I know we all have different opinions, but I always find Cayin products to have some original design elements which make them stand out from the crowd where you can’t mistake it from a distance, even inside the case. N8 is no exception. Of course, there is a personal preference if you like it or not, and there is no argument that the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. You can judge it from the pictures in this review, but also keep in mind that pictures not always do the justice to the actual product.
Out of the box, you are looking at a DAP with a dimension of 128mm x 70mm x 21mm and a noticeable weight of 380g. Obviously, it’s a portable device, and you can carry it in your pocket. But it’s not going to be the same experience as carrying N5iiS in your pocket due to the size and the weight. The shape of N8 is asymmetrical, not an issue to hold it in one hand, but I do strongly recommend using the included case to enhance the grip since it has a slick all stainless steel PVD coated chassis and a curved Corning Gorilla 3 glass on the back.
The focal point of the design is 3.2″ IPS touch screen with 480×360 resolution, a triangular Home button with a multi-color smart LED behind it (different colors corresponding to sampling rate, could also be disabled), and 2 knob/dial with a silky-smooth gold finish on the right side. The overall size of the top glass screen is about 4.5″, while the actual visible display area of the touch screen is 3.2″, a physical triangular home button underneath of it, and a sloped down beveled edge of the chassis extended below it. I personally find the shape of the Home button to be quite original, no other DAP has anything like that.
Left side of the DAP has no controls. At the bottom you have Reset pinhole, I2S Digital output port, micro-SD card spring loaded open port (supporting up to 512GB cards), and Type-C USB port for charging (supports QC2.0 fast charging), data transfer, USB DAC input, and digital output with provided adapters. The I2S Digital Output via HDMI Type-C connector adopts the pin definition of PS Audio I2S system. This interface is not compatible with standard HDMI audio/video interfaces, and Cayin can’t guarantee compatibility with other equipment brands supporting I2S digital interface. But they certainly do guarantee compatibility with all Cayin DACs that support this interface.
The top of the unit has headphone and line out ports. First is 4.4mm Balanced port which is shared and can be selected between Headphone output (1.2ohm impedance, 122dB SNR) or Balanced Line Out (4.3V output). The balanced headphone output is only connected to Solid State amp. Next to it is a single ended 3.5mm Headphone output (0.6ohm impedance, 120dB SNR) which can be selected as Solid State or Tube output. Since this port already shared between two output signatures, there is a separate dedicated 3.5mm Line Out port next to it, rated at 2.1V.
In the upper half of the right side you have golden Volume knob which also doubles as a push button power and screen on/off control. It has a nice click action as you turn in, and it’s easy to operate with a thumb, but I wish it would have a better-defined diamond-cut texture around it to enhance the grip. Also, since this power button is sticking out, you need to be aware not to push it accidentally in the bag which going to turn on the DAP. No issues with “accidental” shutting down since it requires Power Off confirmation.
The Playback Control Dial has a spring-loaded mechanism where turning it up/down skips the track, while pushing it works as Play/Pause button. Play/Pause operation is very useful since it’s very easy to find the dial, but I found that skipping tracks was easier to operate with N8 in front of me, rather than blind in my pocket. Especially when you are trying to fast forward/back through a track, it’s easy to misfire and skip the track by mistake. Also, in a pocket there is a higher chance of accidental pressing of Play/Pause.
A very simple workaround is to activate Key Lock to lock individual Volume control, Play/Pause control, and up/down Skip control. If you prefer to carry your N8 in a bag or a backpack, the easiest solution is to disable external controls through Key Lock and use HibyLink to control the playback from your phone or while streaming apps from your phone to N8. When you are listening at home or at work, you have more control over external playback/volume dials. The key here is to find what works better for you depending on how you are planning to use Cayin N8.
Under the hood.
In the heart of N8 you have a dual AKM AK4497EQ DAC, with a playback support of all the popular lossy and lossless audio file formats, including PCM decoded up to 32bit/384kHz, handling DSD up to DSD256 and even SACD-ISO. I went back and forth switching between mp3, flac, and DSD (DSD64, DSD128, and DSD256) files, and didn’t experience any noticeable lag in the audio playback. To support the size of all these high res files, N8 offers 128GB of internal storage and micro-SD card expansion with up to 512GB (more flash cards supporting it now). Plus, you can add storage via USB OTG.
As previous mentioned, the display is 3.2″ IPS with resolution of 480×360, nothing special by today’s smartphone standard, but considering it’s not intended for apps or video playback – this is more than adequate. The embedded artwork looks good with deep rich colors, viewing angle is great too, thanks to IPS display, and visibility even in a daylight wasn’t too bad at all, though I did have to bump the brightness a bit higher. One surprise was a massive capacity 3.7V 7000mAh battery to support all the analog and digital circuits, including NuTube. The battery is massive but thanks to Quick Charge QC2.0 support the full charging takes just a little over 4hrs.
Regarding the battery life, in a worst-case scenario using 3.5mm output and switching between Tube and Solid state (the only time when I had the screen on) while playing a mix of mp3/flac files, I was able to get around 8 hours of playback time in HIGH2 mode. Switching to a standard mode gives you approximately one more hour and using only Solid-State output adds more time to battery life. This is a desktop grade (tube output and high output mode) performance DAP which obviously going to be power hungry. Of course, with a bigger battery you can last longer, but I assume the battery selection was based on a space limitation inside the DAP. Considering plenty of power hungry heat generating components inside N8, even for a worst-case scenario this is not a bad playback time. And speaking of heat generation, Cayin applied a special Panasonic heat absorption PGS (pyrolytic graphite sheet) to the components with a high heat generation to direct the heat energy to stainless-steel chassis, turning it into a heat sink.
The internal circuit topology of N8 is split between Solid State output, offered from a balanced 4.4mm HO and a single ended 3.5mm HO, and Vacuum Tube output from a single ended 3.5mm HO. I’m sure some will question why no balanced output using Vacuum Tubes? Cayin is the first manufacturer to implement Korg NuTube 6P1 (a dual channel triode vacuum tube) in a DAP design. NuTube takes more room and drains more battery, and there was not enough space inside of N8 to accommodate 2x NuTube tube modules and a bigger battery. Besides, even for a single-ended output, NuTube amplifier soundstage can rival some other balanced DAP outputs I’ve tested in the past.
Btw, one of the reasons NuTube hasn’t been used as widely in portable audio designs is because of the microphonic effect associated with it. To resolve this problem, Cayin designed a custom-built shock-absorption silicone housing and a spring-loaded suspension system. Also, you need to keep in mind, we are not talking about a conventional fragile glass vacuum tube. While NuTube operates exactly like a triode vacuum tube, the tech behind it is based on a vacuum fluorescent display technology, like LED. These NuTube modules require less power than a traditional vacuum tube, smaller in size, have a much higher reliability with 30,000 hours of continuous life expectancy, all that while still providing a sound characteristics of vacuum tube sound. And just like with a vacuum tube, there is a warm up period. In case of NuTube it’s 5sec, where every time you pause the DAP and hit play or when switching between Solid State and Tube you must wait 5sec for a warm up. It’s a bit annoying, but I’m sure it preserves a battery life.
Another interesting feature of the design is High Impedance High Output mode where both amplifier outputs (solid state and vacuum tube) can either work in a standard mode or with a boosted power supply driving the amplifier circuit. In theory, the advantage of this mode is when you are using N8 to drive high impedance more demanding headphones, while low impedance IEMs shouldn’t be affected. In practice, I did hear a difference which I noted in the pair up section of my review. The output power rating of N8 is very impressive, where in standard mode you get 230mW (SE) and 480mW (BAL) while in HIGH2 mode you get 400mW (SE) and 750mW (BAL) under 32ohm load. Or when using 300ohm headphones (load), you can expect 50mW (SE) and 200mW (BAL) outputs. This is very impressive for a portable DAP.
Cayin N8 also features Bluetooth v4.2 with duplex LDAC Bluetooth support. This means you can pair it up with external headphones, speakers, and use N8 as a wireless Bluetooth DAC paired up with your smartphone or tablet, to stream audio directly or through apps. Furthermore, it also supports WiFi to retrieve OTA (over the air) firmware updates. But you can also update the firmware by downloading the files directly from Cayin website and doing a local update.