It’s been a while since I last reviewed a DAP. It was the Astell & Kern SE200 in fact. Now a new device has launched, one that’s been long-awaited, the Cayin N3Pro. I first wrote about the N3Pro a few weeks ago here on MajorHiFi, and now it has reached my desk for review. The N3Pro is a portable digital audio player from Cayin that contains balanced 800mW headphone outputs, as well as a vacuum tube. At $479 Cayin has priced the N3Pro pretty fairly for those who may be seeking a new DAP. They might not be your thing, but maybe Cayin can convince you to give DAPs a try.
What You Get
The packaging for the N3Pro is quite nice. The first item you’ll see after opening the box is an envelope containing your user manual and a screen protector. The device itself can be removed from its foam insert, which can also be removed to reveal your USC-C connector and protective case. I appreciate Cayin for including a shell case, even if it’s a little flimsy. Cayin does offer extra, more premium cases that’ll probably do a better job protecting the N3Pro.
Look and Feel
In terms of the main architecture, and general shaping, the N3Pro is a fine-looking DAP. The black, rectangular design isn’t exactly original for this type of device, but the N3Pro features a compact form that fits nicely in your hand. The device is 115.2mm by 63.5mm and 18.9mm in width, making for a nice palm length fit. It’s an opulent looking item that anyone could want just from appearance alone.
Though the N3Pro sits at a comfortable length, the actual screen only takes up a little bit more than half of that. The front of the device has a glass face, but only a certain portion of that is the touch display. The rest of it makes room for the vacuum tube that Cayin wants you to look at through LED lights when you use it. It’s a neat concept and one that I haven’t seen implemented in any other DAP. However, I would have like to see more space for the display. The front face also includes a separate touch-sensitive button, like the one you would see on later versions of the iPhone before Apple got rid of it. This vibrating sensor just makes it easier to quickly access your playback screen.
Inputs and Outputs
Cayin includes a variety of ins and outs for the N3Pro. You’ll find them all in the same place, right on the butt of the device. There are 3 different headphone ports, and a USB port as well. The USB port is designed for two-way audio transportation, and to use the device as a DAC. You can also use the N3Pro to connect to other outboard gear via USB as well. Next up in the row is a 3.5mm SE line-out headphone connector with a selectable output level. Then there’s a standard 3.5mm headphone out with 3 stage gain control. Lastly, you have a 4.4mm balanced line out that shared with your headphone out.
The heavily advertised dual-timbre of the N3Pro refers to the implementation of solid-state and vacuum tubes. The solid-state output is available to use through 3.5mm and 4.4mm use, but the vacuum tube is only usable through 3.5mm. Cayin wants the most sonically versatile device possible, and these two options create a different effect for select uses. The solid-state aims for better separation and transparency meant for more dynamic tracks. The vacuum tube is designed for smoother textures, and high-end shine created to enhance specific sonic elements. I tried both modes with certain tracks, which I’ll expand more on when we get to the sound quality section of this review. For now, I’ll say the inclusion is definitely an innovative one, and I hope it sticks around with more of Cayin’s products.
Bluetooth and Battery Life
The N3Pro offers Bluetooth 5.0 for high-resolution playback through wireless headphones or speakers. You can connect your phone to the N3Pro, using it as a wireless DAC for streaming TIDAL or Qobuz. You can listen through AAC, LDAC, or UAC CODECs.
In terms of battery, the N3Pro offers some generous playback time for a DAP. You can get a total of 11 hours of playback while using the solid-state, and 9 hours using a 4.4mm connection or vacuum tube.
The N3Pro presents a fairly easy to navigate user interface. Music can be easily transported via a USB hard-drive, where you can pretty much drag whatever you want on the device, granted you’ve inserted the proper micro-SD card. You can store up to a terabyte of data on the N3Pro and up to 300mA of OTG storage. Once you have your music uploaded, press the folder icon, and hit “scan music.” The UI allows you to make playlists and favorite tracks easily. Swiping left on the main playback page will show you all the metadata contained in your selected track, like sample rate, bit depth, and format.
That glowing LED I mentioned earlier actually indicates the sample rate you’re listening to through a multi-colored sensor. For instance, when listening to Redbook CD-quality audio at 44.1kHz the LED will glow yellow. This feature can also be turned off in settings, which you can access by simply swiping up at any moment. The N3Pro offers the most popular hi-res playback file formats, such as WAV, FLAC, MP3, OGG, and much more. The resolution and image quality isn’t anything special, but it’s very user friendly, and an easy to master interface.
So how well can the N3Pro handle your lossless audio? Cayin’s dual-timbre functions very well with an assortment of headphones and IEMs. The solid-state did the best job at communicating the transition between dynamics, like the quickness of Miles Davis tracks as they evolve in form. That goes for most Jazz in general, where the separation of elements really shines. It’s like you can reach out and touch the space between each instrument being performed. I started listening to the Empire Ears EVR, and the accuracy of the signal was masterfully reproduced here. The sounds of trumpets, piano, and stings provided the cleanest image imaginable, as the performance could be fully realized to its greatest potential through every imaginable sonic characteristic.
The vacuum tube provides such a subtler, tonal clarity. Running the same Miles Davis album through the ultra-linear mode created an even wider stage that will sound unbelievable on an open-back. The triode mode feels like it was designed for the SIVGA Pheonix, which I used specifically because I just love how vocals sound on it. Triode mode brings out the mid-range vocal fidelity by focusing the imaging at the front of the mix. Listening to “A Thousand Trees” by Stereophonics made the vocals so crisp and defined you can feel the vocal cords straining. Overall the right tracks and a wise selection of headphones will grant you some unbelievable fidelity on the N3Pro.
I found the N3Pro to be an excellent device. For a reasonable price, you can experience some truly astonishing sound quality through a vast assortment of sample rates and file containers. The UI is easy to navigate, and while it’s not the most attractive GUI it serves its purpose well. If you’re trying to make a decision on your first DAP, the Cayin N3Pro might be the device for you.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Sound quality, comfortable to hold, vacuum tube, UI
Cons: Screen size