Cayin are a well-respected brand with a loyal following since their venture into personal audio seven years ago. Their philosophy has always centred around sound technicalities followed by consolidation with creative flair and innovation. The Cayin N8 is their latest flagship digital audio player (DAP) representing years of research & development into a top-of-the-line product. One of the N8’s secret weapons is a tube output stage which brings the Korg NuTube technology into a portable form factor. While not a conventional vacuum tube, the NuTube has an anode grid filament structure which operates in much the same way as a triode vacuum tube. This clever bit of ingenuity from both companies’ part has allowed the N8 to be the first DAP in the world to impart the highly revered tube characteristics.
To this end, users are able to select from three different amplifications including the 3.5 mm tube, 3.5 mm SE and 4.4 mm balanced SE outputs. Equipped with a dual AKM AK4497EQ DAC implementation, the powerful little device retails for a significant $3299. This places it $100 more expensive than the Lotoo PAW Gold Touch and $200 dearer than Astell & Kern’s SP1000. At this price point, the Cayin N8 is targeted towards the luxury hi-end market wishing to get the best from the portable audio scene. Though there is a limited brass black edition, this review will be focusing on the stainless-steel version of the N8.
The Cayin N8 arrives in a statement box with an outer brushed metal-esque insert. Inside, the Cayin N8 rests in an oblique angle which highlights the company’s avant-garde approach to presentation. Finally, accessory items can be found beneath this and include: a 4.4 mm to 2.5 mm balanced adapter, 4.4 mm to balanced XLR adapter, Type C to RAC coaxial adapter, Type C to 3.5 mm coaxial cable, Type C charging cable and leather protective case.
The overall packaging exudes a luxury appeal and highlights Cayin’s meticulous approach from start to finish.
The Build & Design
The N8’s aesthetics are visually striking and do not confirm to conventional DAP designs. Instead, the angled curvatures and gold accents are ostentatious in nature compared to Lotoo’s more minimalist profile. While some may consider the design to be polarizing, the N8 personally looks stunning in the flesh and is a high testament to the company’s craftsmanship.
The front face of the player integrates a 3.2-inch screen which accommodates the Korg tube interface directly beneath. The triangular home button can be found below the triode and incorporates an LED which changes color according to the sampling frequency of the file played, certainly a nice touch. On the right-side of the device rests two knobs which function as a power button and play/pause/skip button respectively. On the top interface, the N8 offers the versatility of three outputs including the 3.5 mm single-ended tube as well as the single-ended 3.5 mm and balanced 4.4 mm outputs. At the bottom, there are three ports consisting of the I2S digital output, a centre micro SD card slot and on the right, a USB-C charging port.
The chassis is constructed from CNC-milled stainless steel with a PVD coating finish and Corning Gorilla curved glass back panel. Together with the 24K gold plated solid brass dials, the build quality is exceptional and rivals that of Astell & Kern’s. However, the overall weight comes in at a relatively hefty 325 g which does restrict the overall portability of the device.
The N8 employs a 3.2-inch IPS (480 x 360) screen which is by no means the largest in the category of digital audio players. However, this is mainly due to accommodating the Korg NuTube which sits beneath the display. The screen has touch-screen capabilities and makes an improved change to Questyle’s non-touch physical button DAP.
Equipped with dual AK4497EQ, the Cayin N8 features the same DAC as the Astell & Kern SP1000 and can decode up to DSD512 and 64 Bit/ 768kHz.
Amplification wise, Cayin have incorporated a complex 5-stage amplification topology with the use of opamps. At any one time, users can select from 3.5 mm unbalanced solid state, 3.5 mm Korg NuTube or 4.4 mm balanced modality. The High2 setting which is available in both unbalanced and balanced inputs increases the voltage per given load to drive less sensitive transducers.
On top of this, the Cayin N8 can suitably fit into any high-end system with the I2S digital output (via micro HDMI) and USB-C (with an embedded S/PDIF Coaxial signal). This, along with included adapters, allows connection to portable and desktop DACs.
The N8 packs in a large 7000 mAH battery which features QC 2.0 quick charging and dependent on settings can give a playback of between 6 to 10 hours.
The Cayin N8 comes stocked with a satisfactory 128 GB of internal storage with expandable storage of up to 512 GB via a MicroSD card. Users can further increase storage with a USB OTG device.
The User Interface
Cayin have partnered with HiBy Music to provide a non-app based operating system which runs on a 1 GHz SoC processing chip. Settings are easy to navigate with a drop-down menu featuring the various input modalities, gain settings and digital outputs while a pull-up menu shows further music & system settings. Overall, the interface is intuitive with easy navigation and minimal clicks needed for the desired user settings.
Within the media playback screen, the library is split into ‘Songs’, ‘Artist’, ‘Albums’ and ‘Genre’ categories with the ability to create playlists and favorites. Metadata is accurate with the songs featuring album art and track information; however the loading of the art does present with a slight delay. Compared to Lotoo’s OS, the Cayin N8’s operating system is not as blazingly fast and it would have been nice to have a ‘search’ setting which the former company features.
In music settings, users are greeted with a plethora of options including DSP output settings, gapless playback, PCM and DSD digital filter modalities, EQ settings and reply gain. In system settings, there is capability for WiFi, Bluetooth (aptX and LDAC) as well as power saving options. All in all, the interface is responsive and EQ settings are intuitive but there are better proprietary OS available.
Unfortunately, there are no streaming services available on the Cayin N8 but the DAP can function as a USB DAC (input) or USB transport (output) through the USB Type C interface. With the HibyLink option, users can control amps and speaker systems with the Cayin N8 as a remote source.
All three outputs offer a slightly different flavor but a share a common musical tonality.
In the 3.5 mm Korg NuTube mode, the N8 imparts a tube sound profile which immediately makes the DAP stand out in the arena of hi-end portable players. The resulting sound is smooth and rich with a dose of harmonic distortion to provide the needed musicality for tube lovers. However, this is not an overly romantic or euphonic sound and the NuTube triode does stray towards the more neutral side of things. Bass is gently elevated, and the mids have a full-bodied sound with warmth worked in across the entire spectrum. As a result, the upper midrange loses some transient attack and there is a slight softness. However, detailing is present with more emphasis on macro-dynamics as opposed to micro-dynamics to provide more emotive and explosive contrasts. The tube modality works very well with transducers which have particularly energetic or sibilant treble as well as those with a dryer sound.
In 3.5 mm solid-state mode, there is a similar level of musicality compared to the tube mode. However, there is more of a cleaner sound with better micro-detail presence and upper midrange than when NuTube is activated. Compared to other high-end DAPs, the N8 is not tuned towards analytical delivery but remains smooth, full-bodied with plenty of detail and layering to be considered high-fidelity. Treble sounds lively but evades harshness and sibilance which allows for extended periods of listening.
The balanced 4.4 mm mode captures the essence of the single-ended solid-state configuration. However, there is increased separation and air as well as a slightly larger soundstage. In very sensitive earphones and headphones, some hiss may be introduced in the overall mix. However, for the most part the background is black with little to no hiss for transducers with moderate to high ohms of resistance. The balanced mode also infuses slightly more micro-detail and whilst musical leans towards the analytical side of spectrum.
Overall, Cayin have defined a pleasantly harmonic signature with emphasis on macro-dynamics, emotive warmth, detail and layering. Considering that the sound engineers wanted to impart this musicality in all three modes, they have certainly met this target whilst also catering towards the different ends of the same spectrum. The N8 pairs particularly well with 64 Audio’s flagships such as the Tia Fourte & U18 as well as HiFiMAN’s HE1000SE and HE1000 V2 models. Soundstage proportions are large and separation is fantastic with great levels of layering and depth.
The Lotoo PAW 6000 is a neutral-oriented DAP with an overall smooth tonality and well-rounded mid-bass. Compared to the Cayin N8, it offers more transparency and treble extension but compromises on overall soundstage, note size, macro-dynamics and musicality. However, both DAPs are masters of their department with the Cayin perfecting emotiveness in a smooth but detailed tone whereas the Lotoo constructs a well-spaced neutral and reference signature with a touch of warmth.
The Prelude is a compact DAP which features a top sound. Compared to the N8, the DTR1 boasts faster decay, micro-dynamic slam and transients. However, this is completely eclipsed by the Cayin N8’s soundstage which projects better cues in the dimensions of width as well as depth. The Cayin N8 leans more towards the musical side of things with more smoothness, warmth, and macro-dynamic swing. While the DTR1 offers good separation for its soundstage, the Cayin N8 does better with more layering and three-dimensionality.
Next to the SP1000, the Cayin N8 offers a different but equally high-end sound presentation with richness, detail and an analog flavor. The SP1000, on the other hand, focuses on being a classically reference DAP which excels on technicalities, detailing and transparency. Compared to Astell & Kern, the N8 evokes more visceral depth and scalability with its five-stage amplification.
The Cayin N8 represents a swiss-army knife of a high-end DAP with inputs and outputs to cater for any audiophile scenario. Together, with the sheer innovation of the spring loaded Korg NuTube, Cayin have really pushed the envelope in defining a new breed of flagship players. For what it is worth, the N8 is a powerful companion with a top sound amidst a more musically based tuning. Some factors such as the OS, and weight of the device prevent the N8 from scoring top marks. However, the DAP features in more of the ‘transportable’ as opposed to ‘portable’ category. At $3299 then, the portable solution is a significant investment but serves value and purpose for those who seek a high-quality sound on the move. While Cayin have incorporated an abundance of features, the ability to stream would have been a welcomed addition. I look forward to see what Cayin may have next up their sleeves. Do stay tuned …
Cayin N8 Digital Audio Player