Cayin N3

A wireless Surprise!

PROS: neutral musical tonality, decent output power, unique Bluetooth functionality, compact slim design, battery life.

CONS: capacitive touch buttons.

The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.

Manufacturer website: Cayin, for sale on MusicTeck and Amazon.


Intro.

After a number of successful DAP releases, from N6 to N5 and i5, I was surprised when I heard that Cayin is planning to introduce an entry level audio player. While mid-fi and even summit-fi DAP market starting to feel saturated, entry level DAP pool is already overflowing with mediocre releases. Typically, the cheaper audio players are targeted at consumers who’re not as picky about sound quality, and looking for something compact and convenient, or maybe just a portable digital transport for a DAC/amp. But knowing how much planning and design goes into every Cayin release, I decided to give it a benefit of a doubt, especially after I heard their pre-production unit at CanJam NYC. Even with a beta fw, N3 already showed a lot of potential, and I wasn’t even aware about its secret weapon, thinking BT wireless connection will be only for a pair up with headphones.

Following the CanJam and with a help from MusicTeck, N3 made its US debut on MassDrop where in my opinion the real highlight was the comments in the Discussion section. Andy Kong, who many are probably familiar with as the face of the global Cayin support, started to answer MD questions about N3 which revealed many hidden treasures of this new release. At that point I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this little guy, to be able to use it not only as a portable DAP but also as a wireless Bluetooth dongle which should be able to transmit and to control audio through Bluetooth connection from my phone and other sources. Now, after spending a few weeks with this little wireless surprise, I’m ready to share what I’ve discovered.

Unboxing.

N3 arrived in a small cardboard box with a rather minimalistic cover artwork, though you do get Hi-Res Audio stamp of approval which gives you a clue this is going to be more than just an entry level DAP. Typical of their other products, on the back you will find a list of Main Features with the highlights of the design, each one accompanied by a small graphic thumbnail – more indication that you are dealing with a fully loaded portable DAP.

Packed tightly inside of the box you will find a secure foam lining surrounding N3, a manual, and a box with accessories. Overall, this is just a typical unboxing experience of a portable DAP. The box didn’t have N3 picture, keeping it as a surprise until you get everything out, though later I realized that a circle with N3 on the cover could have been representation of a round multifunction button found on the front of the DAP.

Accessories.

When it comes to accessories, most of the companies are selective to distinguish their entry level from mid-fi and summit-fi products. But still, even in comparison to their higher-level models, Cayin didn’t cut too many corners here. You get a decent quality usb to usb-c cable, an extra screen protector in addition to the one which has been already applied, two hi-res stickers for those who want to showcase it, and a silicone case. Pretty much all the essential accessories.

I think that silicone instead of pleather case was one of the indicators of lower model, though I hope Cayin will offer a pleather/leather case for N3 as an optional accessory in a near future. Also, an armband or a case with a clip to use N3 while exercising would be a great idea! For me personally, I’m enjoying N3 naked with its slim metal body and a pleather non-slip back cover. I found silicone case to be a little slippery, though it does offer a scratch resistance and a basic bump protection.

One accessory I did miss from i5 is micro-usb to usb-c adapter, very convenient when you are traveling and only have access to more common micro-usb charging cables. But either way, I do highly recommend to purchase a few of these adapters which could be found on eBay or Amazon for a few bucks.

Design.

Known for their artistic design style, Cayin DAPs always stand out from the crowd, but here they decided to cool things down with a more generic look. With an exception of a large round button on the front, there is nothing that really jumps out at you from the first look. I assume it was done intentionally to simplify the design down to a slim pocket-friendly shell. Everything is well laid out and all the controls are highly functional and right under your fingertips.

The footprint of N3 is very compact, measuring only 100mm x 54mm x 13mm and feather light at only 100g. It felt very comfortable in my hand, and I enjoyed the solid aluminum metal chassis and a textured pleather back panel. As a matter of fact, this is the first time where I prefer to carry a portable DAP naked rather than inside the case because you still get an excellent non-slip grip and the pleather back adds enough friction when placed on any surface so you don’t have to worry about N3 sliding or scratching anything.

The focus of N3 front panel is 2.4” display with 400×360 resolution. It’s a small display with a lower resolution, but you’re still able to view clearly the cover artwork embedded into your songs, and overall it had a decent contrast even for an outdoor viewing. Underneath the display, right in the middle you have a large round multi-function button which is easy to access and comfortable to use with a nice tactile feedback when clicked. This was probably one of my most used buttons since you can turn the screen on without a need to reach for a power button, you can use it for Play/Pause in a playback screen, or use it to select and to change options within menu settings.

That round physical button is surrounded by 4 capacitive touch buttons, 2 on each side. These have a built-in haptic vibration feedback to let you know when they are tapped, or you can disable haptic feedback to extend the battery life. The upper left is your menu button which brings up number of shortcuts accessible within playback screen as well as other options in different screens. The upper right button is your Return/Back to a previous screen as well as long-press to get to the Main menu screen. In lower left/right corners you have multi-function direction buttons which are used to scroll through vertical and horizontal menus, skip to the next/prev song, or long press to fast forward/back. While the location and the placement of these capacitive touch buttons is convenient, I would have personally preferred physical buttons or maybe even a D-pad around the center button. At the beginning when I started using N3, I had a number of mishaps where I skipped (or restarted) the song while accidentally brushing over these buttons, but after awhile I became more aware and careful when moving my thumb.

On the left side, you will find a separate power button and joined +/- Volume buttons, all with a nice tactile response and click action. On the right side, you will find 3 separate HW playback control buttons with Play/Pause in the middle and Skip Next/Prev above and below it. Under a normal operation with a screen off, you can easily change the volume and skip through songs using these buttons, and it’s very convenient to use these buttons when paired up with another source to control playback remotely.

It’s also worth mentioning that N3 headphone jack supports CTIA headphones, those intended for smartphones with in-line remote where you can Play/Pause and Skip songs right from the headphone cable without even touching N3. This becomes very convenient when your DAP is in the pocket or if you find an armband to keep N3 while exercising. Also, the headphone jack can be configured from within settings menu to function as either HO or LO. And since USB-C port has a digital out, with an optional type-c to spdif cable you can use N3 as a digital transport. Furthermore, USB-C port can be used as a digital input to turn N3 into usb-DAC. And last, but not least, this type-C usb connection also supports OTG to expand your storage capacity.

Under the hood.

Despite being considered as an entry level model, you will find AK4490EN DAC and OPA1652/1622 opamp, just like in i5 design which explains sound similarities when comparing these DAPs. With this configuration, you get plenty of power (130mW per channel into 32ohm load, with output HO impedance of less than 1ohm) to drive even some demanding headphones, which I’m going to cover in my pair up section of the review. Also, the Bluetooth wireless functionality is covered by advanced Qualcomm BlueCore CSR8811 multi-function chip supporting apt-X.

There is no internal storage, but you can use a single microSD card up to 256GB and expand your storage further with USB OTG support. For a compact pocket DAP, this is plenty of storage for a high-res library on the go where N3 supports DSD256 as well as MP3, FLAC, WAV, AIF, and other popular formats. And with a battery capacity rated at 12hrs, though in my testing with mixed lossless and lossy files, screen off, and haptic feedback disabled, I got somewhere between 10-11hrs, you’ll get plenty of playback time before running out of juice.

cayin_n3-40

Page 2: GUI.

Page 3: Sound analysis, Comparison, Pair up, Connections, and Conclusion.

42 thoughts on “Cayin N3

    1. two different signatures. PICO is more neutral-reference, brighter tonality, less bass impact, while N3 is warmer and more musical. Keep in mind, no display on PICO, but I love them both. PICO is the smallest hi-res DAP i have seen/heard.

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  1. Hi Alex, if you have money just enough to buy one of these two, which would you chose: Fiio X5 2nd gen or Cayin N3? I’m thinking on buy the N3… Tks a lot for the review.

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      1. Sonically, I still prefer N3 tonality, just better layering and separation of the sound. You can follow my comparison of N3 to X5iii and in my X5iii review the comparison of X5iii to X5ii… Cayin did a great job tuning N3, considering it sounds almost the same as its big brother i5.

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      2. Thankyou, for responding. I had purchased Cayin N3 based on your review according to which Cayin N3 beats X5ii and even X5iii despite those dual DACs. After reading the review i thought maybe the DAC is not everything as sound quality also depends upon implementation and internal tuning and maybe this is where Cayin N3 shines over the Fiio …

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      3. N3 sound shines not because of the DAC, but their internal headphone amplifier section. Cayin been in business long enough, designing desktop system, so they know their analog circuits pretty good. FiiO is a great consumer electronics company, but they need to raise their head-amp game. I love X5iii with their E12A portable amp, when you by-pass their internal head-amp through Line Out.

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      4. Hi, i was running DSF files on Cayin N3(high gain) with my audio technica m50x and i started playing with the S/PDIF settings on the N3 during playback. I just wanted to know whether a headphone can be damaged if the S/PDIF setting is touched during playback. Your response will be greatly appreciated

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      5. It’s a good idea to play with port settings when song is idling, just hit that play/pause button 😉 But s/pdif is your digital output from usbc interface, nothing with headphone output, so you are ok. But be careful when you switch between a shared HO and LO.

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      6. I have one last question, sorry for being so bothersome. I have some SACD DSF files and i played some DSF files on ‘high gain’ at volume levels 60-65. Can ‘High gain’ damage my M50x Headphone or the inbuilt amp-section on N3?

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  2. Hi.excellent review as always.
    Did you tested dsd and flac 96/24 files with n3?
    I use fiio x3ii+ e12a and despite good sound quality,i am not satisfied with processing heavy files and it has jitter and lags.
    I am looking for a more powerfull player in processing audio files.
    Thanks

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    1. I have a rather small collection of high res files, but n3 handles both dsd and flac with ease. It supports up to dsd256, actually native decoding and played flac well too, no buffering/stuttering issues. I think the issue with x3ii that some of the formats get converted to pcm and not handled natively.

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    1. A5 is a little more neutral in comparison to N3 built-in amp section. Personally, I prefer E12A, still my favorite neutral amp for IEMs and efficient headphones. A5 doubles the power of E12A and adds a touch of body, but still more neutral than N3. A5 and E12A are great if you want to hear the true sound of your DAP’s internal DAC 😉

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  3. “and then you can connect your wired headphones to N3, and use N3 playback controls and volume to control Spotify streaming directly from your N3”

    Hi thanks a lot for your review, can you advise any difference on the sound when Bluetooth from phone to N3, against play the same song directly at N3?

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    1. It will depend more on headphones than sources in this case because you are comparing direct wired connection to N3 vs wireless connection from phone through N3 or even wireless connection from N3. Bluetooth 4.x is not perfect and there is some compression after all. So, a revealing signature wired headphones will retrieve more details in comparison to a wireless connection and wireless headphones which are typically not on the same level…

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  4. Heya Alex.

    Quick question, in your comparisons you spoke of the M1s. Do you mean M1, or M2s?

    If you had to buy only 1 of the DAPs you’ve mentioned, largely based on sound quality, which 1 would you pick?

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    1. Hahaha, that’s a problem with too many X-series and M-series daps from different manufactures 🙂 This one is Aune M1s model. Purely on sound quality, N3 it is. It sounds amazing, but I’m not too crazy about those front touch buttons. My ideal portable dap would be with a sound of Cayin N3, design of Shanling M2s, and additional balances output based on Aune M1s. How about that!!! But seriously, M2s design with low impedance HO output and sound quality of N3 would be ideal.

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      1. Oh right! Haha, yeah damn all these similarly named DAPs!

        Really, you’d prefer the M2s design? I agree that it looks nice, but how easy would it be to control once stacked with an iDSD, for example? Of course, you could use Hibylink to control it…but I don’t think I would want Hibylink to be my PRIMARY interaction with the device.

        Last Q…you haven’t perhaps hooked up the N3 with the Fiio A3? I’m just wondering if the A3 (in your opinion) is a better or worse sounding amp (or no change at all) than that of the A3. The reason I ask is because I plan on stacking the N3 with the A3 for portable use as my Pinnacle P1 is a bit taxing on DAPs, so looking at using the A3 to extend battery life a bit as well as having a nifty little bass boost at hand when wanted.

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      2. have no idea where a3 is now (I have it under their original name, before they changed their naming). But I remember it didn’t sound as good as E12A, though I like E12A because it’s neutral, while other people want to add some color to their sound so A3 will be perfect 😉 Why not trying P1 as is from N3? and compare to A3. At the end of the day, it’s not what I like or prefer, but what YOU like and enjoy 🙂

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  5. I have a E10k and a Sen HD 598 SE. Considering Cayin has a good built in amp+Dac, would it make signficant difference to sound by connecting it to an external DAC like E10k. pleae advise. I am planning to buy Cayin soon.

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    1. e10k doesn’t have a resolving/clear sound. It’s ok, but at the lower budget end… Also, don’t think you can connect E10k to N3 through usb. Maybe through USB OTG connection? But then, e10k could be drawing too much current for it. If you want to use N3 as a pure transport to drive external amp/dac, better use their special usb-c spdif cable which puts out digital output. Don’t recall if E10k has spdif input (it has been a long time since I played with it). If it does, the connection will be easy to N3. But then, it will downgrade the sound because N3 sound is superior.

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  6. thanks for your advise. In that case – I will probably use E10k only for laptop/desktop purposes – it still does drive my cans.

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  7. Two final questions. 1. Can N3 drive the power of my Senn 598 SE through its built in DAC or would you recommend me to use a good IEMs that N3 drives well?
    2. What are the ways in which I can connect N3 to my Iphone SE? Would appreciate your valuable advise on these 2 questions as well please.

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    1. there are multiple hundreds of headphones out there. All depends on your budget, anywhere from $100 to $3k 😉 Another problem, I have been focusing lately mostly on flagship IEMs, and those are very expensive. $1k and up. But you can get something more natural and at a decent price, like NEW Primacy 3way hybrid ($300). Or, a crazy budget earbuds by VE Monk, those are $5 (if your ears fit earbuds) – very good sound.

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  8. Has anyone noticed that the newer build of the Cayin N3 Sounds a lot better than the earlier builds even after I updated my firmware to N3V2 my wife’s N3 still sounds more detailed more real and natural and sweeter than mine:(
    so looking to see if I can trade mine back for newer build.
    Also GRADO SR80 and higher headphones work so well with the N3, more vivid, detailed much quieter background

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  9. After applying the N3V2 and testing again I think the two Cayin N3 sound similar now I realized mine was like actually two versions behind. So all is good. Definitely get the new Firmware the improvement is NOT SUBTLE

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  10. would you pick this over the fiio x3ii. I’m in love with the x3’s warm intimate sound sig. unfortunately it doesn’t have aptx which I really need at the moment.

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    1. I like more revealing forward sound of N3, so for my personal taste prefer it over X3ii. But if you like the sound sig of X3ii, past weekend FiiO already announced X3iii which going to look similar to X1ii and will have dual aptX BT similar to N3 and also will add 2.5mm balanced output, while price remains $199. You might want to look into that, though I’m not 100% sure if the sound sig will be the same.

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