Cayin N3Pro

Cayin N3Pro

5 March 2021 0 By Petros Laskis

A dap for the tube lovers.

Pros: – Excellent sound quality
– Tube stage with two timbres
– Four different sound signatures
– Powerful from the balanced out
– Fully balanced line out
– High resolution bluetooth
– Great build quality
– Two digital outputs
– Usb otg

Cons: – Tube stage power is limited
– Doesn’t support streaming services but for a good reason
– USB dac input doesn’t support Android
– No Android OS
– Search bar too small to read

This review is part of the Cayin N3 Pro loaner tour and reflects my subjective and honest opinion of it.
Thanks Cayin and Andy for making it happen.

Introduction

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

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Technical specifications

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

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

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

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

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

Physical specifications and battery

The unit measures 115×63.5×18.9mm weighing 195gr.
It is quite a thick one but this was to be expected in order to accommodate the two vacuum tubes and the large 4100mAh battery.

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

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

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

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Regarding I/O

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

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

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

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

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

Wireless

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

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

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Brief operation and user interface description

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

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

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

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

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

Listening tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Solid state mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum tube mode

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

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

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

Ultra linear mode

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

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Triode mode

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

At the end

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

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

Copyright – Laskis Petros 2021.