The Timbre Master
Pros: + Extremely natural and convincing timbre
+ Very musical and engaging
+ Excellent technicalities and transparency
+ Holographic soundstage
+ Powerful for a DAP
+ Solid state and tube output timbre
+ Class AB and A operation mode
+ Dual voltage output mode
+ Balanced and single ended unamplified line outputs
+ I²S mini HDMI digital output
+ Fast and lag free user experience
+ Good battery duration
+ Excellent build quality
Cons: – No dedicated USB type C port or a DC input for charging
– Rather small screen for the size
– Quite bulky and heavyweight
– Very expensive
The N8ii was kindly loaned to me by Cayin, the unit is now returned and I didn’t receive monetary or any other kind of compensation for writing this review.
The price is $3499 and you can order it from all authorized dealers around the world.
DAPs are getting better and better, companies are focusing on the higher end of the market rather than mid priced models while budget DAPs are becoming obsolete as being replaced by the USB DAC dongles.
One of the latest flagships is the eye watering expensive Cayin N8ii, a master quality digital audio player, the successor to the N8.
In order to keep the review short and easy to read, i will be skipping the detailed technical specifications that can be found at Cayin website.
The Cayin N8ii is the first audio player to feature the brand new BD34301EKV chipset by RHOM in a dual configuration and balanced architecture.
Each chip is operated in mono mode which maximizes its performance.
Two low pass antialiasing filters are available for PCM and three for DSD.
Cayin is synonymous with tubes so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the N8ii has a fully balanced vacuum tube timbre circuit through two pieces of KORG Nutube 6P1 double triodes carefully matched and tested for low noise.
An innovative suspension installation is used together with shock – absorption techniques for minimizing the microphonic effect during use.
The user can choose between the vacuum tube or the solid state timbre at his will.
Both timbres can be operated either in class AB or class A mode.
The timbres are used at the pre-amplification stage while the main head-amp is a 4-channels fully discrete circuit with low noise audio grade JFET and BJT.
The amplifier has a dual output mode that regulates the operational voltage to offer two distinctive outputs and this is a novelty that shouldn’t be confused with the gain setting.
P is the standard while P+ is the high output mode that increases handling power up to 1200mW/16Ω from the balanced output.
The P+ mode is not available in class A operation mode.
The N8ii has two phone outputs, one 3.5mm single ended and another 4.4mm balanced.
The latter can be configured as an unamplified balanced line output while there is also a dedicated 3.5mm line output.
The digital interface includes a USB type C port that is used for transport and USB DAC duties.
This is also the charging port so you cannot charge and use it at the same time.
A second USB type C port or a dedicated DC input, like found in the FiiO M17, should have been very useful.
The Cayin N8ii is one of the rare DAPs in the market to include a I²S mini HDMI output.
S/PDIF output is also available via a special USB cable that is not included.
The Cayin N8ii has a Bluetooth 5.0 transceiver that supports LDAC, AAC, UAT, UAT TWS and SBC.
You can also use your smartphone as a remote control via the HiByLink.
Build quality and appearance
The N8ii is made from precisely CNC machined aluminium alloy and gorilla glass with a fine sandblasted finish.
Build quality is just excellent while the appearance is luxurious thanks to the combination of the total black color, the golden volume wheel and the visible Nutubes at the left side of the chassis.
The design is minimalistic but a little aggressive with too many corners and sharp edges.
The N8ii is rather bulky and quite heavy, measuring 147×77.5x25mm and weighing about 443g, but still not as big and heavy as the FiiO M17.
The N8ii comes well packed in tray cardboard box which includes a good quality USB cable, 4.4mm to 2.5mm(F) and 3.5mm to 2.5mm(F) adapters and a luxurious protective case.
The case is made from real leather and has a metal grill on the back to enhance heat dissipation.
Before operation I installed the latest firmware available at that time but since then Cayin rolled a couple more firmware updates that addressed a few minor issues and enhanced performance.
The N8ii is powered by a powerful 64-bit Qualcomm snapdragon 660 processor aided by 6GB of DDR4 ram.
The unit runs a customized Android 9.0 with Google Play pre-installed so you can download all your favorite applications.
Furthermore the N8ii supports Direct Transport Audio (DTA) that enables all installed audio applications to bypass SRC for bit-perfect playback.
User experience was smooth and lag free without any freezing.
I use my DAPs exclusively for music listening but I have also done some internet browsing to test the performance which proved very satisfactory.
WiFi reception is strong and reliable.
I downloaded Qobuz and Tidal while I also played local files from the micro SD card via the pre-installed HiBy music player.
The unit has 128GB of internal memory and supports one card up to 1TB while you can do direct playback from a USB OTG storage.
Operation is done through the touch screen but you can also use the handy hardware buttons, to play/pause and skip tracks.
A multi-color smart glowing home button acts as the sampling rate indicator during payback and also doubles as home/back button during routine operations.
The 5″ OLED screen is not very large considering the actual size of the N8ii but it gets the job done and it has some nice and vibrant colors with good contrast and although the resolution is limited to 720p it doesn’t really matter as it saves some battery.
The unit gets quite warm after a while, especially in the tube mode, but not too hot to handle.
I haven’t experimented with various aftermarket power hubs and never charged during playback so I cannot comment about heating issues under this circumstances.
Audio operation is very simple and straight forward as you can configure almost everything from the drop down menu.
You can choose the desired timbre, the amplifier class, the output mode and gain setting while you have to dig a little deeper inside the menus to select between the two antialiasing filters.
The N8ii has an enormous 10000mAh lithium battery with clever power management.
In real life this translates into a surprisingly excellent battery duration which reaches about 8 hours of continuous playback from the balanced output while streaming over WiFi and with the tube mode always engaged.
A pretty spectacular performance considering all the advanced electronics running inside the DAP.
In order to form a comprehensive view of the N8ii audio performance I have used various earphones and headphones both balanced and single ended.
Notable examples include the Meze Audio Elite and Liric, Focal Clear Mg, Sennheiser HD8XX, HiFiMan Arya V3, Unique Melody MEXT, FiiO FDX and Meze Rai Penta.
The review sample had more than 150 hours of use so I skipped the usual burning process.
Power output should be considered more than sufficient, all full sized headphones were driven quite well without the need to reach more than 80% of the full volume setting.
Switching to P+ amplifier mode raises the voltage swing making the N8ii an even better match for full sized headphones especially the higher Z ones.
Thus said, in direct comparison with the FiiO M17, the latter sounded more effortless and authoritative when used with the DC mode.
The internal noise floor is as low as inaudible and the N8ii is dead silent even in tube mode so it can be used with your sensitive earphones.
Solid state Class AB
This combination is the most linear and transparent so it should be considered as the reference configuration.
The Cayin N8ii is as precise, transparent and technically accomplished as it should be expected from a modern era, flagship, digital audio player.
Uncompromised extension to both ends of the frequency spectrum, absence of unnecessary coloring or added character during the digital conversion, exemplary detail retrieval and resolution, crystalline clarity, fast transients and great dynamic antithesis make for a very convincing and true to the source sound reproduction.
At the same time the N8ii manages to sound utterly musical and engaging with great emotional expression and the most lifelike timbre.
The player is highly accurate and technical but without sounding artificial, analytical or fake, digital imprint is very low and you have to be very attentive in order to spot the slightest treble artifacts.
The DAC itself is not that different from the ES9038PRO and the key point that makes the difference should be considered the cleverly designed pre and power amplifier stages that counterbalance the extreme technicalities by adding the musical character with the natural flavor.
Bass is punchy, tight, fast, well defined and layered with great impact while it stays visceral and full bodied.
This is not a dry sounding player, the mid-range has a lush quality to its texture while treble is equally intense without becoming skinny.
The sound is very coherent so nothing sounds detached or out of place, all frequencies blend harmoniously together in the most natural way.
The default mode soundstage feels well expanded with good depth layering and precise imaging while the overall presentation is holographic and on the grander scale.
Honestly speaking, if it was only for the solid state class AB mode, the N8ii should still be a masterclass level player with a performance to match.
This mode is a true all rounder while it is the most technical without sacrificing in sheer enjoyment.
Listening to solo piano music was a very enjoyable and realistic experience but I couldn’t help noticing a couple of metallic traces here and there and the lack of endgame harmonic saturation.
Thankfully the N8ii had a few more aces under its sleeve to fine tune the sound and cater for different music tastes, including mine.
Switching to solid state class A and the sound become just a little more rich and saturated, notes gained in presence and weight while upper mids and treble sounded more natural.
At the same time technicalities remained almost unaffected, some transparency was lost, transients sounded a little smoother and slower while decay timing relaxed a bit.
Differences were subtle but for a classic music lover made an appreciated difference for the better adding a touch more sentiment, a hint of warmness, leaning the sound signature towards a more refined and natural texture.
Then there was more.
As excellent sounding is the N8ii in solid state mode, the tube timbre is what sets it apart from the competition and while some people are not into tubes and might like to stick with the solid state mode, for the others the Nutubes are where the magic lies.
Returning to the previous musical example with the solo piano, switching to tube mode class AB made for the most convincing and lifelike presentation.
Timbre became even more natural and close to reality, the grand piano sounded harmoniously rich with great tonal integrity and the most saturated overtones.
The slightest digital glare previously present just vanished, upper treble became extremely smooth and natural while mid-range gained in lushness with a singing quality to its texture.
The player sounded cohesive and micro details became more nuanced and blended.
Images appeared larger and three dimensional making for a more convincing soundstage with deeper ambience communication.
If there was a give away compared to the solid state that was mainly some loss in clarity, transparency and overall control, the slightest bloomines to the bass and the softer attack but in the end all the technicalities were still present albeit in a lesser degree.
In tube mode class AB offered better synergy than class A but your mileage may vary and you are welcomed to experiment in order to find your favorite combination.
With the Meze Elite the Cayin N8ii offered great timbre and sound synergy making for a musical experience larger than life, especially suited to classical music.
And although it was evident that the N8ii wasn’t pushing the Elite to their upper limits, the experience was still so intoxicating that I couldn’t resist listening to a whole Beethoven symphony cycle.
Compared to the FiiO M17
The M17 is almost half the price of the Cayin N8ii and while it doesn’t offer the same versatility when it comes to timbre variety, it has the advantage of the DC mode that transforms it into a competitive desktop device.
In this mode it has the edge into effortlessly driving more demanding headphones not only in absolute volume level but most importantly in headroom and authority regarding bass slam, overall control and dynamics.
The M17 is more bold and powerful with slightly better technical fidelity that gives it the edge when it comes to transparency and raw dynamics while at the same time it is not that less musical sounding than the Cayin N8ii in solid state class AB mode.
But when switching to the other timbre modes then the N8ii takes the lead in musicality and naturalness as it sounds fuller, warmer, more lush and not as dry with more convincing timbre and closer to reality.
Considering all the above plus the size and price differences the buyer is called to judge and carefully pick his poison.
(It seems that I forgot to shoot a picture of the N8ii together with the M17)
In the end
Well nothing more left to add here than simply summarizing the pretty obvious.
The Cayin N8ii is an excellent sounding player with a masterclass level of sound quality without any sonic negatives.
It is as great as you could possibly imagine and with so many sound timbres it is very difficult not to find your favorite one.
If you can handle the price and don’t mind the size and the weight then the Cayin N8ii is as good as it gets for a modern era flagship digital audio player.
Copyright – Petros Laskis 2022.