Cayin N5ii

Cayin N5ii

My first experience with Cayin DAPs was with the N3; I liked it so much there are now three in the family as my daughter, wife, and I all have them. Mine is my on-the-go player, my wife’s is her office companion, and my daughter’s gets used as her primary audio device. With my love of the little Cayin, when Andy announced a review tour for the next generation big brother the N5ii, I had my paperwork filed before the ink had set on his original post. As good as the little Cayin is, could Andy and company work the same magic again? (Spoiler: They can and they did!)It shouldn’t shock anyone that Cayin is making really solid portable equipment. The company started back in 1993 making tube amps that are still highly regarded, then they progressed into digital source gear to complement their amplifiers. In recent years, they have decided to add a second focus, portable gear. The C5 portable amplifier takes a lot of lessons learned on the desktop and presents them in a very usable portable package, likewise the N3, 5, and 6 along with the i5 portable players have taken what Cayin learned building high end Dacs, and made a very competent line of portable players.Before I started this review, I got my hands on a first generation N5 for comparison and spent a couple weeks listening. Turns out I probably shouldn’t have as the expectation that they have anything in common is unfounded. They both have 2.5 and 3.5mm outputs and both have 2 Micro-sd card slots, other similarities are few and far between as Cayin has improved or just flat out redesigned just about everything on the player. For that reason, if you have an N5, do not discount the N5ii as a minor upgrade, it isn’t.

So without further ado, let’s get into it.

Unboxing

The player arrived via DHL in the normal yellow and red envelope. The box itself is a low profile, square book-opening style in solid black with the logo and image embossed on the surface. Classy and understated and not altogether atypical of Cayin. With the flap open, the N5ii sits on the left with accessories hiding under a flap on the right. A quick start guide is attached for ready reference when getting started.

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The accessory kit is basic but covers most of what is needed. A silicone cover, and a USB-c to USB-A charging cable (white 3 foot) are all that is hiding beneath the cover. It is worth noting that a glass screen protector and plastic backside protector come mounted to the unit out of the box so while not listed in the accessory kit they are present.

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The review unit also shipped with a leather case that is considerably thicker and more protective than the silicone that ships with the unit. I am not a huge fan of the faux crocodile hide finish but the case is a big enough step above the silicone that I would still recommend purchasing it with the DAP.

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Build

The N5ii is a handsome unit with matte gray, brushed aluminum, sides and top plate (above the screen). The rear has the look of jeweled metal

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while the buttons and scroll wheel are all polished stainless steel. The screen is roughly 4 x 2 inches with a slight bezel around it that is darker than the background when the unit is on. (the Shanling m3s has a similar bezel but does a good job of color matching the screen background to hide it).

The heft of the unit is more than expected when you look at its size and hints at the quality of components used. It feels very solid and very durable.

The front sports the screen with and LED in the upper right corner of the screen for power on indicator and the scroll wheel at upper right above the screen. It looks very much like its big brother the i5 in this regard.

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The top of the player has balanced and single ended outputs
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while the bottom has a USB-C charge port and two small stainless screws for access to the internals via the back plate.

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The left side of the player has only a single button (power) even with the top edge of the display.
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The right side of the player is the busiest with three buttons starting at the top edge of the display in descending order they are forward, play/pause, and back. Below the buttons are two micro-sd slots, which had no problem reading 200 or 256gb cards when tested.
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(As a side note, both cases obstruct access to the SD card slots, which is a personal pet peeve of mine).
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The player also sports 32gb of internal memory but this is shared memory with roughly 8gb used for android out of the box and installing applications and android updates will need to use additional memory over time so realistically, it has roughly 16gb of usable storage for music internally.



Internals

Several internals deserve discussion and since Cayin published full specs and schematics, it makes it easy to do so.

1.) The N5ii now has distinct amplification circuits for the balanced,single ended and line outputs. No more shared design with a buffer ala Fiio. Remember that while some will argue that volume matching will eliminate the differences in Single-ended and balanced output, that assumes both use the same hardware and paths and in this case that isn’t true so some differences in the two do exist even when volume matched. Since the Lineout uses a different op-amp, there are some differences in Sound between line out and either of the other outputs.

2.) Clocking – The N5ii uses three different oscillators to set the clock speed in order to reduce jitter. The Shanling M3s and Opus #1s both use two to do the same job so at least in theory the N5ii has the advantage.

3.) Battery – at a true 3000mAh, the N5ii sports one of the best battery capacities in the class and as easily able to get 9 hours on audio-priority mode using the balanced output.

4.) DAC Chips used is Sabre 9018K2m low powered chip. These make a good trade off as they are less power hungry than their big brothers while still maintaining the ability to produce good detail. They share the Sabre family traits of being clean almost clinical with good extension at both ends.

5.) The Line out path pairs the Sabre with the OPA 1652 which provides good power and detail at the expense of a slight increase in noise floor, where the single ended output and the balanced use OPA 1622 op amps to do the lifting (1 for single ended and 1 per channel when using balanced).

6.) Quad-core Rockchip CPU. While nothing special in the overall android market, the chip is certainly capable and provides enough power to get good UI responsiveness in what can be called a complicated Operating system.

7.) Connectivity – the N5ii has 802.11 b/g/n support (no channel 14) as well as Bluetooth 4.0 Support. No details are listed on support for Apt-X and I could not get the Apt-X active to show on my phone when paired to the device.

UI / Navigation

Blind Navigation: First, let’s look at in pocket use. The buttons provide all the needed controls, forward, back, play/pause, and volume adjust without needing any visibility to accomplish and all work with the screen turned off to conserve battery. The one caveat, is that changes to volume made via the scroll are finer grained than changed made using the display so for large volume changes it may be easier to use the on-screen control and then use the scroll for fine adjustments.

The N5ii has a ton of features; streaming from several different sources (I tried tidal and Spotify), DNLA support (I used my Nas to play files over wifi directly through the N5ii), use as a USB dac, use as a source for another dac, and use as an android device, in addition to the most central function of playback of recorded files from local storage. When considering the length of this list of options, it would be easy to surmise that the operating system must be fairly complex. The good news is, the operation of the N5ii is broken down into bite sized pieces and is very straight forward so each function can be accessed quickly and with little hassle. The UI is Hiby based so those familiar with the i5 or Hiby 6 player or even the hiby player on other android devices will recognize most of the layout.

For those of us that use the player for its most basic function, turn on the player, select a language, set the date and time, and insert your sd card. With a swipe across the screen from the left, the menu is exposed the top line of which is music scan.

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The N5ii did a good job of scanning large cards quickly and even an 8000 song list was loaded within a few minutes.

Once scanned, tapping the right edge of the screen collapses the menu and gives you a statistics page that is very helpful as seen below.

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At the top edge of the stats screen, you can see the music/list/private cloud options and then a secondary menu below that depending on which of the three top options are selected. For simple music playback, click music, then either track, folder,genre, etc… and select the track or playlist of choice. Random is turned on and off from the “Whats playing now” screen which is a bit different than some players.

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The “whats playing now” screen can be accessed by tapping the bottom of the menu or you can play or pause directly from controls on the right bottom. The circle at the bottom of the screen will return you to the main statistics screen from the playback display.

Swiping down from the top of the screen opens the controls screen.

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On the main screen you can enable or disable wifi, Bluetooth, equalizer, change between line out and headphone out for the 3.5mm jack, change the gain, enable audio priority mode, and adjust USB mode. Screen brightness can also be altered at the bottom of this menu.

Tapping the gear at the top of the controls screen opens a settings menu which exposes pretty much every customization that can be done on the player.

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While I don’t think it necessary to go through every function and document the menus (the manual does a fine job of this), I will say that every function I wanted to try was within 4 clicks from the main menu. While the N5ii is certainly a complicated device with a lot of features, I am happy to report that the navigation is intuitive and well thought out.

If there is a criticism to be leveled against the UI it is that it is sometimes less responsive than others. I think this may well be correctable in software and with the bug fixes I have witnessed in the firmware updates to the N3, I am confident that the software of the N5ii will continue to improve as time goes on. It’s good now, but with a few tweaks it could be a bit better.

Notes on Android

The N5ii falls somewhere between the Android we see on Fiio that looks like a standard phone interface with an add-on audio app and the Opus #1s that buries the Android interface so thoroughly you can’t find it without a degree in software engineering. Cayin does a good job of skinning android in a way to make this very obviously a music player while at the same time exposing enough of the basic interface to allow users to add 3rd party apps if wanted. For those using it solely as a DAP, the audio priority Mode gives you the ability to adjust the performance to be more focused toward the task at hand and improve battery slightly by disabling unneeded features.

Sound

The N5ii has two filters (Sharp and slow), three gain levels, and a customizable EQ, so finding the sound you like best may require a bit of tinkering. I like the sharp filter but this is purely personal preference (It should be noted though that my thoughts on sound are colored by that preference as I used the medium gain, sharp filter, and no EQ to do all my listening for this review).

I found that the 3 outputs of the N5ii all have their own unique elements. The 2 volt line out trades a bit of noise floor for higher output power, while the single ended and balanced outs were pitch black even with the Magaosi k5 which has a reputation for being overly sensitive.

I could honestly use the line out on the N5ii to replace my current Hi-fi transport and DAC and probably would never miss either. The line out function was clearly not an afterthought as it is on so many portable devices.

The sound signature is balanced with no element jumping out in front of anything else. I found no major recesses or voids in the sound and was impressed with the level of detail present. The sabre family has a reputation for being a bit clinical in nature and Cayin has done a good job of masking that tendency and creating a player that is more musical than sterile. The sound is still very clean but lacks that clinical nature present in lesser implementations.

Sound stage is large but is perhaps a bit wider than deep especially on single-ended playback. The balanced seems to gain back a bit of depth and presents a nearly spherical soundstage.

Instrument separation and layering are fantastic and on par with the Opus #1s which to date has been the best sounding DAP in my budget.

Dynamics are good but better on the balanced output than on the single ended.

In the overall, the N5ii creates a coherent sound signature where all the elements work together to produce a near neutral canvas for the artists to paint their masterpieces on.

Comparions

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I have had an embarrassment of riches lately with the Shanling m1, m2s, and M3s players, Astell & Kern AK70 MkII, and Fiio X5iii crossing my desk in addition to my own personal Cayin N3, Opus #1s, and Pioneer XDP-300R.

The ones that draw the closest comparisons to the N5ii in price and performance are the Shanling m3s, the Opus #1s, the AK70Mk2, the Pioneer, and the Fiio X5iii so lets look at those.

Shanling M3s
Nearly identical in size weight is slightly greater on N5ii
Dual AK4490 DAC chips
Plus (+)
AptX support
Long Battery life (beat the N5ii by over 30 minutes in balanced playback)
Minus(-)
Screen not as well done as N5ii (some screens have a lot empty space at bottom rather than using entire screen).
Hiby SOC os instead of full android
Single micro-Sd card slot

This pairing is a tougher call than some to pick the winner. The two have good feature parity, similar battery life, and both have good sound quality The N5ii has a more spacious soundstage and better extension albeit only by a slight margin. For me, instruments sound more natural on the N5ii than on the M3s and for that reason my vote goes to the N5ii as the winner even though its price point is enough higher than the M3s that some won’t see the value in this choice.

Opus #1s
Height nearly identical but Opus is wider by over a centimeter and heavier.
Dual CL43198 DAC Chips

Plus (+)
Larger Soundstage
More neutral tonality than N5ii

Minus (-)
Dedicated player – lacks streaming and Bluetooth
Battery life less than N5ii by better than an hour in balanced playback

For anyone who intends to stream anything, the N5ii is the clear winner as it packs wifi and Bluetooth that the Opus #1s does not. For those who want a simple DAP where sound quality trumps all else, the #1s is still the mark to beat although the N5ii comes darn close.

AK70 Mk2
Slightly shorter but wider than n5ii and roughly equal weight.
CS 4398 DAC Chips (dual)

Plus(+)
AptX and AptX HD support
Best in class sound quality

Minus(-)
MQA not supported
Lousy battery life (4 hours)
Single Micro-SD card Slot
OS Lags at times

If your only goal is sound quality, the AK70 Mk2 is still right at the top of the list. Having said that, for nearly double the cost of the N5ii and sporting ½ the battery life of the N5ii, the AK70 mk2 isnt far enough above the N5ii to justify the price. Cayin has proved that the mighty Astell & Kern is within striking distance and at the current rate of improvements in the Cayin product line, I thoroughly expect that the next generation N6 will be the device to knock the AK out of the top spot on the chart.

XDP-300R
Dual Sabre 9018k2m
Plus(+)
AptX support
Wifi b/g/n/AC support
MQA Support
Google Play Support
Minus(-)
Lower output power (especially balanced)
Data entry is atrocious
Search functions very limited

The Pioneer is another top of the line DAP when it comes to sound quality. The Pioneer also sports AC wifi support and AptX support that the N5ii lacks. The downside to the XDP-300R is that it has lower output power than the n5ii in order to extend battery life. If android is tweaked and all unnecessary services are disabled, the XDP can get 7-8 hours of battery life but without tweaks life is more like 4.5-5 hours. The UI is almost as intuitive as the N5ii but the search functions are limited and input via the on screen keyboard just plain sucks. For sound, it is nearly a dead heat, for UI – the N5ii wins.

X5iii
Players are roughly the same height but width of the Fiio is wider by nearly a centimeter and weight is slightly heavier on the Fiio.
Dual AK4490
Plus(+)
Larger display
AptX support
Full android environment
Minus(-)
Noise floor much higher (background hiss)
Treble forward sound signature (lower treble given extra boost)
Detail not as good as N5ii
Output power nowhere near as good as n5ii

I could write more about the negatives of the X5iii in this comparison but this is quite simply a matter of being outclassed in about every possible way. The sound quality of the X5iii is not as good in any measure when compared to the N5ii. Having said that, why continue to beat a dead horse.

Conclusion.

You would be hard pressed to find a DAP that performs substantially better than the N5ii in any measurable category without spending twice the $369 street price of the N5ii. I found the N5ii to be at least as good as the AK70 Mk2 and Pioneer XDP-300R both of which cost substantially more. The only DAP that came close in price and sound was the Opus #1s and it lacks pretty much all the functionality the N5ii brings with it. If the Opus were to incorporate the things it would have to in order to achieve feature parity, it would cost twice as much and likely have a higher noise floor due to interference from the Wifi or Bluetooth radios. The N5ii is easily the best all-around DAP I have tried to date in the sub-$1000 class. (I was lucky enough to try an AK380 and OMG, I didn’t know something could sound that good).

If you are in the market for a DAP, consider the N5ii. Notice I didn’t say in the $350 price range as the qualification simply isn’t necessary. Regardless of your price range, the N5ii deserves your consideration – it’s just that good!

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