This test is going to be different from my usual pair up analysis. Due to dual output mode with Solid State and Tube amplifier and the variance of HIGH2 output (P vs P+), I felt like I’m dealing with 3 different sound performances I need to cover in pair up. Thus, for every IEM or Headphones under the test, I will describe how it sounds being used with Solid State (SS) or Tube, and I also will note Single Ended 3.5mm (SE) or Balanced 4.4mm (BAL), as well as P vs P+. I also mentioned in every test which cable I used with headphones.
Regarding “hissing” comment, people look at it in a different way. I call it an “idle hissing” test where I bring the volume down to zero and hit Play to see if I can hear anything with sensitive IEMs (no high impedance DD or full size, those are usually fine). In most of the cases that “waterfall” hissing no longer audible when music volume is up, unless if you hit a quiet passage in the song with not as many layered instruments/vocals. I don’t call it a true hissing test, and of course it has a lot to do with impedance and sensitivity of IEMs. I don’t want to confuse or to mislead my readers, just want you to be aware exactly what I’m doing in this test.
64 Audio U18t w/EA Leo II – low impedance average sensitivity 18BA iem:
- (SS, SE, P) – wide soundstage, deep rumbling bass, leaner revealing mids with a slightly pushed back presentation, crisp airy treble. Going to P+ brings up more sub-bass with a deeper rumble, including extra body in lower mids which get pushed slightly more forward. Going to BAL/P+ widens the soundstage.
- (Tube, P) – the sound is a little warmer, with a fuller body, and a more balanced signature. Going from P to P+ adds a little more body to the lower mids and makes bass go deeper and slam harder.
- With volume down to zero – hissing hardly even audible.
64 Audio N8 w/PWA No5 – low impedance low sensitivity 9-driver hybrid:
- (SS, SE, P) – wide soundstage with a balanced smooth signature, leaning toward the L-shaped. Bass hits very hard and has more forward presentation. Switching to P+ gives bass even more power, pushing closer to L-shaped signature. Switching to BAL/P widens the soundstage, tightens the bass, and brings mids a little more forward, and moving to BAL/P+ gives even more power to the bass slam.
- (Tube, P) – very wide soundstage with a balanced signature and smooth musical tonality. Bass goes deep and hits hard, feels like listening to big floor speakers, but it’s not overwhelming and rather well controlled. Mids are smooth, natural, and very detailed. Treble is crisp and well controlled. Switching to P+ pushes bass a little harder, and I personally preferred going back to P. In this pair up I liked Tube/P the best.
- With volume down to zero – dead quiet background.
Sennheiser IE800S w/stock – single dynamic driver:
- (SS, SE, P) – a mildly v-shaped signature with a natural tonality, deep extended bass, natural mids, crisp treble. Going to P+ extends sub-bass rumble, going deeper and with more texture. Going to BAL/P+ expands soundstage wider, making the sound more holographic.
- (Tube, P) – tube output improves the signature by bringing up mids more forward, making the sig more balanced, and making the soundstage as holographic as BAL Solid-state output. P+ makes bass go deeper where I preferred P instead since the sound was more balanced and less fatigue.
- With volume down to zero – dead quiet, no hissing.
VE Zen ZOE w/PlusSound Exo hybrid – 320ohm high impedance earbuds:
- (SS, SE, P) – wide open soundstage, warm natural laid-back sound tonality, balanced signature. With P+, I hear more clarity in mids. Very interesting how in these high impedance earbuds the P+ has a different improvement factor. Going to BAL with P+ widens and opens the soundstage more, while the sound is still laid back and organic, but retrieval of details noticeably improved.
- (Tube, P) – the sound is smooth as a butter, soundstage is open and wide, but the sound became smoother in comparison to solid-state which affected retrieval of details. I think in this pair up due to an already warm/smooth original nature of these earbuds, to my ears solid-state has a better synergy.
- With volume down to zero – no hissing what so ever (and these never hiss due to high impedance).
Campfire Audio Andromeda w/ALO SPC litz – high sensitivity lower impedance 5BA:
- (SS, SE, P) – wide soundstage expansion, deep textured bass, more revealing yet still natural mids, well controlled treble. Going to P+ adds more body to lower mids, making signature more balanced, and making bass more layered and multi-dimensioned. Going balanced expands the soundstage and makes signature more balanced.
- (Tube, P) – brings mids more forward with a more natural organic tonality, makes treble smoother and more natural, expands soundstage wider.
- With volume down to zero – a noticeable hissing, also heard in quiet passages of the songs.
Ultimate Ears UERR w/stock – average impedance/sensitivity 3BA:
- (SS, SE, P) – above average soundstage, very neutral tonality with a relative balanced signature, and a slight more forward presentation of mids. Going to P+ brings more weight to the lower end, and I can hear more rumble in bass now. Going to BAL expands the soundstage and improves dynamics and layering of the sound.
- (Tube, P) – the signature is still balanced but the tonality has a little more analog color, more texture, not as neutral anymore. Going to P+ adds more rumble to the sub-bass and more body to the lower mids. This is by far my favorite pair up combination with UERR.
- With volume down – zero hissing, dead quiet.
oBravo RA C Cu w/PlusSound X-series GPC – high impedance low sensitivity AMT/DD hybrid:
- (SS, SE, P) – very crisp sound with a wide-open soundstage and a retrieval of details on microscopic level. Going to P+ brings up more weight in the bass and gives it a deeper extension. Also, helps with adding a little extra body in lower mids. BAL/P+ gives the sound a more holographic soundstage expansion.
- (Tube, P) – tube output smooths out the tonality, making it a little more natural, but at the same time making the sound a little less resolving, not as crisp as it is with a solid-state output. The strength of RA is in its high-resolution AMT-II driver, and I preferred SS output for the best pair up in this case.
- With volume down to zero – dead quiet, no hissing.
MEE Audio Pinnacle P1 w/MEE SPC – high impedance dynamic driver:
- (SS, SE, P) – wide airy soundstage, v-shaped signature with a deep sub-bass, bright lean revealing mids, and piercing treble. Going to P+ just adds a little bit of body to the lower mids, but the change is very subtle. Going to BAL expands the soundstage, and then with P+ you get a little more balanced sound.
- (Tube, P) – a noticeable transformation of the sound where the signature is still v-shaped by more balanced due to mids being more upfront, having more body, and more natural tonality. Treble sounds more controlled now as well. Going to P+ takes it up a notch with more body in lower mids and more sub-bass rumble. Tube output here is the way to go with P1.
- With volume down – zero hissing.
Audeze EL8C w/stock – planar magnetic, full size closed back:
- (SS, SE, P) – very wide soundstage, brighter and more revealing tonality, with a more mid forward signature. Bass goes deep, fast, textured; mids are lean and revealing, and upper mids and treble don’t have any metallic sheen. Going to P+ just adds a little extra weight to the sub-bass, giving it a deeper rumble. Can’t test BAL since I only have SE cable.
- (Tube, P) – in comparison to solid state, mids come more forward and have a little more body and treble has more control. Going to P+ adds more texture to the sub-bass and a little more slam in mid-bass, and adds more body to the lower mids, giving mid-range a more natural tonality. Tube/P+ is probably the best pair up with EL8C I heard to date.
Beyerdynamic T5p 2nd gen w/TWag v3 – full Tesla driver closed back:
- (SS, SE, P) – wide open soundstage, smoother warmer tonality, balanced signature with a great low-end extension. Surprisingly, upper mids and treble here are noticeably smoother in comparison to what I’m used to hearing. Enabling P+ has a very subtle, hardly noticeable effect of just adding a little more texture to the bass. Going to BAL/P gives soundstage a more holographic perception and opens the mids with a more revealing tonality. Switching to BAL/P+ makes bass punch a little harder. Really liked BAL/P+ pair up, keeping the sound natural, balanced, and still with an excellent retrieval of details.
- (Tube, P) – wide soundstage, with a smooth natural tonality and balanced signature; great sub-bass extension with a deep velvety sub-bass rumble. The sound is smoother and a little more laid back in comparison to solid-state. Switching to P+ gives the sound faster bass punch. While I enjoyed natural tonality of tube output here, I preferred going back to BAL/P+ of solid state output to give the sound a better definition.
Oppo PM3 w/stock bal – planar magnetic, closed back:
- (SS, SE, P) – wide soundstage, balanced signature with a warm tonality, thicker organic mids/vocals, crisp treble. Going to P+ makes bass tighter, punching a little harder and with more control, and makes lower mids a little leaner, giving the sound more transparency. Going to BAL/P+ opens-up soundstage even wider, making sound more holographic, and mids more transparent with an improved retrieval of details. The tonality is still natural, but I hear a lot less coloring and more transparency. Again, probably one of the best PM3 pair ups I heard.
- (Tube, P) – wide soundstage, balanced signature with a warmer smoother tonality and some coloring. Going to P+ makes bass tighter and mids more transparent, still smooth and natural but less colored and with better retrieval of details. I still like Solid State with P+ pair up better, but this one was pretty good too. For sure, PM3 benefits from higher output voltage.
Audio-Technica ATH-R70x w/stock SE – high impedance (470ohm) open back:
- (SS, SE, P) – holographic open soundstage, very natural tonality with a nicely balanced signature. Deep sub-bass rumble, organic sweet mids, well controlled sparkly treble. Going to P+ adds more texture to the bass without affecting mids. Only have SE cable, so can’t test BAL here.
- (Tube, P) – soundstage is as open and holographic, but tonality is a little smoother with mids having a fuller body. It’s a very subtle change, more of a sound refinement. Going to P+ adds a little more coloring to the mids, which I wasn’t too crazy about, preferring going back to P where the sound was more transparent.
Wired and wireless connections.
Cayin N8 offers a very comprehensive selection of wired and wireless connections. Here is what I tested, and my impressions about it.
Bluetooth Rx with Galaxy S9 smartphone (wireless app streaming) – introduction of BT Rx is truly a blessing for many manufacturers since you don’t need to be responsible for Google Play and supporting various apps. Instead, you let your smartphone handle heavyweight lifting of the apps and pair up your DAP wireless to the smartphone, turning it into a Wireless DAC to steam apps. This pair up was very simple, enable BT in N8, and search for it from your phone. While in BT Rx mode, I was able to walk away from my S9 about 50ft in open space and the connection with N8 was still solid while I was streaming Spotify.
With the latest FW2.0 update and implementation of duplex LDAC Bluetooth codec, now you can transmit wireless with a support of up to 96kHz in both Tx and Rx modes and a maximum transmission rate of up to 960kbps.
Bluetooth Tx with wireless headphones (with Momentum 2 Wireless HD1) – The dual bi-directional Bluetooth means also that you can pair up any wireless headphone with N8. Once you put your headphones into pair up mode, scan for it from within N8, and connect within second. Make sure to have apt-X or LDAC enabled if headphones support it. The wireless coverage across open space was like in my BT Rx test, almost 50ft without a problem. While in theory this is a universal BT protocol, I went back’n’forth with Momentum 2 pairs up with my phone and N8 and hear a more balanced sound when paired up with N8.
HibyLink between N8 and Galaxy S9 – while some mistake it for a wireless link, thinking it enables streaming from a phone to a DAP, this is just a convenient way to control your DAP remotely where your smartphone becomes a remote display/controller of N8. In case of N8, HibyLink has an added value, especially if you are planning to use N8 as a transport or as a DAC in a desktop setup and can control it remotely from across the room. Plus, as I already mentioned, it’s very convenient to Lock controls, keep N8 in a backpack or jacket pocket, and control it remotely from your phone.
External AMP pair up.
N8 + FiiO E12A (3.5mm LO) – while comparing N8/E12A vs N8, I hear E12A pair up to be warmer and smoother, while directly from N8 (using its internal amp) the sound is more revealing and more reference/brighter. I use E12A in this testing with many DAPs due to its transparency, letting me hear the “sound sig” of the DAC. From this testing, it sounds like N8 built in amp brightens the sound a bit.
Digital Out (DAC/amp) connection.
N8 + Oppo HA-2 w/Shanling L2 cable – while I’m aware that I’m suing N8 as a transport and HA-2 dac/amp dictates the tonality of the sound, usually HA-2 with its ESS DAC gives me a brighter sound. Here the sound was quite natural when tested with N8 as a transport.
USB DAC support.
Once you install the latest universal Cayin USB Audio Driver (V4.35.0), N8 is recognized right away when connected to Windows 10 (tested with my ThinkPad T470 laptop). During the playback, N8 was displaying the sampling rate and bit depth of the song and you can control the volume from the DAP. I played many tracks from my laptop using N8 as USB DAC and then compared the same tracks from standalone N8, and I don’t hear any sound difference. I know it’s an overkill to use N8 as USB DAC, but for anybody interested it’s available.
While every manufacturer has their own flagship DAP, it seems that many TOTL DAP discussions often start with SP1000 and WM1Z. With Cayin N8 in the picture now, I think you can have the best of both worlds and then some. The reason I’m saying “both worlds” because N8 offers the best of each DAP sound quality fused with Cayin’s own portable and desktop systems by combining the high-resolution dynamic sound of AK4497 DACs, expanded holographic soundstage of balanced and single ended outputs, power of solid state amplifier and analog warmth of vacuum tubes, high output mode of the desktop grade performance, and a solid stainless-steel build quality.
I always try to stay neutral in my reviews, encouraging people to do their homework, trying to figure out their budget first, trying to decide which features are must have, what can you live with and without, how are you planning to use it, etc. N8 doesn’t make SP1000 or WM1Z obsolete, because each one still offers its pluses and minuses, and you need to do your own homework to decide which one will suite you better. But in my opinion, moving forward the discussion about TOTL DAPs can’t be complete without N8 as one of the serious contenders next to SP1000 and WM1Z.
Also, the implementation of Korg NuTube in N8 design is not just a buzz word. It’s not coincidental that Cayin was the first manufacturer to implement these in their portable DAP design because they have many years of experience designing desktop vacuum tube amplifier systems and many successful DAP releases in the last 4 years since introduction of N6. Implementation of NuTube was just the next logical step by bridging portable DAPs and desktop systems into a new breed of a portable desktop performance N8 DAP.