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. 




















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