Cayin N3Pro is a newest DAP by Cayin. It is priced at 479$ and it’s the first DAP to feature miniature vacuum tubes inside.
Sound quality for the price
Cayin N3Pro comes in a minimalistic and rather simple box compared to it’s older and more expensive brothers like N6ii and N8. It’s a nice looking and well made box which is quite pleasant to unbox.
Inside you’ll find the N3Pro, a screen protector for the front (back panel is already protected right out of the box), a usb A-C cable, transparent case and some Hi-Res audio stickers. Well, if it’s between the manufacturers putting these stickers on the device or just including them in the box for you to decide wether you want to use them is a great touch.
I received the N3Pro with the green leather case which was included in the preorder bundle a while ago. It’s a pretty short story – I simply love it. Great color, quality is actually very good, and this metal frame on the back…damn, it just looks sophisticated, industrial and fresh. Beautiful little thing. If you’re planning to order this DAP and you love the case – don’t worry. It can be bought separately, and I strongly suggest doing it.
Cayin N3Pro is somehow similar to it’s older brother – the N6ii. It is all black with satin finish. The design is quite minimalistic which I absolutely adore. Looking at the device from the left side it is just a metal block with microSD card slot. On the other side you’ve got your play button, as well as previous and next song ones. Right side is finished with a copper/golden color potentiometer which always works as a power button. The knob works with some resistance and its very robust and accurate, which makes it easy to operate.
Front panel is occupied by a 3.2′ IPS screen with a resolution of 480×320. It gets bright enough to comfortably use it in direct sun, yet can be dimmed enough to not distract you during night listening sessions. Underneath, there’s a vacuum tubes window, which is lighten up when you’re using the triode or an Ultralinear mode (damn it looks cool). At the very bottom there’s a button which glows in different colors to indicate the sample rate of a currently played track.
Two problems with the button itself – I wish it was reprogrogrammable so it could work as a back button, since it’s quite uncomfortable to press the one on the top-left part of the screen. Also, you can simply turn down the led indicator, which I did instantly, as it glows so bright it’s really interrupting in the dark, when im listening to music in my bed at night. An option to change it’s brightness would be great to have.
On the bottom, you’ve got a 3.5mm line out, 3.5mm jack output, a 4.4 one working as a headphone out and balanced output and a usb type c connector. Its worth mentioning that tubes can only be used through the 3.5mm connector, as the valve circuit is not balanced. Also, the USB C also works as a coaxial output, all you need is a special cable which you can also get from Cayin.
The whole thing is a bit chunky, but it ain’t that heavy. Both build quality and ergonomy is simply spot-on. Absolutely no flaws, Cayin N3Pro is stunningly looking, robust and well thought out.
Cayin N3Pro has a lot of functionalities, even if it’s not an android based DAP with no streaming services whatsoever.
I really don’t want to make this review overly long, so the functions which are pretty self-explanatory will only be mentioned, with no details.
So, as previously mentioned N3Pro doesn’t operate on an Android OS, but it’s a custom Hiby software which Cayin has used in their flagship N8. The OS is quite snappy, intuitive and just doesn’t get in the way, which is great. For me personally, it is a great example of how a minimalistic and simple OS in a DAP should be made. Oh yeah, and the amount of times the N3Pro crashed on me was…exactly zero.
Because of the OS though, this DAP does not support Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz etc natively. It might be a deal breaker for some. Me? I personally prefer an old school microSD filed with tons of music, which i gathered for many years now. But that’s hugely subjective, as i know many people that would never buy a DAP with no streaming services built in it. Fair enough, if you need them, it’s a bad luck for you this time unfortunately.
Nonetheless, you’ve got Hiby Link and Duplex Bluetooth 5.0 (up to 96kHz) – which you can actually use for streaming services via your smartphone, so even tho it’s not a perfect solution, it’s more than doable.
I’m getting around 9h of battery life out of it, just as Cayin states on their website. Charging time is a bit long at +/- 3h, but if it’s between this or quicker battery deterioration – i’ll take this anytime.
Cayin N3Pro is using a dual AKM AK4493EQ DAC. It supports a wide variety of audio formats including DSD256 and 32bit/384kHz, so it pretty much got you covered with everything you’ll need in this regard.
But let’s get into the star (or rather stars) of the show – the tubes. N3Pro has two miniature JAN6418 vintage tubes built inside. Damn, real tubes in a DAP – it’s a first time I’m seeing this ever, have i missed something or Cayin truly is the first company to really do it?
Nonetheless, it’s much more complicated than to put these inside the chassis and call it a day. Cayin had to design and engineer a special silicon case which they suspended inside the specially crafted slot inside the body. They also used a flexible PCB to maximilize the suspension effect. Thanks to that, you can even run with this thing and dont worry about your hardware getting damaged.
I’d like to show my respect to Cayin here, as they took something never seen before (or at least not on this scale?) and they overcame all the problems and inconveniences to make it work…and work good. We’re talking months or even years of development and testing to create such a flawlessly working technology. Fantastic job Cayin!
Okay, i’ve been wondering about how to put this as simple as it gets for a while now. I don’t want to get robotic and all analytical over here tho, so i decided to just let it flow and try to organize stuff as much as i can.
Firstly, N3Pro has 2 MAIN sound setups – tube and solid state. I’d like to subjectively point out one thing here. If you’re using some hard to drive over-ear cans and you need a lot of power (800mW to be specific) – plug them into this bad boy’s 4.4mm output and youll be happy. I did it with the Sennheiser HD800 and they sounded very good. Obviously, not fully reaching their potential, but as for a portable player sub 500$? Terrific.
Other than that situation, just use the Triode or an Ultralinear mode. Why? Well…here’s a thing.
I believe that a sub 500$ DAP isn’t meant to be a reference, detail retrieving monster focused on being absurdly neutral. Especially, if it has tubes in it. And those tubes…oh gosh, they do sing.
When turning on the Triode mode you’re instantly aware what’s going on. This sweet, soft and delicate timbre, full and thick body of the sound, warmth and naturalness from top to bottom. Soundstage gets absolutely huge for a DAP here, being both wide and deep, with spectacular imaging.
But then, you switch to the Ultralinear mode, and you’re sacrificing a bit of that sweetness, thickness and richness to get more slam, faster decays and an overall boost in dynamics. Don’t get me wrong here – Ultralinear is still very sweet, rich and natural, but it’s just a tiny bit more neutral than the triode, with better technicalities. I’d call it a best of both world’s – tube timbre with ss slam and speed.
Based on that, i use Triode mode for vocal, jazz and acoustic music, to get this beautiful, vintage-like analog sound full of emotions. When I’m listening to metal, rock, rap and triphop i just simply switch to the Ultralinear mode and i get this more coherent, crispy and faster sound with just a tiny bit less color. That’s more than a fair trade.
With the 4.4mm balanced output you’re getting this hardcore fast, accurate and very powerful sound ready to take on the world. Fantastic for some modern genres, rap and metal or simply for more demanding headphones. You truly can’t go wrong with any of these 3, but if you’re using IEMs and you’ve got these sweet tubes inside your DAP…just use the bloody things, they’ll award you with some of the most (if not THE most) musical sound in a DAP ever.
As for the technicalities of the sound – it truly depends on the mode youre using. With UL and 4.4 balanced you’re getting a fantastic detail retrieval, dynamics and an overally controlled sound from top to bottom. Great imaging, layering, textures of the instruments. Compared to Fiio M11, M11Pro and Cayin N5ii it just completely blows these out of the water in an overall sound quality, and that means something from a long-term Fiio M11 user and lover. It is faster, more defined, more dynamic and natural sounding.
Triode is objectively the worst out of the three in terms of pure sound quality. It’s slower, it has longer decay, less details and is slightly pushed back. But i still use it the most, for that absolutely lovely timbre, sweetness and overall pleasing tone. For me music is all about emotions, and this mode gives me the most emotional and romantic sound i’ve ever heard in a DAP ever.
In terms of matching N3Pro with different IEMs – it pairs with just about anything i plugged into it. What striked me the most was how excellent does it pair with the Cayin YB04 – this combo sounds so natural, refined and just right.
Also, Campfire Andromeda (2018 version) and Lime Ears Aether R sounded extraordinary with it, as that lovely timbre really helps these two brilliant IEMs to really step up to another dimension of enjoyment.
Cayin N3Pro is a marvelous DAP designed, engineered and refined in every single detail. It is perfectly built and has a very minimalistic yet technical design which is easy to adore. It’s a pinnacle of engineering by Cayin, and im still a bit suprised they priced it that low.
Finally, it sounds spectacular and has 4 different sound signatures for you to choose from, depending on your IEMs/Headphone, music you’re listening to or just your mood. It’s a first perfectly rated device that i have reviewed in my 7 year reviewing career. But how could i rate the Cayin N3Pro any lower, if it’s giving me the most pleasant music listening sessions in years? It’s my new daily driver and it won’t change in a near future.
Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:
- Headphones – Lime Ears Aether R, Lime Ears Pneuma, Campfire Andromeda, Noble Audio Khan, Cayin YB04, RHA CL2, Sennheiser HD800, Dan Clark Audio AEON2 closed, Focal Clear, Audeze LCD3, Akg K501
- Sources– Cayin N8, Cayin N5ii, Fiio M15, Fiio M11, Fiio M11 Pro, Shanling M5s