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.
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.
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.
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.
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.