Sound Analysis – Overall.
The sound analysis of N8ii was done using Oriolus Traillii, playing a selection of 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 had about 150hrs of burn in time before I started analyzing N8ii.
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 the sound characteristics of a source shapes the sound signature of connected IEMs/headphones or the difference in sound relative to other sources using the same pair of IEMs/headphones. As a result, this section of the review usually summarizes what I find in the follow up Comparison and Pair-up sections. Of course, this is my subjective opinion, describing how I hear it.
I found the tuning of N8ii to be quite neutral with a natural resolving tonality. The difference in timbre setting between Solid State and NuTubes will have the effect on mids and vocals from more revealing and dryer (SS) to smoother and more organic (Tubes). But overall, it has neutral sound with a balanced signature leaning toward natural tonality with expanded vertical dynamics (both micro and macro), black background (very quiet noise floor), and relatively fast and clean transient response of notes with details popping out of the blackness, even when it comes to sensitive iems.
The tube mode gives instruments and vocals more body, more texture, richer timbre, while still keeping the sound quite resolving, layered, and with impressive retrieval of details. Many, who are familiar with the original N8 or their C9 amp, will know that NuTube is not your traditional tube that colors the sound. NuTube’s double triode tubes are rich in texture, not coloring or saturation. But still, when you switch from Tube to Solid State, you can sense right away more transparency and less coloring in sound.
Soundstage is BIG, especially from balanced output, expanding in all 3 directions, making the sound very spacious and open. Also, great 3D holographic imaging where I found with most of my IEMs and headphones a very precise and accurate placement of instruments and vocals.
4.4mm vs 3.5mm.
The only noticeable difference I hear is in soundstage width, spreading wider (Left/Right) when connected to balanced output. Also, BAL has more power thus SE needs a few more volume clicks to match it. Otherwise, tonality, sound sig, and overall technical performance were nearly the same.
N8ii is relatively quiet with Solaris 2020, passing my Agness Obel “The Curse” first 30sec test without a problem. I tried it with P/P+, SS and Tubes, and Class A/AB (in P mode). There was just a slight waterfall background hissing in high gain, but nothing in medium or low gain.
Tried a few extended listening sessions streaming Amazon Music HD and Tidal, and even with my Galaxy phone next to N8ii I haven’t noticed any EMI interference.
Sound Analysis – SS/Tube, Class A/AB, P-mode.
Please keep in mind that in P-mode (regular output), you have a choice of either SS or Tubes output and can switch between Class A or Class AB amplifier type. In P+ mode (high output), you also have a choice between SS or Tubes, but can only select Class AB amplifier. So, between P and P+, Solid Sate and Tubes, Class A and Class AB, not to mention 3 levels of gain on top of that, you have a lot of different combinations to try with your IEMs and headphones. To give you a better idea what you can expect, I partitioned my testing as following.
The P mode Class A to AB comparison applies to both SS and Tubes timbre settings where switching between Class A and AB is like going from a smoother and slightly more laidback and relaxed analog sound to a faster, snappier, and with a blacker background Analog/Digital hybrid sound. The difference in tonality is noticeable due to speed/attack change in the sound where in Class A – bass has a slower attack with less punch, mids are smoother, more relaxed, with a little more analog warmth, treble has a bit less sparkle, and in Class AB – bass has a faster attack with more punch and improved articulation, mids are more resolving, and have blacker background, treble has more sparkle and airiness.
In P mode Class AB, when switching from SS to Tubes, there is a clear distinction of the sound gaining more body and smoother analog texture in mids/vocals. As a result, in SS timbre setting the sound is dryer, has more precision and control, and faster transient of notes popping out of the black background. Switching to Tubes makes mids/vocals wetter, smoother, even a touch warmer while still keeping the same resolution and retrieval of details. The technical performance doesn’t change as much, but the coloring of the mids becomes more analog.
In P+ mode Class AB when switching from SS to Tubes, I hear the same changes as I noted above in my comparison while testing in P mode.
After a number of extended listening sessions, I came to the conclusion that in P mode with SS timbre I preferred Class A setting which gave me a perfect combination of faster sound with higher resolution and smoother analog coloring. But, when I was in P mode with Tube timbre, I enjoyed more Class AB amplifier setting to give the sound more punch, to improve the layering, and to add more sparkle to the upper frequencies.
In P+ mode, since Class AB was the only amplifier option, choosing SS or Tubes will depend on pair up synergy with IEMs I was using. For me personally, warmer smoother IEMs paired up better with SS while brighter or neutral tuned IEMs had a better synergy with Tubes.
Also, switching between P and P+ to boost the output power, had a different effect depending on your IEMs or headphones. For example, when listening to BA/EST iems (like Traillii), it didn’t make as much difference to my ears. But when I switched to hybrids with DD/BA/EST drivers (like Jewel), the bass punch had more authority, better articulation, and a tighter sound. This effect was even more noticeable when I used demanding headphones like my 470ohm open back ATH-R70x. The boost in performance of R70x when I switched to P+ was quite impressive, including a better articulation of bass notes, more clarity and blacker background in mids, and some expansion in soundstage. Also, I noticed same changes with Meze Audio Empyrean.
Overall, P+ with Tubes and Class AB was my favorite setting with most of my IEMs and headphones, but I also enjoyed Solid State with P+/AB. I think the choice will be based not just on pair up synergy, but also the preference of tonality. Either one offers a unique finetuning of the sound and makes you feel like a mad audio-scientist, experimenting with different settings.
When I’m going to work on my full review, I promise to include more comparison notes with other DAPs. For this First Look review I didn’t have enough time to cover everything, but was curious about 2 specific test scenarios. In each one I was using Traillii w/First Times cable, volume matched.
Test 1: N8ii PO (P+ mode, Tubes, Class AB, 4.4mm BAL) vs N8ii LO (4.4mm) + Cayin C9 (Tubes, Class AB, 4.4mm BAL)
This was a very interesting and important comparison because I’m sure many will have a question if N8ii internal dual NuTube amp is similar to C9. In this particular testing I’m only switching between internal N8ii dual NuTubes and external C9 dual NuTubes. To my surprise they don’t sound exactly the same. N8ii PO has more weight in bass, especially sub-bass, and smoother upper mids. In comparison, N8ii LO w/C9 has a bit less sub-bass rumble and slightly more forward and brighter mids. And not only with IEMs, but also with headphones, I found the change to be consistent. Also, the soundstage expansion and imaging were nearly the same in this comparison.
Test 2: N8ii PO (P+ mode, Solid State, Class AB, 4.4mm BAL) vs N8ii LO (4.4mm) + Romi Audio BX2 (Solid State, 4.4mm)
BX2 is a very transparent solid state Class A amplifier which I often use to evaluate the DAC “sound” from LO of the DAP. The reason I was curious about this comparison is because I already know the effect of NuTubes inside of N8ii relative to switching from Solid State. But I also wanted to find out the effect of SS inside of N8ii on top of its ROHM DACs. What I found is that N8ii internal SS amplifier is quite transparent as well. Maybe just a touch smoother in upper mids when compared to LO+BX2, but it wasn’t too far off. It also made me realize that ROHM BD34301 DAC is not too far off in comparison to AK4499.
It is clear that Cayin took their original N8 DAP to a whole new level in this next gen N8ii release. The core of the design with a dual Solid State/NuTube output is still there, now fully balanced and featuring a dual NuTube 6P1 to enjoy it from 4.4mm BAL output. It still features a fully-discrete Dual Output power mode with P (standard) and P+ (high) outputs, and Class A and AB amplifiers (A/AB in P, and AB only in P+). The playback-only Unix platform has been upgraded to Android 9 with Snapdragon 660 SoC and 6GB of RAM – the fastest Android DAP performance I have seen based on my AnTuTu 3D benchmark tests. And the misfortune of AKM factory fire lead to a discovery of a new high-end ROHM 32bit current mode DAC, available for the first time in a portable audio player, the same DAC that recently appeared in $16.5k Luxman D-10X SACD desktop player.
I was also pleased to see the updated exterior design with a more traditional playback control buttons instead of jog-dial like in original N8. The placement of both NuTube modules on the left facing outside is very clever, keeping it isolated from the rest of the circuit and visible to the user. But the most impressive part was how much tech Cayin packed under the hood of N8ii while still being able to keep it relatively portable. And, with all the additions to the design, including a pair of hi-end ROHM DACs, additional NuTube module, and other new components associated with switching to Android platform, the price of N8ii went up by only two hundred dollars relative to the original N8. Even after a week with this DAP, you can truly appreciate the innovative design and high level of sound performance. I’m already looking forward to spend more time with N8ii in a near future while working on the full review!