I analyzed N3Pro sound with Odin, Luna, and Solaris ‘20 IEMs while playing a variety of my favorite test tracks, such as Agnes Obel “The curse”, Sandro Cavazza “So much better” (Avicii remix), C-Bool “Never go away”, Ed Sheeran “Shape of you”, Alan Walker “Darkside”, Galantis “Hunter”, Iggy Azalea “Black widow”, Indila “Boite en argent”, Dua Lipa “Love again”, Counting Crows “Big yellow taxi”, David Elias “Vision of her”, and Michael Jackson “Dirty Diana”. I let N3Pro burn in for 100hrs before starting my sound analysis.
I prefer to describe the DAP sound based on the comparison to other DAPs and pair ups with different IEMs/headphones since the DAP by itself doesn’t have a “sound”. What we hear is how it sounds through IEMs/headphones connected to it or the difference relative to other sources using the same pair of IEMs/headphones for monitoring the sound. As a result, this section of the review usually summarizes what I find in the follow up Pair-Up and Comparison sections.
Tubes vs SS (Solid State) – despite SS being 4.4mm BAL (and 4.4mm SS having wider soundstage than 3.5mm SS), 3.5mm Tubes (UL) output has an even wider soundstage. The difference is easy to pick up, the sound spreads wider left/right. When it comes to tonality, as expected, SS will be more transparent, colder, less colored, and with a blacker background. In contrast, Tubes output is smoother, softer, more musical, with fuller body, and more textured tonality. I also found Tubes (UL) output to have some improvement in vertical dynamics and more rumble in sub-bass. But what stands out the most to my ears was the analog texture of the sound when switched to Tubes timbre.
UL (Ultralinear) vs TR (Triode) – both of these Tube operation modes have a smoother fuller body tonality but the sound is quite different. TR is smoother, warmer, and slower, with a less aggressive sound that has shorter attack and longer decay, and slower transient response of note on/off. UL is faster, more articulate, more energetic. Both Tube operation modes have a wide soundstage, but UL is noticeably wider with a more open soundstage and better layering and separation of the sounds while TR sounds more intimate and even a little more compressed and congested in comparison.
Don’t get me wrong, Solid State output is not bad at all, and it is on par with other DAPs in the same price bracket. But when you switch to Tubes output and enable Ultralinear operation mode – the sound scales up with a wider and more open soundstage, more expanded vertical dynamics, and more natural and musical tonality. As a result, the contrast when going back and forth makes SS sound flatter and less exciting. Of course, everything will depend on pair up synergy, but for me personally, I went straight to Tubes output and kept it at UL as my favorite mode when using N3Pro.
The sound of a DAP is based on pair up synergy with different headphones. Afterall, you are hearing the sound of headphones connected to the Source. In this section of my review I will go over how various earphones and headphones pair up with N3Pro. In each pair up I noted the port (BAL 4.4mm or SE 3.5mm), SS Solid State or Tubes TR Triode or UL Ultralinear mode, HG high gain or MG med gain, and V# volume level.
Beyerdynamic T5p 2nd gen (full size Tesla drivers)
- 4.4mm, HG, SS, V33 – balanced clear signature, deep bass, smooth clear vocals with colder tonality, smooth treble, not as extended.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V38 – still balanced sig, some improvement in dynamics, bass is warmer, a little slower, mids/vocals are smoother, a little nasal mids, treble has a little more sparkle.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V38 – balanced sig, better dynamics, more sub-bass rumble, bass is tighter and faster, mids/vocals have more clarity and better definition, doesn’t sound as “nasal” as it was in TR mode, more sparkle than SS, but similar to TR mode.
Audio Technica ATH-R70x (470 ohm, open back full size)
- 3.5mm, HG, SS, V60 (don’t have BAL cable for this one) – balanced sig with a natural tonality and a smoother more laid-back sound presentation. More focused soundstage/imaging, even for open back feels a bit more intimate. Mids/vocals are smooth, not as layered or well separated.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V60 – sounds similar to Solid State SE, except SS has blacker background while with Tube TR is a little smoother and slower.
- 3.5mm HG, Tubes UL, V60 – soundstage expands wider, sound has blacker background like Solid State, but tonality has a little more body and richer texture. Mids/vocals have more focus, and improved layering and separation of sounds.
Meze Audio Empyrean (dual driver Planar magnetic)
- 4.4mm, HG, SS, V38 – a bit narrow soundstage, sound is balanced, smooth, laidback, mids/vocals are a bit veiled, lacking some clarity, too smooth overall.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V44 – very similar to solid state output, just a little bit smoother and more laidback.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V46 – wider/deeper soundstage, smoother detailed, but has more resolving mids with more clarity in vocals.
Out of these 3 headphones, I preferred using 3.5mm Tubes UL output/mode, and actually found T5p 2nd to pair up better, while R70x and Empyrean felt like they were not exactly driven to their full potential.
Campfire Audio Solaris 2020 (hybrid DD/3BA sensitive IEM)
- 4.4mm, HG, SS, V11 (MG, V21) – balanced signature with a nice sub-bass rumble, natural clear detailed mids/vocals, well controlled crisp treble. Average soundstage. Very faint background waterfall hissing. When I switched to Med gain, that waterfall hissing was nearly gone.
- 3.5mm, MG, Tubes TR, V27 – balanced signature with a deeper bass, smoother more natural mids, treble is more natural as well. No waterfall hissing at all.
- 3.5mm, MG, Tubes UL, V27 – similar balanced signature with a deeper and faster bass, natural more transparent mids with improved layering and separation, natural detailed treble, wider soundstage expansion. Probably one of my favorite pair ups with Solaris.
Dunu Luna (beryllium driver single DD)
- 4.4mm, HG, SS, V25 – relatively balanced sound sig with deep bass, smooth natural vocals, and sparkly treble. Average layering and separation, and dynamics is just OK in this pair up.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V31 – more balanced sound sig with mids coming more forward, but overall sound is still smooth and laidback.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V31 – similar to TR, but there are many more improvements. Overall sound is faster with a black background, bass has more rumble and also faster attack, mids are more forward and also slightly more revealing.
Venture Electronics SUN Dice (180ohm single DD earbuds)
- 4.4mm, HG, SS, V40 – smooth balanced natural tonality, but for some reason the mid-bass and mids/vocals sound hollow. I wasn’t too crazy about SS BAL output pair up with Dice.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V45 – still a smooth balanced natural tonality, and I also hear now a little more sub-bass rumble and more treble sparkle, but the most noticeable improvement is in mids/vocals where they have now a fuller more natural body.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V45 – very similar to TR, with the soundstage being wider now, but in my opinion, it ruins the sound because vocals are spreading wider and I was having a hard time focusing. With SUN Dice, I preferred to use Tubes TR mode.
Empire Ears Odin (tribrid 2DD/5BA/4EST)
- 4.4mm, HG, SS, V26 – sound signature is a little more mid-forward with more focus on mids and lower treble. Plus, mids/vocals are brighter and colder and lower treble a bit harsher.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V30 – sound sig is more balanced, now I hear a deep sub-bass rumble and stronger punch of mid-bass, mids/vocals have more body which still sounds smooth, though also more resolving.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V30 – switching to UL mode fine-tunes the TR sound with a wider soundstage, blacker background, and fuller body vocals.
64 Audio U12t (12BA w/TIA driver and M15 APEX module)
- 4.4mm, HG, SS, V26 – balanced signature with a deep bass, clear detailed natural mids/vocals, and sparkly treble; actually, treble is a bit splashy.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes TR, V32 – similarly balanced signature, with more sub-bass rumble, mids/vocals have fuller body sound, more natural tonality, and treble is less splashy.
- 3.5mm, HG, Tubes UL, V32 – soundstage expands, background is blacker, the sound is not as laidback as in TR, but the biggest difference was in mids/vocals, given them more clarity and articulation.
In general, like in example with Solaris ’20, I found that more neutral or brighter/revealing IEMs to pair up better with Tubes output while warmer and bassier IEMs to have a better pair up synergy with SS output.