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Cayin N5 DSD Lossless Music Player

  1. twister6
    Top Mid-Fi DAP performer!
    Written by twister6
    Published Sep 11, 2015
    Pros - 2.5mm balanced output, usb3.0 interface, dual microSD cards, premium solid build, great sound signature
    Cons - firmware is still work in progress, a bit heavy for its compact footprint, dust cover could be shorter to leave usb port open

    Before I start my review, I would like to Thank Cayin for providing me with a review sample of N5 in exchange for my honest opinion.  Since Cayin is working on their official English product page, you can read more about it in details here.
    Also, since N5 firmware is still work in progress to fix a few issues and my review unit was part of pre-production batch (early version of scrolling wheel), for now my rating stays at 4-stars but I'm planning to revisit it once I'll test a production quality unit with an updated firmware.

    Ever since its announcement early this summer, N5 has been at the top of my highly anticipated new releases list.  To be honest, after seeing preview pictures of N5, for some reason my mind went into a "wishful thinking" mode wanting this model to be an upgrade from N6.  With dual microSD card slots, USB3.0 interface, additional 2.5mm balanced wired HO, a new high end DAC, and a slimmer premium design - it's hard to accept that N5 supposed to be a step down from N6, though you do have to realize N5 cost is nearly 1/2 of N6.  So what exactly did Cayin cooked in their lab and what kind of a sound performance should we expect from their new DAP?  Let's take a closer look to see what I found after spending over a week with this hot new audio gadget!
    There is no surprise N5 arrived in a premium packaging with a formal "tuxedo" dressed box cover and black-on-black print on the top, whereas the back of the box had a detailed overview with a list of Main Features and Dimensions.  Still, it wasn't on the same gift-box level as a packaging of N6 - a clue from Cayin that N6 is still considered to be their flagship premium model.  Cayin made it very clear about model numbering where C corresponds to their line of portable amplifiers and N corresponds to their line of DAPs, and incremental numbering corresponds to the ranking among the models.
    But regardless of the model number or the rank in Cayin food chain, I still enjoyed the unboxing experience of lifting the box cover and taking this new DAP out while feeling the weight and the cold touch of its aluminum alloy body.  Of course, the first impression is how solid and premium it feels in your hand and how much smaller and thinner it is in comparison to N6.  I guess I can't avoid a comparison to N6 which going to be a common theme throughout my review.
    cayin_n5-01_zpsgm37fopi.jpg   cayin_n5-02_zpsjkgnwv3d.jpg
    cayin_n5-03_zpsqkgpo56m.jpg   cayin_n5-04_zpsuh9ndpvs.jpg
    Looking at the accessories, Cayin included an extra screen protector (with one already applied), a short coaxial to 3.5mm interconnect cable, a premium quality USB3.0 cable (for those not familiar – it’s a split connector with a standard backward compatible micro-usb 2.0 port, and high speed data micro-usb3.0 port), and a comprehensive manual.  Due to my N5 being pre-production unit, it arrived without silicone protection case, but all the production models will have one included as part of the accessories package.  I'm sure it will be similar to N6 silicone case, or any basic silicone case offered with other DAPs - providing an extra secure grip and a basic scratch and bump protection.  It almost feels guilty to cover design details of N5 with a bland silicone skin, but due to a slick carbon fiber back and beveled edges, N5 feels a bit slippery in your hand, thus an extra grip of silicone case is more than welcome.  Also, hopefully down the road we're going to see some aftermarket leather case options.
    cayin_n5-05_zpsfvqikbu4.jpg   cayin_n5-06_zpst5gwhvhw.jpg
    When it comes to a design, Cayin paid very close attention not only to internal components but also to exterior details.  I mean, every company does their best to stand out from the crowd of other similar products, but Cayin is among few companies that makes an extra effort.  You can recognize their C5 amp and N6 DAP from a distance, and N5 follows the same legacy.   Without a doubt sound quality has to be the top priority, but for me personally the ergonomics of the design and “eye-candy” appeal is also very important – it all part of a total experience when listening to the music.
    Looking at the front of N5, the first thing you notice is off-center 2.4” screen (identical quality to N6) with a decorative line pattern to the left of it.  Underneath on the right side you have a scrolling mechanical wheel with a unique surface pattern (for a better grip when turning the wheel) and a multi-function button in the middle.  With my review unit being among first pre-production models, the mechanism of the turning wheel wasn’t finalized and required a little extra pressure for a more tactile scrolling control.  I was told production units have this issue resolved.  To the left of the wheel closer to the edge, you have 3 control buttons with Return/Back functionality, FWD skip/fast forward, and REV skip/rewind functionality.  All the buttons feel solid, no rattling or shaking, and all have precise click action.
    The back of N5 has a gorgeous carbon fiber plate with 3D pattern and a golden text labels on top which have a “floating” 3D effect.  There is nothing on the Right side, and the Left side has Volume up/down buttons and M-menu button.  Volume up/down works as a regular volume control when screen is on, and when screen is off you short press them to change loudness and long press to skip tracks fwd/rev.  Menu button brings up different menu content depending on which screen you are in, and functions as Play/Pause when screen is off.  These buttons also feel solid and secure, and with a precise tactile response.
    Top of N5 has a power button in the right corner, your typical long-press to turn the power on/off and short press to turn the display on/off.  To the right of power button you have 3.5mm dedicated coaxial port, and next to it is a shared HO/LO 3.5mm port; these 3.5mm ports seems to be metal gold plated.  All the way to the left you will find 2.5mm balanced wired TRRS port, a “luxury” made popular by Astell & Kern premium DAPs.  I know some people are not big fans of 2.5mm balanced connection, but the only negative comment I hear is thinner connector being more fragile or people trying to stick 3.5mm into 2.5mm port.  In my opinion, thanks to A&K the aftermarket is filled with 2.5mm cable options.  Also, benefit of 2.5mm balanced vs 3.5mm single ended is noticeable enough when it comes to higher power output and more expanded soundstage.  Plus, Cayin used a hard plastic durable connector for their 2.5mm port, and it looks like it can withstand the abuse if someone trying to jam in 3.5mm plug.
    The bottom of N5 has a Reset pinhole, which btw I haven’t had a need to use yet, and a dust cover for USB3.0 port and both microSD flash card ports.  I like how once microSD card is fully inserted, you can still see about mm of the card sticking out so it’s easy to push it with a finger nail to eject the card.  Since the card slot is slightly recessed and because there is a dust cover – such design with a card slightly sticking out is secure and convenient.
    What I found a little bit of an issue is micro-USB 3.0 connector which is also recessed.  It’s not a problem for the included cable since it has a slim connector housing, but if you are using a regular micro-usb cable (which is fully backward compatible with usb-3.0 connector) and if you don’t have a longer connector or a slimmer connector housing – it will not engage properly.  Next to the scrolling wheel there is a charging led indicator to let you know when cable is fully connected, and I had to go through a few of my regular micro-usb cables until I found those that engage properly (confirmed by led).  Also, I found it to be a bit annoying to lift dust cover every time I needed to either charge the unit, or to copy songs, or to connect as USB DAC.  Dust cover is great for microSD slots, but I will probably going to cut off the end piece of this rubbery dust cover flap to keep usb port constantly open.
    Overall the design, the hardware controls, and the location of all the ports are well crafted and arranged in a logical way.  I still need to verify the updated scrolling wheel, and also found a few of the spots with sharp edges in my pre-production unit, but I’ve been told it’s already addressed in the production run.
    cayin_n5-07_zpsnopr6mxo.jpg   cayin_n5-08_zpsarordhez.jpg
    cayin_n5-09_zpslkjpkne3.jpg   cayin_n5-10_zpsgf7bwktd.jpg
    cayin_n5-11_zpsr9bkw53p.jpg   cayin_n5-12_zpsgl38m8wm.jpg
    cayin_n5-13_zpsqrw4alix.jpg   cayin_n5-14_zpsawzpuhmu.jpg
    With the exterior design analysis out of the way, let’s take a closer look at what N5 got under the hood.  For those who have N6 or played with it before, you are not going to find any surprises here and will feel right at home.  The GUI interface and the menu selection are nearly identical to N6, while the changes are mostly in Theme graphics.  By default N5 comes with 4 separate themes you can select from the setup menu.
    Themes  (please be aware, the picture quality below is an artifact of my camera under the light and macro-zoom, in reality everything looks hi-res).
    cayin_n5-15_zpshhapww6m.jpg   cayin_n5-24_zpssttowd9t.jpg
    cayin_n5-25_zpsaqaa54by.jpg   cayin_n5-26_zps9kkhhpt4.jpg
    All these themes are based around the same set of 5 menu choices: Music Categories, Music Library, Playing Now, Music Setting, and System Setting.
    Music Categories has a selection of My Favorite (playlist of favorite tracks you can tag from the main play screen), Recent Played Songs (list of your recently played tracks for a fast recall), Album, Artist, Genres – based on the ID tag of the song, and Songs with a complete list of every song in alphabetical order.  Next menu choice is Music Library where you can choose to update song list after copying new songs and can select between Card 1 or Card 2.  I prefer to use this menu for my music browsing because it displays the list with all songs in the root directory and all the separate sub-directories of albums for easier navigation since I'm not too organized with ID tags.  Next menu choice is Playing Now which takes you to the currently playing song.  The same step could be achieved by pressing Return/Back button a few times until you go back to the currently playing song.
    Music Setting menu is filled with a plethora of options.  Gain setting will switch between Low and High gain.  Digital Filter has 5 choices between Sharp, Short Delay Sharp, Slow, Short Delay Slow, and Super Slow.  This filter setting is associated with a new AK4490 internal filter modes that change a sound based on different impulse responses.  To my ears filter changes were very subtle since I wasn’t able to hear any obvious difference.  Next is 10-band EQ covering 31Hz, 63Hz, 125Hz, 250Hz, 500Hz, 1kHz, 2kHz, 4kHz, 8kHz, and 16kHz bands.  In addition to a single custom EQ setting for tweaking, you also get a number of presets covering different genres of music such as Rock, Classic, Jazz, Pop, Dance, Vocal, Blues, and Heavy Metal.  To avoid clipping, EQ selection drops down a sound level by 6dB and allows you to adjust every band by +/- 10dB.  Next you have Play Mode (to select play through, repeat, repeat one, and random).  Output selection switches between Headphone and Line Out output.  Then, you have Break Point resume (on/off), Gapless playback (on/off), Max Volume setting, Startup Volume and Startup Volume value, L/R Balance, Album Art display (on/off), and Lyrics display (on/off).
    In System Setting, you can select a Language, Theme Selection (among 4 previously discussed), USB Mode (DAC or usb storage), Backlight time, Brightness level, Folder operation (on/off), Idle Shutdown and Idle shutdown time, Schedule Power off and the time for it.  You can also format TF (microSD) card, Soft Reset, and access About the Player Menu which going to provide you with info about fw version, total disk memory and remaining memory, legal info, and a very detailed User guide.  Overall, it’s a very comprehensive menu selection, and the whole interface is very mature since it’s based on a fine-tuned N6 firmware.
    The main playback screen is very easy to read and has plenty of useful info at a glance.  The top of the screen has a notification bar (visible from all the screens) which has Volume level, Gain selection, Current Menu, Play/Pause notification, EQ preset name, and Battery status with a graphic view and precise % indicator.  In the middle of the screen you have album artwork (if available) and scrolling name of the song with corresponding bit/sampling info.  The bottom of the screen has playback timeline with a current song location, total song time, and song # among all available tracks in the music library.  Also, in the main playback screen pressing M-button brings up a side menu with Gain selection, 4 playback modes, Favorite tag, and option to Delete the song.  I do have to note that Display color and resolution is top notch with a gorgeous clear screen and with high visibility indoors and outdoors.
    GUI (please be aware, the picture quality below is an artifact of my camera under the light and macro-zoom, in reality everything looks hi-res).
    cayin_n5-16_zpseonq9xyo.jpg   cayin_n5-17_zps2o6pznv6.jpg
    cayin_n5-18_zpssobbqdjj.jpg   cayin_n5-19_zpsqkzgm0nl.jpg
    cayin_n5-20_zpsl4dqlona.jpg   cayin_n5-21_zps7nrgfmie.jpg
    cayin_n5-22_zpsosmd1yty.jpg   cayin_n5-23_zpsshwezor5.jpg
    In terms of specification, I usually don’t like to focus on these details in my reviews since anybody can look it up from various on-line sources.  Plus, often spec numbers can’t really predict a synergy between the audio source and your listening equipment.  But one spec I would like to mention about is a power difference between HO balanced and regular (single ended) outputs where you get a decent 200mW per channel with 32ohm load from 3.5mm output and going higher to 300mW per channel with 32ohm load from 2.5mm balanced output.  Balanced output also improved soundstage width and separation significantly, though at the expense of increased hissing noise.  Hissing noise was a bit of a concern to me, but according to Cayin they are working on a new firmware (due to be released very soon) where this problem should be resolved.
    With a low output headphone impedance of 0.26 ohms and an adequate power, I was able to drive everything from my most sensitivity IEMs to my 470 ohm open back R70x and other “average” planar magnetics in between (EL-8C and PM-3).  And speaking of the power, Cayin was able to squeeze in an impressive 4200 mAh 3.7V li-po battery into a slim body of their DAP.  I’m still running more battery tests, but see no issues with N5 meeting its advertised 9hr playback.  At a moderate volume with a screen off and driving efficient headphones you get a little bit more, while in a high gain and with more screen use the number goes down a bit.  Based on N6 fw update history, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cayin will optimize this performance even further, maybe disabling balanced output circuit when it’s not in use?
    As expected, N5 supports most of the loose and lossless formats under the sun, including up to 192kHz/24bit when it comes to lossless files as well as native DSD hardware decoding of DSD64 and DSD128 file formats.  All this thanks to a new AK4490 DAC, coincidentally the same one used in new AK380.  But I don’t want people to think that a specific DAC selection will turn an ordinary DAP into something special.  It’s all about a proper design, layout, selection of discrete components, filtering, and the most important - amplifier section.  So let's move on to a sound evaluation which I’m planning to cover next.
    Sound Analysis.
    Instead of evaluating N5 on its own, I jumped ahead of myself and got off on the wrong foot by starting comparison of N5 to its older brother, and that turned into a critical analysis.  That’s when I got a reality check – N5 might looks like an upgrade, but Cayin actually took a little different path in terms of sound design to make it less of a bright reference quality DAP (like N6) and more of a smooth detailed DAP for audiophiles on the go!
    After many hours of listening with various headphones in my collection, I found N5 to have a neutral smooth signature with a touch of organic warm tonality.  It has a very clear and detailed dynamic sound with a soundstage that has an average width and above average depth.  N5 is not intended for a critical analytical listening found in summit-fi DAPs, but it's among the best in mid-fi category.  As a bonus, once you move to its 2.5mm balanced output – soundstage expansion can take you even closer to hi-fi level.
    I know everybody has a different reference points when trying to describe sound signature of a DAP.  It’s not an easy task because headphones own sound signature also plays a big role in this equation.  I went through a dozen of full size and IEM headphones with different sound signatures, taking notes while trying to find a common comparison among different DAPs, and ended up with a following conclusion.
    N5 vs N6: N6 is a little brighter, staging is a little wider and deeper, and it has a little better dynamics where in comparison N5 sounds flatter.
    N5 vs QA360: 360 is a little more transparent, less staging depth, and with a slightly better dynamics where in comparison N5 sounds a bit flatter.
    N5 vs X5ii: very similar tonality and sound characteristics, though X5ii staging has a little more depth (marginal improvement).
    N5 vs AP100: sound quality is very similar but N5 sound has an overall tighter feeling and I also found a bit less background hiss.
    N5 vs X3ii: X3 sound is warmer, not as dynamic, and a bit less detailed.
    A very interesting observation here is that it doesn’t matter which DAC was implemented in the design, the final word is up to the amplification section implementation in conjunction with a selected DAC.  Of course, there are variations in sound nuances between all of these DAPs, but in general I've seen consistent results where improved dynamics and sound transparency put N6 and QA360 above N5, and a similar sound and dynamic performance of X5ii, AP100, and X3ii put those DAPs on the same level or below N5.  In no way would I consider “above” or “below” as being an indicator of better or worth.  I have a lot of DAPs in my review collection, and each one has its strength and weakness.  It could be related to a sound signature, or the power output, or the GUI and controls, or just ergonomics of the design.  Some of the DAPs like LP5, which has one of the best sound performances, now collecting dust because it has the worst interface and poor battery life, while AK120ii with the best touch and hw interface – doesn’t get as much playtime because its neutral warm signature works well with my bright analytical IEMs, but not the warm/organic ones.
    N6 became my go-to reference quality DAP because it pairs up well with every pair of headphones in my collection.  And it will continue being my reference DAP, though I might have to revisit this statement if I get a chance to test FiiO X7.  But truth to be told, N6 is somewhat bulky and not exactly pocket friendly DAP.  That's where N5 comes into the picture as an alternative to other FiiO DAPs I have been using while on the move.
    daps_1_zpslndhyjkz.jpg   daps_2_zpsy0yo1ye3.jpg
    Relative comparison to other DAPs is important, but here is in more "brief" details how N5 drives variety of my headphones.
    DN2kJ - some noticeable hissing (but tolerable, and probably will improve after fw update), sound is bright, revealing, not as much sub-bass extension, thinner lower mids and more forward upper mids, extended crisp treble, and above average soundstage.
    PM-3 - drives them with authority, warm smooth sound, nice tight bass, clear (but not as detailed) mids, and smooth rolled off treble (good definition but not as much extension or airiness).
    EL-8C - excellent pair up, tight low end, detailed upfront mids, nicely extended non-fatigue treble, above average staging, and it actually adds body to the sound which I find very important with these headphones.
    R70x - another great pair up, very natural and transparent sound, brings up a lot of details, tight bass, still a decent soundstage expansion, drives these 470 ohm cans like a champ.
    UE600 - surprisingly not as much hissing (my go-to hissing test iems), very nice tight bass, lots of details, smooth performance with a lot of clarity.
    MSR7 - excellent pair up, nice tight bass, very detailed mids with non-harsh performance, treble is nicely extended, non-sibilant, and airy.
    W60 - really good pair up, nicely balanced (sub-/mid-bass) low end presentation, not as fast but well controlled, mids are warm, smooth, detailed, yet slightly recessed, treble is crisp, clear, though not as extended.
    UM Pro 50 - excellent pair up, tight mid-bass impact with a nice sub-bass extension, clear/detailed balanced mids, crispy extended treble, and good soundstage expansion.  I found these to have one of the best pair ups with N5, especially bass performance with an excellent slam.
    CKR10 - another great pair up with a well controlled bass that is not exaggerated, smooth lower mids, bright/detailed and slightly forward upper mids, and extended airy treble.
    N5 + C5 + UM Pro 50 w/Whiplash silver cable
    To see if I can recapture some of the missing dynamics in the sound and improve soundstage width, I also tried N5 with a few portable amps driven from LO and using UM Pro 50 for monitoring.
    w/E12A - sound became a little smother but lost some of the bass slam, also to my surprise a level of details was lost.
    w/C5 - this turned out to be an epic pair up with a full body detailed dynamic sound and a great bass slam, excellent extension at both ends of the spectrum, wider soundstage, and a smooth detailed performance.  I also found a great pair up synergy with PM-3.  Bottom line, stacking up N5 w/C5 yielded a performance equivalent to N6, even with a slight soundstage improvement.
    Last but not least, N5 can be used as USB DAC, taking on performance of an external soundcard with your PC or MAC.  I did test this configuration, but found hissing to be a bit overwhelming.  Thus my only comment is that it works for sure, but we will have to wait for a new firmware upgrade to fix the hissing.
    Prior to my testing of N5, I considered FiiO to be the king in sub $350 price range with their flagship X5ii model.  Now, I'm afraid the king will have to share its crown with N5 where Cayin stepped up to the plate with a premium quality release that raised a new bar in mid-fi DAP category. There are a few challenges it needs to overcome with the upcoming firmware update, and I'm trying to be fair that my review unit had pre-production scrolling wheel (exactly the same situation I ended up with during my X5ii testing).  But other than that we are dealing with a solid performer that shines with its neutral smooth detailed sound signature, very mature GUI interface, high quality premium build, dual microSD cards (2x 128GB of total removable capacity), USB3.0 interface for a fast file transfer, great battery performance, and a bonus of 2.5mm balanced headphone output.  Based on everything I have tested to far, no other mid-fi DAP can offer all these features in this price range!
      Baycode, lalala6, fnkcow and 9 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. fixeman
      @twister6 You mentioned that C5+N5 has a similar performance as the N6 standalone, have you tried the C5 with the N6 as well?
      fixeman, Oct 14, 2015
    3. sstyle
      You should try another silicone eartips - stock for UM50. I also used like you - old version, but new is better!
      sstyle, Nov 9, 2015
    4. kevinkar
      I just received an N5 and I have two comments so far - the carbon fiber plate on the back is just a sticker which is disappointing.  Should have just been a machined aluminum panel instead.  Also there is a small plastic triangle under the scroll wheel which is merely glued in place and fell off.  It's not broken but I'm not sure how I'm going to glue it back on (the glue you use depends on the type of plastic and the wrong glue won't work or will "melt" the plastic.) This isn't a reason to send it back but still annoying.  Under the silicone cover, you don't see it but it's noticeable if you want to show off the player.
      Thanks for the review. It was one that pushed me in the direction of the N5.
      kevinkar, May 6, 2016