Thursday, August 3, 2017

Cayin's N3 Entry Level Digital Audio Problem Solver

Back when I was in middle school listening to music was easy. I had a CD player loaded with my favorite album at the time, Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, and a pair of semi-open Koss TD 75's.

I'd hope on the bus and just listen, occasionally the CD would skip when we hit a bump in the road, but it was smooth listening for the most part. 

Growing up though, I went from my CD player to an iPod Nano, then a ZUNE HD which I sold and replaced with my Hifiman HM 601 and upward an onward to 2013 when I purchased my Hifiman HM 901.

So listening to music on the go has always been a pretty simple part of my life and I've always had one stand alone device to do it. Though these days, for many of us that's not the case. Cellular technology has made huge advancements over years, making it easier and simple to listen on the go! Spotify went mobile in 2010 offering lossy streaming quality.  It was likely that most listeners where still running around 96kbs streaming with them. Which means that a dedicated player loaded with a library of CD quality music, was still the best choice.  The launch of Tidal in 2014 and big improvements to cellular technology changed the industry, Hi-Fi music play back was no longer limited to a dedicated portable audio player. Mobile speeds could now support lossless streaming bit rates. 

Arriving at our present day, enjoying music on the go is still simple affair. Most people are content with their phone, but for those wanting more there are dozens of options available. Since 2015 there have been a few choice for those looking for a BlueTooth Dac/Amp. From the Sound Blaster e5 and the Shanling H3, so the N3 isn't the first product of it's kind. Even today you can find a basic BlueTooth dac/amp for around $100. Though what sets the Cayin N3 apart is that is functions as both a stand alone player and a BlueTooth compatible Dac/Amp. What Cayin has done with the N3 is offer a unique solution. Having had a chance to speak briefly with Andy Kong of Cayin, he informed me that Cayin choose to integrate with instead of choosing to compete against cellular technology. 

Priced at $150, the N3 offers a step up from the more basic portable dac/amps. It's a digital audio player, able to function by it self, with your cellular phone and with your computer! It can be purchased in the US via Amazon and the online retailer MusicteckAside from functionality, I'll be discussing the build quality, user interface, and sound quality over the course of this review.

The N3's build features clean edges and well machined seams, running my fingernail across it's surface I'm hard pressed to find any gapes or weak seams. The player it light, each physical button has good tactility and resistance, the front facing touch interface works well. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to release the left and right buttons, move through the UI as well as double as forward and reverse buttons. Silly me spend 4 days thinking I had to swipe from the middle down to go left?! Thankfully, it's not that complicated. I did how ever accidentally hit the back button a few times in my attempts to move right or forward. The Cayin N3 is well built, it's neither luxuriously vain nor hastily slapped together, rather it's solid assembly sports entry level materials. A good balance of design, functionality and durability.    

My only gripe was the SD Card slot, I had no issue working it but others in my tour group had some difficulty getting a card in an out. By the time I got a hold of the unit I was able to insert an SD card without any issues. I was not how ever able to retrieve it, not a huge deal as I can still access the card from the USB C port.

Navigating the user interface was easy, it's approachable though often a bit time intensive. It's not as robust as the open source RockBox I run on my other digital audio players, but it's also graphic based. Lines of text aren't always everyone's preference. An Cayin met a happy median with the N3's graphic interface.

Visually pleasing and self explanatory, each of the Menu's were labelled correctly. Everything read naturally an operation was seamless. No hiccups or freezes during my time with it. Each menu had numerous options, and the buttons made navigation simple. Although  there were too menu's I had to work back through to get to the home screen. 

My average battery life ranged from as low as 7 hours and upwards of 9. Running the line out drew a little more power than having the headphone amp in usage. BlueTooth also drained the battery quicker than standard usage, non the less it lasted around 2-3 days.  

What I found most impressive was the power out of the headphone port, I had more headroom with the N3 than I did with Hifiman HM 601. The N3 was also blacker, providing more power with less noise. Additionally it had three gain stages, I found my self using the middle two the most. This combined with the precision of the digital volume controls made for seamless level matching at lower levels. In contrast my HM 601's analog volume wheel didn't match as well during quieter listens. An it had more noise with less power output. 

BlueTooth playback did introduce a touch of noise how ever, pair'd with my LG v20 I was easily able to adjust the volume of my music straight from my Cellular phone. The addition of noise didn't haze up the imaging as much as I'd thought, and was mostly harmless. 

An honestly, I enjoyed the BlueTooth functionality the most, I had the convince switching from my internal library of music in Neutron, to streaming from Napster Premium to falling back to the internal library on the N3. While streaming from my LG V20, I could easily adjust the volume on my phone, tweak my DSP settings and scroll through my library of music. Without having to fumble around with a cable sticking out of my device. I also like to do a little photo editing with my v20, an often times I'll rotate my screen to fit the angle I want while editing, a cumbersom task to do with a headphone cord dangling from your phone. The dynamics suffered a little, as quieter passages of music had audible noise mixed in. Still when my hands are busy I enjoy having music playing in the back ground. Even better is being able to keep the N3 and my headphones tucked away safely in my pocket with my favorite pair of headphones plugged directly into the N3. An when I'm ready to really listen to the music, I can terminate the BlueTooth connection and immediately continuing listening straight from the N3 it self. 

Over the course of my week, I listened with both my open back Superlux HD 668B and my heavily modded Audio Technica ES 10, I had no EQ and I tested both the headphone and line level out. 

Clarity is the N3's focus, placing more emphasis on ambient details and individual textures over transients and spacial information. 

You can adjust the sound signature further with a selection of digital filters. Sharp, Short Delay and Slow are the three I found made the biggest impact. Sharp offers the quickest sound and most clarity, though it's often a bit to lean. Slow sacrifices some of the clarity and speed for a more natural sound, Short Delay sits in the middle. Not as lean as Sharp but not missing as much of the clarity of Slow. I enjoyed Slow with my Superlux HD 668B and Short Delay with my Audio Technica ES10. 

Lows are quick an articulate with the N3, with more focus on the attack and decay than on the sustain or release. This makes for an exciting listen, adding additional impact to instruments like the double bass, though low notes on a piano were often too percussive, sounding a little hollow. 

Mid-range is lean, offering a clearer presentation of texture within individual instruments, though the texture can be over emphasized some times. Leading to a thinner timbre, the filters do help regulate and correct this fault in timbre a little. Depending on the track and headphone your listening with. 

Up top the N3 presents has a nice edge. A bit of a tizz to high hats and percussion, this plays nicely with a lot of the thick and dark entry level headphones, but with something more open like the Super Lux HD 688B it's a real distraction. The filters offer the most help here, switching to slow alleviated a lot of the hardness for the HD 668B. Still though I often found percussion, snare drums and tom tom drums to sometimes get lost beneath the energy of high hats and cymbals. 

Imaging is intimate and a little closed in, compared to my HM 601. However N3 is more precise within the space it offers, where as the HM 601 offers a larger more cohesive image overall. Instruments have a very exact presentation as to where their placed in relation to one another. 

The Line out is characterized by much the same qualities though improved, clarity first and foremost but with a more dynamic presentation. Highs maintain a good edge but gain a little air. This added air allowed for a snappier more precise presentation with percussion in particular. Feeding into my Pico Power I also enjoyed a more cohesive image from the N3 as well. It's very pin point imaging isn't as disjointed via the line out either. 

Finally, for those curious the sound of the Cayin N3 was noticeably better than that of my LG v20. In comparison, the V20 is bright strident and often artificial sounding. It has a very dynamic sound, but some how lacks impact and texture, a very incoherent sound signature.  

All in all the N3 presents a smartly voiced sound signature that pairs nicely with both entry and more reference tuned mid range headphones. The almost limitless functionality pair'd with a smartly built and designed package make ownership a no brainier. It isn't a luxury device, but one designed to be an important part of your mobile listening needs bridging the gap between cellular and stand alone music players to create a more enjoyable seamless experience. 

Check out my Head Fi post for more detailed comparisons. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

ZMF Eikon & Atticus

I've had the pleasure to hear many different closed back headphones over the years, the Mr. Speakers Mad Dog modded T50RPs were my first back in 2012. At that time I felt they were too thick and dark, so I sold them and started my addiction for closed back wood headphones with an Audio Technica W1000X. There was something magical about the sound, I later figured that it was the unique resonance of the wood that added a very real timbre to not only the W1000X but many of the other closed wood backs I would own.

Since then I've had a number of both stock and modded wood backs. Ranging from an amazing sounding Lawton Modded Denon D5000, to Denon's own AH A100. Each of them unique and with a beautiful sound signature. While my LA D5000 rivaled my HE 4 in clarity, it was still... lacking. It was a bit leaky, and the isolation wasn't amazing so I wound up selling it. As it didn't offer the isolation I needed so I just continued to use my HE 4 regularly.

Fast forward to now, being a married man, an open back headphone was no longer sufficient. As my wife didn't want to hear the music I was listening to! I returned to needing a closed back that had both the clarity I expected and true isolation. A solution that would only be heard by whom ever wore it, music just for a single set of ears. Having read about ZMF headphones a number of times over the years I was always curious how they sounded. They were well received and featured custom built wood housing around modded T50RP drivers, my interest was immediately piqued. Sadly though I never got to hear any of ZMF's modded T50RP's. I was fortunate enough to start my ZMF experience with Zach's newest in house Dynamics. No longer just selling a "modded" headphone, ZMF Headphones now have their own hand built headphones! Using a driver they developed and wood driver housing they built and designed.

I received two samples from ZMF to listen to, the Eikon in Cherry and the Atticus in Padauk. I was not compensated for my thoughts on either of these. An each can be purchased via their website

The Atticus and Eikon both arrived shipped in their own Pelican Case, padded on the inside and water resistant. I appreciate the decision made by ZMF Headphones to have such practical storage included. The box they came in had practically no information about the headphone aside from the ZMF Logo, which is also featured on the case it self. 

The padding inside was placed without any kind of glue or adhesive. Which allowed me to easily adjust the thickness of the padding to accommodate other equipment placed within the case.

It didn't have any accessories either, just the cable and the headphones. I had an option for cable termination as well, I choose one to be terminated with a 6.5mm output and the other with a 4pin XLR. The stock cable was well built, flexible with a good weight with a matching mini 4pin XLR mounted at the base of the driver housing. Which is excellent! As I have dozens of my own mini 4pin XLR cables to use in place of the stock cable. With so many manufacturers going with modular cables, I'm truly appreciative that ZMF choose the mini 4pin xlr over a standard 3.5mm. A wood owners card was also present within each of the cases as well.

Super thin, smooth, well trimmed on the edges and quite dense. Plus you can still appreciate the grain of the wood it was printed on. The rear side has a spot for your name. It's the little details like this that really set ZMF headphones apart from it's competitors. 

The build quality of each is impeccable. Everything is wood, leather or metal. Part of the appeal of wood back headphones is the build, and Zach's really gone above and beyond expectations! With that impeccable build does come a hefty weight. Switching into my Fostex TH X00 it's obvious how much heavier these are, though over the course of a few hours I don't have any fatigue.

The pads on each are a bit different, thicker pads on the Atticus give it a wider sound stage and a funner low end, while the slightly thinner Eikon Pads bring the drivers closer and improve on the imaging. Both are equally comfortable and the pads looks beautiful. Each set is well manufactured with tight seams and good flexibility to the leather.

A smooth range of motion is a continuous theme for the Eikon an Atticus. The headband adjusts nicely to the shape of my head and does an amazing job of supporting the weight of these headphones. 

The gimbals likewise have a smooth action to them, they hold the cans in place nicely and don't slip as much as you'd think they would. Likewise the cups swivel smoothly without an excessive range of motion. Best of all the pads while well attached to the housing, the pads can rotate a little, which makes keeping them aligned easy. Zach offers the gimbals in both a silver and black finish.

As a whole the construction is rock solid and beautiful to behold. Everything stitched together nicely and every hinge is completely silent. Add in the completely modular cable and ZMF Headphones defiantly set the standard for what I'd like to see from every manufacturer in this price range! 

The same attention to detail and quality in the build is evident in their sound. These two headphones sound phenomenal. In short, the Atticus brings a warm detailed sound with a beautiful mid range and very fun bass within a wide sound stage, where as the Eikon offers a deep detailed refined sound with a touch of warmth and very real to life imaging.
For my impressions I did build a system around the Eikon/Atticus. I ran them entirely though my Ember II running 35R out with a 1944 Sylvania 6sn7 GT white label bottom getter flash tall bottle tube. I also listened to each with an OCC Copper cable I had on hand. I found that with lower output resistance out of my Hybrid Tube the top end becomes metallic and overly edgy on each, energy and tactility is replaced by metallic clanking or banging, a higher output resistance made the sound overly soft and mushy. Running them out of my balanced solid state was better than using the wrong output impedance on my Hybrid Tube, I preferred High Gain with my Audio GD NFB10ES2. Although it really over drove the low end on both. It imparted even more power and slam into the bass, at the cost of some texture and resolve. Same with the highs, my solid state made them harder and more metallic. The Atticus though was more welcome to these changes than the Eikon however. 

The Eikon is more sensitive to both cable and amplifier changes, and suffers more from a the wrong pairing. The Atticus on the other hand really opens up with the right amp or cable and will not punish you for pairing it with the wrong one. Ultimately I achieved the most balanced presentation from both out of my Ember II running 35R out with my 1944 Sylvania 6sn7 GT. 

Mid range on each of these is breath taking, the Atticus has more decay an a touch more resonance in exchange for some of the Eikon's tactility. The inherently warm tone in the body of an instrument seeps out of the Atticus's euphoric presentation. Vocals have both clarity in the lips, mouth and breath with a distinct focus on the body. A captivating warmth from the chest and throat. The sweetness of harmonics pairs beautifully with clear fundamentals in stringed instruments both electric and acoustic. Thick with a precise slam when needed for clear imaging with heavier acoustics. The gentle touch of the body in smaller stringed instruments, and the perfect mix of crunch and creamy sweetness for both soft and heavy electric guitar riffs. Woodwinds and horns are presented with an articulate wetness followed by a beautifully voiced sustain and release. With the Atticus I found the body of the instrument to be in focus without over shadowing the rasp of a bow across string or the breath taken before a note is played. 

The Eikon how ever, doesn't bring the body into focus as much as the Atticus. Rather it brings a very realistic sense of tactility and presence in exchange for a less decay and resonance. A sharper image and faster transients pair with a polite warmth. Both headphones at their core bring out the warmth of the body, but the Eikon doesn't bring that warmth into focus. At it's core the Eikon's presentation has power in the low body resonance and fundamentals of an instrument alongside the tactility and presence of the strings, lips and breath. It's not quite as  beautiful or romantic as the Atticus, which gives it better clarity in very thick mix's. But is also less forgiving of poor recording techniques or mastering. Although different, I felt the mid range of each was technically equal. Ultimately preference will dictate which headphone is better in terms of the mid range presentation. 

Presentation in the lows is less a difference in preference and more about technicalities. The Eikon has a stronger low bass emphasis, fairly linear from 20-100hrz with a gentle slope from there. The Atticus on the other hand, has a prominent mid bass hump from 60-100 with a steeper slope. 

Incredible slam and a thickness to the body of instruments are what that mid bass hump add to the Atticus. The decay does hang a little an audible reverb is present in the bass, giving those low notes an gently evaluated sense of heft and weight. The cup reverb also both softens harder fundamentals and adds a touch of emphasis on harmonics. Riffs on a double bass had a thicker body, more of the instruments natural resonance was present. House Music had a great presentation of that driving rhythmic mid bass, though the bigger deep drops in Drum'n'Bass or Dub Step lacked a little. An I personally found the bass to be a touch excessive for around a fifth of the songs I played. Bigger drums like the Timpani can often be a touch boomy and a tad intrusive. While not lacking details in the low range presentation, clarity could be better. Fret and string noise is evident though often a little diffuse. 

In contrast, the Eikon proves much cleaner and faster throughout it's entire low range presentation. Going to the double bass, there's a sense of power from the sheer weight of the instrument, in addition to the warmth of the body. But unlike the Atticus, the Eikon's cleaner overall bass allows for a touch more detail to be present. Fret noise is more apparent than on the Atticus. This clarity pair'd with the low bass emphasis translates into a nice power. Low notes on a piano really hit you, kick dums slam hard and fast, even bigger drums like the timpani have well controlled boom and gusto. While not as much fun with House and other dance oriented genres of electronica, Drum'n'Bass and Dub Step have powerful, growling deep bass when needed. Finally, the bass at no point ever impede's with the presentation of transients throughout the entire spectrum. I can find no fault with the bass of the Eikon except for maybe being too "boring" for some. 

While the Eikon again brings better clarity and overall transients response in the highs, the Atticus does a bit better with micro detail up top. Not to say the Eikon is lacking, but some breath's, page turns and other top end micro detail is more apparent on the Atticus than it is through the Eikon. However, transients are resolved more clearly with the Eikon, warbling of bells and the release on strings are better defined. Both have excellent extension, with the Eikon having a sweeter more tactile top end and the Atticus bringing a more energetic though darker top end. Though the thicker midrange on the Atticus some times diminish resolve on the top end, unlike the Eikon which again remains exceptionally clear from top to bottom. 

Overall the Atticus presents contrast within it's presentation. Thick powerful lows with a darker but very lively top end. That 10kHrz peak adds a nice bit of energy and micro detail resolve to the beautiful mid range. I really loved the extra edge the Padauk adds as well, while not as balanced as the Cherry Eikon, the Atticus is very exciting! It's a tad more dynamic with it's mid range presentation which contributes to it's magic. The Atticus also presents a wider overall sound stage as well, which again only compliments the more forward mid range presentation. 

The Eikon on the other hand, has a more refined sound. Better resolve and tactility, faster transients, a blacker background, deeper more precise imaging and a powerful well controlled bass. While the sound stage isn't as wide as the Atticus, it's deeper, airy and more believable. The Eikon brings a sense of realism, in contrast to the more engaging euphoric sound of the Atticus. Though it's the little details that push the Eikon above it's brother in my eyes. 

I did wind up purchasing an Eikon for my self, as much as I loved my collection of wood backs the Eikon eclipsed them all. I've since sold my previous wood backs to enthusiast who'll hopefully enjoy them as much as I did! 

Though If I'd had the chance to listen to both three years ago I'd have chosen the Atticus for sure. It's sound really invites you into the music more as a whole, where as the Eikon's presentation is as much about the music as it is about the sound of the individual instruments as well as the process of capturing those instruments. Though, both at their core have a very natural inviting tone. Unlike my HE 4, the Eikon presents the same and in many cases better resolve, but it doesn't force those flaws in my face. These days it's the little details that really pull me in, and the Eikon's ability to politely present everything in a recording that is what I personally love about it. 

In the end I enjoyed both, I found that the Atticus better suits some one whose focus is on the music and not so much each individual piece of equipment in the play back chain. It scales nicely, but also maintains it's beautiful euphoric sound even with less than optimal set ups.  The Eikon on the other hand works best in a system that's been meticulously put together, the right amp, the right cable, the right digital audio converter and the right mastering all together with the Eikon make for an un-believe listening experience! 

Regardless of which philosophy you see hold your self to, both come with my full recommendation. Zach's customer service, build quality and attention to detail make these by far the best Wood Backs I've heard to date!