Pair Up – DAPs.
When I started to share my C9 impressions on Head-fi, quite a few people also pinged me with questions about what is the best source/DAP for pair up with C9. It’s not a simple question because C9 will be connected to LO of your source, so in theory you have to determine which DAC output you like better. Different DAPs will have different DACs, and it will be a matter of a personal preference with quite a few variables in that equation. So instead, I decided took at a number of my sources (N8 was borrowed) and to compare each one directly between headphones output vs connected to C9. For this test I was using Oriolus Traillii, volume matched in every pair up comparison. C9 was set to Low Gain (LG), used with Tubes timbre and Class AB amp. I know these are brief impressions, but it clearly shows how consistent the performance of C9 when it comes to enhancing the sound of every DAP I tried it with.
Let’s start first by looking at Cayin “family” since I’m sure many will be curious about their N8 tubes/solid state DAP comparison or N8 vs equally priced N6ii w/C9 stack up.
Cayin N8 (HG, P+, tube, SE) vs N8 + C9 – more holographic soundstage and imaging, in both width and depth, fuller body with more textured analog tonality, improved dynamics. One thing I was truly surprised here is the change in the tonality because in theory we are talking about going from a single NuTube to a dual NuTube, but the discrete Class A/AB amplification modes of C9 in combination with dual NuTube have a different effect on tonality when compared to N8. Plus, Cayin acknowledged that NuTube circuit in C9 was redesigned.
Cayin N8 (HG, P+, tube, SE) vs N6ii w/E02 + C9 – after going back and forth, I can confirm that to my ears N6ii w/E02 + C9 (tubes, Class AB) is an improvement over N8 (tubes, P+) where I hear a wider soundstage, improvement in micro-dynamics, and a more analog textured tonality. The sound of C9 with a fuller body and warmer mids creates a perception of a more analog textured sound without losing resolution or retrieval of details.
If streaming is important to you, here are a few pair up examples with Android DAPs, where R8 and DX300 are currently the fastest open Android performers and SP2000 SS can be side-loaded with popular streaming apps.
Hiby R8 (HG, BAL, Turbo) vs R8 (BAL LO) + C9 – soundstage width expansion was noticeable, not exactly night’n’day, but you can definitely hear the difference. Also, the tonality change was more subtle but the improvement in retrieval of details and layering and separations of the sounds was the first thing I noticed right away after switching to C9 connected to LO of R8. The sound was cleaner, tighter, more resolving, and with improved dynamics.
iBasso DX300 (HG, BAL) vs DX300 (BAL L0) + C9 – improvement in soundstage width is probably the first thing I noticed, and not just the soundstage but 3D imaging. Tonality change was there, not very drastic, but C9 does add more analog texture to the sound and a little more body. The biggest improvement was in dynamics which improved the layering of the sounds, literally felt like more air between the layers of the sound.
A&K SP2000 SS (BAL) vs SP2k (BAL LO) + C9 – while comparing direct HO output of SP2k vs paired up with C9, I hear the improvement in soundstage width, quite noticeable, and also tonality got more analog with a tube flavor when using C9 with NuTube output. SP2k by itself has a very clean precise sound, C9 adds a nice analog texture touch to it.
If you don’t care about running apps directly from your DAP and OK with Bluetooth/LDAC pair up to your smartphone, P6 Pro, LPGT, and WM1Z are some of the non-Android top choices which can also benefit from C9 stack up.
L&P P6 Pro (HG, BAL) vs P6 Pro (BAL LO) + C9 – in this comparison the change was more subtle. I do hear the improvement in soundstage width when paired up with C9, it is noticeable but not necessary night’n’day change. Also, with C9 one improvement I did notice was bass texture, impact, and articulation improvement. Connected directly to P6 Pro Traillii bass was a little softer while gaining more authority with C9.
Lotoo LPGT (HG, BAL) vs LPGT (BAL LO) + C9 – the improvement here was noticeable. Soundstage width expansion was definitely expected, with C9 the sound is more holographic. The tonality change was more subtle, but the technical performance improved with a noticeably better retrieval of details, improvement in layering and separation of the sounds, and also improved dynamics.
Sony WM1Z (HG, BAL, direct sound) vs WM1Z (BAL HO) + C9 – since WM1Z doesn’t have analog LO, I had to use BAL headphone output, so we are talking about double amping here. Adding C9 to BAL HO did widen the soundstage and of course boosted the output power, but also improved the bass impact, giving it more authority with a little mid-bass boost, and adding more analog texture to the mids/vocals. I had all the effects off when comparing to direct WM1Z connection, and the effect of adding C9 reminded me of Vinyl Processor “standard” preset, just a little bit clear and more resolving. But the biggest surprise here came when I switched to Pre-amp, letting WM1Z volume control the output. I heard a similar improvement in soundstage and bass, but in additional to a more analog texture, the sound was also more resolving, cleaner, tighter, and with improved retrieval of details. In general, WM1Z and 1A are underpowered DAPs thus adding amp is no brainer. But I also found C9 to benefit 1Z more than some other DAPs, especially using Pre-Amp input.
I have a little confession to make: when I received C9 amp, at first, I wasn’t sure how to approach this review. As many are aware, I have a lot more experience with DAPs and IEMs, don’t have desktop or portable tube amps, and don’t use power hungry high impedance low sensitivity headphones. Yet, in the last few weeks while listening to music when working from home at my desk, I found C9 to be so addictive that I couldn’t stop swapping different DAPs to see how C9 enhances their performance with my favorite IEMs.
And then it dawned on me. While not exactly the same as cable rolling, it was a very similar experience of trying to improve the synergy between various DAPs and IEMs, except the variable here was the source. And instead of a subtle refinement, I was able to hear a more noticeable improvement with an expanded soundstage that pushed the sound to a more pronounced stereo separation and 3D imaging, a more natural fuller body detailed tonality colored by vacuum tubes, and improved micro-dynamics.
If you think about it, the two main audio building blocks of any DAP is the DAC and the amplifier section, and manufacturers have to deal with a limited board space which puts a constraint on the design of amp section. That is one of the reasons why audiophiles look into external amps to enhance their source. C9 offers many different options for such enhancement, from a solid state to a vacuum tube, Class A or Class AB, single ended or balanced, serious output power, and even replaceable batteries. With a price tag of $2k C9 does cost more, but also offers a lot more than any other portable amp. And while DAPs come and go, C9 should last you a while to enhance any source you pair it up with.