Under the hood.
N5ii packs quite a lot for a mid-fi DAP in its price range. Before looking “under the hood”, the first impression comes from its 3.65” TFT IPS touch screen display with 845×480 resolution. It’s an adequate capacitive touch screen display for navigation of N5ii GUI, viewing embedded artwork of your songs, and running various apps. Also, since it’s IPS based, it has pretty good viewing angles. Does the display crisp enough and has vibrant colors to watch a high res videos or to play demanding games? Not really. In my opinion, with its Rockchip RK3188 processor and 1G of DDR3 RMA it’s probably not a good idea to run anything too CPU/graphic intense. It has a very capable quad-core ARM Cortex A9 processor with a quad-core Mali-400MP4 GPU, but it’s not intended to perform on par with your latest smartphone.
Furthermore, in this design Cayin decided to implement ESS9018K2M DAC along with a selection of high grade TI SoundPlus Audio OpAmps, a pair of OPA1622 for Left/Right channel current to voltage conversion and 3 individual OPA1622 where one is used for single-ended amplification and other two used for balanced output amplification. The design uses separate OpAmp components to keep SE and BAL parts of the circuit isolated and optimized for the best performance. Also, to reduce the jitter when handling different sampling rates, Cayin implemented three separate precision oscillators, covering multiples of 44.1kHz, 48kHz, and DSD signals. Altogether, the hardware can handle majority of lossy or lossless formats from mp3, wma, aac, ogg, ape, alac, flac, aif, wave, and all the way to sacd-iso and decoding up to DSD256.
While running customized Android 5.1, you get a support of BT4.1 and WiFi, and Google Play comes pre-loaded already, so you don’t need to side-load apks of your desired apps. Along with internal 32GB of storage, some of which as expected will be allocated to Android OS, continuing with a tradition of the original N5 you will get 2x uSD cards, supporting up to 400GB each. So, in theory you can have up to 832GB of storage space. More can be added through OTG USB connection, but for a portable use 2 uSD cards can offer plenty of storage, especially if you have a collection of high res FLAC/DSD files.
Internal battery capacity is 3000mAh, which could be charged fully within 3+ hours when using 2A usb wall charger. Cayin is staying consistent with their other designs, continuing using usb-c connector. In terms of a battery performance, I was driving IE800S from BAL output at a regular listening volume level, with medium gain, and audio priority mode enabled, and the uninterrupted playback lasted 11.5 hrs. I consider this as a best-case scenario since I was playing mp3 track. Switching to high res files, at a higher gain, and with more demanding headphones will reduce the battery life, as expected.
In terms of the actual headphone outputs, N5ii packs a punch with SE 3.5mm output rated at 150mW (32ohm load) with <0.4 ohm impedance and BAL 2.5mm output rated at 250mW (32ohm load) with <0.6 ohm impedance. 3.5mm output can also be switched to Line Out with 2V output level. Both headphone outputs have SNR spec of about 116dB-117dB, with a decent dynamic range and a black noise floor, more about it in sound analysis and pair up sections of the review.
Last, but not least, I would like to mention Audio Priority Mode. Not exactly a hardware feature, but a very useful “shortcut” you select from Notification bar to maximize audio performance by disabling WiFi, Bluetooth, shutting down 3rd party apps, and optimizing Android OS by turning off some of the background processes. It’s almost like a hardware acceleration mode to boost audio performance of N5ii. The only concern here, selecting AP Mode also disables EQ which needs to be enabled in future fw updates.
For this test I used N5ii and my aging Galaxy Note 4 phone with Senns Momentum over-ears M2 wireless headphones. With N5ii, I was able to listen to headphones without a problem 28ft away from N5ii, while 34ft away from my Note 4 phone. When comparing the wireless sound quality between N5ii and Note 4, I hear Note 4 to have a fuller body with more bass, while N5ii sounds a little thinner in comparison. Perhaps a difference is due to a lack of aptX encoding support in N5ii.
Using optional CS-30TCR usb-C to coax cable, I had no issues connecting N5ii to SPDIF input of that Micro iDSD BL DAC/amp. You can only use volume control on Micro iDSD, and the sound was very transparent, a typical Micro iDSD sound signature, no distortion or interference noise. I found it to be a flawless pair up with N5ii as a digital transport source.
Next, I tested digital out using usb-c to micro-usb cable (Shanling L2 cable), connecting N5ii to Oppo HA-2 DAC/amp. Once connected, HA-2 was recognized and the message popped up asking to allow Cayin Audio app to access USB device. Some of my cheap eBay cables didn’t work, L2 is high quality and always works. And again, it was a flawless transparent pair up with N5ii as a digital transport source, and I was able to use volume control from HA-2 only.
In this test I used N5ii Line Out to FiiO E12A (my transparent portable amp used for testing since Cayin’s own C5 colors the sound a bit). When comparing N5ii PO vs LO+E12A, I hear the direct sound from N5ii to be a little brighter and more revealing vs N5ii+E12A to have a little smoother body and deeper sub-bass extension. This suggests that internal head-amp section of N5ii makes sound a little brighter and more revealing.
In this test I used ThinkPad T470 with Win10, and installed the latest Cayin USB Audio drivers v4.35.0. Driver install was headache free, N5ii was quickly recognized by my laptop, I found that I’m able to use a volume control from laptop and DAP, and also the sound quality was similar to standalone DAP performance.
With a modified Android 5.1 running in the background, the main interface of N5ii is Hiby audio app, thus once you boot up N5ii, it looks more like a DAP with a dedicated audio interface rather than a smartphone. You are greeted with a main page (top-most Music tab) and Folder view with options to access internal memory, micro-SD cards, or OTG storage. Next to the top Music tab, you have List with favorites, frequently and recently played songs, and playlist. Then, Private Cloud for LAN connection, and Search which brings up QERTY android keyboard (like in a smartphone). Under Music tab, you can also sort by Album, Artist, Genre, and Tracks.
I typically use folder view as my default because I have many loose songs and not too many albums (mostly compilations). Plus, not everything is properly tagged, but when I click on Album all of them show up as a separate thumb with corresponding embedded artwork and number of tracks in the album; while single songs show up as 1-track album, and the rest is under Unknown. Clicking on Artist brings up a list with every artist, and when you click on each, it shows separate songs and albums under that artist. Clicking on Genres, bring up thumbs with common genres (most of mine under pop and dance and classic). Clicking on Tracks brings all the songs in alphanumeric order.
Swiping notification bar down (typical Android feature), gives you a quick access to WiFi, Bluetooth, Gain setting, PO/LO (headphone vs line out for 3.5mm port), enabling Audio Priority mode, USB-C Mode (between USB, MTP, and DAC modes), Idle shutdown, and Scheduled power off. At the bottom, you can also adjust the brightness level of the screen and the screen time out, as well as being able to access the full Android Settings menu by clicking in the upper right corner Setting Icon, right next to battery indicator with an exact percentage of capacity. Those with Android phones will feel right at home, while iOS users will need to spend a little bit of time getting used to it.
Swiping the main screen to the right, reveals more Setting options for Music scan (scan all or the specified folder), a very detailed Music Settings (gain, digital filter, DSD gain compensation, SPDIF Out, Play through folder, Start up and max volume, channel balance, breakpoint resume, gapless, album art, and lyrics display), Equalizer (10band paragraphic EQ with 31/62/125/250/500/1k/2k/4k/8k/16k bands and a few genre-specific presets), Third-party applications (Google Play store and other installed apps), Smart Cleaning (to terminate running application), Download path/manager, Sleep Time/Scheduled Power off, and About section (useful to check your fw version).
As I mentioned already, this is not a typical open Android interface, but a Hiby audio player interface on top of Android which you need to access to get to the apps, including Google Play store. I have installed a handful of apps, such as Spotify and some games. Everything seems to be working, though I do want to note that download is not the fastest, thus I still prefer manual FW updates. I use free Spotify and found no issues with streaming, it was up and running in seconds. But as I mentioned before, we are dealing with only 1GB of RAM and not the fastest processor/GPU intended for more demanding apps. So, you got to have realistic expectations. But in general, it’s a relatively fast touch screen interface for an audio player, just don’t expect it to fly like your smartphone.
Another thing to note, with Android support, users are tapping into 3rd party apps which can slow down or crash Android OS, something which is not under control of Cayin or Hiby. Thus, it becomes a double edge sword. Customers are asking for streaming, so manufacturers build their OS on Android platform. But that also opens a can of worms with people installing various apps which are not under control of the manufacturer and when something doesn’t work, manufacturer gets blamed.
But one of the thing they are in control of is the main DAP interface, especially in Audio Priority Mode where apps and many background processes are disabled to optimize the performance. The main Playback screen has a clear layout with upper top half of the screen independent of selected theme, where you can see a song artwork (if one is embedded) which could be switched to lyrics view (if available with a song) or a very elegant vertical Stereo VU Meter. Underneath you have selection of controls with different loop modes (single, repeat, random, etc.), access to EQ, view the list of songs in a current playback folder, and being able to add to favorites. Also, a display of a song/artist name and playback controls with Skip Next/Prev and Play/Pause. But the layout of all these controls will vary, depending on Theme selection, a little shirt icon in the lower left corner of the artwork screen of the display.
I do like the layout and graphics of Theme #1, the original theme from i5, but the fast-forward circular bar wasn’t as useful since my thumb covers it up without being able to see the time marker. Theme #2 is nice except that fast-forward scrub bar is right underneath of song artwork/lyrics/VU meter section where sometimes it’s hard to see the actual bar. On a few occasions when fast-forwarding through a song, I end up swiping to the lyrics screen. I like Theme #3 the best except that I would like the graphics for Play and Skip buttons to be updated with something better defined because those buttons are not easy to see due to inner shadow. Of course, these are minor details, based on my personal preferences.
My only comment here, I wish Cayin/Hiby would have the main Playback screen as their default Home view. Everything else should be accessible by going into Settings or another Menu. Otherwise, it gets a little confusing when you are greeted with a Music/Folder view (with memory/card/OTG shortcuts) every time you start N5ii.