Tube technology has always been held in high regard within audiophile circles. The ability to impart ‘audibly pleasant’ even-order harmonic distortion often represents a sought-after trait employed in many audio set-ups. Up until now, tubes have limited applications in the portable audio scene but more and more companies are looking to change this. Cayin, a company well-versed in digital audio players, has continually brought about innovations in both tube amplifiers and digital audio players (DAPs). The Cayin N8, for example, was the world’s first DAP to incorporate Korg NuTube technology in a portable form factor.
The Korg NuTube was an excellent initial choice for its low power-consumption and low heat but remains expensive and limited in its application. Luckily, Cayin had identified another key candidate for its use in DAPs – the US-made Raytheon JAN6418 miniature pentode vacuum tube. Like the NuTube (which employs an anode grid filament), the JAN6418 vacuum tube offers a classically warm sound while offering low power consumption and a long tube life. This had changed Cayin’s revisit to the original N3 to a completely new direction. The Cayin N3Pro, like the Cayin N8, incorporates a ‘Dual Timbre’ function where users can select from either ‘Tube’ or ‘Solid-State’ modalities.
However, where the Cayin N8 integrates dual AK4997EQ DAC chips, the Cayin N3Pro makes use of dual AKM4493 chips as part of its DAC topology. Unlike the N8, the Cayin N3Pro is significantly cheaper and retails for a relatively affordable $479. As it stands, the N3Pro represents the world’s first and only DAP to incorporate traditional vacuum tubes as part of its infrastructure.
The Cayin N3Pro packaging is much less lavish than its flagship N8 counterpart. Instead, it is rather utilitarian with a simple yet classy silhouette design featuring on the outer sleeve. Inside, the N3Pro player rests on a foam insert which lifts to reveal additional accessory pieces including: a transparent silicone protective case, user manual and USB-C cable for charge & data transfer.
Users also have the option to purchase a separate emerald green leather case which originally came bundled with the pre-ordered version.
The Build & Design
The N3Pro design draws inspiration from the N6ii and N8 while improving on the original N3 model. The black chassis is CNC-milled from aluminum and is indeed a very smart looking device. The rotary dials and buttons on the left hand of the device pay homage to the Cayin N8 with its gold-plated finish. Overall, the potentiometer offers a good amount of tactile resistance and the buttons are nicely spaced apart to allow each to be distinguished from one another.
The front face of the player integrates a 3.2-inch touch screen which sits above a black display beneath. This display contains a small window which shows the ‘magical’ glow of the matched tubes once ‘tube mode’ is selected. The N3Pro utilizes space much better than the Cayin N8 owing to less space required by the Raytheon pentode tubes compared to Korg’s NuTube. A circular LED at the bottom of the screen functions as both a touch-sensitive control which directs users to the playback screen as well as a smart LED indicating sampling rate during feedback. Colors range from tangerine for lossy compression, yellow – 44.1K/48 kHz, green – 88.2/96 kHz, blue – 176.4/192 kHZ, violet – 352.8/768 kHz and white for DSD recordings. One idea for a subtle but practical improvement could be the circular LED also powering the device to the playback screen rather than performing a three-point action to get to the same screen.
The left of the device hosts the SD card slot whereas the bottom hosts 4.4 mm balanced, 3.5 mm single-ended output, 2 Line outs and a digital output.
It is nice to see that Cayin have opted for a rather sleek and tempered aesthetic rather than their usual avant-garde design language. Cayin have also managed to shave a lot of weight with the N3Pro weighing in at 195 grams with a much more compact profile.
As mentioned, the N3Pro makes better use of its front display real estate compared to the Cayin N8. Both players use the same 3.2-inch IPS (480 x 360) capacitive touch-screen which has by no means the highest resolution. However, the screen size is more than adequate for navigating through the OS.
The Cayin N3Pro utilizes dual AK4493EQ chips which can natively decode up to DSD256 and 32 Bit/384 kHz.
Each of the DAP outputs go through the low-pass filter and a headphone amplifier in parallel allowing for common-mode noise to be cancelled out and crosstalk to be reduced. Since the differential headphone amplifier outputs difference between hot and cold signals, output power and channel separation increases significantly. Hence, the N3Pro is able to deliver a staggering 800 mW (at 32 Ohms) in the 4.4 mm balanced headphone output while outputting a modest 220 mW and 110 mW (for 150 Ohms and 300 Ohms respectively). This is quite impressive for a player of its size and price.
Two matched military-grade Raytheon JAN6418 miniature tubes form part of the ‘Tube Timbre’. To overcome the microphonic effect of tubes, Cayin have cleverly devised a special custom crafted silicone case as part of the suspension system. This limits the impact of knocks and vibrations into the desired signal path.
As part of the digital interfaces, the N3Pro supports S/PDIF Coaxial as well as USB Audio for both DAC & Transport. The N3Pro also supports duplex Bluetooth v5.0 allowing the device to be paired with headphones, speakers and desktops (via LDAC, UAT & AAC codecs).
The N3Pro packs in a 4100mAh battery which outputs 11 hours of playback from the 3.5mm solid-state mode or 9 hours from either 3.5 mm vacuum mode or 4.4 mm balanced. Given the size of this player, it is a modest battery life but cannot compete with the Lotoo PAW 6000’s 16 hours.
The Cayin N3Pro has no internal memory but can have up to 1 TB expandable storage via a micro SD card. A nifty feature is the ability to add data/music files via WiFi.
The User Interface
Cayin have utilized the same HiBy Music OS in the N8 on the N3Pro. On the home screen, categories are split into ‘Folders’, ‘List’, ‘Songs’, ‘Artist’, ‘Albums’ & ‘Genre’. Overall, the interface is relatively intuitive, and it is nice to see ‘Search’ functionality added to each library folder. Owing to the relatively compact screen size, the keyboard is not as spaced out and user friendly as in other DAPs. This does make it harder to type in a song in the search function.
Lotoo’s custom OS is still the non-Android operating system to beat with its fast speed and UI experience. As with the Cayin N8, the N3Pro allows users to select form a plethora of music settings including DSP outputs, gapless playback, PCM and DSD filter modalities, EQ settings and reply gain.
One key difference is that with the ‘Tube’ Modality selected – users have the choice of either the ‘Triode’ or ‘Ultralinear’ mode. Cayin urge users not to alternate between these modalities too quickly as it may cause a loud pop due to a switch being activated.
All in all, the Cayin N3Pro offers 4 different ‘flavors’ of sound: Tube (Ultralinear), Tube (Triode), Solid-state (single-ended), Solid-state (balanced).
With the ‘Tube Timbre’ selected, the sound becomes smoother and warmer. An important point to note is that the tube sound is not overly romanticized but has enough even-order harmonic distortion to appease tube lovers. It is nice that Cayin have delivered two profiles to its Tube Modality. With the ‘Triode’ mode selected, the sound is slightly more rolled-off in the higher frequencies, with added lushness and warmth. The ‘Ultralinear’ mode, on the other hand, has added pace, dynamics and upper midrange/treble energy. Of the two modes, the Ultralinear sounds more spacious with more bite in its transients whereas the Triode strays towards classical tube euphony albeit with more compressed dynamics and intimacy to its presentation. There is also some added low-end bloom when the Triode mode is selected compared to the Ultralinear mode.
In the single-ended solid-state mode, the sound becomes more linear and neutral. As expected, vocals also sound cleaner and more transparent. This does, however, come at the expense of the air, body and staging width of the tube modes. Interestingly, there is more of a difference between the ‘solid-state’ and ‘tube’ modalities in the Cayin N3Pro compared to both modes in the Cayin N8. With the N8, the solid-state sounds inherently musical whereas the solid-state in the N3Pro leans more towards a neutral and reference tuning. With the balanced mode (which outputs an incredible 800 mW for a 32 Ω load), there is increased separation, air and headroom. However, the Ultralinear tube mode still has the wider right to left staging with a generally more agreeable tonality.
Overall, I found myself gravitating towards the Tube mode with the Ultralinear setting selected. This combined the best traits of energy, pace, air, staging and warmth from the miniature pentode tubes. The N3Pro was tested with a variety of both IEMs & headphones including the Tia Fourte, Andromeda 2020, Empire Ear Odin, Focal Stellia & HiFiMAN HE1000se. The N3Pro was adept at driving the Stellia & HE1000se to adequate headroom with a good level of dynamics. The player also had a moderately low noise profile with only the Andromeda 2020 noticeably gaining some hiss in the medium gain setting.
Lotoo PAW 6000 ($1200)
The Lotoo PAW 6000 has very similar size dimensions to the Cayin N3Pro. Of the two, the PAW 6000 is the more resolving and detailed player with more of an affinity towards a natural-reference sound. The PAW 6000 also hosts better separation and dynamics compared to the N3Pro. In the Tube Ultralinear mode, the N3Pro has the edge in soundstage performance with a more airy and euphonic sound whereas the PAW 6000 bests the N3Pro’s staging in solid-state mode. Generally, the PAW 6000 offers a tighter sound with more impressive speed, decay and transients. However, the N3Pro’s weapon (its tube timbre) synergizes well in vocal-orientated tracks.
DethonRay Prelude DTR1 ($549)
The Prelude DTR1 is a no-thrills DAP which retails for a similar price to the N3Pro. When comparing the players, the DTR1 boasts better slam (in both micro- and macro-dynamics), faster decay and articulacy. However, the DTR1 is quite limited where soundstage proportions are concerned and the N3Pro certainly wins out here. Moreover, the euphonic timbre and air of the Ultralinear Tube mode in the N3Pro demonstrates greater smoothness and vocal charm.
Fiio M11 Pro ($649)
The M11 Pro represents Fiio’s mid-tier Android-OS digital audio player. Next to the N3Pro, the FiiO M11 Pro invites a more mid-forward presentation with a more analytical tuning. Bass on the M11 Pro is more articulate and snappier whereas the N3Pro (in tube mode) offers greater low-end gain, air and a ‘sweeter’ sound. Where tonality is concerned, the N3Pro offers far better value for money with users being able to select from different timbres to suit an album or particular track.
As the N8 before it, the Cayin N3Pro is an exceptionally versatile DAP catering for a wide variety of tastes and moods. It is quite impressive that Cayin are offering the N3Pro for only $479 given the sheer innovation and ‘trickle-down’ technology that it offers. At only 195 grams, it is also much more wieldy and ‘pocketable’ than its flagship counterpart. I suspect a lot of users will gravitate towards the tube sound which in itself comes in two different flavors. Build quality here is nothing short of excellent and the N3Pro is a smart and refined looking device. The OS does leave some to be desired when compared to the likes of other custom systems. However, given the music first approach, sheer versatility, innovation and value-for-money, the N3Pro is one of the best DAPs to date within its price category. Hence, it certainly deserves a place in our list of best high-end DAPs. Well done Cayin.
Cayin N3Pro Digital Audio Player
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- Dual Timbre: Vacuum Tube and Solid Dual (3.5mm single-ended only)
- Dual Operation Mode: Triode and Ultra-linear (3.5mm Tube only)
- Matched pair JAN6418 in mechanically suspended shock-absorption protection
- Dual AK4493 DAC decodes up to 32Bit/384kHz and DSD256 native
- Fully balanced design with 4.4mm and 3.5mm phone out
- Powerful Headphone output, up to 800mW@32Ω Balanced
- 2 line out, 2 digital outputs, USB DAC
- Hi-Res Wireless DAC (LDAC, UAT, AAC)