Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde.
PROS: Solid State and Vacuum Tube (Korg NuTube) amp outputs, High Output mode, solid stainless-steel build, responsive interface, plenty of digital and analog outputs, selection of custom cable adapters, duplex LDAC Bluetooth support.
CONS: price, weight, touchy up/down dial, 5sec tube warm up delay (more of annoyance than Con).
The product was loaned to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
I was introduced to Cayin products over 4 years ago when I reviewed their portable C5 amp which I still use to this day. Ever since that review, I had the opportunity to test and to review all their portable DAPs and was always pleased with their products and associated price/performance ratio. But Cayin is not only known for their Portable HiFi audio, but also many award-winning desktop sources and amplifier systems they have been designing and manufacturing over the last 25 years since 1993 when Zhuhai Spark Electronic Equipment Co., Ltd. (Cayin parent company) was founded.
While I consider myself to a be a portable gear audiophile, focusing more on DAPs and IEMs, it doesn’t stop me from admiring (read it as “drooling over”) the elegancy of desktop systems when attending CanJam NYC in the last two years. For anybody who visited Cayin table during these or other audio shows, you can’t deny being captivated by the design of their HA-1A and HA-300 tube headphone amplifiers where they used only the best possible material and the top of the line components. And I’ll be lying if the wish to see this cold stainless steel with a warm tube glow in a pocket-friendly design never crossed my mind.
Apparently, Cayin had this on their mind as well, preparing to introduce the latest TOTL flagship N8 DAP on their 25th anniversary. But the idea behind this release was more than just “spare no expense” for the best material and the top components. Cayin wanted to be unique by challenging themselves with being the first manufacturer to introduce a portable DAP with dual sound signature design based on using both solid state and triode vacuum tubes.
I do have to warn you, this is going to be longer than usual review. I get pinged every day by many of my readers, and aware that choosing a flagship TOTL DAP is a journey. Even regardless of a small selection of options, people still spend months researching and comparing. Therefore, when I talk about the Design, I don’t just describe what you see, I go into details of how it functions, and Under the Hood doesn’t just list the spec but offers my opinion about it. Some might even find the GUI section useful, so you can get a good idea about the SW/FW features, and Pair up section is massive, so you can get a better feel about the sound. Overall, the review is clearly partitioned with bold headlines, multiple pages, and the index of where you want to jump if you prefer to skip a section. So, get some popcorn and let’s take a closer look at what I found after spending the last month with N8.
Unboxing and Accessories.
As usual, I would like to acknowledge the packaging details since I see that Cayin put a lot of thought into the presentation of their latest flagship product, besides just a protection during the shipping to your doorsteps. N8 arrived in a large size cube shaped box with a silver outer shell that had a cutout window at the top, revealing the sketch drawing of the DAP on top of the actual storage box. I thought it was clever to have the storage box cover open along an angled line instead of the usual boring straight cut, giving it a little more dramatic opening presentation. With N8 out of the secure foam storage tray, you quickly realize the heft of the weight in your hand, but more about it later.
What impressed me the most was not only the presentation of the box, but the content of the included accessories where you know right away you are dealing with a premium product.
As expected, you will find a very comprehensive Users Guide, along with a warranty and QA certificate, and a few hi-res audio labels. Underneath the foam tray with N8, you will find another storage tray with a tempered glass for the display screen and a leather case (probably pleather?) next to it. I know that my review unit is part of the early production batch where the case had a bit of a fit issue. But I have been reassured by Cayin that issue was corrected moving forward. In the same tray there was a premium braided Type-C USB cable used for charging, data transfer, and USB DAC connection.
All these accessories are useful for any DAP, but Cayin went a step further by including custom adapter cables as a bonus accessory kit. You’ll find Type-C USB to 3.5mm coaxial cable for S/PDIF coax output (popular with Chord DACs). You’ll get Type-C USB to RCA (female) coaxial adapter for S/PDIF coaxial output. You’ll even get a rare custom 4.4mm to balanced XLR adapter to use with balanced Line Out. Also, you’ll get a premium right angled 4.4mm (male) to 2.5mm (female) balanced headphone adapter to connect 2.5mm TRRS terminated headphones with N8 4.4mm balanced output.
Keep in mind, Type-C USB coax adapters here are custom, to be used only with Cayin DAPs where coax connection is brought up to USB-C connector. These will not work with your smartphone or other USB-C equipped devices.