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Cayin N8 DAP

Rating:
4.75/5,
  1. cleg
    Player with unique style
    Written by cleg
    Published Feb 19, 2019
    4.5/5,
    Pros - sound (two flavors), driving power, firmware, emotions, connectivity, accessories set
    Cons - no streaming media, faster treble attacks, size (but that's unavoidable)
    1-Main Pic.jpg
    Last year Cayin celebrated the 25th birthday, and because of that, they have decided to produce several top-tier devices that would be able to show their gained experience and potential. Cayin N8 is one of those devices.

    I got this DAP as a loan from my friends at Era-in-ear.com, they are Cayin distributors in Ukraine, and I like to thank them for an opportunity to review N8. The player will be returned to them in a few days.

    After seeing the first photos of this DAP, the audience’s feelings have been mixed because of the unusual design of the player. However, after Cayin has begun selling the device globally, the feedback has become different as It has been understood that the player sounds good. Cayin engineers have decided not only to release an advanced device but also to achieve the almost impossible task - to create a portable player with tube output. This achievement has become possible with the help of Korg company, that provided its NuTube micro-tubes. Of course, it has not been an easy task to achieve this, beginning from unique mounting that protects tubes from vibrations and hits and ending with a peculiar cooling system that is a must for vacuum devices. I think it won’t be a spoiler to say that they have succeeded in all these tasks and now the N8 users can switch between tube and non-tube amplifier. Of course, it is true only for 3,5mm output because it would have been impossible to place another 4 tubes for balanced output as well.

    2-Box.jpg

    Of course, the pricing is not small - 3300 USD before taxes, but will it stop any true audiophile?

    Packaging and accessories
    From all “big 3” players Cayin has the record size of packaging - the manufacturer has decided not to save on appearance and premiumness. The player is sold in a big box of a cubic form with the silver slipcover on the top of it. The box is opened diagonally to show the device itself immediately. After the unpackaging is done the owner also understands that Cayin also holds the record for accessories number. Here you will find:
    • leather case;
    • protective glass;
    • quality USB-C cable;
    • 4.4mm to 2 3-pin XLR connectors to use the balanced line out;
    • 2.5mm adapter to use headphones with a balanced connection;
    • two USB-C adapters to use for coaxial output (for RCA and 3,5mm input);
    • a couple of Hi-Res stickers
    3-Accessories.jpg

    Such accessories set makes Cayin N8 the leader of the portable world in terms of matchability as digital or analog transport in a home audio system.

    Design and controls
    This part has raised many questions right after Cayin has announced the device. N8 looked strange on photos. However, when you see it in person, it has its charm. It is rather large in all dimensions, and it can be hardly called portable, especially if we compare it to devices that comfortably fit in jeans pockets. Its body made of polished steel looks interesting. I want to say that it is invincible, but am not sure that the back panel made of rounded Gorilla Glass, won’t take damage in case of fall. I think it is better not to test it and use a leather case from accessories. It is notable that the back Gorilla Glass cover has an oleophobic coating that prevents it from collecting multiple fingerprints.

    4-Overview.jpg

    Of course, the knobs on the right side have been something that got many arguments right after announcements. Especially the gold coating has been in question. Upon seeing it alive, it turns out they are not that bright and perform their tasks well. The upper knob is used to change volume and turns DAP on and off if pressed. The one located a little below works as a joystick that can switch tracks when moved up and down. If pressed, it pauses or resumes the playback. My only slight complain to those elements is that they are a little wobbly and easy to press which may lead to unplanned turning on or switching of the tracks.

    Other control elements are divided between different sides of the player. There are several outputs on the top of Cayin N8 - 3.5mm line out, 3.5 mm headphone, balanced Pentaconn (can also be used as a headphone out) and a balanced variant of line out. The recent switch to 4.4mm balanced jacks appeals to me - it is technically more reliable, and a better contact area is good as well. Also, it is perfect to have a "real" balanced line out which Cayin have taken advantage of.

    5-In Case.jpg

    The lower side of the DAP sports the reset hole (I have forgotten about it almost entirely with other players), microSD slot (the internal 128 GB are good but sometimes are not enough), I2S micro HDMI output and USB-C. The last one is, of course, multi-functional and universal - charging, USB-DAC mode, work with external DACs, work with USB OTG and even digital coaxial output. The DAP has an impressive battery of 7000mAh, but there are no records in working time from a single charge because of high power. The playing time is approximately 9 hours in the single-ended mode using standard amplification and approximately 6 hours using balanced out in HIGH2 mode. The full charge using usual 2A charger takes a little more than 6 hours, but fortunately, the player supports QuickCharge that allows to quickly charge it from 20 to 80 per cents in just 2 hours or fully charge it for 4 hours 40 minutes.

    The screen takes the central part of the front panel. It is not so impressive as in other DAPs of this segment - just 3.2’’ but is suitable for all the tasks - the view angles and color rendering are reasonable, and it is bright enough to work under the direct sunlight (however you may still want to cover it by your hand when looking at it), the taps are registered well. Due to the smaller size the borders around it may cause some irritation among those who love the perfect elegant design but we, the audiophiles, are not touched by those slops. Especially when we see the mystical light of tubes just below the screen where Cayin engineers have left a designated gap…

    6-Button.jpg

    Just below the gap, there is a triangular button with a multicolor indicator that shows the resolution of played files, bringing shame in the form of red and yellow for those who do not listen to Hi-Res. A single short press of the button brings you back to the playback screen, and a single long press brings you to the main menu. By the way, if you get tired of indicator, it may be switched off in preferences.

    I will not draw any conclusions here because tastes differ. However, I rather liked the DAP upon using it than not. It looks respectable, however vintage.

    7-Rear Case.jpg

    Firmware
    Although on the website Cayin calls their firmware Cayin OS it is clear that they used Hiby services to develop it. You can judge even by the inclusion of Hiby Link functions. Also, it strongly resembles something we had seen in Cayin players before they decided to switch to Android. As you may understand on this point, there is no OS from Google here. Good news for haters, bad news for streaming lovers. However, Cayin has said one may stream right to the DAP using LDAC protocol that works well both sides in N8.

    Upon the whole, the firmware is rather usual, and if not, 5 minutes are enough to familiarize yourself with it. Just after power on we get to the Menu screen. There are media library buttons in the upper part of it and track information right below them with the ability to go to the playback screen. The media library is familiar - folders, playlists, artists, albums, all songs, and genres. It seems like software engineers randomized their choice of icons for different genres because it is funny to see a cocktail glass with Metal genre and Jazz genre represented by a violin. All in all, the media library works as usual, and you can also remove files and add them to playlists. Of course, the library update might be quicker, but it is at least not slow.

    The playback screen brings no surprises - big album cover, playback buttons. Swipes to the left and the right allow seeing the text if it has been built-in to tags or additional information about the track. You can also use the context menu with such parameters as playback order, removal of the track and adding to the playlist.

    8-Knobs.jpg

    The main screen also benefits from the swipe system. Swiping down from the top of the screen can show you the quick preferences panel - there are different sound switches here: Tube/OPA, gain, power and so on. You can also change screen brightness and watch player information.

    Swiping from the bottom will bring two buttons - sound and system preferences. There are no surprises here. In sound preferences you will find the playback order, remembering of volume and position of current playing track upon power off, gapless mode, digital filter, and others. In system options, there are Bluetooth and Wifi preferences, power-off timers, firmware upgrades, choice of buttons that may work with locked screen, language choice. As you guess, Wifi here is only for firmware upgrades.

    The firmware itself is stable and functional. I have not encountered any problems during its use.

    9-Rear No Case.jpg

    Sound
    During the test I have used the following headphones: iBasso IT04, Meze Empyrean, Audio Zenith PMx2, Noble Kaiser Encore, Campfire Audio Andromeda and Solaris, Unique Melody Mason V3, HUM Pristine and others.

    Cayin has indeed decided to create a unique player and of course they have created the unique sound as well, comparing to other top players. As a result, we get a very emotional DAP that sometimes sacrifices neutrality to stay emotional. It is absolutely needed to understand that this DAP brings 3 variants of sound. The balanced output sounds similar to 3.5mm in solid-state mode. The main difference is in more power in balanced mode (and slight hiss) and slightly wider soundstage. The 3.5mm output is more interesting in this regard because of its tube output. The amplification mode may be switched from the menu, and tube amplifier starts with 5 seconds delay that is needed for tubes to get to the working mode.

    The difference between tube and the solid-state sound is not that striking, however notable. By default, N8 offers dynamic and emotional sound with lots of macro-details, and NuTubes do what everyone expects them to - make sound softer, slightly deprives it of aggression on upper mids and make the overall sound signature warmer. Upon the whole, the default, solid state, sound appeals to me more, and I will describe the sound below in this mode. However 10-15% of music win from tube mode (mainly jazz and blues).

    I even don’t know if it is worth speaking about such things as resolution and detail levels here. The player deserves its top status and has no problems in this regard. Therefore I will not make accents on it.

    Bass is well-texturize, has good dynamics, depth, and energy. Cayin N8 slightly enhances bass, and this makes instruments utilizing low frequencies sound a little more forward. Of course, the DAP is not for bassheads. However, the bass is presented in a way that gives a good base for any melody. Of course, a high level of bass control gives the instruments a good body.

    Mids are a little sacrificed here in terms of micro-details in favor of macro-details. Of course, N8 has good contrast, but due to enhanced emotions and overall immensity of mids presentation, the smallest nuances of music remain unnoticed. However, it does not prevent the player from sounding natural and transmit a high level of details. However, the emotional tracks benefit here a lot. The soundstage is good with almost maximal depth, and sometimes the DAP even enhances it. The width is slightly below the maximum level but is still very good and one of the largest in the portable world.

    Highs are almost perfect, except one thing. In general, highs are what make top devices different, and I pay more attention to this frequency range (especially when we speak about flagship devices). Here we find highs of a good length, excellent detail retrieval, and outstanding layering. Of course, treble sounds very natural with good decays, and the only downside is somewhat reduced attacks that bring a little more aggression than needed. However, I think this was the intention of Cayin sound engineers.

    10-Compare.jpg

    I will not compare Cayin N8 to any other device firstly because it is much better than players of more affordable segments. Lotoo Paw Gold (non-touch) is similar in terms of presentation but lacks in macro-dynamics, so it has no sense to speak about it. Other “big 3” members - SP1000 and LPGT offer different sound concept - less emotional and slightly more natural, so this comparison is no good also.

    Compatibility
    As you may understand N8 has enough power to be used with almost everything, including hard to drive isodynamic variants. As for sensitive headphones, they are better to be used with non-balanced output to avoid noise. The models with neutral sound will benefit from use with N8. However, this is rather personal.

    In terms of style the player is universal, but again, in emotional compositions (from vocals to heavy genres) it will truly shine to its maximum. It, however, is subjective too. As any top device, it is susceptible to record quality - approximately 9 out of 10.

    11-With Mason.jpg

    Traditionally, several example tracks

    Dream Theater — This is the Life Progressive metal is always a trial for any player. On the one side, it should be played technically, on the other - emotionally. However, as you understand, it is the ideal task for Cayin N8 with its emotional presentation. It makes this track sound very dramatic.

    Röyksopp — In Space Recently I often come across those northern geniuses of electronic music. Another track that suits N8 well. Somewhat enhanced lows in combination with great soundstage let Cayin shine here.

    Steven Wilson — The Day Before You Came This is the excellent cover version. Steven has made this disco track to sound like rock ballad with a good portion of melancholy. N8 in tube mode sounds great, making the guitar more vivid and vocal sound natural.

    Conclusions
    Cayin has not only made a top DAP, but they have also shown their vision of what the uncompromised portable source should sound like. As with any product of top quality, the result may not be welcome for 100% audience, but those who understand it and can evaluate what Cayin have done, will not stay untouched, especially when they have the love for emotional presentation.

    As usual, this review is also available in video format.


    The more detailed comparison of three TOTL DAPs

      fokta, Hanesu, Vartan and 2 others like this.
  2. twister6
    Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde.
    Written by twister6
    Published Dec 6, 2018
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Solid State and Vacuum Tube (Korg NuTube) amp outputs, High Output mode, solid stainless-steel build, responsive interface, plenty of digital and analog outputs, selection of custom cable adapters, duplex LDAC Bluetooth support.
    Cons - price, weight, touchy up/down dial, 5sec tube warm up delay (more of annoyance than Con).


    The product was loaned to me for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion. The review was originally posted on my blog, and now I would like to share it with my readers on head-fi.

    Manufacturer website: Cayin. Available for sale on MusicTeck.


    Intro.

    I was introduced to Cayin products over 4 years ago when I reviewed their portable C5 amp which I still use to this day. Ever since that review, I had the opportunity to test and to review all their portable DAPs and was always pleased with their products and associated price/performance ratio. But Cayin is not only known for their Portable HiFi audio, but also many award-winning desktop sources and amplifier systems they have been designing and manufacturing over the last 25 years since 1993 when Zhuhai Spark Electronic Equipment Co., Ltd. (Cayin parent company) was founded.

    Cayin Family.

    cayin_n8-00.jpg

    While I consider myself to a be a portable gear audiophile, focusing more on DAPs and IEMs, it doesn’t stop me from admiring (read it as “drooling over”) the elegancy of desktop systems when attending CanJam NYC in the last two years. For anybody who visited Cayin table during these or other audio shows, you can’t deny being captivated by the design of their HA-1A and HA-300 tube headphone amplifiers where they used only the best possible material and the top of the line components. And I’ll be lying if the wish to see this cold stainless steel with a warm tube glow in a pocket-friendly design never crossed my mind.

    Apparently, Cayin had this on their mind as well, preparing to introduce the latest TOTL flagship N8 DAP on their 25th anniversary. But the idea behind this release was more than just "spare no expense" for the best material and the top components. Cayin wanted to be unique by challenging themselves with being the first manufacturer to introduce a portable DAP with dual sound signature design based on using both solid state and triode vacuum tubes.

    I do have to warn you, this is going to be longer than usual review. I get pinged every day by many of my readers, and aware that choosing a flagship TOTL DAP is a journey. Even regardless of a small selection of options, people still spend months researching and comparing. Therefore, when I talk about the Design, I don’t just describe what you see, I go into details of how it functions, and Under the Hood doesn’t just list the spec but offers my opinion about it. Some might even find the GUI section useful, so you can get a good idea about the SW/FW features, and Pair up section is massive, so you can get a better feel about the sound. Overall, the review is clearly partitioned with bold headlines, multiple pages, and the index of where you want to jump if you prefer to skip a section. So, get some popcorn and let’s take a closer look at what I found after spending the last month with N8.

    Unboxing and Accessories.

    As usual, I would like to acknowledge the packaging details since I see that Cayin put a lot of thought into the presentation of their latest flagship product, besides just a protection during the shipping to your doorsteps. N8 arrived in a large size cube shaped box with a silver outer shell that had a cutout window at the top, revealing the sketch drawing of the DAP on top of the actual storage box. I thought it was clever to have the storage box cover open along an angled line instead of the usual boring straight cut, giving it a little more dramatic opening presentation. With N8 out of the secure foam storage tray, you quickly realize the heft of the weight in your hand, but more about it later.

    cayin_n8-01.jpg cayin_n8-02.jpg cayin_n8-03.jpg cayin_n8-04.jpg cayin_n8-05.jpg cayin_n8-06.jpg cayin_n8-07.jpg cayin_n8-08.jpg cayin_n8-09.jpg

    What impressed me the most was not only the presentation of the box, but the content of the included accessories where you know right away you are dealing with a premium product.

    As expected, you will find a very comprehensive Users Guide, along with a warranty and QA certificate, and a few hi-res audio labels. Underneath the foam tray with N8, you will find another storage tray with a tempered glass for the display screen and a leather case (probably pleather?) next to it. I know that my review unit is part of the early production batch where the case had a bit of a fit issue. But I have been reassured by Cayin that issue was corrected moving forward. In the same tray there was a premium braided Type-C USB cable used for charging, data transfer, and USB DAC connection.

    cayin_n8-10.jpg cayin_n8-11.jpg cayin_n8-12.jpg cayin_n8-13.jpg cayin_n8-14.jpg cayin_n8-43.jpg cayin_n8-44.jpg

    All these accessories are useful for any DAP, but Cayin went a step further by including custom adapter cables as a bonus accessory kit. You’ll find Type-C USB to 3.5mm coaxial cable for S/PDIF coax output (popular with Chord DACs). You'll get Type-C USB to RCA (female) coaxial adapter for S/PDIF coaxial output. You'll even get a rare custom 4.4mm to balanced XLR adapter to use with balanced Line Out. Also, you'll get a premium right angled 4.4mm (male) to 2.5mm (female) balanced headphone adapter to connect 2.5mm TRRS terminated headphones with N8 4.4mm balanced output.

    Keep in mind, Type-C USB coax adapters here are custom, to be used only with Cayin DAPs where coax connection is brought up to USB-C connector. These will not work with your smartphone or other USB-C equipped devices.

    cayin_n8-15.jpg cayin_n8-16.jpg cayin_n8-17.jpg cayin_n8-18.jpg cayin_n8-19.jpg cayin_n8-20.jpg cayin_n8-21.jpg

    Design.

    I know we all have different opinions, but I always find Cayin products to have some original design elements which make them stand out from the crowd where you can't mistake it from a distance, even inside the case. N8 is no exception. Of course, there is a personal preference if you like it or not, and there is no argument that the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. You can judge it from the pictures in this review, but also keep in mind that pictures not always do the justice to the actual product.

    cayin_n8-22.jpg

    Out of the box, you are looking at a DAP with a dimension of 128mm x 70mm x 21mm and a noticeable weight of 380g. Obviously, it's a portable device, and you can carry it in your pocket. But it's not going to be the same experience as carrying N5iiS in your pocket due to the size and the weight. The shape of N8 is asymmetrical, not an issue to hold it in one hand, but I do strongly recommend using the included case to enhance the grip since it has a slick all stainless steel PVD coated chassis and a curved Corning Gorilla 3 glass on the back.

    The focal point of the design is 3.2" IPS touch screen with 480x360 resolution, a triangular Home button with a multi-color smart LED behind it (different colors corresponding to sampling rate, could also be disabled), and 2 knob/dial with a silky-smooth gold finish on the right side. The overall size of the top glass screen is about 4.5", while the actual visible display area of the touch screen is 3.2", a physical triangular home button underneath of it, and a sloped down beveled edge of the chassis extended below it. I personally find the shape of the Home button to be quite original, no other DAP has anything like that.

    Left side of the DAP has no controls. At the bottom you have Reset pinhole, I2S Digital output port, micro-SD card spring loaded open port (supporting up to 512GB cards), and Type-C USB port for charging (supports QC2.0 fast charging), data transfer, USB DAC input, and digital output with provided adapters. The I2S Digital Output via HDMI Type-C connector adopts the pin definition of PS Audio I2S system. This interface is not compatible with standard HDMI audio/video interfaces, and Cayin can't guarantee compatibility with other equipment brands supporting I2S digital interface. But they certainly do guarantee compatibility with all Cayin DACs that support this interface.

    The top of the unit has headphone and line out ports. First is 4.4mm Balanced port which is shared and can be selected between Headphone output (1.2ohm impedance, 122dB SNR) or Balanced Line Out (4.3V output). The balanced headphone output is only connected to Solid State amp. Next to it is a single ended 3.5mm Headphone output (0.6ohm impedance, 120dB SNR) which can be selected as Solid State or Tube output. Since this port already shared between two output signatures, there is a separate dedicated 3.5mm Line Out port next to it, rated at 2.1V.

    In the upper half of the right side you have golden Volume knob which also doubles as a push button power and screen on/off control. It has a nice click action as you turn in, and it’s easy to operate with a thumb, but I wish it would have a better-defined diamond-cut texture around it to enhance the grip. Also, since this power button is sticking out, you need to be aware not to push it accidentally in the bag which going to turn on the DAP. No issues with “accidental” shutting down since it requires Power Off confirmation.

    The Playback Control Dial has a spring-loaded mechanism where turning it up/down skips the track, while pushing it works as Play/Pause button. Play/Pause operation is very useful since it’s very easy to find the dial, but I found that skipping tracks was easier to operate with N8 in front of me, rather than blind in my pocket. Especially when you are trying to fast forward/back through a track, it’s easy to misfire and skip the track by mistake. Also, in a pocket there is a higher chance of accidental pressing of Play/Pause.

    A very simple workaround is to activate Key Lock to lock individual Volume control, Play/Pause control, and up/down Skip control. If you prefer to carry your N8 in a bag or a backpack, the easiest solution is to disable external controls through Key Lock and use HibyLink to control the playback from your phone or while streaming apps from your phone to N8. When you are listening at home or at work, you have more control over external playback/volume dials. The key here is to find what works better for you depending on how you are planning to use Cayin N8.

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    Under the hood.

    In the heart of N8 you have a dual AKM AK4497EQ 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. To support the size of all these high res files, N8 offers 128GB of internal storage and micro-SD card expansion with up to 512GB (more flash cards supporting it now). Plus, you can add storage via USB OTG.

    As previous mentioned, the display is 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. The embedded artwork looks good with deep rich colors, viewing angle is great too, thanks to IPS display, and visibility even in a daylight wasn't too bad at all, though I did have to bump the brightness a bit higher. One surprise was a massive capacity 3.7V 7000mAh battery to support all the analog and digital circuits, including NuTube. The battery is massive but thanks to Quick Charge QC2.0 support the full charging takes just a little over 4hrs.

    Regarding the battery life, in a worst-case scenario using 3.5mm output and switching between Tube and Solid state (the only time when I had the screen on) while playing a mix of mp3/flac files, I was able to get around 8 hours of playback time in HIGH2 mode. Switching to a standard mode gives you approximately one more hour and using only Solid-State output adds more time to battery life. This is a desktop grade (tube output and high output mode) performance DAP which obviously going to be power hungry. Of course, with a bigger battery you can last longer, but I assume the battery selection was based on a space limitation inside the DAP. Considering plenty of power hungry heat generating components inside N8, even for a worst-case scenario this is not a bad playback time. And speaking of heat generation, Cayin applied a special Panasonic heat absorption PGS (pyrolytic graphite sheet) to the components with a high heat generation to direct the heat energy to stainless-steel chassis, turning it into a heat sink.

    The internal circuit topology of N8 is split between Solid State output, offered from a balanced 4.4mm HO and a single ended 3.5mm HO, and Vacuum Tube output from a single ended 3.5mm HO. I'm sure some will question why no balanced output using Vacuum Tubes? Cayin is the first manufacturer to implement Korg NuTube 6P1 (https://korgnutube.com/en/) (a dual channel triode vacuum tube) in a DAP design. NuTube takes more room and drains more battery, and there was not enough space inside of N8 to accommodate 2x NuTube tube modules and a bigger battery. Besides, even for a single-ended output, NuTube amplifier soundstage can rival some other balanced DAP outputs I've tested in the past.

    cayin_n8-61.jpg

    Btw, one of the reasons NuTube hasn't been used as widely in portable audio designs is because of the microphonic effect associated with it. To resolve this problem, Cayin designed a custom-built shock-absorption silicone housing and a spring-loaded suspension system. Also, you need to keep in mind, we are not talking about a conventional fragile glass vacuum tube. While NuTube operates exactly like a triode vacuum tube, the tech behind it is based on a vacuum fluorescent display technology, like LED. These NuTube modules require less power than a traditional vacuum tube, smaller in size, have a much higher reliability with 30,000 hours of continuous life expectancy, all that while still providing a sound characteristics of vacuum tube sound. And just like with a vacuum tube, there is a warm up period. In case of NuTube it’s 5sec, where every time you pause the DAP and hit play or when switching between Solid State and Tube you must wait 5sec for a warm up. It's a bit annoying, but I'm sure it preserves a battery life.

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    Another interesting feature of the design is High Impedance High Output mode where both amplifier outputs (solid state and vacuum tube) can either work in a standard mode or with a boosted power supply driving the amplifier circuit. In theory, the advantage of this mode is when you are using N8 to drive high impedance more demanding headphones, while low impedance IEMs shouldn't be affected. In practice, I did hear a difference which I noted in the pair up section of my review. The output power rating of N8 is very impressive, where in standard mode you get 230mW (SE) and 480mW (BAL) while in HIGH2 mode you get 400mW (SE) and 750mW (BAL) under 32ohm load. Or when using 300ohm headphones (load), you can expect 50mW (SE) and 200mW (BAL) outputs. This is very impressive for a portable DAP.

    Cayin N8 also features Bluetooth v4.2 with aptX (in Tx only) and a dual Tx/Rx mode. This means you can pair it up with external headphones, speakers, and use N8 as a wireless Bluetooth DAC paired up with your smartphone or tablet, to stream audio directly or through apps. Furthermore, it also supports WiFi to retrieve OTA (over the air) firmware updates. But you can also update the firmware by downloading the files directly from Cayin website and doing a local update.

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    GUI.

    Cayin continued their partnership with Hiby Music, and N8 interface has an all new updated look. Please keep in mind, this custom software was optimized for maximum audio performance and it's not Android based. Also, I like covering details of the interface and settings because I get asked many questions about supported features, and sometimes I don’t have DAP in front of me (or the battery needs to be charged), or in case with N8 it will have to be sent back after the review and I won't have future access to it.

    The new N8 GUI is split into two main screens to simplify the navigation and operation. The so-called Home screen has a clear layout when browsing songs by Folders (to access your local storage, micro SD card, or attached USB OTG storage, as well as scanning the music), Classify 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 list), and Genres (based on id3 tag). Underneath of browsing section, you have an area for the currently played song with an artwork thumb (if one is embedded), name of the artist/song, file type and remaining time, and Play/Pause button. You can skip the song by swiping left/right. By tapping on the song or pressing Triangular Home button, you can get to Playback screen. To return to Home screen, just press and hold Home button.

    In Playback screen you have a more expanded view of embedded artwork if one is available. If not, Cayin has their own picture artwork. 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 vs 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 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), enable/disable Tube (when using 3.5mm output), switch between STD or HIGH2 outputs, Headphone or Line Out selection of balanced output, Enable replay gain, switch USB mode (data or usb DAC), digital output selection (S/PDIF or I2S), and DSD output (D2P, DoP, or Native). 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 selection of Music Setting, System Setting, and About. About gives you a model number, local and micro SD storage info, fw version, and WLAN/MAC address and OTA.

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    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, Crossfade on/off, L/R Balance, PCM digital filter (sharp or slow - surprisingly not all AKM filters are available), 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 aptX on/off), Language selection, Font Size (small, middle, big), 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 Up/Down skip - each one can be enabled/disabled separately), Led on/off (for triangular home button), Idle shutdown and time, Scheduled power off and time, Reset, and System upgrade.

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    With every menu choice under Music and System setting, 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.

    Within weeks of its release, Cayin already had fw1.1 update available, and at the time of writing this review fw1.2 should be just around the corner. Just like with any initial fw release, nothing is 100% perfect, but based on my experience with previous Cayin DAPs they do listen to customer feedback and pay close attention to bug reports. Based on my testing of the initial fw1.0 and follow up fw1.1 update, it already felt like a mature firmware, I didn't experience any crashes, and it already has most of the promised features.

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    Sound Analysis.

    There is a good reason why I titled this review as Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde. While many daps are relying on a sound signature of the DAC and solid state opamps used in phone amplifier section, here Cayin gives you a choice of two audio signatures based on amplifier section, Solid State and Vacuum Tube. And on top of that, you get HIGH2 (High Output, High Impedance) mode where thanks to their two-stage power supply control used with line driver and internal headphone amplifier circuit you can change the sound characteristics further when increasing the supply voltage of all OPA1622 SoundPlus HiFi OpAmps from TI.

    Even with all these variables, it’s clear that 3.5mm Solid State (SS) output has a typical Cayin house sound signature with a fuller body sound and a more neutral resolving tonality. This neutral tonality leaves more headroom for warmer “changes” when switching to Tube output. It has a very precise layering and separation of the sounds, typical of AK4497 DAC performance I’m used to, and a very good soundstage expansion and decent imaging even for a single ended output.

    When switching from 3.5mm SS to Tube, soundstage perception widens (becomes more holographic) and the sound becomes a little more laid back. Tube sound change is not very drastic, but it’s noticeable enough with addition of a more analog flavor to the sound where the tonality becomes more organic, more natural, a little warmer and smoother, especially in mids where I hear a fuller body with a more forward presentation, and treble where I hear a little less sparkle. The change in the sound here is more of a refinement by taking the edge off the digital colder tonality. At the same time, the sound is still very dynamic and resolving, and the blackness of the background is not affected too much.

    In a summary, the tube output adds warmth and analog texture to the sound and brings mids a little more upfront without adding a distortion or taking away resolution. But don't expect Tube output to have a more pronounced “tubey" sound associated with desktop vacuum tube amps.

    When you compare 3.5mm SS (single ended) to 4.4mm SS (balanced), you can hear more power where I had to turn the volume down. Soundstage is wider, and it sounds to me like it has the same width and holographic expansion as Tube output. Other than that, these Solid-State outputs are very close in tonality and presentation. The only difference I hear is soundstage expansion and output power.

    In some pair ups, going from Standard (P) output to HIGH2 (P+) gives you an improvement in bass response with a deeper lifted sub-bass rumble and a stronger mid-bass slam. Plus, I hear more body in the lower mids. In some cases, it even improved the soundstage expansion. For more details please read my Pair Up section of the review. As I mentioned already, this mode boosts the voltage of headphone amplifier stage which changes the characteristics of opamps. While this mode was implemented specifically to drive more demanding higher impedance headphones, surprisingly I also hear improvements with average and low sensitivity IEMs.

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    Comparison.

    During this test I was using 64audio U18t w/EA Leo II cable, volume matched in every comparison. I will only focus on sound characteristics which is still the most important factor, but you must factor in all the features. At the flagship level many manufacturers have DAPs with excellent sound performance, but there are still variations due to a difference in sound signature and soundstage expansion. And of course, you need to figure out your requirements regarding the internal/external storage capacity, battery life, support of hi-res formats, output power, direct or remote streaming, access to apps, Bluetooth protocols, etc. In the comparison below, I noted if I was using N8 in either Solid State (SS) Balanced (4.4mm) or Tube Single ended (SE). And the same with a DAP of comparison, either SE or BAL.

    N8 (SS, BAL) vs A&K SP1000 SS (BAL) - In this comparison N8 soundstage is a little wider and the sound is more holographic. In terms of the performance, these are very close, everything from layering of the sounds to their separation and dynamic expansion, but there is a difference in tonality. SPK is a little smoother and has a little fuller body sound, while N8 is a little leaner in comparison and has a more reference tonality with a little stronger mid-bass punch. SPK SS with its earlier fw1.06 used to be on par with N8 (or maybe even brighter), but A&K follow up fw updates (at fw1.11 now) made the sound smoother, especially with a warmer upper end. With Tube output, N8 becomes smoother and warmer, adding a little more body in lower mids than even SPK CU.

    N8 (Tube, SE) vs Sony WM1Z (BAL, direct source) - In this comparison I still hear N8 having a little wider soundstage. Tonality/signature is close, but N8 is a little warmer, smoother, and has more analog flavor, especially with a little more laid-back presentation of the sound. With N8 having more analog flavor and warmer sound, in comparison to that I hear 1Z having better separation and more precise layering, just keep in mind when comparing N8 with solid state – the performance is close. But under the original test conditions, they both aim for a smoother, fuller body, more analog sound, but NuTube gives it additional dimension and pushes it further. Though, when you enable Vinyl Processor digital effect on WM1Z, you get the tonality closer to smoother-analog flavor of N8. Maybe it’s not totally the same, but it’s closer in tonality.

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    N8 (SS, BAL) vs iBasso DX200Ti (amp8, BAL) – In this comparison N8 soundstage is a little wider with a more holographic perception. Technically they have a very similar performance, perhaps with N8 having an upper hand in layering of the sounds, but I think it's due to N8 having more revealing tonality in this comparison, where DX200Ti w/amp8 is warmer and smoother. Of course, you tip the scale in the other direction when you use N8 with Tube output where the sound is smoother and warmer in comparison to amp8.

    N8 (SS, BAL) vs L&P L6 (3.5mm) - with an exception of N8 soundstage being a touch wider, in this comparison I hear nearly identical sound, both in terms of tonality and technical performance. As expected, Tube output will change the sound, but when you compare the solid state N8 output to a lower impedance single ended output of L6 (it’s balanced output has high impedance) – I hear way too much similarities in tonality and technicality.

    N8 (SS, BAL) vs N6 (3.5mm) - It has been a long time since I re-visited N6, and I was surprised to hear how wide and expanded its soundstage is, almost on par with N8. N6 sound tonality is brighter and more revealing, while N8 has a more natural tonality with a fuller body sound. In terms of technical performance, I hear N8 as having an edge with better layering and separation of the sounds, plus N8 sounds a little more dynamic. Another difference, which is hard to ignore, a higher level of hissing in N6 when tested with sensitive IEMs.

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    Pair up.

    This test is going to be different from my usual pair up analysis. Due to dual output mode with Solid State and Tube amplifier and the variance of HIGH2 output (P vs P+), I felt like I’m dealing with 3 different sound performances I need to cover in pair up. Thus, for every IEM or Headphones under the test, I will describe how it sounds being used with Solid State (SS) or Tube, and I also will note Single Ended 3.5mm (SE) or Balanced 4.4mm (BAL), as well as P vs P+. I also mentioned in every test which cable I used with headphones.

    Regarding “hissing” comment, people look at it in a different way. I call it an “idle hissing” test where I bring the volume down to zero and hit Play to see if I can hear anything with sensitive IEMs (no high impedance DD or full size, those are usually fine). In most of the cases that “waterfall” hissing no longer audible when music volume is up, unless if you hit a quiet passage in the song with not as many layered instruments/vocals. I don’t call it a true hissing test, and of course it has a lot to do with impedance and sensitivity of IEMs. I don’t want to confuse or to mislead my readers, just want you to be aware exactly what I’m doing in this test.

    64 Audio U18t w/EA Leo II - low impedance average sensitivity 18BA iem:
    · (SS, SE, P) - wide soundstage, deep rumbling bass, leaner revealing mids with a slightly pushed back presentation, crisp airy treble. Going to P+ brings up more sub-bass with a deeper rumble, including extra body in lower mids which get pushed slightly more forward. Going to BAL/P+ widens the soundstage.
    · (Tube, P) - the sound is a little warmer, with a fuller body, and a more balanced signature. Going from P to P+ adds a little more body to the lower mids and makes bass go deeper and slam harder.
    · With volume down to zero - hissing hardly even audible.

    64 Audio N8 w/PWA No5 - low impedance low sensitivity 9-driver hybrid:
    · (SS, SE, P) - wide soundstage with a balanced smooth signature, leaning toward the L-shaped. Bass hits very hard and has more forward presentation. Switching to P+ gives bass even more power, pushing closer to L-shaped signature. Switching to BAL/P widens the soundstage, tightens the bass, and brings mids a little more forward, and moving to BAL/P+ gives even more power to the bass slam.
    · (Tube, P) - very wide soundstage with a balanced signature and smooth musical tonality. Bass goes deep and hits hard, feels like listening to big floor speakers, but it's not overwhelming and rather well controlled. Mids are smooth, natural, and very detailed. Treble is crisp and well controlled. Switching to P+ pushes bass a little harder, and I personally preferred going back to P. In this pair up I liked Tube/P the best.
    · With volume down to zero – dead quiet background.

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    Sennheiser IE800S w/stock – single dynamic driver:
    · (SS, SE, P) - a mildly v-shaped signature with a natural tonality, deep extended bass, natural mids, crisp treble. Going to P+ extends sub-bass rumble, going deeper and with more texture. Going to BAL/P+ expands soundstage wider, making the sound more holographic.
    · (Tube, P) - tube output improves the signature by bringing up mids more forward, making the sig more balanced, and making the soundstage as holographic as BAL Solid-state output. P+ makes bass go deeper where I preferred P instead since the sound was more balanced and less fatigue.
    · With volume down to zero - dead quiet, no hissing.

    VE Zen ZOE w/PlusSound Exo hybrid - 320ohm earbuds:
    · (SS, SE, P) - wide open soundstage, warm natural laid-back sound tonality, balanced signature. With P+, I hear more clarity in mids. Very interesting how in these high impedance earbuds the P+ has a different improvement factor. Going to BAL with P+ widens and opens the soundstage more, while the sound is still laid back and organic, but retrieval of details noticeably improved.
    · (Tube, P) - the sound is smooth as a butter, soundstage is open and wide, but the sound became smoother in comparison to solid-state which affected retrieval of details. I think in this pair up due to an already warm/smooth original nature of these earbuds, to my ears solid-state has a better synergy.
    · With volume down to zero - no hissing what so ever (and these never hiss due to high impedance).

    Campfire Audio Andromeda w/ALO SPC litz - high sensitivity lower impedance 5BA:
    · (SS, SE, P) - wide soundstage expansion, deep textured bass, more revealing yet still natural mids, well controlled treble. Going to P+ adds more body to lower mids, making signature more balanced, and making bass more layered and multi-dimensioned. Going balanced expands the soundstage and makes signature more balanced.
    · (Tube, P) - brings mids more forward with a more natural organic tonality, makes treble smoother and more natural, expands soundstage wider.
    · With volume down to zero – a noticeable hissing, also heard in quiet passages of the songs.

    Ultimate Ears UERR w/stock - average impedance/sensitivity 3BA:
    · (SS, SE, P) – above average soundstage, very neutral tonality with a relative balanced signature, and a slight more forward presentation of mids. Going to P+ brings more weight to the lower end, and I can hear more rumble in bass now. Going to BAL expands the soundstage and improves dynamics and layering of the sound.
    · (Tube, P) - the signature is still balanced but the tonality has a little more analog color, more texture, not as neutral anymore. Going to P+ adds more rumble to the sub-bass and more body to the lower mids. This is by far my favorite pair up combination with UERR.
    · With volume down - zero hissing, dead quiet.

    Audeze EL8C w/stock - planar magnetic, full size closed back:
    · (SS, SE, P) - very wide soundstage, brighter and more revealing tonality, with a more mid forward signature. Bass goes deep, fast, textured; mids are lean and revealing, and upper mids and treble don't have any metallic sheen. Going to P+ just adds a little extra weight to the sub-bass, giving it a deeper rumble. Can’t test BAL since I only have SE cable.
    · (Tube, P) - in comparison to solid state, mids come more forward and have a little more body and treble has more control. Going to P+ adds more texture to the sub-bass and a little more slam in mid-bass, and adds more body to the lower mids, giving mid-range a more natural tonality. Tube/P+ is probably the best pair up with EL8C I heard to date.

    Beyerdynamic T5p 2nd gen w/TWag v3 - full Tesla driver closed back:
    · (SS, SE, P) - wide open soundstage, smoother warmer tonality, balanced signature with a great low-end extension. Surprisingly, upper mids and treble here are noticeably smoother in comparison to what I'm used to hearing. Enabling P+ has a very subtle, hardly noticeable effect of just adding a little more texture to the bass. Going to BAL/P gives soundstage a more holographic perception and opens the mids with a more revealing tonality. Switching to BAL/P+ makes bass punch a little harder. Really liked BAL/P+ pair up, keeping the sound natural, balanced, and still with an excellent retrieval of details.
    · (Tube, P) - wide soundstage, with a smooth natural tonality and balanced signature; great sub-bass extension with a deep velvety sub-bass rumble. The sound is smoother and a little more laid back in comparison to solid-state. Switching to P+ gives the sound faster bass punch. While I enjoyed natural tonality of tube output here, I preferred going back to BAL/P+ of solid state output to give the sound a better definition.

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    Oppo PM3 w/stock bal - planar magnetic, closed back:
    · (SS, SE, P) - wide soundstage, balanced signature with a warm tonality, thicker organic mids/vocals, crisp treble. Going to P+ makes bass tighter, punching a little harder and with more control, and makes lower mids a little leaner, giving the sound more transparency. Going to BAL/P+ opens-up soundstage even wider, making sound more holographic, and mids more transparent with an improved retrieval of details. The tonality is still natural, but I hear a lot less coloring and more transparency. Again, probably one of the best PM3 pair ups I heard.
    · (Tube, P) - wide soundstage, balanced signature with a warmer smoother tonality and some coloring. Going to P+ makes bass tighter and mids more transparent, still smooth and natural but less colored and with better retrieval of details. I still like Solid State with P+ pair up better, but this one was pretty good too. For sure, PM3 benefits from higher output voltage.

    Audio-Technica ATH-R70x w/stock SE - high impedance (470ohm) open back:
    · (SS, SE, P) - holographic open soundstage, very natural tonality with a nicely balanced signature. Deep sub-bass rumble, organic sweet mids, well controlled sparkly treble. Going to P+ adds more texture to the bass without affecting mids. Only have SE cable, so can't test BAL here.
    · (Tube, P) - soundstage is as open and holographic, but tonality is a little smoother with mids having a fuller body. It's a very subtle change, more of a sound refinement. Going to P+ adds a little more coloring to the mids, which I wasn't too crazy about, preferring going back to P where the sound was more transparent.

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    Wired and wireless connections.

    Cayin N8 offers a very comprehensive selection of wired and wireless connections. Here is what I tested, and my impressions about it.

    Wireless/Bluetooth.

    Bluetooth Rx with Galaxy S9 smartphone (wireless app streaming) – introduction of BT Rx is truly a blessing for many manufacturers since you don’t need to be responsible for Google Play and supporting various apps. Instead, you let your smartphone handle heavyweight lifting of the apps and pair up your DAP wireless to the smartphone, turning it into a Wireless DAC to steam apps. This pair up was very simple, enable BT in N8, and search for it from your phone. While in BT Rx mode, I was able to walk away from my S9 about 50ft in open space and the connection with N8 was still solid while I was streaming Spotify.

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    With the latest FW2.0 update and implementation of duplex LDAC Bluetooth codec, now you can transmit wireless with a support of up to 96kHz in both Tx and Rx modes and a maximum transmission rate of up to 960kbps.

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    Bluetooth Tx with wireless headphones (with Momentum 2 Wireless HD1) – The dual bi-directional Bluetooth means also that you can pair up any wireless headphone with N8. Once you put your headphones into pair up mode, scan for it from within N8, and connect within second. Make sure to have apt-X enabled if headphones support it. The wireless coverage across open space was like in my BT Rx test, almost 50ft without a problem. While in theory this is a universal BT protocol, I went back’n’forth with Momentum 2 pairs up with my phone and N8 and hear a more balanced sound when paired up with N8.

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    HibyLink between N8 and Galaxy S9 – while some mistake it for a wireless link, thinking it enables streaming from a phone to a DAP, this is just a convenient way to control your DAP remotely where your smartphone becomes a remote display/controller of N8. In case of N8, HibyLink has an added value, especially if you are planning to use N8 as a transport or as a DAC in a desktop setup and can control it remotely from across the room. Plus, as I already mentioned, it’s very convenient to Lock controls, keep N8 in a backpack or jacket pocket, and control it remotely from your phone.

    External AMP pair up.

    N8 + FiiO E12A (3.5mm LO) – while comparing N8/E12A vs N8, I hear E12A pair up to be warmer and smoother, while directly from N8 (using its internal amp) the sound is more revealing and more reference/brighter. I use E12A in this testing with many DAPs due to its transparency, letting me hear the “sound sig” of the DAC. From this testing, it sounds like N8 built in amp brightens the sound a bit.

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    Digital Out (DAC/amp) connection.

    N8 + Oppo HA-2 w/Shanling L2 cable - while I'm aware that I'm suing N8 as a transport and HA-2 dac/amp dictates the tonality of the sound, usually HA-2 with its ESS DAC gives me a brighter sound. Here the sound was quite natural when tested with N8 as a transport.

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    USB DAC support.

    Once you install the latest universal Cayin USB Audio Driver (V4.35.0), N8 is recognized right away when connected to Windows 10 (tested with my ThinkPad T470 laptop). During the playback, N8 was displaying the sampling rate and bit depth of the song and you can control the volume from the DAP. I played many tracks from my laptop using N8 as USB DAC and then compared the same tracks from standalone N8, and I don't hear any sound difference. I know it’s an overkill to use N8 as USB DAC, but for anybody interested it’s available.

    Conclusion.

    While every manufacturer has their own flagship DAP, it seems that many TOTL DAP discussions often start with SP1000 and WM1Z. With Cayin N8 in the picture now, I think you can have the best of both worlds and then some. The reason I’m saying “both worlds” because N8 offers the best of each DAP sound quality fused with Cayin’s own portable and desktop systems by combining the high-resolution dynamic sound of AK4497 DACs, expanded holographic soundstage of balanced and single ended outputs, power of solid state amplifier and analog warmth of vacuum tubes, high output mode of the desktop grade performance, and a solid stainless-steel build quality.

    I always try to stay neutral in my reviews, encouraging people to do their homework, trying to figure out their budget first, trying to decide which features are must have, what can you live with and without, how are you planning to use it, etc. N8 doesn’t make SP1000 or WM1Z obsolete, because each one still offers its pluses and minuses, and you need to do your own homework to decide which one will suite you better. But in my opinion, moving forward the discussion about TOTL DAPs can’t be complete without N8 as one of the serious contenders next to SP1000 and WM1Z.

    Also, the implementation of Korg NuTube in N8 design is not just a buzz word. It’s not coincidental that Cayin was the first manufacturer to implement these in their portable DAP design because they have many years of experience designing desktop vacuum tube amplifier systems and many successful DAP releases in the last 4 years since introduction of N6. Implementation of NuTube was just the next logical step by bridging portable DAPs and desktop systems into a new breed of a portable desktop performance N8 DAP.
      purk, JLW654, Frankie D and 23 others like this.
    1. misteral201103
      Wow. THAT is an exhaustive review. Many thanks for covering every possible angle of this machine!!!
      misteral201103, Dec 8, 2018
      fiascogarcia likes this.