr) follows the same design architecture with selectable Solid State and Tubes timbre outputs, and its Tubes output has 2 unique operational modes, Triode and Ultralinear. It’s not an Android DAP where you can install and run apps from, but its hi-res Wireless connection allows pair up with your smartphone to use it as a wireless DAC/amp to stream apps. Overall, N3Pro packs a list of impressive features, but in my opinion, Tubes output is still the main attraction of this $479 DAP which makes it stand out from the crowd because you will not find another audio player with Tubes to compete with N3Pro in this price bracket.
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saldsald
saldsald
Thanks for the review. I am currently using a modded ZX507 as my daily DAP and would like to get another DAP as an upgrade. I enjoy warmer sound and deeper bass ans also would definitely like to hear a wider stage and better layering than the ZX507. Would you recommend the n3pro or the PAW 6000? or should I be looking at something else? I know the n3pro is significantly cheaper and my budget is around the cost od the PAW 6000. Thank you in advance for the help.
Shabda
Shabda
Will it work with deezer or tidal? (Edit: seems to be a no)
dreadatcontrol
dreadatcontrol
Used to watch him at the maple leaf on Saturday nights. I miss New Orleans so much!

Old Music Lover

New Head-Fier
Cayin N3 pro Tour
Pros: Portable player that offers a variety of listening styles in one package.
Cons: At times the screen was unresponsive
Cayin N3 Pro loaner tour review;



Gear used for review and comparison;

  • Focal Eligia
  • Hifiman Ananda
  • Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless
  • Astell&Kern Kann Cube
  • Cowon Plenue R
  • Monoprice Liquid Platinum
  • Little Bear B4x
This is not going to be a technical review as I know there will be others that are better at that than me. I did not insert photos as there are great photos in the other reviews. I will focus on how it is to use the player and how it is able to deliver the little nuances of each song I play. I listen to a variety of music except country and western. Mostly jazz, soul, r&b, pop, reggae, and hip hop. The last is for when my daughters are around so I can embarrass them.

So, let’s get started. I was looking forward to reviewing this product because I am a fan of devices that use AKM DACs. I understand that it is the implementation of the DAC that is critical but I have found DAC’s that use AKM chips to be musical as opposed to the more analytical Saber DACs. So that would make me a little biased in my review.

I did not get into how it sounded in wireless mode because there was no difference with my other players. I would imagine the sound is determined by the headphones. No issues with connection.

I will start off by saying if you are looking for a portable dap that offers you a variety of listening flavors, this player fits that category. I will get into more detail if you read on but for those of you with a short attention span here is a quick explanation. When I listen with the balanced connection, I found the sound to be very precise and detailed. Switching to single mode I found it to be very close to the same just not as crisp in its definition. When I used tube mode, I noticed the sound to be slightly warmer which made longer listening sessions easier on my old ears. The Focal Eligia’s and the Beyer’s seemed less warm than the Ananda’s.

It was very close when I compared the N3 pro to the Cowon Little Bear combo but I would prefer the N3 pro for portable use. Just less bulky. When compared to the Kann Cube Monoprice combo there was a difference. The Kann Cube combo had the same warmth added but retained most of the detail in the songs. An example is during the song Somedays by Jacksoul, l can hear someone was snapping their fingers. You could tell clearly their fingers are snapping with the Kann combo but not as evident with the N3. Remember the Kann combo is 5 times the price of the N3 so I was glad to see the difference even though it was not earth shattering.

The Next song I listened to was Yulanga by Dead can Dance. You have to be patient with this tune because the introduction is about half way through. You hear the female vocals first but then the percussion comes in. It is very dramatic and more so when you hear the amazon wildlife sounds thrown in in spots. The N3 was able to provide good definition and almost equaled the Kann in balanced mode and again it was toned down a bit when I switched to tubes. Both players provided similar definition of instruments and wildlife as the music seemed to circle my head. At 4:10 some heavy percussion was introduced and it sounded like distortion with the N3 but less so with the Kann. When I compared it to the Cowon combo it was the same as the N3, so with similar priced devices it was comparable.

Kiss in Blue by Yellow. In balanced mode the vocals were very forward where you lost some of the instruments in the background even though the detail was there. When I switched to tube mode the volume decreased slightly and the vocals blended a little more with the instruments. The song has a good blend of vocals, bass guitar and percussion with a little sax thrown in. The vocals dominate the tune and slightly overpowered the instruments. When compared to the Kann Cube Monoprice combo there was better separation between the vocals and instruments but again the price difference.

Percussion Shuffle by Charlie Hunter. Listening in balanced mode the cymbals and cow bells were very dominant and vibrant while in tube mode the percussion seemed to dominate more but with less crispness. In balanced mode the bells had an echo when they played while with the tubes activated the echo seemed to disappear. The tube made the song less harsh and melodic. Basically, if you want to analyze the song listen in balanced mode but if you want to sit back and relax, turn on the tubes. It was not a big difference but it is evident.

For an old guy I was able to navigate through the user interface with no issues. I was able to find the different tube modes easily. Triode was a little crisper than the Ultra linear in the presentation so I did my review in Triode mode. I also found the player to be quite comfortable in the hand and as stated before more portable than my other players. There were times that the screen was not sensitive enough as I found myself tapping the screen several times to change tunes.

All my headphones are easy to drive so I can’t comment on its performance with hard to drive headphones. Hopefully one of the other reviewers can do that.

Sorry I have gone on too long so I will stop here. This was my first formal review so was not sure on how long it should be. If you are interested in my thoughts for the other tunes I compared, just send me an e-mail.

I also compared the following tunes, Right in the Middle by Luther Vandrose, Sun is Shinning by Bob Marley and Feeling of Jazz by Wynton Marsellis.

I did send two questions to Andy so perhaps he could post the answers here.
  • Can you tube roll and does it have to be sent to an authorized dealer?
  • As it has wi-fi, is there a plan to allow Tidal in a future upgrade or does the hardware limit that ability?
The bottom line is this is a very good sounding DAP and yes I would buy it for portable use. Thanks for the oppotunity to review this player. Joe
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originalsnuffy

Headphoneus Supremus
Cayin N3 Pro
Pros: Fun tube sound
Cons: Runs very hot. Slow to boot into menus. Some mild sounds in right channel when playing music after warm up.
Cayin is running a US tour of the N3Pro. I was lucky to be on that tour I haven't been on a US tour since the i3 unit, which had a mellow warm sound and I liked it.

So a little about use cases is in order to provide a review. It used to be I purchased hi res units in order to get better sound than the ipod or iphone. Full stop. Then units started adding support for streaming music, and the game changed. So in today's market there is a large class of units that can bypass Android audio limits and stream Tidal, Amazon HD, etc. Most of these kinds of units can also store music to the memory cards for offline playback.

So there are two classes of units now; Android and what is probably Linux with a custom UI. Some Linux machines stream Tidal but no other services; and since I don't use Tidal that feature is of little interest to me. But those machines have to add something special to stand out since they don't have Android. In the case of the N3Pro, that something special is the integration of tubes into the unit. Now this is a hybrid tube - solid state design; but when tube mode operation is selected, one does get the warmth of pleasant sound and attendant extremely mild nuances of a tube. Now I actually started out my audio life with a tube amp so I can appreciate tube sound.

There really is only one interesting playback mode on this unit. Tube / Triode. Full stop. End of story. The other ultralinear tube mode sounds somewhat disengaged. At least compared with the close in intimate soundstage of the Tube / Triode made. And hey folks don't bother with your balanced connection headphone jack; tube mode is single ended 3.5mm. I did check out the solid state mode and it sounded fine but so does every other unit at this price point.

What is the downside to Tube mode? It takes a while to warm up. There is a mild ringing noise of some kind in the right channnel at first also. But most importantly, this unit gets really hot. Like you don't want this in your hand or pocket hot. Don't say I didn't warn you. But on the other hand it does sound sweet and warm and lots of fun.

So if you are into Tube sound and can take the heat this unit is worth a look. If you tend to put your DAP down on a table when listening your will be fine. I liked it but not enough to get past the heat issue and inability to access Amazon HD downloads.

It seems like apples and oranges to compare it to my Cayin N5II as that is an early Android unit. But since I can only use the n5II in single ended right now it seemed like a fair comparison. The balanced output has gone to Cancun with Ted Cruz until I send the unit to the factory for repairs. The N3Pro wins in tube triode mode; and its a push when it comes to solid state.

Its also a push in solid state with the HiBy R5. Frankly, I did not spend much time on solid state mode because ladies and gentlemen Tube Triode is what you want and what you need.
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